From about the 7th to the 14th century Islam was the largest, richest, and most highly developed empire in the world. It was the greatest economic and military power, and a leader in the arts and sciences. By comparison, Western Europe, at least during the beginning of that period , was relatively backward and disorganised. The civilisation of Islam was 500 years ahead of the West, and it is one of the most fascinating historical questions to speculate on the future course of history if that lead had been maintained. And yet during the following centuries the Islamic world fell apart, while the West surged ahead. On the battlefield, the West won victory after victory, and its economic power and its science and technology reached heights previously unknown. Why did this happen? What went wrong for Islam?
The leaders of the Islamic world realised what was happening and tried to understand the reasons. They asked themselves what they had done wrong, and what they could do to put things right. They imported new knowledge and devices from the West, but that ensured that they were always behind the times. That agonised reapprail continues today, and their frustration boils over in terrorist attacks such as that on September 11. This failure of the Islamic world is well described in a recent book by Bernard Lewis.
The rise and fall of Islamic science and technology is of particular interest. At the height of its power, Islam led the world, with astronomical observatories from Cordoba to Baghdad, and accomplished mathematicians. Many of the stars still retain their Arabic names, and mathematical terms like algebra come from the Arabic. Arab mathematicians wrote treatises on the solutions of equations. Medicine was developed beyond the knowledge inherited from the Greeks, and the first hospitals were founded. Optics were studied, and phenomena like the rainbow were explained. The characteristics of
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their herbal properties. Many technological devices such as water wheels were built and used for irrigation and to supply water to cities. In spite of all this, and much more, Islamic science gradually stagnated. Astronomical observatories were abandoned and scholars dispersed.
In sharp contrast, science in the West began in the Middle Ages and came to maturity in the Renaissance with the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. Newton showed how to steer a course between the empiricism of Bacon and the rationalism of Descartes, and with his three laws of motion and theory of universal gravitation provided the first paradigm of modem science. By solving the differential equations embodying his laws, Newton showed how the motions of projectiles on the earth and of the planets can be calculated to high accuracy. When they wanted to find out how things — behave, they made observations and experiments. They no longer
believed, like the discredited Aristotelians, that knowledge can be found only by reading old books; instead they opened their eyes, made experiments and discovered things.
From the beginning, modern science in the West has never looked back. It is a self-sustaining enterprise that goes from strength to strength. In the 19th century Maxwell obtained the equations that describe all electromagnetic phenomena, Dalton put forward his atomic theory and other scientists showed how the various forms of heat can be quantatively related. In the 20th century radioactivity led to the discovery of the nucleus and the development of atomic and nuclear physics.
Why this reversal? Why did Islamic science fall behind that of the West?
The primary reason is theological. Modem science is based on definite beliefs about the natural world. namely that it is good, rational, orderly, contingent and open to the human mind. These beliefs are found in no other civilisation and that is why science has developed only once in human history, namely during the Middle Ages and subsequent centuries. Without these beliefs, it is possible to make some progress by observing the stars and the planets, by observing animals and plants and through empirical experience of the properties of materials.
To make the breakthrough to modem science requires more than this. In particular it requires a rather subtle belief about the world that follows from the Christian belief that God is both rational and free. God's rationality ensures that the world behaves in an orderly way, and so we can learn about it using the methods of science. But if we forget that God is also free, we might think that there is only one sort of order, that the world is necessarily what it is. If this were so, we could learn about it by thinking about it, in the same way we discover the truths of mathematics. We might never make experiments, and as we know this is essential for the development of science.
freedom of God, and downplay His rationality, so that everything that happens is determined from instant to instant by His decision, we have a chaotic world and science would be impossible. We would not have the concept that the scholastics called secondary causality, the belief that God gives material substances their own intrinsic natures. They normally behave in accord with their natures, and it is the task of scientists to find out about the behaviour The development of science thus requires holding the beliefs in rationality and the freedom of God in a creative tension, without emphasising either of them to , the detriment of the other.
Muslim theology tends to stress the freedom of God, holding that everything depends on the will of Allah, and that is the deep reason for the failure of science to develop in Muslim lands.