x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

1001 Innovations and the living heritage of Islamic science

European history books might not always recognise it, but the Muslim world has a rich legacy of scientific discovery.

The 1001 Inventions exhibition being held this month in Abu Dhabi focuses on the achievements of Muslim scientists between the 8th and the 13th centuries. In the movie screened at the entry of the exhibition, the actor Sir Ben Kingsley dramatically argues that while Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Muslim scholars and scientists were developing the foundations of modern medicine, aerodynamics and even mobile-phone cameras.

While any attempt to spread awareness about the writings of such thinkers as the scientist Ibn Al Haytham (d 1040), the physician Al Zahrawi (d 1013) and the engineer Al Jaziri (d 1206) is welcome, the exhibition suggests that visitors should be interested in Islamic scientific heritage only to the extent that it influenced modern science and technological innovation in Europe. Not only does this focus lead to some untenable claims, more importantly it also leaves visitors, including many schoolchildren, with the distinct impression that there was no scientific achievement or interest in the Muslim world after the Middle Ages.

The 1001 Inventions exhibition, which has toured the world under the auspices of the UK-based Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, has an explicit goal to inspire future research in the Muslim world based on pre-modern Muslim scientific achievements.

There is a theory on display that we might call the "relay race of scientific progress": Greek science was taken up by Muslims who then passed it on to Europeans, who in the last four centuries proceeded to develop modern science. One implication of this theory is that when one group "has science", nothing intellectually interesting can be happening elsewhere.

In the exhibition's opening film, three British pupils are researching the "Dark Ages" when the school's quirky librarian shows them how the "modern world" is deeply indebted to Muslim scientific achievements. The intellectual dynamism is compared to "1,000 wasted years" in Europe, as Kingsley puts it.

But historians of medieval Europe have long rejected the label Dark Ages. Europe had a rich and varied intellectual history during the same period when Al Zahrawi, not to mention the Chinese Muslim explorer Zheng He (d 1433) and Ibn Al Majid (d ca 1500), the navigator from modern-day Ras Al Khaimah, made their contributions to science.

It is arguable that it was during this time - with the rise of the study of medicine in European universities - that European Christian doctors moved beyond the achievements of their Muslim contemporaries. While much of this European intellectual progress was influenced by translations from Arabic, it also demonstrates scientific developments taking place in two civilisational spheres simultaneously.

One further implication is a continuing evolution of scientific thought in the Muslim world after the rise of modern science in Europe.

The historian of Islamic science, George Saliba, an adviser to the 1001 Inventions exhibition, has noted that even during the Copernican Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, Muslim astronomers such as Shams Al Din Al Khafri (d 1550) continued to improve upon the writings of Ptolemy. It would be a misrepresentation to imply that Muslims' study of the natural sciences can only be understood insofar as the modern technology and research that schoolchildren across the world are taught today.

Science, simply put, does not progress linearly, but moves in fits and starts. Many avenues of thought are subsequently discarded or, to use the famous term of the historian of science Thomas Kuhn, are later replaced by a new paradigm.

To regard the intellectual history of the Muslim world after the European Renaissance as, to paraphrase Kingsley, "wasted years" would do a great disservice. Al Khafri and others continued to do innovative work, as did many Muslim scholars such as the Moroccan jurist and mystic Al Yusi (d 1691), who in the centuries preceding European colonialism called on fellow Muslims to value and practise the natural sciences.

The 1001 Inventions exhibitions, created to draw Europe's attention to everything owed to Islamic science, is less successful in telling the story of how the natural sciences were important to many in the Muslim world long after the Renaissance and before the arrival of the colonial powers.


Justin Stearns is an assistant professor at New York University - Abu Dhabi