Sunday, April 11, 2004

The Road Not Taken

Here's an interesting article that tries to address the question, why did Islam, once at forefront of science, fall by the wayside? The article lists a variety of reasons for this, but most of them have a materialist thrust that I find unconvincing. To be sure, war is bad for scientific enquiry, and the Islamic world saw its share of wars during the 15th to the 20th centuries, but so did Europe, and European conflicts were in the main far more destructive affairs during the period in question - largely due to superior European technology, the very thing the article seeks to explain.

I think anyone wishing to understand why the Islam that led the world in learning so gloriously in 1000 AD could have given birth to the current dispensation - in which 5 times* as many books are translated into Greek every year as into Arabic, and more are translated annually for Spain's domestic market than all the volumes translated into Arabic over the last 1000 years - needs to look within Islam itself, rather than to external causes like the loss of al-Andalus, for the truth is that the decline was well underway before the Reconquista was completed, and was actually one of the very things that made the Reconquista possible.

The real reason for decline, as far as I can make out, has a great deal to do with the decline of the Mutazilite movement that was actually responsible for the development and transmission of all that ancient Greek learning that would make the Renaissance possible, at the hands of al-Ghazali and the Asharite school. I know it's been said plenty of times elsewhere, but it really is ironic that the likes of bin Laden should bewail the decline of the Ummah, when it was the very triumph of their sort of doctrinaire, ultra-orthodox Islam, that insists on the subjugation of reason to religious tradition, that did so much to undermine the lead Islam enjoyed during its golden age.

As a refutation of the preceding statement, it will not suffice to say that the Asharites didn't forbid the use of rationalistic methods in the fields of science and technology, for if the history of science over the last three centuries has taught us anything, it is that philosophical enquiry and scientific progress are impossible. The dispute between Galileo and the Church lay in a philosophical issue, as the vision of our universe as one created by God for the benefit of man seemed to necessitate a geocentric view of the cosmos - an Earth that was just one ball of several circling around a mediocre, middle-aged Sun of several billion in a run-of-the-mill galaxy of several billion is hard to reconcile with the notion of Man as occupying a central place in God's creation; there would likely have been no Theory of Relativity without logical positivism; the dangerous, politically-motivated movements of Lysenkoism and eugenics both had their roots in philosophical conceptions of the nature of man and his innate potentialities; in the present era, Popperian falsificationism continues to prove central to the demarcation of science from pseudoscience. The notion of science divorced from free enquiry is little more than a joke, and once Islam had shut its doors to "innovation" (bid'ah) in the philosophical arena, innovation also necessarily came to an end elsewhere**. No amount of money channeled by Islamic governments into scientific research will lead to a scientific re-awakening in the Islamic world as long as the sort of thinking that insists on blind imitation of the past, and condemns everything new as "harmful innovation", continues to be the norm.

*About 300 books are translated into Arabic each year, and about 1500 into Greek (source, the Arab Human Development Report (2002). Interestingly, while I haven't been able to find any estimates of the number of books annually translated into Hebrew annually, the number of books published (which I'm aware isn't the same thing) in Israel annually is estimated at about 6,000.

**This idea isn't new with me by any means. The Nobel-prize winning physicist Abdus Salam has also said much the same in his 1988 collection of essays, Ideals and Realities.