Islam and Science

Islam and Science

BBC Four's 3-part series 'Islam & Science' starts tonight, and presenter, physicist Jim Al-Khalili, begins by discussing 'the language of science'.

In an article today, he also discusses the work of who he considers the 'first true scientist', al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham:

without doubt, another great physicist, who is worthy of ranking up alongside Newton, is a scientist born in AD 965 in what is now Iraq who went by the name of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham.
Most people in the West will never have even heard of him.

As a physicist myself, I am quite in awe of this man's contribution to my field, but I was fortunate enough to have recently been given the opportunity to dig a little into his life and work through my recent filming of a three-part BBC Four series on medieval Islamic scientists.
...
Popular accounts of the history of science typically suggest that no major scientific advances took place in between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance.
But just because Western Europe languished in the Dark Ages, does not mean there was stagnation elsewhere. Indeed, the period between the 9th and 13th Centuries marked the Golden Age of Arabic science.
Great advances were made in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry and philosophy. Among the many geniuses of that period Ibn al-Haytham stands taller than all the others.
Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method.

Personally I'd always been pretty ignorant of the contributions of islamic scholars, to science, medicine, and philosophy, falling into the trap of thinking nothing happened since the Greeks for about 1500yrs - mainly because it's never taught in science and ignored in many texts on history and philosophy of science, at least the ones I'd read anyway.

The synopsis for the opening episode, 'the language of science' looks pretty interesting:

Physicist Jim Al-Khalili travels through Syria, Iran, Tunisia and Spain to tell the story of the great leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries.
Its legacy is tangible, with terms like algebra, algorithm and alkali all being Arabic in origin and at the very heart of modern science - there would be no modern mathematics or physics without algebra, no computers without algorithms and no chemistry without alkalis.

For Baghdad-born Al-Khalili this is also a personal journey and on his travels he uncovers a diverse and outward-looking culture, fascinated by learning and obsessed with science. From the great mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, who did much to establish the mathematical tradition we now know as algebra, to Ibn Sina, a pioneer of early medicine whose Canon of Medicine was still in use as recently as the 19th century, he pieces together a remarkable story of the often-overlooked achievements of the early medieval Islamic scientists.

Next week's episode discusses the 'empire of reason'

Posted By

Choccy
Jan 5 2009 16:12

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Refused
Jan 5 2009 17:01

I shall watch it with interest. Islamic scholars like to argue that parts of the Quran contain accurate descriptions of the development of the foetus, whereas these passages are actually quite vague and if interpreted as the scholars intend them to, biologically inaccurate. However, in the historical context (of which I have little knowledge) it may have been trailblazing compared to the common understanding of embryos and pre-natal development at the time.

Choccy
Jan 6 2009 01:37

True-bill, I'll check it out too.

I've very little knowledge of the Quran itself, but I'm reading more on islamic creationism as part of my own research and the variety of opinion on the issue strikes me as odd. The form of islamic creationism abundant in the work of the like of Harun Yahya seems an oddly new phenomena, and borrows heavily from modern US creationists, from the 'flood geology' of Henry Morris et al in the 60s (although he isn't a young-earther himself) to the contemporary tracts of the Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis et al. - in fact Turkish creationists have been translating literature of US creationists for a few years now.

So yeah my broader point was the more I hear about this stuff, it seems the apparent distrust of science in this respect within islam is relatively new, as historically it seems to have had a much richer tradition of engagement with science than my previous position of ignorance had led me to believe.

Even in new surveys, acceptance of evolution in islamic countries is disturbingly low

but I'd read elsewhere that attitudes to medicine, technology and engineering, ie. practical application of science, were quite high generally compared to more theoretical and philosophical areas of the sciences.

Refused
Jan 5 2009 19:02

How does Khazakstan's (is that the Islamic country with the highest figure for acceptance of evolution?) compare with, e.g. the US out of interest?

Islamic Creationism will originate from the fact that the Quran carries a very similar creation story to the Bible (Adam & Eve, created from clay, walked the Earth with all the animals as they are now and dinosaurs, etc). It's interesting about Yahya's adaptation of US Christian "theory" though. Building bridges, or what.

Choccy
Jan 5 2009 23:30

it's roughly the same as US, a 2006 paper by Miller et al in Science reported that US acceptance of evolution was around 40% in 2005, down from 45% in 1985.
(need subscription if you're not in an institution that gets Science, but article is archived here )

Choccy
Jan 5 2009 23:33
Refused wrote:
Islamic Creationism will originate from the fact that the Quran carries a very similar creation story to the Bible (Adam & Eve, created from clay, walked the Earth with all the animals as they are now and dinosaurs, etc). It's interesting about Yahya's adaptation of US Christian "theory" though. Building bridges, or what.

My understanding though is that there are also passages in the Quran with words to the effect of 'man was created from mud' - which could reasonably be interpreted as meaning the result of a natural/material process albeit subject to divine laws.

Refused
Jan 5 2009 23:56

Yeah you could interpret that way but very few imams do, from what I understand and these are the people who are responsible for teaching Islam to kids in Islamic countries. If one chose to interpret it that way how does one interpret it saying Eve was made out of Adam's rib? I was taught that it definitely wasn't a metaphor for equality because that much is evidently not the case in the rest of the Quran (i.e. there is no equality of the sexes unless you take a very bastardised definition of the word "equality").

RE: the graph. "Fucking Iceland!!!" - JDMF, 2006

Choccy
Jan 6 2009 01:56

Well they certainly accept the old-age of the earth, in contrast with christian biblical literalists - where they do share common ground it appears to relate to the view of human exceptionalism and a fear of materialism at least.

Devrim
Jan 7 2009 19:10
Refused wrote:
I shall watch it with interest. Islamic scholars like to argue that parts of the Quran contain accurate descriptions of the development of the foetus, whereas these passages are actually quite vague and if interpreted as the scholars intend them to, biologically inaccurate. However, in the historical context (of which I have little knowledge) it may have been trailblazing compared to the common understanding of embryos and pre-natal development at the time.

They really like to big it up too. There is quite a common story that Jacques Cousteau converted to Islam after discovering something in their about the currents in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately Jacques himself never heard anything about this story, and was quite bemused to be often asked about it.

Refused wrote:
How does Khazakstan's (is that the Islamic country with the highest figure for acceptance of evolution?) compare with, e.g. the US out of interest?

Kazakhstan isn't that Islamic either:

Wiki wrote:
Islam is the largest religion in Kazakhstan, followed by Russian Orthodox Christianity. Kazakhs are mainly Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, and the Russians are Russian Orthodox. In 1994, some 47 percent of the population was Muslim, 44 percent was Russian Orthodox, and 2 percent was Protestant, mainly Baptist.[29] Based on a 2007 data of, The Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the UK, Islam was practiced by 57% of the population, Christianity 40% and other religions 3%.[30]

Devrim

Choccy
Jan 7 2009 19:18

Yeah that article makes clear that, being a former Soviet republic, it has a much different religious landscape than the other countries surveyed.

Dave B
Jan 8 2009 18:53

As Darwin and evolution is being discussed here as well as elsewhere, BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ is running something on it now. A great series of programmes actually for ‘coffee table’ intellectuals.

I would like to repost the following that may be of some interest.

The Origin Of Ideas?

by Dave B - world socialist movement

Wed Apr 02, 2008 22:02

manchester UK

Quote:
On the statement that;

“Some claim that not Darwin nor Marx were the originators of the claims that made them so famous. The claim is that they got the fame because they packed old wisdom in a better way and even developed it some how”

I think that the idea that Darwin’s and Marx’s central ideas where not original and that they merely developed or built upon other peoples ideas is so true that it shouldn’t even be necessary to have to state it.

The idea of the evolution of species by natural selection had been kicking around for almost a 1000 years before Charles Darwin. Examples of pre Charles Darwinian ideas on evolution are too numerous to mention, however an interesting early example may be the one below;

{Al-Jahiz born in Basra, c. 781 –r 868

In the Book of Animals, al-Jahiz first speculated on the influence of the environment on animals and developed an early theory of evolution. Al-Jahiz considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and first described the Struggle for existence Al-Jahiz' ideas on the struggle for existence in the Book of Animals have been summarized as follows:

"Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring." }

One could mention I suppose Charles Darwins Grandfather, Erasmus Darwin;

{Erasmus Darwin's most important scientific work is Zoönomia (1794–1796), which contains a system of pathology, and a treatise on "generation", in which he, in the words of his famous grandson, Charles Robert Darwin, anticipated the views of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who in turn is regarded to have foreshadowed the theory of evolution. Darwin based his theories on David Hartley's psychological theory of "associationism".The essence of his views is contained in the following passage, which he follows up with the conclusion that one and the same kind of living filament is and has been the cause of all organic life:

“Would it be too bold to imagine that, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great first Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!”

Erasmus Darwin was familiar with the earlier evolutionary thinking of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, and cited him in his 1803 work Temple of Nature.}

Karl Marx with his labour theory of value borrowed heavily from others but perhaps untypically he was usually generous to cite his predecessors. Eg early in Volume One;

“It is a man of the New World -- where bourgeois relations of production imported together with their representatives sprouted rapidly in a soil in which the superabundance of humus made up for the lack of historical tradition -- who for the first time deliberately and clearly (so clearly as to be almost trite) reduces exchange-value to labour-time.

This man was Benjamin Franklin, who formulated the basic law of modern political economy in an early work, which was written in 1729 and published in 1731. He declares it necessary to seek another measure of value than the precious metals, and that this measure is labour. “

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch01a.htm

And on Wiliam Petty;

Footnote 18

“The celebrated Franklin, one of the first economists, after Wm. Petty, who saw through the nature of value, says: “Trade in general being nothing else but the exchange of labour for labour, the value of all things is ... most justly measured by labour.” (“The works of B. Franklin, &c.,” edited by Sparks. Boston, 1836, Vol. II., p. 267.) Franklin is unconscious that by estimating the value of everything in labour, he makes abstraction from any difference in the sorts of labour exchanged, and thus reduces them all to equal human labour.”

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm

Karl borrowed heavily on Ricardo amongst others, as he freely and frequently admitted.

In fact the labour theory of value in its essence is almost as old as capitalism itself and there was an earlier example of it again cited by Karl somewhere in Das Capital. However the name of the person that wrote it was unknown.

I have no idea where it is and can’t be bothered looking for it but I think it dated from the mid 1600’s.

Frederick Engels was familiar with Lamarkism and it formed part of his “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/part-played-labour/index.htm

Later he became familiar with Darwins work and basically accepted it with some caveats.

“On the other hand I cannot agree with you that the “bellum omnium contra omnes” was the first phase of human development. In my opinion, the social instinct was one of the most essential levers of the evolution of man from the ape. The first man must have lived in bands and as far as we can peer into the past we find that this was the case.... “

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_11_17-ab.htm

Predicting Kropotkins viewpoint, and brilliant piece of scientific thinking in my opinion, in his ‘Mutual Aid’.

Something followed up upon by Anton Pannekoek, another scientist and in this case a Marxist in his ‘Marxism And Darwinism’, 1912

http://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1912/marxism-darwinism.htm

and in a superior form later in 1944, Anthropogenesis: A Study in the Origin of Man. Again following scientific etiquette in giving due credence to Kropotkin.

Incidentally I am a scientist myself and only started reading Engels about four years ago. I was quite staggered by his understanding of science and hadn’t even realised that the understanding of the natural sciences was that advanced in the late 19th century.

He really must have been up to date.

Related Link: http://www.worldsocialism.org/index.php

At;

http://www.anarkismo.net/article/8491

I do not know much about Islam but have been led to believe that there is quite a lot of cross over with it and Christianity and the old testament for that matter. As I understand it, it even accepts much of the Jesus story but just JC as another prophet and the Mary virgin birth story.

There is also the lost imam as well I think who is going to return to save us all, so when some bod returns riding on the clouds etc we can expect some unholy religious row to break out over which one it is.

Just another quote because I know this list is famous for its sense of humour.

Frederick Engels 1883, The Book of Revelation

Quote:
One good thing, however, Ernest Renan has said:

“When you want to get a distinct idea of what the first Christian communities were, do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like local sections of the International Working Men’s Association.”

And this is correct. Christianity got hold of the masses, exactly as modern socialism does, under the shape of a variety of sects, and still more of conflicting individual views clearer, some more confused, these latter the great majority — but all opposed to the ruling system, to “the powers that be.”

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/religion/book-revelations.htm

My comrades in the SPGB hate me when I do that kind of stuff so it I just do it more often.

Choccy
Jan 27 2009 01:38

Yes, evolutionary ideas had certainly been kicking around for a long time before Darwin, this is acknowledged by every historian/philosopher I've ever read on the subject. Darwin himself had been influenced by Robert Grant, Erasmus Darwin, even Lamarck - all evolutionists in the very broadest sense of 'biological change over time'.

His grandfather Erasmus, a 'freethinker' and certainly an evolutionist, knew nothing of natural selection, his ideas were more progressionist than anything, an idea which natural selection dispels by asserting that what is considered 'fit' is purely contingent on the environmental circumstances in which organisms find themselves.

As for Al-Jahiz being the originator of 'natural selection' I thinks it's fairly mute in the absence of any body of empirical evidence. What Darwin did that no one else had done, was 20yrs of meticulous, mind-numbingly boring research, on everything from barnacle dissection, to botany, to fossil examination etc, spending years amassing evidence in support of his burgeoning theory.

There are many others, however, who accept various interpretations of evolution. Often, this acceptance is justified in the context of the Koran or by crediting the theory to medieval Muslim philosophers. For example, the South Asian philosopher and poet, Mohammad Iqbal, while accepting evolution reluctantly, credited 9th century philosopher, Al-Jahiz for the idea of evolution and Ibn-Maskwaih, in the 11th century, as the "first Muslim thinker to give a clear and in many respects a thoroughly modern theory of the origin of man". Indeed, a few medieval Muslim philosophers elaborated on the theories of common descent known at the time, but none postulated any process similar to natural selection. (Hameed, Science Dec 09)

If Al-Jahiz isn't credited by scientists or historians as the originator of the idea it's because of this lack of data in support of the claims. Even Wallace, who is acknowledged as arriving at similar conclusions independently, was happy to let Darwin take the glory because he himself, hadn't collected nearly the same amount of empirical data that shed light on the subject.

Bear in mind that ‘evolution’ in the broad sense was pretty much accepted in Darwin’s lifetime, but natural selection really didn’t catch on until the early 1900s with the rediscovery of Mendel’s work. Even ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Huxley didn’t accept natural selection as the mechanism for adaptive change, and was more of a Lamarckian transformationist and remained 'agnostic' on selection.

Refused
Jan 9 2009 18:32

This shit is relevant to my interests,. Good stuff, people.

Choccy
Jan 10 2009 00:06

smile

Choccy
Jan 27 2009 01:38
Dave B wrote:
In the Book of Animals, al-Jahiz first speculated on the influence of the environment on animals and developed an early theory of evolution. Al-Jahiz considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and first described the Struggle for existence Al-Jahiz' ideas on the struggle for existence in the Book of Animals have been summarized as follows:

"Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."

Funny actually, an article in Friday's Independent just commented on this too:

Steve Connor: Al-Khalili says that this qualifies as a theory of natural selection, but any scholar of Darwinism will point out that this could just as easily describe another, discredited evolutionary mechanism, known as Lamarckism. Sorry Jim, from what little we know of al-Jahith and his ideas on evolution, he can't hold a candle to Darwin and Wallace.

An unsympathetic reading might suggest that al-Jahith [Jahiz? which spelling is right?] was indeed talking about change in an organism's lifetime and could indeed be referring to Lamarckian evolution and there's not much in the sentence to enable clarification either way.

Even still, it'd be like scholars a few hundred years from now claiming Robert Zemeckis invented the hoverboard (assuming it does get invented in the future which it will, it definitely will) without actually doing any of the grunt work of making one or developing plausible testable models for how such a device might work wink

Connor goes on more generally:
Let's keep religion out of it
Science flourished in the Islamic world between the 8th and 11th centuries, and certainly in optics and mathematics it produced wonderful insights and inventions, as Al-Khalili's series describes. But I wonder why some scholars persist in calling this "Islamic science"? Science is science wherever it is practised, and its strength is its universality. It certainly shouldn't be linked with a religion. The Renaissance period in Italy produced an amazing rebirth of science, but to describe it as "Roman Catholic science" would be an unjust misnomer.

It is good that we celebrate the science of the Islamic world, but we should also ask why it failed to flourish beyond the 14th century. Could it have something to do with the growing influence and anti-science attitude of medieval Islamic clerics, who even prohibited the mechanical printing of the Koran until the 19th century? Political correctness dictates that we shouldn't even mention this, but it would be wise to understand that, in the past, religion has been no friend of science.

I'm coming from a position of ignorance regarding the historic relationship between islam and science in this period but would be curious what people make of that.

Devrim
Jan 10 2009 06:33
Quote:
al-Jahith [Jahiz? which spelling is right?]

It depends on how you write it. There are more than ten different systems for transliteration from Arabic. To me changing 'z' to 'th' sounds a little strange, and it is not how I would write it. I can imagine how it could work in some system though.

The z is the common spelling though.

Devrim

Choccy
Jan 12 2009 13:44

Al-Khalili talks a little bit more about the show on today's Guardian science podcast.

Choccy
Mar 3 2009 15:06

New BBC Radio 4 series Islam & Science started this week.

Eddie Orsini
Feb 18 2009 21:16

Hi, I from Brazil. Maybe, still ocident. Well, We, the ocidents forget the rest of world almost always, until when we count - 0, 1, 2, 3... 9, 10 - this is arabian numbres, like the decimal sistem n' the idea of zero. That's freak, but real. And the reason to the creationism still exist. Who type of science, technology, is that? A kind of knowledge that forget who discover, who did, who make, who work. Is what Marx call "abstracty material" science, that's abstract, deny the realization - necessary (sine qua non) to the scientific activity - of the simple worker that are his side. That's fake knowledge!
The great realization of the modern industry is a realization of all mankind, is combined work of all the world. But with the private propriety and the forms of prodution relationships of capital: we think that the industrial revolution is a realization of the great capitalist commander.
In the same way, in teh same reason, the relativism of Levi-Strauss is teoric solution of the problem. But the real problem is the INDIRECTLY sociability that creat the world market, but divide the mankind and, even, oppose violent.

Love.