Christianity, Islam and science: Was modern science birthed by Islam?
Published: 13 September 2008 (GMT+10)
Photo by Miguel Ugalde, sxc.hu
Published: 13 September 2008 (GMT+10)
This week we feature an inquiry about the foundations of modern science, from Jon A of the USA. Andrew Lamb responds.
The claim is made that modern science actually was birthed in Islam dominated cultures in a paper found here: [link deleted in accordance with our feedback rules]1
I have read and appreciated the work of Terry Mortenson and Nancy Pearcey2 on the origin of modern science. They would both reject the notion that the scientific method was known and practiced in some form centuries earlier in an Islamic dominated culture.
Would you please have someone read and respond to the paper I have cited? If the author is wrong, let’s expose his fallacy. If he is right, then Mortenson and Pearcey should be informed.
Thanks Guys. Keep up the good work.
Thank you for your email. We appreciate your complimentary feedback, and are glad our ministry has been a blessing to you.
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Monotheistic Islam, with its Judeo-Christian roots that led it to oppose idolatry, astrology and similar superstitions would have inevitably been more conducive to technological advance and scholarship than, for example, animism. And earlier widespread Muslim conquests established a degree of law and order which inevitably allows commerce and innovation to flourish more than in its absence.
However, while not wishing to discredit the advances that were made in the Muslim/Arabic world, the nowadays-common idea that modern science was in fact birthed by Islam is inaccurate, and has been refuted by scholars.3 Many of the scientific advances attributed to Islam in fact originated elsewhere, or were the work of non-Muslims, especially Byzantine scholars, within lands conquered by Islam.
One source claims:
There is considerable evidence that it [cultural and scientific flowering] did not come from Islam, but from the non-Muslims who served their Muslim masters in various capacities.4
There was a time when Islamic culture was more advanced than that of Europeans, but that superiority corresponds exactly to the period when Muslims were able to draw on and advance the achievements of Byzantine and other civilizations.5
Arabic numerals and the invention of the digit zero are one example of scholarship commonly attributed to Islam, but it seems it is not that straightforward:
Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780–850) was a pioneering mathematician whose treatise on algebra, once translated from Arabic, introduced generations of Europeans to the joys of that branch of mathematics. But in fact, the principles upon which al-Khwarizmi worked were discovered centuries before he was born—including the zero, which is often attributed to Muslims. Even what we know today as “Arabic numerals” did not originate in Arabia, but in pre-Islamic India—and they are not used in the Arabic language today. Nonetheless, there is no denying that al-Khwarizmi was influential. The word algebra itself comes from the first word of the title of his treatise Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah; and the word algorithm is derived from his name. Al-Khwarizmi’s work opened up new avenues of mathematical and scientific exploration in Europe, so why didn’t it do the same in the Islamic world? The results are palpable: Europeans ultimately used algebra, in conjunction with other discoveries, to make significant technological advances; Muslims did not. Why?6
One factor hindering science from progressing seems to have been Islam’s theological intolerance of external ideas:
There is a prevailing assumption that the Qur’an is the perfect book, and no other book is needed. With the Qur’an the perfect book and Islamic society the perfect civilization, too many Muslims didn’t think they needed knowledge that came from any other source—certainly not from infidels.7
Science and technology in Christian Europe had a far greater freedom from such theological restrictions on utilizing knowledge from external sources. Dr Thomas Sowell, in pointing out that no great civilization has developed in isolation, says that:
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… when the British first crossed the Atlantic … they were able to steer across the ocean in the first place because they used rudders invented in China, they could navigate on the open seas with the help of trigonometry invented in Egypt, their calculations were done with numbers invented in India, and their general knowledge was preserved in letters invented by the Romans.8
And science historian Dr James Hannam, in his book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, notes:
The compass, paper, printing, stirrups and gunpowder all appeared in Western Europe between AD500 and AD1500. True, these inventions originated in the Far East, but Europeans developed them to a far higher degree than had happened elsewhere.9
In most cultures and times there have been sporadic flashes of intellectual brilliance, but science as we know it only became established once, in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. This was not the result of some sort of racial or ethnic superiority, but because it required people holding explicitly biblical assumptions and a society practicing Christian ethics. Many historians, both secular and Christian, have pointed out the crucial role the creationist worldview played. Dr Hannam noted:
Christian theology turned out to be uniquely suited to encouraging the study of the natural world because it was believed to be God’s creation.10
Here is a comment on this from our recent article God, the universe, tolerance and suffering:
We do not regard the desire to seek explanations as a ‘personal weakness’. Rather, we consider it one of the great strengths of biblical Christian culture. King Solomon said ‘I applied my heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things’ (Ecclesiastes 7:25) and ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter’ (Proverbs 25:2). In fact the establishment of modern science was directly due to Bible-believing Christians in Middle Ages Europe putting this biblical idea into practice.2 As one secular professor wrote, ‘Christian theology was essential for the rise of science.’3
See note 2 of that article for a list of comprehensive resources on how modern science sprang from the biblical worldview.
Even prominent evolutionist scholars have conceded the crucial role of biblical creationist presuppositions in the rise of science. Evolutionist astrophysicist Professor Paul Davies said:
If you look back at how science originated, it rests upon twin pillars. The first is Greek philosophy, with its emphasis on the ability of human beings to understand their world through the use of rational reasoning. The second is monotheistic religion—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—with its emphasis on a created world that is ordered by a Designer in a rational and intelligible way. Those were the dominant influences that gave rise to science in seventeenth-century Europe.11
That was in an interview with a notorious God-hater, Australian media personality Phillip Adams, and yet Adams did not dispute or challenge Davies on this point. Note too the terminology: ‘originated’, ‘rests upon’, ‘dominant influences’, ’gave rise’. The association of biblical belief in creation with the rise of science was not merely a curious coincidence, as some claim.
But Davies errs above in ascribing to Islam belief in a world that is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. In Koranic theology, Allah is absolutely powerful and bound by nothing. Therefore to even suggest that there could be such things as ‘Laws of Nature’ was tantamount to a denial of Allah’s sovereignty and power, an idea blasphemous in the eyes of powerful Islamic theologians of the past. In practice this lack of assurance in a predictable dependable God can result in a ‘fearful fatalistic apathy,’ which Winston Churchill remarked upon as a common tendency in Muslims.12
Evolutionist Professor of interdisciplinary studies Piet Hut said:
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Science, like most human activities, is based upon a belief - namely, the assumption that nature is understandable … This belief - that nature is understandable, and that it can yield to a systematic analysis by generations of researchers, who pool their insights and results - is the most radical belief that has been entertained by humanity. We cannot prove it to be correct, but it has proven itself to be extremely fruitful, in giving us a degree of insight into nature that would have been undreamt of a mere 500 years ago.13
Here is an excerpt on this theme from our booklet 15 Reasons to take Genesis as History:
Rodney Stark, for many years Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, writes: ‘I argue not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science. In demonstration of this thesis [I show that] not only did religion not cause the “Dark Ages”; nothing else did either—the story that after the “fall” of Rome a long dark night of ignorance and superstition settled over Europe is as fictional as the Columbus [flat earth] story. In fact this was an era of profound and rapid technological progress … the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was the … result of [Christian scholarship] starting in the eleventh century … . Why did real science develop in Europe … and not anywhere else? I find answers to those questions in unique features of Christian theology … .’14
The science and modern technologies of today’s world have only come into being over the last 600 years. The boom in technology was preceded by a boom in the Word of God and in godliness.
The biblical worldview and stable societies produced by the Reformation were a necessary factor in the development of science and technology. Preceding societies which lacked the Bible and the Christian worldview were unable to achieve such advancement. The creationist founders of modern science reasoned that since God is a God of order, it must be possible to discern order in his Creation, and were motivated to seek out God’s physical laws. And stable biblical societies enabled the accumulation and spread of their discoveries, leading to the rise of technology.
I had a quick read through the paper by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad that you referred to1, and it does not dogmatically contend that Islam was responsible for the birth of modern science. Rather, Ahmad accepts the notion that Islamic society once had an era of scientific and intellectual achievement, and most of his paper is spent delving into reasons for subsequent regression. Ahmed proposes seven factors that made Islamic society conducive to the development of science, and these factors only partially match the modern scientific method. He then gives seven corresponding points for why those factors have failed to persist. In effect, these latter seven points act as an explanation for why, in his understanding, science did not become firmly established in Islamic society.
Two of Ahmed’s alleged science-conducive factors (number 1: observation/induction of rules in nature, and number 2: universality—the embracing of knowledge from any source) I have addressed above.
Seven Day Week
Some critics of the Bible like to claim that the seven day week was introduced to western civilization by the first-century Romans, due to the influence of astrologers from Persia (modern day Iran) who were fanatically obsessed with the seven day week, and that the week did not derive from Jewish or Christian influences (i.e. from the Bible).15 But where did the Persian astrologers get their seven-day week from?
It is interesting to note that around 570 BC Daniel was appointed chief of all the Persian wise men (Daniel 2:48; 4:8–9; 5:11). These wise men included magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers (Daniel 2:2,13,27; 5:11). Daniel wrote a book, which included a prophecy giving the time of the coming of ‘Messiah the Prince’ of Jerusalem (Daniel 9:24–25).
Evidently Daniel’s wisdom and status and the momentous miracles and events that accompanied his career made a profound and lasting impression on the astrologers over whom he had been master. So much so that half a millennium later, their successors still held Daniel and his book in such high regard that they not only correctly identified the time of birth of Jesus, but journeyed to Jerusalem to worship him (Matthew 2:1).
The very prophecy by their revered patriarch Daniel which enabled them to correctly identify the time of Jesus’ birth was couched in terms of periods of weeks. This no doubt contributed significantly to the ‘obsession’ of the Persian astrologers for the seven day week. And this was many centuries before the birth of Islam.
Ahmed also errs regarding Christian traditions of citation/copying. He discusses Herculean efforts of early Islamic scholars in tracking down the complete chain of transmission of alleged sayings of Mohammed, interviewing each person in the chain to evaluate their reliability. (He moots this as the source of modern scientific methods of scholarly citation). He then claims ‘this is a process to which Christian texts have been subjected only in recent centuries’. This latter assertion is misleading—see The textual reliability of the New Testament. The first Christians were predominantly Jews, and the Jews are renowned for their meticulously careful copying of the Scriptures—see The textual reliability of the Old Testament. And the early ‘church fathers’ cited Scripture extensively, to the extent that it has been said that even if every copy of every book of the New Testament was lost, the entire New Testament could be faithfully reconstructed from the copious quotes in the writings of the church fathers. And as to the reliability of the original transmitters of the Gospel, see Can we believe the Gospels? The authors of the books of the New Testament were meticulous in their checking of facts. As Peter said ‘For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16).
Ahmad uses the development of the lunar calendar as an example of Islamic scholarship, but he admits that ‘to some degree this problem had been solved by pre-Islamic astronomers’. And Persian scholars were renowned for their calendrical obsessions long before Islam came—see the Seven Day Week box above. Ahmad also freely acknowledges in his paper the adoption by Islamic scholars of scientific concepts from the Greeks.
- Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, The rise and fall of Islamic science:
The calendar as a case study, <http://images.agustianwar.multiply.com/attachment/0/
RxbYbQoKCr4AAD@kzFY1/IslamicCalendar-A-Case-Study.pdf> Return to text.
- CMI published a critique of Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth. She runs the Pearcey Report website <http://www.PearceyReport.com>. Return to text.
- See for example the section ‘PC Myth: Islam was once the foundation of a great cultural and scientific flowering’ within chapter 7 ‘How Allah killed science’ of Robert Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Return to text.
- Ref. 3, page 90. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, page 91. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, page 93. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, page 95. Return to text.
- Thomas Sowell, Race, Culture and Equality, http://www.TSowell.com/spracecu.html. Return to text.
- James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, 2007, http://JamesHannam.com/Godsphilosophers.pdf; page 6. Return to text.
- Ref. 9, page 6. Return to text.
- In conversation with Paul Davies and Phillip Adams, 11 July
stories/s540211.htm. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, page 92. Return to text.
- http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CAA47.htm. Piet Hut is professor of interdisciplinary studies at the Institute for Advanced Study and coauthor of The Gravitational Million-Body Problem: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Star Cluster Dynamics. Return to text.
- 15 Reasons, pages 25–26; citing: Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery, p. 123, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2003. Return to text.
- Creationist articles touching on this issue include:
- William Bauer, Creation and the seven-day week, Impact 75, September 1979, www.icr.org/article/157.
- David Malcolm, The seven-day cycle, Creation 9(2):32–35, March 1987.
- Don DeYoung, The seven-day week, Creation Research Society Quarterly 23(4):183–184, March 1987.