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Did Al Farabi really invent sociology?

There is a subtle campaign on Wikipedia to overstate the contribution of Islamic sages to scientific scholarship.
James Hannam says that the facts should be sacred

28 October 2009

12:00 AM

28 October 2009

12:00 AM

There is a subtle campaign on Wikipedia to overstate the contribution of Islamic sages to scientific scholarship.
James Hannam says that the facts should be sacred

As an author who craves all the publicity he can get for his work, I’m usually cock-a-hoop to receive invitations to pontificate on film. Even the lowliest producer can expect to have me eating out of her hand. But last week, when I received an email from a filmmaker who wanted to interview me for a programme about ‘the scientific evidence in the religious text of the Koran’, I thought I’d give it a miss.

The sort of apologetics which attempt to prove the inspiration of the scriptures by showing that they contain secret knowledge has been practiced by conservative Christians for a very long time. Back in the 17th century, English divines tried to develop a biblical science to compete with the new philosophy of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Some Muslim apologists like Caner Taslaman, author of The Quran: Unchallengeable Miracle, have still greater ambition. They claim to find the discoveries of modern cosmology, such as the Big Bang and Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, written into the Koran.

Such ‘evidence’ for the divine origin of the Koran was never likely to convince Islam’s Western admirers. Instead, a more subtle campaign is being waged to persuade us that Islam’s role in the rise of modern science was a great deal more significant than realised. There is some truth in this. For instance, Alhazen made important contributions to optics which Johann Kepler eventually used in his foundational work on the modern theory of vision. Likewise, mathematical constructions invented by Muslim astronomers may have found their way into the work of Nicolas Copernicus; but his central idea that the earth orbits the sun was never considered in Arabic science. These modest but real contributions have proved insufficient for Islamic apologists. They want us to believe that science was all but invented by Muslims and they have found the perfect medium to get their message across. Of course, it’s Wikipedia.


Have a look at Wikipedia’s entry on Alhazen. It’s 7,000 words long and bristles with 126 footnotes. Avicenna does even better with 7,600 words, while savants like Al Kindi (5,700 words) and Rhazes (8,000 words) are also unusually well provided for. Turning from the Islamic to the medieval Christian world, we find that Wikipedia’s articles get a whole lot shorter. Major figures like Roger Bacon and William of Occam receive 2,500 words. John Buridan, the greatest of all Western medieval natural philosophers, has to make do with 900 (although there is a separate entry on his ass). As significant a thinker as Adelard of Bath gets just 500 or so.

Reading all these articles on Islamic philosophers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a crack squad of non-Western Muslims who have made it their business to inform us all about their most esteemed co-religionists. For instance, the style can be a little bit stilted and there are occasional infelicities in English idiom. This is such as you might expect from someone who is not writing in their first language, but one in which they are nonetheless highly proficient. We might also note that the articles use the Arabic rather than Latinised names of their subjects throughout, even though Wikipedia policy is to use the most familiar English names for historical figures. Our impression about the articles’ authors is reinforced by the fierce debates in the attached discussion pages about whether a particular thinker was an Arab or Persian, a Shia or Sunni.

I’ve got no problem with people writing Wikipedia articles about subjects that interest them. But there is certainly an element of what one might tactfully call overstatement about the significance of some of the Muslim sages in the Wikipedia articles. Alhazen is called the ‘father of modern optics’, which he most certainly is not. Avicenna is regarded as ‘the father of modern medicine’, despite having no knowledge of antisepsis or the germ theory of disease. Rhazes is considered ‘the father of paediatrics’. You get the picture.

There is also a high degree of anachronism. Al Farabi is accounted a sociologist, psychologist and cosmologist even though he lived centuries before these disciplines even existed. As for the detailed claims within the articles, it’s impossible to subject them to serious scrutiny in their entirety. All one can say is if Islamic thinkers really had invented the experimental method, clinical testing in medicine, peer review and evolution, it is very surprising that the scientific revolution actually happened in 17th-century Western Europe.

It is by no means only the authors of Wikipedia who have been painting the Muslim achievement is excessively bright colours. A trivial example is the expression ‘Arabic numbers’ for our modern digits. True, they were transmitted to the West through Muslim hands, but they actually originated in Hindu India.

The myth that Al-Andalus was an oasis of tolerance in a sea of Christian barbarism owes much to Washington Irving’s romantic Tales of the Alhambra. As it happens, the Spanish Caliphate’s greatest intellectual adornment was Averröes (6,800 words on Wikipedia), who had to flee into exile to avoid religious harassment. His influence in medieval Christendom was incalculable, while among his fellow Muslims he was largely forgotten. We also rarely hear about the Christian martyrs of Cordoba or the persecution of the Jews by the Almohad dynasty.

The oldest misattribution of a scientific advance from Christians to Muslims was probably the discovery of mineral acids in the 13th century. But in this case, Christians had only themselves to blame. We are probably all familiar with sulphuric and hydrochloric acid from our chemistry lessons at school. In the Middle Ages, nitric acid was thought to be particularly exciting because it dissolves gold. Could this have been the way that Moses destroyed the golden calf in the Book of Exodus, some theologians asked? After all, the biblical account says he had pulverised and dissolved it. Our earliest descriptions of the synthesis of these acids are contained in treatises under the name of Geber, the Latinised name of Abu Musa Jabir (just 3,000 words on Wikipedia), a semi-mythical Islamic alchemist of the 8th century. However, as Professor William R. Newman has demonstrated, the works attributed to Geber were actually penned by Christian alchemists who adopted an Arabic name to increase the prestige of their work. Indeed, there is considerable doubt about whether Abu Musa wrote any of the voluminous texts attributed to him at all.

All this enthusiasm for Islamic science is catching. In an otherwise broadly positive review of my book God’s Philosophers in the Sunday Times, James McConnachie noted that I gave ‘oddly little weight to the achievements of Arab scholars’. I can only respond that I gave Muslims as much credit as I honestly could and that some scholars has subsequently taken me to task for overstating the case.

Likewise, a recent BBC series on Science and Islam gave a glowing account of progress under the Caliphates. We even watched gold being dissolved in nitric acid. And at one point, the presenter, professor of physics Jim Al-Khalili, claimed that Avicenna was of great importance to modern medicine, even though the expert interviewed on the show had pretty much admitted that the Muslim’s influence ceased in the 19th century when modern medicine was founded. In the final episode, we visited an Iranian laboratory which had a resident Imam to ensure none of the research breached religious law. Al-Khalili let this pass with hardly a comment. A more sceptical viewer might detect here one of the reasons that Islamic science ultimately failed.

To historians like me, getting these facts right matters. But should anyone else care? I would suggest that the widespread acceptance of an Islamic attempt to annex the history of scien
ce is a symptom of a wider loss of confidence. While we must acknowledge the Greek, Arabic and other influences that fed into it, modern science is a European invention of worldwide significance. We should never be afraid to celebrate our civilisation’s achievements or let anyone else take the credit.

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