Credit to Islam for Scientific Revolution? What about Christianity?

The following post is from a colleague of mine at Reasons To Believe:

I was looking at the claim that Islamic apologists are making that a Muslim named Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥaytham (965 – c. 1040 CE) (see invented the scientific method today and that it’s Islam which is actually responsible for the rise of modern science in the world.

We’re all familiar with the common assertion by Western scholars that modern science arose in Christianized Europe in the 16th century and that it was a continuation of the scholastics from the 11th century forward and that it was uniquely the Christian worldview that empowered Medieval Christian theologians to articulate the metaphysical framework for Western Civilization that freed science so it could soar in Europe to a degree seen nowhere else in the history of the world (other civilization’s accomplishments not withstanding).

That Judeo-Christian theology was essential for the rise of modern science as Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation thus providing a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension that contrasted with other dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world.

Christian and many non-Christian philosophers, theologians, historians, etc… justify and substantiate this claim using scripture and empirical documentation. It appears to me the proselyting Muslim apologists contradicting this are right about the significant accomplishments of some Muslims in history (such as Alhazen) but wrong in making the claim their worldview is the one responsible for the rise of modern science.

Firstly, in my view “The Dark Ages” is a fabrication of a small number of atheistic Enlightenment writers (e.g. Voltaire, Diderot, and Gibbon), echoed by modernists and post-modernists. The period of the “The Dark Ages” was an era of profound and rapid technological progress by the end of which Europe had surpassed the rest of the world.

Without going into any detail (as the historical record is clear), with rare exception, earlier technical innovations in ancient Greco-Romanism, Islam, imperial China, etc… did not constitute science as we engage in it today. They resulted from craft, philosophy, lore, trade skill, engineering, learning, etc…

I’ll use an example. Aristotle, for example, taught that the speed at which objects fall to earth is proportionate to their a stone twice as heavy as another will fall twice as fast. A simple trip to any of the nearby cliffs would have allowed him to falsify his own proposition but he never did that. It was Christians like Albertus Magnus (1205-1280) who subjected Aristotle and others to observational testing, frequently finding them to be in error, and implementing research leading directly to breakthroughs in biology and physics. This pattern can be seen for rest of the famous Greco-Roman pagans and subsequent Christian responses. This isn’t to downplay what they did accomplish, of course, but the consensus among contemporary historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science is that real science arose only once: in Christianized Europe not in China, Islam, India, or ancient Greece and Rome.

Specifically with respect to Islam, which one would think has a theistic worldview appropriate to support the rise of science, it never blossomed. As the socio-historian Rodney Stark states in ‘For The Glory of God’:

“Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but has been conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes on the world as he deems it appropriate. Consequently, there soon arose a major theological bloc within Islam that condemned all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy insofar as they denied Allah’s freedom to act. That is, Islam did not fully embrace the notion that the universe ran along on fundamental principles laid down by God at the Creation, but assumed that the world was sustained by his will on a continuing basis.

This was justified by a statement in the Qur’an: “Verily, God will cause to err whom he pleaseth, and will direct whom he pleaseth.”

Although the line refers to God’s determination of the fate of individuals, it has been interpreted broadly to apply to all things. If God does as he pleases, and what he pleases is variable, then the universe may not be lawful. Contrast this with the Christian conception of God as stated by the early French scientific genius Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who justified his search for natural “laws” on grounds that such laws must exist because God is perfect and therefore “acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible,” except for the rare occurrence of miracles.

Whenever the subject of Islamic science and learning is raised, most historians emphasize that throughout the centuries when Christian Europe knew virtually nothing of Greek learning, that learning was alive and deeply appreciated in Islam. That is certainly true. It is even true that some classical manuscripts reached Christian Europe through Islam, especially as Christian and Muslim intellectuals had contact in Spain.

But it is also true that possession of all of this ” enlightenment” did not prompt much intellectual progress within Islam, let alone eventuate in Islamic science. Instead, as the devout Muslim historian Caesar E. Farah explained:

‘The early Muslim thinkers took up philosophy where the Greeks left off… Thus in Aristotle Muslim thinkers found the great guide; to them he became the first teacher.”

Having accepted this a priori, Muslim philosophy as it evolved in subsequent centuries merely chose to continue in this vein and to enlarge Aristotle rather than to innovate. It chose the course of eclecticism, seeking to assimilate rather than to generate, with a conscious striving to adapt the results of Greek thinking to Muslim philosophical conceptions, but with much greater comprehensiveness than was achieved by early Christian dogmatics.

The result was to freeze Islamic learning and stifle all possibility of the rise of an Islamic science, and for the same reasons that Greek learning stagnated of itself: fundamental assumptions antithetical to science. It is very significant that the Rasa’il, the great encyclopedia of knowledge produced by early Muslim scholars, fully embraced the Greek conception of the world as a huge, conscious living organism having both intellect and soul. Indeed, according to Jaki, the ‘Muslim notion of the Creator was not adequately rational to inspire an effective distaste for various types of pantheistic, cyclic, animistic, and magical world pictures which freely made their way into the Rasa’il.’

Nor were outlooks more conducive to science achieved by Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes (1126-1198) and his followers, despite their efforts to exclude all Muslim theology from their work in direct conflict with those who sustained the Rasa’il. Instead, Averroes and his followers became intransigent and doctrinaire Aristotelians-proclaiming that his physics was complete and infallible, and if an observation were inconsistent with one of Aristotle’s views, the observation was certainly incorrect or an illusion.

As a result of all this, Islamic scholars achieved significant progress only in terms of specific knowledge, such as certain aspects of astronomy and medicine, that did not necessitate any general theoretical basis. And, as time passed, even this sort of progress ceased.

Clearly, then, and contrary to the received wisdom, the ‘recovery’ of Greek learning did not put Europe back on the track to science. Judging from the impact of this learning on the Greeks, the Romans, and the Muslims, it would seem to have been vital that Greek learning was not generally available until after Christian scholars had established an independent intellectual base of their own. Consequently, when they first encountered the works of Aristotle, Plato, and the rest, medieval scholars were willing and able to dispute them!

I surely do not mean to minimize the impact of Greek learning on European intellectual life. It had an enormous influence, not only on Scholastic thought, but on many subsequent generations. However, the most antiscientific elements of Greek thought were withstood or, at worst, sequestered in the humanities while the sciences marched on.

Islamic diversity is not the result of unusual theological tolerance. Rather, the prevailing view in nearly every religious Islamic faction has been that all the rest are sinfully wrong. As Ibn Qudama (1154-1233) explained, ‘There is nothing outside of Paradise but hell-fire; there is nothing outside of the truth but error; and there is nothing outside of the Sunna but heretical innovation…’

Islamic pluralism has stemmed from the unusually close ties between religion and the state. That is, state control has not given one faction the means to suppress the others; instead, the exigencies of governance have usually imposed the need for compromise and political coalition building upon religious factions. Thus although from time to time one Islamic faction has been able to suppress all of the others within a specific political domain, more typically the need for toleration has been imposed by unyielding diversity.”
islamic astronomer Al-batani, c. 900

Accomplished Arabs like al-Battani (Al-batani, c. 900), al-Farghani (Alfraganus, c. 860), al-Bit:ru¯j¯ı (Alpetragius, c. 1180), Alkwarizmi (c. 830), and Alhazen (c. 1000) were known to medieval Christian scholars and scientists through Latin translations of some of their writings by Archbishop Raymond at Toledo’s Muslim-Spanish school of translators in the first half of the twelfth century. Toledo eventually fell to Alfonso VI, King of Castile in 1085 when Christian forces captured its magnificent libraries intact and word soon spread about the fabulous riches contained therein. Europeans had been well aware that they had lost much of the learning of the ancient world after the fall of Rome and they were keen to reacquire it. Islam itself contained the notable “european” (i.e.: Greco-roman) accomplishments but was still somehow kept from progressing scientifically in the manner which European scientists progressed under the worldview of Christianity in Europe.

And I think it’s important to understand that Alhazen was rebelling against the authoritative religious and political powers in the Islamic world in not relying upon Islamic authority in scientific conclusions but rather believing in a direct study of nature. In fact, he was placed under house arrest for it. Alhazen’s ‘against the grain’ approach got him in trouble and despite his personal genius and accomplishments, the Islamic worldview controlling the Arab world prevented his approach from becoming the standard that it became in the Christianized West even as the Islamic world partially but grudgingly loosened up a bit with respect to his argument.

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