Turning Away From Science

When I was in England I interviewed Denis Alexander, head of the Faraday Institute in Cambridge—an organization devoted to faith-science issues. Denis is a v biochemist who spent many years teaching in Turkey and Lebanon.

I knew he had an interest in Islam, so I asked him one of my pet questions: why did the Islamic world turn its back on science? Through much of the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars led the world in science and mathematics. But sometime around 1200 A.D. Muslims began to neglect science, or even repudiate it. Undoubtedly that has contributed greatly to the lack of economic and social development.

Denis had recently returned from a conference on that very subject. He said the consensus was that there is no consensus. Many possible causes are mentioned—though nobody questions that the Islamic world turned away.

One possibility, Denis said, and one he apparently thinks has merit, is a lack of institutional continuity. Throughout the Middle Ages an observatory or other place of learning might be set up by a local ruler. But when he died or lost power, the commitment to learning dried up—and so did the observatory. Its library neglected, its talent dispersed, it left hardly a memory. The Islamic world had nothing like the European universities to provide a stable environment for accumulating skills and knowledge.

As a child of the Sixties, I don’t much value institutional longevity. Denis started me wondering: what other quests are sustained by lasting institutions?

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3 Responses to “Turning Away From Science”

  1. Dean Anderson Says:

    Well, there is this institution called the Church with the continued quest of the world’s redemption. And within the church, prior to universities, monasteries preserved knowledge.
    That is an interesting idea about the role of universities.

  2. David Graham Says:

    My first thought was also, “the church.” The question of why Islam turned its back on science is a good one: it sounds like it resists a simplistic answer. I wish this were more widely discussed – by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike…

    I wonder if the Islamic insularity is similar to the turning inward and the shutting off of contact with the outside world that was seen in Japan and China from the Renaissance until the 19th and 20th century? Or like what can be seen in fundamentalist Christian or fundamentalist Mormon congregations even today?

  3. David Murray Says:

    Here’s an article that address your very question: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/why-the-arabic-world-turned-away-from-science.

    And yes, lack of institutional continuity is a big part of the answer, but not the only one. Another key part was the “closing of the gates of ijtihad”–an explicit rejection of the use of reason in explaining the Koran and hadith.

    Most of the positive receptions of reason in theology in Islam have come under Shiite auspices, or under regimes that would be considered heretical by Wahhabis.

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