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?