Day: July 12, 2010

science, Christianity and … Islam?

various medieval Islamic figures and scholars

I’ve been trying to get behind the popular account of the rise of modern science — in which science is said either to have emerged as it shook off the dogmatic slumber of faith or to be fundamentally indebted to the recovery of explicitly Christian beliefs (especially belief in the world as God’s creation).

Colin Gunton’s Triune Creator has been massively helpful. Especially in underscoring the story’s many complexities. But it’s been The Copernican Revolution, Thomas Kuhn’s landmark intellectual history of astronomy, that I’ve found most compelling.

Kuhn’s discussion of the role of Islam has particularly piqued my curiosity. In Chapter 4, Kuhn charts the changing way the Aristotelian framework was inherited over the course of thirteen centuries. And he makes the following points about Islam:

  • The Islamic invasion of Mediterranean in the seventh century contributed to the decline (or hibernation) of Western learning that marked the ‘Dark Ages’. It did so by shifting Europe’s intellectual centre of gravity northward. And, crucially, it resulted in many important documents and manuscripts being ‘lost’ to the West.
  • However, the very same geopolitical shifts resulted in the new Islam empire appropriating the intellectual heritage of the West. This allowed for the preservation and proliferation — through translation and commentary — of ancient texts and learning, as well as providing invaluable stimulus to Arabic scholars in making significant scientific advances all of their own.
  • The transmission of the deposit of ancient learning from medieval Islamic to European scholars began (in the late Middle Ages) affected its form. Generations of debate were telescoped in their reception into one, more or less coherent body of timeless wisdom. Modern science developed within this context — and partly in reaction to its newly visible tensions and fissures.

How’s that for complicating the story!