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!

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5 comments

  1. But whatever “genre” were always thrown back on the ancient Text Itself! And will the Bible or Holy Scripture ‘with its ancient origins and multiple scribes maintain its relevancy in the postmodern world?’ Will the creation story continue to be “revelation” from God? Or just “sources” of scholastic information of men and man?

  2. Hey Chris,

    For another source of interesting discussion on this, check out Torrance. I’m currently listening to some lectures he gave back in 1980 – I think they are the ones I downloaded here: http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2007/02/t-f-torrance-audio-lectures-1.html.

    In the first couple of lectures he makes the argument that science (and epistemology generally) went in the completely wrong direction because of the influence of the Aristotelian framework. His claim is that its not until the late 19th century (Plank then Einstein) that we accidentally recover enough of the Judeo-Christian framework to make science true “science.” Before that the whole world was doing a kind of counterfeit. He doesn’t explicitly apply this to historical science in the Islamic world. But it is easy to see an extrapolation relevant to what you are talking about when you listen to his argument about Aristotle and the influence of classical cosmology. Interestingly (and counter-intuitively for me, I admit), he seems to be asserting that it was science that rescued theology by finally ridding Aristotle from Western epistemology.

    I’m not sure I’m describing a very complicated argument particularly well, and I’m not even sure I’ve understood him correctly at points. But it is worth a listen if you want to think through the progress of science and the influence of Greek thought.

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