Shining light upon light
Figure 1: Front covers of two recently published books on the scientific legacy of the Islamic tradition and its impact on modern science: Aladdin's Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Knopf, 2009) and Science and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood (Icon Books, 2009).
Note of the editor
This article is based on Yasmin Khan "Shining light upon light" published in Nature, vol. 458, 12 March 2009, pp. 149-150; doi:10.1038/458149a. See the article online at the website of Nature: Full Text and PDF version. The article is a review of Aladdin's Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Alfred Knopf, 2009) and Science and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood (Icon Books, 2009). We publish an extract from the original article (as allowed by Nature graciously), with slight editorial changes, and add further materials and resources. We thank Yasmin Khan and the editorial board of Nature for allowing partial republishing.
It has been widely accepted that the Islamic civilization had merely a bridging role in preserving the wealth of inherited ancient Greek knowledge ready for future consumption by the West. This pervasive belief, now known to be a damaging distortion of history, is explored in two new books. In Aladdin's Lamp, John Freely writes a captivating account of the transfer of scientific ideas between these civilizations.
Figure 2: Ottoman astronomers at work around Taqī al-Dīn at the Istanbul Observatory. Source: Istanbul University Library, F 1404, fol. 57a.
Interlacing historical events with finesse, his story has a nostalgic quality that makes for escapism but falls short of convincing. At first glance, we assume that Freely will offer us an exposé of the central part the Islamic world played in the pursuit of science, and the key contributions it made. Instead, it quickly transpires that Freely's handling of Islamic discoveries could be construed as damning with faint praise in comparison with his treatment of Greek knowledge.
Freely introduces his book by declaring that "Modern Science traces its origins back to ancient Greece", arousing suspicion that his motive is to venerate the ancient Greeks as the progenitors of scientific ideas, and to suggest that later civilizations should be viewed as being in their shadow. By the end of the book it becomes apparent that this suspicion is founded. Yet Freely's thesis raises the question of whether the emergence of modern science, as practised today, really was spearheaded by the ancient Greeks.
Figure 3: Nasir al-Din al-Tusi pictured at his writing desk at Maragha observatory that he founded in 1259. © The British Library (Source).
Figure 4: Ottoman astronomers studying the moon and the stars in a miniature dating from the 17th century held in a manuscript owned by Istanbul University Library. (Source).
Old-school historians were adamant that the scientific revolution emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the original sources of classical Greek thinking were ‘rediscovered' by Europe. Others, such as Ehsan Masood, beg to differ.
In Science and Islam — the accompanying book to a BBC television and radio series that focuses on science in the Muslim world — he shows that the information flowed in two directions. Through a translation movement that began in the early 9th century, the Islamic world built extensively on Greek ideas, as well as on knowledge from other civilizations, to develop new theories. A golden age for the Islamic civilization, this prolific period spanned more than 800 years. Scientific, technological and engineering endeavour was cultivated to such an extent that it attracted interest in Europe, which was supposedly languishing in the Dark Ages.
Figure 5: 3D Construction of the Third Water Raising Device.
Both books are opportune and contribute to the long-overdue popularization of the multicultural history of science. No doubt a flurry of similar books will shortly appear, especially given the current political climate coupled with the underpinning role that science has in modern society and the possibilities for development it offers in reviving the Middle East. Yet what is still needed is an u
by: FSTC Limited
, Fri 03 April, 2009