Scholars always have to come up with some new thing, and currently in vogue is the alleged contribution of Islam to modern science. This myth is based on a historical prejudice against the western Middle Ages (a very old term, originally coined as a term of deprecation) and the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, in order to introduce such terms as Renaissance (from the moribund or dead) and Enlightenment (from the benighted and dark). The use of such value-laden terms is part of the propaganda, or ‘narrative’, as the Postmodernists would have it, but having written off the period from AD 500 to 1500 as one of profound darkness and ignorance, it is embarrassing and inconvenient for historians to find increasing evidence that there were significant scientific and technological advances in Christendom during this period. For those who wish to keep up the pretence of the narrative, it has become necessary to invent an external agent as the source of learning, and as Islam arose during this period it is easiest and most convenient to hitch the wagon to that.
That, however, is a perversion of history. It is true that there was development of astronomy, medicine, mathematics and chemistry in the so-called Golden Age of Islam (another loaded descriptor); the question is, what had these to do with Islam, and what did Islam do with such disciplines? The answer is that they had practically nothing to do with Islam, and Islam ultimately destroyed them. The rise and fall of ‘Islamic science’ is closely mirrored by the rise of ‘atheistic science’ in our own day. Atheistic materialism has done a smash-and-grab raid on everything nurtured on Christian foundations, and claims to be the only ‘real’ science, yet is in the process of destroying science, as did Islam. Neither atheism nor Islam have a satisfactory philosophical basis for science, and they develop authority structures against ‘heterodox’ thinkers and practitioners. How Islam destroyed science will be dealt with in a future post.
The illiterate marauding hordes that emerged from Arabia with the new faith certainly had no science to speak of, nor any consistent philosophy. They and their converts fell upon the Byzantine and Persian empires, who had been slugging it out with each other for centuries, and were thereby in an exhausted and weakened state. The Byzantines – the Roman Empire (Continuing) – had preserved all the classical Greek manuscripts from the ancient world, and had continually developed technology. The Persians were a very ancient civilization, masters in astronomy, with plenty of their own technology, and with connections to Chinese and Indian civilizations. For the first time since Alexander the Great, whose success was really just a flash in the pan, the Graeco-Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Indian and Chinese worlds had a common connection. It is hardly surprising that there was cross-pollination of ideas and arts; after all, the Islamic religion itself was an eclectic blend of religious ideas circulating at that time.
However, Islamic accounts of their Golden Age discoveries descend into pure farce: many of the ‘new discoveries’ were simply Arabs finding out of what more advanced civilizations had known long before they had. How humiliating! So a bit of revisionist history was called for. Thus, we learn that Abu l-Hasan (c.789-857) ‘invented’ shaving for men, plucking of hair for women, as well as “hairstyles leaving the neck, ears and eyebrows free”. When we also read claims that Islam invented soft drinks and the trash can, then the alarm bells really ought to be ringing. In his Secretum secretorum (Latinized title), Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (fl. AD 900) claims the following metals and metalworking tools were discovered and invented by himself and his Muslim predecessors Calid, Geber, al-Tamimi and al-Kindi: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, the furnace, bellows, shears, crucible, tongs, and hammer, which were known for well over 2000 years before Islam was invented, and which are recorded in the Bible, had he bothered to consult it. Such ignorant nonsense is still being trotted out today by Islamic propagandists to impress the faithful.
We must take issue with lazy historians who are suckers for such propaganda. A drawing of a device, or a process described in Arabic, which has not been found in earlier writings, does not provide evidence that the devices and processes were not in use beforehand. On the contrary, a compendium of such things is screaming out that these were known before and have simply been collected and recorded. In many ancient societies technology was a closely-guarded secret, and certainly never to be written down; processes in chemistry and metallurgy were trade secrets kept within families and communicated by oral tradition to maintain monopolies. But for Islam there was (and remains) a political and propagandist reason for claiming new inventions – demonstrating the superiority of the new faith. It was the iron fist in the velvet glove: to woo other potentates to the new faith by impressing them with the glories of Islam. If that didn’t work, there was always the edge of the sword. Having subjugated peoples, the Arabs set about translating ancient Greek, Pahlavi and Sanskrit texts into Arabic, making records of the technologies, science, mathematics and arts that they encountered, and bringing Indian and Chinese sages to Baghdad to draw on their knowledge. Unsurprisingly, over the centuries Islamic society made improvements upon what went before, as did every culture, especially those suited to their own needs. Finding and translating texts on medicine was especially encouraged by the caliphs to extend their lives; and astronomy and mathematics were promoted in order to determine the direction of Mecca throughout the lands.