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Islam’s long siesta

The perception of Islamic science, perhaps properly called natural philosophy, has been shaped by Bernard Lewis and his strong programme of senescence instead of renaissance. The development of scientific knowledge follows a pre-ordained path to scientific revolution and those cultures that failed to ignite need to be explained. Is not exceptionalism the oddity? A review in the Times Literary Supplement adds to our understanding:

After all, the scientific and industrial revolutions did not occur anywhere in the world except in Europe, and therefore one needs to explain the peculiarity of European history, rather than adduce some kind of Islamic brake or blinker.

We know that Islamic philosophers acted as a conduit for preserving part of antiquity’s heritage and transmitting mathematics and other ideas from India and the Orient to Europe. Some of this work was achieved by non-Islamic philosophers working within the Caliphate or Moorish kingdoms. There is evidence of scientific innovation up to the late Middle Ages and one can see equivalents to natural theology; one of the drivers of the Scientific Revolution in Europe:

He [Muzaffar Iqbal] points out that the Arab scientific movement in the eighth century pre-existed the translation movement of the ninth and tenth centuries. He draws attention to a curious genre of literature that developed later, called shukuk, which was devoted to casting doubt on the findings of the Greeks, and he has no difficulty in adducing instances of Muslim scientists improving on, empirically testing or refuting Greek ideas.

But Iqbal is successful in arguing that the “Quran itself lays out a well-defined and comprehensive concept of the natural world, and this played a foundational role in the making of the scientific tradition in Islamic civilization”. Faith impelled rather than impeded the Islamic scientist. The Koran commands man to study Allah’s creation. The eleventh-century cosmologist al-Biruni wrote: “Sight was made the medium so that [man] traces among the living things the signs and wisdom, and turns from the created things to the Creator”. At a more practical level, astronomy and mathematics were studied and further developed to assist in such matters as the orientation of mosques, the determination of prayer times and the division of inheritances according to Islamic law.

Islamic science appears to have a developed a heliocentric system before Copernicus and continued its mathematical traditions up till the fifteenth century. We should debate the causes of the decline in these traditions during the Middle Ages and their replacement by religious debates. Robert Irwin, the author of the review and Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement provides his own big picture around complacent empires, religious education and a lack of resources that could kickstart an industrial revolution.

Only part of this big picture rings true.

I [Irwin] would suggest that the spread of the madrasa, or religious teaching college, throughout the Middle East in the central and late Middle Ages led to a certain narrowing of intellectual horizons. While scientists continued to do research and publish, they do not seem to have founded scientific societies of the sort that proliferated in Western Europe in the seventeenth century.

The Ottoman Empire, as a strong state, did not allow the flourishing of a civil society as we see in Europe during the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. Printing presses were effectively banned. In Europe, scientific societies could publish journals off printing presses and contribute to an increasingly literate population, supplemented by the Republic of Letters. There are no equivalents in the Middle East, as permanent institutions of polymaths would be viewed as dangerous innovators; perhaps similar to the attitude that Oxford took to Locke.

Through comparison, we can understand some of the general causes of Islam’s path, but greater detail is required to comprehend whether we see a continuation of a long-term preference for religious debate to natural theology in current Middle Eastern attitudes to science. Perhaps we over-emphasise religious factors at the expense of poor education, parasitical elites and populations raised on Nasserite nightmares rather than capitalist dreams.

39 comments to Islam’s long siesta

  • R C Dean

    Jared Diamond posits that a combination of competition between societies and communication across them is necessary for sustained scientific momentum.
    The communication is necessary for ideas to spread and be tested. The competition is necessary to keep the momentum going.

    This state of affairs certainly prevailed in Europe for centuries on end.

    The Ottoman Empire certainly doesn’t seem to have had the internal competition that Europe had. I couldn’t say whether they were so secure against external competitors that they didn’t need a vigorous scientific culture of their own to stay viable.

  • I am replete

    There was, in those days (and now….?) the Muslim World and the Dhimmitude. It was the Dhimmis who created and studied the so called Muslim science, since scholars restricted Muslims to study of the Book.
    It was by no means unknown for a Dhimmi to adopt, for survival reasons, an Arabic-sounding name.
    Perhaps some work should be done on the origins of the Muslim scientists mentioned.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    An alternate explanation via the Assyrians.

    Cheers

  • Nick M

    Robert Spencer has this to say.

    Do click over. It’s pretty much at the top and there isn’t a huge amount though obviously to much to quote at lenght here. I heartily recommend Spencer’s Qu’ran blog in general. Great stuff.

    Note the reference the 12th Century there. They were ossifying then and after the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 it was GAME OVER.

    750 years of complete non-achievement. And I thought I was lazy.

    PS. RCD & IAR make good points too.

  • Nick M

    JMH thanks for the link!

  • William H. Stoddard

    My understanding, admittedly not based on deep research, was that it was the result of an ideological/theological struggle within Islam itself. The Mutazilites held that reason and the Quran could not conflict, and that if they seemed to, it was because you had misunderstood the Quran and needed to reconsider your interpretation of it. They lost out to the Sunni and the Shi’ites during the later Middle Ages (to use a Western historical term), both of whom valued faith and doctrine over inquiry. In short, the start of a kind of Muslim Enlightenment got suppressed by antirationalist factions within Islam.

  • nick g.

    The comment about a complacent empire also seems true. When we look at the Chinese empire, and ask why they didn’t evolve the scientific method, we see that the mandarins liked things as they were, and didn’t like change. Even when an Emperor sent out ships to explore the world, the bureaucracy eventually stifled these adventurous ideas, and things returned to the comfort zone they liked. So imperial complacency has a strong role in history.

  • Gabriel

    The last sentence is important. Lots of people muse miserably that arab-nationalism is being replaced by Islam, but arab-nationalism itself is a thoroughly poisonous ideology (not that it had to be, just that it was and is)*. It also happens to be an empty, intellectually unsatisfying ideology that can boast no thinkers or writers on a par with those of the Islamic canon. If anything the problem we currently face is not that arab-nationalism is dying, but that it is being re-inforced by Islam and hence its fundamental wickedness is given a power that its banal maxims can not sustain on their own. The most obvious example is the Janjaweed, but it is happening everywhere.

    *All ‘nations’ are, of course, artificial constructs (like kettles) and this is no less so for the ‘arab’ nation than any other. The arabs of, say, Sudan and Lebanon are not linked by race (they are not the same race for a start), but by shared adherence to a national identity. Now, some national identities are basically good, some middling and some bad. Unfortunately for the arabs their one is crap. Unfortunately for us too.

  • CountingCats

    Islam’s long siesta

    The problem is, Islam is still asleep. Or at least, the core of it is.

    Malaysia and Indonesia look to be becoming rational first world states in the near future, but North West Africa to Pakistan? Nah.

    Apart from that old murdering c**t Arafat winning a Nobel Peace Prize, which doesn’t count anyway, how many muslim middle eastern Nobel Laureates can anyone name?

    More books are published in Greek every year than are published in Arabic. More books are translated into Spanish every year than have been translated into Arabic in the last thousand years. Although, what is Arabic?

    No one speaks literary Arabic at all. And, as I understand it, the various dialects are more akin to languages, with Moroccan and Syrian being as mutually intelligible as English and Dutch.

  • Lee Kelly

    Malaysia and Indonesia look to be becoming rational first world states in the near future.

    Really? From what I can tell, they seem to be going the other way, and the institution of dhimmitude is being slowly implemented. I sincerely hope that I am misinformed and ignorant.

  • Kevyn Bodman

    By chance I’ve been watching the old BBC series The Ascent of Man and this morning saw the one that ends with the death of Galileo. The Catholic Church won that round in the fight between religion and rational enquiry, but clearly lost the subsequent rounds.
    But Islam has been more successful in keeping its ideas, and its mode of thinking that constrains the development of ideas, in the dominant position in their societies.
    If that doesn’t change the Islamic world will never match the West.
    Many of them are not unhappy about that.

  • LK: Yes, from what I have been reading about those states they seem to be drifting back into Islamic repression. It is interesting to note that at least one of them has home-grown Muslim terrorists in their midst.

    A piece on Indonesia.

  • The Catholic Church won that round in the fight between religion and rational enquiry, but clearly lost the subsequent rounds.

    But unlike Islam, the Catholic Church was frequently not on the wrong side of the issue. Philosophically Catholic doctrines, such as that of free will, have contributed enormously to the tradition of rationality that more or less won out in the west. Likewise Aquinas’ attempts to justify faith through logic may have a few problems but the mere fact they tried speaks volumes for the difference between the two religions.

    Although I think the time is long past when religion has anything significant to contribute (in any positive sense) to the development of modern civilisation, we could not be where we are now without Christian thought and in particular, aspects of Catholic thought.

  • renminbi

    Nick M: Thanks for the link to Spencer-this gets to the problem on the most strategic or basic level.The problem isn’t caused by a bunch of extremists.The problem is the religion itself and its premise that Allah is not bound by anything. I had seen the nastiness of this thing, but I never realized where it came from.

  • George Tobin

    Islamic philosophy and science peaked because they could not reconcile science and religion. Their tenured intellectuals in the 11th c. (eg. Avicenna) tended to be gnostics who saw intellect as the true path and religion as an alternate, metaphoric path to truth for morons.

    Arabs then and now also feared cultural diversity, always saw their caliphs as turning into impure Greco-Romans and saw a danger in science and free inquiry. Retreat from science and open discourse was inevitable.

    The medieval Europeans (contrary to modern secular revisionism) got it right with Aquinas’ doctrine of the Unity of Truth: nothing that is true contradicts anything else that is true.

    The habit of thought and cultural practice that arises from that is this: if religious and scientific truths appear to conflict, first take a look at your own understanding of each rather than simply attack one side. It is no accident that science took firmer root in Christian Europe than in the Islamic world.

    Arab Muslims still don’t get it. After a thousand years that particular failure is rather tiresome.

  • Petronius

    It strikes me that Aristotle’s main insight was not his armchair science, but rather that a single set of rules applied to all matter. For him it was the action of air, earth, fire, and water, and much of science was explaining how these elements interacted. We now see that these four are incorrect. However, we do agree that the same physical laws that govern planets and galaxies also govern atoms and molecules, plants, animals and DNA. Eventually Western science got it sorted out, with a bit of help from Aquinas.

    Islamic philosophy seems to have rejected this idea. The concept that God plays by His own rules was permitted by Christian philosophers, but conservative Islamic clerics seem to have found this an affront to Allah. Without this insight, they lost so much momentum they have never caught up.

  • William H. Stoddard

    But unlike Islam, the Catholic Church was frequently not on the wrong side of the issue. . . .

    Although I think the time is long past when religion has anything significant to contribute (in any positive sense) to the development of modern civilisation, we could not be where we are now without Christian thought and in particular, aspects of Catholic thought.

    In particular, I’ve read of an important debate at Paris, where Thomas Aquinas maintained that God governed the material universe by proclaiming laws for it, and things then happened in accord with those laws, in contrast with his opponents, who said that any concept of natural law was blasphemy against divine omniscience, and that all we could say was “the sun rose this morning because God willed it to rise.” Aquinas won. This gave official theological support to the belief that the universe was knowable. The opposite belief won out in medieval Islam and is still dominant in Muslim thought.

    The medieval Europeans (contrary to modern secular revisionism) got it right with Aquinas’ doctrine of the Unity of Truth: nothing that is true contradicts anything else that is true.

    On this one, the medieval Muslim Mutazilites agreed with Aquinas, and said that if there appeared to be a conflict between the Quran and reason, the Quran must have been misread or misinterpreted. They lost out to the Sunnites. I often think of this when reading about current American debates over Darwinism. . . .

  • David B. Wildgoose

    The tired old story that the Islamic States helped preserve Greek thought is just that – a story. It would be far more accurate to point out that the expansionist Ottoman Empire destroyed the civilisation that was the genesis of that thought but didn’t succeed in completely destroying all its learning, just a sizeable part.

    As for the Scientific Revolution, I highly recommend David Landes’ book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”. England (inc. Wales) was extremely precocious at industrial development, followed by the Netherlands. Outside of Europe only Japan was able to replicate this feat.

  • What also happened in the last half of the 15th century?

    The fall of Byzantium!

    Coincidence? I think not.

  • Gabriel

    In particular, I’ve read of an important debate at Paris, where Thomas Aquinas maintained that God governed the material universe by proclaiming laws for it, and things then happened in accord with those laws, in contrast with his opponents, who said that any concept of natural law was blasphemy against divine omniscience, and that all we could say was “the sun rose this morning because God willed it to rise.” Aquinas won.

    As Wittgenstein has demonstrated, not only was Aquinas’ argument false, it was gibberish.

    Catholic rationalism was perhaps the prime source of all the progressive rationalist delusions of the last 200 years and the 100s of millions of people who have died so Reason can triumph over humanity. Protestant Britain and its anti-rationalist common law has been the harbour for freedom and prosperity while Europe has gone from one disaster to another.

    It strikes me that Aristotle’s main insight was not his armchair science, but rather that a single set of rules applied to all matter

    Umm, Aristotle did not believe this, at least not in the sublunary world.

  • Gabriel

    And btw., as everyone knows, the scientific revolution happened when and precisely because people finally got tired of the preposterous pile of crap that was medieval scholastic thought.

  • Ivan

    Gabriel:

    Catholic rationalism was perhaps the prime source of all the progressive rationalist delusions of the last 200 years and the 100s of millions of people who have died so Reason can triumph over humanity.

    I strongly disagree, even though I am light years from being a practicing or believing Catholic.

    The historical intellectual roots of modern totalitarianism are manifold, and some of them doubtlessly reach into certain strains of Catholic thought, but to present any historical mainstream Catholic doctrine as the “prime source” of any particular totalitarian thought is absurd. Normally I highly appreciate your comments on this blog, even when I disagree with them, but the above claim is at a level suitable only for propaganda pamphlets of the most naive and fanatical Protestant sects.

    In fact, one would be much more justified to seek Protestant roots for the basic totalitarian idea — the idea that corollaries of an abstract ideology can be a sufficient reason to attack and suppress the informal social customs and institutions based on long-standing traditions, even when such attacks have no rational basis. After all, it was the 16th and 17ht century leaders of the Reformation who, lead by their personal interpretations of the Bible, sought to violently eradicate not only whatever they saw as contemporary heresy, but even the most innocent folk customs and ways of having fun that they saw as contrary to their gloomy puritan visions. Just remember Calvin’s government in Geneva that ran secret police departments with the goal of, among other things, enforcing the prohibition of dancing, or Cromwell’s prohibition of Christmas celebrations!

    Protestant Britain and its anti-rationalist common law has been the harbour for freedom and prosperity while Europe has gone from one disaster to another.

    Even if you see it as “anti-rationalist” (which I don’t), the common law was hardly a British peculiarity several centuries ago. Even we in the Hungarian-Croatian Kingdom had something very similar. The difference is that in the 18th century, local common law systems across Europe were swept away by the rising tide of absolute monarchies and the emergence of the Napoleonic states, all of which introduced strict systems of statutory law. England managed to get away from this by sheer historical accident, thanks mainly to its ideal geographical fringe position — unlike much more staunchly Protestant states like, say, Prussia or Sweden.

    From the 16th to the 18th century, Reformation led Britain into a series of religiously motivated wars and persecutions. In the 16th century, it was started and pushed by people who were the closest thing to absolute monarchs that England ever had, and it was a vehicle of strengthening and expanding the royal authority. As for the later champions of English Protestantism, I certainly don’t see Cromwell as a bringer of freedom and prosperity in any reasonable way, and the measures that the post-Stewart kings had to undertake to crush Jacobitism, especially in Scotland, could hardly be seen as bringing freedom and prosperity either. And as for the post-1745 events, I don’t see any great role that Protestantism has played in any positive developments in Britain. If anything, just about anywhere in Europe, Protestants were certainly pushing harder than Catholics for active enforcement of various illiberal laws and iron obedience to the state in the 18th and 19th centuries (Prussia didn’t get its reputation for no reason!).

  • Ivan

    Gabriel:

    And btw., as everyone knows, the scientific revolution happened when and precisely because people finally got tired of the preposterous pile of crap that was medieval scholastic thought.

    And jumped onto the bandwagon of alchemy, astrology, obscurantist mysticism, conspiracy theories about Rosicrucians and the like, and similar stuff that makes the tinfoil hat crowd of today look quite respectable in comparison. :-) Luckily, some of the smarter folks who were deeply into this whole quackery happened to dedicate some of their time to what could be called valid science by today’s standards, like e.g. Kepler, Brahe, or Newton (and it’s not like they were able to tell it apart from the rest). Eventually, the mumbo-jumbo stuff fell out of fashion in intellectual circles by the early to mid-18th century, but it’s pretty naive to think that the general intellectual climate became more rational and scientific on average in the period that is now considered as the Scientific Revolution. For each page of more or less valid science penned in that period, hundreds were published dealing with mumbo-jumbo — and here I’m talking only about stuff written (and generally taken seriously) by respectable people.

    Intellectual history of Europe is much more complicated than any simplistic and cartoonish accounts from history textbooks and works of political or religious propaganda. :-)

  • veryretired

    I’m with Ivan, pretty much, in the preceeding side argument, but I think one of his points needs to be highlighted.

    The technical/material/scientific advances in the west were not the result of everyone suddenly becoming rational. I would suggest, in fact, that the people are every bit as irrational in many ways as any other.

    What has happened is that the sheer power of creative rationality to solve complex and dangerous problems is so overwhelmingly and practically apparent that other, less rational, approaches have faded back a bit.

    Thus, vaccines and antibiotics are so stunningly and obviously successful in preventing and alleviating diseases that the older, irrational alternatives simply can’t generate the widespread allegience that they used to have.

    Certainly, there are any number of spiritualistic and irrational methods which come into and go out of fashion as regards disease, and many other areas of life, and there are any number of practitioners of “ancient” skills like feng shue or reading auras or whatever, who claim to have mystical powers.

    But when the average person’s loved one is ill, or injured, the reaction is to call a trained surgeon to set the broken bones, or a scientifically trained doctor to prescribe modern medicines, not the local aromatherapist to make nice smells while gangrene sets in or heart failure slowly kills one’s beloved.

    I just posted at Chicagoboyz in a related discussion about something close to this point. Suffice it to say, it is not that everybody became paragons of rationality, but that rational approachs yielded such enormous dividends that ordinary people were convinced that there was something important happening there that needed to be encouraged and protected.

    Thus, the creative energies of many men and women were released from the relentless oppression of those for whom any new answer is suspect, and thus taboo and forbidden, and the modern technical world culture, with all its problems and perils, as well as advantages, is the result.

    Islam has not allowed these flowers to bloom, along with any number of other thoughts and ideas it has repressed. When irrationality reigns supreme, violence and death are the only arbiters left, and the truly creative mind flees to warmer climes.

    So it has been, and so it will be.

  • Gabriel

    I strongly disagree, even though I am light years from being a practicing or believing Catholic.

    The historical intellectual roots of modern totalitarianism are manifold, and some of them doubtlessly reach into certain strains of Catholic thought, but to present any historical mainstream Catholic doctrine as the “prime source” of any particular totalitarian thought is absurd. Normally I highly appreciate your comments on this blog, even when I disagree with them, but the above claim is at a level suitable only for propaganda pamphlets of the most naive and fanatical Protestant sects.

    Well when you read as many of them as I do, I guess it kind of rubs off. Anyway, I was not making the case that Catholic-Rationalism produced totalitarianism, but modern rationalism, which, though it overlaps, is hardly the same thing.

    In fact, one would be much more justified to seek Protestant roots for the basic totalitarian idea — the idea that corollaries of an abstract ideology can be a sufficient reason to attack and suppress the informal social customs and institutions based on long-standing traditions, even when such attacks have no rational basis. After all, it was the 16th and 17ht century leaders of the Reformation who, lead by their personal interpretations of the Bible, sought to violently eradicate not only whatever they saw as contemporary heresy, but even the most innocent folk customs and ways of having fun that they saw as contrary to their gloomy puritan visions. Just remember Calvin’s government in Geneva that ran secret police departments with the goal of, among other things, enforcing the prohibition of dancing, or Cromwell’s prohibition of Christmas celebrations.

    Calvin had precisely zip in the way of police authority in Geneva, he wasn’t even a citizen and the repressive atmosphere of Geneva had a great deal in common with most Republican city-states during their “virtuous” heyday before they get too rich and slothful.
    Anyway, it was not my intention to defend puritanism, so I shall not be goaded into it.

    Even if you see it as “anti-rationalist” (which I don’t), the common law was hardly a British peculiarity several centuries ago. Even we in the Hungarian-Croatian Kingdom had something very similar. The difference is that in the 18th century, local common law systems across Europe were swept away by the rising tide of absolute monarchies and the emergence of the Napoleonic states, all of which introduced strict systems of statutory law. England managed to get away from this by sheer historical accident, thanks mainly to its ideal geographical fringe position — unlike much more staunchly Protestant states like, say, Prussia or Sweden.

    And these strict system of statutory law were based on what? The belief that legal systems should be rational and coherent systems produced by a controlling intelligence rather than a accumulation of accident and custom. And where did they get that idea?

    I am not here to defend Prods, but to attack Rationalism. Of course, one of the greatest intellectual tragedies of the 16th century was how scholastic thought gradually re-infected the reformed parts of Europe and Calvinist scholars started debating about pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian pre-destination and other concepts that Calvin was entirely uninterested in. (Calvin was primarily a theorist of humanity and I am constantly amazed in reading his writings by how much more profound his analysis is than the whole of Freud and Jung put together.) Luckily Britain managed to more or less escape the miseries of Bezan systematic theology.

    From the 16th to the 18th century, Reformation led Britain into a series of religiously motivated wars and persecutions. In the 16th century, it was started and pushed by people who were the closest thing to absolute monarchs that England ever had, and it was a vehicle of strengthening and expanding the royal authority.

    Maybe up until 1596 and then it wasn’t. In both cases it was for historically contingent reasons.

    As for the later champions of English Protestantism, I certainly don’t see Cromwell as a bringer of freedom and prosperity in any reasonable way,

    Well that’s a complicaed issue. Paul Marks has written very sensitively on him on this blog at various times.

    and the measures that the post-Stewart kings had to undertake to crush Jacobitism, especially in Scotland, could hardly be seen as bringing freedom and prosperity either.

    And yet both were certainly brought. When exactly do you think this happened?

    And as for the post-1745 events, I don’t see any great role that Protestantism has played in any positive developments in Britain. If anything, just about anywhere in Europe, Protestants were certainly pushing harder than Catholics for active enforcement of various illiberal laws and iron obedience to the state in the 18th and 19th centuries (Prussia didn’t get its reputation for no reason!).

    Nor did Spain.

    And jumped onto the bandwagon of alchemy, astrology, obscurantist mysticism, conspiracy theories about Rosicrucians and the like, and similar stuff that makes the tinfoil hat crowd of today look quite respectable in comparison. :-) Luckily, some of the smarter folks who were deeply into this whole quackery happened to dedicate some of their time to what could be called valid science by today’s standards, like e.g. Kepler, Brahe, or Newton (and it’s not like they were able to tell it apart from the rest). Eventually, the mumbo-jumbo stuff fell out of fashion in intellectual circles by the early to mid-18th century, but it’s pretty naive to think that the general intellectual climate became more rational and scientific on average in the period that is now considered as the Scientific Revolution. For each page of more or less valid science penned in that period, hundreds were published dealing with mumbo-jumbo — and here I’m talking only about stuff written (and generally taken seriously) by respectable people.

    You are completely right, but it doesn’t damage my point, which is simply that Medieval Rationalism did not lead to the scientific revolution and the problems of the Islamic world can not possibly be explained by the defeat of Avicennist ideas because they were also defeated in Europe.

    It is always good to be reasonable and it is usually good to be rational, but it is almost never good to be a partisan of Reason and may the good lord help you if you ever decide to become a Rationalist. The human mind is a wonderful thing, but it is also a very stupid thing and except for maths, where it’s easy to check, spinning mental cobwebs from one’s own mind usually results in you getting sticky. Likewise, as Paracelcus et al. were to learn, searching for truth in esoteric texts or mounds of neo-platonic gibberish won’t help you much either. Stick to the knotty facts and try to create plausible, falsifiable models with some predicitve power. Never become arrogant enough to think you have discovered Laws that ‘govern’ (whatever that means) the universe, whether you are doing science, economics, history or anything else. Above all, remain humble; reading Augustine is always a good start.

  • Quentin George

    The tired old story that the Islamic States helped preserve Greek thought is just that – a story. It would be far more accurate to point out that the expansionist Ottoman Empire destroyed the civilisation that was the genesis of that thought but didn’t succeed in completely destroying all its learning, just a sizeable part.

    Indeed, the impetus was not “Islamic states preserving Greek thoughts”, the Greeks were preserving their own thoughts quite well while ruling Constantinople. The impetus for the Italian Renaissance (the first of the European Renaissance movements) was the Greek scientists, philosophers and artists fleeing the Ottoman conquest of the city.

    They were given refuge by the Italian city states (including the afore-maligned Catholic Church), and were able to pass on the learning, art and philosophy that Eastern Rome had preserved. Islam’s main contribution was forcing the Greeks to flee to Western Europe through violent repression. Wikipedia (though flawed) does have a list of the Byzantine influence on the Renaissance:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_scholars_in_the_Renaissance

  • CountingCats

    The impetus for the Italian Renaissance (the first of the European Renaissance movements) was the Greek scientists, philosophers and artists fleeing the Ottoman conquest of the city.

    Quentin,

    Yes and no.

    Putting the debacle of the 4th crusade to one side, Florence had started to have significant contact with Constantinople before the Fall. Florence hired itself a professor of Greek in 1399, and later, Cosimo de Medici had been importing Greek scholars since being exposed to them at the Council of Florence.

    True, the flow became a flood after 1453, and this was a major influence, possibly speeding the development of intellectual thought in Italy, but there was still arguably a significant influence from al Andalus.

    Given that Italy was already developing a love of Greek classical culture, one wonders what would have happened if the resources in Constantinople had not been destroyed.

    Would things have happened even faster? Across a wider spread of lands and cultures if Italy has also been able to cross pollinate a resurgent Greece as well.

    Pointless question I know, but still.

  • Midwesterner

    Islam’s main contribution was forcing the Greeks to flee to Western Europe through violent repression.

    Even on Samizdata, the Muslims are given credit for the success of the West. :-)

  • CountingCats

    No one speaks literary Arabic at all.

    Alisa,

    Thanks for the correction.

    So no one speaks classical Arabic, but Modern Standard Arabic is taught as the language of education and literature across the Arab world.

    So what does this mean? Everyone who wants to read a book or the newspapers has to learn another language? Think where Europe would be if everyone in the Germanic speaking world – from Iceland and England in the west and Sweden in the North, Norway, Holland, Denmark, Flanders, and Germany itself, had to learn Hochdeutsch in order to read the morning paper. Would we even have a morning paper?

    For Southern Europe, consider if everyone from Spain to Romania had to know Latin in order to have anything to read. What a brake on development that would be.

    These guys have got to sort this out.

  • CC: I don’t speak Arabic, but I doubt that the differences are as vast as you seem to think. Granted, it is not like the various versions of English throughout the Anglosphere, but it is not like German and Dutch either. It is interesting that you mentioned Moroccan Arabic, as it (along with Tunisian and Algerian varieties) is unique in that it has much stronger influences from non-Arabic languages (such as Berber). Berbers are an interesting case, as they are about the only sufficiently prominent original (i.e. pre-Arab conquest) ethnic group left in the Arab world, to significantly influence the language spoken in their respective countries.

    Oh, and forget the morning paper: they all watch Al-
    Jazeera anyway.

    All that said, you do have a point, but only to a degree: if only their lack of one common dialect was their main problem:-)

  • Paul Marks

    The Oxford tradition did not consider the scholasitics crap Gabriel.

    Right up to Richard Whately one can see the influnce.

    And, I would say, in such modern scholars as Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross (as well as Oxford folk who openly stated their Aristotelianism).

    There was an over formalized way with the scholaistics but many of their basic ideas were correct.

    Humans are agents – we are beings, we can choose.

    There is such and thing as right and wrong not dependent on any arbitrary “will” – even an arbitrary will of God.

    The physical universe is real.

    It is governed by laws open to human reason.

    And so on.

  • Paul Marks

    The Oxford tradition did not consider the scholasitics crap Gabriel.

    Right up to Richard Whately one can see the influnce.

    And, I would say, in such modern scholars as Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross (as well as Oxford folk who openly stated their Aristotelianism).

    There was an over formalized way with the scholaistics but many of their basic ideas were correct.

    Humans are agents – we are beings, we can choose.

    There is such and thing as right and wrong not dependent on any arbitrary “will” – even an arbitrary will of God.

    The physical universe is real.

    It is governed by laws open to human reason.

    And so on.

  • Paul Marks

    For the all the contributions of scolars in the Islamic world (whether Muslim or not) the idea that Greek learning was saved by them is not true.

    Contacts between Byzantine scholars and Italy (and beyond) continued over the Middle Ages.

    I think because Thomas Aquinas could not read Greek, and because it was not formally taught in univerities, it has become the mental habit to think that no Christian scholars could.

    It is true that it was more an Italian thing than a French thing – but some some scholars as far away as Britain could read Greek. For example, Roger Bacon.

    Of course Roger Bacon was also interested in experimental science and predicted all sorts of things – from flying machines to submarines.

    But this did not make him like the 17th century Francis Bacon. Roger Bacon did not reject the basic principles of philosphy – although he had differences with the interpretation of Aristotelian thought in his day.

    Almost needless to say Aristotelianism is not the same thing as “whatever Aristotle thought”.

    For example, one does not have to believe that the world is unchanging or that goats breath through their ears.

  • nick g.

    To add to the idea of a complacent Empire, I think I’ll add what I call ‘The Early Success Hazard’. If success comes too early to a culture, like imperial expansion did to the Arab Empire, then it becomes locked in the forms of those early success, and has great reluctance to change. The early success of the blitzkreig locked the Germans into that type of warfare, and they didn’t change even when circumstances changed. Islam had early military success, and felt no need to keep changing, assuming that victory would be automatic. In fact, any change might ruin things, so change became anathema.

  • Gabriel

    The Oxford tradition did not consider the scholasitics crap Gabriel.,

    Well, nor do I really, I was being polemical. There are some I have rather a high regard for, such as Scotus, but it’s really incrotrovertible that scholasticsim degenerated into a complex of mystifying gibberish. Really, can anyone take seriously a claim that sleeping potions work because they have a “dormative faculty” that is to say they make you sleep because they make you sleep and the like?

    Humans are agents – we are beings, we can choose.

    Yes.

    There is such and thing as right and wrong not dependent on any arbitrary “will” – even an arbitrary will of God.

    Maybe, but it certainly wasn’t what they thought it was and just as certainly some things are right simply because G-d said they are (assuming he did).

    The physical universe is real.
    By definition.

    It is governed by laws open to human reason.

    No. The first part of the sentence is just a linguistic trick really, what Hobbes (I know you hate Hobbes) would call insiginificant speech. All the “laws” that are open to our reason are models that don’t even describe how the universe works with perfect accuracy, let alone “govern” it and the absolute worst possible way of trying to construct these models is to start bleating on about Reason and spinning axioms into absurdity.

    Of course, Aristotle, to his credit, did not actually believe in these laws, they were an invention of his sillier intellectual descendants.

  • Paul Marks

    “Some things are right simply because God said they are” – no.

    “Natural law is God’s law, but if God did not exist natural law would be exactly the same”.

    “The physical universe is real by definition”.

    Many philosopher have denied this point (as you know well) – you and me may be “realists” (in this sense of that term) but not everyone is.

    There are physical laws of nature (laws of physics not laws of ethics).

    I do not think that Thomas Hobbes would have denied that.

    He would just have denied that there is such a thing as human reason – as in human agency.

    Of course, I would hold that this denial Hobbes traps himself in contradiction. Because his very denial is act of agency.

    Thomas Hobbes being (however he might have wanted to deny it) a human BEING.

  • Paul Marks

    The little words (such as the “by” in “by this denial”) that are so clear in the mind do not come out on the page on the screen.

    At least they sometimes do not if one is a word blind subhuman like me.

    The solution is obvious – take more care.

    However, I am scared of losing internet connection if I take too much time typing a comment.

  • Gabriel

    “Some things are right simply because God said they are” – no.

    Well G-d said it was wrong for the Children of Israel to eat pork and I can’t really see any remotely plausible argument that can demonstrate why doing so would be wrong other than because he said so. I’ve seen people make crashing fools of themselves attempting to do so, bit that’s another story.
    Now, you believe, of course, that G-d has subsequently retracted this demand, but he did make it once and before the human race were free from the bonds of the Law they, umm, weren’t.

    “Natural law is God’s law, but if God did not exist natural law would be exactly the same”.

    “The physical universe is real by definition”.

    Many philosopher have denied this point (as you know well) – you and me may be “realists” (in this sense of that term) but not everyone is.

    I have no complicated reasons for believing this, but simply that the definition of the word ‘real’ is “part of the physical universe”. It’s simply an application of A=A. Non-realists clearly use a different defintion of ‘real’, which is great for them, but they should just come out and say so so we can all avoid a lot of tedious argument.

    There are physical laws of nature (laws of physics not laws of ethics).I do not think that Thomas Hobbes would have denied that.He would just have denied that there is such a thing as human reason – as in human agency.Of course, I would hold that this denial Hobbes traps himself in contradiction. Because his very denial is act of agency.Thomas Hobbes being (however he might have wanted to deny it) a human BEING.

    I’m not talking about Hobbes’ denial of human agency, which I have never found terribly persuasive (though he was certainly right that the concept of free will as it was traditionally understood and is still understood is incoherent.) In fact, I wasn’t trying to borrow any arguments from Hobbes at all, but his mode of argumentation (the name drop, in retrospect, was not the wisest move.)

    Anyway my point is this. Analyse the statement The universe is governed by laws that are accessible to human reason and you will find that it is not wrong, per se, but rather that it is an example of what Hobbes would call “absurdity”. ‘Govern’ is an activity performed by governments, ‘law’ is a certain form of command emplyed by governments; to say the universe is governed by laws is, as I said, nothing more than a linguistic trick, which does nothing to enlighten us to the true nature of anything.

    Science – real science rather than Thomistic waffle – does not proceed by trying to discover laws, but by trying to find models. The equations used in these models are not laws, they are not even true.

    As for Hobbes on reason, he didn’t deny reason, he just defined it as the process whereby men establish consequences rather than some quasi-godlike property of human-beings that allows us to discover non-existent natural laws. Personally, I think human experience is unified, albeit modal, and hence it is not useful to have a separate category of mental operations labelled ‘rational’ because all of them are ‘rational’, but that’s a whole different story.