Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Or is it?

Before Ghazali came along, three intellectual movements [orthodoxy, philosophy, and Sufism] were competing for adherents in the Islamic world. After Ghazali, two of these currents had come to an accommodation and the third had been eliminated.
—Tamim Ansary1

As I described in my previous post, the impact of Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111) on the Muslim world was enormous. He’s been called the Proof of Islam and the greatest Muslim after Muhammad. His book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, in which he attacks nothing less than the cornerstone of Western civilization, reason, was hugely influential. Thanks to Ghazali, Muslims stopped writing books about philosophy and science and literally started burning them. The rationalist current in Muslim thought, which had once flourished and produced intellectual giants like Avicenna, Biruni, and Omar Khayyam had been, as Tamim Ansary and many others observed, eliminated.

That’s the standard narrative, anyway. But is it true?

It’s a question that numerous scholars have revisited in recent years, and a growing number of them answer no. The flaw in the narrative, they argue, is that no decline in the Muslim pursuit of science ever occurred, or if it did, it occurred so long after Ghazali that ascribing it to his influence strains credibility.

Among the skeptics is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. “Many thinkers blame the Arabs’ later abandonment of scientific method on Alghazel’s huge influence,” he writes, “though apparently this took place a few centuries later.”2 Jan P. Hogendijk and Abdelhamid Sambra insist that “The Islamic tradition in the exact sciences continued well into the nineteenth century, and abundant source material is available in the form of unpublished manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, and other languages all over the world.”3 Mohamad Abdalla, Founding Director of the Griffith University Islamic Research Institute, disputes whether this abandonment happened at all. In a 2007 paper, he calls the theory “a scholarly error that has proven to be remarkably persistent despite the availability of contrary evidence.”4 Citing Columbia’s George Saliba, Abdalla argues that the technological gap between Islam and the West, which was so readily apparent by the 18th century, was not so much a matter of a decline in Muslim science as “the result of the industrial leap forward that Europe achieved, particularly after the discovery of the Americas.”

The critics of the decline narrative point out—correctly—that there were still many brilliant and productive Muslim scientists long after Ghazali. Oft-cited examples include Nasir ad-Din Tusi (d. 1274) who served as astronomer and theoretician to the Assassin Cult. After their stronghold of Alamut was destroyed by the Mongols, he found employment with his new overlords and built the Maragheh Observatory in Azerbaijan. Ulugh Beg (d. 1449), despite being the grandson of Tamerlane, was a better astronomer and mathematician than a ruler—the ruins of his observatory may still be seen in Samarqand. The social scientist ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) is credited by Arthur Laffer with laying the foundations of supply side economics half millennium before Dr. Laffer himself proposed his eponymous curve.

In his magnum opus, the Muqaddimah, ibn Khaldun surveys the state of Muslim science during his time:

Scientific activity disappeared there [North Africa and Spain], save for a few remnants that may be found among scattered individuals and that are controlled by the orthodox religious scholars…5

This may be exemplified by our previous statements concerning Baghdad, Cordoba [Spain], al-Qayrawan [Tunisia], al-Basra and al-Kufa. At the beginning of Islam, the civilizations (population) were large, and sedentary culture existed in them. The sciences were then greatly cultivated there, and the people were widely versed in the various technical terminologies of scientific instruction, in the different kinds of sciences, and in posing problems and (inventing new) disciplines. They exceeded (all) who had come before them and surpassed (all) who came after. But when the civilization of those cities decreased and their inhabitants were dispersed, the picture was completely reversed. Science and scientific instruction no longer existed in those cities, but were transplanted to other Muslim cities. We, at this time, notice that science and scientific instructions exist in Cairo in Egypt, because the civilization of (Egypt) is greatly developed and its sedentary culture has been well established for thousands of years. Therefore, the crafts are firmly established there and exist in many varieties. One of them is scientific instruction.6

Professor Abdalla cites these passages as evidence that the decline paradigm is wrong; indeed they are the centerpiece of his paper. Scientific inquiry didn’t decline in the Muslim world, he argues, it merely moved around, “transplanted to other Muslim cities.” This was driven by population declines in some areas, and not merely because academic inquiry was “controlled by the orthodox religious scholars” influenced by Ghazali, albeit that was a factor.

IMHO, these are strawmen arguments. Despite the use of hyperbole, like Ansary's word "eliminated," no one who is familiar with the history of science in the Muslim world really believes or claims that scientific research stopped entirely after Ghazali. What they claim is that there was a lot less of it. Indeed, the fact that the same handful of post-Ghazali scientists keep coming up in these discussions, Nasir ad-Din Tusi in particular, suggests how few of them there were.

Ankara University’s Aydin Sayili captures the situation eloquently In his book The Observatory in Islam (which, incidentally, was indispensable to me in writing the scene in The Thread of Reason which takes place in Omar Khayyam’s observatory). In an appendix on “The Causes of the Decline of Scientific Work in Islam” he writes that after the 900s there was a

decrease in the energy and the vitality of and the general interest in scientific work…There was a gradual, if not uniform, decrease both in the intensity of production of first-rate work, and in the frequency of appearance of first-class scientists...Men of such calibers did not disappear during the later centuries, but they became increasingly rare.7
Indeed there is abundant evidence that Sayili is right. Certainly any list of the mega-minds of medieval Muslim science would be disproportionately clustered around the 9th and 10th centuries. Even during Ghazali’s lifetime, the decline of science had become evident, as his sometime friend, Omar Khayyam complained bitterly,

We have witnessed the decline of the men of science, now reduced to a thin troop, the number of which is as small as its afflictions are great, and to which the rigors of fortune have imposed the common obligation to devote themselves, as long as they last, to perfect and explore a single science. But most of those who in the present day appear to be scholars, deceive the truth with lies, do not go beyond the limits of sham and scholarly ostentation, and only use the quantity of knowledge, they only have material and vile goals.8
I already mentioned, in my previous installment, the frustration that ‘Abd’ul-Latif al-Baghdadi felt trying to find philosophers and scientists in Cairo when he visited in 1191, and the burning of science books that Rabbi Joseph b. Judah witnessed the following year in Baghdad. And the very ibn Khaldun passages that Prof. Abdalla’s cites to show that scientific inquiry continued to flourish three hundred years after Ghazali also say that it had been reduced to “a few remnants” in half the Muslim world and that in the other half it had disappeared from previously flourishing cultural centers like Baghdad, Basra, and Kufa. This is not a picture of a healthy scientific community; at best the passage only partially supports Prof. Abdalla’s case.

Admittedly, these arguments are somewhat soft, relying as they do on general impressions of the “energy” and “vitality” of the Muslim scientific community and anecdotal evidence from narrators who, as the postmodernists never tire of reminding us, have their own agendas.

However, there is one field of Muslim science where the level of activity has been quantified, and that is astronomy. In a 1956 paper, E.S. Kennedy, of the American University of Beirut, surveys every medieval Muslim astronomical table (in Arabic, zij) that is known to us—over a hundred in total—both those that are extant and those that are only known through mentions in other works. He then plots them based on when and where the observations were made, from the 8th to the 15th century, and from Afghanistan to Spain.

As you can see, as the centuries pass, not only are there fewer astronomical tables, but observations increasingly move away from the center of the Muslim world in Iran and Iraq, and move toward the fringes, places like Samarqand, home to the previously mentioned Ulugh Beg Observatory (#12 in the lower right corner of the chart. Omar Khayyam is #22 and Nasir ad-Din Tusi #6).9

Needless to say it is risky to draw conclusions about Muslim science as a whole by extrapolating from a single field of study. However, it should be noted that many of the Muslim rulers were superstitious and consulted their astrologers before any major decision. They therefore continued to provide state support for charting the stars and planets long after the Golden Age had passed. This was especially true of the Il-Khanid (Mongol) dynasty that patronized Nasir ad-Din Tusi—which accounts for the cluster of data points in Iran around the year 1300 in the Kennedy chart. It is therefore likely that the decline in other fields of scientific endeavor was far more severe than in astronomy. Relying on the astronomy data errs on the side of conservatism.

The zij data supports quantitatively what was already widely believed anecdotally: that there really was a decline in Muslim science. It also shows that, contrary to what Taleb and others claim, the decline began a hundred years or so before Ghazali lived, and not hundreds of years after. But that in itself is problematic, and raises serious questions as to the extent Ghazali was responsible for it. Questions which I’ll address in the final installment of this series.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

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Photo credit(s): CC by-SA 4.0 Igor Pinigin

1Ansary, Tamim, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, New York: Public Affairs (2009), p. 113. 2Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably, 2nd Ed., New York: Random House Trade Paperback (2019), p.83. 3Quoted in Abdalla, Mohamad, “Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century,” Islam & Science, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Summer 2007), p. 66. 4Abdalla, op. cit., pp. 61-70. 5Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Franz Rosenthal, tr., Vol. 3, p. 117, quoted in Abdalla, op. cit. 6Ibid, Vol. 2, p. 343. 7Sayili, Aydin, The Observatory in Islam and its place in the general history of the observatory, Ankara: Truk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi (1960), pp. 408-413 8Khayyam, Omar, L’Algèbre d’Omar AlKhayyâmî, Paris: Benjamin Duprat (1886), F. Woepcke, tr., pp. 34-35. Translation from the French is mine. 9Kennedy, E.S., “A Survey of Islamic Astronomical Tables,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 46:2 (1956), pp. 123-177.

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