Book Review: Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History

Tom Siegfried

A millennium ago, the Islamic world was civilization’s Science Central, the primary haven for contemplating the cosmos and discerning the natural laws governing physical existence. While the Arabo-Islamic scientists of this period have on occasion been portrayed as mere preservers and translators of ancient Greek science, they in fact engaged in extensive creative scientific activity, exploring both the natural world and the philosophical underpinnings of the scientific endeavor.

Animating much of the scientific activity of that time was a question that continues to haunt science and society alike — the overlapping authority of science and religion. As Dallal, a historian at American University of Beirut, recounts, Muslim scholars have long engaged in nuanced discussion of this issue. Among Islam’s notable commentators was the 14th century historian Ibn Khaldūn, who articulated the cultural neutrality of science. “The intellectual sciences … are not restricted to any particular religious group,” he wrote. “They are studied by the people of all religious groups, who are all equally qualified to learn them and to do research in them.”

Ibn Khaldūn drew on the earlier observations of Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī, who distinguished between the possible existence of spirit (something that cannot be established by rational proof) and knowledge of the natural world (derived from human perceptions). Ibn Khaldūn identified in the views of al-Ghazālī and other prede­cessors an important lesson for science.

“By determining those parts of the world that are subject to natural reflection,” Dallal writes, “Ibn Khaldūn liberated scientists from the burden of attempting to explore what is not knowable.”

Dallal’s account of Islamic scientific introspection is fascinating to read as history, and instructive in its exploration of issues that remain familiar today in various formulations of conflict between science and religion.

Yale University Press, 2010, 239 p., $27.50.
Review by Tom Siegfried By Ahmad Dallal September 25th, 2010; Vol.178 #7 (p. 30) Text Size .

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