Hyping Islam’s Role in the History Of Science

Jonathan David Carson, American Thinker, July 29

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) claims for its journal Science

the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million.”

Thus when it publishes a politically correct history of the relationship between science and Islam, as filled with errors as a garbage can left too long in the sun is filled with maggots, its falsehoods enter credulous and influential minds on every continent, including Antarctica.

Science in the Arab World: Vision of Glories Beyond” by Wasim Maziak in the June 3, 2005, issue of Science, cites as its sole source for Islamic history “the historian James Burke.” Burke has written that the invention of lens-grinding lathes led to hairdressing, that Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro brought about the development of the stealth fighter jet, and that the Boston Tea Party caused the invention of contact lenses. One can easily and quickly verify that Mr. Burke is no historian, but a television star, by pulling up information about him on Amazon.com, where even his admirers admit to his “snarkiness.”

Rather than refuting all of the snarky errors in this snarky history, I will focus on a single snarky paragraph:

Of equal importance to the Arab-Islamic scientific discoveries on the European Renaissance was the reintroduction of ancient Greece’s natural philosophy by way of translations by Islamic scholars. The historian James Burke identifies several knowledge shocks that ignited the Renaissance. One was delivered by Ibn-Sina (Avicenna, 980 to 1037), whose Kitab Al-Shifa (“The Book of Healing”) introduced medieval Europe to the principles of logic and their use to gain knowledge and understanding of the universe. Another major shock was delivered by Ibn-Rushd (Averroes, 1126 to 1198), whose writings and commentaries reintroduced to medieval Europe the Aristotelian approach to studying nature by observation and reasoning.

The “Islamic scholars” who translated ancient Greece’s natural philosophy” were a curious group of Muslims, since all or almost all of the translators from Greek to Arabic were Christians or Jews, as were the translators from Arabic to Latin. Consider the astonishing statement of Bernard Lewis in The Muslim Discovery of Europe:

We know of no Muslim scholar or man of letters before the eighteenth century who sought to learn a western language, still less of any attempt to produce grammars, dictionaries, or other language tools. Translations are few and far between. Those that are known are works chosen for practical purposes [philosophy being considered a practical discipline] and the translations are made by converts [who knew western languages before conversion] or non-Muslims.

According to Franz Rosenthal in The Classical Heritage in Islam,

“Almost all of the translators [from Greek into Syriac or Hebrew or from Greek, Syriac, or Hebrew into Arabic] were Christians.”

One possible exception is Masarjawaih, who may have been a Jew. Another is Thabit b. Qurrah (ca. 834-901 A.D.), a “heathen” Sabian from Harran.

Similarly, “Aristoteles latinus” by Bernard Dod, a chapter of The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, provides a comprehensive list of medieval translations of Aristotle from Arabic into Latin, none by Islamic scholars—unless by “Islamic” one means “Christian or Jewish.”

But if Islamic scholars did not actually translate ancient Greece’s natural philosophy from Greek into Arabic and from Arabic into Latin, didn’t they at least preserve these works? Didn’t they rescue Plato and Aristotle from oblivion? They “ignited the Renaissance.” Didn’t they?

No, they did not. Plato did not make the long journey from Greek to Syriac or Hebrew to Arabic to Latin, and Western Europeans preferred [surprise!] translations of Aristotle directly from the Greek, which were not only superior but also more readily available.

According to Charles Burnett in “Arabic into Latin,” a chapter of The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy,

“The Republic of Plato, though translated into Arabic, was not subsequently translated into Latin.”

Thus, the only work of Plato translated into Arabic did not make its way back to the West.

In A History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston says that

“it is a mistake to imagine that the Latin scholastics were entirely dependent upon translations from Arabic or even that translation from the Arabic always preceded translation from the Greek.”

Indeed, “translation from the Greek generally preceded translation from the Arabic.” This view is confirmed by Peter Dronke in A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy:

Note that Latin versions of a number of learned Greek works (Euclid, Ptolemy) came through translations from the Arabic; most of the works of Aristotle, however, were translated directly from the Greek, and only exceptionally by way of an Arabic intermediary . . . translations from the Arabic must be given their full importance, but not more. Another confirmation comes from Dod, according to whom the following were first translated from Greek: Categories, De interpretatione, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophistici elenchi, Physics, De generatione et corruptione, Meteorologica (Book IV), De anima, De sensu, De memoria, De somno, De longitudine, De inventute, De respiratione, De morte, De animalibus (De progressu, De motu), Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Politics, Oeconomica, Rhetoric, Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, and Poetics. Only the following were first translated from Arabic: De caelo, Meteorologica (Books I-III), and De animalibus (Historia, De partibus, De generatione).

So the great rescue of Greek philosophy by translation into Arabic turns out to mean no rescue of Plato and the transmission of Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek texts of Aristotle, either directly or more often via Syriac or Hebrew, to a Christendom that already had the Greek texts and had already translated most of them into Latin, with almost all of the work of translation from any of these languages into any other having been done by Christians and Jews and none of it by Muslims.

But if Islamic scholars did not actually translate ancient Greece’s natural philosophy from Greek into Arabic and from Arabic into Latin, did not actually rescue Plato and Aristotle from oblivion, and did not actually ignite the Renaissance with them, didn’t they create a vibrant and superior philosophy?

Were not Avicenna and Averroes great? Great they were, and philosophers too, but not exactly Islamic ones.

Islamic philosophy is a misnomer; at least, what we in the West think of as Islamic philosophy is. It is not Islamic in the sense of being rooted in Islam or even in the weaker sense of being melded to it. It is based rather on those vaunted translations from Greek and has a higher allegiance to Neoplatonism than to Islam. It considered philosophy the highest expression of truth, available only to the wisest, and Islam a lower expression suitable for the masses. It believed that the Koran is temporal, not eternal, and that God knows only universals, not particulars. In short, it was in opposition to what we and most Muslims think of as Islam.

In A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Ira M. Lapidus, Professor Emeritus at Berkeley, a mild and genial apologist for Islam, admits that

[Islamic] philosophers did not truly reconcile Greek thought to Islam; rather, they tried to rationalize their acceptance of Greek philosophy in terms of Islam. Their metaphysical and religious mentality was based on Greek opinions rather than Quranic tradition. Philosophy, they thought, was a higher vision, superior to the revealed but inferior version of truth known as Islam.

They were “remote from the mainstream of Islamic religious and cultural trends.”

If we want to find Islamic philosophy that is characteristically Islamic, we have to leave Avicenna and Averroes behind and enter a realm that not even James Burke, Wasim Maziak and the American Association for the Advancement of Science can claim had anything to do with the Renaissance or the Scientific Revolution. Instead, they swirl around in an eddy outside of the main current of Islamic thought.

To elevate Islam, Maziak even caricatures medieval Christianity. in Science of medieval Christianity: Avicenna

“introduced medieval Europe to the principles of logic and their use to gain knowledge and understanding of the universe”;

and Averroes

“reintroduced to medieval Europe the Aristotelian approach to studying nature by observation and reasoning.”

The caption of a picture of Avicenna in the article in Science says that he helped bring about the Renaissance by

“advocating the use of reason and logic as the way to gain knowledge.”

If this means that Avicenna believed that reason and logic were the way to gain knowledge, he was not a Muslim. If he believed that they were a way to knowledge, with whom was he arguing?

To whom was it necessary to advocate the use of reason and logic? All of the vast resources of the American Association for the Advancement of Science will not suffice to answer that question. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot find a medieval Christian scholar who denied “the principles of logic and their use to gain knowledge and understanding of the universe” or the study of “nature by observation and reasoning.”


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