Thursday, July 31, 2008

George Saliba's Islamic Science

Sorry for the recent lack of posts. Things have been a bit busy. Actually, they still are and posts will remain infrequent for the moment.

The main object of this post is to report on George Saliba’s Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. I’ve got no time for Edward Said and I expect Saliba’s politics would disgust me, but he knows a great deal about Islamic Science. Let me make absolutely clear that this book is no fun to read. It is terse, badly edited and Saliba’s writing style is that of a professor who has no interest in attracting lay readers. It is the content of the book which makes it important and worth struggling through.

Saliba has two targets in view and he hits both of them. Firstly, he rejects the classical narrative that the conquered Syriac-speaking Christians population taught the Arabs Greek philosophy. He insists, I think quite rightly, that the assimilation of Greek learning into Arabic culture was an internal process within the Caliphate. It was not a case of ignorant Arabs learning philosophy from the Syrian Christians who had already mastered it. Rather, people living under the Islamic Caliphate decided for themselves that they wanted to acquire the philosophy of the classical Greeks and so went off to find it. There was no pre-existing advanced culture for them to take over – they created it from scratch. I don’t agree with all the details of Saliba’s case. He assumes on too little evidence that there was no indigenous scientific tradition in Byzantium at all. I think there was but it just wasn’t from this source that the Arabs acquired their own knowledge.

Why does this matter? In part, because it means the Arabs picked up ancient Greek philosophy in much the same way that Western Christians discovered Arabic thought in the twelfth century. In both cases, no one came to teach the new learning. Both the medieval Arabic and Catholic worlds were autodidacts. Contrast this with the recovery of Greek language scholarship in Renaissance Italy. That was very much driven by teachers fleeing from the wreck of Byzantium and educating the ignorant (but interested) Italians.

Saliba’s second attack is on the widely held belief that Arabic science declined after the thirteenth century, either due to religious pressure or the Mongol invasions. Saliba makes two points. The first is that Arabic science continued to advance until at least the sixteenth century. He convincingly shows how Copernicus used several unacknowledged cutting-edge astronomical techniques from Arab sources. These techniques for calculating planetary movements were not developed in Western Europe, but in Persia after the Mongol invasion. His second point is that talk of a decline is misleading. What needs explaining is how western science began and maintained its stratospheric progress from the fourteenth century onwards. Noting that Arabic science couldn’t keep up is not something that needs an explanation. The historical conundrum is western advance, not eastern stagnation.

I also tried Michael Morgan’s Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists. It’s awful and I couldn’t get through even one chapter. Avoid.

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