What Went Wrong with Islamic Science?

Two excerpts from Hillel Ofek’s article at The New Atlantis.


“Given that Arabic science was the most advanced in the world up until about the thirteenth century, it is tempting to ask what went wrong — why it is that modern science did not arise from Baghdad or Cairo or Córdoba. We will turn to this question later, but it is important to keep in mind that the decline of scientific activity is the rule, not the exception, of civilizations. While it is commonplace to assume that the scientific revolution and the progress of technology were inevitable, in fact the West is the single sustained success story out of many civilizations with periods of scientific flourishing. Like the Muslims, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of which were at one time far more advanced than the West, did not produce the scientific revolution.”


“With the rise of the Ash’arites, the ethos in the Islamic world was increasingly opposed to original scholarship and any scientific inquiry that did not directly aid in religious regulation of private and public life. While the Mu’tazilites had contended that the Koran was created and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Ash’arites believed the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. At the heart of Ash’ari metaphysics is the idea of occasionalism, a doctrine that denies natural causality. Put simply, it suggests natural necessity cannot exist because God’s will is completely free. Ash’arites believed that God is the only cause, so that the world is a series of discrete physical events each willed by God. As Maimonides described it in The Guide for the Perplexed, this view sees natural things that appear to be permanent as merely following habit. Heat follows fire and hunger follows lack of food as a matter of habit, not necessity, “just as the king generally rides on horseback through the streets of the city, and is never found departing from this habit; but reason does not find it impossible that he should walk on foot through the place.” According to the occasionalist view, tomorrow coldness might follow fire, and satiety might follow lack of food. God wills every single atomic event and God’s will is not bound up with reason. This amounts to a denial of the coherence and comprehensibility of the natural world. In his controversial 2006 University of Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI described this idea by quoting the philosopher Ibn Hazm (died 1064) as saying, “Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.” It is not difficult to see how this doctrine could lead to dogma and eventually to the end of free inquiry in science and philosophy.”

Read the whole article here.

And thus we get the thesis, explored by writers such as Fr. Stanley Jaki and others, that only the Western Christian understanding, rooted in Greek (Aristotelian) philosophy and Christian theology can produce modern science. To have science, we must believe in an ordered and intelligible world, and in our own intelligent ability to understand. We must also accept that God, the foundation of all causes, grants to material things (including ourselves) the ability to act as regular co-causes of reality. To deny the fundamental intelligibility of the universe, or to deny the real causality of material things, is to cut the legs out from under science altogether.

2 comments on “What Went Wrong with Islamic Science?

  1. athanasius96 says:

    At the same time, there are lessons here for both natural science and theology that we have not figured it all out yet. Come and see that there is more to explore. Success in one age does not guarantee it in another.

  2. Nasir says:

    Whatever the reason could be about the decline of islamic science, it is clear that muslims paved the path to modern science. Now a days muslims have realised their mistake and will rise to the position once they enjoyed for centuries in the past.