Salon takes a look at “The religious state of Islamic science.”

Very interesting article about the state of science in Islamic countries over at Here’s a snippet:

Aug. 13, 2007 | In October, Malaysia’s first astronaut will join a Russian crew and blast off into space. The news of a Muslim astronaut was cause for celebration in the Islamic world, but then certain questions started popping up. How will he face Mecca during his five daily prayers while his space ship is whizzing around the Earth? How can he hold the prayer position in zero gravity? Such concerns may sound absurd to us, but the Malaysian space chief is taking them quite seriously. A team of Muslim scholars and scientists has spent more than a year drawing up an Islamic code of conduct for space travel.

This story illustrates the obstacles that face scientists in Muslim countries. While it’s always risky to draw generalizations about Islam, even conservative Muslims admit that the Islamic world lags far behind the West in science and technology. This is a big problem for Muslims who envy the economic and military power of the United States.

What’s so striking about the Muslim predicament is that the Islamic world was once the unrivaled center of science and philosophy. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Baghdad, Cairo and other Middle Eastern cities were the key repositories of ancient Greek and Roman science. Muslim scholars themselves made breakthroughs in medicine, optics and mathematics. So what happened? Did strict Islamic orthodoxy crush the spirit of scientific inquiry? Why did Christian Europe, for so long a backwater of science, later launch the scientific revolution?

The article is a Q&A with Taner Edis, author of An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam, and it covers his viewpoints on the troubles Islamic countries have had with keeping up with Western science. I’ve often heard that Islamic countries were once far and ahead in the study of science and often wondered why they seem to have lagged behind and at least part of the reason appears to be their inability to separate science and religion. What’s amazing isn’t so much that Islamic science has lagged behind, but that Western science somehow managed to break free from religion’s yoke allowing it to advance as far as it has.

5 thoughts on “Salon takes a look at “The religious state of Islamic science.”

  1. Science in the Islamic world fell behind because the fall of Baghdad caused all the great thinkers in that city to flee eastwards towards India. Follow this with the ascension of the Turks, who ignored large tracks of their empire (except for purposes of taxation).

    The golden age of Islamic Science was during the Arab run Caliphates, not during the Turkish sultanates. Of course, western colonialism in the middle east was only concerned with educating government clerks in order to get good (such as Egyptian cotton) out of the country and into British textile miles.

    A few more generations of rich gulf state Arabs coming to the US to earn degrees in medicine, science, and engineering, and an sciences in the Islamic world will reach parity with the west, regardless of religion. The trend might accelerate as those doctors, scientists, and engineers stay in their own countries and teach the next generation with that generation having to go to a western nation to get a solid education. (Similar things could, and perhaps should, be said about the Chinese, Indian, etc. students that come to the West for the same reasons as the Arab students.)

    And the Saudis already examined the whole “how to pray in space” bit when Sultan Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud went into space on a space shuttle mission to launch an arab satellite. This was in 1985.

  2. It’s one outcome of having a tribal culture.  Likely they used to be very advanced because of their high population compared to other societies.  But over time, their tribal culture and beliefs have held them back.

    Not sure, only a guess.  It will take a lot of historical work to figure it out though.

  3. Of course I post my whimpy answer after a much more well written response.  Note to self use refresh button.

  4. Of course if the anti science types in the US have their way the Islamic world will have a much easier time catching up to the US.

    There does seem to be a kind of anti-science aspect to the powers that be these days.  The Bush administration has all but declared war on scientists, under the accusation that they are playing politics and therefore they cannot be trusted unless they’re on board with the party line.  The Church (or at least the evangelicals) have become so powerful that even the Democrats are taking one step beyond lip-service during their campaigns.  I’m accustomed to our leaders professing their belief in God.  I am very uncomfortable with our leaders saying we much bring our country back in line with the Bible’s teachings.  If it’s all my imagination and the world isn’t become more polorized than it was, you can’t deny that there is more at stake now, with Global Climate Change now becoming more accepted and our leaders being more vocal about their support of God.  When has there ever been the possibility that our continued existence as the dominant species on the planet would rest on an ideological battle between science, politics and religion?  I don’t know about you, but it scares the hell out of me.

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