Celebrating Arabic science – in a proper historical context

The estimable Jim al-Khalili – professor of physics at the University of Surrey, and presenter of some of the best recent science outreach programmes on British television – has an article today in the Guardian on Arabic science and its place in the world.

There is so much good in the article that to criticise it sharply could leave one open to a charge of churlishness. But the piece does come across as rather manufactured, and I’m not sure how much of this is to do with Guardian editorial intervention.

Take, for example, the gushing standfirst:

“In this era of intolerance and cultural tension, the west needs to appreciate the fertile scholarship that flowered with Islam.”

Dr al-Khalili is on record elsewhere as saying that he is more interested in Arabic culture than Islam. Yet the self-declared irreligious scientist does in his article make the following rather strident statement:

“I am on a mission to dismiss a crude and inaccurate historical hegemony and present the positive face of Islam.”

It gets better, as al-Khalili goes on to discuss the period of strident Islamic imperialism when Arab culture helped keep the flame of scholarship alive when much of Christendom was rolling in the mud crunching acorns. This is especially true for the two centuries following 750 CE, during the rule of the Abbasid dynasty. Thereafter, things went rapidly downhill.

As for references to the European “dark ages”, this is a little simplistic. These were difficult times, for sure, but the lights never went out, despite the best efforts of the Christian Church.

The reason I regard al-Khalili’s essay as manufactured is that it reads like an attempt to score politico-cultural points, and does so using ahistorical arguments. There are also some glaring scientific errors, including a misinterpretation of evolution by natural selection, and the implied claim that the physician Ibn al-Nafees was the first to describe the circulation of blood in fully physiological terms. Al-Khalili will give his liberal-left readers a warm fuzzy feeling inside, and others something to rant and rave about.

I took the trouble of reading some of the comments following al-Khalili’s piece, and found in a few of them some reasoned and erudite criticism. A number of readers point out that there was little in the way of scholastic innovation during the period discussed by al-Khalili. Instead, what the armies and bureaucracies of Islam did was re-brand and propagate learning that originated largely in Greece, Assyria, India and China.

Al-Khalili is on solid ground when he calls for a greater acknowledgement of that brief period in early Islam when Arab scholars made a positive contribution to learning, even if they did so mostly as the librarians of world culture. But even here the criticism of textbook history of science is a little over the top. From the early 1960s we saw the emergence in the west of histories of science that give due credit to Arabic culture, and today such texts are commonplace.