Academic journal article Islam & Science

The End Matters

Academic journal article Islam & Science

The End Matters

Article excerpt

What was Islamic in the Islamic scientific tradition?

Science is universal. This is not a postulate, but a basic feature which defines scientific knowledge itself. A scientific result, of whatever kind, can only be fully communicable and provable by stringent arguments. But this epistemic universality is not at all separate from the living history of human beings and from institutions. That is to say that this universality is not an immediate given of the consciousness, but rather reveals itself through a lengthy and bold conceptual process. This work organizes itself along the lines of scientific traditions in which human beings and institutions are active. But these people and these institutions arise from a value-based system.

Islam provides a whole set of fundamental values. Among those values, one finds the uniqueness of truth, the lack of contradiction between revelation and reason, and thus between the two types of knowledge that they produce, the equality of human beings in jure before the truth and in the search for it, the pursuit of knowledge as a means to strengthen one's faith and as a form of prayer, the obligation to communicate knowledge and not to keep it to oneself, etc.

These values, among others, have without the least doubt pushed forth research and have fostered creation of open scientific communities. Furthermore, these values provide the framework to examine the formation of scientific communities in classical Islam--communities which had multiplicity of backgrounds and religions. This is quite a distinctive feature of these communities when compared to their contemporaries. Also, there are the scientific disciplines brought forth by Islam as a religion: ethno linguistics, lexicography, philology, and other linguistic disciplines which were needed in order to understand the Qur'an and comment on it, the historic critique of the testimonies to authenticate the Prophetic sayings (al-hadith), the science of time keeping ('ilm al-miqat)--which was a kind of applied astronomy--in order to determine times for prayers and other religious practice.

How can we understand various aspects of the question of decline of the Islamic scientific tradition: when? how? and why?

This question is difficult even today. Even though we now know more about some of the scientific traditions of classical Islam, we still do not know them all, and we do not know them completely. It is therefore difficult to approach the question of the decline of something before knowing completely what this thing was. But we can still tread lightly and present some conjectures in this difficult territory.

Let us note first that the decline is not an event--then and there--but a a long process which took several centuries. Furthermore, it did not follow the same pace everywhere, nor did it happen in the same manner. Let me explain myself briefly on the question of when, how and why? There was the decline manu militari which occurred during the time of the conquest of al-Andalus. This military conquest erased not only scientific activity, but also the scientific heritage, and finished by eliminating all Moorish art and handicraft. Then, if one goes east, the Mongol invasion, even if it did not obliterate science and civilization, it at least dealt it a solid blow. One of the results of this--a result of no mean significance--was the emergence of a new style of composition which in itself constituted an obstacle for creative research. The immense loss of manuscripts following this invasion seems to have reinforced the genre of compendia and encyclopedias in order to save what remained. However, writing compendia and encyclopedia, as well as summaries and commentaries, could only weaken the original research. Yet this research continued to be carried out in most fields, albeit at a slower pace than before.

The Ottoman Empire came later, with its economic system and military organization. …

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