George Saliba: Seeking the Origins of Modern Science?

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George Saliba: Seeking the Origins of Modern Science?

Review Article by George Saliba, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science, Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University.

Toby E. Huff. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pb. ed., 1995. xiv, 409 pp. Hb. ISBN 0 521 43496 3. ISBN 0 521 49833 3.

"It is not altogether easy to break the habit of thinking of history as blindly groping toward a goal that the West alone was clever enough to reach. . . . " A. C. Graham (1)

Copyright © 1999 Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies. All rights reserved. BRIIFS vol.1 no2,1999. Republished on by permission of Dr. Saliba.

Use the menus on the right, or at the bottom of the article, to read Toby Huff's reply to this article, and Dr. Saliba's response to this reply.

The question of the origins of modern science has been debated for years and will continue to be debated as long as the history of science is still written as the history of various scientific traditions modified by cultural labels such as Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Indian and Arabic/ Islamic. And I am sure it is obvious to all that such terminology simply masks a clear ideological, political and, at times, even hegemonic language. For all pre-modern scientific traditions, the classificatory principle of a particular tradition seems to be linguistic in nature, contrary to what is usually done in the case of modern science itself. Yet, while it is easy to understand why a scientific book written in the pre-modern period, whether in Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian or Turkish, may be readily classified as belonging to a particular culture and tradition, it is not quite clear in which language a modern scientific text must be written to allow its affiliation with modern science.

As historians of science survey the various scientific traditions, they seem to be constantly prepared to shift the criteria that they use to classify the scientific works which they encounter. No one would dispute the classification of a scientific text written in Chinese or Greek as belonging to the Chinese or Greek cultural spheres respectively. But when it comes to other scientific works, say texts written in Arabic, Persian, Turkish or Urdu, for example, the problem becomes slightly more complicated and those same historians of science drop linguistic classificatory terminology to resort instead to a cultural/religious terminology which designates such works as Islamic. In the case of modern science, both linguistic and cultural/religious designators seem to be dropped and French, English, Italian, German and even Japanese scientific works may be described as modern, with the underlying assumption that all these works must have something in common that is neither linguistic, nor cultural, nor religious, with the vague term ‘Western’, as in ‘Western science’, used to describe them.

A corollary of this methodological chaos is the notion that there is a definable cultural entity out there that can be called ‘the West’, with its own independent characteristics, and an equally clearly definable scientific tradition that can be called ‘modern science’. In addition, no one seems to question the proposition that the ‘modern’ scientific tradition made its first appearance in this very ambiguous ‘West’ and research is ongoing to determine why this phenomenon took place there and nowhere else. Toby E. Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West is one more work which follows this line of enquiry.

Huff is by no means the first person to attempt to explain why modern science arose in the West and not in the context of another culture. People like Joseph Needham, in his famous Grand Titration,(2) or Max Weber, in several of his works, have made similar attempts in the past. In the case of Needham, the question gained much more urgency when he managed to demonstrate that, at the time when modern science was supposed to have been born in the West?namely, during the European Renaissance of the sixteenth century?both the Chinese and Islamic civilizations had attained a level of scientific knowledge, especially in natural science, which was superior to that in the West. And yet, modern science was born in the West and not in those other civilizations. Needham’s attempt to understand why this happened had the unintended result of making the criteria for ‘modern’ science, and the vague definitions of it, identical to the criteria and definitions which would be applied to ‘Western’ science. During that process, another unspoken and rather ill-considered principle also emerged, namely, that one should assess the value and contribution of the sciences of other cultures in terms of the specific aspects of those sciences that were incorporated within the accumulative body of modern science, while passing over other features of those same sciences in total silence. Thus, in the case of Chinese science, the discovery of the geographically-orienting magnet became an acceptable Chinese scientific achievement because it could be translated, through intermediary steps, into the navigational compass, while the whole body of Chinese medicine would be discarded?until very modern times, that is?because it did not have the same impact in the West.

The least that can be said about this methodology is that it does not yield the kind of history of science that allows a specific science to be spoken of and studied as just another facet of the culture that produced it to meet its own needs. Instead, the works of one cultural science are always evaluated in terms of the criteria of modern science. As a result, the history of science is studied for the sake of discovering the cumulative connecting links that led to the creation of modern science and not as an attempt to understand one more feature of the originating culture in order to comprehend it in its totality.

Although superficially quite reasonable and legitimate, this manner of formulating the question of why modern science arose in the West, rather than in culture ‘X’ or ‘Y’, hides further theoretical pitfalls. Chief among them is the circularity embedded in this kind of argumentation. For, in order to answer the question, one must exhibit yet another culture, ‘Z’, that followed the same route as the West?whatever that route may have been?and managed to produce modern science in the same way that the West did. Otherwise, the argument quickly collapses into a circular argument in the following manner. Most proponents of this view, whether consciously or not, look at science in our day and assign the term ‘modern’ to that science without defining modernity, relying only on the sheer fact that it is contemporaneous with us. They then ask which leading centres produced this ‘modern’ science and find them in Europe and, by extension, the United States, or what is ambiguously called the West. From there, it becomes easy to jump to the conclusion that modern science is Western science. Thus, all other cultures, no matter where they are located and at what point in their history they are ‘captured’, if they may be ‘captured’ at all, could not possibly contain the roots of modern science, nor allow modern science to develop, by the mere fact that they are not Western cultures.

Moreover, this argument, and the many variations upon it that range widely in sophistication and acuity, has been put forth now for more than a hundred years without ever an attempt being made first to define what is meant by science, in a culturally neutral fashion, or modernity itself, as it applies to science, or the relationship between science and culture, or, more potently, to determine what aspects of a culture, especially Western culture, are responsible for the rise of a modern science that is implicitly called Western science. Throughout this century and part of the previous one, attempts have been made to define the singularity of modern Western science by isolating factors responsible for its development. Such factors as the emphasis on experimentation, the mathematization of nature and freedom from religion, have been advanced at one point or another as being the key elements in the development of modern science. In the case of Huff, one may add to this list the emphasis on the institutionalization or legal context of science, or the more general philosophical world view, or even his ambiguous neutral space and free inquiry, concepts integral to modern science, (Huff, i) as also being pivotal. But as knowledge of non-Western cultural sciences began to increase, especially in the latter half of this century?and here the work of Needham on Science and Civilization in China (3) and the many new works on Islamic/Arabic science are crucial?the foundations of the argument for the singularity of modern science have been eroded. For it was found, for example, that both the Islamic and Chinese civilizations derived scientific results from experimentation at a time much earlier than the Renaissance, that they criticized other authoritative scientific theories on the basis of their own observations, and that they expressed the results of their findings in mathematical language; and yet, they did not manage to develop modern science in the manner in which this latter concept is so poorly articulated.

In order to avoid the pitfalls of this simplistic line of argumentation, one must appeal to the more rigorous grounds upon which such arguments ought to be based. As intimated above, these grounds require that one demonstrate the independence of Western science from other cultural sciences in order to be able to say that whatever factors led to the formulation of modern science in Western culture were, in fact, the product of Western culture itself, while simultaneously determining that any other culture which embodies the same factors would indeed produce the same modern science under discussion. In addition, one must demonstrate the real existence of such a culture.

When we learn, for example, that the most innovative mathematical and astronomical ideas that were employed during the European Renaissance were themselves borrowed from Islamic/Arabic or Chinese civilizations through many circuitous routes that are now being investigated, then one is forced to ask about the very roots of modern science and whether they should be placed within the parameters of Western culture or the other cultures where those innovative ideas originated.

This kind of predicament was easier to overcome in the last century, when many of the findings of the Islamic/Arabic or Chinese sciences were not really known in the West. During that time of ignorance, people could speak freely of the so-called modern science and its roots in the genius of Greek civilization?sometimes referred to as the Greek miracle?and thus conceive of that science as a purely Western enterprise, thereby making a direct connection between classical Greek civilization and the modernity of Europe and bypassing the intervening Roman, Islamic and medieval civilizations with impunity. But now, at the end of the twentieth century, we know that the most dynamic revolutionary ideas in astronomy, for example, were developed in the Islamic/Arabic domain?and were developed explicitly to rebut the authority of the Greek astronomical tradition?and yet, they were the very same ideas that made the astronomy of the European Renaissance possible, in the mathematical technical sense, after having been incorporated into that astronomy. This view is quite eloquently expressed by the sinologist A. C. Graham, in the same article quoted at the beginning of this essay, where he says: Indeed if we wish to find the best historical perspective for looking forward toward the Scientific Revolution, there is much to be said for choosing a viewpoint not in Greece but in the Islamic culture that from A.D. 750 reached from Spain to Turkestan.(4)

With Graham’s words in mind, one can quite legitimately ask about the roots of modern science, and whether those roots should continue to be placed in the context of Western culture, with its far-reaching, a historical extension into classical antiquity. More particularly, one should also ask whether it makes much sense to speak of science, whether modern or not, in such cultural, linguistic, or national terms, when the very processes of science themselves respect no such boundaries and pay no heed to such sentiments. Moreover, since the terms defining the essential characteristics of both ‘modern science’ and the ‘West’ are so vaguely defined, is it not quite legitimate to examine as well the same question that was asked by Graham when he said: The question may also be raised whether Ptolemy or even Copernicus and Kepler were in principle any nearer to modern science than the Chinese and the Maya, or indeed than the first astronomer, whoever he may have been, who allowed observations to outweigh numerological considerations of symmetry in his calculations of the month and the year.(5) Indeed, the empirical emphasis placed by that very first astronomer on the value of his observations set the inescapable course to modern science. So where would the origins of modern science then lie?

In this context of trying to determine the building blocks of modern science, Huff’s book is a refreshing and welcome contribution. This is not because it applies a better methodology than previous works on the subject, or because it answers the big question posed above more satisfactorily, but rather because it benefits from the research into the history of Islamic and Chinese sciences that has been going on for about half a century now. As a result, and by bringing to light the complexity of the scientific production itself and the dangers implicit in assigning national, linguistic or cultural tokens to that production, his work has had the unintended consequence of poking holes into the old arguments regarding the singularity of western modern science, or the autonomy of the western culture that produced it. In this regard, the present reviewer is very sympathetic to Huff’s plight. After all, how could he be critical of someone who writes a book on the history of modern science, documenting in it a whole array of the achievements of Islamic and Chinese sciences and acknowledging the integral relationship between those sciences and modern science?a good part of that relationship being based on research by the present reviewer on the history of Islamic planetary astronomy?when others writing on the same subject find no difficulty in jumping from Ptolemy (c. AD 150) to Copernicus (d. AD 1543) without even blinking? (6)

Yet, writing general books of this nature, when neither one of the scientific traditions under scrutiny is well understood, has intrinsic difficulties. When one cannot yet demonstrate the exact cultural relationship between modern science and the West, and when we have, at best, truncated knowledge of both Islamic and Chinese science?truncated because, as was stated above, those sciences have been studied until now from the perspective of their relevance to Western scientific tradition rather than for their own sake, as features of their own cultures?how may one make claims to a comparative study of the history of science, as Huff does, without falling into loose and banal arguments and even, at times, contradictory statements? Concepts advanced by Huff such as neutral space and free inquiry, concepts deemed integral to modern science, may be argued and discussed, but by no means presumed to be as established as Huff would like to assume. The whole school of the sociology of science, or the more contemporary science studies movement, devotes much space and energy specifically to proving that there is no neutral space or free inquiry in the sense in which Huff uses the terms. Besides, if it teaches us nothing else, our own experience at the end of the twentieth century should teach us that free inquiry is essentially a fiction determined, for the most part, by the exigencies of the market-place and reigning ideologies much more than by cultural imperatives, if there are any such imperatives. We also learn by the end of this century that the best scientific production?now difficult to separate from technological production?does not always abide by the same rationality for which Western culture is celebrated, but rather by the more mundane pressures of economics and marketing which are always lurking behind every scientific development.

In the following, I will give only a few examples of the kind of statements from which such general books ultimately suffer. When Huff says, for instance, that science is especially the natural enemy of authoritarian regimes, (Huff, 1) he must be either ignoring the tremendous achievements by the Nazi or the Soviet regimes in the most technically sophisticated sciences, or suggesting that the authoritarianism of these regimes fades in comparison to what one would have to presume he sees in Islamic and Chinese cultures. The reviewer, who knows Huff personally, is aware that he does not mean the latter, but such statements are inherent in an enterprise which seeks to explain scientific achievements as functions of neutral space and free inquiry. From that prejudgement, he goes on to illustrate with a diagram (Huff, 4) how Law and Legal Thought and the Theology and Philosophy of Nature, when channelled through Reason, Rationalism (and) Rationality, whatever those terms may mean in this context, lead to Institutional Structures, on the one hand?and through those institutions to Modern Science?or directly to Modern Science, on the other. From that perspective, Arabic science indeed becomes a problem, and is perceived as such in the subtitle of chapter 2, since it is difficult to document the same neutral space, free inquiry, legal thought, theology and philosophy of nature, reason, rationalism and rationality and institutional structures in Islamic civilization that would presumably give rise to modern science. It is interesting that neither here, where it would be most relevant, nor in any other place in the book, does Huff speak of the economic factors that may be directly connected to the rise of modern science in the West, from the discovery of the New World, to the Age of Discovery and all of its implications and, finally, to colonization and the ongoing imperialism of Western culture under the newly-emerging concept of globalization. In order to be fair, however, Huff is conscious (Huff, 5-6) of the connection made by Weber between modern science and capitalism?a connection also accepted by Needham?but avoids delving into it for, in his own words, it would entail another volume altogether. That indeed will be a very interesting volume if it is ever written.

Because he has avoided all of the implications of the relationship between economic factors and modern science?and modern society in general?Huff treats contemporary underdevelopment as a problem of barriers to freedom of thought, expression, and action in the interests of primordial religious and ethnic identities(Huff, 7). All this when Huff knows very well that the most primordial ethnic and religious atrocities happened in the very bosom of Europe, under the gaze of the most advanced modern science based on principles such as experimentation, the mathematization of nature and rationality, and in the most developed scientific society of its time. Until one disentangles the web of relationships between such social, political, and economic forces in Europe itself, where modern science is supposed to have been born, and demonstrates the relationship of such forces to modern science and development, it is foolhardy to urge underdeveloped countries to adopt the imagined benefits of such slogans as freedom of thought and expression in order to obtain the golden key to modernity assumed to be so intrinsically embedded in the processes of modern science.

The danger in this kind of thinking is that it overburdens scientific activity itself by making it solely responsible for modern development when one knows very well that scientific processes are very limited in scope and application, and cannot solve all the problems of modern life, even though we have become so accustomed to falsely believing science to be the ethos and symbol of modernity. In fact, the problem is much more complex than that and, although development can benefit from scientific production, science, whether modern or not, cannot be made responsible for its failure.

Furthermore, Huff misrepresents the facts, particularly with regard to Islamic culture?being unfamiliar with Chinese culture, I will not offer any criticisms of his presentation of it here?when he claims, for example, that law and the secrets of God were carefully guarded (Huff, 12) in Islamic and Judaic cultures, a claim probably based on reiterations, by both Maimonides and Averroes, of the old Greek dictum that the study of philosophy must not be open to the common man, but restricted to the chosen few. The proliferation of legal/theological schools of thought in both Judaism and Islam, and the lack of a centrally-guarded clergy entrusted with such secrets, contradicts Huff’s contention?despite the wishful thinking of Huff, Maimonides, Averroes and their Greek predecessors. In any event, even if those restrictions did exist, what do the secrets of God and law have to do with the development of science? The existence of any relationship between them still awaits a convincing argument. Moreover, how does revealing God’s secrets allow us to understand the development of science and then to write a better history of science, when the purpose of such an enterprise is to formulate a framework within which individual scientists and their work may be understood?in the context of the cultural domain in which the work was produced?thus changing our understanding of each domain as well as its relationship to the rest of the grand narrative of the history of science? Finally, when one speaks of science in such general cultural terms and the cultural imperatives that produce science, then one loses the ability to make distinctions among the scientific activities themselves and thereby reach any conclusion as to why, for instance, in certain periods of a cultural science, astronomy advanced while medicine declined.

On another level, a word should be said about the causes for the decline of Arabic science. Huff places the beginning of that decline at around the thirteenth century, or by the beginning of the fourteenth at the latest. He says quite explicitly that he would draw the line in terms of significant cultural and scientific growth at the end of the thirteenth century (Huff, 47, n.1). He then goes on to argue, as do many, that the decline was caused by the dominant role played by religious thought in later centuries, thus making religious thought responsible for stifling scientific thought. This widely-accepted argument goes back to the nineteenth century, when Ghazali (d. 1111) was blamed for the decline of Arabic/Islamic science and his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, came to be taken as the harbinger of that decline. Needless to say, this argument rested on the usual antagonistic opposition between religion and science which was already operative in the study of the history of Western science. One of its later manifestations was articulated by Armand Abel in the 1950s and is unfortunately quoted here, with credence, by Huff (Huff, 53). Consequently, the argument of opposition between religion and science was simply applied to Islamic civilization without any consideration being given to the cultural differences between Islamic and Western civilizations.

Huff adds to the old thesis of religio-scientific conflict a new interpretation of findings recently established on the subject of religious conversions. He uses these results to assert that, since conversion to Islam increased after the tenth century, free thinking was subsequently restricted (Huff, 47, n. 2), as if to imply that the proponents of free thinking were the non-Muslims of earlier centuries, without even attempting to tell the reader what he means by free thinking, or even mentioning the dynamic debates that went on in every conceivable intellectual field within Islamic religious thought in earlier centuries.

At the same time, however, he diverges from the argument of conflict between religion and science because of his acquaintance with some new facts. He had already learned from another area of recent research, namely, the area of Arabic astronomy and, especially, from ongoing investigations regarding its vital relationship to Copernican astronomy, that the most interesting and revolutionary planetary theories produced by Islamic civilization were not only produced in opposition to Greek astronomical theory, but also well after the time of Ghazali, when Islamic religious thought was supposed to have reigned supreme. He also knows of the relationship between the Damascene astronomer Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375) and his counterpart, Copernicus, who came much later. He obviously knows, as well, of Ibn al-Shatir’s reformed model for the movement of the moon, which was, together with many other theories which he proposed, contrary to Greek theory, but identical to the corresponding theories of Copernicus. It is only in the last forty years that historians have discovered these facts and Huff is to be congratulated for his awareness of them and for now making them accessible to a much wider audience, which this book will surely attract.

Unfortunately, however, Huff did not keep up with the latest research and the last few years have seen revolutionary findings push forward the date for the beginning of a decline in Arabic science well into the sixteenth century. Moreover, it is becoming more and more apparent that the scientists who were responsible for the production of this radical astronomy were mostly religious men at the same time. Ibn al-Shatir was a timekeeper at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Other contemporary and subsequent astronomers like Sadr al-Shari`a al-Bukhari (d. 1347), al-Sharif al-Jurjani (d. 1413), al-Khafri (d. 1550) and several others were religious scholars in their own right. Even the most elementary study of the works of these men permits one to begin characterizing their age as a golden age of astronomy, rather than an age of decline as many, including Huff, have argued.

This does not mean that there was no age of decline, but it can be documented that it primarily occurred in legal and religious thought, rather than in astronomical thought, during the period in question, a result almost exactly opposite to what the Eurocentric model would predict. Accordingly, works exploring the relationship between science and religion, and between Arabic science and Western science, as well as assumptions made concerning the extent of free thinking under religious Islam, have to be rewritten in light of these new findings, and everything said by Huff on these subjects has to be reassessed.

On the technical level, much could be said about Huff’s understanding of the role of Arabic astronomy and of Arabic planetary theories in particular. In one place (Huff, 55), he seems to imply that these theories were developed in order to account for discrepancies between theory and observation, when it has, in fact, already been established that planetary predictions according to the Ptolemaic models, as well as according to models developed in opposition to them, could yield the positions of the planets with reasonable accuracy, considering the instruments of the time. The same myth is often repeated about Copernican astronomy?that it fitted better with observations, or that it was simpler than Ptolemaic astronomy?myths dismissed more than fifty years ago by Neugebauer and others.(7)

The main purpose of all of the theorists whose work is now being pursued in Arabic astronomy?and whose work had a direct bearing on the theories of Copernicus?was to try to harmonize the cosmological requirements of Ptolemaic astronomy with the mathematical models that were supposed to represent the workings of that cosmology. In very few cases were objections to Greek astronomy made on the basis of its failure to account for observed facts. The only instance we know of, so far, is the solitary remark made by Ibn al-Shatir on the contradiction between predictions for the size of the apparent solar disk, as derived from the Ptolemaic model for the sun, and its actual measurements.(8) Other discrepancies between observed facts and the predictive elements of Ptolemaic astronomy had already been noted as early as the first half of the ninth century and not in later centuries when the planetary theories were being developed.

On the same technical level, Huff’s understanding of what Copernican astronomy was supposed to do needs some correction as well. In one instance, Huff states that Copernicus and Galileo were committed to a realist interpretation of the world (Huff, 41). Although this judgement may be arguably true for Galileo, one may legitimately ask just what reality Copernicus was appealing to, or committing himself to, in order to propose a heliocentric universe, when he had no universal gravitation theory to hold that universe together cosmologically? The same Arabic-writing astronomers whose mathematical theorems we now know were employed by Copernicus developed their theorems specifically because of their objections to the lack of realism in the cosmological Greek universe as expressed by Ptolemaic astronomy. They aimed at harmonizing that universe to become more scientifically coherent in order to make sense of the ‘reality’ of the geocentric universe that Greek astronomy was supposed to espouse. In that cosmological universe, heliocentrism was already dismissed as unreal. Therefore, going back to it without a developed universal gravitation theory is equally unreal, whether the commitment to it was made by Copernicus, or by anyone else in his time.


Huff repeats the same claim elsewhere (Huff, 44), agreeing with Benjamin Nelson that the early modern revolution in science was conducted by men who were committed spokesmen of the new truths clearly proclaimed by the Book of Nature. . . . Here, one must ask which chapters of the Book of Nature could proclaim heliocentrism before coining a universal gravitation concept? If anything, that book spoke to the contrary.

Without any further elucidation, Huff makes a very similar assertion regarding heliocentrism (Huff, 57-58), when he asserts that it was the great metaphysical core of the modern European scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries without telling the reader about the real history of heliocentrism and the benefit which Copernicus accrued from it?only in hindsight and for reasons that have nothing to do with the kind of ‘realist’ he is proclaimed to be. According to those familiar with his mathematical astronomy, it may be claimed that Copernicus was a throw-back to the time of the ancient Greeks, when the coherence of mathematics and the cosmology that mathematics was supposed to represent did not receive much consideration?as opposed to the persistent and long-standing attempts by astronomers working in the context of Islamic civilization, all of whom insisted on the need to match mathematics with the ‘real’ world surrounding them, as expressed within the cosmology of the time. For Copernicus to be a realist he would have had to abandon the ancient Greek geocentric cosmology and offer a new cosmology of his own that would make of heliocentrism more than just elegant mathematics. Without a theory of universal gravitation, this new cosmology could not be developed, as it indeed was about a century after Copernicus?and not by Copernicus.

Several other claims made by Huff, such as those concerning the failure of Arabic science to break away from geocentrism (Huff, 87) on account of opposition from religious scholars (Huff, 60 and passim), or the need to cling to lunar cycles, are obviously ill-informed and need not be taken seriously. Similarly, his claim that the naturalization of the Greek sciences is what led to their decline under Islam (Huff, 65) is highly questionable and not well supported, neither by Huff, nor by Sabra, from whom he borrowed the concept.

Furthermore, Huff’s claim that Copernicus borrowed heavily from the Almagest of Ptolemy, a borrowing supposedly made easier by the advent of the printing press (Huff, 322), is really a non sequitur. Almost all of the astronomers who worked under Islam not only borrowed heavily from the Almagest, but corrected it, objected to it, reformulated it and wrote commentaries on it, without the benefit of the printing press.

Racist remarks such as even allowing for Arab exaggeration . . . (Huff, 74) should no longer have a place in modern-day books, especially those that have a great potential for becoming textbooks for the instruction of young students. Nor should contradictory statements attributing the rise of modern science to factors such as free thinking and neutral space?if understood to mean fewer constraints on the individual scientist?be used to explain why modern science developed in the West, where such concepts existed, but did not develop under Islam, when Huff himself describes how the relationship between the student scientist and his teacher was free of all constraints in Islamic civilization and depended solely upon their willingness to indulge in whatever scientific activity they wished. In the present day, research institutes for advanced study and apprenticeships in laboratories under individual scientists are considered the main sources of creative science. So why are similar relationships in medieval Islamic civilization considered contrary to the spirit of modern science?

Finally, Huff erroneously follows David King (Huff, 89), who wrote the biographical entry on Ibn al-Shatir for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, where he says: There is no indication in the known sources that any Muslim astronomers after Ibn al-Shatir concerned themselves with non-Ptolemaic astronomy. (9) On the basis of King’s statement, Huff concludes that an achievement as great as that of Ibn al-Shatir simply fell on deaf ears because it was not part of an ongoing educational system. Neither statement is true and the published facts now demonstrate the presence of not only those scholars mentioned above, but also Qushji (d. 1474),(10) Birjandi (d. 1525) and Khafri (d. 1550) (11), all of whom produced equally ‘great’ works along the lines of those by Ibn al-Shatir. In the case of Khafri, he easily surpassed Ibn al-Shatir in sophistication and output. More to the point, and contrary to Huff’s contention, those astronomers who commented on each other’s works and, at times, even incorporated them into their own studies (as Khafri did when he twice included works by Jurjani and Shirazi) represented a continuity of the creative astronomical tradition well into the sixteenth century as far as we can now tell. Later sources have not yet been scrutinized for such theories simply because scholars in the field are still in thrall to the old periodization scheme which Huff, unfortunately, largely follows in his book. According to that scheme, the decline of Islamic science dates back to the beginning of the fourteenth century, thus allowing no room for later developments that we now know took place.

But, to his credit, Huff also notes that modern discussions on the history of science tend to bypass the role of other, non-Western sciences, especially Arabic science (Huff, 61-62), and his book may generally be considered a desirable corrective to that omission. This is important because it has become increasingly apparent that a true understanding of Western science is impossible to achieve without a proper understanding of the role of Arabic science, the tradition with which Western science has had the longest and most seminal engagement.


  • 1. A. C. Graham, China, Europe, and the Origins of Modern Science: Needham’s The Grand Titration, in Chinese Science: Explorations of an Ancient Tradition, ed. Shigeru Nakayama and Nathan Sivin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973), 67.
  • 2. Joseph Needham, Grand Titration (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969).
  • 3. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, 7 vols., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954-).
  • 4. Graham, China, Europe, and the Origins of Modern Science, 48.
  • 5. Ibid., 61.
  • 6. There is no need to list the significant number of books that adopt this approach. It suffices to look at any of the modern textbooks on astronomy paying lip service to the history of the discipline to be convinced. See, for example, Sune Engelbrektson, Astronomy Through Space and Time (Dubuque, IA: WCB Publishers, 1994).
  • 7. The most elegant and brief statement of Neugebauer’s assessment of Copernican planetary theory and the myths surrounding it can be found in Otto Neugebauer, On the Planetary Theory of Copernicus, Vistas in Astronomy 10 (1968) : 89-103; reprinted in Otto Neugebauer, Astronomy and History: Selected Essays (New York: Springer Verlag, 1983), 491-505.
  • 8. See George Saliba, Theory and Observation in Islamic Astronomy: The Work of Ibn al-Shatir of Damascus (d.1375), Journal for the History of Astronomy 18 (1987) : 35-43.
  • 9. David King, Ibn al-Shatir, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 12 (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1979), pp. 357-363, especially p. 362.
  • 10. See George Saliba, Al-Qushji’s Reform of the Ptolemaic Model for Mercury, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 3 (1993) : 161-203.
  • 11. See George Saliba, A Sixteenth-Century Arabic Critique of Ptolemaic Astronomy: The Work of Shams al-Din al-Khafri, Journal for the History of Astronomy 25 (1994) : 15-38; George Saliba, A Redeployment of Mathematics in a Sixteenth-Century Arabic Critique of Ptolemaic Astronomy, in Perspectives arabes et médiévales sur la tradition scientifique et philosophique grecque: Actes du colloque de la S.I.H.S.P.A.I. (Société internationale d’histoire des sciences et de la philosophie arabe et islamique). Paris, 31 mars-3 avril 1993, eds. A. Hasnawi, A. Elamrani-Jamal, and M. Aouad (Leuven/Paris: Peeters, 1997) : 105-122.

Read Toby Huff's reply to this article, and Dr. Saliba's response to the reply.

Toby Huff

Although I read this book many years ago- late 90's- I do recall some interesting assertions that I took issue with. One point the author highlighted was that the Islamic world lacked the concept of negligence (as in tort law), which I thought odd. Under common law, negligence theory (at its most fundamental level) requires that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, and that the defendent putatively breached that duty resulting in the plaintiff's injury.

Islamic teachings, both in Quran and Sunna, are pregnant with the concept of owing a duty to others in all facets of life. In fact, zakat, in essence is a mandatory owed duty to the economic welfare of others.

Although, I enjoyed his book, there were many other issues that did not strike me as right. i look forward to reading your critique more carefully.