George Saliba: Flying Goats And Other Obsessions - A Response to Toby Huff's Reply

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George Saliba: Flying Goats And Other Obsessions - A Response to Toby Huff's Reply

Exchange of Views, II
George Saliba
Flying Goats And Other Obsessions:
A Response to Toby Huff’s Reply

Copyright © 2002 Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies. All rights reserved. BRIIFS vol. 4 no 2, 2002. Republished on by permission of Dr. Saliba.

Use the menus on the right, or at the bottom of this page, to read the original article, or Toby Huff's response.

This exchange with Professor Huff brings to mind the time-honoured Arabic adage about the goat that remains a goat, even if it flies, which is often used to refer to people who retain their opinions despite being shown evidence to the contrary. In my review article on his book, The Rise of Early Modern Science,(1) I tried to take each of the constituting hypotheses that Professor Huff proposes for the rise of modern science and find either a counter-example or a corrective fact that might sharpen the arguments in a book that I essentially liked. But Professor Huff has apparently taken offence at my well-intentioned critique, going so far as to accuse me of defensiveness and of oppos(ing) the idea that past and present human communities, institutions, governments and so on ought to grant greater freedom of expression, inquiry and action to their participants (emphasis mine). It seems that I touched a raw nerve, one that may best be characterized as Western chauvinism, since I prefer not to use his own term, triumph-alism. And I feel the urgent necessity of clearing my name before he goes on to accuse me of a lack of patriotism, as is quickly becoming the fashion these days.

In what follows, I will respond to the main issues that he raises in his Reply and in much the same order, although it is not always easy to rein in such floating concepts and processes of thought. Before doing so, however, I must register my objections to Professor Huff’s unprovoked and unseemly personal remarks. Since I have publicly called upon historians of science to drop adjectives such as Arabic, Greek, Western and so on from their discourse, believing that these qualifiers no longer refer to useful analytical categories, my position may not be described as defensive. Moreover, I have never advocated the restriction of anyone’s freedoms, least of all those social and political freedoms that we all hold so dear.

Whatever gave Professor Huff this latter idea? I will assume his good intentions and not accuse him of demagoguery in return. And perhaps he was indeed mislead by two arguments that appeared in my original article?the bone of contention now?so I shall attempt to clarify them here, both for his edification and for the benefit of readers just joining our discussion.

In the first instance, he may have concluded that I approve of totalitarian regimes such as those that existed in Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union because I asserted (145) that they were capable of tremendous achievements . . . in the most technically sophisticated sciences. (Incidentally, both of these regimes came into existence in the West and at a time when Western culture was at the height of its maturity.) My intention in citing these two regimes was to produce counter-examples to his categorical assertion that the production of science requires social freedom, a point that he makes yet again in his Reply. Hence, my references to the scientific accomplishments of these regimes in no way signifies some sort of endorsement of them, nor any belief that social freedom is not a positive value in its own right. All they mean is that social freedom does not seem to be a necessary condition for the production of science, as these two cases illustrate. Professor Huff, however, seems to be unable to differentiate between a statement of fact (one that I return to below, where I discuss some of the products of the technically sophisticated sciences under these regimes) and an opinion about the regime that produced that fact.

The second instance that may have caused Professor Huff some confusion is a statement in my article (146) cautioning those who believe that the mere acquisition of modern science (now marketed as the symbol of modernity, progress and growth) will put an end to underdevelopment. In my opinion, it is a fatal mistake to rely upon simple solutions to problems while neglecting the many other factors usually involved. Moreover, it is foolhardy to charge science with a task that it was never intended to perform, as if it is a golden key that opens the door to a perfect world. But although voicing a caveat is a far cry from voicing consent to the continued existence of repressive governments in the developing world, Professor Huff seems to have misunderstood my argument?thus, giving me the opportunity to restate my case. Science, whether modern or not, is no panacea for the challenge of underdevelopment, for development involves more than the simple borrowing of science from the West: it involves the achievement of political, economic, social and even artistic freedoms. The fallacy of making science alone responsible for development may very well lead to the former’s wholesale abandonment (and it is badly needed), since failure will inevitably result if attention is not given to other factors as well.

Before moving to the contents of Professor Huff’s Reply, I would like to make one last point, a general one that is related to his style and methodology. Throughout his Reply, he seems to speak of Islamic civilization as if it is monolithic and unchanging, characterizing it in essentialist terms that he feels free to use and apply from the historical period of Islamic civilization right through to the present day. How might one otherwise interpret his projection of the results of a modern United Nations report on the state of development in the Arab world, published less than a year ago, onto historical Islamic civilization? And this without the slightest warning that modern conditions differ from the ones that prevailed in earlier periods? I am truly amazed that a distinguished sociologist?which Professor Huff certainly is?does not take greater care when making comparisons across history and that he seems to think that human societies remain fixed in some essentialist frame that he alone has discovered. A similar observation may be made concerning his cavalier disregard for geography, as Professor Huff invites his reader to follow him to Muslim circles in the West or elsewhere in the world, before concluding that freedom of inquiry did not exist in the Arab/Muslim world then and does not exist now. I never understood the full significance of essentializing Orientalism until I read these sweeping characterizations of the Arab/Muslim world at all times and in all places. I ask the reader: At this late date, is it still possible for a serious scholar to be so enthralled by Orientalist racism that he is incapable of perceiving even the slightest difference between Muslim circles in the West (whatever that means) and the various conditions of Muslims in Brunei, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco, or even Turkey? Neither then nor now? This is indeed regrettable. But I hasten to assure the reader that Professor Huff’s book is not as reckless as his Reply sounds and that there is much profit to be had in reading it. Yet, it is certainly unfortunate that it has gone into a second edition (which I have not seen) without profiting from this corrective exchange.

Now that I have clarified my own position somewhat, I would like to turn to the substance of his Reply and the four areas that he views as problematic, namely, what constitutes ‘modern’ science, the role of economic factors in the development of science, the timing of the decline in Arabic/Islamic science and, finally, the role of legally-incorporated institutions and free inquiry in the production of science.

On the first score, I still have a fundamental disagreement with Professor Huff. This disagreement stems from the fact that, in his book, he seems to define ‘modern’ science in terms that can only fit the conditions that existed in Western Europe and then rhetorically implies that ‘modern’ science could only have risen in Europe since it was European from the start. It is this sort of absurd, non-productive methodology and its lack of analytical utility that necessitated my admittedly long-winded critique of his book in the first place. In my article, I tried to demonstrate that this kind of question is almost identical to asking why oranges are coloured orange. (Which is not to be confused with the purely linguistic question of why both the fruit and the colour possess the same name.)

But despite his attempt to discredit this critique by claiming that its only purpose is to avoid answering the question of why ‘modern’ science originated in Europe and not elsewhere, he does opt to define science in more useful terms this time around. He says: ‘Science,’ as I understand it, entails this element of seeking to arrive at a better description of the world and is not just a calculating device. I do not know what he means by calculating device. If he means the ‘hard’ sciences, as it seems at first, or the Tusi couple, as he most likely intended, then he is wrong on both counts, as anyone who knows any ‘hard’ science or the Tusi couple might easily tell him. On the other hand, if he literally means the ability to describe the world better than one’s predecessors, then every human being from ancient Mesopotamia to yesterday who ever really looked at nature and tried to describe it in a new and better way would be a generator of modern science. And there I would fully agree with him. By the same criterion, al-Khwarizmi (fl. 830), al-Razi (d. 923), Ibn al-Haytham (c. 1039), Mu’ayyad al-Din al-`Urdi (d. 1266), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), Ibn al-Nafis (c. 1288), `Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 1232), Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), Shams al-Din al-Khafri (d. 1550) and even Dawud al-Antaki (d. 1600), to name only a few, would be just as much the makers of ‘modern’ science as the savants of Renaissance Europe. Every one of these scientists arrived at a better description of the world that differed significantly from the depictions of their predecessors and that came much closer to our current understanding. Even if Professor Huff wishes to restrict the use of the term ‘better’ to mean simply ‘closer to our modern understanding of the world in the context of the astronomical discipline,’ then the honour of inaugurating ‘modern’ science must go to Aristarchus of Samos (c. 300 BC), the first person known to have proposed a heliocentric theory, and not to Copernicus, as Professor Huff would have us believe.

Why exactly does Professor Huff attempt to define explicitly what he means by science this time around, giving less importance to ‘hard’ science? In my opinion, the real reason is that he has come to recognize that scientists in the Arabic/Islamic world were just as competent in the more technical fields of science as their European counterparts?if the criteria of scientific production are not restricted to national or cultural affiliations. When that realization finally dawned upon him, he shifted the goal posts to define science more in terms of ways of thinking and attempts to describe the world. However, by broadening his definition of science and making it culture-free?and, here, I again agree with him fully?he has damaged his own case, for he can no longer claim that the ability to describe the world ‘better’ than one’s predecessor is a peculiarity of Western science. Unless that goat still flies.

Before leaving the methodological domain, I want to invite the reader to revisit my original article which, contrary to Professor Huff’s assertions, does address the ‘decline’ of Arabic science and the rise of science in Europe. I attributed that ‘decline’ and the dramatic increase in European science?just at the time when the latter was beginning to benefit from the achievements of the former?to the ‘discovery’ of the New World, rather than to other possible ‘causes,’ such as the legal incorporation of universities and the existence of freedom of inquiry and expression in one culture and not in the other. Indeed, the ‘causes’ proposed by Professor Huff cannot stand strictly on their own, for almost every European princely house benefited from the newly ‘found’ resources of the Americas. This newly-acquired wealth, which involved human labour as well as raw material, both of which were obtained under dubious circumstances and at virtually no cost, allowed royal courts to patronize university chairs, royal academies, scientific societies and similar institutions. Under these conditions, I claim, scientists benefited from sufficient funds and leisure time to pursue their investigations and to do so again and again, in other words, to be persistent. A corollary to all this is that scientific activity itself became a means for patrons to acquire further wealth and so on.

As for the issue of ‘decline,’ I claimed then, as I have done in many other places, that Arabic/Islamic science did not so much decline as lose the scientific race owing to the injection of unimaginable new economic resources into European courts (to the exclusion of courts in the Islamic world). The race was not won because one culture was inherently superior to the other in some essentialist way (as Professor Huff seems to imply) or because universities were legally incorporated bodies while madrasas (which Professor Huff continues to falsely equate with universities) were not. The important issue was patronage (read, investment in science). I would have thought that such an analysis was obvious, but here, too, I seem to have a fundamental disagreement with Professor Huff.

In trying to explain why there was a ‘sudden’ surge in European science during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries?and not, for example, before?and the lack of a similar phenomenon in the Islamic world, which was then equally qualified in the field, I did what all competent historians must: I surveyed the historical record before coming to a conclusion. When the functionaries of the early `Abbasid period (eighth to tenth century) invested in science, the record shows that there was a ‘sudden’ increase in scientific activities. When large numbers of bureaucrats, such as the Barmakids (under Harun al-Rashid, d. 805) or the Banu Musa (mainly under al-Mutawakkil, d. 847), commissioned scientific translations, there followed an immediate upsurge in scientific production that lasted a few centuries. When the Ilkhanids patronized the Maragha observatory (directed by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi) toward the second half of the thirteenth century, there was an instant rise in the production of astronomical works?the most original scientific writings ever to come out of Islamic civilization. Again, when Ulugh Beg sponsored a school and an observatory in the first half of the fifteenth century, there was another remarkable output of astronomical works. Jumping to the modern period, when Sputnik went into space in 1957, there was an immediate allocation of funds for scientific activities in the United States which, less than a decade later, put men on the moon.

My review of the record in the Arabic/Islamic world indicated a pattern whereby the patronage of scientific activities was almost inevitably followed by an efflorescence of scientific production. There is no reason to believe that the same was not true for Europe, the difference being that the immense influx of resources following the ‘discovery’ of the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, the subsequent Age of Discovery and ensuing colonial and imperial adventures almost certainly enriched European courts to an exceptional degree and permitted them to patronize European scientists, artists, philosophers and so on at an unprecedented level. If crude Marxism underlies my linkage between the resources made available to scientists and the resulting upsurge in scientific production, as Professor Huff contends, then I must be in the same hotbed of ‘Marxism’ as the United States government, which hoped that the same connection would produce the same results when Sputnik jolted America out of its complacency. More on this later.

Unfortunately, Professor Huff only understands the connection between science and wealth in terms of the immediate material gains accruing to the individual scientists involved. He has a similar problem with my assertion that the marketplace can determine what kind of science is promoted and what kind is not. Otherwise, how may one interpret his asking what benefits Copernicus might have hoped to achieve from heliocentrism or Galileo from his support of Copernicanism? However, he also realizes?and parenthetically admits?the fact that, even when it comes to private gain, much scientific activity operates in tandem with commercial activity, as in the case of pharmaceutical companies and the like, in other words, in the centres of capital.

My intention was not to make connections between individual scientists and the immediate commercial benefits deriving from specific ideas that would nowadays be patented, but rather to point to the fact that when you assemble a group of scientists to work in a relatively carefree environment (that is, an environment made free of care by the availability of capital), their collective activities are bound to make a difference in terms of scientific production. A good number of them may produce nothing of memorable importance, but the availability of resources to support the whole group will ensure that at least some of them make remarkable discoveries. Bayt al-Hikma of Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma’mun, or the various institutions called Dar al-`Ilm all over the Islamic world, the Maragha Observatory itself, the Accademia dei Lincei and, more recently, the Institute for Advanced Study, have all acted in this same fashion. Similarly, the market share and, thus, the available resources, of companies producing Windows-driven applications simply dwarf any attempt to produce alternative software based upon Macintosh systems?this despite the fact that the latter technology is commonly accepted to be superior, albeit perhaps on its way to extinction. In this particular instance, the market-place decides which developments in science and technology survive and which do not, irrespective of the inherent superiority of one technology over the other. In a nutshell, these are the kind of connections that I thought more worthy of consideration than those proposed by Professor Huff.

In my view, the fundamental connections between the availability of resources and the ability to produce science may be usefully exploited to understand the ‘sudden’ rise in activities in Renaissance Europe. I do not believe that it is accidental that Galileo became a member of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1609 or that the same academy sponsored scientific projects of a particular nature. One of the earliest such projects was the republication of a survey of medical plants in recently-established colonies in Mexico, then called New Spain; the survey had been completed a few years earlier by Dr. Francisco Hernandez (1515-87) at the request of King Philip II of Spain (1527-98). I am almost certain that King Philip was not motivated by a simple love of nature, as Professor Huff seems to believe, and that the interest of the Accademia dei Lincei was not totally devoid of commercial motives. If that were the case, why focus upon the plants of New Spain, rather than those of the Old World? One might also mention similar connections between Galileo and the commercial navy at the Venetian arsenal, or his relationship to the wealth of the Medici family, or his crude attempts to sell the names of the ‘stars’ that he had seen with his telescope to the Medici duke of Florence, the king of France and, even, the Pope,(2) or his construction of mechanical instruments for wealthy patrons and students?at a profit, I suppose.

I do not have the time, the space, or the inclination to document the connections between every scientist and the capital that made his?or, more rarely, her?work possible. The lesson of history is clear: science flourishes in well-funded environments. So is there a link between the phenomenal wealth generated by the ‘discovery’ of the New World and the impressive increase in scientific activities in Europe almost two generations later? While I respect Professor Huff’s persistence in systematically denying such a connection, I must leave it to the reader to judge.

In explaining the rise of ‘modern’ science, Professor Huff greatly emphasizes the legal status of European universities and their protection under law, as well as the freedom of inquiry that was supposedly nurtured in Europe and nowhere else. This begs the question of why, in its long history, did the Roman Empire, with its remarkably sophisticated legal system and the individual legal protection that it provided for its citizens, fail to produce universities or ‘progressive’ science until it came into contact with Islamic civilization?

Professor Huff’s Reply seems to reveal that there are not only questions that he has overlooked, but also important facts that he does not fully understand. For example, he seems to be very badly informed concerning Copernicus’ indebtedness to earlier astronomers working in the Islamic world, for he writes: Whether or not Copernicus benefited directly from Arab astronomers, other than possibly borrowing ‘the Tusi couple’ remains an open question, one upon which I remain to be convinced. This comment is referenced to footnote five, where he offers the claim that Copernicus may very well have made his discoveries independently. Were it merely a question of borrowing the Tusi couple, one might be tempted to withhold judgement, as Professor Huff has the full right to do, and might entertain the possibility of an independent discovery. But there are too many coincidences regarding too many technical details. Copernicus used the exact alphabetic letters that Tusi did to designate the same points in the proof of the Tusi couple, as the late Willy Hartner demonstrated as early as 1973; his model for the moon was identical to that of Ibn al-Shatir; his solution of the problem of the upper planets made use of the same model and theorem employed by Mu’ayyad al-Din al-`Urdi (left without proof by Copernicus himself and only later proven by Maestlin, at the request of Kepler); and he used the same technique as Ibn al-Shatir in the solution of the model for the planet Mercury, namely, the insertion of another Tusi couple at the last connection. When all of these facts are taken together, the notion of independent discoveries becomes too far-fetched.

But when it comes to details, Professor Huff has a fall-back position, for he admits, in connection with another curious detail that does not fit into his prejudged scheme, I have no special training in astronomy. In this context, he is doubting my assertion that a comparison between the works of al-Khafri (d. 1550) and those of Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375) proves that, on sheer mathematical grounds, the former was a much more accomplished astronomer than the latter, which casts strong doubt upon Professor Huff’s assertion in his book that Ibn al-Shatir was one of the last creative astronomers in Islamic civilization and, after him, the decline. How may a sociologist give himself the freedom to assess an entire field of human endeavour, one that requires a high level of training in technical mathematics, as does mathematical astronomy, when he has no special training? By necessity, he must depend upon second- and third-hand sources in order to reach his conclusions. No wonder Professor Huff is yet to be convinced of any of the findings from the last thirty years or so, now well-established and very briefly sketched in my original review article. But some of these results will eventually appear in the secondary and tertiary literature and this will hopefully give Professor Huff enough confidence to include them in later revisions or rewritings of his book. While we wait for that development, I have nothing more to add concerning the age of decline that I have not said elsewhere.

One last remark about the putative importance of the freedom of inquiry that the West alone has enjoyed since the thirteenth century, the free public space for such inquiry and the institutionalization and so on to which Professor Huff ascribes the rise of ‘modern’ science. In his analysis, he projects that all of these freedoms were embodied in universities with ‘independent’ legal status and invites us to believe that teachers and students within these institutions enjoyed a degree of freedom unknown to the Islamic world?both in the past and in the present. As evidence for the lack of free inquiry in historical Islamic civilization, he offers a United Nations report authored by Arab intellectuals and allegedly demonstrating that underdevelopment in the Arab world today is caused by just such a deficiency. (Incidentally, this report, which has been widely praised and disseminated, particularly by the American media, and has now apparently come to the attention of Professor Huff, was written by those same Arab intellectuals in English and then translated into unidiomatic and, therefore, incomprehensible, Arabic. So was the report intended to benefit modern Arab readers, the Arab states that deprive them of access to such information, or the post-colonial centre?) However, the very first page of the UN report features the authors’ considered opinion that the most important factor impeding development in Arab countries is, in fact, the Israeli occupation of Arab land. Yet, no one, Professor Huff included, seems to read this page or even mention it, preferring to single out a lack of political freedom as the primary cause of underdevelopment.

Still, it is on the basis of such evidence that Professor Huff gives himself the freedom to speak of the progressive nature of modern science and the stagnating nature of scientific thought in the Arabic/Islamic context, once again disregarding, in true Orientalist fashion, differences in time and place, and precluding the possibility of change between pre-Renaissance and pre-colonial times, as well as the ongoing colonial and neo-colonial predicament of today’s developing world?a world that contains countries that are neither Arab nor Muslim, for example, in Africa and Latin America.

Some of the assertions in Professor Huff’s earlier book and current Reply are factually incorrect. First, I must set the record straight regarding a very important error that appears in the latter. While he affirms that the breakthrough to modern astronomy is by common wisdom datable to the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in 1543, he and the common wisdom that he cites seem to be unaware of Copernicus’ Commentariolus, in which heliocentrism was proposed some time before 1515. If the dates do matter, then they should be correctly cited.

Second, it is not true that all medieval Muslim madrasas taught the religious sciences alone. The Dakhwariyya school in Damascus focused solely upon medicine,(3) as did almost every endowed hospital that provided a medical education; these institutions were fully protected from interference in their curriculum by the very endowments that established them in the first place. A scholar of religious studies, such as Kamal al-Din Ibn Man`a of Mosul (d. 1242), could teach the astronomy of the Almagest, some music and even the Old and the New Testaments in his school, if he so pleased, or at his home?and, apparently, he did.(4) Ulugh Beg’s madrasa in Samarqand was deeply involved in astronomical education at the highest theoretical level.(5) And the later Shi`i seminaries in Iran all taught astronomy as well as religious studies and continue to do so until this day.(6) But Professor Huff makes no distinctions between Sunni Islam and Shi`i Islam, in the same way that he makes no distinctions between now and then. According to his essentialist approach, they are all part of a monolithic Islam that has not changed since 622.

Third, it is not true that there were no anatomical drawings in the Arabic/Islamic world, for early renderings of human, as well as animal, anatomy have been reproduced in several contemporary works, including art books.(7) These drawings may not be as artistically ‘appealing’ as the ones that appear in Vesallius’ atlas, but then, artistic ability is not the measure of scientific ability, as Professor Huff should know. Al-Khafri, for example, manages to discuss the most intricate geometric models in a book of some five hundred pages without accompanying drawings, yet his prose and his message are crystal clear.(8)

These latter two correctives are not unrelated to the question of freedom of inquiry. As I noted in my original article, students in the medieval Islamic world, who had the full freedom to chose their teacher and the subjects that they would study together, could not have been worse off than today’s students, who are required to pursue a specific curriculum that is usually designed to promote the ideas of their elders and preserve tradition, rather than introduce them to innovative ideas that challenge ‘received texts.’ Moreover, if Professor Huff had looked more carefully at the European institutions that produced science, he would have found that they were mainly academies and royal courts protected by individual potentates and not the universities that he wishes to promote. But neither universities nor courts were beyond the reach of the Inquisition, which is another point that he seems to neglect.

Again, I do not mean to say that freedom of inquiry, individual freedom and political freedom are not positive values that we should all strive to attain; I mention their absence only to cast doubt upon Professor Huff’s thesis that such freedoms are the generators of science. In arguing this apparently preconceived thesis, Professor Huff is very selective of the evidence that he presents to support his claims. For example, he seems to forget that the same free and European public space that he holds responsible for the production of ‘modern’ science was unable to protect the most brilliant minds of Renaissance Europe. That ‘free’ public space was the place where the brilliant Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 (at the urging of the Protestants, no less)(9) and where Bruno met a similar fate.(10) It was the venue for Galileo’s famous trial, where he was forced to recant,(11) and for the Inquisition in general, which put even Kepler’s Epitome of Copernican Astronomy on the Index (12) and constantly harassed and then imprisoned Guillaume Postel (d. 1581).(13) In the twentieth century, after the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment, that same ‘free’ space was nearly monopolized by the most monstrous political regimes in human history?the Nazi regime of Germany, and the Stalinist one of the Soviet Union.

I would have refrained from going into such detail had Professor Huff not accused me of advocating such regimes in his attempts to deny that they are capable of producing sophisticated science and to prove that Western science is the product of free inquiry, which he now seems to equate with political freedom. And while I do not wish to be identified with any doctrine that advocates anything less than complete political and intellectual freedom, I would like to indicate two more examples of very sophisticated scientific production that took place during our own lifetimes and under these most repressive regimes. As Professor Huff likes anatomical atlases, I cite the infamous one produced by Eduard Pernkopf, the Nazi dean of Vienna’s medical school, and his staff, which was recently described as one of the most important anatomical atlases since the work of Vesalius.14 It has been established, I hasten to add, that the cadavers dissected for the purposes of this atlas belonged to criminals tried by a local Vienna court and executed before they reached Pernkopf; eight percent of these criminals were Jews. The question of whether physicians ought to consult this incredible scientific tool continues to be debated at Columbia University, where I teach. But despite the debate, one thing is clear: the regime under which this atlas was produced and the ideology of its creators do not detract from its scientific value. One need not be an advocate of Nazi doctrine to recognize that simple fact.

As for the other oppressive regime that produced sophisticated science, let me refer Professor Huff to a statement made by the current American national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, a Russian expert in her own right, when she spoke at a public lecture in 1998, saying: Sputnik demonstrated to us and to the world that not only was Soviet science and technology a lot better and more advanced than anybody had thought, but that perhaps the Soviet Union was ahead of us.15 Presumably, Dr Rice is not, and has never been, a Stalinist.

I can already hear Professor Huff protest that both of the aforementioned regimes fell from power and were thus unable to maintain enduring scientific momentum. My only response is to say that tyrannical regimes do not necessarily fall because of their repressive nature; in the case of Germany and the Soviet Union, the entire free world played a salient role. (In the case of the democratically-elected regime of Chile’s Salvador Allende, repression was not a factor, but the conniving of the world’s most powerful democracy and its secretary of state, Dr. Henry Kissinger, was.) Moreover, they do not necessarily fall because of their inability to sustain science and the fact that these two regimes did fall is insufficient to prove that they could not do so.

But I continue to hope that Professor Huff can still make the distinction between the political behaviour of a regime?or one’s own government, for that matter?and the ability of that regime to produce science. For although the United States precipitated the overthrow of a democratically- elected regime and although its secretary of state may well face trial for crimes against humanity, the science produced in the United States is not any less scientific.


  • 1. George Saliba, Seeking the Origins of Modern Science? Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies 1, no. 2 (1999) : 139-152, a review article on Toby E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • 2. J. D. Bernal, Science in History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974), 2:427.
  • 3. Yousef Eche, Les Bibliothèques arabes publiques et semi-publiques en Mesopotamie, en Syrie et en Egypte au moyen age (Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1967), 236.
  • 4. Abu al-Abbas Shams al-Din Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr ibn Khallikan, Wafayat al-A`yan, ed. Ihsan Abbas (Beirut: Dar al-Thaqafa, 1972), 5:311ff.
  • 5. George Saliba, Reform of Ptolemaic Astronomy at the Court of Ulugh Beg, (forthcoming); Aydin Sayili, Ghiyath al-Din al-Kashi’s Letter on Ulugh Bey and the Scientific Activity in Samarqand (Ankara: Turk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi, 1985).
  • 6. George Saliba, Persian Scientists in the Islamic World: Astronomy from Maragha to Samarqand, in The Persian Presence in the Islamic World, eds. Richard G. Hovannisian and Georges Sabagh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 126-146.
  • 7. See, for example, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (n.p.: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company, 1976), 153ff, esp. 163-165.
  • 8. See Shams al-Din al-Khafri, Al-Takmila fi sharh al-Tadhkira, MS Zahiriyya Arabic Falak no. 6727 (Asad National Library, Damascus).
  • 9. Lawrence Conrad et al., The Western Medical Tradition, 800 BC to AD 1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 329.
  • 10. See Bernal, Science in History, 420-421, where he says: Bruno was a martyr not so much to science as to freedom of thought, for he made neither experiment nor observation, but insisted to the end on his right to draw what conclusions he chose from the facts of science.
  • 11. Ibid., 434.
  • 12. John North, Astronomy and Cosmology (New York: Norton, 1995), 323; Arthur Berry, A Short History of Astronomy (New York: Dover, 1961), 171.
  • 13. Georges Weill and François Secret, Vie et caractère de Guillaume Postel (Milan: Arche, 1987); Guillaume Postel, 1581-1981: Actes du colloque international d’Avranches 5-9 septembre, 1981 (n.p.: Editions de la Maisnie, 1985), esp. 29-39.
  • 14. Dr. Scott A. Norton, On First Looking into Pernkopf’s Atlas (Part 2),Archives of Dermatology 137 (2001) : 549.
  • 15. Dr. Rice’s topic was An American Foreign Policy for the 21st Century and the occasion was the Eighteenth Annual National Conference of Callan Associates Investment Group, held in San Francisco on 2-4 February 1998. The reference may be found online at

Read George Saliba's original article, and Toby Huff's response.

weldone sir George

I admire you sir and i admire mostly your clear reasoning that is undertaking with clear reasonable mathematical and logical mathod. I had the honour to see some manuscripts from 9th century of some reason i can easilly read the content because it´s KOffy moroccan writing that have been spread that time in andalousia, and i absolutly agree with you that science is a tool that can be consieved depending on needs and that needs are never constant in time otherwise west people would not come visitting us and tell us how much we are smart :D
best regards sir and wish you so long life with so great achievments
(sorry my seconde language is arabic and the third one is french so I am sorry for my weak english which is my fourth language)

Er ... Wrong, quite wrong

Speaking about "not fully understanding", I note that Saliba is hopelessly misinformed as to why Bruno and Servetus were (lamentably) executed.

Not for science, but for heretical teachings on theology.

Re: Sputnik, I think this misunderstands Huff's point, that such endeavors could not continue to flourish under such a regime - as indeed it did not. One should also note that very highly educated persons today can be totally ignorant as to the real, medieval roots of science, and can be expected to make erroneous statements in this regard.

But the other information is interesting. However, would be nice to know when those madrasahs were operating - in the pre- or post-occassionalist era?