Toby Huff: Reply to George Saliba

Essay, Exchange of Views, I
Toby E. Huff
The Rise of Early Modern Science:
A Reply to George Saliba (1)

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

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Read George Saliba's original article, and Dr. Saliba's response to the reply.

An author, such as myself, can only be grateful when a leading historian of Arabic science takes one of his books so seriously as to write a long review article on it. Professor George Saliba calls The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West a refreshing and welcome contribution to the field documenting . . . a whole array of the achievements of Arabic/Islamic (and Chinese) science in the ongoing project of modern science (143, 144). At the same time, Professor Saliba raises a host of issues, not all of equal importance, nor even connected to the main thesis of my book. In this reply, I shall present my comments under four headings with the intention of making the themes and thesis of my book evident to the reader. These headings address the main issues raised in Saliba’s essay, namely, the nature of ‘modern’ science, the possibility that economic factors have played a significant role in its rise, innovation in Arabic/Islamic astronomy after Ibn al-Shatir and the fourteenth century, and the nature and role of free inquiry.

At the outset, one must say that there is a defensiveness in Professor Saliba’s essay, which, as it unfolds, repeatedly begs the question that was at the centre of my original inquiry. In addition, Saliba rather surprisingly opposes 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. This is surely counter-intuitive.

Saliba gets started on the wrong track by labeling the study of the rise of ‘modern’ science as the search for origins, a term I never use. Throughout my book, I suggest that the propensity to look into the nature of existence and to propose explanations for it is universal. If we start with that assumption, then we can focus upon the beginnings that people made in various places around the world to construct proto-scientific theories and explanations. Clearly, some groups, communities, societies and civilizations have been more successful than others in this process and the question then becomes one of analyzing contrasting cultural and institutional settings that either encouraged or impeded the progress of scientific inquiry.

My particular inquiry began with what I called the ‘problem’ of Arabic science, namely, the intellectual question of how it happened that scholars communicating mainly in Arabic excelled in scientific inquiries during certain periods of time and, yet, failed to continue those inquires so that there was a decline, indeed, such a steep and long-lasting decline that people in later centuries might conclude that the ‘Arabs’ had never been masters of science.(2) I submit that this is a fascinating and vexatious intellectual problem. It is also obvious that dozens of Middle Eastern scholars and observers have agonized over this puzzle and sought to understand it for a very long time.

Moreover, in my book, I reviewed the most impressive advances in astronomy and mathematics that were accomplished by Middle Eastern scholars by the end of the fourteenth century; in later chapters, I also recounted a number of achievements in medicine. Then, I asked why this development did not lead to ‘modern’ science in the Arabic/Islamic context. It is curious that Professor Saliba does not want to acknowledge that this is an intellectual puzzle worthy of intense study. For, as he himself points out in his review, Arabic science was superior to Western science (140) prior to the Renaissance. He even claims that the most innovative mathematical and astronomical ideas that were employed during the European Renaissance were themselves borrowed from Arabic/ Islamic civilization.(3) If these great advances were the very ideas that made the astronomy of the European Renaissance possible, in the mathematical technical sense, (143) why did they not make it possible in the Arabic/Islamic context? Indeed, the first four pages of Saliba’s review, with their apparent emphasis on ‘methodological’ issues, serve no purpose other than to avoid facing this central problem. Stated differently, it is claimed by Saliba that certain advances in astronomy in Arabic lands made modern astronomy possible in Europe, but apparently not in the Middle East. This is surely an intellectual problem worth investigating, one that goes far beyond his methodological diversions.

In so far as astronomy is concerned, conventional wisdom says that the breakthrough to modern astronomy occurred with the appearance of Nicholas Copernicus’ The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543. This was the book in which the author proposed abandoning the geocentric orientation of the celestial system in favour of a heliocentric one. It was revolutionary not only in this astronomical sense, but in that it challenged the authority of the Christian Church. Copernicus (who was a Church administrator himself) and his followers thus claimed to know the composition of the universe better than the official Church hierarchy. This is a perfectly good landmark for establishing the advent of modern science, as it unleashed a whole series of intellectual struggles within the scientific community and within the established religious authority of Europe. Furthermore, it is obvious that the work of Galileo directly derived from Copernicus’ great hypothesis and it was he who bluntly challenged the Church on virtually all epistemological grounds, claiming that there was a source of knowledge about the world other than religion and the Bible?namely, natural science.

My book focuses upon the preceding legal, institutional and intellectual developments that made the Copernican innovation possible. That is, long before Copernicus and Galileo, there was an intellectual tradition established in Europe, above all in the universities, that, yes, institutionalized the study of natural phenomena, particularly by placing the corpus of Aristotle, along with a number of Arabic works and commentaries, at the centre of the university curriculum. This occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In short, the Copernican revolution was a product of the educational system put in place by Europeans several hundred years earlier. As is well-known, the madrasas of the Middle Eastern world systematically excluded philosophy and the natural sciences from any ‘formal’ teaching conducted within their confines during this period of time. (I put ‘formal’ in quotation marks because there was no formal curriculum in the madrasas.) Evidently, the teaching of philosophy and the natural sciences ran against the religious commitments and identity of the madrasas, an identity that persisted into the twentieth century.(4) This was a major issue in my book, but Professor Saliba is entirely silent on the subject. I shall return to it later. 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.(5)

The highly significant Copernican year of 1543 also contains another milestone in the rise of modern science: the publication of Vesalius’ nonpareil, On the Fabric of the Human Body. This famous work, containing a huge number of highly-detailed anatomical drawings, is generally regarded as laying the foundations for modern medicine because of its illustrations of the human body’s main systems?bones, muscles, veins, nerves and internal organs. At the same time, it represents the expression of an empirical agenda, the first-hand examination of the body through human dissection (autopsy). This was the culmination of several centuries of empirical anatomical investigation extending back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As we know, human dissection was generally considered to be forbidden in Islamic thought and practice, mainly, it seems, because it was seen as a form of ‘mutilation’ that was forbidden by various legal texts.(6) Briefly, then, this is another area in which we may point to a new spirit of inquiry (and routinized activity) that encouraged modern science. It broke with various intellectual and moral traditions of the past and subjected various claims to empirical testing. And again, unlike the madrasas, the universities incorporated medical training, including the practice of human dissection, into their curricula.

In an effort to deflect the reader from focusing upon these disparities between the progressive nature of modern science and the stagnating nature of scientific thought in the Arabic/Islamic context, Saliba cites a comment from A. C. Graham to the effect that we cannot know whether the ancients or the moderns have come closer to scientific truth. Yet, it should not escape our attention that Copernicus and Galileo did argue about the truth of their work or, at least, about which set of hypothetical constructions, those of the geocentric or the heliocentric system, better described the world. Despite Saliba’s role as devil’s advocate, I think that we can fairly conclude that heliocentrism is a better description of the world and that, although the Copernican system is not a complete and final theory, it is a better approximation of the celestial movements than the geocentric view. ‘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.

Similarly, the anatomical drawings of Vesalius and his discussion of all the parts and systems of the body are, in fact, a better description of the human body than the one provided by Galen. Indeed, Vesalius claimed to have corrected over 200 errors in Galen’s account of human anatomy, which was based almost wholly upon animal dissections. Moreover, Vesalius’ illustrations are far superior to anything to be found in the Arabic/Islamic tradition (where pictorial representation of the human body was particularly suspect) or, for that matter, in the Chinese and (I presume) Indian traditions.(7) This is not to sound a note of triumph, but rather to clarify the point that modern science represents scientific progress, a point that Saliba seeks to obscure. Thus, Saliba is correct to say that no one seems to question the proposition that the ‘modern’ scientific tradition made its first appearance in the West (140), a term that he finds problematic, which I grant, in part. This is so because there is a scholarly consensus on this point and it comes after at least a century of intense exploration of the historical records of other sciences and civilizations, above all the Arabic and the Chinese traditions.

A year after my book was first published, Professor Saliba published an article about the sixteenth-century astronomer, Shams al-Din al-Khafri (d. 1550).(8) According to Saliba, Khafri was a figure of creative continuity in Arab astronomy and he?and perhaps others of that period?represented a new ‘golden age’ of Arab astronomy, not a period of decline. On the basis of this, Saliba suggests that all that I say in my book on this subject, especially the idea of decline in Arab astronomy, has to be reassessed (148). Saliba makes many other claims in this connection, most of which I consider excessive.

Although I have no special training in astronomy and the jury is still out among historians of science regarding Saliba’s claims, the suggestion that Khafri was a progressive innovative astronomer, given the fact that he apparently sought to preserve and perfect the Ptolemaic system, seems highly improbable. As suggested above, the Copernican model was a progressive new model that brought us closer to the true constitution of the universe than the Ptolemaic system. As A. I. Sabra put it, speaking of Khafri’s work, it would be odd to call ‘revolutionary’ a reformist project intended to consolidate Ptolemaic astronomy by bringing it into line with its own principles.(9) Saliba’s effort to take refuge in the argument that, without a theory of universal gravitation, this new cosmology (of Copernicus) could not be developed (150) is counterfactual. As Noel Swerdlow says, Kepler went far beyond Ptolemy’s methods, and discovered entirely new principles for the precise description of the motions of bodies in the heavens based upon an entirely new physics.(10) The new Copernican theory was fleshed out by a variety of astronomers who followed, above all by Kepler. It was he who proved the elliptical (and hence not perfectly circular) orbit of Mars and related astronomical theorems on the basis of the assumption that the sun was the approximate centre of our universe. He was also aided by the more exact observations of Tycho Brahe. The absence of a universal theory of gravitation until the time of Newton was no impediment to the early adopters of Copernicanism and even Tycho Brahe, who developed a geo-heliocentric model, was not stymied by this putative absence, even after he discovered that the planets were not encased in ‘crystalline’ spheres. This came about with the observation of the comets of 1577 and 1585, whose trajectories took them through what would have been the ambiguously understood ‘crystalline’ spheres of Venus and Mercury. To be sure, he was not a committed follower of Copernicus, but he was willing to entertain a theory that entailed a partially heliocentric orientation and without the possibility of crystalline spheres holding the planets in place.

In a word, the absence of a universal theory of gravitation offered no impediment to Copernicus himself, nor to his student Rheticus, nor to Galileo, Maestlin, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Christoph Rothmann and the other Copernicans. Thus, rather than showing how Europeans might have been held back from pursuing all of the implications of the new Copernican hypothesis, Saliba’s comments make us wonder all the more just why Arab astronomers, who were, according to Saliba, experiencing a golden age (Khafri died only seven years after Copernicus), were so reluctant to advance bold new theories, theories that would break with the unworkable Ptolemaic model. At the same time, the wide discussion?pro and con?of the new Copernican hypothesis over all of Europe points again to the fact that the study of modern science, especially astronomy, had been institutionalized, that is, that it had been made a regular and acceptable part of public discussion (and teaching) in universities, royal courts and so on. This stands in contrast to the situation in the madrasas of the Arab/Muslim lands.

Before taking up the putative role of economic factors, I want to consider the issue of ‘neutral space’ and free inquiry. It is most puzzling that Saliba rejects these ideas so vehemently, discussing them no less than six times in as many pages. In my book, I argued that the twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a social, intellectual and legal revolution that laid the intellectual and institutional foundations upon which modern science was later constructed. At the heart of this development was the jurisprudential idea of a corporation, a collection of individuals who were recognized as a singular ‘whole body’ and granted legitimate legal autonomy.

Such entities were given the right to sue and be sued, to buy and sell property, to make rules and laws regulating their activities, to adjudicate those laws and to operate according to the principle of election by consent as well as the Roman legal aphorism, what affects everyone should be considered and approved by everyone. Among the entities granted status as legitimate corporations were cities and towns, charitable organizations, professional guilds (especially of physicians) and, of course, universities. Nothing comparable to this kind of legal autonomy emerged in China or under Islam. In short, the European medievals created autonomous, self-governing institutions of higher learning and then imported into them a methodologically powerful and metaphysically rich cosmology that directly challenged and contradicted many aspects of the traditional Christian world-view. This disinterested agenda was no longer a private, personal, or idiosyncratic preoccupation, but involved a shared set of texts, questions, commentaries and, in some cases, centuries-old expositions of unsolved physical and metaphysical questions that set the highest standards of intellectual inquiry. Through the incorporation of Aristotle’s books on natural science into the curriculum of the medieval universities, a disinterested agenda of naturalistic inquiry was institutionalized. It was institutionalized as a curriculum, a course of study.(11)

Since these bodies were, in fact, legally entitled to study and teach whatever they elected to make part of the curriculum, one could say that they occupied a neutral zone protected by and from political and religious authorities. At the centre of their curriculum was the main body of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, that is, his Physics, On the Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, On the Soul, Meteorology and Small Works on Natural Things, and biology, such as his History of Animals, Parts of Animals and Generation of Animals. It is in these books, as Professor Edward Grant argues, that we find the treatises that formed the comprehensive foundation for the medieval conception of the physical world and its operation.(12) In contrast to this, the Islamic madrasas deliberately excluded all of the natural works of Aristotle, as well as philosophy, logic and natural theology. Instead, they taught the ‘Islamic sciences,’ consisting of the Qur’an, the Sunna, Islamic law, Arabic poetry, literature, history and genealogy, and some arithmetic. (Later, they did admit the teaching of logic and Islamic theology.) Furthermore, in Europe (for example, in Paris), the study of the Aristotelian corpus was fully legitimized by statute in 1255, although it remained in dispute. As a result, the universities generated a whole literature of naturalistic questions that became, in turn, a shared agenda of naturalistic studies. Centred upon Aristotelian natural philosophy, this agenda served as the intellectual core of university instruction for the next 400 years (including the education of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and others).

Speculative questions were pursued, such as whether the world is singular or plural; whether the earth turns on its axis or is stationary; whether every effecting thing is the cause of that which it is effecting; whether things can happen by chance; whether a vacuum is possible; whether the natural state of an object is stationary or in motion; whether luminous celestial bodies are hot; whether the sea has tides; and so on for virtually every charted field of enquiry.(13) Surely, the permissibility of these studies in an officially-recognized and legally-defined context suggests something more than a random, spasmodic pursuit of the natural sciences and something more than the pursuit of economic gain. I submit that they also indicate the existence of a very significant intellectual zone of free inquiry that was publicly available to scholars, as well as laymen. The continuity of this ongoing, university-centred debate with respect to Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis has recently been reiterated. As Bernard Goldstein puts it, Copernicus’ initial commitment to heliocentrism was a response to an issue debated in the philosophical community at the time when he attended universities in Italy, ca. 1500.(14)

At least three additional points need to be made. The legal autonomy that existed in the European universities did not exist in the Muslim world because the legal concept of a corporation, a groups of actors treated as a collective whole, did not exist. This legal defect had major implications for Islamic civilization, not least in the sphere of economic development, as Timor Kuran has made clear.(15)

Second, it is one thing if an activity is pursued randomly by various actors; it is something else altogether if that activity is carried on collectively as a result of a regularized process?that is, an institutionalization of the activity by the enactment of rules, norms and regulations. Clearly, the pursuit of science in Europe via its institutionalization in the universities provided it with a powerful advantage unknown in the Arab/Muslim world until very recently.(16)

Third, this institutionalization of scientific pursuits gave European scholars a surprising degree of freedom of inquiry, not least of all to subject the Holy Book?the Bible?to naturalistic explanation. As I argued in my book, some scholarly clerics actually sought to separate the ‘natural’ from the ‘supernatural’ in an attempt to explain by naturalistic means certain problematic passages in the Bible. For example, a certain Andrew of St. Victor argued that one should first consider all naturalistic possibilities before offering miracles as explanations in the interpretation of Scripture. The interpreter, he wrote, should realize this: in expounding Scripture, when the event described admits of no naturalistic explanation, then and only then should we have recourse to miracles.(17) Scholars have pointed to such discussions during this period of time as the beginning of so-called ‘Higher Criticism,’ the intellectual task of evaluating all of the strands, sources and meanings of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. I submit that this level of freedom of inquiry did not exist in the Arab/Muslim world then and does not exist now. Anyone who has had contact with Muslim circles in the West or elsewhere in the world knows that this subject is one of utmost sensitivity to the Muslim community. H. A. R. Gibb gives the example of an Egyptian shaykh who published, in 1930, an annotated edition of the Qur’an that criticized the old commentaries and interpreted supernatural references in simple, naturalistic ways. Although the purpose of the work was to encourage the younger generation to study the Qur’an, the book was confiscated by the police and an injunction was secured to prevent the writer from preaching or holding religious meetings.(18) This sort of response is what I meant when I wrote of the barriers to freedom of thought, expression, and action in the interests of primordial religious and ethnic identities, but which Saliba apparently doubts (145). Today, one could also add the various restrictions on internet use in various parts of the world to indicate such restrictions. (More on which below.)

While there are always some constraints on intellectual inquiry, I am not as jaundiced as Professor Saliba who seems to believe that free inquiry is essentially a fiction determined, for the most part, by the exigencies of the market place (144). This sad commentary takes us back to the putative role of economic factors that constitutes Saliba’s pet theory.

I have suggested that the breakthrough to modern astronomy (with all its implications) and the anatomical investigations of European medical students are constitutive of modern science.(19) But what, we might ask, was the economic motive of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho Brahe and all the others, to fashion the new astronomy? I don’t know of any. There was no profit to be made by their inquiries, which elicited?especially in the early stages?the wrath of traditionalists and even religious authorities. Likewise, what was the economic motive of all those physicians from the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries who carried out and documented anatomical inquiries based upon dissection? Although Church authorities approved of this practice and, in at least two cases, ordered autopsies for forensic purposes, it must be said that human dissection is repulsive to most people. Moreover, these practitioners were hardly in a position to perform new surgical procedures upon live subjects, for which they might expect remuneration. Finally, medieval medical practice had been such as to stigmatize those who used their hands in the practice of medicine; this is why some forms of surgery and, especially, human dissection had previously been given over to barbers and uneducated folk. This was a custom that Vesalius specifically rejected in his master-work. In general, there was no application for this new knowledge, although a certain prestige probably accrued to those who had an intimate knowledge of human anatomy.

The capstone of this whole line of inquiry was William Harvey’s discovery, in the early seventeenth century, of the greater circulation of blood throughout the body. But that knowledge did not lead to major changes in surgical procedures until the twentieth century, when blood types and a whole range of other discoveries made transfusions, for example, possible. It seems more plausible to say, as Roger French has, that the knowledge of anatomy gained by the medieval and early modern physicians allowed them to argue with each other over the makeup of the body and to disprove various medical authorities, especially Galen, who may have got it wrong.(20)

If we push back the institutionalizing of naturalistic inquiry to the medieval universities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, I am again baffled as to how this might be interpreted as an expression of powerful economic forces. It is the implicit crude Marxism of Professor Saliba’s assertion that clouds vision here. As indicated in my book, there was indeed a ‘commercial revolution’ sweeping Europe from about the twelfth century, but that hardly explains the great interest in Aristotle in the universities of that period or the decision by medical practitioners to undertake dissections and to incorporate medical education into the university curriculum. Similarly, there was another rise in commercial activities in the sixteenth century, but this hardly explains either the motivation of the clerical Copernicus, or of Galileo, Kepler, or Tycho Brahe in developing a new astronomy against the interests of the Church.

Finally, I offer some comments about the general role of science in society?a role about which Saliba is highly skeptical. Indeed, Saliba’s essay is replete with disparaging remarks about science and its utility, not to mention the benefits of freedom of expression. It is my view that scientific inquiry includes not just the natural sciences, but all of the social sciences. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the social sciences? economics, political science, psychology and sociology?have added something to our understanding about how governments and economies work. Social and economic development are not aided solely by scientific production, as Saliba proposes (146), but by a vast array of insights drawn from the social sciences concerning, for instance, the nature of labour and financial markets, the role of technology and other factors in production, and social and political processes. It should also be obvious that the social sciences (and the natural sciences) cannot function properly in societies where there is great secrecy, where all information is considered the unique purview of the government, where permission must be received from state officials before any surveys or related inquiries may be carried out, and where there are prohibitions against the release of such information. Nevertheless, Saliba is of the opinion that (i)t 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 (146). This is such a counter-intuitive claim that I leave it for others to defend. More neutral observers will have noticed that the recently released Arab Human Development Report 2002, sponsored by the United Nations and written entirely by Arab scholars, specifically points to the lack of freedom as one of three major factors holding back development in Arab societies.(21) What is needed is a great enlargement of what many would call the public sphere (and I called neutral space), that zone of interaction in which public and private needs and aspirations merge, so that new alternatives to prevailing ideas and policies may be proposed, discussed and evaluated without fear of personal harm. The prevailing inhibition of the free flow of information, scientific and non-scientific, in the Arab world is dramatically highlighted by the authors of the Arab development report when they estimate that Spain translates more books in a single year than have been translated into Arabic since the beginning of the Arabic/Islamic era.

This brings me to Saliba’s objection to my suggestion that science is especially the natural enemy of authoritarian regimes (145). If we begin with the assumption that the social sciences have a place alongside the ‘hard’ sciences, then it seems evident that authoritarian regimes in general cannot maintain their grip on power while allowing free rein to economists, sociologists, political scientists, or environmentalists. Their national accounts simply will not balance and they know it. Hence, they routinely crack down upon those who offer accounts of the way things are that differ from the official line. I am not aware of the tremendous achievements of science during the Nazi regime. If one considers the highly-developed state of scientific knowledge in Germany prior to the Nazi takeover and then compares it with the results achieved by the end of the regime, its scientific achievements seem unimpressive. Hundreds, if not thousands, of highly trained scientists fled Nazi Germany?to the great benefit of the United States and England, among others. Recently, a great debate has broken out over the fact that the Nazis were unable to develop the atomic bomb, despite considerable effort. The Nazis did carry out a large number of absolutely horrendous medical experiments on human subjects who lost their lives in the process. I would not count this as a tremendous achievement, although it is true that some of the information gathered is unique, precisely because of the inhumanity involved in its collection. Nothing I have written discounts the possibility that totalitarian regimes may embark upon some grand research project for nationalistic purposes and actually be quite successful for a time. On the other hand, I believe all such regimes are doomed and that, in the final accounting, their scientific achievements are likely to be marginal.

Soviet Russia was, perhaps, the most successful of such regimes but, in the end, it did collapse, exposing all of the social, economic and environmental damage that it had done. A not insignificant point seems to be that such a regime was only able to persist so long as it maintained a very large repressive apparatus, stifling dissent (people like the physicist Andre Sakharov and hundreds of others) and preventing disinterested inquiry into its economic and ecological problems, patterns of governance and so on. Indeed, Manuel Castells has made a good case for the proposition that the Soviet Empire collapsed precisely because it could no longer control information in a computer age, with the result that significant numbers of citizens, including crucial members of the power structure, called for radical reform.(22)

But let me add one final example of a global scientific movement that is clearly not motivated by greed, anticipated remuneration, national aggrandizement, or the exigencies of the market place: the international environmental movement. It is evident that there is presently a global view according to which the environment can and must be treated as a single system of natural processes. It is also evident that this point of view was created and shaped by natural scientists who carried out the studies illustrating this fact. And, third, it is now evident that preserving the environment costs money. The champions of environmentalism wish to show that preserving the environment is in the global interest, but the irreducible fact is that the human community, and, hence, all nation-states, will have to pay financially and in terms of economic development for the apparently long-term interests revealed by science. Scientists and sympathetic laymen have rallied to the cause, in effect creating a global environmental movement complete with all sorts of international treaties and organizations, the objective being what some call a global institution dedicated to preserving the environment.(23) Moreover, this movement began in the nineteenth century and continued to strengthen throughout the twentieth and now the twenty-first.(24) This is as good an example of ‘free inquiry’ being carried out in the service of the human community as one can find. It clearly shows that scientists investigate natural phenomena with a view to improving more than the financial bottom line. This is not so say that vested interests, for example, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, have never paid scientists to pursue scientific questions that have purely commercial applications for those interests. It is only to say that the claim that all free inquiry is just a fiction supporting the market-place is greatly exaggerated. I continue to believe in the possibility and the necessity of dispassionate inquiry?of the past as of the present?for the purpose of better understanding how the world came to be the way it is and, not least of all, for making the future better than the past.


  • 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). The revised second edition of The Rise of Early Modern Science will be published in the spring of 2003.
  • 2. The reader should note that, in my book, I stated clearly that I used the term ‘Arab’ to refer collectively to the whole range of people from diverse ethnic groups throughout the broader Middle East. For the purposes of my study, this common identity was based upon the language they employed, not ethnic identity in the strict sense. From my point of view, science is always a civilizational undertaking produced through the cooperation of individuals from diverse societies and communities who share, nonetheless, an identity on the highest levels, especially regarding religion and law.
  • 3. I am omitting comments on Chinese science in the main text here for simplicity’s sake. I should say, however, that I think Saliba greatly exaggerates the contributions and influence of Chinese science, above all its putative influence on the West. As I pointed out in my book (especially chapters seven and eight), Joseph Needham, in his many volumes on Chinese science and technology, says that there were no Chinese precursors to Galileo in the area of physics; similarly, Chinese optics was not as advanced as Arabic optics under Ibn al-Haytham; and, clearly, Chinese astronomy lagged severely behind the level of Arabic astronomy, as it lacked its geometrical foundation. In addition, trigonometry, which has generally been conceded to have been an ‘Arab’ invention, was absent in Chinese mathematics. Consequently, no one has ever shown?and surely not Joseph Needham?that Chinese science had any impact on the disciplines in the West known as physics, astronomy, optics, or upon the mathematics of the Renaissance. Moreover, Chinese medicine has been studied by some historians of science, contrary to Saliba’s suggestion, and Needham, for example, has had many things to say about it. However, it is also true that the Chinese rarely practiced human dissection so that they were unable to make significant contributions to the fundamental medical science of anatomy.
  • 4. English readers are familiar with three major studies of the madrasas based upon original Arabic sources: George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981); Jonathan Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Michael Chamberlain, Knowledge and Social Practice in Medieval Damascus, 1190-1350 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • 5. I say this after having read the fascinating recent study by F. Jamail Ragep, Tusi and Copernicus: The Earth’s Motion in Context, Science in Context 14, nos. 1-2 (2001) : 145-163. The similarity of arguments regarding the possible daily axial rotation of the Earth in the writings of Copernicus and many other writers extending back to the Greeks?and including many Muslim astronomers?provides evidence not only of possible influence, but more strongly of the often simultaneous, independent, and multiple discovery of major ideas in the history of science. Hundreds of such cases have been documented by William F. Ogburn (in the 1920s) and Robert Merton (in the 1960s); for this literature and discussion, see The Rise of Early Modern Science, 149-51. In the present context, I can recall three independent discoveries of the physical explanation of the rainbow?by Theodoric of Freiburg (ca. 1304), by al-Shirazi and by Kamal al-Din al Farisi (ca. 1310).
  • 6. I have discussed these issues in Attitudes towards Dissection in the History of European and Arabic Medicine, in Science: Locality and Universality, ed. Bennacer El Bouazzati (Rabat, Morocco: Mohamed V University, 2002), 1-26; and also in the revised edition of The Rise of Early Modern Science.
  • 7. For the Asian tradition regarding dissection, see Saki Shizu, Concepts of Anatomy in Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine, in History of Traditional Medicine: Proceedings of the 1st and 2nd International Symposia on the Comparative Study of Medicine: East and West, ed. Teizo Ogawa (Osaka: Division of Medical History, the Taniguchi Foundation, 1986), 287-302.
  • 8. 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.
  • 9. A. I. Sabra, Configuring the Universe: Aporetic, Problem Solving, and Kinematic Modeling as Themes of Arabic Astronomy, Perspectives on Science 6, no. 3 (1998) : 322. For Saliba’s response and Sabra’s reply, see George Saliba, Arabic versus Greek Astronomy: A Debate over the Foundation of Science, Perspectives on Science 8, no. 4 (2000) : 328-41 and A. I. Sabra, Reply to Saliba, Perspectives on Science 8, no. 4 (2000) : 342-45.
  • 10. Noel M. Swerdlow, Astronomy in the Renaissance, in Astronomy before the Telescope, ed. Christopher Walker (London: British Museum, 1996), 187 and 214ff.
  • 11. The material in this and the following paragraphs is taken from my book, The Rise of Early Modern Science, 187-89 and 335-338.
  • 12. Edward Grant, Science and the Medieval University, in Rebirth, Reform, and Resilience: Universities in Transition, 1350-1770, eds. James Kittelson and Pamela Transue (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984), 78. After the publication of my book, Ed Grant considerably expanded his analysis of science in the medieval universities; see Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  • 13. See Edward Grant, ed., A Source Book in Medieval Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 199-200; and Grant, Science and the Medieval University, 82ff. In his impressive study, Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Professor Grant has catalogued 400 questions in the area of cosmology alone that were raised during the period that the medieval cosmology persisted. This generated 1,176 known responses and these were by no means slavish replies. Many contained innovations: During the 14th century, other dramatic departures from Aristotle occurred when scholastic natural philosophers demonstrated that an infinite extracosmic void space might lie beyond the world itself; that motion in a hypothetical vacuum was feasible; that the existence of other worlds was possible; and that the daily axial rotation of the earth was an intelligible, astronomical concept, even though it was ultimately rejected (677).
  • 14. Bernard R. Goldstein, Copernicus and the Origin of His Heliocentric System, Journal for the History of Astronomy 33 (2002) : 231.
  • 15. Among his various papers on this topic, see Timur Kuran, The Islamic Commercial Crisis: Institutional Roots of Economic Underdevelopment in the Middle East, USC Center for Law, Economics & Organization, Research Paper No. C-1-12, 20 November 2001. This is one of a series of papers he has written on this subject. See .
  • 16. I discuss the fate of higher learning in the Arab/Muslim world from the eighteenth century to the present in the new epilogue to The Rise of Early Modern Science (2d ed.) and in a forthcoming article, Science and Civilization ‘East’ and ‘West’: The Legacy of the Past in the Internet World, Society.
  • 17. As cited in M.-D. Chenu, Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century (Boston: Little Brown, 1968), 17, n. 35.
  • 18. H. A. R. Gibb, Modern Trends in Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), 54.
  • 19. This is not the place to enter into a broader discussion of the epistemological foundations of the scientific revolution. A highly informed analysis of the conceptual, mathematical and empirical aspects of the revolution, including a discussion of issues in the medical revolution can be found in John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (London: Macmillan, 1997), especially chapter two.
  • 20. Roger French, Dissection and Vivisection in the European Renaissance (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).
  • 21. See United Nations Development Program, Arab Human Development Report 2002; available online at .
  • 22. Castells has made this argument on the basis of Russian documents and field work in the former Soviet Union; see Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), vol. 3, chapter 1. A useful comparative analysis of the science and technology programs of these two totalitarian regimes may be found in Paul R. Josephson, Totalitarian Science and Technology (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996).
  • 23. David John Frank, Ann Hironaka and Evan Schofer, Environmentalism as a Global Institution, American Sociological Review 65 (February 2000) : 122-27.
  • 24. There is now a significant amount of literature on this subject; see, among others, David John Frank, Science, Nature, and the Globalization of the Environment, 1870-1990, Social Forces 76, no. 2 (1997) : 409-37; and Evan Schofer, Rationalized Environmental Discourse in World Policy Formation, in World Policy Formation, eds. John Boli and George M. Thomas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 81-99.

Read George Saliba's original article, and Dr. Saliba's response to the reply.