Saturday, February 2, 2013

Islam, The "Golden Age" and the Blight of Bad Science

Near the end of his excellent book, Scientific Curiosity, Cyril Aydon recounts the tale of Russian geneticist, Trofim Lysenko, who came to Stalin's notice during the Second World War when the need to increase agricultural production was so desperate. 

Trofim, whom Claydon describes as an example of the kind of scientist whose "vanity and lust for power obliterate any lingering regard they might have for evidence or experimental proof", convinced the Russian leader that "inheritance did not reside solely in the gene, and that it was possible to change the characteristics of plants such as food cereals by subjecting them to a changed environment." Thus the promise dangled in front of Stalin was that food production might increase dramatically if one ignored or discounted Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics and followed Trofim's baseless theories.

Stalin was impressed, so impressed in fact that in 1940 he made Trofim Director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences. Henceforth no dissenting voices were permitted - scientists who kept quiet were allowed to hold on to their posts but those who raised objections were sacked or simply "disappeared". So complete was Trofim's hold over the area of genetics in Russia during this period that it wasn't until 1956 that the study of genetics there started to recover.

Aydon concludes his cautionary tale with the following memorable warning:
This story of Stalin and his tame biologist carries a moral for all those who would bend science to meet the needs of ideology. The health and wealth that developed nations enjoy today is the product of advanced technology; and that technology is the product of five centuries of scientific discovery. There is no law that says advance is inevitable [...] Stifle the spirit of enquiry and you can bring scientific progress to a halt. [We have learned that] scientific advance requires freedom from political, religious and cultural constraints.
Trofim was one man. Stalin's terrifying and lunatic ignorance caused the deaths of millions, but after his death Russia started, slowly, to recover. 
Religion is different. The death of a leader (or a scientist) rarely dents its carapace of malign influence. Today even the most ardent Islamic apologist cannot seriously claim that Muslim majority countries have maintained the scientific preeminence of the Golden Age - of which more later- (despite the massively increased funding seen in recent years which has seen wealthy individuals invest their fortunes to further Islamic Science). According to the Middle East Quarterly Review in numerical terms, forty-one predominantly Muslim countries with about 20 percent of the world's total population generate less than 5 percent of its science.
Quaid-e-Azam University physics professor Pervez Hoodbhoy attempted to understand the reasons for this apparent decline in his book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality and looked to the rise of anti-scientific fundamentalists, much like those seen on the fringes of American science-religion debates — only in the Islamic world he says, they’re mainstream.
Similarly, in the mass media of Muslim countries, discussions on "Islam and science" are common and welcomed only to the extent that belief in the status quo is reaffirmed rather than challenged. When the 2005 earthquake struck Pakistan, killing more than 90 000 people, no major scientist in the country publicly challenged the belief, freely propagated through the mass media, that the quake was God’s punishment for sinful behavior.
So what’s the reason for the arrested development of Muslim science?
Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought [...] a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

And therein lies the very nub of the problem of Rational Islam. If one believes that all the answers are contained in a book written almost 1,500 years ago, then any empirical observation that seems to contradict the wisdom/science contained within its pages must be dismissed.

Pakistan is a depressing example of what can happen to science when religious dogma dictates policy. In 1987 the government of Zia-ul-Haq  introduced fundamentalist doctrines in the teaching of science at all levels, from primary schools to universities. The regime organized international conferences and provided funding for research on, unbelievably, such topics as the temperature of hell and the chemical nature of jinns (demons). 
And Egypt, struggling under the idiotic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood will not fare much better. A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood a few years ago declared epidemics to be a form of divine punishment ("God developed the microbe and kept it away from those He wished to spare") and argued against scientific efforts to eradicate the problem.

But what of The Golden Age, so often quoted by Islamic apologists to counter the idea that Islam stifles freedom of thought? Whilst Europe was stumbling around in the Dark Ages, it's said, the Islamic world was responsible for keeping alive the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, and Muslim scientists successfully stood upon these giants' shoulders to produce advances in such various fields as, inter alia:  medicine, mathematics, architecture and chemistry. No-one can or should deny these great contributions. But is it fair to label these scientific advances Islamic or in any way a product of a specifically Muslim environment?

We don't, for example, refer to the spectacular scientific advances and discoveries in Europe during the last 300 years - advances that dwarf anything produced during the Golden Age - as Christian, mainly because we know that the Catholic Church, in particular, was a hindrance to science. The main reason for the awakening of European scientific inquiry was, after all, the Enlightenment - that movement which put reason before superstition and skepticism ahead of faith.

Thus the secular Iranian historian, Shoja-e-din Shafa  in his recent controversial books titled  Rebirth and After 1400 Years questions whether it makes sense to talk of a category such as “Islamic science”. Shafa states that while religion has been a cardinal foundation for nearly all empires of antiquity to derive their authority from, "it does not possess adequate defining factors to justify attribution in the development of science, technology, and arts to the existence and practice of a certain faith within a particular realm. While various empires in the course of mankind's history had an official religion, we do not normally ascribe their achievements to the faith they practiced."

At the bottom of this page you'll find a quote. It reads like this:
The truth is that the pretension to infallibility, by whomsoever made, has done endless mischief; with impartial malignity it has proved a curse, alike to those who have made it and those who have accepted it, and its most baneful shape is book infallibility. For...schools of philosophy are able to retreat from positions that have become untenable, while the dead hand of a book sets and stiffens...Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep seated, sometimes disguised, never absent, antagonism the freedom of thought and the spirit of scientific investigation. For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil, and who hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol, must go the way of all other idols. – T. H. Huxley, Science and Hebrew Tradition
The pretension to infallibility has indeed done endless mischief.  And the more completely one believes in the infallibility of a book, the less freedom of thought and the spirit of scientific inquiry are likely to flourish.


  1. It's ridiculous to suggest the scientific achievements of the Golden Age of Islam had nothing to do with Islam.
    I agree, however, that European science had/has little to do with Christianity

  2. No, he is right. It is risible to suggest that whatever science occured in nominally Islamic domains was directly because of Islam and its theology. Any more than Indian science was directly attributable to Hinduism.

    1. WE will have to wait for Islam's "Enlightenment" before progress can be made. Not much hope of that when any dissenting voices are stifled (or worse).
      God help the poor souls living under the domination of a centuries old book.

  3. The so-called Golden Age of Islam (8th to 13th centuries CE) where contributions to science is boasted about from every minaret around the globe, could hardly be considered as Islam's contributions, but rather the culmination of knowledge from the conquered territories. This knowledge was however well assimilated by intellectuals mostly from Persia and Iraq who were essentially not religious, nor used Islam to formulate their science. At the time such scientists were referred to as Mu'tazila (deserters of Islam) by the Islamic clergy. But their science was used to further the cause of Islam. Today though their achievements are hailed as Islamic science.


  4. Re: "So what’s the reason for the arrested development of Muslim science?"

    Not just science I would say. Arrested development of many things - and one that I have a personal opinion on which is thus:

    For someone to move on, they must resolve the point where they are at, and gain closure. In case that doesn't make sense, I will explain. If you have not figured out how to use a calculator, it will be difficult for you to "move forward" and do maths. If you have not mastered basic maths, then it will be difficult for you to "move forward" and master physics. This analogy can be applied to most life situations - wherever there is an unresolved conflict, and unanswered question, and a confusion about technique - progress cannot be made.

    What I have noted again and again and again in the Islamic community is a lack of decisions and the lack of a resolving of problems. Everything from women's clothing to which way you turn your head at the end of the prayer, to what to do with a £5 note that you find on the floor of a mosque, to who you can and cannot marry - ALL things, large and small - remain a matter of debate. So how then, when the very basics of life are inconclusive can one move forward to the next question?

    Sharia, politics, day to day life: minuscule parts of a person's daily life as a Muslim is under the microscope and in debate - which leg goes into a door first: I'm mean, its filibustering at its utmost and what this filibustering does is WASTE A LOT OF TIME. And whilst all of these time is being wasted on trying to reach some kind of conclusion on these things - progress is stunted, stopped, ended and quit - because progress in these conditions is not possible. How can you build a house on a fragile scaffold? You cannot. This is the problem with this community: no conclusions.

    Re:"WE will have to wait for Islam's "Enlightenment" before progress can be made"

    - agree.

  5. Ps. Religious dogma has always dominated science - everything from stem cell research, to abortion to transplants, donors and everything from way way back in time - and this is not uniquely Islamic

    Furthermore, it's important for science to have to prove it's case before being allowed to move forward - otherwise it would have free reign which is also bad. Everything in the world should have to prove itself before it can be accepted and for that to happen, everything must have an argument against, a barrier to jump through - a battle to win: it's how the good ideas are weeded out from the bad ones and for science that great "enemy" is religion