In the 16th century, astronomer Taqī al-Dīn built one of the world’s great observatories in Istanbul. It rivaled that of the pioneering Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe — while it lasted.
“Taqī al-Dīn’s observatory was razed to the ground by a squad of Janissaries, by order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti,” Bernard Lewis writes in his book What Went Wrong? “This observatory had many predecessors in the lands of Islam; it had no successors until the age of modernization.”
NASA administrator Charles Bolden caused a furor when he revealed that President Obama had directed him “to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science . . . and math and engineering.”
This shouldn’t be hard to do, so long as Bolden is well versed in accomplishments rising out of the Middle East many centuries ago. It gave us what we know as Arabic numerals (although they originated in India). It gave us algebra and the rudiments of trigonometry. It gave us medical pioneers in the tenth and eleventh centuries. (A significant proportion of these scientists and physicians were Christians and Jews, according to Lewis — a fact Bolden had best keep to himself.)
It’s wonderful to feel good about the work of Ibn Sīnā of Bukhara, who compiled an indispensable medical encyclopedia before his death in 1037, but it implicitly raises the question of what Muslim science has done for us over the last millennium or so. The Muslim world would be better served by a frank discussion of how so much of it came to be sunk in backwardness and ignorance, although NASA’s administrator is not the natural person to lead such a discussion (nor, if he’s as smart as advertised, will he volunteer for the task).
Historian David Landes puts it starkly: “The vast bulk of modern science was of Europe’s making, especially that breakthrough of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that goes by the name ‘scientific revolution.’ Not only did non-Western science contribute just about nothing (though there was more there than Europeans knew), but at that point it was incapable of participating, so far had it fallen behind or taken the wrong turning.”
The short version of the story is that in the battle between science and religious obscurantism in the Islamic world, obscurantism won in a rout. Landes recounts that when the Muslims conquered Persia in the seventh century, the commander on the ground was forbidden to distribute the vast collection of captured books and scientific papers. Word came down from on high: “Throw them in the water. If what they contain is right guidance, God has given us better guidance. If it is error, God has protected us against it.”
The West had its own incurious religious authorities, as Galileo could attest. But in the West, the material world slowly became disenchanted, creating an expanded space for rationality. Worldly rulers and the church separated, creating an expanded space for freedom. The countries that were most open to technological advance — primarily England at first — became the most powerful, in a virtuous circle.
“Astonishingly, the regime in which oppression and dogmatism prevailed was not merely wicked, but actually weaker than societies which were freer and more tolerant!” the social scientist Ernest Gellner explained. “This was the essence of the Enlightenment.”
How to react to the Enlightenment’s absence from parts of the Muslim world is one line of division between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush’s freedom agenda aimed to create the predicate for future success in stagnant Muslim countries; Obama’s outreach agenda is much more accepting of the Muslim status quo.
Perhaps Bush was too ambitious, or Obama is too complacent. All we can know is that unless it embraces the essence of the Enlightenment, too much of the Muslim world will remain sunk in failure, pitied by the foreign bureaucrats who come to tell it bedtime stories about past glories.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.