When did Islamic science die (and who cares)?
By Jamil Ragep
Viewpoint: Newsletter of the British Society for the History of Science, No.85 (2008)
Introduction: Imagine waking up one day and finding out that a Nobel Laureate has declared that the subject of your life’s work doesn’t amount to a hill of beans (or in less Bogeyesque terms, isn’t worth mentioning). Such was the jolt I received from the hallowed pages of the Times Literary Supplement, when I read Steven Weinberg’s review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (17 Jan 2007). Weinberg had held forth that ‘After al-Ghazzali [d. 1111], there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries’.
Since my colleagues and I have certainly found a lot to mention, I sent a letter to the editor listing a number of accomplishments by Islamic scientists post-Ghazali (24 Jan 2007). To my surprise, Professor Weinberg’s response conceded little, compounding his earlier statement with long-discredited claims about the lack of influence and significance of late medieval Islamic science (31 Jan 2007). One always finds oneself in an odd position when challenged by someone with no credentials in one’s field, and in general the response should be to ignore the uninformed.
But because Weinberg’s views have larger implications beyond our narrow scholarly concerns, I will attempt to explain in what follows why they are indeed incorrect, why these views have had a remarkable persistence, and why this debate matters in the hypercharged post- 9/11 political environment.