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Why Have Muslim Scholars Been Undervalued Throughout Western History?

Ahmad Bakir Tarabishy
4/1/2009
1953 views

The history books that fill our bookshelves are indispensable recollections of past civilizations’ glories and failures, achievements and abominations. Unfortunately, history can never be completely objective, since it is written by men, and men have a tendency to restrict their thoughts to a single point of view.

 

While history has created in our minds many heroes from murderers, and criminals from saints, one of its greatest crimes is the almost complete omission of the debt the West owes to Islam and the Muslims. W. Montgomery Watt describes the problem: "Because Europe was reacting against Islam it belittled the influence of Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman heritage. So today an important task for us is to correct this false emphasis and to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world."

 

Students in Western Universities might have heard that Muslims were once leaders in science, but their accomplishments are often belittled, and their scientists are reduced to but borrowers who translated Greek and Persian works then assumedly hid them on a bookshelf so the West can later expand and build on them once it awakes from its sleep during the dark age. Donald Cardwell, in the Fontana History of Technology, claims that technologies imported into Europe during the Dark Ages "originated in China and India and were merely passed on by the Arabs."

 

While cultural bigotry plays a major role in this distortion of the facts, the achievements of the Muslims have been left out of Western historical records as a result of the hatred of Islam embedded in the Judeo-Christian world, which shall be traced to many factors. One must show that the Muslims actually did have an integral role in scientific development. Due to the wealth of achievements, however, this is not very hard to find.

 

The Qur'an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) set the basis for an intellectual tradition in the Islamic world which relied on reason and honesty. The purpose of knowing the natural world in Islam is to reveal the signs that Allah set in his creation. "We shall show them Our portents on the horizon and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth" (41:53). Greek philosophy on the other hand, was based on the relativity of truth and change. In Islam, "the arts and sciences came to possess instead a stability and a ‘crystallization’ based on the immutability of the principles from which they had issued forth; it is this stability that is too often mistaken in the West today for stagnation and sterility". [2]

 

The Muslims made numerous advances in many fields, one the most important being physics. They received the physics texts of the Greeks, then translated, corrected, and expanded on them greatly. The basis of the study of optics can be attributed directly to the Muslims. Al-Hassen bin Al-Haythem is considered the founder of this field. He and Al-Biruni also logically came to the conclusion (in disagreement with Aristotle) that the speed of light is constant and that light is composed of extremely small particles moving at extremely high speeds, which is the basis of the quantum nature of light, an endlessly celebrated tribute to 20th century science. [3]

 

Muslim scholars also laid the foundations of mathematics. Muslims were the first to recognize the importance of and use the zero effectively, they thus brought to Europe what is now called "Arabic numerals". A notable Muslim mathematician, Muhammad bin Mousa Al-Khawarizmi, is considered the founder of modern algebra. The mathematicians that followed him made even more impressive contributions. Ghiath Edden Al-Kashi, approximated pi to 16 places past the decimal point. The system know as Pascal’s triangle, which assists in factoring equations in the form of (a + b)n, was developed by Al-Karkhi, and not Louis Pascal.

 

Later Muslim mathematicians were able to factor equations as complex as fourth degree equations; fifth degree equations are impossible to factor. [4] The contribution of Muslim mathematicians to algebra is integral to the development of all sciences as mathematics is frequently referred to as the language of science. Newton would have had quite a difficult time quantitatively describing his laws of motion without using the algebra first implemented by the Muslims.

 

 

Footnotes:

 

[1] Ghazanfar, Islamic World and the Western Renaissance

 

[2] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/nasr.html

 

[3] Mahmoud 112-113; Davies 29

 

[4] Mahmoud 137-147

 

 






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