Why Did the Scientific Revolution Not Take Place in the Muslim World?
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Concord, CA

Summary: The natural sciences did not die out in the Islamic world with the Mongol devastations of the thirteenth century. Indeed, the Muslims held their own in art, architecture, astronomy and artisanship on the world stage well into the eighteenth century. It was only at the turn of the eighteenth century that Europe acquired a decisive technological edge and supplanted the ancient civilizations of Asia and Africa.

This article examines the complex interplay of intellectual, religious, social, political, economic factors and the decisive military events that precluded the onset of a scientific revolution in the Islamic world. Summarily, we find seven discernible milestones in the 1400 year long history of Muslims that influenced the development of science and technology:

  • The Mu’tazalite eruption and its aftermath (765-846)
  • Al-Gazzali’s repudiation of the philosophers (1100)
  • The Crusades (1096-1240)
  • The Mongol Devastations (1219-1258)
  • Neglect of the printing press and naval technology (1450-1728)
  • The Destructive Shia-Sunni, Sufi-Salafi Controversies (700-ongoing)
  • Colonialism and the onset of the Age of Discontinuity (1757-1947)

The discourse tends to get obscure when questions of philosophy and science are discussed. Therefore, a number of resources from the open literature have been used to construct a narrative that is as accessible to a layman as it is to a scholar.


The Rockets of Mysore

It comes as a surprise to some readers that the American National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, was inspired by the rockets invented by a Muslim king, Tippu Sultan of Mysore, India. It was the year 1814. The Anglo-American war was in full swing. The British forces, after burning down Washington and conducting a raid on Alexandria, proceeded up the Chesapeake Bay to capture Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Caught in the cross fire were two American lawyers, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner who had gone over to negotiate a truce and prisoner exchange with the British. Key and Skinner were allowed to board the British flagship HMS Tonant and present their proposals to Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane while the two were discussing their plans for an attack on Baltimore.

Since they had overheard the detailed war plans, Key and Skinner were held back by the British and were witness to the bombardment of Baltimore on September 13, 2014. Orange and red flashes of rocket fire illuminated the skies over Fort McHenry. The stillness over Chesapeake Bay was shattered by the deafening sounds of explosives. The bombardment went on all night and it was not clear as to which side would prevail in this clash of arms. At day break, as the first rays of the sun hit the fort and the fog lifted over the Bay, the American flag was still aloft Fort McHenry, fluttering in the morning breeze. This was the moving sight that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the Star Spangled Banner.

The rockets used in the war of 1812 were a takeoff on the rockets captured by the British from Tippu Sultan of Mysore after the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799. The Mysore rockets used a casing of iron unlike the plaster casings that were in common use in European rockets. The metal casing enabled the sustenance of higher pressures in the bore and increased the propulsive power of the rocket. The solid propellant was compacted gunpowder. The Mysore rockets had a range of 2 kilometers which was more than twice the range of the most advanced rockets used by European armies. Attached to the end of the iron barrel was a long bamboo pole with an affixed doubled edged sword as the payload. When launched in clusters, the sword-equipped rockets played havoc with concentrations of enemy troops.

The late Dr Abdul Kalam, the architect of India’s modern rocket programs, called Tippu Sultan the father of modern rocketry. Tippu was a technology buff and paid special attention to innovation in armament design. There were thousands of rockets in his armory. Platoons of rocket men were attached to each of his regiments. With the military edge provided by the rockets, the Sultan won a decisive victory over British forces in the Battle of Pollilur in 1780. It was the only major battle that the British lost on Indian soil during their long drawn out conquest of the Indian subcontinent, starting with the Battle of Plassey in Bengal (1757) and ending with the second Anglo-Sikh war in the Punjab (1848-49).

When Tippu Sultan fell during the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799, the British sent some of the captured Mysore rockets to the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal in England. A development team led by Colonel Congreve made a systematic study of the rockets using Newton’s laws of motion. Congreve made design improvements to the rockets to make them more stable in flight. The modified Mysore rockets, renamed the Congreve rockets, were used by the British against Napoleon at the Battle of Boulogne in France in 1806. And it was the Congreve rockets that were used by the British to bombard Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the Anglo-American war of 1812.

Thus it was that the technology invented by an Indian Muslim sultan inspired the national anthem of a great nation, the United States of America, on the other side of the globe. The advances made by the rocket engineers of Tippu Sultan show that as late as the eighteenth century, technological developments in the Muslim world were not far behind those in Europe. Indeed, in some categories they were noticeably ahead. It was only in the nineteenth century that Europe acquired a decisive technological edge over Asia. We offer a few more examples to reinforce this observation.

The Mogul emperor Akbar (d 1605) introduced the matchlock rifle into the Indian armies. The 66 inch long barrel of this rifle was made from fine grained superplastic steel which was tough, fracture-resistant and facilitated a finer, more uniform finish in the bore. The stronger material could sustain higher barrel pressures, which together with the long barrel, enabled the extraction of more energy from the products of combustion and imparted a higher velocity to the exiting payload. The matchlock rifle was more than a match for those made in Europe and could take down an enemy soldier at distances of more than 300 yards.

Babur’s armies used a composite bow in their invasion of Delhi (1526). Made from composite layers of wood and animal fiber, the flexed, pre-stressed bows were comparable to the long English bow in their power and range but were considerably lighter, smaller and faster. The Mogul bow and arrow made the difference in the onward march of their armies through the plains of India. One must note that specialized composite materials are used in modern engineering in the construction of advanced aircraft and space hardware. For instance, I personally directed the use of a large number of advanced composites in the Hubble Space Telescope (1979-82).

Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), a Timurid prince of Central Asia, built a great astronomical observatory, called Gurkhani Zinj, at Samarkand in today’s Uzbekistan. It was one of the largest and most precise observatories in the world at that time. Ulugh Beg was himself a mathematician of repute and he backed up the work at the observatory with the establishment of universities at Samarkand and Bukhara, turning them into world renowned centers of learning in the mathematical and astronomical sciences. Using observations from the observatory, he published a star catalogue called Zij e Sultani which was a giant leap forward upon the earlier works of Ptolemy. He measured the length of the year at 365.257 days and the tilt of the axis of rotation of the earth at 23.52 degrees. These measurements were far more precise than those made a hundred years later in Europe by Copernicus (d 1543). Ulugh Beg's accurate tables of sines and tangents were correct to eight decimal places. The work of Ulugh Beg found a resonance in the Taqi Uddin observatory of Istanbul (1574) and the string of observatories built by Raja Jai Singh of Amber (1688-1743) during the reign of Mogul emperor Mohammed Shah (d 1748). One of these observatories, called Jantar Mantar, stands in the heart of the modern metropolis of Delhi.

These examples confirm that mathematical pursuits and technological achievements did not cease with the Mongol invasions. The Ottoman, Safavid and Mogul empires that emerged after the Mongol-Tartar invasions produced a galaxy of great architects and civil engineers. The names of the Turkish master architect Mimar Sinan (d 1588) and Ustad Ahmed Lahori (1649), the architect of the Taj Mahal, stand out. The armies of these three empires excelled in metallurgy, military hardware and artillery.


So, what happened?

How did the Islamic world fall behind Europe? Alternately, what explains the rise of European technology and the decay of technology in the Islamic world? Was there one overwhelming event or was it a combination of social, political, technological, religious and military factors? We will take a brief survey of Islamic history to examine the ideas, the movements, the decisive events and the personages who influenced the development of science and technology and contributed to its flourishing and its decline.


The Mu’tazalite Eruption

It was the year 760. The Abbasid Caliphate vaulted across three continents, extending from Spain to India. The Caliph al Mansur (d 775), realizing the need of a new capital for the administration of this vast empire, founded the magnificent city of Baghdad (760) on the banks of the river Tigris in Iraq. The empire brought together the peoples of Europe, Africa and Asia into a commonwealth of cultures. Baghdad became a melting pot of nations and a crucible of ideas from around the world. The resilient and self-confident Islamic civilization amalgamated these ideas and produced a composite culture that preserved and vastly expanded the intellectual horizons of humankind.

Al Mansur started a collection of classical books in Greek and Sanskrit. Under his successors, the process gathered momentum. The famed Caliph Harun al Rasheed, grandson of al Mansur, is generally credited with establishing a Bait al Hikmah (House of Wisdom) to transcribe and translate ancient texts from Greece, India, China and Persia. Under his son al Mamum, the Bait al Hikmah grew into a vast complex with separate departments for the sciences, astronomy, mathematics, logic and medicine. Here came the scholars from around the world with their books and their manuscripts, their philosophies and their sciences. The Greeks brought with them the works of Aristotle, Galen and Plato. The Indians brought the astronomical treatises of Aryabhatta. The Chinese brought the technology for making porcelain and paper. The Persians brought the technology for windmills. An observatory was constructed to measure and map the heavens and measure the movement of planets and stars. Baghdad radiated a culture of learning. Secondary libraries sprang up in major cities across the far flung empire, patronized by local governors and wealthy individuals. In later centuries, similar great centers of learning were established in Cordoba, Spain (tenth century) and Cairo, Egypt (eleventh century).

Knowledge is a gift from God. The acquisition of knowledge expands intellectual horizons and provides the propulsive power for the advancement of science and civilization. The Arabs mastered the knowledge of the Greeks and Hindus, greatly expanded it and invented new disciplines that were hitherto unknown. The accommodation of the sciences and philosophies from distant lands tested the limits of Muslim intellectual tolerance. Of all the sciences that the Islamic world were exposed to, the rational philosophy of the Greeks presented the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge.

Muslim scholars fell in love with the rigor and precision of Greek rational thought and set out with enthusiasm to apply it to the profound questions emanating from the domains of nature, science, culture and faith. The Caliph al-Mansur was so impressed with the power and reach of reason that he adopted the rational approach as the court dogma. Those who applied the rational methods of the Greek philosophers to science, theology and culture were called the Mu’tazalites. This was the heyday for philosophy and philosophers in the Islamic world. Aristotle was their hero and his method was their guide. For eighty years, from 765 till 846, the Mu’tazalites were the darling of the Abbasid courts.

The Mu’tazalites over-extended their reach, intellectually and politically. Ancient philosophy depended heavily on a linear concept of time. Inherent to Greek logic were the assumptions of before and after, cause and effect, subject and object. As is now well understood by students of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, these assumptions are approximations and break down both at the sub-atomic and the galactic levels. The Mu’tazalites were unaware of these limits. When they applied their rational methods to matters of faith, they fell flat on their face. In Islam, God is transcendent, beyond time and space, and there is none like unto Him. To maintain this transcendence, the Mu’tazalites advanced the position that the Qur’an could not be co-extant with God and must therefore be construed as “created”. This is a classic example of how philosophers fall into conceptual traps when they take positions on the nature of things without understanding the assumptions and the limits of their positions. For instance, can rational thought explain love? What is the reason to love? Is love eternal? The heart admits of dimensions beyond the space-time dimensions of the mind. In a larger framework, the mind is king of the created world but it cannot understand matters of the heart and is helpless before it. The Nobel Laureate Schroedinger in his book Mind and Matter explained it beautifully:

“Mind, for anything perception can compass, goes therefore in our spatial world more ghostly than a ghost. Invisible, intangible, it is a thing not even of outline; it is not a ‘thing’. It remains without sensual confirmation and remains without it forever…. Physical science faces us with the impasse that mind per se cannot move a finger of a hand. Then the impasse meets us. The blank of the ‘how’ of mind’s leverage on matter…is unknown”, Schroedinger, Mind and Matter, Cambridge University Press, 1958, pp 42-43.

Faith, which is based both on reason and emotion, transcends the capabilities of the mind. Modern string theories now admit of eleven-dimensional space and the possibilities of co-extant parallel universes. The limitations of ancient philosophical thought are all too obvious.

The Mu’tazalite position that the Qur’an was “created” produced an uproar in orthodox circles. A counter-Mu’tazila movement sprang up, led by the Usuli ulema. The Mu’tazalites as well as the opposition invoked the Qur’an to justify their positions. Chief among those who opposed the Mutazalites was Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal, after whom the Hanbali fiqh is named. The Mu’tazalites showed little political wisdom. They applied the whip to those who opposed them. Imam Ahmed was whipped and jailed many times. Faced with determined opposition, the Caliph al Mutawakkil abandoned court patronage of the Mu’tazalites (846). In turn, when the anti-Mu’tazalites had the upper hand, they persecuted the Mu’tazalites. ↓


The Aftermath of the Mu’tazalite Eruption

What is significant is that the initial challenge to the Mu’tazalites did not originate from within their own ranks but from the orthodox ulema. The triumph of the usuli schools ensured the pre-eminence of the orthodox religious elements in the spectrum of Islamic knowledge. It also made the pursuit of philosophy suspect in the minds of the masses and relegated it to the elite and the rules. Philosophy continued but only as a side show to the primary focus of Islamic civilization on the religious sciences of fiqh (800-850 CE), hadith (800-950 CE) and tasawwuf (1100-1700 CE). In the centuries to come, those who continued to pursue philosophy and science had to look over their shoulders to guard their flank from the religious right. Philosophy and science both suffered.

The crux of the issue was a failure to understand the limits of each branch of knowledge. Philosophy is no exception to this rule. Each branch of knowledge searches for the truth but the ultimate Truth eludes certainty. God is the Truth (Allahu Haq). In other words, the essence of the Truth transcends space-time. Indeed, it transcends human comprehension. This uncertainty principle is stated in different ways by the physicists, the mathematicians, the philosophers and people of faith. The error of the Mu’tazalites was to express this uncertainty principle through logic, in space-time. The error of the usuli ulema was to reject philosophy along with the positions taken by the philosophers. It was literally the case of “throwing out the baby with the bath water”.

The aftermath of the Mu’tazalite convulsions influenced the development of natural sciences in the Islamic world in a profound way. The Islamic world moved away from the speculative philosophies of the Greeks to the empirical sciences more in tune with the injunctions of the Qur’an. An explanation is in order here. Although generalizations are facile, it can nonetheless be asserted that the primary thrust of Greek philosophy is deductive. It is “top down”. It starts with axioms and proceeds downwards towards deductions and conclusions. The assumptions inherent in the axioms become the limits for the deductions and conclusions. In this process, errors of judgment are made, as did the Mu’tazalites in their speculations about the origins of the Qur’an. By contrast, the empirical sciences are inductive. They are “bottoms up” and are based on observation, measurement, codification and extension. The Qur’an draws attention, time and again, to the many signs in nature and invites humankind to interact with and learn from these signs. In the empirical approach, reason becomes a servant of knowledge, not its autocratic ruler. The limits of reason are recognized and built into the edifice of knowledge as it is constructed from observations and measurements. Thus, a scientist has his feet on the ground while reaching out to the heavens with reason. A philosopher, on the other hand, has his head in the sky but his feet may or may not touch the ground and he may be left dangling between the heavens and the earth.

The classical Islamic civilization that emerged in the post-Mu’tazalite period was scientific-empirical. Indeed, the Muslims were arguably the originators of the empirical method. They took the pursuit of natural sciences away from the speculative philosophies of the Greeks to the experimental, practical sciences based on observation. The Muslims had learned the art of paper making from the Chinese after the Battle of Tlas (751). Paper mills sprang up in the major cities, facilitating the transcription and publication of books. Princes, noblemen and the rich vied with each other to establish libraries. The brilliance of this civilization can be gauged from the breadth and depth of its lasting contributions. For more than five hundred years (700-1258), Muslim scientists were the torch bearers of knowledge, advancing human civilization with their discoveries and inventions. It was this light that awakened Europe from its slumber in the dark ages (600-1100). The contributions of some of the eminent scientists of the Islamic Golden Age are summarily highlighted here.

Jabir Ibn-Haiyan (d 815) is known as the father of empirical chemistry. He was the first to use the process of distillation and to attempt a mathematical classification of pure elements based on their known characteristics. His work contains a detailed description of fractional distillation, solubility and volatility of compounds as well as alloying, purification and testing of metals

Al Khwarizmi (d 850), was a celebrated mathematician, astronomer and geographer. He was the inventor of algebra. His method of solving quadratic equations presaged the development of algorithms, widely used in modern software development. He was the first one to use the decimal system and to introduce the Hindu-Arabic numerals into mathematics.

Al Kindi (d 870) was a philosopher who wrote extensively on Aristotle and made noteworthy contributions not only to philosophy but also to mathematics, psychology, ethics and cosmology.

Al Razi (d 925) was an outstanding physician and chemist. He is known as the father of clinical medicine. He is best remembered for his pioneering work on smallpox, measles and other contagious diseases. His voluminous works on surgery and therapy influenced the development of medicine in Latin Europe and were required reading in European universities until the eighteenth century.

Al Battani (d 928) was a noted mathematician and empirical astronomer who influenced the works of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. He introduced trigonometric functions into geometry, calculated the precession of the equinoxes and the obliquity of the ecliptic. His measurements on the positions of the sun and moon were more accurate than those made by Copernicus some six centuries later.

Al-Farabi (d 950) applied Aristotelian philosophy to political science, ethics and logic. He sought to bring science, politics and ethics out of the fuzziness of symbolism into the concrete world of logic and reason. He was thus the first political scientist. The comprehensiveness of his encyclopedic works earned him the title of “the second teacher” after Aristotle and he influenced the later works of the giants among philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Maimonedes.

Al Masudi (d 956) was the first to integrate history with empirical geography. His travels took him far and wide to Egypt, Arabia, East Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. He documented his observations of the lands he visited in his masterpiece, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawahar (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems).

Al Buzjani (d 997) was a distinguished applied mathematician. He was the first to introduce the use of secants and cosecants in geometry. He constructed a comprehensive table of sines and tangents, made a detailed study of the inter-relationship between trigonometric functions and used this knowledge to solve difficult geometrical problems using conics. Modern trigonometry rests on a foundation built by Al Buzjani.

Ibn Sina (1037) was the most celebrated physician of the Islamic Golden Age. His masterpiece work, the Canons of Medicine, was the standard textbook in Europe until the seventeenth century. One of the most significant thinkers of the era, his influence extended to philosophy, psychology, chemistry, logic, earth sciences, astronomy and the philosophy of science.

Ibn al Haitham (d 1040) is celebrated as the father of modern optics. He was the first to recognize that light is perceived by reflection rather than emanating from the eyes, as the Greeks had assumed. He correctly formulated the laws of reflection, studied refraction, the formation of rainbows, lunar and solar eclipses and invented the camera obscura. His work influenced Roger Bacon (1292) of England and the celebrated German astronomer Johannes Kepler (d 1630).

Al Baruni (d 1052) was a celebrated historian whose encyclopedic work on the sciences, civilization and culture of India set a benchmark for empirical anthropological documentation. He was also a mathematician of the first rank as well as a noted astronomer, natural philosopher, geographer and geologist.

Omar Khayyam (d 1131), poet, mathematician and astronomer, left his mark on the sciences with his contributions to the Jalali calendar introduced by the Seljuq Sultan Malik Shah. This calendar was more precise than the Julian calendar used in the modern world. Omar Khayyam developed a method of extracting roots of whole numbers and influenced the development of irrational numbers by European mathematicians. Through the translations of his Rubayiat, he is celebrated as a poet the world over.

Al Idrisi (d 1165) was a geographer and historian who served at the court of Roger II of Sicily. He compiled a map of the known world using earlier sources as well as his own observations through his travels in the Magreb (North-west Africa) and West Asia. The map was extraordinary for its times and showed Western Europe, the Mediterranean world and West Asia in great detail. In his book, Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq (“The Pleasure Excursion of One Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World”), al Idrisi describes contacts between the Arabs and certain islands near the West Indies of America. Historians have used al Idrisi’s observations to assert the African and Muslim discovery of America before Columbus.

Ibn Rushd (d 1198) is generally considered the greatest rational philosopher after Aristotle. His three-volume commentary on the works of the Greek Master profoundly influenced the development of rational thought in the Latin West. Ibn Rushd also wrote extensively on jurisprudence, psychology, astronomy, physics and music theory.

Al Jazari (d 1206) was the most prolific inventor of his age. He was an outstanding engineer and a mechanical genius. More than 100 inventions are ascribed to him, including the cam shaft, rotary to linear motion converters, segmented gears, chain pumps, water pumps, clocks and mechanical robots. ↓

(Continued next week)


(The author is Director, World Organization for Resource Development and Education, Washington, DC; Director, American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, CA; Member, State Knowledge Commission, Bangalore; and Chairman, Delixus Group)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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