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Physicist Jim Al-Khalili on the science of the Islamic golden age

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Between the 9th and 12th centuries. A friend writes to say:

recently found this three-part BBC-TV series about scientific discovery in Old Islam. Each part is approximately an hour long.

Dr. Jim Al-Khalili — an Iraqi-born professor of theoretical physics who teaches in Britain [“at the University of Surrey where he also holds a chair in the Public Engagement in Science. He is president of the British Humanist Association.”] — narrates the series.

PART I: The Language of Science

PART II: The Empire of Reason

PART III: The Power of Doubt

I watched the entire series and found it fascinating.

Wonder what happened.

Anyone seen it? Thoughts?

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11 Replies to “Physicist Jim Al-Khalili on the science of the Islamic golden age

  1. 1
    anthropic says:

    Sociologist Rodney Stark argues in his recent book, Why the West Won, that the notion of an advanced Islam was a mirage even back in its supposed heyday. He notes that the technical advances came from conquered societies, such as Persia and Egypt. Further, the most technically advanced people in the Islamic world were usually not Arabs, and disproportionately Jewish or Christian in background.

    Robert Reilly also wrote a fascinating book focusing on the issue of Muslim decline, The Closing of the Muslim Mind. In his telling the problem occurred about 1,000 years ago when the idea that God (Allah) was utterly irrational, being nothing more than Will and Power, won out in Islam. Cause and effect were illusions, natural law was shirk (blasphemy), and so any chance for science died.

  2. 2
    Sirius says:

    Another thing that happened is that Islam never accepted or even understood the idea of property rights, as something that trumps political power. The King, or the President, can’t just take your land, because he likes the look of it. Of course this idea has been eroded more recently in the West, too, primarily by taxation. Free market economies are not possible without private property.

    Take a look at recently published photos of ISIS lands and thereabouts. Usually, there is not a tree or even a blade of grass in sight. The only way Islamists can acquire wealth is by seizing it from other people. It was well said that the Arabs created their own deserts.

  3. 3
    anthropic says:

    Good point, Sirius 2. Under Islam God is not constrained by anything, including His own promises, much less any sense of justice or morality. Might makes right.

    Since this is true of God in relation to us, it is also taken as true of rulers in relation to the ruled. If the ruler is strong enough to take your stuff, then he has a right to it. Certainly you have no moral claims against superior force.

  4. 4
    VunderGuy says:

    @Sirius and @anthropic

    So, you would agree then with the proposition that, in Islam, God’s power trumps all of his other properties and is the main if not the only focal point of his being?

  5. 5
    anthropic says:

    Vunder, I’d agree that power and will are the key characteristics. Anything outside of God’s power & will is blasphemy.

    So, for instance, if a baseball pitcher throws a fastball, he doesn’t really throw it. What happens is that Allah destroys and recreates the universe every moment with the ball in a slightly different location.

    And there are no natural laws, just Allah’s habits, “ada.” Tomorrow fire could be cold, the sun could rise out of the west, life could arise from non-life, whatever Allah feels like that day.

  6. 6
    ueomathematics says:

    @Sirius Judging Islam by a group of people (ISIS) is not a good idea. It seems to me that you are affected by those classic stereotypes:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y2Or0LlO6g

    Anyway, what’s interesting is the fact that very little is taught in schools about the contribution made by Islamic Spain to The Renaissance. A good documentary I founded the other day about this subject:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Xm2el2gc34

  7. 7
    HughSlaman says:

    @Sirius,

    You wrote:
    “Another thing that happened is that Islam never accepted or even understood the idea of property rights, as something that trumps political power.”

    This is false, and very far off the mark. Property rights are taken very seriously indeed in all schools of Islamic thought (Sunni, Shi’i, and anything else). The seriousness of property rights is such that Muslim theorists of Islamic law always include protection of property as one of the five fundamental objectives of Islamic law (the others being protection of family, protection of religion, protection of intellect, and protection of life).

    Taking others’ property by force, and without right, is the mark of a ruler that the Islamic tradition unanimously condemns as unjust and tyrannical. There have been such rulers, in the Islamic world as in Christendom, yet nobody remembers them fondly. The ideal ruler is exemplified, for the majority of Muslims, by the second Caliph, Omar: he asked one of his companions “Am I a king or a Caliph?” The answer was “If you have taken even a single dirham from the people without right, then you are a king, and not a Caliph.” On hearing this, Omar wept.

    There is nothing in Islam which says that rulers can take whatever they like from their subjects. Quite the contrary, it is understood that nobody can taken another’s property without the latter’s *heart’s* consent i.e. you can’t even pressure and manipulate others into giving you their stuff, for it is your responsibility to ensure they really *want* to give you their stuff.

    I wasn’t planning to join the site, but I had to comment on this. Where do you all get your information about Islam? I can recommend accurate, scholarly resources if you like.

  8. 8
    anthropic says:

    “There is nothing in Islam which says that rulers can take whatever they like from their subjects.”

    So when non-Muslims are given the choice between conversion, death, and accepting dhimmitude (including special taxes), that’s not Islam?

    Really?

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    anthropic:

    So when non-Muslims are given the choice between conversion, death, and accepting dhimmitude (including special taxes), that’s not Islam?

    Obvioulsy the choice to not be killed and to accept dhimitude is with the hearts consent and the person so consenting *really wants* to give up their stuff.

  10. 10
    MrCollins says:

    Here’ s a video proposing the golden age of Islam was the cause of the European dark ages . It’s by a Dr. bill Warner

    http://youtu.be/t_Qpy0mXg8Y

    It’s 45 minutes and has a really cool chart in the middle, sorry I don’t know the exact spot, plotting the military expansion and comparing it to the political climate at the same time

  11. 11
    anthropic says:

    Thanks, MrCollins. People forget that Islam’s military conquests posed an existential threat to Christianity for centuries. Also, it’s noteworthy that those Christian societies in closest contact with Islam, such as Spain and Venice, were also the ones most likely to engage in slave trade (especially Venice) and reimpose slavery itself (Spain) after it was largely eliminated from Christian Europe by the tenth century.

    Note that Saudi Arabia didn’t ban slavery until 1963, and that Muslims continue to enslave non-Muslims in places like Sudan.

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