Of Omar Khayyam and other Persian thinker

from the book “To Explain The World: The Discovery Of Modern Science” by Steven Weinberg


Omar Khayyam Statue in Neyshabour, Iran

For Islam, as for Christianity, the case for a conflict between science and religion is complicated, and I won’t attempt a definite answer. There are at least two questions here. First, what was the general attitude of Islamic scientists toward religion? That is, was it only those who set aside the influence of their religion who were creative scientists? And second, what was the attitude toward science of Muslim society?

Religious skepticism was widespread among scientists of the Abbasid era. The clearest example is provided by the astronomer Omar Khayyam, generally regarded as an atheist. He reveals his skepticism in several verses of the Rubaiyat:14

Some for the Glories of the World, and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
Why all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their mouths are stopt with Dust.
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it, and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.

(The literal translation into English is of course less poetic, but expresses essentially the same attitude.) Not for nothing was Khayyam after his death called “a stinging serpent to the Shari’ah.” Today in Iran, government censorship requires that published versions of the poetry of Khayyam must be edited to remove or revise his atheistic sentiments.

The Aristotelian Ibn Rushd was banished around 1195 on suspicion of heresy. Another physician, al-Razi, was an outspoken skeptic. In hisTricks of the Prophets he argued that miracles are mere tricks, that people do not need religious leaders, and that Euclid and Hippocrates are more useful to humanity than religious teachers. His contemporary, the astronomer al-Biruni, was sufficiently sympathetic to these views to write an admiring biography of al-Razi.

On the other hand, the physician Ibn Sina had a nasty correspondence with al-Biruni, and said that al-Razi should have stuck to things he understood, like boils and excrement. The astronomer al-Tusi was a devout Shiite, and wrote about theology. The name of the astronomer al-Sufi suggests that he was a Sufi mystic.

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