Our age has become defined, in part, by a revival of disparaging views about Arabic people and about Islam itself. Associations with terrorism, primeval traditions and dictatorial regimes have tainted and skewed our collective understanding of the identity and history of one of the world largest faiths and cultures. Even when we in the “West” are not explicit in our disapproval of Islam, we still communicate our distrust by remaining passive and accepting of Islamophobia in the form of “random” airport checks and by avoiding people who appear to be Muslim.
In this time, more than ever, it is important to remind ourselves of Islam’s not so distant past: a history rich with beauty, enlightenment and scientific progress. All of the following figures found no conflict between their Islamic faith and the science they practiced, instead perceiving their religious beliefs to be an important part of their scientific and academic work.
Avicenna (or Ibn Sīnāas he was known in Arabia) was a widely influential 11th century polymath contributing to such disparate fields as Chemistry, Geology, Mathematics, Astronomy, Psychology and even Theology.
Avicenna not only described the formation of mountains and valleys, but also the movement of the planets and the transmutation of substances through alchemy. In addition, his influence over medicine was so far reaching, both geographically and historically, that his medical texts survived for hundreds of years in Europe long after the decline of his own scientific era.
Avicenna also stressed the scientific importance of a method of “experimentation as a means for scientific inquiry” rather than a dogmatic adherence to the knowledge of the ancients. This belief, though obvious to us today, was incredibly forward thinking for its time, and it wouldn’t be until the time of the Scientific Revolution hundreds of years later that Europeans would hold the same belief.
Al-Razi was another prolific polymath who’s work had seemingly no limitations. His achievements range from being a pioneer in ophthalmology to being the first to distill a variety of chemical compounds like sulfuric acid in around the 9th Century.
Also believed to be the founding father of pediatrics (medicine for children), Al-Razi is considered by historians to have been the most important medical scholar in the Arabic world: like Avicenna, his medical texts survived in the Europe long after his death. Al-Razi even went as far as to write about medical ethics, attacking charlatans for their fake remedies. Such debates around fake medicine are so timeless that they are still happening today around traditional medicine and homeopathy.
To Westerners, Averroes (or Ibn Rushd) is perhaps the best known of the golden-age scholars of ancient Islam, and even then his name is still unfamiliar to many in Europe. Averroes’ 12th century commentaries on Aristotle and Plato contributed dramatically to the Renaissance in Europe and were very popular among intellectuals during this period.
More importantly to the Islamic world, Averroes was outspoken about the compatibility between science and faith, frequently arguing that the two were complimentary forces. Averroes even went as far as to argue in his book “The Harmony of Religion and Philosophy” that God’s divine law demanded that the able minded study science to further the common good and to better understand His creation.
In closing, the history of Islamic Science demonstrates that we misspeak when we portray Islam as a backwards religion of archaic traditionalism and hatred. It is a faith which can (and has) facilitated profound scientific and cultural richness. Through the example of Islamic Science, we are reminded that religion is, itself, neither good or bad and can facilitate both extremism and cultural/scientific progress depending, like every other religion, on how it is practised.