What if I told you that Islam once produced the world's most scientifically advanced and intellectually productive civilization?
It's true, and you'll probably hear more about it, this being 2015, the United Nations International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, in which Islamic science will be showcased.
Many Americans might find far-fetched the idea that Islam spawned the most advanced and sophisticated civilization of its time — especially now that some Islamic sects slaughter thousands of innocents in their bloody campaign to spread tyrannical Sharia law.
Yet Islam's Golden Age, extending from the 7th century to the 13th century, flourished while Europe and Christendom wallowed in the Dark Ages. Western society was considered a backwater, if considered at all.
Islam generated impressive advances in medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy, optics and philosophy. It created cities, observatories and libraries, and it engaged in far-flung commerce well before Christopher Columbus set sail.
Credit Islamic genius for the magnetic compass and navigational innovation, for algebra and the refinement of the numbering system that originated in India, for papermaking and the scientific method. While Greek and Roman learning faded in the medieval West, Islamic scholars were preserving and enlarging it — long before the European Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment.
All this and more will be spotlighted during the International Year, which will open Jan. 19 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and will aim to raise awareness of light science and its importance to mankind.
And by doing that, it necessarily will have to highlight Islamic achievements. For example, the opening event will focus on the multiple accomplishments of the 11th century polymath Ibn al-Haytham in optics, mathematics and astronomy. The Golden Age will get more attention Sept. 14 during a conference on its impact on "knowledge-based society."
So, what went wrong? How did Islamic society fall from one so open and inquisitive to the repressive and closed one that has produced few scientific advances and staggering intolerance?
Historians have offered complex and conflicting explanations that seem to fall along two lines: (A) It's our fault. Or, (B) it's their fault.
"Our" being the Christian, degenerate Western democracies: Our colonization and partition of the Middle East into nations of our own design. Our corruption of Islamic values.
One branch of Islam valued inquiry and rationalism.
As a backlash, the other figured that the word of God needed no embellishment of the type that science, philosophy and other disciplines would bring.
Guess which one dominated?
The view that God was not the watchmaker who created and then stepped back and watched mankind run its course. God, instead, controls everything, from each flap of a monarch butterfly's wings to world wars. God wills each and every act, good or, in the case of applying vengeance, bad.
Reason, on the other hand, leads us to question and to seek other causes, other explanations — a heresy when dogma decrees that God is the one and only cause.
Never mind the contradiction implied: if God controls everything, humankind has no free will, and thus cannot be held accountable for its actions. And the bad stuff that God inflicts on mankind makes no sense.
Aside from such theological puzzlements, a culture inspired by centuries of this thinking can only be stultifying and headed downhill.
Not that Western societies haven't had their own problems with the Galileos and other rationalists who crossed swords with the given wisdom. But somehow, reason and faith became separate paths in Western society, leading to the rich vein of invention, discovery and, most of all, the freedom that mark a workable, advanced culture.
Reason and faith can live side-by-side, as Western society has proved. But it's not always easy. Fanatics on both sides can be found wanting to stomp out the other. It's a danger to keep in mind in the Year of Light as the U.N. trumpets the achievements of a society that long ago strangled itself.
- ibn al-Ḥasan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alhazen
- The Golden Age: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Golden_Age
- Why the Arab World Turned Away from Science. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/why-the-arabic-world-turned-away-from-science
- What went wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060516054?ie=UTF8&tag=the-new-atlantis-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=1789&creativeASIN=0060516054
- Science and the Modern World--the Quest for Rapprochement: http://www.imsc.res.in/~rahul/articles/hoodbhoy.pdf