How the West Won

Muslim scientists were once the best in the world. A professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma says, "Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600." The question of how they achieved it and then lost it is more than of academic interest. Many analysts believe one motive for September 11 was Islamic resentment against the United States for having displaced it in science and technology. The book, The Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2002, contains a thought-provoking article titled "How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science" by Dennis Overbye. Overbye says that by the Middle Ages, Islamic academics had invented algebra, named the stars, and produced a million-word medical encyclopedia. And the requirement to face Mecca when praying required knowledge of the size and shape of the earth. A science advisor to former Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat said knowledge was part of Islam's creed. "When you know more, you'll see more evidence of God." For five centuries, the Muslim world pioneered cutting-edge science. Today, by contrast, Abdus Salam, the first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in physics, calls modern Islamic science "abysmal." Dr. Osman Bakar, of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, says, "Muslims have a kind of nostalgia for the past, when they could contend that they were the dominant cultivators of science." But a Pakistani physicist says that now, although Muslims are almost 20 percent of the world's population, they produce fewer than one percent of the world's scientists. What dimmed the light of Islamic scholarship? A Pakistani professor says one major factor is an increasing emphasis on rote learning based on the QUR'AN. In his words, "The notion that all knowledge is in the Great Text is a great disincentive to learning. It's destructive if we want to create . . . someone who can analyze, question, and create." A Muslim astrophysicist in Paris adds that Islamic fundamentalists reject science "simply because it is Western." On the extreme edge, some groups have abandoned the principle of cause and effect. For example, the Institute for Policy Studies in Pakistan once issued guidelines recommending that physical effects not be related to causes. Allegedly the Islamic worldview prohibited saying that combining hydrogen and oxygen would make water. A Pakistani physicist explained, "You were supposed to say that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together, then, by the will of Allah, water was created." That would be as if Sir Isaac Newton observed an apple falling, but shrugged off any thought of gravity by simply saying, "God did it," without asking how God did it. So what made Islamic science great for centuries? Worldview: embracing the universe as God's creation and studying it as God's handiwork. And what caused Islamic science to decline? A change of worldview: rejecting science as the invention of "the great Satan." The Muslim world needs to revisit its past and get over its anger toward the West. But there's a lesson here for Christians, as well as for Muslims: A healthy worldview promotes healthy science. A flawed, or false, worldview leaves you in the dark. For further reading: Dennis Overbye, "How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science," NEW YORK TIMES, 28 October 2001, D1. Natalie Angier, ed., THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2002, (Houghton-Mifflin, 2002). Thomas L. Friedman, "An Islamic Reformation," NEW YORK TIMES, 4 December 2002. Thomas L. Friedman, "Death to Dictators," NEW YORK TIMES, 15 December 2002. Naomi Schaefer, "A Muslim Notre Dame? Unfortunately there isn't one," WALL STREET JOURNAL, 8 December 2002. BreakPoint Commentary No. 020722, "Decline and Ascendance: Christendom and Islam." Dr. Timothy George, IS THE FATHER OF JESUS THE GOD OF MUHAMMAD? (Zondervan, 2002).


Chuck Colson



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