I used to be sure that Islam needed a rational reformation. Yet history has shown me that innovation and freedom have come from faith as much as reasonby Ehsan Masood / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
Surely Islam needs a reformation? Isn’t literalism in religion an obstacle to open minds; and isn’t the promotion of rationalism the best way to boost the slow pace of science and innovation in the Islamic world? Until a few years ago, I believed that the answer to all these questions was a qualified “yes.” Today I am not so sure.
This is because I’ve spent the past few years reading my way into the history of science during what is known as the golden age of Islamic civilisation. This is the 700-year period between the 8th and the 16th centuries, when the Muslim faith spread across the world and produced stunning innovations in art, architecture, crafts, medicine, science and technology.
When I began my investigations, there was one core idea that I didn’t expect to be challenged on: that blind literalism in religion is essentially a bad thing for science and for society, and that rationalism is always a force for good. Yet, as I immersed myself in the Islamic contributions to astronomy, mathematics, medicine and optics, I discovered something far more complex. Not only was a literal interpretation of religion often a positive influence on the course of science in Islamic times. More astonishingly, a policy of state-sponsored rationalism had led to much suffering, even death; and it had been largely, if unintentionally, responsible for keeping science out of Islamic colleges and universities.
Science and innovation tend to be driven by a combination of influences. These include healthcare, defence, politics, business and empire-building as well as the curiosity of the human mind. During the golden era, however, there was an additional driver: a rapidly expanding community of religious believers. Algebra, for example, was developed partly as a tool to simplify complex inheritance formulae. Similarly, spherical trigonometry and mechanical instruments such as the astrolabe were perfected because of obligations to pray daily towards Mecca. The major mosques also doubled up as observatories because they employed timekeepers whose job included having to compute accurate astronomical tables.
Many of these developments took place during the rule of one particular dynasty, known as the Abbasids, who ruled the Islamic world from 750 until 1258. They were devout in belief, but also fired by a desire to unlock the secrets of new knowledge, regardless of where it came from. They were also committed rationalists—to the extent that they believed that reason and rationality…