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God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe

You previously purchased this article through ReadCube. Institutional Login. Log in to Wiley Online Library. Purchase Instant Access. View Preview. Learn more Check out. Volume 22 , Issue 5 November Pages Related Information. Close Figure Viewer. Browse All Figures Return to Figure. Previous Figure Next Figure. Just who these Arab scholars were, religiously and ethnically, is never clarified, except that the author rejects any account that gives a strong role to the "Persians," described as a "racial" group.

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Still it is not difficult to find Iranian scholars who claim that most of the scientific advances claimed by "Arabs" were accomplished by Persians. Given the novelty of the foreign materials, Saliba finds it remarkable that the eighth-century Arabs were able not only to understand the complicated text of Ptolemy's Almagest but also to criticize and improve upon it.

This could only happen if they had an unknown tradition of learning, independent of the Greeks and superior to that of the former Byzantine scholars.

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Historians of Arabic science will spill much ink over that claim because the general view is that there would be very little Arab astronomy without Euclid and Ptolemy. The second difficulty the author confronts is the notion that Abu Hamid al-Ghazali d. This simplistic formula is also a nineteenth-century view first put forward by Edward Sachau.

Here again the reader is given no background on the debate, no clue about what Ghazali argued, how Muslims reacted to the arguments, nor the century-long debate that culminated in a rebuttal by Averroes Ibn Rushd in the twelfth century. At issue was Ghazali's denial of natural causality and his marshaling of Greek philosophy to the aid of "Islamic occasionalism," the view that all events, human and natural, are controlled by God instead of through the blind workings of natural processes. Whatever impact that doctrine had on Muslims, Saliba's exaggerated imputation to Ghazali claims too much.


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At the same time, he fails to draw an obvious insight that applies to astronomy. The author notes that one objection to Greek astronomy in the Muslim world was its association with astrology, as astrologers claim to predict the future. Such a claim is profoundly at odds with the Islamic view that only God knows the future, encouraging the extreme reluctance of Arab astronomers to work out ephemerides, tables listing the positions of the sun, moon, and planets on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Saliba acknowledges the surprising absence of ephemerides but declines to comment on the deeper issues.

Islamic Civilization

In optics, Saliba mentions the explanation of the rainbow by the early fourteenth-century scholar, Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, but the same explanation had been simultaneously invented in Europe by Theodoric of Freiburg in about while eye glasses had been invented in in Florence. In medicine, Saliba mentions the surmise of the thirteenth-century physician and religious scholar Ibn an-Nafis that there is a lesser circulation of the blood from the heart to the lungs.

The standard Galenic view was that the pulmonary vein from the lungs to the heart carries air and spirit pneuma that cools it.

That lesser circulation stands in contrast to William Harvey's discovery in the early seventeenth century that blood circulates throughout the body from the heart through the arteries, returning via the veins. Ibn an-Nafis's conjecture was surely a brilliant guess, but the ban on human postmortems remained in the Islamic world and among orthodox Jews into the twentieth century blocking further discovery while, in Europe, autopsies were routinely practiced from the thirteenth century onward. Saliba ignores these topics in order to spin his Arabic-centric narrative.

In the last chapter, the author discusses the decline of Arabic science—perhaps, he speculates, after the sixteenth century, but he offers little guidance. The lack of any significant innovations by Muslims in the science of motion after Ibn Bajja in the twelfth century, in optics after the early fourteenth century, or in astronomy after Shatir suggests that scientific inquiry in the Muslim world has long been moribund.

George Saliba has for more than thirty years written some of the most original and advanced studies of the sciences in Arabic. In this remarkable book, which he calls a historiographic essay, he addresses the question of the origin of Islamic science, using accounts of early Islamic scholars to show the essential roles of government bureaucracies; the great enlargement of Greek science, particularly astronomy, in the Islamic world; and new evidence for the paths of transmission of Arabic science to Europe, shown most clearly in the work of Copernicus.

Finally, Saliba considers the so-called decline of Arabic science, showing that well into the fifteenth and even sixteenth centuries there was no decline, but rather that the sciences of Europe left behind the more traditional sciences, not only of Islamic civilization, but of the entire world. This is an essential book for understanding the place of science in the world of Islam and its fundamental importance to the development of modern science in the Western world.


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Saliba's book is essential reading for those who wish to understand the remarkable phenomenon of the 'rise' and 'fall' of the Islamic scientific tradition. His analysis takes place against the backdrop of the broader question of what produces scientific activity in a society, what sustains it and enables it to flourish.

Saliba's singular achievement derives as much from the stimulating questions he raises as from his provocative answers.

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The Making of Islamic Science

His iconoclastic views will fuel scholarly debates for decades to come. Larrie D. Heinrich Hartmann. Search Search.