The Decline of the Decline of Arabic Science

Austin Dacey

Just as soon as anyone notes the dismal state of science in contemporary Muslim-majority countries, someone else with a little knowledge of history will observe that the Islamic world was once the center of the scientific world, and Arabic was once the lingua franca. From the eighth to the end of the fourteenth centuries, the most important work in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, optics, and medicine took place under Muslim rule.

Before Europe’s first university had opened in Bologna, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was amassing a library that reportedly housed as many as four hundred thousand volumes. There, under the patronage of the Abbasid dynasty, Arabic-speaking scholars—including Persians, Christians, Jews, and others—translated Greek texts by authors such as Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen, as well as material in Persian, Syriac, and Sanskrit. It was not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that this ancient learning came to Europe, primarily by way of Muslim Spain. As late as the seventeenth century, European colleges still relied on the Canon, a medical textbook by Avicenna, the Latinized name of the medieval physician and polymath Ibn Sina.

What Golden Age?

This Golden Age is rightly held up as one of the glories of Arabic-Islamic civilization. However, it only makes more pointed the question of how Arabic-language science (defined broadly as natural philosophy) came to be so rapidly and totally surpassed by European science. As the historian of science Toby Huff points out with regard to astronomy in particular:

Arab astronomers from the eleventh to the fourteenth century established a broad-based research tradition aimed at reforming the Ptolemaic (geocentric) planetary model. These astronomers—in both Eastern and Western Islam—wanted a theoretical planetary model that conformed to what really is. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the combined efforts of the Marâgha School of astronomers, capped by the work of Ibn al-Shatir, finally arrived at a planetary model mathematically equivalent to the Copernican model of a century and a half later. But having arrived there, Ibn al-Shatir and his successors failed to make the leap to the heliocentric view—the leap that distinguished the Copernican achievement—and thereby failed to achieve the philosophical and metaphysical transformation that we call the scientific revolution . . . .1

Despite all of these advantages—research funding, the resources of Greek philosophy and science, and great minds such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, al-Razi, al-Baghdadi, al-Biruni, al-Haytham, and Ibn Rushd—Arab societies did not give rise to modern science.

The eclipse of Arabic science is often explained by pointing to external geopolitical factors, such as the re-conquest of Spain by Christian forces from 1085 onward or the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. However, in other intellectual capitals, such as Damascus and Cairo, developments proceeded largely undisturbed for centuries. Arab astronomy and medicine were reaching their zenith at the end of the thirteenth century—well after the purported disruption by external forces (and long before colonialist interference by European powers). The great observatory that was home to the Marâgha School was founded near Tabriz, Iran, in the year following the Mongol invasion of Baghdad. Although it ceased to function barely forty-five years later, its end appears to have been hastened not by foreign hostilities but by some impulses from within.2

Another take on the decline of Arabic science is that it never declined because it never really existed. In this view, science and mathematics were carried out by a small number of extraordinary individuals whose activities and outlooks were never fully assimilated to the mainstream—that is, Islamic—culture. As these individuals disappeared or their patronage dried up, their work dissipated. Since there was no established tradition, we have no need for an explanation of its decline by appeal to general causes, endogenous or otherwise.

Arguing against this view, the so-called “marginality thesis,” A. I. Sabra has pointed out that many of those who taught secular philosophy and medicine were also Islamic legal scholars; that leaders in higher mathematics were often muwaqqits, official time keepers employed by mosques; and that scientific literature could be found in the libraries of the religiously affiliated madrasas.3 This evidence suggests that Greek learning had been “Islamized” or “naturalized” by integration with the intellectual, social, and institutional structures of Islam and Arab culture.

Whig History of Science

The most eyebrow-raising response to the question of what caused the decline of Arabic science is to deny that there really is such a question. Some have maintained that the question only arises if we assume that the historical trajectory of Europe is normative for other societies, such that divergence from that trajectory demands an explanation. To catch the drift of this criticism, have another listen to Huff’s language. He tells us that Arabic scientists “failed to make the leap . . . that distinguished the Copernican achievement” and “failed to achieve the . . . transformation that we call the scientific revolution.”

In his book, The Making of Islamic Science, Muzaffar Iqbal labels this kind of discourse Whig history, in which “judgments passed on the scientific developments of a previous civilization are invariably based on the developments in modern science. This creates historiographic problems and entails the danger of unconsciously slipping from the historical fact into a Whiggish view of history, as if the final purpose of the cultivation of science in the other civilization was merely to create modern science.”4 Iqbal seems to suggest that the question of decline will itself decline as more informed and culturally sophisticated historians prevail.

This position has a whiff of plausibility, and not just because it nods to the contingency of history. Apart from a belief in Providence or Giambattista Vico’s “principles of universal history,” would it have been true to say in early renaissance Florence that a scientific revolution was going to happen there? Furthermore, isn’t asking why there was no Arab Galileo like asking why there was no Chinese Puccini or Persian Dante? China produced Peking opera and Persia produced Rumi. It would be a bizarre form of tunnel vision to see these singular achievements merely as abortive attempts at the achievements of other culture.

In the case of science, however, there are actual continuities between the Middle Eastern and European traditions that Peking opera and Italian opera do not share. It is precisely these continuities—such as the survival of Ibn Sina’s Canon—that are cited admiringly by those who wish to highlight the legacy of Arabic science. More fundamentally, the historiographical critique conflates motivation and justification. Undoubtedly some historians who accept the “decline” question are in part motivated by a belief that scientific modernity is on balance not all that regrettable, or by an interest in addressing the contemporary plight of science in Muslim-majority countries. These motives and interests give the question salience. However, they do not by themselves impugn the objectivity, truth, or justification of any particular claim that a historian makes. If Iqbal finds scientific modernity regrettable, then when he reads in Huff that Arab scientists “failed to make” the leap and “failed to achieve” the transformation to Copernicanism, he can substitute “were saved from making” and “managed to avoid.”5 The flip in salience will not change the truth-value of Huff’s analysis one whit.

Iqbal floats the idea that the alternative to Whiggish comparative history of science is to “examine the nature of science in Islamic civilization from within its own framework and see where it could have gone.” However, on its face, this is perfectly consistent with the comparative approach he rejects, for the way of Europe is one way that Islamic science could have gone. Of course, a good history will attempt to gain an appreciation of a social practice from within, from the perspective of the practitioners. In this case, it will inquire—as Sabra, Huff, and others do—into the proximate causes that shaped the role of the muwaqqit, for example. In principle, enough accounts of this kind will add up to a historical explanation of why Arabic science did not follow the trajectory of European science—or, if you prefer, why European science did not follow the trajectory of Arabic science.

The next installment of “Circumnavigations” will edge closer to this “why.”


  1. Toby E. Huff, The rise of early modern science: Islam, China, and the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 87.
  2. —. 171-172.
  3. —. 84.
  4. The making of Islamic science, Muzzafar Iqbal (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2009), 151.
  5. Iqbal, trained as a biochemist, is the founder-president of the Center for Islam and Science, based in Canada. He has also worked with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (on which, see my previous column). He told PBS in 2003 that he was “disenchanted” with practical science and that his biggest desire was to see “a revival of the Islamic tradition of learning.” See “Closer to Truth: Ask the Experts: Muzaffar Iqbal, Ph.D.”; accessed 12 January 2010.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.