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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Columbia professor: Muslims discovered everything!

From the Pakistan Daily Times:
LAHORE: Muslim scientists have made all discoveries of the current age, said University of Columbia’s Arabic and Islamic Studies prof George Saliba at a seminar at the Government College University (GCU) on Monday. The seminar, titled The Problems of Historiography of Islamic Science, was held at Fazl-e-Hussain Hall. Saliba gave a critique of the standard classical accounts of the rise of Islamic science. He detailed problems in the accounts and explained alternative historiography that described the rise of an Islamic scientific tradition as a result of social and political conditions within the nascent Islamic empire. He said Muslim philosophy was the impetus behind Islamic science that had contributed to various disciplines including botany, zoology, algebra, trigonometry, physics, chemistry, astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology and mathematics in the pre-industrial era. He said the use of decimal fractions was not a Western invention and that it was discovered by a Muslim scientist. He said the binary system, on which the computer was based, was also invented by a Muslim scientist. He said Arab/Islamic science was not an intermediary between Greek science and European science, but was rather the Renaissance that integrated the Islamic science with European science. Saliba also visited the English Language and Literature Department where he engaged faculty members in a conversation on the Islamic and Renaissance paradigms.
From looking at the professor's web page it seems that he is even overstating his own research. For example, he writes much about how the Copernican theory would have been impossible without two crucial theorems from Islamic mathematicians, but that is a far cry from saying that Muslim scientists are responsible for what Copernicus discovered.

Now, it is possible that in this case the Pakistani reporter was not accurate, but what can we make of the assertion that the binary system was invented by an Islamic scientist? Binary arithmetic can be traced back to an Indian mathematician from 800 BCE, some 1500 years before Islam existed!

Saliba seems to contradict himself as well in the last paragraph of his on-line work describing Islamic influence on European science:
Even when such questions are asked, and their answers are debated -- and it will take more than political history to do that properly -- one could still ask the more perplexing question, namely, that of attaching cultural, civilizational, or linguistic adjectives to the scientists themselves when it is made so obvious that their works and concerns either knew no defined cultural, civilizational or linguistic boundaries, or whatever boundaries they encountered they were at best blurred boundaries. Most blatantly, one still has to find a name for the production of the Tusi Couple, that was first encountered in an Arabic text, written by a man who spoke Persian at home, and used that theorem, like many other astronomers who followed him and were all working in the "Arabic/Islamic" world, in order to reform classical Greek astronomy, and then have his theorem in turn be translated into Byzantine Greek towards the beginning of the fourteenth century, only to be used later by Copernicus and others in Latin texts of Renaissance Europe. What name could one possibly dream up for that kind of science, and whose science it was anyway?
Here he is arguing that referring to certain scientific endeavors or even scientists as being "Greek" or "Chinese" or even "Western" is misleading, because there were many influences on them. Yet he seems to have no problem referring to "Arabic/Islamic science."

Certainly there have been major contributions to various sciences by Islamic scientists, especially in the first half the the last millennium. But it does no one any favors to overstate or exaggerate this influence as if they are solely responsible for every major scientific breakthrough. And it is a bit hypocritical to try to discredit the achievements of non-Muslim scientists on the grounds that they were somewhat influenced by Islamic science, and not to credit the science that pre-dates Islam for influencing Islamic science itself.