Did scientific progress in the Islamic world really grind to a halt after the twelfth century?
Robert Irwin reviews Science and Islam by Muzaffar Iqbal, in the Times Literary Supplement:
Is there really a problem? To judge by the correspondence in the TLS in January and February of 2007, there is. In a review (January 19) of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, the Nobel Prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg denied that there had been any developments in Islamic science after the death of the scholar and mystic al-Ghazali in 1111. In response, James Ragep, a historian of science, adduced, in rather general terms, all sorts of advances in Islamic science that had occurred after al-Ghazali’s death. Weinberg responded by denying or diminishing some of Ragep’s examples, such as the discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood, or a pre-Copernican presentation of a heliocentric system by Muslims. Weinberg, having reiterated that Islamic science never achieved much of importance after the early twelfth century, ended by quoting a 2002 survey by Nature which “identified just three areas of science in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry and camel reproduction”.
Evidently there is more at stake here than getting the chronology of the advance of science right. Ever since the nineteenth century there have been European thinkers, such as Ernest Renan, who have argued that the scientific outlook and Islam are incompatible; that the explosion of scientific translation and discovery was largely the achievement of non-Arabs; and that an increasingly strict and ossified Islam curtailed further scientific and speculative thought.