In an article on “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” Hillel Ofek describes and helps account for the great contributions of early Islamic scientists and mathematicians, but he then chronicles how ever-more-absolutist brands of Islam came to shut them down. Ofek says that civilizations often abandon scientific inquiry–citing China and India–and that the West is the notable exception. For this he gives Christianity lots of credit:
As a way of articulating questions that lie deeper than the Ash’arism-Mu’tazilism debate, it is helpful to briefly compare Islam with Christianity. Christianity acknowledges a private-public distinction and (theoretically, at least) allows adherents the liberty to decide much about their social and political lives. Islam, on the other hand, denies any private-public distinction and includes laws regulating the most minute details of private life. Put another way, Islam does not acknowledge any difference between religious and political ends: it is a religion that specifies political rules for the community.
Such differences between the two faiths can be traced to the differences between their prophets. While Christ was an outsider of the state who ruled no one, and while Christianity did not become a state religion until centuries after Christ’s birth, Mohammed was not only a prophet but also a chief magistrate, a political leader who conquered and governed a religious community he founded. Because Islam was born outside of the Roman Empire, it was never subordinate to politics. As Bernard Lewis puts it, Mohammed was his own Constantine. This means that, for Islam, religion and politics were interdependent from the beginning; Islam needs a state to enforce its laws, and the state needs a basis in Islam to be legitimate. To what extent, then, do Islam’s political proclivities make free inquiry — which is inherently subversive to established rules and customs — possible at a deep and enduring institutional level?
Some clues can be found by comparing institutions in the medieval period. Far from accepting anything close to the occasionalism and legal positivism of the Sunnis, European scholars argued explicitly that when the Bible contradicts the natural world, the holy book should not be taken literally. Influential philosophers like Augustine held that knowledge and reason precede Christianity; he approached the subject of scientific inquiry with cautious encouragement, exhorting Christians to use the classical sciences as a handmaiden of Christian thought. Galileo’s house arrest notwithstanding, his famous remark that “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” underscores the durability of the scientific spirit among pious Western societies. Indeed, as David C. Lindberg argues in an essay collected in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), “No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.” And, as Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark notes in his book For the Glory of God (2003), many of the greatest scientists of the scientific revolution were also Christian priests or ministers.
The Church’s acceptance and even encouragement of philosophy and science was evident from the High Middle Ages to modern times. As the late Ernest L. Fortin of Boston College noted in an essay collected in Classical Christianity and the Political Order (1996), unlike al-Farabi and his successors, “Aquinas was rarely forced to contend with an anti-philosophic bias on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. As a Christian, he could simply assume philosophy without becoming publicly involved in any argument for or against it.” And when someone like Galileo got in trouble, his work moved forward and his inquiry was carried on by others; in other words, institutional dedication to scientific inquiry was too entrenched in Europe for any authority to control. After about the middle of the thirteenth century in the Latin West, we know of no instance of persecution of anyone who advocated philosophy as an aid in interpreting revelation. In this period, “attacks on reason would have been regarded as bizarre and unacceptable,” explains historian Edward Grant in Science and Religion, 400 b.c. to a.d. 1550.
Augustine indeed, on the basis of the classical science of his day, said there was no need to take the creation account in Genesis literally in every detail, while still affirming the truth of what it means. Arguably, the worldviews of Christianity and those early scientists were in harmony–indeed, the former made possible the latter–whereas they started to clash after the Enlightenment and 19th century materialism. Still. . . .
HT: Joe Carter