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Thread: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Gatorade, is it in you?
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    Default At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    I realize this is a loaded question and isn't easy to answer, and perhaps requires a multifaceted answer. There's obviously no single event or date at which science in late medieval (or should I say Renaissance?) Europe began to outpace the contemporary Islamic world in discoveries and advancements. For basically the whole of the Early Middle Ages (476 - 1000 AD) Islamic science was unquestionably superior as the West struggled to recoup what had already been known in the ancient Greco-Roman world. For instance, the armillary sphere, possessed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to represent the movement of the heavens (revolutions of the moon, planets, and stars), wasn't used again in Europe until the 10th century (written of by Pope Sylvester II, who reintroduced it from al-Andalus).

    During the High Middle Ages (1000 - 1300 AD), we begin to see the slow decline of Islamic science and the gradual improvement of science in Europe (if we discount the Byzantine Empire that basically still maintained much of the knowledge of ancient Rome). We also begin to see far more translations via Arabic into medieval Latin of long lost ancient Greco-Roman scientific works written originally in either Greek or Latin. On top of that, the greatest scientists of Islam, such as Avicenna and Averroes, have their groundbreaking discoveries translated and proliferated across European universities, which spring up throughout Europe for the first time. That includes the University of Bologna, Oxford University, and the University of Paris. Scholars like Arnaldus de Villa Nova played key roles in translating valuable Arabic texts involving every area of science. Meanwhile, the works of European scientists like Jordanus de Nemore and Roger Bacon surpassed that of virtually every scientist who lived in Europe during the Early Middle Ages.

    I would argue that it was during the Late Middle Ages (1300 - 1500 AD) that the superiority of European science over that of Islamic science becomes clear. Although Jerusalem was retaken, the golden age of Islamic thought became seriously challenged and perhaps ended with the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 and destruction of its immense library by the Mongols. Add to that the fall of Cordoba to Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236 during the Spanish Reconquista, and that's two of medieval Islam's greatest centers of learning wiped out. At the same time, we do not see any contemporary figures in Islam that could really match the sheer brilliance and ingenuity of William of Ockham, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, Georg von Peuerbach, Leonardo da Vinci, Nikolaus Copernicus, etc. At the same time, the decline and fall of Constantinople in 1453 witnessed an enormous flood of ancient Greek and Byzantine knowledge into Italy and other parts of Europe as the last Byzantines fled west to escape Ottoman rule.

    I think we can all agree that there can really be no competition for the title of the most advanced in the Early Modern Period, considering Georgius Agricola, Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, René Descartes, Benjamin Franklin, etc. European science of the 17th century, with the advent of empiricism and standard use of the scientific method, can be seen as the beginning of modern science. For that matter, European science shot ahead of Chinese science, as novel European inventions like the refracting telescope became a curiosity and valued gift in the courts of the late Ming emperors of China (whose subjects like Xu Guangqi, Christened Paul, became the first to translate Euclid's Elements and ancient Greco-Roman principles of geometry into Chinese).

    So! Who here disagrees with my ideas? Who thinks it was later or earlier than the Late Middle Ages that European science became superior to Islamic science? I'd love to hear your reasoning! Of course, you should back that up with data and, if you can, some sources with excerpts on the matter.

  2. #2

    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Who here disagrees with my ideas?
    Pardon me good sir, but I have two minor disagreements here:

    1) There is nothing called "European" or "Islamic" science. Science is just science; no need to attach national/religious labels to it, since nobody has a monopoly on science, and proper science doesn't differ from one culture to another. "Science in Europe/Islamic world" would be a more accurate and appropriate description.

    2) In order to avoid misleading the reader, "Islamic" scientists such as Avicenna and Averroes should better be known by their ethnic identities, Persian and Arabian respectively in this case. We do not hear of "Christian/Jewish/Zoroastrian" scientists, so why make an exception of Muslims? Referring to the likes of Avicenna as "Muslim" scientists is an insult against them and their respective nations/cultures, IMHO.

    Other than that, your post is perfectly fine. I would also like to emphasise on the Mongol invasion and Islam as the two main reasons behind the decline of the East in terms of science.
    Last edited by Sharukinu; December 10, 2014 at 07:52 PM.

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by Kartir View Post
    Pardon me good sir, but I have two minor disagreements here:

    1) There is nothing called "European" or "Islamic" science. Science is just science; no need to attach national/religious labels to it, since nobody has a monopoly on science, and proper science doesn't differ from one culture to another. "Science in Europe/Islamic world" would be a more accurate and appropriate description.

    2) In order to avoid misleading the reader, "Islamic" scientists such as Avicenna and Averroes should better be known by their ethnic identities, Persian and Arabian respectively in this case. We do not hear of "Christian/Jewish/Zoroastrian" scientists, so why make an exception of Muslims? Referring to the likes of Avicenna as "Muslim" scientists is an insult against them and their respective nations/cultures, IMHO.

    Other than that, your post is perfectly fine. I would also like to emphasise on the Mongol invasion and Islam as the two main reasons behind the decline of the East in terms of science.
    I slightly disagree and I will tell you why.

    Notice how I also felt no compulsion to distinguish the various national and ethnic backgrounds of the European scientists I mentioned by name? The same can be said for Avicenna and Averroes. I think these scientists belonging to widely different civilizations - Christendom or the Islamic world - is a much bigger factor at play than which individual empire, kingdom, or sultanate they happened to be living in since birth. The ethnic background of Roger Bacon being English, for example, doesn't really set him apart from contemporary scientists from the Kingdom of France, Holy Roman Empire, Italian city-states, etc. Instead he was the product of the overall intellectual environment budding across Europe, where political boundaries mattered not when it came to the flow of knowledge from one university to another. The Islamic world, on the other hand, had its own internal system of scholarly networking and people of a similar culture commenting on various works in the same language, usually Persian or Arabic. For Europe the binding language in all these scholarly works was predominantly Latin, with a small amount in Greek (outside of the Byzantine Empire where it was the native tongue, the Greek language was largely used just for didactic purposes in studying texts like the Bible or available works by Aristotle).

    I'm not sure that medieval scientists, in both Christendom and the Islamic world, would even share your viewpoint that the country of origin was highly important for distinguishing one scholar from another. For starters, if we had a time machine to travel back in time and meet them, they would probably be rather confused by our modern sense of nationalism. And while they were highly informed about the goings on in neighboring countries with a similar religious culture, most of everything outside of those bounds were little known or understood. Medieval Frenchman, for instance, most likely didn't comprehend most of what was going on in the contemporary Timurid Empire, because of both the sheer distance and the inhibiting wall of the cultural divide between the two. In contrast, medieval Frenchmen were up to speed and quite knowledgeable about what the Italians, Germans, Spaniards, English, etc. were doing in social, cultural, and intellectual life.

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    Påsan's Avatar Hva i helvete?
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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Did Islamic science ever became more advanced than the Byzantine science?

    How much of the science were their own achievements as opposed to stolen from the Persians/Romans? Certainly the Arabs were relatively primitive upon the exit from Saudi Arabia.

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    I think the better question is when did Islam become closed minded and conservative versus being open to new ideas and inspiring learning.
    Early Islam was very open to new ideas because the places they conquered had many ancient civilizations with much knowledge.
    But as time went on and infighting and dogma became more dominant they became ever more closed minded toward new ideas, leading to stagnation.
    Meanwhile Western Europe opened up to new ideas and hasn't looked back since.

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by Påsan View Post
    How much of the science were their own achievements as opposed to stolen from the Persians/Romans? Certainly the Arabs were relatively primitive upon the exit from Saudi Arabia.
    Stolen is not a word that could be used that lightly. They didn't steal, they based there discoveries on pre-determined (what's the word) "things (lets go with that)" The concept of Algebra was Arabic, The Number-Decimal system (0-9) was a direct representation of the Indian Numerals developed by Aryabhatta, however, "Adaptations" in the writing of these numerals changed and was introduced to the West, that's why they call them Hindu-Arabic Numerals.

    If the Arabs stole, the invention of the Computer was stolen of Indians.

    Did Islamic science ever became more advanced than the Byzantine science?
    In what Science exactly? Certainly not engineering, that was what made Romans great!

    One of the great scientists was Avicena. Avicenna, Persian philosopher and scientist known for his contributions to Aristotelian philosophy and medicine. Not to be confused with Mr. Avicenna Portrait

    There are many Arab scientists! Without them, we'd be lost! Most of these discoveries happened during the "Islamic Golden Age" - Unlike Medieval Christianity, Islam seemed more open minded and willing to accept, Baghdad was the centre of learning in the entire world until the sack by the Mongols.
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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Islam definitely conquered many shining centres of learning from other cultures, with Persian and Hellenistic/Roman the most obvious examples. In the same way Western Europe inherited much of the same culture.

    Science, as in scientific method, is the invention of the West, with some important first principles crystallised by Descartes but obviously influenced by thinkers from across Western Europe. In this narrow definition, "Western Culture" has never been superceded in scientific knowledge, and Islam has never held first place.

    In terms of "Wisdom" or knowlege, well the Islamic world encompassed at various times three of the four great cradles of civilisation (Nile, Mesopotamia, and the Indus), all glittering centres of learning. Obviously the great education centres and libraries produced great thinkers: Rome lost two of its four great cities to Islam in the 8th century, and Rome had faded badly even before that.

    In terms of acheivements, I can't think of many world changing science things from the foundation of Islam to the enlightenment. Gunpowder comes from China, was Greek fire invented before Islam arose? There's some nice specualtion and heaps of sciencey nonsense like alchemy, but was there anything world shattering from Islamic or Western Science before calculus and immunisation?
    Quote Originally Posted by ArmoredCore View Post
    I think the better question is when did Islam become closed minded and conservative versus being open to new ideas and inspiring learning...
    Very interesting point.

    The "Islamosphere" was battered by steppe peoples between the 11th and 16th centuries, much as the WRE and heirs were between the 3rd and 10th centuries. I think the free flow of ideas that linked the learning centres strewn from Cordoba to Tashkent may have frayed as the Caliphate fragmented, but the Turko-Mongolian tide must have ripped it a new one. Much is made of the wisdom of rulers like Chinghis and Timur but they annhilated cities and focussed on rural living, the opposite of "civilisation" as we know it, and its encrustations like science.

    I think Islam passed the West in the "Wisdom Index" with the extablishment of the Caliphate. The recovery of the ERE (if we call them "western", being based in the Balkans and Anatolia might make them another whole sphere) and the arrival of the Turko-Mongol floods gioves the lead back to the West, the rise of the gunpowder empires and the fall of the ERE hands leadership back to Islam (on the back of a truly magnificent Persian elite culture) until the rise of the enlightenment in the 16th century pouts Europe in the saddle.
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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Threads never stay on topic do they?

    To actually answer the OP's question:

    The West decisively surpassed the Islamic and East Asian worlds in the natural sciences when the Scientific Method was pioneered by Newton. That was the key. The scientific method is an innovation that's on par with the computer as being a total game changer in humanity's scientific progression.
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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by Påsan View Post
    Did Islamic science ever became more advanced than the Byzantine science?

    How much of the science were their own achievements as opposed to stolen from the Persians/Romans? Certainly the Arabs were relatively primitive upon the exit from Saudi Arabia.
    As for your first question, regarding the Byzantines, that's difficult to answer, because they were more or less at the same level in preserving ancient Greek knowledge.

    Your second question, about original innovation versus theft, is easy to answer. Before the 14th century, scientists of the Islamic world certainly did make an enormous amount of original contributions, albeit on the basis of ancient Greek (and to a lesser extent ancient Persian) science. For instance, although he knew much about optics from the ancient Greeks, Alhazen (965 - 1040 AD) was the first to acknowledge the vertical and horizontal principles of reflected and refracted light rays, allowing for us to geometrically plot optical experiments. He also made valuable contributions to further experimentation with camera obscura and our understanding of the construction of the eye and its receiving of light.

    In a lot of cases, the commentary left by these scientists of the Islamic world in the glosses of copied and preserved ancient Greek texts helped fuel discussion and debate that was continued by their European counterparts (once those texts were translated form Arabic).

    Steal is also the wrong word to use here. Did medieval Europeans also steal ancient Greek texts by copying them from Arabic or Greek?

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix View Post
    I slightly disagree and I will tell you why.


    Notice how I also felt no compulsion to distinguish the various national and ethnic backgrounds of the European scientists I mentioned by name? The same can be said for Avicenna and Averroes. I think these scientists belonging to widely different civilizations - Christendom or the Islamic world - is a much bigger factor at play than which individual empire, kingdom, or sultanate they happened to be living in since birth. The ethnic background of Roger Bacon being English, for example, doesn't really set him apart from contemporary scientists from the Kingdom of France, Holy Roman Empire, Italian city-states, etc. Instead he was the product of the overall intellectual environment budding across Europe, where political boundaries mattered not when it came to the flow of knowledge from one university to another. The Islamic world, on the other hand, had its own internal system of scholarly networking and people of a similar culture commenting on various works in the same language, usually Persian or Arabic. For Europe the binding language in all these scholarly works was predominantly Latin, with a small amount in Greek (outside of the Byzantine Empire where it was the native tongue, the Greek language was largely used just for didactic purposes in studying texts like the Bible or available works by Aristotle).


    I'm not sure that medieval scientists, in both Christendom and the Islamic world, would even share your viewpoint that the country of origin was highly important for distinguishing one scholar from another. For starters, if we had a time machine to travel back in time and meet them, they would probably be rather confused by our modern sense of nationalism. And while they were highly informed about the goings on in neighboring countries with a similar religious culture, most of everything outside of those bounds were little known or understood. Medieval Frenchman, for instance, most likely didn't comprehend most of what was going on in the contemporary Timurid Empire, because of both the sheer distance and the inhibiting wall of the cultural divide between the two. In contrast, medieval Frenchmen were up to speed and quite knowledgeable about what the Italians, Germans, Spaniards, English, etc. were doing in social, cultural, and intellectual life.

    Regardless of whether these scientists were nationally aware, we ourselves are actually aware, and therefore we should make clear ethnic distinctions in these discussions in order to be as accurate as possible and to not allow some chest-thumping nationalists to distort history and claim some prominent scientists as their own.

    IMHO, it doesn't matter whether these "Muslim" scientists belonged to a single intellectual culture or not. For example, me sharing common intellectual views with someone on the other side of the world does not mean that I can and should identify myself with him. In our modern world lots of people from different countries share similar views and can easily engage in an intellectual discourse using English as the lingua franca, yet they do not share similar labels, for obvious reasons. The same was true back then. "Muslim" scientists had nothing in common with each other except a lingua franca (Arabic/Persian) and Islam, the two of which were not strong enough ties that replaced the ethnic identities. Not to mention that some of them were apparently not even Muslims, like Rhazes/Razi.

  11. #11

    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Am I to assume that western means western European? Because if the Byzantines are part of the equation, it could be argued that the Islamic world never really surpassed the west, even if it did gain ahead in a few fields (and fell behind in others). Never mind that the Byzantines and Muslims were constantly learning from one another via a combination of trade and intellectual theft, to a point that they two's "scientific levels" were hard to separate.

    Probably also worth mention that much of the new technology that found itself to western Europe was result first of the crusades coming back with Islamic ideas and inventions, then the Mongols which had access to Chinese innovations, then what parts of Byzantine's knowledge they didn't already have through trade with the fall of Constantinople.
    So in short, I can't really seperate "western" science from Islamic, Byzantine, or even Chinese science and technology. They were all heavily influenced by one another.

    Western Europe did suddenly surge ahead of everyone else with scientific method, empiricism, and the description of science via mathematics pioneered by Newton and several other Europeans (which he also stole from to some extent). Before that however, it was learning from foreigners much more then it developed itself.
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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Western superiority over the Islamic world on science is, imo, a result of the same reason that made the Middle East lose some ground to Europe: The destruction of the urban net, of the urban economy. The Mongols not only did they sack the cities that they randomly met, but they also installed the nomad lifestyle. Due to the superiority of cavalry over infantry, the Turkmen dynasties were guaranteed to rule over the Middle East for a very long time, so nomadism will also be promoted by the official authorities. Add to that the new trade routes of Vasco da Gama and the immense wealth of Americas accessible only to the Europeans and you realize the financial hits the Islamic world took since the 13th century. A large urban economy is essential for the development of sciences.

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by The_Hibernian View Post
    Western superiority over the Islamic world on science is, imo, a result of the same reason that made the Middle East lose some ground to Europe: The destruction of the urban net, of the urban economy. The Mongols not only did they sack the cities that they randomly met, but they also installed the nomad lifestyle. Due to the superiority of cavalry over infantry, the Turkmen dynasties were guaranteed to rule over the Middle East for a very long time, so nomadism will also be promoted by the official authorities. Add to that the new trade routes of Vasco da Gama and the immense wealth of Americas accessible only to the Europeans and you realize the financial hits the Islamic world took since the 13th century. A large urban economy is essential for the development of sciences.
    I would also like to mention the Mongol practice of forced relocation of intellectuals and skilled workers to capitals and other major cities. This practice pretty much brain drained the provinces of talented people.

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by Kartir View Post
    Other than that, your post is perfectly fine. I would also like to emphasise on the Mongol invasion and Islam as the two main reasons behind the decline of the East in terms of science.
    Wait... Islam was the reason for the decline of the East? How do you work that out? Say what you like about Islam, it created the world's most advanced civilisation since the Romans and until the Renaissance. Without Islam, there would have been no Renaissance in fact.
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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Well I remember Niall Ferguson in his documentary Civilization: The West and the Rest seems to argue the science of the Islamic world beginning to deteriorate around 1515

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/civilization.../#.VInZVzGG9HU
    Last edited by Påsan; December 11, 2014 at 01:01 PM.

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecthelion View Post
    ... the Scientific Method was pioneered by Newton. ...
    Perhaps Francis Bacon or Descartes would be thought more significant figures in developing the scientific method. Newton certainly applied it with great success.
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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    Quote Originally Posted by Copperknickers II View Post
    Wait... Islam was the reason for the decline of the East? How do you work that out? Say what you like about Islam, it created the world's most advanced civilisation since the Romans and until the Renaissance. Without Islam, there would have been no Renaissance in fact.
    So in essence, you ascribe agency to things that don't exist on a physical plane? I'd rather say people created civilization. In this case, people who lived under Islamic rule, for better or worse.

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    Default Re: At what point did Western science supersede Islamic science in achievement?

    One thing I could add to this discussion is the development of clockworks and horology.

    From distant antiquity, in the civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, India, the Middle East, and China (and by later extension Korea, Japan, and Vietnam), water-driven clocks had been used to tell the time of day and count the hours. This reached a level of some high sophistication, utilizing waterwheels and in the case of the 11th-century Chinese engineer Su Song, a carefully-timed escapement mechanism. However, his escapement still employed waterwheels in order to power his chain drive that in turn rotated his astronomical armillary sphere and sounded his striking clock with mechanical puppets or "clock jacks" banging drums and gongs.

    The purely mechanical-driven escapement, running automatically without the need for rushing water, was invented in Europe at the beginning of the 14th century. This is the same time period that the English abbot Richard of Wallingford invented an astronomical clock to rival any made in the Spanish Kingdom of Castile or Muslim Andalusia. He also invented an equatorium to calculate the changing positions of the sun, moon, and planets, which also aided in predicting eclipses. Not long after him Europeans like Jacopo Dondi dell'Orologio and his son Giovanni of Padua, Italy invented astronomical clocks that utilized the new escapement mechanism. Giovanni's astarium was also an early planetarium. Centuries before Galileo and Newton, Giovanni had made serious attempts to describe the functioning of the solar system on mathematical principles.

    Many people just readily assume that medieval Europe before the Renaissance was by default backwards compared to the contemporary Islamic world and Imperial China. Yet the genius of Renaissance-era inventors and scientists like Leonardo da Vinci wasn't born out of a vacuum. In addition to the flood of Arabic and Greek texts from the Islamic and fallen Byzantine world, respectively, a good amount of Medieval Western European scholars had also made strides to advance the various sciences on their own terms (or at the very least built upon the Greco-Roman knowledge base that the Islamic world had likewise preserved and advanced). Even so, I wouldn't place Europe as ahead of the Islamic world yet in the 14th century, even with the leap in technological progress with clockworks and horology. For instance, it wasn't until the 16th century that you saw European clock-makers designing miniaturized pocket watches and wristwatches.

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