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Scientific Arabian: Revolutions Then and Now

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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al-Jazari's Clock/Wikimedia Commons/Al-Jazari

al-Jazari's Clock/Wikimedia Commons/Al-Jazari

Walking through streets of Cairo, I’ve rarely heard talk of the unchecked pollution coughed from vehicles exhaust pipes, or of speculation of how many homes could be powered if only the vast deserts surrounding the city planted with solar farms, or of aspirations of sending the first Egyptian to space. No, the primary topics of conversation in the ubiquitous taxi cabs, hookah shops, and the neo-classically styled salons of private homes hasn’t changed in the thirty years I’ve been visiting my birth country – politics, religion and the next meal. To hear talk of science, one needs to press ear to stone.

Not any stone will do. The rock must be old, hewn from millennia-old quarries to lay the foundation of institutes like Baghdad’s House of Wisdom and Cairo’s House of Knowledge, cornerstones of a golden age of Arab civilization spanning four centuries and reaching from Spain to Persia. If these stones could talk, they’d speak of revolution – not the one sweeping through the Middle East today – but of an intellectual revolution seeded by Greek knowledge and watered by a thirst for an empirical understanding of the world God (in the creationist view of the time) created.

Perhaps the stones would speak of engineers like al-Jazari, who pioneered the camshaft and practical application of automata, or of ibn Sina (Avicenna to the West), whose masterpiece laid the foundation of modern medicine. If we use our eyes and not our ears, perhaps we’d catch a glimpse of ibn al-Haytham, the father of optics and pioneer of the modern scientific method.

The spirit of the pursuit of knowledge would flee the Arab world, escaping the destruction of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom at the hands of Mongol invaders, but it would survive in the West. Just as Greek knowledge provided the foundation of an Arab scientific revolution, so too would Arab knowledge transferred to Europe lay the groundwork for the Renaissance in which the language of Arab science – al-jebr, kimiya, al-khwarizmi – would become Latinized to algebra, chemistry, and algorithm.

ibn Sina/Wikimedia Commons

ibn Sina/Wikimedia Commons

Today, many critics of Arab society rightfully ask, “what have you done for me lately?” Where are the polymaths, the inventors, the free thinkers of the Arab world? Decades of occupation followed by stifling dictatorships drove many scientists and engineers (including my own father) to Western institutions where they would have the resources to pursue their research. Now it is the Arabic that borrows from English to describe technological advances such as the radio, television, and computers.

There are signs that scientific revolution is following on the heels of political change, the millennia-long dark age is lifting, and the ‘baton of enlightenment‘ is being shared, if not passed, to the Arab world. In Egypt, Dr. Ahmed Zewail’s vision of a science city in Egypt is being realized after over a decade of stagnation, and in Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich monarch is once again investing in science in the tradition of Caliphates of the Arab Golden Age. In the series, “Scientific Arabian,” we’ll take a closer look at the reemergence of science in the Arab world, and the influence the West and the Arab Spring are having upon it.


Amr Abouelleil About the Author: Amr Abouelleil is a bioinformatics analyst with The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He holds a BA in Psychology and an MS in Neuroscience. He describes himself as a scientist with the soul of an artist, and he expresses his art through writing. When he isn’t surfing digital genomes, he spends time with his wife and son, blogs, and writes speculative and contemporary fiction. You can follow him on Twitter (@AA_Leil_Tweets), Facebook, or at his homepage and blog, Follow on Twitter @AA_Leil_Tweets.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jerrold Alpern 1:51 pm 06/22/2012

    Could the key to the imposing of scientific ignorance, and now its possible lifting, be religion, as it is elsewhere in the world? Where religion holds sway, science is suppressed. When the grip loosens, science is resurgent, since science works and religion does not. If religion in the Islamic world is, in fact, not weakening, but strengthening, then science hasn’t got a prayer; just as in the U.S. the rise of the evangelical religious right is threatening the acceptance of science. Could it be that the Arab peoples were marginalized and exploited for centuries not because of any inherent inferiority on their part or superiority on Europeans’ part but because their religion (after its initial head start) rejected science? When any nation or peoples rejects science, doom, in the form of economic, military, moral, intellectual and social decline, follows. Denial of science amounts to denial of reality and, guess what? It’s a disaster for those who follow the path. Tragically, in the entire world, East and West, religion is increasingly powerful. Given the pressures of reality, in the form of climate change and economic turmoil, this is a recipe for disaster.

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  2. 2. Amr Abouelleil 2:21 pm 06/22/2012

    @Jerrold, I believe the Western experience of conflict between science and Christianity has created the expectation in Westerners that this experience is universal, when in fact, it is not, at least not the same degree. It is more fruitful to try to understand a religion’s particular philosophy toward science than to apply the experience of one religion on others.

    In Islam, the study of the natural world is considered an integral part of the religion’s imperative to seek knowledge (you may see this link if you are interested: As such, religion and science were not considered separate entities but related. This is born out by the fact that many scholars of the Arab golden age were also scientists. I’m not claiming there are no conflicts between theology and science, but I also don’t think they were on the same scale as those in the West.

    What has changed in the modern era is not the way Islam relates to science, but the way Muslim scholars interpreted their religion and also how they related to the science that came from the West with colonialism. I would be very hesitant to compare the interpretation of Islam of 8th to 16th century with the unfortunate way it is interpreted today. Even so, I have hope that these attitudes are changing (thanks to our global interconnectedness), which is one of the main themes I will be exploring with this series.

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  3. 3. mhenriday 6:25 am 06/24/2012

    Greatly looking forward to your series, Mr Abouelleil. The roots of natural science are not only deep but wide, but alas, as is the case for philosophy as well, in North America and Europe, the contributions of cultures to the east of ancient Greece is largely ignored….


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  4. 4. Germanicus 8:03 am 06/28/2012

    Religion, like jingoism, is an evolutionary phenomenon that must be ‘wired out’ of the brain…on its present course, mankind is not likely to survive.

    The renascence of Arab math & science should be subsidized w/funds diverted from arms.

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  5. 5. chy12 9:31 pm 07/31/2012

    Burberry USA, the German people were very fond of soccer, even though sports were not popular at all. Their love to football was out of our imagination. Consequently, a good pair of soccer shoes became almost all the German people’s dreams. They had a keen business sense even when they were only children, and the Dassler brothers began to study again in the factory and design football shoes at once. The very simple design may seem outdated today, but at the time they were totally new and advanced design. Several years later, the brothers built a bigger shoes factory and began to sell to the whole Germany. The new factory was named as Adidas Factory which was the predecessor of today’s famous Adidas.

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