|Average Customer Review: ( 7 customer reviews )
Write an online review and share your thoughts with other customers.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 43 found the following review helpful:
Max Weber Redivivus Aug 14, 2008
By Ashtar Command
Until the 14th century, science in the Muslim lands and China was more advanced than in Western Europe. Astronomers in Timurid Iran (of all places!) improved on the Ptolemaic system with epicycles mathematically equivalent to those used by Copernicus much later (although they were still geocentrist). That China was more technologically advanced than Europe still at the time of Marco Polo is well-known. Yet, around the 14th century, science in both the Muslim lands and China went into decline, while the erstwhile little backwater of Western Europe eventually developed modern science.
What went wrong? Or, from a European perspective, what did we do right?
That's the subject of Toby E. Huff's book "The Rise of Early Modern Science". Huff is a British professor who also worked at scholarly institutions in Malaysia (a Muslim nation) and Singapore (a Chinese nation). He writes in the tradition of well-known German sociologist Max Weber, who is most known for his thesis that the ethos of Calvinism somehow gave rise to capitalism. Weber also analyzed other religious traditions and their impact on society. As for Huff, his argument is complex and only a short outline is possible in a review like this. Like the other reviewers, I will concentrate on the chapters dealing with Islam and the West.
Huff doesn't deny that Muslim science was, for centuries, more advanced than European science. Indeed, there was virtually no science at all in the Latin West during the Early Middle Ages. Huff also points out that Muslim science was innovative, the most dramatic example being the previously mentioned astromomical observatory at Maragha in Iran. The eventual decline of Muslim science (except in the field of military technology) cannot therefore be a result of brain drain, lack of innovative thinkers, etc. Something else must be at work here.
What factors could have impeded the rise of modern science in the Muslim caliphates? The author points out that the natural sciences were always seen as "foreign" in the Muslim lands. Many ulama (Muslim scholars) were deeply suspicious of the "foreign" sciences. Muslim jurisprudence, not science, was at the center of Muslim institutions of higher learning. Even Muslim theology (!) was sometimes seen as suspect, since the most conservative ulama feared that it might lead to philosophical reasoning independent of the Quran and the sunna. Eventually, the natural sciences were assimilated with Islam, but as subordinate parts of a largely religious whole. Thus, astronomy was accepted since it could be used to compute the qibla to Mecca, and astronomers became mosque officials. The natural sciences couldn't develop independently.
There were several kinds of colleges in the Muslim world, the madrasas being the most important. However, they didn't function as European universities. The madrasas were religious institutions concentrating on Muslim jurisprudence. Scientific education *did* take place at the madrasas, but not as part of the public curriculum. Rather, instruction in the sciences was given by the teacher in private, often at his own house. A tradition of dissimulation developed, both in regard to science and Greek philosophy. Rather than spreading scientific or philosophical ideas far and wide, they were kept within small, almost esoteric circles. (Jews such as Maimonides had a similar attitude.) Also, instruction at the madrasas was highly personalistic. There was no faculty, and hence no set corporate standards for exams or degrees. Essentially, the student got his degree if and when his personal teacher felt he was ready for it. With the exception of medical science under some rulers, there were no attempts to standardize the degrees over a larger territory.
Huff believes that Muslim society was personalistic and heterogenous. This prevented the rise of the universalist spirit necessary for objective science. In Western Europe, the Roman law was considered binding on all. In the Sunni Muslim lands, there were at least four different schools of jurisprudence, and non-Muslims had their own laws. Since Muslim laws were based on the Quran, the sunna and the consensus among the ulama, innovation was difficult or even prohibited. Since the madrasas concentrated on teaching Muslim law, the ethos of these institutions was one of traditionalism and particularism. It was difficult to develop a universalizing, innovative spirit. Huff further points out that Muslim law didn't recognize corporations as legal persons. A corporate institution with a faculty, such as the European university, couldn't develop under these conditions.
Huff then points out that there was a de facto secular sphere of society in medieval Western Europe, something sadly lacking in the Muslim lands. This secular sphere was created after the investiture conflict, when the papacy and the temporal power had to compromise with each other. Another important factor was the re-discovery of Roman law, which was often seen as secular. The university of Bologna, where Roman law was taught, was purely secular. In the Muslim society, there was no distinction between "church" and state, and hence no neutral space (a central concept for Huff) for potentially subversive scientific exploration and speculation. In Huff's opinion, the Western European universities provided such a neutral space. They were independent corporations, with their own laws and jurisdictions, and some of them were purely secular. Temporal rulers and church authorities did attempt to interfere with the free flow of ideas, to be sure, but the institutionalized independence of the universities made this difficult. Also, high and late medieval society at large was a complex web of guilds, communes, and independent cities, making it well-nigh impossible for a strong, authoritarian center to assume control. In this situation, it was easier for free inquiry to thrive, despite occasional setbacks (the fate of Abelard and Galileo comes to mind). Huff also writes that the science education at European universities was public, rather than secret or semi-secret as in the Muslim territories. Indeed, universities sometimes had lectures open to non-students, at which members of the public at large could ask questions to the professors. This was a far cry from Muslim (or Jewish) esotericism.
Since the author of "The Rise of Early Modern Science" is a Weberian, he naturally believes that religious or ideological factors played an important role in the process. The natural choice would be to contrast Christianity with Islam. However, Huff seems to believe that the crucial ingredient was a rationalist form of Platonism. There was a Platonist renaissance of sorts during the 12th century, and in Huff's opinion it was strongly influenced by Plato's dialogue "Timaeus". From "Timaeus", the philosophers of the Latin West drew the conclusion that the universe is rational, that it follows strict natural laws of cause and effect, and that humans are endowed with a rational mind that can learn to grasp these laws. The analogy between the universe and a machine was used already during the High Middle Ages. Of course, medieval West Europeans still believed that God could miraculously intervene in his creation, as when Jesus was born from a virgin, but this was seen as an entirely different order of events. Under normal circumstances, the universe worked like clock-work according to natural laws graspable by scientific inquiry. Huff also points to the Christian idea of a conscience as a further source of inspiration for the notion that humans have a rational mind, but he admits that Paul might have gotten this idea from popular Platonism. Later, the works of Aristotle would enter the picture as well.
By contrast, Muslim theology was occasionalist. According to this concept, the universe does *not* follow self-contained natural laws created by God at some point in the beginning. Rather, God controls everything directly, from moment to moment. Thus, there is no real causality. That effect necessarily follows cause is an illusion. God wills a certain effect to follow a certain cause at any given moment. He might have willed otherwise. Trying to discover self-contained natural laws (even self-contained natural laws originally created by God) is meaningless. Occasionalism became an insurmountable barrier to modern scientific development in the Middle East.
The Muslims had access to more or less the same empirical facts as the Europeans, as shown by the astronomers of Timurid Iran whose epicycles were mathematically equivalent to those of Copernicus. Indeed, many Muslim libraries were endowed with tens of thousands of books, some of them obviously scientific. Yet, the Muslims never proposed heliocentrism. In Europe, the idea that the natural world wasn't directly dependent on the will of God, but functioned independently, made it possible to propose daring new paradigms such as the Copernican one, even when this seemingly contradicted the literal meaning of Scripture. The neutral space of the universities made it possible for such ideas to get a hearing, especially since education was a public, corporate effort. And since the universities weren't directly controlled by church or state, kings or popes couldn't simply close them down.
In Muslim lands, ulama could issue a fatwa against independent-minded scholars, while a Catholic attempt to stop "heresies" at the university of Paris (the condemnation of 1277) proved ineffectual. The ulama could also mobilize the common man against scholars not of their liking, while universities in Europe were protected by legal privilege from interference by outsiders. In the Latin West, a metaphysical leap to modern science was possible (another central and complex point made by the author), while this proved impossible in the lands of Islam.
"The Rise of Early Modern Science" is well-written, interesting and well-worth pondering. Indeed, I ordered several of the books referenced in the footnotes.
Yet, one question remains. If the Muslims were so bad, how could they develop science for centuries? How was it possible for this non-secular, ulama-ridden, particularistic Muslim society with its wackie jurisprudence to be scientifically leading for 500 years? Indeed, Huff believes that Muslim civilization at its zenith was better even than China!
Why did it work so well for so long? Why did the decline take place during the 14th century? Why not earlier? These are important questions, yet Huff never really answers them. He does suggest some answers in passing, however. One is the ironic observation that science started to decline at the precise moment that it was finally "Islamized". Thus, as long as there was a creative tension between "foreign" science and "Muslim" science, advances were made. The moment "foreign" science became a subordinate part of a non-secular whole, progress stopped. At another point, Huff suggests that al-Ghazali and a 14th century Sufi revival are to blame. However, the theme isn't explored further.
Be that as it may, I give the book four stars.
PS. The chapters on China are, of course, equally interesting.
42 of 48 found the following review helpful:
Best on subject Jan 09, 1999
Huff sees science as a social practice which cannot flourish without a social niche for the person who would investigate nature, and covers a long span of history looking at the ways societies create or fail to create those social roles. I have read a good many books on this subject, and Huff's is the most fair-minded, cogent and satisfying. Recommend highly.
34 of 42 found the following review helpful:
The BEST Book Analyzing Western (Freethinking) and Sino/Islamic Prespectives Towards Science Sep 25, 2005
By Kafir Kumar Khan
I have read Dr. Huff's book, and also read the 1st edition. The 2nd edition is after 9/11. Dr. Huff's main thesis appeared to me very self-evident. Let's examine the crux of the case of Islam vs. Modern Science, as examined masterfully by Dr. Toby E. Huff, a Chancellor Professor of Sociology at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
Dr. Huff's latest edition, which is better referenced than his earlier (1st) edition, contains a total of NINE (9) chapters. For understanding the role of Islam in the development of Science, the casual reader at least needs to read thoroughly chapter 2 (Arabic Science and the Islamic World), chapter 3 (Reason and Rationality in Islam and the West), Chapter 5 (Madrassas, Universities and Science). These chapters help explain the most important theme: WHY ISLAM FAILED TO GIVE BIRTH TO MODERN SCIENCE, EVEN THOUGH IT HAD ONCE GENERATED THE BEST OF THE INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENTS IN SCIENCE.
The author has done a very masterful job in supporting his views by extensively citing noted researchers like Max Weber, Joseph Needham, George Makdisi, Ignaz Goldziher and others, in addition to referring to his own research papers and books about the comparative analysis of scientific development and its universal spread (globalization).
Going to chapter 5, the reader finds that the madrassas were aimed at teaching two classes of science(s),and legal systems (or jurisprudence with associated logic/analysis/metaphysics). There were "Prophetic sciences" and "foreign sciences". The former was actually based on logic systems whose boundaries were very clearly drawn: the prophetic sciences were in line with the concept of upholding "divinity" as revealed by the Quran. The foreign sciences, on the other hand, were those analytical body of knowledge that were at odds with the Quranic traditions and the theological propositions.
The bedrock reason that explains the failure of Islam to usher modern science is articulated very well by Dr. Huff in his book, page 158, that reads as follows:
"It was even essential to Islam, ..., because the 'method was part and parcel of the Islamic orthodox process for determining orthodoxy. Where it failed ws in the creation of a set of objective standards of law, against which all other laws and principles could be judged. Since the legal principles of Islamic law had been given once and for all, in the Quran and the sunna, and in the principles of fiqh worked out by al-Shafi'i, the only task left was to use logic in the narrow sense, to uncover faulty reasoning and thus preserve the doctrinal status quo...."
This explains clearly, as one finds that application "freethought" was arrested and persecuted by the dictates in the theological canons of Islam, why modern science did not take birth from the womb of Islam, but rather took firm foothold in the European rennaisance ushering the birth of quantum (wave) mechanics and modern science.
The book is a must reading simply because of sheer amount of research that has been done by Dr. Huff to explore this aspect. It would be an asset for anyone doing research and wishing to include comparative aspects of Islamic societal functions into the research.
This is a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED book for a serious reader.
4 of 5 found the following review helpful:
Buy This Book Nov 25, 2008
By Paul Clouser
This is an honest, deep, and well footnoted description of why the Middle East and China did not develop the full power of science, philosophy and technology for the full service of mankind like Western Europe did. I read the book as part of my on-going effort to understand what drives Middle Easterners to act the way they do on the World Stage. I learned that after about 1200 AD, Middle Eastern Islamic scholarly denial of the concept of cause and effect made and makes the scientific method null and void for the people of the Middle East. This prevents them from creating for themselves the body and soul enriching fruits of advanced science, philosophy and technology. For reasons predating the Renaissance, Europe had and has no such fear of accepting the scientific method. This includes accepting critical examination of the historical accuracy of Holy Scripture, and also learning in exquisite detail how God runs His Universe. I'm now reading in the book about China.
2 of 3 found the following review helpful:
The retreat of Christianity in the face of science and religion (among many other things!) Mar 20, 2012
By Mark Tier
"Author of "Trust Your Enemies" and "The Winning Investment Habits of Warren Buffett & George Soros""
The book chronicles the retreat of Christianity from pure faith (and Islamic-style fundamentalism) in the face of reason and science. Huff explains how and why it happened in the west--and NOT in Islamic countries, Eastern (Byzantine) Christianity, or in China.
Arab scholars preserved and extended Greek thought -- yet Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and other Greek thinkers had no impact in the Islamic or Byzantine Empires (where the language of Aristotle was the language of everyday life).
Huff exhaustively establishes the reasons why western Europe was different. There were many factors, the most significant being:
THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF FREE WILL, and the corollary that man has a conscience, which has no counterpart in Islam. In Christianity, the human being is free to choose his own destiny -- admittedly, between the narrow choices of heaven or hell. A corollary is the principle of secondary causation: when you hit the white billiard ball which strikes a red one, the movement of the red ball is caused (secondarily) by the action of the white. In Islam, there is no secondary causation: everything, including the movement of the red billiard ball, is caused by Allah.
THE SEPARATION OF STATE AND CHURCH: After the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Europe still had its monopoly Catholic church, centered in Rome, which was occasionally divided by dissension; but political power was fragmented between dozens of kingdoms and tiny principalities. Thus, temporal and spiritual power were separated, and competed for power. In Islam (and the Byzantine Empire) the Caliph was the ruler of both church and state, and the law of the state was the law of the church, and vice versa.
THE "UNIVERSITAS" AND THE REDISCOVERY OF ROMAN LAW: The rediscovery of Roman Law led to the idea of regular, universal laws, the codification of civil and canon (church) law, and the universitas, or corporation. Unlike today's corporation, the universitas was a cross between a guild and a mini-state: it could make laws binding its members which had equal force with the laws of the state and church. One profession that established the universitas was that of teachers, the result being the University, which became yet another center of power, jealously guarding its legal privileges against both church and state. No equivalent to the flourishing universities of Oxford, Paris, and Bologna existed anywhere else on earth. They became transmitters of knowledge: a certificate from one university was recognized by others. In the Islamic world, a student could learn from an individual teacher, but if he changed teachers he would usually have to begin again. In any event, to Muslims everything was (and still is) to be found in the Koran, so any other source of knowledge was seen to be unnecessary, if not dangerous to the health of state and society. Such independent scholars as did exist did so on sufferance, or thanks to the (usually temporary) protection of a relatively-open-minded ruler.
The European universities of the time offered just four courses: Natural Philosophy (mainly Aristotle), Medicine, Law, and Theology. Natural Philosophy was the prerequisite for any of the other three schools. One result: Catholic theologians were all steeped in the methods of reason they learned studying the Greek philosophers. The greatest of these was Thomas Aquinas who, so to speak, turned Augustine on his head. (Another consequence, the reaction, was the Inquisition.)
In the process--without, perhaps, necessarily intending to--Huff shows why Islam remains hostile to science and reason (in the same way early Christianity was).
I've touched on merely a few of Toby Huff's work. There's lots more here, as other reviews demonstrate. HIGHLY recommended.
See all 7 customer reviews on Amazon.com