Why have only two scientists from Muslim countries won the Nobel Prize? Is it because Al-Ghazali killed science for Muslims?
I first heard that idea from the Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, in Prospect magazine. As I recalled it, Ghazali had said it was more important to study the Koran than to study the natural world, and scientific endeavour died. So I was pleased to discover The New Atlantis, with its in-depth article accessible to the educated layman. It pits Mu’tazilism against Ash’arism. The former is the creation of al-Mamun, the seventh Abbasid caliph, who died in 833. He opposed a flourishing Byzantine empire, and sought advantage by translating ancient Greek learning for practical use. He also sought power over the religious scholars by contending that the Koran was created, so must be interpreted by human reason, but the Ash’arites believed the Koran was co-eternal with God, and unchallengeable.
By 880, holding Mu’tazilist beliefs was criminal, and Occasionalism was official teaching. It states that God’s will is completely free. That a fire is hot, say, is not because of natural laws but because God wills it, and God could change his mind, making it cold. That it is always hot is a matter of habit, not necessity. Maimonides explained it thus: just as the king generally rides on horseback through the streets of the city, and is never found departing from this habit; but reason does not find it impossible that he should walk on foot through the place.
Some Christians might agree: God is all-powerful. A generally predictable world- nights start getting longer after the winter solstice, for example- is part of God’s good gifts to us, for if things dropped stopped falling we would stop functioning. Though we leave space for miracles. Sustained rationalist attempts even make our chaotic weather patterns more predictable.
Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, arguing (according to Hillel Ofek in The New Atlantis) that reason, which leads us to discover, question and innovate, was the enemy of piety. Law was similarly ossified: Islam had been a system of government as well as a religion, unlike Christianity which had developed among the poor and excluded. For four centuries, Koran and Hadiths were applied to new situations through argument, or ijtihad; then all important legal questions were regarded as already answered, and new thinking was a crime.
Fortunately, I googled, and found this defence of Al-Ghazali in The Fountain. The sharp conflict between religion and science is a modern phenomenon, and unnecessary (I am happy as a Christian to accept the theory of evolution). There were scientific achievements in Islamic countries well after Al-Ghazali. Nuh Aydin writes that Ghazali used philosophic techniques to refute philosophic assertions contrary to Islamic doctrine, but accepted the Greeks’ mathematics, astronomical sciences, and logic.
Then I see that The New Atlantis is published by the “Ethics and Public Policy Centre”. I heard of them: ah, yes, a conservative group opposing Roe v Wade and stem-cell research. However attractively presented (I considered a subscription) their articles on gene sequencing or Islam are untrustworthy.