Complexities of medieval islamicate thought

Interesting and illuminating essay here debunking Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ignorant, repeated, and insistent claim that Al-Ghazali killed medieval science. Physicists very much like to invent history according to their preconceived notions.

Key paragraph:

I could keep listing astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians in the Islamic world who continued to do high quality and influential work in the centuries following Al-Ghazli and Tyson’s supposed end to Islamic science, but that would be labouring the point. Tyson and some of his defenders have tried to back-track and claim that while these scientific studies did not come to a sudden end, the slow influence of Al-Ghazali’s meant it petered out and was never the same as the previous Golden Age. This too is nonsense. This extensive list of medieval Muslim scientists shows clearly that it continued. Centres of learning changed and disruptions (like the Mongol invasions that Tyson dismisses so blithely) interrupted traditions of learning, but there was no end, sudden or otherwise, of medieval Islamic science. Tyson is simply wrong.

(Thanks to Thony Christie for the link.)

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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4 Responses to Complexities of medieval islamicate thought

  1. Diane Walter says:

    I really enjoyed this article both in content and the no-nonsense acknowledgement of nonsensical claims that led to it. Thanks for posting.


  2. jackleo says:

    I feel like Tyson consistently is the most ahistorical pop-science figure. Ignoring the Mongol impact on the decline of Islamic (and Chinese) power/science and the ascendency of Europe is basically a world history 101 mistake. Very hypocritical that Ghazali’s critique of Aristotle in the 1200s in Islam is seen as scientifically regressive, when at the same time Bacon’s ,Hobbes’, Gallileos’, Descartes’ criticism of Aristotlian is seen as their founding myth of Western science.

    Something I think that’s even more ironic: if Ghazali really was such a conservative or fideist–from what I’ve read of him in class it seems not, as the article says, (but definitely there are some currents, in that the Incoherence claims to be a return to what Islam actually says) it should be a testament then to how critical and scientific the Abbasid’s were. If by the 1200s the Abbasids’ had conservative-fideist critics saying things that it took until the 1800s and 1900s for Europes’ own Jacobi’s and Heidegger’s (and fundamentalists) to say, that shows how rapid science and technology I was taking hold in that society, which wouldn’t be able to be ended by one scholar, no matter how influential al-Ghazali was. Seems more likely, as the article suggests, that orientalists are projecting their hatred of those type of attitudes back into the texts, as the article says. As I’ve seen it, his theological tradition was actually the moderate one, standing between its Greek and scriptural heritage, like what the article says.


    • Huenemann says:

      Interesting connections as usual, Jack. It’s interesting what ends up appearing as moderate, as opposed to radical or reactionary. Doesn’t everyone consider themselves a moderate? We each inhabit a craziness that seems a moderate compromise between two further crazinesses.


      • jackleo says:

        You’re probably right, I think you can always tell any story as the story of a moderate if you want to. In order to not do so you I suspect you may have to emphasize the “now-ness” or immediacy of it, without going that far in time or place before or after to see the other people who are more “radical” or “reactionary” or just simply different than them. But it’s just hard to make old-novelty, old-radicalism and old-nowness new again. In fact in this case of Al-ghazal I in the 1200s I do think the Ashtari school was generally a middle ground between the Athari and the Mutazila, but it might have been novel by virtue of its compromise.

        This is also very me, I guess, but in so far as every judgment isn’t only an act of analysis but also an act of synthesis, I think in some sense thinking or forming a view is just moderating the craziness of all the information we receive haha. It tends to be the analysis part that commits people to things and to sides.


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