Sanjida O’ Connel
Quantum physicist Jim Al-Khalili grew up in Iraq and has become an expert on the golden age of Islamic science. He explains to Sanjida O’Connell how science in the Muslim world will flourish once more
Few westerners know about the golden age of Arabic science. How did it come about?
The Arab empire was hugely powerful by late 8th and early 9th century; its rulers were getting taxes from across the empire and had money to spend on translations and patronage of scholarship. About this time the House of Wisdom was set up in Baghdad by one of the Abbasid caliphs, al-Ma’mun. It began as a translation house, translating Greek texts into Arabic and rapidly started to attract the greatest minds in the Islamic world, while Arabic became the international language of science. There was also a strong influence from Persia ; an Arab scholar once said, “We Arabs have all the words but you Persians have all the ideas.”
In the west there is a widely held misconception that the Islamic world did no more than act as steward of Greek science
In fact, an incredible number of important and original advances were made by Arab scientists, who were the first to undertake real science – theory and experimentation – several hundred years before the scientific revolution in Europe .
Can you give an example of this legendary Arabic science?
An Islamic mathematician, al-Khwarizmi, wrote a book, the title of which gives us the word algebra from the Arabic al-jabr, which means “restoration”. He is regarded as the father of algebra but I wasn’t sure whether this was true. It turns out that no one was really doing proper algebra until he came along. The concept of an equation that you solve to find the unknown quantity, x, goes back to this one scholar. There’s also a scholar whom I regard as the greatest physicist of the medieval world, Ibn al-Haytham, who used geometry to prove how vision works. It’s obvious to us now but at the time no one understood that light travels in straight lines.
Why did Arabic science go into decline?
Some say it went into decline in the 11th century because Islam suddenly took a turn for orthodoxy and conservatism and became anti-scientific. There’s also an argument that it went into decline with the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, which destroyed Baghdad , including the House of Wisdom.
The truth is that the decline in Arabic science happened much more slowly than people think: there were great scholars in the Islamic world all the way up to and including the 15th century.
Why is this era of science so little known in the western world?
Europe was flush with money around the time the Islamic empire was fragmenting. When the Renaissance began, Europeans went through the same process that the early Muslims did: they learned Arabic and rediscovered Greek texts that had been translated into Arabic. So we really only know about those scholars whose work was translated from Arabic into Latin. One of the greatest philosophers of Islam, Ibn Sina, is known in Europe as Avicenna. His work was very easy to get hold of and it hugely influenced European philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and Francis Bacon.
Some argue that colonialism played a role. When the British and the French were invading Asia, the Middle East and Africa they didn’t want to hear that these places were once wonderful, flourishing civilisations; in order to justify what they were doing, they had to show that these people were ignorant savages.
So do you think there’s an element of racism to the suppression of Arabic science?
In a sense, yes. It’s tied in with modern-day Islamophobia and the idea that all Muslims have backward attitudes to life, from women to politics; and there’s the additional tension because of fundamentalism and terrorism. So there is a natural tendency to think that surely these people couldn’t really have been far more civilised and advanced than us.
Is it true that what really concerns you is that the Islamic world itself isn’t proud enough of its own heritage?
Yes, it is a shame that there are anti-scientific attitudes in Islam today, almost to the level of – why do you want to go and do science, it’s all written in the Qur’an? The Muslim world needs to be reminded where it was 1000 years ago: it was tolerant of other religions, it was enlightened, it was doing curiosity-driven science.
One thousand years ago the Muslim world was doing curiosity-driven science
Many developing countries have poured money into science but only to drive their economy. You won’t get real advances in science – real blue-sky thinking – unless you forget about what might come out of it and you do science for the sake of it. That’s what the Islamic world was like 1000 years ago and until it gets back to that sort of mindset it will always be trying to catch up with the rest of the world.
The King of Saudi Arabia has created a new university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Could that lead to a renaissance in Islamic science?
The king has specifically said that he wants KAUST to be the new House of Wisdom, so I hope so. A lot of leading western universities are falling over each other to join in collaborations with KAUST hopefully not just because of money, but because they think there’s going to be some real, fundamental research carried out there. Billions of dollars of Saudi oil money have gone into building the university in less than three years. KAUST does seem to be genuinely interested in doing pure, curiosity-driven research – not research to support the oil industry or any political or religious agenda. There are other pockets of excellence and we will see it tentatively growing: the Qatar Foundation is trying to transform their universities into something much more modern and blue-sky research driven. The Royan Institute, a genetics lab in Tehran , Iran , is also doing remarkable work.
Are any of these institutions operating under any constraints?
At the Royan Institute a religious body oversees what research fits into the remit of Islamic teaching. Even KAUST has to be very politically sensitive about what it’s doing. After all, Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country and many people are anti-science.
Your own research is into quantum physics. What was your biggest breakthrough?
The “quantum” world of atoms behaves very differently to the everyday world of Newtonian physics. I apply quantum physics to the atomic nucleus: understanding what it looks like, how its constituents – the protons and neutrons – all fit together. For years we’ve thought of the protons and neutrons as being tightly packed together inside the nucleus. But what we’ve discovered is that some neutrons can orbit the rest of the nucleus much further away than we’d thought. My most cited paper was one in which I’d calculated the size of this “halo cloud”.
Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist at the University of Surrey, UK. His book, The House of Wisdom and the Legacy of Arabic Science, will be published this year. He is also presenting two science documentary series in the UK , The Secret Life of Chaos and Elements on BBC4 this spring