Islam is the second largest religion in the world, but its current representation in the scientific community is miniscule. Out of 1.6 billion Muslims, only two have ever been awarded Nobel Prizes in science. This was not always the case. Many centuries ago, the Islamic faith produced much of the world’s most progressive advances in physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and a number of other scientific endeavors. Rise and Decline of Science in Islam explores this troubling disparity and outlines the historical shifts that likely contributed to it.
The Golden Age of Islam occurred during the time of the Abbasid Empire. During their most fruitful period, the Abbasids effectively globalized the quest for knowledge by working feverishly to translate every scientific text they could find into Arabic. The rise of cheap paper production, coupled with the enormous value the government placed on the acquisition of knowledge, played a major role in bringing about an intellectual renaissance. Their translations spread throughout the world, preserved the wisdom of previous generations of scholars, and inspired an avalanche of new discoveries in areas as diverse as mathematics and medicine. Eventually, this openness to new streams of knowledge inspired much of the Islamic world to embrace the concepts of free will, rational thought, and looser interpretations of the Quran.
That all began to disintegrate with the fall of the Abbasid Empire following the Mongol invasion of 1258. As anti-rationalist factions took power, independent thought became an endangered commodity. If the Quran was not interpreted on a strictly literal level, the punishment could be severe. Many scholars were banished or executed as Islam pushed farther away from modern intellectual pursuits. By shunning the need for innovation with violence and oppression, the Muslim world paved a path for Europe to assume the throne of scientific progress. This set a disturbing template for subsequent generations; in fact, the battles between pious traditions and commitments to modernity continue to rage in the Muslim world to this day.