Browsing articles on the history of science at Wikipedia, I was surprised by the number and extent of scientific advances attributed to Islam’s “Golden Age.” For example, the article Islamic Science credits Muslims with inventing the modern scientific method. It explains that Ibn al-Haytham applied the scientific method while pioneering modern optics in the eleventh century, and that some consider him the first scientist. The article also asserts that al-Haytham employed a version of Occam’s razor before Occam was born, and that Roger Bacon was familiar with his work.
It would require considerable space just to recite the many crucial discoveries and inventions ascribed to Muslims from that period. We are told that “Muslim scientists… laid the foundations of agricultural science.” One paragraph cites no fewer than 45 inventions, ranging from coffee to “flight control surfaces,” that are “believed to have come from the medieval Islamic world.” We learn that Ibn al-Nafis was first to describe pulmonary and coronary circulation, that al-Khazini proposed laws of gravitation that were proved by Newton centuries later, and that Muslims developed theories of evolution long before Darwin. The essay also claims that public hospitals, libraries, and universities originated in the Islamic world, and that Muslims invented peer review.
I have no doubt that medieval Muslim scholars studied and wrote about these topics. If any of them have been denied credit due merely to prejudice, then that needs to be corrected.
However, there are serious problems with many of the claims. Almost all of the references cited are secondary sources. Claims are frequently substantiated with hearsay and appeal to authority. For example, “His [al-Haytham’s] Book of Optics has been ranked alongside Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica as one of the most influential books in the history of physics.” Meanwhile, Western figures are smeared via innuendo (for example, the broad hint that Roger Bacon took his ideas from al-Haytham). And some statements are simply misleading; the article Islamic Medicine states that in 2007 Malaysian scientist Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor “became the first to perform biomedical research in outer space.” Perhaps that meant he was the first Muslim to perform biomedical research in space.
The biggest problem is that many of the claims are based on a simplistic priority test. To wit, it’s assumed that the first person to suggest an idea is its discoverer. As I explained in my History of Wireless, “The question is not who was first to make a claim, but who was first to make a difference.” Ibn al-Nafis may have been the first person to describe the circulatory system, but his text could not have made a very great impression, as it vanished and was only rediscovered in 1924. In contrast, William Harvey’s book builds the case for the circulatory system point by point, was widely read and debated during his lifetime, and had a profound and lasting impact. Al-Nafis’s insight deserves recognition, but Harvey is rightly given the lion’s share of credit.
If the Islamic Golden Age was so advanced, why is the Muslim world of today so far behind? The Wikipedia article “Islamic Science” acknowledges the decline, attributing it in part to the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but primarily to invasions by Mongols and Crusaders. Still, it seems odd that a civilization that invented the scientific method was torn asunder by feuding religious sects and subsequently overrun by inferior peoples.
Unfortunately, it looks like Wikipedia’s user-created, history of science articles have been overrun by Islamic supremacists.