“Science and Civilization in Islam” Dr. Peter Barker, University of Oklahoma 1/26/2016

Towards the end of January, I attended a lecture by Peter Barker, a History of Science professor at OU. I went into this particular Presidential Dream course presentation with an open mind, willing to learn new things and remaining steadfast in my curiousness for the origins of modern science. My belief is that I can always gain further insight into topics that interest me, and there is no harm in listening to an expert express their passion for their research. This particular talk seemed, however, unique to me in its cultural and international components. The lecturer gave sound arguments while allowing us to decide for ourselves how earlier science began based on the evidence he presented.

Dr. Barker began with an explicit statement of the significance of his findings relevant to the development of science as we know it. His arguments revolve around the idea that Islamic scientists had a much more profound impact in countless scientific topics than we learn. Although he never stated this directly, the impression was that he believed that Islam was the main source of the scientific revolution, with Western countries borrowing from what those in the Middle East had accomplished before them. He also stated his goals in presenting this topic to the community. His wish is to replace the various Islamic stereotypes that have remained embedded in Oklahoma with more fact-based statements.

The first thesis Dr. Barker refuted is known as the “bookshelf” thesis. This belief essentially claims that Islamic intellectuals translated and preserved earlier science, but did not add anything to ancient science. Many modern subjects that are well developed today can immediately be brought up as counterevidence to this argument. The first subject is Algebra which was conceptualized by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Yet another subject that is foundational to so many other disciplines, namely Chemistry, was heavily influenced by the work of Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan. Furthermore, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abdullah ibn Sina systemized and added considerably to the study of medicine, including his significant identification of the smallpox disease.

Another argument for the insignificance of Islamic science is the Rise and Decline Thesis. The origins of this were supposedly begun by criticism of Greek tradition and religious criticism of science. Although science has remained a complex phenomenon throughout history, it is hard to deny two basic mistakes. The first is that scientific tradition between the West and Islam cannot and should not be considered separately. In fact, Lady Montagu, an English aristocrat, led inoculations all the way from Istanbul to Europe. The second glaring error in this argument is the absence of a verifiable decline in Islamic scientific progress. One could even say that western science is actually a continuation of Islamic science.

It is often hard to deny that figures we have thought to be heroes in history may have borrowed extensively from the work of others. We have the false impression that these figures were able to achieve amazing things during their lifetimes through their own faculties. Dr. Barker gave us a prime example of this problem. We were given a drawing that Copernicus used to develop scientific principles in the realm of astronomy. Then, we were shown a very similar drawing developed by an Islamic astronomer considerably earlier than when Copernicus published his work.

At the end of his talk, Dr. Barker opened up the podium for questions. I must say that I learned a great deal more from the great questions that were asked. The lecture as a whole gave me a fresh insight into the history of a topic I am greatly interested. Although I had my own idea about what the lecture would entail beforehand, I was still fascinated by how much I learned in a short amount of time. My belief is that adding perspectives to my current knowledge is one of the best things that I can do while exploring different opportunities in college. I am really thankful to OU for providing these great lectures that can give me a fun break from long hours of studying!

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