Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History

Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History
  • Book
  • 256 pages
  • Level: university

In this 2010 book published by Yale University Press, Ahmad Dallal addresses the epistemological question of the relative authority of religious knowledge and scientific knowledge. The book is broken into four large chapters: “Beginnings and Beyond”; “Science and Philosophy”; “Science and Religion”; and “In the Shadow of Modernity”. Dallal notes that

The scope of Islamic scientific activities is vast. Science in medieval Muslim societies was practiced on a scale unprecedented in earlier or even contemporary human history. In urban centers from the Atlantic to the borders of China, thousands of scientists pursued careers in many diverse scientific disciplines. Until the rise of modern science, no other civilization engaged as many scientists, produced as many scientific books, or provided as varied and sustained support for scientific activity.

However, most of this scientific work is unknown, Dallal writes, as “most [Arabo-Islamic scientific manuscripts] remain unstudied and are often even not catalogued”. And, he notes, “Arabo-Islamic scientific culture is a legacy of the past and a hope for the future but absent, in effect, in the present.” These things mean that today there are many opinions about science and religion as they relate to the Islamic world, and most of those opinions are historically uninformed.

From the publisher:

An acclaimed scholar provides the most comprehensive examination available of the Islamic scientific tradition and its relationship to religion and philosophy

In this wide-ranging and masterful work, Ahmad Dallal examines the significance of scientific knowledge and situates the culture of science in relation to other cultural forces in Muslim societies. He traces the ways in which the realms of scientific knowledge and religious authority were delineated historically. The realization of a discrepancy between tradition and science often led to demolition and rebuilding and, most important, to questioning whether scientific knowledge should take precedence over religious authority in a matter where their realms clearly overlap.

Dallal frames his inquiry around three concerns: What cultural forces provided the conditions for debate over the primacy of religion or science? How did these debates emerge? And how were they sustained? His primary objectives are to study science in Muslim societies within its larger cultural context and to trace the epistemological distinctions between science and philosophy, on the one hand, and science and religion, on the other. He looks at religious and scientific texts and situates them in the contexts of religion, philosophy, and science. Finally, Dallal describes the relationship negotiated in the classical (medieval) period between the religious, scientific, and philosophical systems of knowledge that is central to the Islamic scientific tradition and shows how this relationship has changed radically in modern times.

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