Like all nations with golden past, Muslims relish in glorifying their history. Islamic science and scientific achievements of the community are some of the favourite pastimes of middle-class drawing room discussions. Some would say that the original research work of Muslims ended by circa 1400 and the community stopped producing scientists thereafter. Others would say that later Muslims gave importance more to technology than to science. Scholars would try to explain the reasons behind this decline in scientific temper among Muslims after about 1400. Some would say that Arabs paid more attention to science while Turks and other Muslim empires ignored it. Some other experts would end up quoting Sir Syed to buttress their point that Muslims lost because they ignored ‘western science’ – God knows what this term means. And there are a few pessimists who would say it is futile to discuss these issues because at present we are not producing any scientist – another fantastic and factually baseless assertion.
Science is too serious a business to be discussed so unscientifically. Many of our experts are often carried away by the western writings and intellectual bombardment. Therefore, they fail to understand many twists and turns in events of the past. A close study would reveal that there is politics involved in the compilation of history of Muslim science, too.
If the Muslims really stopped producing scientists after around 1400, as it is generally made out, then how is it that they were till three centuries later, that is, 1700 – after Newton’s birth – the undisputed leader of the world and till 1900 still resisting, though feebly, the combined western onslaught? Was this possible without paying any attention to science? Perhaps no.
Those who conclude 500 years of history in just five or 10 pages need to re-read the past to understand the under-current in the western thinking and approach. If one takes this recourse then one may come to a different conclusion.
It is not that the quota of Muslim scientists suddenly dried up after the 4th century came to an end. After all, Muslims made some astonishing contributions to various fields even much later. For example, it was Captain Majeed who showed Vasco da Gama the route to India. It was Chinese Muslim explorer Zheng Hi (original name Mahmud Shams) who discovered America in 1421, that is, 71 years before Columbus. He took the round of the world thrice. With the help of great engineers Sher Shah got built the longest road in the world – Sarak-e-Azam – in a very small period of time. Mind it, hundreds of huge bridges were built, jungles cleared and passages cut through hills to make this chain of highway in just five years, or less. The British gave it the name of Grand Trunk Road. In 1790s Tipu Sultan got built rockets, which could be fired even from the back of a camel, and in 1857 Akbar Khan tried his hands on a projectile. In the field of architecture Muslims continued to make progress after the 14th century too. The science involved in these structures is often discussed even in the West.
It seems that there is something to do with politics too. In 1453 the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, now Istanbul, and entered Europe from the east. This happened when the Muslim Arab empires in Spain was crumbling and the West was about to celebrate its revival.
The Ottoman invasion of Europe and capture of Constantinople, the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church – also known as the Eastern Church, in the 15th century, was a devastating blow to the upcoming European powers. It came at a very wrong time and the European Christians never forgave Turks.
While the defeat at the hands of Arabs in the early eighth century was acceptable to the West they refused to acknowledge that the Turk invasion really shook their confidence. The Turks penetration into Europe continued till 1683 when they reached the outer wall of Vienna, the capital of Austria. Though they refused to give credit to Ottomans for military and scientific supremacy yet the Christian world termed the Turks as a “scourge of God sent to punish sinners”.
How is it that the Turks managed to inflict defeat after defeat to the western powers for about 250 years and that too at the height of renaissance? Can a global power rely on borrowed technology without science for so many centuries after 1400?
It may be that the Turks were not the paragon of Islamic virtue, but since they were Muslims the West adopted a cynical approach of denying them their due. If they give them the credit for their achievement, it would amount to demeaning their own success in different fields.
Even today they call Turkey the sick man or nation of Europe. Further east in Persia and India two big Muslim empires were flourishing in those centuries. The West used to look with awe towards them too. True, Muslim empires all over the world started declining by late 18th century and early 19th century yet who can deny the fact that among the first thing many European doctors would do after reaching India in those period was to throw their medicine and take up Unani medicine as they consider it more advance. These western experts on astronomy, medicine, etc. would interact with their Indian counterparts, mostly Muslims, even in late 18th and early 19th centuries as they thought they had a lot to learn from them.
While there is no dearth of Christian literature vilifying and ridiculing Islam and its Prophet, after the 15th century they started singling out the Turks. Even in the writing of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope one finds reference of Turks as a savage, uncivilized and uncouth nation. The western influence is so strong that even Jawaharlal Nehru, in The Glimpses of World History, has no good words for the Turks, though he praised the achievements of the Arabs. It seems that there was a systematic campaign to deny the Turks their achievements.
Till the 17th century Turks had the virtual control over the entire Mediterranean water; therefore, the west European powers deemed it fit to take the sea routes to West Africa or later India. It was by accident and not by design that they ‘discovered’ America much after the Chinese Muslim explorer had done. It is now that they have started conceding Zheng’s achievement.
The West never acknowledged the achievements of the Turks. For example, they never highlighted the fact that in less than nine years – between 1609 and 1616 – British lost 466 ships to the Turks in Mediterranean and that twice the Turkish navy invaded England – once in 1625 and again in 1645 and made a large number of British prisoners of war. Accepting these defeats would amount to conceding the fact that in the 17th century they were not the master of sea as they tried to project themselves before the world.
They need to be asked as to how the Turks managed to beat up the combined army of Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada led by Admiral Winston Churchill during the World War-I in 1916. And that too when the Ottomans really became weak. The West still shudders with fear when the word Gallipoli is mentioned before them. As high as 1.25 lakh of their soldiers died in the battle against the Ottomans in this port city of Turkey. No, the Turks did not fight with swords as men like Mustafa Kamal Pasha would like us to believe.
Whether it was the western science or eastern science or northern science or southern science the truth is that the Turks or Mughal in India did not ignore science. They lost the world when they started losing ideological commitment, sense of purpose and became luxurious, corrupt and over-confident.
Till 1990 the then Soviet Union was the scientific power. Its leader used to see eye-ball to eye-ball with their US counterparts. In the space and nuclear science it was on par with the United States. The Progress Publishers Moscow would flood the market – even of India – with cheap and extraordinary books on science – apart from that on Communism. Today nobody knows about any scientific achievement of Soviet Union.
It needs to be researched and seriously studied as to why Arabs were praised and Turks ridiculed as ignorant, uncivilized and unscientific by the West. This phenomenon of eulogising Arabs gained momentum in the late 19th and early 20th century when the European powers wanted to provoke the Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was essentially Turkish. The British and French victory against the Ottomans is attributed to the great Arab betrayal and has little to do with the scientific supremacy of the West.
The truth is that there was not so much distinction among Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc during the earlier Muslim empires. For example, during the 500 years of Abbasid rule between eighth and 13th centuries, the Turks, especially the Seljuks, and even Kurds used to dominate the army and the civil administration was mostly in the hands of Persians. Salahuddin Ayubi, though born in Iran, was of Kurdish origin.
There was nothing like Arab science and non-Arab science then. All those earlier scientists were Muslims. The distinction has consciously been created much later by the West.
The bottom line is: When we in the West started progressing – obviously in the 15th century – nobody else was in race with us. No, the Chinese, Turks, Persians, Indians did nothing in the last 500 years.
Therefore, this is a myth that Muslims stopped paying attention to science after 1400. The truth is that western science gained much from the developments in various fields which took place in these non-European empires.