Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in Arts and Science
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
When we think of historic Islamic scholars, it’s easy to think of philosophy and literature and forget the science. From February 24-26, the University of Minnesota’s program in Religious Studies held the Shared Cultural Spaces conference, which aimed to “explore the ways in which Muslim contributions to literature, arts, science, and architecture have influenced and become foundational to Western humanistic and scientific expressions.”
George Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University in New York, opened, “If you attempt to take out the Arabic influence from Renaissance science, you’d be left with a dead body.” He spoke passionately about the transmission of astronomical ideas from the Islamic world to the Western world. For example, the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy wrote about the world being a sphere rotating on an axis that did not pass through the centre. It was Arabic thinkers that later realized this was impossible and proposed a new model with a central axis, and the moon revolving around the Earth.
Dr. Saliba, amongst many scholars, argues that Copernicus had access to the documents by Islamic astronomers, specifically by Ibn al-Shatir. Copernicus is now, according to Saliba, incorrectly attributed with having discovered several astronomical models that were first discovered by Islamic scholars.
Hamid Rassoul, himself a “veteran of space science” at the Florida Institute of Technology, went on to present four important Islamic thinkers: Razi, Biruni, Sina, and Khayyam. These four thinkers had lasting influence in philosophy, medicine, music, math, and science. According to Rassoul, around the ninth century Al-Razi created the most medical volumes ever by one person. His descriptions of human physiology and illnesses, amongst his many medical findings, were translated into Latin and were used for longer than any other medical textbooks.
This conference session just touched the tip of the iceberg of how Muslim scientists brought Western science forward, and of course, continue to today. Who are the great Islamic thinkers that inspire you?