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Reviewed by:
  • Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance
  • Mahan Mirza (bio)
Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. By George Saliba. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. Pp. xi+315. $40.

This book provides an alternative perspective on the rise and decline of scientific activity in the Islamic world, and the extent to which this “Arabic” science influenced the European Renaissance. In the first part, chapters 1–3, George Saliba summarizes the classical narrative on the rise of Arabic science, analyzes its weaknesses, and proposes an alternative. The second part, chapters 4–7, highlights ongoing innovations in the field of astronomy during the so-called period of decline, the social forces that advanced the cause of science in the Arab world, and the influence of Arabic astronomy on the Copernican revolution.

For Saliba, the classical narrative on the rise of Arabic science assumes that academies of learning in the Near East formed “pockets” of scientific activity, “contact” with which spawned interest among the ascendant Arabs. The ensuing enthusiasm ushered in a “translation movement” followed by a relatively short-lived “golden age” and subsequent period of decline after al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111). There is a problem with this narrative, Saliba argues, and he states the problem thus: “for scientific contacts to be successful it is only natural to assume that both cultures had to have been at similar levels of development so that ideas from one culture could easily find home in the other” (p. 5). As the basis for his alternative explanation for the rise of Arabic science, Saliba analyzes passages from Ibn al-Nadim’s (d. about 998) Kitab al-Fihrist. He concludes that translation of scientific texts must have begun much earlier, driven by causes internal to the Umayyad court. While he never dismisses any of the elements of the classical narrative outright, he turns that narrative on its head by emphasizing developments within the Islamic world instead of enchantment or “contact” with outsiders. [End Page 786]

Meticulous textual analysis is Saliba’s preferred method in both parts of the book. After having posited a different dynamic at play within the Arabic- Islamic world in part 1, in part 2 he presents evidence of extensive scientific activity after al-Ghazâlî in order tomake two points.One, the notion of “decline” must be reevaluated in light of this ongoing activity, and two, this activity exerted a vital influence in advancing the cause of science in Latin Europe. Regarding the astronomical models of Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), Saliba posits that “all that someone like Copernicus had to do was to take any of Ibn al-Shatir’s models, hold the sun fixed and then allow the Earth’s sphere, together with all the other planetary spheres that were centered on it, to revolve around the sun instead” (p. 193).

Although the evidence in support of Saliba’s arguments is compelling, his book is not without its limitations. It has long sentences and the tone is at times rhetorical. More importantly, the “classical” narrative is set up as a bit of a straw man. In a 1998 work that Saliba cites, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, Dimitri Gutas has elaborated on the need to exercise caution here: “The Graeco-Arabic translation movement is a very complex social phenomenon and no single circumstance, set of events, or personality can be singled out as its cause. . . . I have found no theory or set of theories that can comprehend its historical multiformity.” These limitations, however, do not overshadow the book’s impressive contributions.

Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance is successful in offering new insights into the rise of Arabic science and solid arguments for the profound influence this exerted in Europe. It also challenges the classical notion of a decline in Arabic science, demonstrating that the so called period of decline is actually the most creative in the history of Arabic astronomy. These conclusions raise yet further questions: If the classical decline theory is to be dismissed, why did a “paradigm shift” in astronomy take place in Europe instead of the Islamic world? Saliba phrases it differently: “when did Europe stop being interested in...


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