September 30, 2004

Science in Medieval Islam by Howard R. Turner

This is one of the few popular history books that I could find about the contributions of scientists who lived in the so-called Golden Age of Islamic culture from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries A.D. The books manages to give a fairly effective overview of a long and important historical period. While almost any scientific history published in the West will mention Aristarchus, for instance, very few bother to mention any of the major Islamic scientists who not only preserved the Greek scientific tradition but extended and improved on it.

In the rare cases when the ancient Islamic scientists' contribution is mentioned they are portrayed as caretakers of previous scientific knowledge which they transmitted back to Europe just in time for the Renaissance. The truth, of course, is much more interesting. This book is a lightweight introduction to this interesting and ignored time. It is an illustrated introduction and is a quick read with a lot of accompanying pictorial excerpts from the original scientific texts.

For me personally, the most interesting scientists mentioned in this book were:

  • Ibn al-Shatir's 14th century manuscript illustrating his concept of planetary motion. According to Turner, a diagram in Copernicus' Commentariolus (ca. AD 1530) bears remarkable resemblance to Ibn al-Shatir's schematic.
  • al-Jazari's Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (from the 13th century).
  • Ibn al-Haytham's 11th century text: Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) and his theory of vision.

Turner makes some silly statements about the Arabic language being `more suited' than others for scientific pursuits, but apart from such minor failings the level of scholarship is very high.

Turner is also a bit jingoistic at times, but that is understandable since he has to counter the weight of all those stern Western Tradition professors who obsessively promote Greek contributions to Western culture at the cost of all else. With more books like this one perhaps historical teaching will be able to impart a more realistic tradition to students: that partnership between cultures and scientific interchange is not as modern as it seems.

%T Science in Medieval Islam
%T :an illustrated introduction
%A Howard R. Turner
%I University of Texas Press, Austin
%D 1995
%G ISBN: 0292781490 (pb)
%G ISBN: 0292781474 (hc)
%P 262
%K history, science

Review written: 2000/01/20

Posted by anoop at September 30, 2004 03:38 PM