Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the Myth of Islamic Anti Science

Guest Post by Ibrahim Arsalan

Recently I was hipped to a presentation made by one of my favorite modern scientists, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He’s one of my favorites, not on the basis of his erudition – after all it’s my constant contention that present scholarship is increasingly devoid of erudition – but because of his lively presence and acute wit. That being said, in this presentation he ventured into a field of study far removed from his expertise, something he ought not have done without adequate research – one of my criticism of present-day scholarship is their tendency toward specialization and almost abysmal lack of knowledge on various other sciences. He’d have gone a long way toward developing his premise had he done a bit more research into this new frontier for him; History.

The gist of his presentation was that the greatest scientific minds all fell back on a concept of intelligent design whenever faced with a problem beyond their reckoning. He was doing rather well so long as he focused on individual thinkers such as Galileo, Newton, Laplace, and others. But as a rule, scholarship shouldn’t rely on individual examples to prove a universal thesis, it’s anecdotal and such a method is relegated to a bygone age despite its modern prevalence. So to support his idea he references the massive advances in scientific thought developed by Islamic thinkers in Baghdad between 800 and 1100 CE. He prefaces this with a criticism of George Bushes statement in a speech after 911, “Our God is the one who named the stars”. He used this misstep by Bush to launch into his point that two-thirds of the known stars have Arabic names because of this 300-year period of intellectual development in Baghdad. Then he contends that it was extinguished by the writing of a single man, Al Ghazali, who equated mathematical and scientific research as the works of the devil. But, as Shakespeare would say, “There’s the rub”.

Al Ghazali was a religious reformer, philosopher and mystic who countered the Neoplatonist metaphysics espoused by Muslim philosophers in his work “The Incoherence of the Philosophers”. Furthermore, he would certainly forever alter the Islamic intellectual landscape, but it was not in opposition to scientific thought, as Tyson would have us believe. After all, Ghazali pioneered “methodic doubt” and “skepticism”, both of which would play a foundational roll in all the secular movements to come. He was also opposed by one of the greatest minds the Muslim world would produce, Ibn Rashid (Averroes). Both men were renowned polymaths in their day (accomplished in multiple fields of science, as apposed to the vast majority of present-day scholarship). The dispute Al Ghazali would have with the philosophers and that Averroes would have with him in his rebuttal “The Incoherence of the Incoherence” would be over the nature of Aristotlelian metaphysics, not the demonic nature of scientific thought. Such an attack on Al Ghazali by Tyson is laughable considering he furthered the development of secular methodology and would later be praised by European secular thinkers who Tyson is so eager to praise. Also, Tyson is in error when he says of Al Ghazali, “… out of his work, you get the philosophy that mathematics is the work of the Devil”. Al Ghazali actually called the sciences and mathematics of his day mamduh (praiseworthy) adding, “…because of their absence, the community would be reduced to narrow straits.”

But that’s not what I found most remiss about his presentation. He neglected to reflect on the single most important event to occur in Medieval Western Asia, the Crusades. Just as the intellectual and cosmopolitan developments of the Islamic world were in full swing, a rag-tag band of European barbarians called the Franks, armed bearded-axes and Papal sanction, stopped massacring each other and focused their genocidal efforts on “the Holy Land”. This would occur right around 1058 and continue right into the 12th century. These events would all occur in Al Ghazali’s lifetime and would radicalize the region. Pursuits in science would gravitate toward warfare, eclipsing questions of the universe; but not completely, as they would continue in Moorish Spain and Africa until Europe would visit upon them the same fate.

The true effect Al Ghazali would have on the philosophy of the Muslim world, and probably most egregious to Western thinkers, would be to steer it from the Greco-Roman stream of development and back toward an Afro-Asiatic stream by popularizing Sufism. Born from the cosmology of Ancient Egypt (Kemit) that was originally called Al-Kemi (Alchemy) by the Arabs, Sufism would come to define the philosophical teachings of the entirety of the Muslim world, as Greek metaphysics would quickly fade into obsolescence. That is until European would reclaim Greek thought from Arabic translations. In so doing, Al Ghazali would bring the Muslim world, if only for a short while, in mental alignment with such great minds as Imhotep, the worlds first recorded polymath, among whose achievements are the construction of the first pyramids and the writing of the first book of medicine. The turn away from the classical thinking of Greece and toward unified thinking of Egypt would cement unification in scientific and religious thought, where in “Allah” was seen as the living universe and the study of the universe the highest act of worship, as was the case in Egypt. In the Muslim world there would be no conclusions equivalent to those of Europe, ergo “whatever I cannot understand is a mystery known only to God” but rather “whatever I discover is proof of the wondrous order of God as the mysteries hide in plain sight.” Furthermore, the Quran and the precepts of Sufism would support all of this. For this reason, the schism between science and religion, secularism and orthodoxy would never occur as it had in Europe. Instead, the stagnation of totalitarian regimes, entrenched in the wake of successive invasions from Europe, would grip much of the Muslim world.

WAR, that’s the great death knell and silencer of all beneficial inquiry! Since the beginning of time, scientific research has relied heavily on social investment and peaceful interaction with neighboring populations. The only sciences that can thrive in wartime are those devoted to war, and so it is today. Our country slips the dogs of war at the slightest provocation, and nowadays with no provocation at all. Then the “scholars” of our nation, hopelessly dependant on that war-machine, point their fingers at everything but the elephant staring at us from the corner of our consciousness. The best of them are often sycophants while the worst of them are always sophists, distracting us from the truth that hides plainly in our sights.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, like all scientists, should be held to a higher standard and simply ought to know better. Five minutes reading on Wikipedia could have prevented him from completely misquoting Al Ghazali and shamelessly misrepresenting history; let alone what he could have learned from actually reading his works. All the while the answer to the question he sought was in plain sight, with just a bit of research it would have revealed itself. But in his attempt to push a separate agenda he lost sight of his attempt to be as he claims in the presentation, “a truth seeker”. What’s worse is a large number of people who trust his scholarship will also be mislead by this abject unscientific approach to history.

  • conspiracy is for idiots

    Thank you so much for this essay. Like you I am a great admirer of Tyson, but I always doubted his claim in that video about Islamic intellectual decline being caused by one man. I had promised myself to one day research this claim further. Now that I have found your essay and the answer – that Tyson is wrong about it – I feel relived and vindicated.

  • Joao Morais

    It’s funny how you blame mostly the crusades in particular and war in general for the abrupt decline of scientific inquiry in Muslim world. Al Ghazali and Nizam Al Mulk , grand vizier of the Seljuk Dinasty and founder of a system of education known has “Nizamiyah” that focused on religious studies at the expense of independent inquiry, both, steer away the Arabic world away from scientific discovery and innovation.

    Europe, without interruption, was plagued with wars until the middle of the twenty century. That in no way changed the mind frame of Europeans who , along the way and in the teeth of Catholicism that tried always to stop scientific inquiry as well, developed, mostly after the renaissance, scientific method and further the knowledge of mankind in all areas. War is not the culprit for the decline of science and innovation in the Arabic nations. Religion, specifically Islam, is the responsible for the backward thinking that we observe nowadays, the treatment of women, the lack of freedom the suicide bombing and all the middle age mentality that populates still most of the Arabs. Hopefully the Arab spring Revolutions will make young people, young Arabs, to look for values like democracy, equal rights for women, due process in the courts of law instead of stoning, raping en beheading.
    As usual blame in the Arab nations falls into everyone else outside instead on themselves.

  • Frank Blunt

    a decent speculation, but a speculation still… would have could have… sigh… the bottom line is still, that the followers of ancient superstitions, with angry old books, toppled Baghdad.

  • Denver Goddess

    Btw, if you want anti-Science in Islam, look no farther than the Bukhari Hadith collection, viewed nearly universally as wholly valid and reliable.

    What does it say happened to the library of Alexandria and why? There ya go.

  • Denver Goddess

    It’s beyond me why politically left-leaning Jews go so on to kiss Muslim butts. They don’t like you and they never will, regardless of how much you want them to because of your old historical grievances against Europeans of Christian background that you’ve carried your hostility toward from the Old World to the Americas.

    You’d think you’d not have to be told this?

    Who is Israel’s biggest ally again? Enemies? What do its enemies have in common? Islam? Right.

    • Albert Heisenberg

      I have ZERO clue why the Jews continue to try to appease the Islamist agitators surrounding the peninsula. The Islamist theocrats will not stop until Israel is wiped off the face of the earth. Period. My concern is even if they were to come to a compromise and allocate land in excess of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, would that really change anything? Or will they continue to attack Israel until they reclaim the land in its entirety? Hmm. I’m inclined to opt for the latter.

  • Chriswaterguy

    5 minutes on Wikipedia, as recommended by the blogger, didn’t convince me. I did find this, which seems to support Tyson: ‘al-Ghazali rejected non-Islamic philosophers such as Aristotle and saw fit to discard their teachings on the basis of their “unbelief,”…’

    • Albert Heisenberg

      Chris, I concur wholeheartedly. Wikipedia reveals nothing that refutes NDT’s claim that the renaissance of theocracy in the region has hamstrung scientific progress (his principal thesis). I’m sorry to say this but 5 minutes on wikipedia obviated my belief in the factually integrity of your article. Even till this day de facto theocracy rules the region. The Middle-East is full of extremely intelligent, bright, innovative minds; the ones with opportunity and capital simply go to school in Europe or the States. Ibrahim, your argument is not very persuasive. Lastly, your characterization of NDT as “shamelessly misrepresenting history” is hyperbolic at best. If anything, you’ve done yourself no favors by failing to point out that it was the Ottomans that were the principal military agitators in the region after the Great Schism of Pope Leo. I believe the mantra then was “convert or die.” Alas, I digress.

  • Dawna Williams

    war has hit almost everywhere, along with genocide, mass prejudice, natural disasters, and disease. why is this one of the areas that did not rise again since then? they’ve had a lot of time and certainly now much more money. they are very anti-science. check out their educational videos, especially for children. much less science, some out right anti-science statements, and more religious indoctrination.

    • zak

      Hell o Mr. Expert, in the balanced article above 2 important things were mentioned: European crusade and stagnation of totalitarian regimes, the latter still persist till today in that region. Drink your coke & Cheeseburger, you are too simplistic like Mr. Tyson the so called scientist who did not even do his homework. The history is never one man made.

      • Dawna Williams

        Regimes built on RELIGION history buff…

    • Ashok

      Well, yes, let’s say they are anti-science now– though I still find this to be an uncomfortable generalization.

      The Turkic invasions and the Crusades all happened ca. 1000 CE. Thus, your claim reduces to this: the region was anti-science for 1000 years.

      But what would that even mean? There were no scientific facts to oppose for most of that period, such as evolution or the age of the earth. So how would you find evidence for your claim? Edicts banning inquiry? I’ll wait for you to produce it.

      Why science did not flourish in the reason simply boils down to the lack of cultural capital and the lack of state effort to promote them. Every country has gone through this. Germany was the scientific capital of the world until Hitler expelled its best scientists on the basis of religion. German science now is all right, but it never regained its ground– the U.S. has simply taken its place.

      Science does not flourish in the Arab world TODAY for the same reason it doesn’t flourish in Thailand and Nigeria– talent attracts talent, and the best minds are coming to Europe and North America.

    • Ashok

      And by the way, the region did rise again to have quite a colorful history. Genghis Khan? The Ottoman Empire? Tamerlane? The first gunpowder empires were all Muslim.