December 19, 2003

Popish miscellany

I've been lax in noting that Brian Ulrich responded to this post on Edward Feser's essay, Does Islam Need a Pope?, and rather elegantly so, I'd say. In response to Feser's suggestion that Islam is bereft of a body of theology and interpretation beyond the Qur'an which allows it to adapt to modern circumstances, Brian wrote,

Like so much that is written about Islam these days, there's no room for real discussion of this paragraph - it is simply wrong. Most of Islamic theology did not exist until a couple of centuries after Muhammad. Islamic law is not so much a set law code as a field of inquiry with different schools of thought, all of which most Muslims recognize as valid. True, Muslims trace much of this back to The Beginning, but as in all religions which claim to guard unchanging truths, they are, shall we say, in error.

Muslims throughout history have never had a problem adapting to modern science, and in many cases have advanced it. Because everyone acknowledges the Islamic world was a scientific leader 1000 years ago, to claim simultaneously that Islam is eternally unchanging and inherently a barrier to scientific achievement is an inconsistency which the proponents of that line never really address.

Well put, and I hope Brian follows through on the posts he suggested he might write.

Meanwhile, Razib of Gene Expression agreed more or less with the premise of my follow up to that first post, that liberalism developed in the Protestant lands rather than the Catholic, but added an important point:

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that American culture, influenced by Protestant propoganda, has unfairly painted the Roman Catholic Church as an enemy of science & progress. Even anti-religious secuarlists like Richard Dawkins use the Church as their special foil, the relic of a demon haunted age.

I agree with his point. I used to write fairly frequently on Paleo Ideofact (whose archives seem hopelessly bloggered at this point, but look here for an example) on the subject of technology and Latin Christendom:

By 1000 A.D., Europeans had embarked on a systematic program of harnessing the forces of nature -- water, wind, fire -- to power labor-saving machines, which were widely adopted across the continent. Windmills and watermills were regular features of the European landscape; in Islam, they were rare. It is also significant that, by the year 1000, slavery had all but disappeared in Christendom (replaced by a system of mutual obligation and rights among social classes), whereas slave labor remained a feature of the Islamic economy for another 8 or 9 centuries.

It is not wrong to say that Islam excelled in some areas in which Europe lagged far behind. Science (not technology) was one of them. But consider: In the eleventh century, a Muslim scientist wrote a treatise on the science of optics. About 185 years later, a European invented eyeglasses. I've never read the optical theory of Ibn al-Haytham (latinized as Alhazen), but I'm typing this while wearing a pair of glasses.

The late Lynn White Jr., in the regrettably out of print collection of essays, Medieval Religion and Technology, noted something more profound than the invention of eyeglasses:

The cumulative effect of the newly available animal, water, and wind power upon the culture of Europe has not been carefully studied. But from the twelth and even from the eleventh century there was a rapid replacement of human by non-human energy wherever great quantitites of power were needed or where the required motion was so simple and monotonous that a man could be replaced by a mechanism. The chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization that rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power.

The study of medieval technology is therefore far more than an aspect of economic history: it reveals a chapter in the conquest of freedom. More than that, it was part of the history of religion. The humanitarian technology which our modern world has inherited from the Middle Ages was not rooted in economic necessity; for this 'necessity' is inherent in every society, yet has found inventive expression only in the Occident, nurtured in the activist or voluntarist tradition of Western theology. It is ideas which make necessity conscious. The labor-saving power machines of the later Middle Ages were produced by the implicit theological assumption of the infinite worth of even the most degraded human personality, by an instinctive repugnance towards subjecting any man to a monotonous drudgery which seems less than human in that it requires the exercise neither of the intelligence nor of choice. It has often been remarked that the Latin Middle Ages first discovered the dignity and spiritual value of labor -- that to labor is to pray. But the Middle Ages went further: they gradually and very slowly began to explore the practical implications of an essantially Christian paradox: that just as the Heavenly Jerusalem contains no temple, so the goal of labor is to end labor.

Posted by Ideofact at December 19, 2003 11:19 PM


I like your blog. What do you think of the article at called "Is There an Islamic Problem?"?

Posted by: Mahsheed at December 20, 2003 09:12 PM

Thanks for the kind words. I'll take a look at the story tomorrow, and let you know. Thanks for pointing it out!

Posted by: Bill at December 22, 2003 12:42 AM