In yet another installment of what is apparently a never-ending series of articles designed to make their readers ashamed of their own culture and heritage, the UK’s Guardian in August 2020 published a lengthy, breathlessly enthusiastic article entitled: “Looted landmarks: how Notre-Dame, Big Ben and St Mark’s were stolen from the east.”
They are beacons of western civilisation. But, says an explosive new book, the designs of Europe’s greatest buildings were plundered from the Islamic world – twin towers, rose windows, vaulted ceilings and all.
Plundered! Of course! When has the Judeo-Christian West done anything except steal, oppress, and kill?
The Guardian article highlights the “disc-overies” of a “Middle East expert” named Diana Darke, author of a new book called Stealing from the Saracens, which the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright calls “an exhilarating, meticulously researched book that sheds light on centuries of borrowing.”
“Borrowing” is a more polite word than Diana Darke herself used, but otherwise Wainwright is completely on board with her project, reporting Darke’s dismay at finding that it was not common knowledge in the West that everything we have, everything we have done, everything we have made, has come from Islam: “I was astonished at the reaction,” Darke lamented. “I thought more people knew, but there seems to be this great gulf of ignorance about the history of cultural appropriation. Against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia, I thought it was about time someone straightened out the narrative.”
Sure. And who better to do that than the illustrious Diana Darke, who is often featured on the BBC, as well as in the Guardian. It’s easy to see why she would be the British intelligentsia’s favorite “Middle East expert.” Her book, which was published on November 1, 2020, and all its ridiculous claims are yet more examples of the UK elite’s ongoing efforts to compel Britons to believe that Islam is part of their own culture and heritage, so that they will be shamed into fearing to oppose mass Muslim migration into Britain, as well as jihad violence and Sharia oppression of women and others. It’s just more of Britain’s continuing cultural suicide.
In this case, the deception and sleight of hand are clumsy and obvious. The subtitle of the Guardian article claims that “the designs of Europe’s greatest buildings were plundered from the Islamic world.” A centerpiece of Diana Darke’s case for that is that “Notre-Dame’s architectural design, like all gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria’s Qalb Lozeh fifth-century church.”
A fifth-century church. Islam arose in the seventh and eighth centuries. What exactly does the design of a pre-Islamic church in Syria have to do with the Islamic world? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. It just happens that the site of this church was conquered by Muslims several centuries after it was built, so for Diana Darke, the Guardian, and their luckless readers, this becomes an example of how the West “stole from” or “plundered” the Islamic world.
Even more ridiculous is the claim that the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was the basis for church architecture in Europe, when the Dome of the Rock itself was patterned after the great cathedral in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia. St. Mark’s in Venice was also patterned after Hagia Sophia, although Darke claims it was based on the Dome of the Rock. The interior of St. Mark’s is covered on virtually every available space with Christian art, as was the interior of Hagia Sophia. Which is its more likely influence? If those who built St. Mark’s were imitating the Dome of the Rock, why didn’t they opt for a more austere interior?
This nonsense from Diana Darke is part of a much larger effort. Another example of the same cultural self-abnegation came last fall, when the British Museum ran a lavish exhibition called “Inspired by the East,” about how Western art had been massively influenced by Islamic art. Never mind that the Islamic influence on Western art was severely limited by the fact that Sharia forbids representation of the human form. That fact might have reflected negatively upon Islam and Sharia, and was left to the background.
Did the British Museum host an exhibition on how Western art influenced the Islamic world, a topic about which there is a great deal that could be said, ranging from the cultural appropriation of Byzantine church architecture to the stylistic similarities of Shi’ite iconography to Western art? Of course not. The objective was to get Westerners to despise their own heritage, not revere it.
The British Museum, Diana Darke and the Guardian did the British public, and people all over the Western world, a grave disservice by misleading them about their own culture and heritage, and did so in a way that was designed to render them complacent and defenseless in the face of a genuine threat: that of jihad violence and Sharia oppression of women and others.
But the problem goes far beyond the museum the newspaper, and the writer.
Allah’s hand is not fettered
Friedrich Nietzsche once noted that “there is no such thing as science ‘without any presuppositions.’…a philosophy, a ‘faith,’ must always be there first, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist.”
It may be jarring to those who are accustomed to believing that faith and reason are perpetually at odds with each other, and that religion is an eternal enemy to science, but it is nevertheless a matter of historical fact that modern science has derived a great deal of its direction, meaning, limit, method, and right to exist from Christianity, and in a broader sense from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is likewise true, and probably just as jarring to those who assume that all religions are essentially identical in character, that Islam has not provided, either historically or in the present day, the same kind of impetus to its development – Diana Darke notwithstanding.
In his notorious Regensburg address of September 12, 2006 that touched off riots among Muslims around the world, then-Pope Benedict XVI observed that “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”
The one hundred Muslim authorities who wrote an Open Letter to the Pope replied that “To say that for Muslims ‘God’s Will is not bound up in any of our categories’ is also a simplification which may lead to a misunderstanding. God has many Names in Islam, including the Merciful, the Just, the Seeing, the Hearing, the Knowing, the Loving, and the Gentle….As this concerns His Will, to conclude that Muslims believe in a capricious God who might or might not command us to evil is to forget that God says in the Qur’an, Lo! God enjoins justice and kindness, and giving to kinsfolk, and forbids lewdness and abomination and wickedness. He exhorts you in order that ye may take heed (al-Nahl, 16:90). Equally, it is to forget that God says in the Qur’an that He has prescribed for Himself mercy (al-An’am, 6:12; see also 6:54), and that God says in the Qur’an, My Mercy encompasses everything (al-A‘raf 7:156). The word for mercy, rahmah, can also be translated as love, kindness, and compassion. From this word rahmah comes the sacred formula Muslims use daily, In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Is it not self-evident that spilling innocent blood goes against mercy and compassion?” (The citations are all passages from the Qur’an.)
The authors of the Open Letter seemed to be contradicting the Pope’s point about the Islamic view of God, but they did not actually do so. In attempting to refute the idea that Islam envisions “a capricious God who might or might not command us to evil,” the writers offer a number of Qur’an quotes that assert that “God enjoins justice and kindness,” and is merciful and compassionate. Yet in noting that in Islam, Allah’s “will is not bound up with any of our categories” and quoting Ibn Hazm saying “Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry,” the Pope was not so much saying that in the Islamic view Allah would command his people to do evil, but that he might change the content of the concepts of good and evil. In other words, Allah would always enjoin “justice and kindness,” but what constitutes “justice and kindness,” just as what constitutes “innocent blood,” might change.
This idea has extraordinarily important implications for the development of science. There is an odd passage in the Qur’an that sums up this perspective, and how it differs from the Judeo-Christian view of God: “The Jews say: Allah’s hand is fettered. Their hands are fettered and they are accursed for saying so.” (5:64).
The Jews, in their wickedness, claimed that “Allah’s hand is fettered,” but in fact Allah’s hand is not fettered. It is unclear what Jewish concept the Qur’an is referring to in this case, but the indignant response to it is clear: Allah’s hand being unfettered is a vivid image of divine freedom. Such a God can be bound by no laws. Muslim theologians argued during the long controversy with the Mu‘tazilite sect, which exalted human reason beyond the point that the eventual victors were willing to tolerate, that Allah was free to act as he pleased. He was thus not bound to govern the universe according to consistent and observable laws. “He cannot be questioned concerning what He does” (Qur’an 21:23).
Accordingly, there was no point to observing the workings of the physical world; there was no reason to expect that any pattern to its workings would be consistent, or even discernable. If Allah could not be counted on to be consistent, why waste time observing the order of things? It could change tomorrow. Stanley Jaki, a Catholic priest and physicist, explains that it was al-Ghazali, the philosopher that the authors of the Open Letter recommend to the Pope, who “denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah.” He adds that “Muslim mystics decried the notion of scientific law (as formulated by Aristotle) as blasphemous and irrational, depriving as it does the Creator of his freedom.”
Social scientist Rodney Stark adds that “it would seem that Islam has a conception of God appropriate to underwrite the rise of science. Not so. Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but is conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes in the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy in that they deny Allah’s freedom to act.”
The renowned Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) explained orthodox Islamic cosmology in these terms:
Human intellect does not perceive any reason why a body should be in a certain place instead of being in another. In the same manner they say that reason admits the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an elephant might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant.
This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe. Whenever they affirm that a thing belongs to this class of admitted possibilities, they say that it can have this form and that it is also possible that it be found differently, and that the one form is not more possible than the other; but they do not ask whether the reality confirms their assumption. They say that the thing which exists with certain constant and permanent forms, dimensions, and properties, only follows the direction of habit, just as the king generally rides on horseback through the streets of the city, and is never found departing from this habit; but reason does not find it impossible that he should walk on foot through the place: there is no doubt that he may do so, and this possibility is fully admitted by the intellect.
Similarly, earth moves towards the centre, fire turns away from the centre; fire causes heat, water causes cold, in accordance with a certain habit; but it is logically not impossible that a deviation from this habit should occur, namely, that fire should cause cold, move downward, and still be fire; that the water should cause heat, move upward, and still be water. On this foundation their whole fabric is constructed.
This odd theory was derived entirely from the Islamic conviction of the absolute sovereignty of Allah. Relatively early in its history, therefore, science was deprived in the Islamic world of the philosophical foundation it needed in order to flourish. Consequently, Jaki observes, “the improvements brought by Muslim scientists to the Greek scientific corpus were never substantial.” The consequences of this have been far-reaching. Jaki details some of them:
More than two hundred years after the construction of the famed Blue Mosque, W. Eton, for many years a resident in Turkey and Russia, found that Turkish architects still could not calculate the lateral pressures of curves. Nor could they understand why the catenary curve, so useful in building ships, could also be useful in drawing blueprints for cupolas. The reign of Suleiman the Magnificent may be memorable for its wealth of gorgeously illustrated manuscripts and princely paraphernalia, but for no items worth mentioning from the viewpoint of science and technology. At the Battle of Lepanto the Turkish navy lacked improvements long in use on French and Italian vessels. Two hundred years later, Turkish artillery was primitive by Western standards. Worse, while in Western Europe the dangers of the use of lead had for some time been clearly realized, lead was still a heavy ingredient in kitchenware used in Turkish lands.
Those technological differences were decisive at the Battle of Lepanto, which took place on October 7, 1571. The Holy League, comprised of the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, Spain, Genoa, and others, defeated the Ottoman Turks in a decisive sea battle that significantly diminished the jihadists’ chances to subdue all of Europe at that time. Stark explains: “The European galleys not only had far more and far better cannons than did the Turks but they no longer had their forward fire zone blocked by a high ramming beak – since they meant to blow the Turks out of the water, not ram into them. Firing powerful forward volleys, the Europeans annihilated Ottoman galleys while still rowing toward them; the Turks had to stop and turn sideways to fire, presenting much larger targets.”
In contrast to the dogmatic stagnation of the Islamic world, science was able to flourish in Christian Europe during the same period because Christian scientists were working from assumptions derived from the Bible, which were very different from those that Muslims derived from the Qur’an. In the Old Testament, says Jaki, “the faithfulness of the God of history is supported not only with a reference to another saving intervention of God into
human affairs, but very often also by a pointed and detailed reference to the faithfulness of the regular working and permanence of a nature created by God.” For example, God refers to the regularity of day and night to emphasize the permanence of his covenant with the Israelites, telling the prophet Jeremiah: “If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne…” (Jeremiah 33:20-21). The Psalmist speaks of God having “fixed all the bounds of the
earth” (Psalm 74:17), and of his word as fixed as well: “For ever, O LORD, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). In these and many other similar passages, there is a strong sense of the stability of creation – a sine qua non of scientific investigation.
Of course, the Qur’an contains similar affirmations: “The word of thy Lord doth find its fulfilment in truth and in justice: None can change His words: for He is the one who heareth and knoweth all” (6:115). However, even in the Qur’an \itself Allah says that he does sometimes change his words: “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: knowest thou not that Allah hath power over all things?” (2:106).
If Allah’s “power over all things” extended to the ability to replace his own words with something “better or similar” but in any case contradictory, since otherwise the replacement wouldn’t be necessary, then Muslims would find it difficult to accept the Jewish and Christian understanding that God created the universe according to reliably observable laws, and, whether or not he is bound to do so, freely chose to uphold the laws that he created. “Islam,” notes Stark, “did not fully embrace the notion that the universe ran along on fundamental principles laid down by God at the creation but assumed that the world was sustained by his will on a continuing basis.”
However, the idea that the universe did run “on fundamental principles laid down by God at the creation” gave a major impetus to the rise of modern science in Christian Europe. Christian mathematicians and astronomers knew that their investigations would lead to knowledge of the truth, because they believed that God had established the universe according to certain laws – laws that could be discovered through observation and study. St. Thomas Aquinas even goes so far as to assert that “since the principles of certain sciences — of logic, geometry, and arithmetic, for instance — are derived exclusively from the formal principals of things, upon which their essence depends, it follows that God cannot make the contraries of these principles; He cannot make the genus not to be predicable of the species, nor lines drawn from a circle’s center to its circumference not to be equal, nor the three angles of a rectilinear triangle not to be equal to two right angles.” (Emphasis added)
This is a far cry from Maimonides’ depiction of Muslim philosophers envisioning elephants becoming snakes and fire turning cool. And to be sure, to a pious Muslim of Aquinas’s day the idea that God could not do anything would have appeared as the highest form of blasphemy. It would have been equivalent to saying that “Allah’s hand is fettered.” But Christians did not consider it blasphemous in the least. “The rise of science,” Stark explains, “was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God. In order to love and honor God, it necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Because God is perfect, that handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, it ought to be possible to discover those principles.”
The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. Stark concludes: “These were the crucial ideas that explain why science arose in Christian Europe and nowhere else.”
Did modern science originate in the Islamic world?
The reader of this book who has received a modern education in a Western country may find Stark’s statement implausible. After all, didn’t modern science begin in the Islamic world? Didn’t Muslims invent algebra, the astrolabe, and the zero? Didn’t Muslims preserve the classics of ancient Greek philosophy while Europe was blinded to their value by a narrow Christian dogmatism? Weren’t the great Islamic empires of the past the bright lights of civilization, while Christian Europe was comparatively barbaric and primitive? “For while [the Caliphs] al-Rashid [786-809] and al-Mamun [813-833] were delving into Greek and Persian philosophy,” according to historian Philip K. Hitti, “their contemporaries in the West, Charlemagne and his lords, were reportedly dabbling in the art of writing their names….No people in the early Middle Ages contributed to human progress as much as did the Arabs.”
In fact, much of this has been exaggerated in regard to both Islam and Europe, often for quite transparent apologetic motives. The astrolabe was developed, if not perfected, long before Muhammad was born. The zero, which is often attributed to Muslims, and what we know today as “Arabic numerals,” did not originate in Arabia, but in pre-Islamic India. Aristotle’s work was preserved in Arabic not initially by Muslims at all, but by Christians such as the fifth century priest Probus of Antioch, who introduced Aristotle to the Arabic-speaking world. Another Christian, Huneyn ibn-Ishaq (809-873), translated many works by Aristotle, Galen, Plato and Hippocrates into Syriac. His son then translated them into Arabic. The Syrian Christian Yahya ibn ‘Adi (893-974) also translated works of philosophy into Arabic, and wrote one of his own, The Reformation of Morals. His student, another Christian named Abu ‘Ali ‘Isa ibn Zur’a (943-1008), also translated Aristotle and others from Syriac into Arabic. The first Arabic-language medical treatise was written by a Christian priest and translated into Arabic by a Jewish doctor in 683. The first hospital was founded in Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate — not by a Muslim, but a Nestorian Christian. A pioneering medical school was founded at Gundeshapur in Persia — by Assyrian Christians.
In sum, there was a time when it was indeed true that Islamic culture was more advanced than that of Europeans, but that superiority corresponds exactly to the period when Muslims were able to draw on and advance the achievements of Byzantine and other civilizations. But when the Muslim overlords had taken what they could from their subject peoples, and the Jewish and Christian communities had been stripped of their material and intellectual wealth and thoroughly subdued, Islam went into a period of intellectual decline from which it has not yet recovered.
Certainly, Muslims have innovated at high levels. Civilized people owe a debt to Muslim believers such as Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), whose pioneering treatise on algebra, Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah, gave algebra its name and enjoyed wide influence in Europe. (Al-Khwarizmi, of course, was following in the pioneering footsteps of Diophantus of Alexandria, who died late in the third Christian century.) Abu Raihan al-Biruni (973-1048) did groundbreaking work on calculating longitude and latitude. The Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s son Abu Jafar al-Ma‘mun (786-833), who became caliph in 813, established professional standards for physicians and pharmacists. Abu Bakr al-Razi, or Rhazes (865-925), wrote lengthy treatises on medicine and alchemy that influenced the development of medical science and chemistry in medieval Europe. The famous Muslim philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) wrote a medical textbook that was preeminent among European doctors for five centuries, until the 1600s. The prolific scholar Abu ‘Uthman ‘Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz (776-868) wrote over two hundred books on a multitude of subjects: from politics (The Institution of the Caliphate) and zoology (the seven-volume Book of Animals) to cuisine (Arab Food), and day-to-day living (Sobriety and Mirth; The Art of Keeping One’s Mouth Shut.) The mathematician Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) did early and influential work in optics.
However, Stark points out that “Islamic scholars achieved significant progress only in terms of specific knowledge, such as certain aspects of astronomy and medicine, which did not require any general theoretical basis. And as time passed, even this sort of progress ceased.”
Muslims innovate, Christians run with the innovations
“1001 Inventions” describes itself as “a unique UK based educational project that reveals the rich heritage that the Muslim community share with other communities in the UK and Europe.” It says that it is “a non-religious and non-political project seeking to allow the positive aspects of progress in science and technology to act as a bridge in understanding the interdependence of communities throughout human history” – and it does this by highlighting 1001 inventions that Muslims are supposed to have brought to the world. This exhibit is designed for maximum popular appeal: “1001 Inventions consists of a UK-wide travelling exhibition, a colourful easy to read book, a dedicated website and a themed collection of educational posters complementing a secondary school teachers’ pack.” It invites participants to “Discover Muslim Heritage in our World in seven conveniently organised zones: home, school, market, hospital, town, world and universe.”
Many of these 1001 inventions involve things on the order of “the world’s first soft drink,” and the perspective of this enterprise’s organizers comes clear from a section they include detailing astronomical revelations that can be found in the Qur’an. In a manner reminiscent of Khruschev-era Soviet propaganda about everything from baseball to zoology to Russians, it frequently asserts that innovations and discoveries usually attributed to Westerners actually originated in the Islamic world. “Abbas ibn Firnas,” we’re told, “was the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly. His first flight took place in 852 in Cordoba when he wrapped himself in a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts and jumped from the minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Though this attempt was unsuccessful, he continued working on improving his design.” And a bit more seriously, “the Polish scholar and inventor Copernicus is credited as the founder of modern astronomy. Historians have recently established that most of his theories were based on those of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Ibn Shatir. Ibn al-Shatir’s planetary theory and models are exactly mathematically identical to those prepared by Copernicus over a century after him, which raised the issue of how Copernicus acquired such elements of information. The line of transmission lies in Italy where Greek and Latin materials that made use of al-Tusi’s device were circulating in Italy at about the time Copernicus studied there.”
Such assertions only highlight the discomfiture of those who make them. For if Muslims really did make innovations in aerodynamics, astronomy, and other fields long before Europeans did, what happened then? Why were the Europeans the ones who made use of these discoveries for technological advancement? Even if Copernicus (who came from a devout Catholic family and may have been a priest himself) was influenced by Ibn al-Shatir, which is not universally accepted, why didn’t Muslims make use of the insights of Ibn al-Shatir the way Copernicus did? Ibn al-Shatir died in 1375, just under a hundred years before Copernicus was born in 1473. Yet in that century, and in the centuries thereafter, Islamic astronomers did nothing significant with their coreligionist’s discoveries. If Islam contained the seeds of the high level of cultural attainment that the Islamic world enjoyed at its apex, why has it been unable to reverse its precipitous decline from those heights? Many Muslim and non-Muslim writers today answer this by blaming the West, but this just once again avoids the problem – for if Islam contains within it the means by which civilization can advance beyond anything the non-Muslim world has to offer, one would think that Muslims would be able to devise ways to circumvent the West’s baneful influence.
Anyway, while an endeavor like “1001 Inventions” may have its merits, it is noteworthy that there is no corresponding project spotlighting inventions by Christians. Of course, the organizers of “1001 Inventions” would probably respond that this is because it is only Muslims whose civilizations and achievements are being denigrated, and so only Muslims need to remind the world of their forefathers’ attainments. Also, it is generally assumed that the worldview and history of the dominant culture in any given area are generally known. However, in this age of multiculturalism and a tendency toward suicidal self-incrimination in the West, that can no longer be taken for granted. With hatred for their own culture and history rampant among young people in the West, it is likely that few students in the West today are aware of the historical innovations for which Christians are responsible, including those which were not just incidentally developed in a Christian context, but which owed their existence in whole or part from Christian assumptions. Most people are likely unaware, for example, of the Catholic Church’s pivotal role, which Woods details, in the development of the university, free market economics, and even secular legal codes. The Islamic world, of course, was among the beneficiaries of many of these Christian innovations, large and small. In the late fifteenth century, the Persian mystical poet Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami (1414-1492) said that his vision had become extremely poor, although “with the aid of Frankish glasses,” he could see things clearly again. Could the fatalism that is deeply rooted in the Islamic consciousness have retarded the development by Muslims of aids to vision?
Stark also details some of the innovations and discoveries of Christian Europe, principally advances in production methods, navigation and war technology, and concludes: “All of these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason. That new technologies and techniques would always be forthcoming was a fundamental article of Christian faith. Hence, no bishops or theologians denounced clocks or sailing ships — although both were condemned on religious grounds in various non-Western societies.” Indeed, clocks originated in medieval Catholic Europe, while in 1560, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote that his hosts had “never been able to bring themselves to print books and set up public clocks. They hold that their scriptures, that is, their sacred books, would no longer be scriptures if they were printed; and if they established public clocks, they think that the authority of their muezzins and their ancient rites would suffer diminution.” It was not until the mid-nineteenth century, a time in which Islamic norms were on the defensive and in retreat, that the first public clock was installed in Constantinople; this may have been the first public clock erected in any Islamic country.
The effects of the Christian openness to innovation and the Islamic resistance to it reverberate in many fields. Even in medicine, while the Islamic world points proudly to many early physicians and medical theorists, it was not a Muslim, but the Belgian physician and researcher Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), who paved the way for modern medical advances when he published the first accurate description of human internal organs, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) in 1543. Why was a Muslim not able to do this? Because Vesalius was able to dissect human bodies, while that practice was forbidden in Islam. What’s more, Vesalius’ book is filled with detailed anatomical drawings — but also forbidden in Islam are artistic representations of the human body.
Church is pro-science? But what about Galileo?
Stark’s reference to “the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation” may strike some as odd in light of the fact that the Catholic Church condemned Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the “father of science” himself, as a heretic for saying that the earth moved around the sun. Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial generally form the Catholic and Protestant bookends of the case that Christianity is anti-science. However, historian Thomas Woods notes of the former: “The one-sided version of the Galileo affair with which most people are familiar is very largely to blame for the widespread belief that the Church has obstructed the advance of scientific inquiry. But even if the Galileo incident had been every bit as bad as people think it was, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the celebrated nineteenth-century convert from Anglicanism, found it revealing that this is practically the only example that ever comes to mind.”
The myth is that an obscurantist Church, blinded by dogma, hounded and condemned Galileo because Church officials could not square the idea that the earth moved around the sun with Scriptural declarations such as “Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken” (Psalm 104:5). Reality was not quite so pat. In fact, Jesuit astronomers were among Galileo’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. When Galileo first published supporting evidence for the Copernican heliocentric theory, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644), the future Pope Urban VIII – the Pope of whom he was later to run afoul – sent him a letter of congratulations. When Galileo visited Rome in 1624, Urban VIII, who had become Pope the year before, welcomed the scientist, gave him gifts, and assured him that the Church would never declare heliocentrism heretical. This is odd behavior on Barberini’s part if he thought that Galileo was a heretic for teaching heliocentrism. In reality, the Pope and other churchmen, according to historian Jerome Langford, “believed that Galileo might be right, but they had to wait for more proof.”
What about the Biblical passages that seemed to teach that the Earth did not move? Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) explained that “if there were a real proof…that the sun does not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” And that was the ultimate source of Galileo’s conflict with the Church: he was teaching as fact what still at that time had only the status of theory. When Church officials asked Galileo in 1616 to teach heliocentrism as theory rather than as fact, he agreed; however, in 1632 he published a new work, Dialogue on the Great World Systems, in which he presented heliocentrism as fact again.
That was why Galileo was put on trial for suspected heresy and placed under house arrest; an order that he not be allowed to publish was not enforced. Historian J. L. Heilbron notes that from the beginning the controversy was not understood the way it has been presented by many critics of the Church since then. The condemnation of Galileo, says Heilbron, “had no general or theological significance. Gassendi, in 1642, observed that the decision of the cardinals [who condemned Galileo], though important for the faithful, did not amount to an article of faith; Riccioli, in 1651, that heliocentrism was not a heresy; Mengeli, in 1675, that interpretations of Scripture can only bind Catholics if agreed to at a general council; and Baldigiani, in 1678, that everyone knew all that.”
Speaking about the Galileo case in 1992, Pope John Paul II remarked:
From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our own day, the Galileo case has been a sort of “myth,” in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was the symbol of the Church’s supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of “dogmatic” obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth. This myth has played a considerable cultural role. It has helped to anchor a number of scientists of good faith in the idea that there was an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on the one hand and the Christian faith on the other. A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith. The clarifications furnished by recent historical studies enable us to state that this sad misunderstanding now belongs to the past.
John Paul also reaffirmed the fundamentally Christian foundations of modern science: “Those who engage in scientific and technological research admit as the premise of its progress, that the world is not a chaos but a ‘cosmos’ — that is to say, that there exist order and natural laws which can be grasped and examined, and which, for this reason, have a certain affinity with the spirit. Einstein used to say: ‘What is eternally incomprehensible in the world is that it is comprehensible.’ This intelligibility, attested to by the marvellous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial Thought imprinted on all things.” In a 2000 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he observed that “the man of science…feels a special responsibility in relation to the advancement of mankind, not understood in generic or ideal terms, but as the advancement of the whole man and of everything that is authentically human. Science conceived in this way can encounter the Church without difficulty and engage in a fruitful dialogue with her, because it is precisely man who is ‘the primary and fundamental way for the Church’ (Redemptor hominis, n. 14).”
When modern science was in its infancy, openness to such exploration was common only in Christian Europe, and was conspicuously lacking from the Islamic world. This was no accident. The Judeo-Christian tradition made scientific exploration and innovation possible in a way that the Islamic tradition did not. Diana Darke, and those who celebrate her work, do the Western world a grave disservice when they obscure this, and by their deceptions do nothing to foster the “tolerance” and “diversity” that is, no doubt, the underlying justification for their enterprise.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 21 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster.