Quite by accident last night I found myself watching a BBC4 programme on Science and Islam. Jim Khalili presented it, and did so extremely well and very clearly. This was episode 2, entitled “Empire of Reason”, and in it he discussed the interest in scientific and technical works in the Abbasid caliphate, and various innovations made during that period by people like al-Biruni.
There was mention of the translation of Greek works in the time of al-Mamun (labelled the “Translation Movement”), although Hunain ibn Ishaq was not mentioned by name. But in a one hour programme, detail will be omitted in favour of bright images, and this the programme did well.
Like all popular programmes, the narrative jumped around a bit. I doubt that anyone without a clear idea of Islamic history would have been able to follow who did what when, but this is not a vice in such a programme, which is really intended to spark interest. I did wonder who the intended audience was, tho. But who cares? Let’s be glad of the chance to learn.
The story was told without restraint or qualification. Khalili was an unabashed apologist for how wonderful “Islamic science” was, and how it was the basis of all modern science (!). Of course this is rather a half-truth, but, since he is an Iraqi, we may forgive his pardonable pride in his own racial and religious group. Wouldn’t we all rather hear an enthusiast anyway? The problem seemed to be in what was omitted, and how various elements were given a spin which calmer evaluation might disallow. I would have liked to see more on how the scholars of the period made use of non-Greek sources.
Various experiments were conducted on-screen, and explained very well indeed. He also did meetings with people looking at Arabic books, including images of manuscripts. This was very nice to see. I think we could all do with a better knowledge of Islamic literature. One question, tho — are any of these texts available online and in English? I have my doubts. Is there, indeed, any equivalent to Brockelmann’s massive lists of Arabic authors and texts? I doubt it.
In fact scientific texts from antiquity seem conspicuous by the lack of English translations. Many of these are only extant in Arabic; works by Galen, and Hero’s Mechanica spring to mind. As for being online…!
One very reluctant comment: I do have to say that I think the programme was probably intended by the BBC as anti-western propaganda. But let us restrain our disgust, at them, as far as possible. No blame attaches to the presenter for supporting his own side; indeed his enthusiasm is a bonus – even if, in his enthusiasm, he seemed to forget that Cordoba cannot be used as an example of Abbasid splendour! Let us freely acknowledge the debt we owe to the Islamic world for advances in various areas made during this period. The subject matter is interesting, and it’s easy enough to watch. If we can remember that this is not a balanced picture — that it is just one side of the coin –, then the series itself is full of interest. Recommended.
PS: I see that Jim al-Khalili has started a blog. Read the first post here. I also discover an article that he wrote for the Guardian, in which he states that “I am on a mission to … present the positive face of Islam.” Hmm.