Book review: Ehsan Masood – Science & Islam, a History

Science & Islam, a HistoryEhsan Masood

Science and Islam: A History - Ehsan MasoodIcon Books, HBK £14.99 RRP; 8th January 2009

ISBN-13: 9781848310407


Accompanying a BBC television series that I’ve not seen, Ehsan Masood‘s Science & Islam, a History is a readable pop-sci-history book and a great introduction to what lies behind the veil of the mythical Dark Ages, which I remember being taught were a period of scientific and philosophical vacuum. Behind the curtain of Western Europe’s descent into superstition and ignorance lies a largely untold story – that of the scientific achievements of the Islamic peoples.

I imagine that many of VCTB’s regular readers will be aware of classical Islamic science already, at least as a concept, but there will be many who have not, and I share Masood’s presumed hope that the book (or at least the television material) might help a few folk dismantle that mythology. Masood is careful to provide ample historical context and comparison to show Islamic scientists operating not in isolation, but partaking in the grand journey of scientific discovery that started with the Ancient Greeks – not to mention providing many critical components for the eventual construction of the Enlightenment.

By necessity, Masood doesn’t get to go into great detail about specific inventions or discoveries, nor about the people that made them. A detailed historical treatise on the subject would be the work of a lifetime, but Science & Islam offers a solid introductory framework from which the interested reader can research onwards. The bulk of the major disciplines and historical figures all get a look in, and Masood’s handling of their characters and situations is done carefully to emphasise how much like their Western contemporaries they really were.

Indeed, Masood’s subtext here is a humanisation of Islam in response to its demonisation as an anti-rational death cult by the popular media; while it’s never made explicit, the message between the lines is that Christianity has made just as many grievous errors in its handling of science, if not more, and that the current state of Islamic fundamentalism (as well as, more sadly, the seemingly ingrained opposition between the two ideologies) has considerable historical precedent on both sides.

What may not be so obvious (and in fact may well be my own synthesis from the material available) is the implication the current reactionary entrenchment of both fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam against rationalism and science makes more sense when viewed in terms of the responses of threatened organisms. It tickled my sense of humour to discover that Islamic scientists were positing the concept of evolution long before Darwin was born, and the book is full of great little nuggets like that which – if nothing else – should stand you in good stead at your local pub quiz (or just the bar itself, if it’s the sort of place that plays host to good free-ranging discussions).

My complaints are few, and their causes justified. Firstly, Masood defaults to a kind of Received Pronunciation prose style that puts one in mind of a much older iteration of the BBC than the current one, but this is primarily in the service of clarity and brevity – science history probably doesn’t need a compelling narrator in the same way that fiction does (though I’d hazard that, done right, it couldn’t harm); secondly, Science & Islam is – perforce – a short introductory work that leaves me with a hunger to dig deeper into the history of Islamic world, scientific or otherwise. And while frustrating in one sense, that’s a sure sign that Masood has done what he set out to do.

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