From the Gates of Vienna
Perhaps this sounds a bit "Eurocentric," but it is an historical fact that the scientific revolution happened in Europe, not in India, China or the Middle East. There was also nothing quite like the medieval university in the Roman Empire. Whatever existed of real science in Roman times was almost entirely of Greek origins, and even the contributions of the Greeks had been steadily declining for centuries. The Romans were good at certain types of engineering and technology, but like the Chinese they were surprisingly poor at providing a coherent scientific view of the world. The medieval European university then represented a real innovation, and Huff places its development, and the decision to include also natural sciences, not just theology, in its regular curriculum at the center of the scientific achievements of the West:
"We should also not underestimate the magnitude of the step taken when it was decided (in part, following ancient tradition) to make the study of philosophy and all aspects of the natural world an official and public enterprise. If this seems a mundane achievement, it is due to our Eurocentrism which forgets that the study of the natural sciences and philosophy was shunned in the Islamic colleges of the Middle East and that all such inquiries were undertaken in carefully guarded private settings. Likewise, in China, there were no autonomous institutions of learning independent of the official bureaucracy; the ones that existed were completely at the mercy of the centralized state. Nor were philosophers given the liberty to define for themselves the realms of learning as occurred in the West."
The German-Syrian Muslim reformist Bassam Tibi writes in his book Islam Between Culture and Politics that "rational sciences were – in medieval Islam – considered to be 'foreign sciences' and at times heretical. At present, Islamic fundamentalists do not seem to know that rational sciences in Islam were based on what was termed ulum al-qudama (the sciences of the Ancients), that it, the Greeks."
Science was viewed as Islamic science, the study of the Koran, the hadith, Arab history etc. Tibi believes it is thus incorrect to call institutions like al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, the highest institution of learning in Sunni Islam, a university: "Some Islamic historians wrongly translate the term madrasa as university. This is plainly incorrect: If we understand a university as universitas litterarum, or consider, without the bias of Eurocentrism, the cast of the universitas magistrorum of the thirteenth century in Paris, we are bound to recognise that the university as a seat for free and unrestrained enquiry based on reason, is a European innovation in the history of mankind."
Al-Azhar was created in the tenth century and is hailed as one of the oldest universities in the world. However, as late as the early twentieth century, the blind Egyptian author Taha Husayn complained about the total lack of critical thinking he encountered at the institution:
"The four years I spent [at al-Azhar, from 1902] seemed to me like forty, so utterly drawn out they were....It was life of unrelieved repetition, with never a new thing, from the time the study began until it was over. After the dawn prayer came the study of Tawhid, the doctrine of [Allah's] unity; then fiqh, or jurisprudence, after sunrise; then the study of Arabic grammar during the forenoon, following a dull meal; then more grammar in the wake of the noon prayer. After this came a grudging bit of leisure and then, again, another snatch of wearisome food until, the evening prayer performed, I proceeded to the logic class which some shaikh or other conducted. Throughout these studies it was all merely a case of hearing re-iterated words and traditional talk which aroused no chord in my heart, nor taste in my appetite. There was no food for one's intelligence, no new knowledge adding to one's store."
Read the whole thing at DhimmiWatch