Summary of the book “Science in Islam and Classical Modernity” by Roshdi Rashed

In this book, Professor Roshdi Rashed discusses the inadequacy of conventional periodisation and classification of the history and development of science. In particular, he considers how terms such as “Renaissance”, “Reform” and “Scientific Revolution” are used as conventions to define certain historical periods and their characteristics. However, these terms are not universal as they may appear and lose meaning when considering other realities, such as science in Islam. Professor Rashed analyses science in Islam to specifically argue the conventional expression “classical modernity”. 

In fact, “classical modernity” conventionally defines a period included between the 16th and 18th centuries characterised by the development of classical science (study of Greek and Latin scholars) under the modern approaches of European scholars. However, the professor claims that “classical modernity” can define the Islamic scientific world between the 9th and 12th centuries too, because the conventional features of “classical modernity” can be found in this age in Islamic science. 

The lecture states that it is possible to talk about “classical modernity” in Islamic science already in the 9th century because of the existence of a new mathematical rationality in the Islamic world between the 9th and 12th centuries. As proof of this claim, professor Rashed discussed two main spheres of argumentation: the inter-disciplinary use of algebra and the development of experiments as tools for scientific assertions. 

The first example proves how a new mathematical rationality was already developed in Islamic science from the 9th century by the description of a completely modern approach to mathematics. 

In particular, this approach was characterised by the rational use of algebra to solve non-algebraic problems. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was the first scientist to introduce this methodology of “inter-disciplinary applications” of mathematical disciplines. He was followed by Abu Kamil who tried to solve Diophantine problems using algebra, and by al-Karaji for the algebraic calculus of polynomials. This rational approach allowed the achievement of certain stages in mathematical science that were introduced in Europe only in the 12th century thanks to the translation of Arabic sources. 

However, this mathematical rational approach developed in Europe in particular, in the 17th and 18th centuries: this period is tagged as “classical modernity” and mathematical rationality is one of its features. However, as we saw, it can refer to Islamic science from the 9th century too. The second example provided by professor Rashed to state the existence of a new rationality in Islamic science is the use of “experiments as a category of proof”. 

This method is also considered a characteristic of 17th century European classical modernity. However, it was already introduced in Islamic science during the 12th century. In particular, the optician Ibn al-Haytham promoted three kinds of experiments to prove his theories: he used mathematical geometrical theories to test laws and rules of optics; he also “mathematised” physical phenomena in mathematical concepts, so that it was possible to solve physical problems with mathematics; finally he created machines to reproduce phenomena that otherwise could not be ascertained completely in nature. These methods allow the recreation of physical circumstances and the experiment of the scientist’s theories on phenomena, previously impossible to analyse. 

In conclusion, this lecture demonstrates how “classical modernity” could define Islamic science from the 9th century onwards, because its main feature was the same as “classical modernity” in 17th century Europe, namely the “new rationality” determined, in particular, by the use of new algebraic and experimental methodology.