Math and the Madrasas: Uncovering the Scientific Contributions of Pre-Modern Islam
When Copernicus proclaimed that the earth orbited the sun, he not only changed our notion of the universe, he also marked the symbolic start of the scientific revolution. Without his focus on observation and experimentation, we would not have the world we do today. But we'd be making a major mistake if we reserved our praise for him and his European counterparts. Islamic countries deserve a lot of the credit, having contributed such fundamental inventions as the number zero, without which advanced math is impossible. In fact, in 825 AD-a full four hundred years before mathematical genius Fibonacci-Arabic mathematician al-Khowarizmi had already pioneered calculations we still use today-small surprise that the term "algorithm" originated as a mispronunciation of his name.
These are just a few of the untold contributions to science made by the Islamic world, all part of a story that Dr. Jamil Ragep is working hard to document as Canada Research Chair in the History of Science in Islamic Societies. Despite modern perceptions of Islamic culture as not particularly hospitable-even hostile-to science, historical fact tells a different story.
Ragep's earlier research highlighted the many contributions Muslim scientists made to astronomy and cosmology, and revealed that this scientific tradition lasted much longer than previously thought-through to the 19th century-penetrating deep into both mosque and madrasas (religious colleges). He is now working on a database that will better document these contributions and serve as the basis for a wider international collaborative effort, the Islamic Scientific Manuscripts Initiative.
Ragep's work will shed light on the multicultural background of modernism. He hopes his research will help shape today's debate on the role of rationalism and secularism in Islam. It will give Canadians-and the world-a much more accurate understanding of Islamic countries' contribution to the modern world, and help us understand how many discoveries we consider purely Western innovations are actually part of a shared scientific tradition going back more than a thousand years.