What, then, was the fate of the foreign sciences in Islam? No simple answer, applicable to all times and places, is possible. Indeed, the historical situation was so complex that historians who specialize on Islam cannot agree on how to characterize it. Two quite different interpretations are currently in circulation. According to one of them, the foreign sciences never ceased to be viewed by the great majority of Muslims as useless, alien, and perhaps dangerous. They went against the grain of orthodox thought, met no fundamental need, and were excluded from the developing educational system. As a result, the foreign sciences were never deeply integrated into Islamic culture, but survived on the margins. The undeniably great achievements of Islamic scientists and natural philosophers, therefore, must have emanated from isolated enclaves of scholars protected from the pressures of orthodoxy (as at a royal court during a period of unusual tolerance) or willing, for reasons known only to themselves, to swim against the cultural stream. This has been called the 'marginality thesis,' because of its claim that science in Islam was never more than a marginal pursuit.
The alternative theory views the Islamic encounter with Greek learning in a quite different light. While acknowledging that suspicion and hostility existed, this theory maintains that on the whole Greek science and natural philosophy enjoyed a reasonably hospitable reception in Islam. After all, Islam did not reject the fruits of foreign learning but, despite conservative opposition, undertook a remarkable program of recovery and cultivation. Moreover, one can point to many examples of the integration of Greek disciplines into traditional learning and Islamic culture more generally. Thus logic became incorporated into theology and law; astronomy became an indispensable tool for the muwaqqit, who was responsible for determining the times of daily prayer in his locale; and mathematics became essential for a wide variety of commercial, legal, and governmental purposes. That mathematics and astronomy were occasionally taught in the most highly developed of the Muslim schools, the madrasahs or colleges of law, testifies to the high level of acceptance and integration. According to this interpretation, Islam successfully appropriated large portions of foreign learning, despite opposition; let us call this the 'appropriation thesis.' On this view, the foreign sciences did not conquer the traditional disciplines, but made peace with them by agreeing to serve as their handmaidens.
The gap between these two interpretations is substantial; and, given the current state of research on the history of Islamic science, the dispute does not seem likely to be soon resolved. But several things can be said, which may help to mediate between the two positions. First, we must acknowledge that the marginality thesis in its strong form is untenable. The cultivation of Greek natural philosophy and mathematical science was far too widespread and successful to be viewed as a marginal product of Islamic culture. But while granting this to the "appropriationists," we must go on to point out that science was far from central to Islamic culture and that there were forces within Islam tending to marginalize the foreign sciences -- which is to say that the "marginalists" have their eye on some genuine feature of Islamic culture. To be specific, Greek learning never found a secure institutional home in Islam, as it was eventually to do in the universities of medieval Christendom. One reason why this was so, is that Islamic schools lacked the structure and uniformity of those in the West, particularly at the higher levels. This lack of structure offered freedom to the individual scholar to pursue whatever specialty he wished. Freedom insured diversity and created room for the practitioner of Greek philosophy and science; but it also insured that Islamic schools would never develop a curriculum that systematically taught the foreign sciences. In short Islamic education did nothing to prohibit the foreign sciences; but neither did it do much to support them. This fact may help us to understand the decline of Islamic science in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
David C. Lindberg
The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450