First of all, I'd like to say that I published an essay recently on why I don't think Islam can be reformed. All of my essays can be republished online for free, but this one can also be republished in print, as long as I am credited as the author.
I've read quite a few books on the history of science. One of them is The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg, who has also written the book Theories of vision – From al-Kindi to Kepler, which I will quote more extensively from later this fall when publishing a multipart essay on the history of optics. Lindberg is a good scholar and well worth reading, but has a few minor flaws.
Chapter eight in the second edition of his book about the history of science is titled "Islamic science." Mr. Lindberg is not alone in employing this term, but I am not personally in favor of it. Nobody talks about "Buddhist science" or "Christian science," so I so no reason why we should use the term "Islamic science," either. It is misleading, since whatever existed of science in countries under Islamic rule relied heavily on contributions of non-Muslims and pre-Islamic knowledge. Some use the term "Arab science" instead, but this is hardly much better, since among those who were at least nominally Muslims, a disproportionate amount were Persians, not Arabs. Which term should we use, then? "Middle Eastern science" could be one possibility, as it puts emphasis on the region but not on the religion.
I don't think David C. Lindberg provides a full explanation of why the scientific tradition in the Islamic world stagnated, despite some promising beginnings. Those who want a better understanding of this can check out The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff. This can be supplemented with the work of Edward Grant, for instance chapter eight "Relations between science and religion" in Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus. I will quote this book by Grant, and to a lesser extent Huff's book, extensively in this essay, and will include page references to each quote so that others can use the material if they want to.
By the end of eleventh century, Western Europeans were aware that both Muslims and Byzantines had access to philosophical and scientific texts that they did not have. After the capture of Toledo, Spain and Sicily from the Muslims in 1085 and 1091, respectively, a number of scholars translated Greek and Arabic texts, but tended to prefer the Greek ones because Greek was a related Indo-European language, which Arabic was not. A large number of the works which existed in Arabic were originally translations from Greek themselves, and it would obviously make more sense to copy directly from the Greek in Constantinople since a more precise rendering could be made, with fewer misinterpretations than from Arabic. The result was a major movement of translations from the twelfth century until the second half of the thirteenth century.
Many works in optics, astronomy, medicine and mathematics were translated, but it was Aristotle's work on natural philosophy that had the greatest impact. The two greatest translators from Greek to Latin were James of Venice (d. after AD 1147), the first major translator of Aristotle's works from Greek to Latin, and the Flemish scholar William of Moerbeke (c. AD 1215-c. 1286), who was the last. According to Edward Grant, page 166:
"William of Moerbeke translated at least forty-eight treatises, including seven on mathematics and mechanics by Archimedes, translated for the first time into Latin (Grant 1974, 39-41; Minio-Paluello 1974, 436-438). His Aristotelian translations are truly impressive. He was the first to translate Aristotle's biological works from Greek into Latin. In translating the rest of Aristotle's natural philosophy, Moerbeke found it useful to revise, expand, and even complete some earlier translations, including revisions of at least three treatises previously translated by James of Venice. In addition, Moerbeke translated Greek commentaries on Aristotle's works from late antiquity. Thus, he translated John Philoponus' Commentary on the Soul, and Simplicius' Commentary on the Heavens. One of the earliest beneficiaries of Moerbeke's translations was Thomas Aquinas."
Grant continues on page 167:
"With Moerbeke's monumental contributions, all of Aristotle's natural philosophy was available by the last quarter of the thirteenth century in translations from Greek and Arabic. Although many scientific works were translated from Arabic to Latin in the first half of the twelfth century by such translators as Plato of Tivoli, Adelard of Bath, Robert of Chester, Hermann of Carinthia, Dominicus Gundissalinus, Peter Alfonso, John of Seville, and others, the earliest translations of Aristotle's works on natural philosophy appear to have occurred in Spain in the latter half of the twelfth century. By far the most prominent translator of Aristotle's works on natural philosophy was Gerard of Cremona (c. A.D. 1114-1187), the most prolific translator from Arabic to Latin of works on science, medicine, and natural philosophy."
Gerard of Cremona and those associated with him translated dozens of works from Arabic to Latin, among them probably Alhazen's book on Optics, which could not have been translated from Greek since it did not exist in Greek. It is thus true that there were translations from Arabic and that some of these did have some impact in Europe. It would be historically inaccurate to claim otherwise. But although this translation movement was significant, we should focus at least as much on how these different civilizations used this information.
In this case, we are dealing with an example where three different civilizations, the Islamic world, the Christian East (the Byzantine Empire) and the Christian West had access to much of the same material, yet where the end results were quite different. I have read a lot about the history of mechanical clocks and eyeglasses, both of which were invented in Europe in the second half of the thirteenth century AD. These inventions had no counterparts in any other civilization and were important for later scientific and technological advances, which often benefited from more accurate timekeeping. The creation of microscopes and telescopes was to some degree an extension of the invention of eyeglasses and the use of glass lenses.
I cannot point out any significant piece of information that Europeans had access to at this time which Muslims didn't also have access to. If anything, Middle Easterners had more knowledge at their disposal since they had regular contacts with the major Asian civilizations and could supplement Greek natural philosophy with Indian and Chinese inventions. Europeans were prevented from having extensive direct contacts with these civilizations because they were geographically isolated from them by a large bloc of hostile Muslims. The only possible conclusion why Europeans invented mechanical clocks is that they were more efficient and creative than Muslims in using the body of information they had at their disposal. Muslims could have done the same, but they didn't. They failed, pure and simple.
The case of the Byzantine Empire is even more puzzling, as Byzantine scholars appear not to have taken advantage of the readily available treasure house of science and natural philosophy in their native Greek language. The Byzantine Empire was essentially a theocracy as the Emperor was regarded as the head of both church and state. According to Edward Grant in Science and Religion, page 228:
"[U]ntil the end of the sixth century, important contributions to natural philosophy were made in the Byzantine Empire by a number of commentators on the works of Aristotle, such as Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. 2nd-3rd century A.D.), Themistius (c. A.D. 317-c. 388), Simplicius, and most important of all, the Christian neo-Platonist John Philoponus, whose ideas were destined to have a large impact on both Islamic and Latin natural philosophy. But the level of achievement was seriously affected in A.D. 529, when, on religious grounds, the emperor Justinian ordered the closing of Plato's Academy in Athens, forcing a number of philosophers to depart the Byzantine Empire and move to the East. After that natural philosophy and science played a minor role in Byzantine intellectual life. This is surprising when we realize that, as compared to their contemporary counterparts in Islam and the Latin West, Byzantine scholars were truly fortunate, because their native language was Greek. They could read, study, and interpret, without problems of translation, all the works available in the Greek language that had accumulated in the Byzantine Empire, especially in Constantinople, since the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Indeed, most of our Greek manuscripts come from Byzantium."
Alhazen, when he made his work on optics, relied heavily on Greek mathematics, philosophy and medicine, most of which had initially been translated to Arabic from Byzantine manuscripts. Yet there was no Alhazen in Byzantium itself. Grant again, page 229:
"It is a paradox of history that the civilizations of Islam and Western Europe contributed significantly to the store of human knowledge, using translated works and often lacking important earlier texts, while the Byzantines, who had command of the Greek language and easy access to the manuscript sources of their great Greek predecessors, failed to capitalize on their good fortune."
There were some brief Byzantine "renaissances." The Empire wasn't static and did an invaluable job in preserving older knowledge, but few works of lasting significance were produced there during the Middle Ages. I still believe that my conclusion in the online essay The Legacy of Byzantium, inspired by Timothy Gregory's fascinating book A History of Byzantium, was largely correct:
It is true that the Byzantine Empire has received some bad press. However, scholars James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn sum up the established wisdom in their book Science and Technology in World History, second edition, when they state that 'Byzantium never became a center of significant original science.' It is surely one of history's great ironies that the Greco-Roman knowledge that was preserved by the Byzantines had a greater impact in the West than it did in the Byzantine Empire itself. Although being for centuries at the front lines of Islamic Jihad certainly didn't help, this doesn't suffice to explain fully the failure of Byzantium to develop modern science. When studying the Byzantine Empire, one cannot help but notice that the separation of church and state which took place in the West after the papal revolution never happened there. Byzantium remained a somewhat autocratic state, thus in some ways resembling China – and perhaps later on Russia - more than Western Europe. The development of parliaments, autonomous cities and numerous universities that took place in the Christian West did not happen in the Christian East.
However, also in the Islamic world, Greek logic and natural philosophy was never fully accepted, and what initial acceptance there had been was largely nullified by the extremely influential Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Al-Ghazali regarded theology and natural philosophy as dangerous to the Islamic faith and was skeptical of the concept of mathematical proof. As Edward Grant says, page 238:
"[Al-Ghazali] included the mathematical sciences within the class of philosophical sciences (i.e., mathematics, logic, natural science, theology or metaphysics, politics, and ethics) and concluded that a student who studied these sciences would be 'infected with the evil and corruption of the philosophers. Few there are who devote themselves to this study without being stripped of religion and having the bridle of godly fear removed from their heads' (Watt 1953, 34). In his great philosophical work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali attacks ancient philosophy, especially the views of Aristotle. He does so by describing and criticizing the ideas of al-Farabi and Avicenna, two of the most important Islamic philosophical commentators on Aristotle. After criticizing their opinions on twenty philosophical problems, including the eternality of the world, that God knows only universals and not particulars, and that bodies will not be resurrected after death, al-Ghazali declares: 'All these three theories are in violent opposition to Islam. To believe in them is to accuse the prophets of falsehood, and to consider their teachings as a hypocritical misrepresentation designed to appeal to the masses. And this is blatant blasphemy to which no Muslim sect would subscribe' (al-Ghazali 1963, 249)."
As Ibn Warraq sums up in his modern classic Why I Am Not a Muslim, "orthodox Islam emerged victorious from the encounter with Greek philosophy. Islam rejected the idea that one could attain truth with unaided human reason and settled for the unreflective comforts of the putatively superior truth of divine revelation. Wherever one decides to place the date of this victory of orthodox Islam (perhaps in the ninth century with the conversion of al-Ashari, or in the eleventh century with the works of al-Ghazali), it has been, I believe, an unmitigated disaster for all Muslims, indeed all mankind."