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Article: The Legal Status of Science in the Muslim World in the Early Modern Period

The following discussion titled “The Legal Status of Science in the Muslim World in the Early Modern Period: An Initial Consideration of Fatwās From Three Maghribī Sources” examines the place that natural science (chiefly astronomy and medicine) occupied in three of the most important collections of legal opinions ( fatwa pl. fatawa) in the Muslim West during the late medieval and early modern periods: the collections of al-Burzuli (d. 841/1438), al-Wansharisi (d. 914/1508), and al-Wazzani (d. 1342/1923).

Instead of representing editions of the author’s own al-Wazzani, these collections contain selections from the legal decisions of hundreds of jurists over a substantial period of time. In this way, they offer valuable windows into the nature and variety of legal practice in the Muslim West in the post-formative and early modern periods. While acknowledging that science is notoriously difficult to define, for the purpose of this paper, it has been chosen to frame scientific practices as those that, among other things, constituted an alternative form of authority to that professed by legal scholars.

In 1993, the sociologist of science Toby Huff published The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, the second edition of which appeared in 2003. The book’s ambition—an investigation into why modern science emerged in Western Europe and not in China or the Muslim world—was reflected in the impressive amount of secondary literature that the author consulted. In brief, Huff concluded that both Islamdom and China had lacked the institutional structures developed in early modern Europe that would have facilitated the emergence of what he called “neutral zones” of scientific inquiry. By focusing on the reception and debate of ideas within a larger public sphere, Huff emphasized social, cultural, and civilizational factors, instead of technological or narrowly scientific ones. Reviews of the first edition, while mixed, were generally positive, and the publication of a second edition ten years after the first speaks to the book’s having reached a substantial audience. Perhaps of most interest to students of the Muslim world was an exchange between Huff and the historian of Islamic science George Saliba, that took place shortly before the appearance of the book’s second edition. Saliba took issue with Huff’s definition of “neutral spaces,” and argued forcefully that the rise of modern science in Modern Europe was best explained with reference to the economic boost that Europe received from its conquest of the New World, instead of being due to a decline in astronomical thought in the Muslim world. Saliba’s other criticisms generally coincide with those in some of the initial reviews of Huff ’s book: that asking the question of when modern science arose is tautological as it presupposes a simplistic conception of modern science being inherently Western; that Huff lacked a sufficient command of the history of astronomy; and that in his focus on cultural or civilizational factors which may have hindered or facilitated the production and spread of scientific knowledge, Huff had made statements that bordered on racist. Despite the criticisms of Huff ’s work, I have found the way in which he framed his central question—what types of social and institutional factors facilitated the emergence of modern science?—a productive one for considering the interaction between science and jurisprudence (fiqh) in the Muslim world in the early modern period. Huff argues that the Scientific Revolution was not as much a series of empirical or technical achievements, as it was the spreading of a new Weltanschauung through institutions:

an institution in a strict sociological sense is not simply an organization but rather an institutional complex of patterned behavior that is generalized throughout a society . At an incipient stage of development a new set of values might be realized in only one organization, but if they do not transcend that organization to permeate the other institutions of society, such patterns of behavior are not expressions of the institutional foundations of the society. This is largely what happened in the civilizations of Islam and China.

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Bibliographic Information

Title: The Legal Status of Science in the Muslim World in the Early Modern Period: An Initial Consideration of Fatwās From Three Maghribī Sources

Author: Justin Srearns

Published in: The Islamic Scholarly Tradition, Volume 83, pp 265-290

 Language: English

Length: 26 pages

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