| Bentley Q5

Bentley Q5

Author

Jerry H. Bentley

Response

All societies in all continents and all islands participated in the construction of modernity. It is possible to say that some made specific contributions, many of which had their origins long before the era that we conventionally call modernity. Indian mathematicians, for example, used symbols that Muslims called Hindi numerals and that Europeans called Arabic numerals because Europeans learned about them from Arab Muslims. Is it possible to conceive modernity as we conventionally know it in the absence of Hindi/Arabic numerals? Would calculus be possible with Roman numerals?

There are many specific contributions with origins in Muslim societies that were crucial for the development of sustainable agricultural societies that were foundations of modernity. Irrigation technologies and the diffusion of food crops enhanced agriculture across much of the eastern hemisphere. Muslim astronomical observations and reasoning seem to have reached Copernicus and other astronomers of early modern Europe, and to have influenced their views on alternatives to the Ptolemaic universe.

Now let me note that Muslim societies made some decisions that hindered their possibilities of participating in the process of modernity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, they rejected adoption of two supremely important inventions – the printing press and the telescope. These decisions do not necessarily indicate a lack of intellectual curiosity, as one scholar has recently argued. Rather, my suspicion (as one who is admittedly not expert in the issues) is that the decisions came about as a result of power struggles in which the victors were religious authorities who sought to suppress independent, secular groups that might constitute a challenge to their privileged position in Muslim societies.

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