Contemporary Islam is not known for its engagement in the modern scientific project. But it is heir to a legendary “Golden Age” of Arabic science frequently invoked by commentators hoping to make Muslims and Westerners more respectful and understanding of each other. President Obama, for instance, in his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, praised Muslims for their historical scientific and intellectual contributions to civilization:
It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.
Such tributes to the Arab world’s era of scientific achievement are generally made in service of a broader political point, as they usually precede discussion of the region’s contemporary problems. They serve as an implicit exhortation: the great age of Arab science demonstrates that there is no categorical or congenital barrier to tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and advancement in the Islamic Middle East.