If one reads history of science textbooks prior to about 1980, one will find very little mention of Muslim “contributions” to physics and astronomy. This is reasonable, because there weren’t any. In the past generation, however, political correctness has dictated that Muslims be given credit for discoveries they did not make.
Certainly, the Muslims were a conduit for the discoveries of others. The word “algebra” is indeed derived from an Arabic word. The books of Archimedes and Ptolemy used by Galileo and Copernicus were indeed translations into Latin from the Arabic. But let us never forget that Archimedes and Ptolemy wrote their books in Greek, not Arabic. They were Greeks, not Muslims.
Most of the names for the brightest stars are of Arabic origin, because the names of these stars given in Ptolemy’s textbook were never translated from the Arabic. But do you think that the Arabs were the first humans to observe Rigel and Betelguese, the first and second brightest stars in Orion?
The reason Muslims never developed fundamental physics is because the leading Muslim theologians declared the idea of fixed physical laws to be heretical. The Qur’an (verse 6:64) states: “The Jews have said, ‘God’s hand is fettered.’ Fettered are their hands, and they are cursed for what they have said. Nay, but His hands are outspread; He expends how He will.” The standard Muslim interpretation of this passage has been that there cannot be unchanging physical laws because Allah may change the laws at any moment. In 1982, the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan, criticized a chemistry textbook by saying: “There is latent poison present in the subheading Energy Causes Changes because it gives the impression that energy is the true cause rather than Allah. Similarly it is unIslamic to teach that mixing hydrogen and oxygen automatically produces water. The Islamic way is this: when atoms of hydrogen approach atoms of oxygen, then by the Will of Allah water is produced.” The implication is clear: next week, Allah may change his mind about water being a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. With this sort of worldview, how could one possibly be a scientist?
The cosmology of the Qur’an is obviously geocentric, and as a consequence, Al-Azhar University, which Obama singles out for praise in his speech, still teaches Ptolemaic astronomy.
There was one truly great “Muslim” physicist, the Nobel Prize winning Pakistani, Mohammed Abdus Salam. I put “Muslim” in quotes, because Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect of Islam, a sect that accepts modern science. But in 1974, the Pakistani parliament declared the Ahmadi sect heretical, and its members are currently being persecuted in Pakistan. Contemporary Muslim historians generally do not list Salam as an important Muslim scientist. Had he remained in Pakistan, he quite possibly would have been killed.
During the Cold War, it was commonplace for leftist academics to attribute many discoveries to scientists in Communist countries, discoveries that had actually been made in the West. So now leftist academics attribute to Muslims discoveries that had actually been made by others.
I never expected to hear a president of the United States do so.