Is science 'Western'?

CK Raju challenges the received wisdom that science is Hellenic in origin and explains why this dubious claim still enjoys so much credence in the universities of the Third World.

SCIENCE is a creation of the West - or so the story goes. On this creation story, science began in Hellenic (Greek) culture, and developed in post-renaissance Europe. The rest of the world had no clue.

A typical account is in the 'classic' history of mathematics by Rouse Ball:

'The history of mathematics cannot with certainty be traced back to any school or period before ... the ... Greeks ... though all early races ... knew something of numeration ... and ... the elements of land-surveying, yet the rules which they possessed were ... founded only on ... observation and experiment, and were neither deduced from nor did they form part of any science.'1

He presupposes that (a) deduction is more important to science than observation or experiment (which leads to mere 'rules'), and (b) only the Greek 'race' had deduction. Needham avoids the racist part of the explanation but lapses into an otherwise similar view about Chinese 'land-surveying' versus Euclidean geometry.2

Unlike political history, it is hard to counter or even explain the biases in the history of science. 'Information poverty' is a consequence of industrial capitalism - even otherwise-educated people are often scientifically illiterate. Like other illiterates, they uncritically accept and repeat stories from socially 'authoritative' sources. Scientists, too, may not be knowledgeable enough, for in practice they rely heavily on authority (again because industrial capitalism breeds excessive specialisation). Moreover, scientists focus on technique, and carelessly propagate any given history. Consequently, very few can put science together with its history and philosophy and build a counter-story. India is a particularly pathetic case: it has no university department of history and philosophy of science, even 60 years after independence. No wonder the same old story is perpetuated by current Indian school texts,3 which mention many Greek names as the originators of mathematics and science. These Greek names are accompanied by images of Caucasian stereotypes. Children get the underlying racist message!

The Crusades and the story of the 'Greek' origin of science

The story of the Greek origin of science postdates the Crusades.

Before the Crusades, Christendom was in its 'Dark Age'. In the 4th century, state and church came together in the Roman empire. The subsequent book-burning edicts of Christian Roman emperors,4 the burning down of the Great Library of Alexandria by a Christian mob,5 and the closure of all philosophical schools by Justinian in 529 CE created a vacuum of secular knowledge in Christendom. Such secular knowledge as existed, prior to the Crusades, was pitiful. The outstanding mathematician of the time was Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), who wrote a learned tome on the abacus (the kindergarten toy of today). So, it would be fair to say that the abacus represented the acme of mathematical knowledge in pre-Crusade Christendom.

Ironically, this Christian Dark Age coincided with the Islamic Golden Age. In sharp contrast to the book-burning traditions of Christendom, the Abbasid Caliphate had set up the Baghdad House of Wisdom by the early 9th century CE. This led to such an explosion in the demand for books that, along the lines of the hadith to seek knowledge even from China, paper-making techniques were imported from China to set up a paper factory in Baghdad, which had a flourishing book bazaar. Libraries proliferated across the Islamic world, and the 10th century Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba had a library, catalogued in 44 volumes, of over 600,000 tomes.6

Quite naturally, prior to the Crusades, Europeans regarded the Arabs as knowledgeable. To learn mathematics, Gerbert turned to the Islamic Arabs in Cordoba, not to Greek Christian sources in Byzantium. (Hence, the numerals he imported are today known as 'Arabic numerals'.) So, the story of the Greek origins of all science did not exist in Europe prior to the Crusades.

The Crusades as 'barbarian incursions'

How did this story emerge during the Crusades?

Apart from the contrast in knowledge, there was also the striking contrast in wealth between Christendom and Islamic Arabs. Charlemagne's emissaries were dazzled by the splendour of Haroun al Rashid's court, and the gifts they brought back were avidly imitated, and became models of Carolingian art. The magnificence of Cordoba can still be guessed from the remains. The only new point here is this. Describing the Crusades as religiously motivated is like describing the Iraq war as morally motivated: it does not allow us to make sense of the events that took place.

The Crusades were undoubtedly a time of great religious hysteria, which no doubt motivated many people to participate. But did the church leaders who stoked this religious hysteria have more material motives? If so, the contrast between Arab wealth and European poverty must be regarded as a key cause of the Crusades.

An increase in church wealth and power was the direct consequence of the Crusades, which also helped to expand church influence into wealthier Islamic areas. This, then, was the real motive of the Crusades, for political acts are best judged by the consequences - and not by professed intentions. In fact, to judge from the consequences, some diabolical planning went into the Crusades, for, with each Crusade, won or lost, church wealth and power increased. Also, the church kept trying to expand its influence in Islamic areas even after the military failure of the later Crusades.

From Toynbee's historical perspective, then, the Crusades are best described as 'barbarian incursions'. The Arabs were the centre, and Europe was the periphery, trying to break in. The conditions for these barbarian incursions were established with the disintegration of the Caliphate of Cordoba into small taifa-s (petty kingdoms) after a disastrous battle for succession around 1010. The weakness of these taifa-s made them easy targets. Toledo was one such taifa which now boasted the best library in Europe. During the proto-Crusades - probes which preceded the 'official' Crusades - Toledo and its magnificent library came under Christian control in 1085.

The Toledo translations and their justification

This library, instead of being burnt, was preserved. By now, the usefulness of non-Bible knowledge had been accepted at the highest levels of the church - we saw how Gerbert imported Arabic numerals. The state agreed: King Otto sent emissaries to Cordoba to gather knowledge. During the Crusades, secular knowledge was gathered with great difficulty by spies like Adelard of Bath (who travelled disguised as a Muslim student and who was perhaps the first to translate the Elements from Arabic to Latin). If the dark age of Christendom began with the burning down of the Great Library of Alexandria, it ended with the mass translation of the Toledo library, from Arabic to Latin, starting in 1125.7

The church now needed knowledge for another reason. Pagan Europe was converted to Christianity mainly by force. But force would not work with the Islamic Arabs who were stronger. For the novel strategy of conversion without force, the church needed knowledge. But how could the church square this sudden thirst for knowledge with its earlier calls for book-burning? At the peak of religious fanaticism how could the church publicly justify acquiring knowledge from the hated Islamic enemy?

Ever since state and church first came together, at the time of Constantine, Eusebius, a church historian, had initiated the programme of distorting history to promote church interests. His successor Orosius, in his History Against the Pagans, made it amply clear that history was just another tool of soft power in the church's armoury. This technology of falsehood was now applied to 'manage' common perceptions. The storyline was simple: it was the Greeks who did it. On this story, during the 600 years of the Christian Dark Age, all that the Arabs did was to preserve Greek works, the rightful inheritors of which were the chosen people, the Christians of Europe.

It was this fantastic justification - characterising Arabs as mere carriers of knowledge, and Greeks as the creative fount - which made the ('Greek') knowledge in Arabic books theologically acceptable in Europe, and enabled the translated Arabic books to be used as university texts for centuries in Europe.

Arabs did not quite accept this story. In the 9th century, when the Arabs built the Bayt al Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, they gathered knowledge from all over the world, including India, Persia and China. They certainly did not restrict themselves to Greek sources. The actions speak for themselves: the Arabs did not then think that science was primarily a Greek invention.

Greek and Roman difficulties with elementary arithmetic

The non-textual evidence provides a good reason for this. More than deduction, science is based on quantitative calculation. But the Greeks lacked basic arithmetic skills needed for calculation. The early Greek (Attic) system of representing numbers was worse even than Roman numerals. (We will use Roman numerals in the following examples, since they are better known.) Greek/Roman numerals are inefficient for two reasons. First they are clumsy: the small number 1,788 requires 12 symbols, and is written as MDCCLXXXVIII.

This system is hopeless for large numbers, such as 1053, which the Buddha was asked to name (by an opponent who sought to test his knowledge). The world might come to an end before one finishes writing down this number in Roman numerals!

The unavoidable inference is this: the Greeks and Romans used this primitive system of numeration because they never encountered large numbers, and never did the complex calculations required for astronomy and science. Conversely, when the need for such complex calculations arose in Europe, first among the Florentine merchants, and then among European navigators, Roman numerals were abandoned in favour of 'Arabic numerals'.

Can one get around this inefficiency by inventing names for larger numbers? No. Roman numerals are structurally inefficient: even the simplest sum needs an abacus. Try XIV + XVIII! To add two numbers, say 1,788 + 1,832, one would first represent these numbers on the Roman abacus, using counters. For 1,788, one would need three counters for I, one counter for V, one for the L, and so on, making a total of 12 counters. Similarly, for 1,832 (MDCCCXXXII) we need 10 counters. Pooling together these 22 counters, one now simplifies as follows. The five counters for I are replaced by one counter for V; the two counters for V are replaced by one counter for X; of the seven counters for X that we now have, five are replaced by an L and two stay as they are. The two Ls are now replaced by a C; five Cs are replaced by a D; and two of the three Ds are replaced by an M. We now arrange the counters, starting with the M, to get MMMDCXX, which is the same thing as 3,620. So this simple arithmetic problem which any child could do mentally today in a jiffy becomes a tedious task with Greek and Roman numerals.

Multiplication is even more difficult. Shakespeare's clown knows that 11 sheep give 28 pounds of wool which sells for a guinea. How much would he get for the wool from 1,500 sheep? He 'cannot do't without counters'.8 (We leave out subtraction and division as too difficult to explain!) The Greeks obviously could not have done science without properly knowing how to add and multiply.

The Baghdad House of Wisdom and transmission to Greek texts

Therefore, while the Arabs valued the 'theology of Aristotle',9 for arithmetic, they turned to India, not to Greece. Arabs imported various Indian arithmetic texts, notably those of Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Mahavira. These were digested and transcreated in the Bayt al Hikma by al Khwarizmi, and became famous as Algorismus after his Latinised name. These 'Arabic numerals' use the place-value system. That makes it easy to represent large numbers. It also makes arithmetic very easy through 'algorithms' - the elementary techniques of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that everyone today learns in school.

Although the Baghdad House of Wisdom was a landmark, it only accelerated a well-established tradition. From the very beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate, the legendary Barmakids (from barmak = pramukh) of Persian-Buddhist origin, who were vazir-s to the Abbasid Khalifa-s, had already instituted this system of importing knowledge from Persia and India.

The Barmakids, in turn, were only continuing the earlier Persian tradition of gathering knowledge and translating it into Persian (Pahlavi). This continuity is manifest through texts, such as the Indian Pancatantra, which were translated into Arabic not from Sanskrit but from Pahlavi, along with other Persian books, such as the Arabian Nights and the astronomy text called the Almagest. Noticeably, the Almagest came to Baghdad from Persia, not Byzantium. Had this text then existed in Byzantium, it could easily have been sourced from there, for Byzantium was then an abject tributary of Baghdad.

In contrast to the extreme literal translations at Toledo, the Baghdad scholars despised blind copying (naql). Indeed, the House of Wisdom aimed to promote the exact opposite (aql, intelligent theology). So, they digested the substance and rewrote the text. The focus was on practical benefits, and not on maintaining historical sanctity; so, such texts accretively incorporated all knowledge then available to the 'translator'. For example, the Arabian Nights acquired characters like Haroun al Rashid, and the Barmakids.

Further, whether or not any information flowed from Byzantium to Baghdad, we have solid evidence that information flowed from Baghdad to Byzantium. Thus, the Pancatantra was further translated from Arabic into Greek.10 This is an important example, because, unlike the origin of a scientific theory, which can be obfuscated, the Indian origin of the Pancatantra is unquestionable. Therefore, the fact of this Arabic-to-Greek translation firmly establishes that knowledge flowed from Arabic to Greek texts. That was the natural direction of information flow, given the huge investment in knowledge that was made in Baghdad.11

Recognising that 9th century or later Greek texts are derived, not 'original', unhinges the entire strategy of glorifying the Greeks.

The earlier story of scientific knowledge

Let us go a step further into the past. Initially, many texts in Baghdad came from Persia where the same practice of collecting world-knowledge was followed. But, even in Persia, knowledge of astronomy (translated as Zij-i-Shahryar) was imported from India.

This is another striking fact. The Persian king Khusrau I attached great significance to the enterprise of knowledge-gathering. However, his Vizier went to India, not to Athens or Alexandria or Constantinople. This despite the fact that the very best Hellenic sources were directly available to Khusrau: the leading philosopher of the Roman empire, the people best acquainted with Hellenic knowledge, were physically present in his court, having sought refuge in Persia to escape the edicts of Justinian.

Had any secular knowledge remained in the Roman empire, Khusrau could have easily got it, for the Roman king Justinian was paying him a hefty tribute for non-aggression. If Christian historians of the time are to be believed, Khusrau even included a clause regarding the treatment of philosophers12 as part of the treaty with Justinian! If Khusrau nevertheless imported mathematics and astronomy from India, the available Greek tradition of mathematics and astronomy must have been inadequate and unsatisfactory. A later source, the 7th century Syrian Christian, Severus Sebokht,13 although naturally partial to Greeks, nevertheless confirms this relative assessment of Indian and Greek astronomy, and attributes the superiority of Indian astronomy to the superior Indian methods of calculation.

To recapitulate, from the beginning of the Christian Dark Age to the beginning of the Crusades, the story of the Greek origins of science was nowhere to be found. The Greeks could not have developed any science with their primitive system of numeration. They lacked the requisite quantitative skills - until Indian arithmetic through Arabic texts diffused among the Byzantine Greeks, from the 9th century.

The story of a Greek origin of Arabic books thus appropriated to Europe all pre-Crusade knowledge which the Arabs and Persians had gathered from all over the world, and developed further.

The Great Library of Alexandria and its origin

Clearly, this story of the Hellenic origin of all worthwhile secular knowledge is contrary to common sense: why should all knowledge have originated in one place? Myth proceeds by linking story to story, and the Hellenic story is linked to the Great Library of Alexandria - most Greek names associated with science are today traced to Alexandria (in Africa).

But what was the source of the Alexandrian library? Over the centuries, no one seems to have asked this question, thereby promoting the belief - as an implicit postulate - that this library was of Greek origin. This is the other big lie on which the story of a Hellenistic origin of science was concocted. For what is the evidence for such a belief?

In fact, all the available evidence points in the opposite direction. The number of volumes in the Alexandrian library reportedly exceeded half a million. The tiny Greek city-states, with small populations of a few thousand citizens, could hardly have produced books on this scale. The book technology then involved papyrus: a material made in Egypt, expensive to import, and even more expensive to maintain. Just the cost of the papyrus would have been staggering. Besides, how did they support the vast leisured class needed to produce and maintain books in such numbers? The Greek city-states were constantly engaged in petty warfare, so that every able-bodied person was conscripted, and very little leisure was available.

Texts corroborate these straightforward non-textual considerations. Strabo states14 that Aristotle was the first 'man' to have a library. Setting aside Strabo's peculiar notion of 'personhood', the remark does tell us that prior to Alexander, there was no culture of books in Greece.

Plato points out that prior to the Great Library there was no culture of science in Greece. At his trial, Socrates was charged with a great crime - the crime of declaring the moon to be a clod of earth.15 A death penalty was demanded just on that ground - that he did not worship the moon as a divinity! Socrates denied he was Anaxagoras. Clearly, the Greeks customarily put to death anyone who dared to do anything remotely scientific in astronomy. This situation persisted until after the time of Alexander, for Aristotle too ran away from Athens for the same reason, viz., that he feared being put to death for dabbling in scientific books! How could such an intolerant and superstitious culture have produced any science?

Herodotus, like other Greeks, travelled to Egypt for higher learning. He confirms that the Greeks aped the Egyptians, and that Greek gods were mostly imitations of Egyptian gods.16 (The Ionian Greeks, being a Persian colony, preferred to mimic Persian customs.) Alexander too paid obeisance to the Egyptian gods at Memphis. Alexandria itself was better known as the city of Serapis, a dual-purpose god originating from the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis.

So, the Greeks lacked science until the time of Alexander. On the other hand, the first catalogue of books in the Great Library was prepared by Callimachus at the beginning of Ptolemy II's reign. This means that the main corpus of the library was already in place by then. Such a vast library could hardly have been produced, in situ, during Ptolemy I's reign. Thus, the unavoidable conclusion is that the Alexandrian library did not have a Greek origin.

Only one serious explanation fits the facts: the books in the Alexandrian library were produced by someone else, and Alexander obtained them as part of his war booty. This is recognisably similar to the way the Toledo library was obtained - as war booty - by the proto-Crusaders. The older civilisations, such as Egypt, Persia, and Babylon, had been around for long enough, and had ample economic surplus to have produced books on the scale required for the Alexandrian library.

The Zoroastrian Book of Nativities records that Alexander got books from Darius' treasury translated, and burnt the originals. This part of Alexander's booty being bulky, it is natural to suppose that only a small part of it would have been transported back to Greece, to his mentor, Aristotle. The bulk of the books were left behind in Alexandria. There they lay neglected by Ptolemy I who was preoccupied with his petty wars. It was only at the beginning of Ptolemy II's reign that someone remembered this neglected treasure, and had it catalogued. Over time, vigorous attempts were made to expand the library by banning the export of papyrus, by forcibly acquiring all books entering the kingdom etc. Numerous books from Egypt and elsewhere were naturally added to this library. Some were presumably translated into Greek.

This explanation fits into the general theory17 that information preferentially flows towards the military conqueror. The idea that military conquerors at the head of vast hordes, like Alexander or Hulegu, spread culture and science is a sorry attempt at glorification aimed at uncritical and gullible people. In both cases, these military conquerors spread destruction, but acquired culture, exactly as happened during the first Crusade. (The Greeks, too, were then on the periphery of the Persian empire, so Alexander's conquests were just another case of such 'barbarian incursions'.)

The textual sources of the post-Crusade story

How did people hang on for so many centuries to the absurd theory of the Hellenic origins of science? Of course, the theory suited the priests who so dominated Western society for centuries. But, historiographically speaking, a key methodology was used to establish this implanted myth as theory. The methodology was to rely entirely on textual evidence. This was seen as culturally correct in a scriptural culture: 'If it is written it must be true'!

The textual sources for this history are very late: at least a thousand years after the purported fact. The Latin texts are obviously all post-Crusade texts derived from the Arabic. The Byzantine Greek texts (from Istanbul) are often from even later (as in the case of Copernicus). Even the earlier texts postdate the Baghdad library. By no stretch of imagination can these texts be construed as the 'original' Greek sources that they are often passed off as. Only a process of wild speculation connects these late texts to purported 'originals' in Alexandria from a thousand years earlier. Non-textual evidence is contrary to these speculations. There is no continuous tradition of intervening texts connecting the actual texts to the conjectured 'originals'. Most likely, the supposed 'original' texts never existed, but even if they did, they cannot be reconstructed from the later-day texts which are accretive: a scientific text had to be practically useful to survive, therefore it would be constantly updated.

For example, a navigator would record the current pole star, which is the matter of practical concern. (Due to a phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes, the axis of the earth precesses, like a spinning top. Therefore, the axis points to different points in the sky at different times, so the pole star changes with the epoch.) And, indeed, the current pole star heads the list found in the 'original' Almagest text. However, the text is attributed to a Claudius Ptolemy of the 2nd century, when this star pointed 12o away from the north pole! From the 2nd through the 9th century its companion star [Ursa Minor ], an equally bright star, better indicated north!18

Obviously, this sort of textual evidence from late and accretive sources is evidence of very poor quality. On the other hand, the priests, who wrote history based on such texts, were masters in the art of manipulating poor-quality textual evidence, and using such manipulation to promote the most absurd beliefs contrary to elementary common sense.

CK Raju holds an honours degree in physics, a masters in mathematics, and a PhD from the Indian Statistical Institute. His latest book is Euclid and Jesus (Multiversity and Citizens International, 2012), the story of how the church changed mathematics across two religious wars. He is also the author of Cultural Foundations of Mathematics (Pearson Longman, 2007), The Eleven Pictures of Time (Sage, 2003), Time: Towards a Consistent Theory (Kluwer Academic, 1994) and Is Science Western in Origin? (Multiversity and Citizens International, 2009), from which the above is extracted.


1. WW Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, Dover, New York, 1960, pp. 1-2. Emphasis added.

2. Joseph Needham, The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China (abridgment by Colin A Ronan), Cambridge University Press, 1981, Vol. 2, p. 43.

3. E.g., Mathematics: Textbook for Class IX (JV Narlikar, P Sinclair, et al.), NCERT, New Delhi, 2005.

4. Clarence A Forbes, 'Books for the burning', Transactions of the American Philological Society 67 (1936), pp. 114-25.

5. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Great Books of the Western World, Vols. 37-38, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, 1996, Vol. 1, Ch. 28, p. 462. Later (Vol. 2, Ch. 51, p. 274) Gibbon discusses and dismisses the canard that burning down the Great Library might have been the work of Caliph Omar, or that it might have happened during a fire started at the time of Julius Caesar's attack. Furthermore, in view of the above evidence for the book-burning edicts of Christian emperors, one does not need a separate hypothesis for the Great Library.

6. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Vol. 2, Ch. 52, p. 298, and footnote 54, p. 692.

7. Anthony Pym, Negotiating the Frontier: Translators and Intercultures in Hispanic History, Jerome Publishing, Manchester, 2000. Also:

8. Shakespeare, A Winter's Tale, iv, 2, 'Let me see. Every 'leven wether tods; every tod yields pound and odd shilling; fifteen hundred shorn, what comes the wool to? . . . I cannot do't without counters.' [11 wether (sheep) give one tod (28 lbs) of wool, which sells for a guinea (21 shillings). How much is the wool from 1,500 sheep?]

9. This theology is today attributed to Proclus, Plotinus etc. Richard C Taylor, 'A Critical Analysis of the Kalam fi'l mahd al-khair', in: Neoplatonism and Islamic Thought, ed. Parvez Morewedge, New York, 1992, pp. 11-40.

10. E.g., Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Vol. 2, note 55 to Ch. 52, p. 608. Others have assigned the date of 1080 to Simon Seth's Greek translation. The Arabic translation Kalilah va Dimnah by Ibn al Muqaffa (d. 750) was long before the formation of the House of Wisdom, and the movement called the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa) derives inspiration from this text. The Pahlavi translation was by Burzoe himself, according to the Shahnama of Firdausi.

11. Similarly, the subsequent translation of the Pancatantra from Greek to Latin, in 1250, shows that there was an active information exchange between Byzantium and Rome from long before the fall of Byzantium in 1452, which only accelerated this process.

12. The clause supposedly exempted these philosophers from Justinian's edicts. Gibbon says this 'reflects the purest lustre on the character of Chosroes', and credits this 'curious story' to Agathias. Gibbon, Vol. 1, Ch. 40, p. 671, and note 155, p. 899.

13. MS Syriac, Paris, No. 346 of 662 CE.

14. Strabo, Geography, 13.1.54.

15. Plato, Apology, 26, trans. B Jowett, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, 1996, p. 204. 'Friend Meletus, you think you are accusing Anaxagoras....'

16. Herodotus, The History (Euterpe) Bk II.50, trans. G Rawlinson, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, 1996, p. 60.

17. CK Raju, 'Models of Information Transmission', Ch. 5 in Cultural Foundations of Mathematics, Pearson, 2007.

18. AT Fomenko, VV Kalashnikov, and GV Nosovsky, Geometrical and statistical methods of analysis of star configurations: Dating Ptolemy's Almagest, CRC Press, 1993, p. 268.

*Third World Resurgence No. 266/267, October/November 2012, pp 44-48