Islamic influences on Sir Isaac Newton

Posted: October 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

Sir Isaac Newton was a student of John Boyle and  heavily influenced the writings of John Locke. John Locke influenced Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison. Jefferson also owned a copy of the Quran.

It is interesting to note that his contemporary at Cambridge, Isaac Newton, who was much influenced by Muslim Arab scholarship […], placed the offer of the Lucasian Professorship made to him in 1674 at risk by refusing to take holy orders, a mandatory requirement at the time. Newton secretly rejected Trinitarianism (according to his biographer, Michael White, Newton was ‘fanatically opposed’ to the concept of Trinity). Fortunately for science, King Charles II granted him a special dispensation and all subsequent holders of the chair were exempted from holy orders.

  • The first English convert to Islam whose name survives in an English source, ‘The Voyage made to Tripoli’ (1583), was a “son of a yeoman of our Queen’s Guard…His name was John Nelson”.
  • A Chair of Arabic at the University of Oxford was established in 1636,
  • Charles I collected Arabic and Persian manuscripts.
  • Matar cites an account written in 1641 that referred to ‘a sect of Mahomatens’ being ‘discovered here in London’.
  • Reference to Islam and Muslims was part of the discourse of the times.
  • Cromwell‘s enemies attacked the revolutionaries for their disrespect of parish priests and rejection of the ‘High Anglican’ official tenets:
  • “And indeed if Christians will but diligently read and observe the Laws and Histories of the Mahometans, they may blush to see how zealous they are in the works of devotion, piety and charity, how devout, cleanly and reverend in their Mosques, how obedient to their Priests, that even the Great Turk himself will attempt nothing without consulting his Mufti”

Robert Boyle, the chemist known to every schoolboy, studied Arabic sciences in order to be able to challenge the ‘groundless traditional conceptions’ in contemporary learning. Boyle in turn acted as a guide for Isaac Newton, a seeker of the truth who naturally became drawn to the esoteric sciences (perhaps better called the mystical arts). Newton, in the words of Maynard Keynes, ‘regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty’. Newton left behind more than a million words on the subject of alchemy, and the task of deciphering this mass of material has occupied scholars since 1936. It is still ongoing, and interestingly, a significant portion of manuscripts is now in the Yahuda Manuscript Collection of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. His biographer Norman White has attempted to trace a mental connection between Newton’s religious beliefs and scientific discoveries (see ‘Isaac Newton, The Last Sorcerer’, 1997; pp161-162.

  • In Cromwell’s camp there were men like the remarkable Henry Stubbe, scholar in Latin, Greek and Hebrew and friend of Pococke, the first professor of Arabic in Oxford.
  • According to or own contemporary (English) Muslim scholar in Cambridge, Abdal Hakim Murad, Stubbe “had sided with Parliament during the civil war, holding, with Cromwell, that the righteous man may sometimes justly bear the burden of the sword. An admirer of Cromwell, he became an admirer of the Prophet”.
  • Professor Matar believes that Cromwell, and/or his Secretary, John Milton, showed familiarity with the Qur’an in a letter to the ruler of Algiers in June 1656.
  • Matar rightly concludes that ” from sectary to antiquarian to Lord Protector, the Qur’an was a text widely consulted and quoted: it had legitimacy for addressing not only Muslims overseas but Christians in England and the rest of the British Isles”.
  • While Britons’ conversions to Islam in the seventeenth century do not appear to have changed the tide of history, the intellectual and cultural impact of Muslims was profound and far-reaching.
  • Texts in Arabic in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine were central to higher education in England in the seventeenth century.

The beliefs of Sir  Isaac Newton need to be investigated. Nabil Matar in his seminal book Islam in Britain 1558 – 1685,  Cambridge University Press, 1998 has just scratched the surface.  Much is stored in the Jewsih National and University Library that is slowly releasing excerpts.

^ The history and antiquities of Bath Abbey Church, by John Britton, 1887
^ Julie Robin Solomon, Catherine Gimelli Martin, Francis Bacon and the Refiguring of Early Modern Thought: Essays to Commemorate The Advancement of Learning (1605-2005) (2005), p. 76.
^ Deborah A. Redman, The Rise of Political Economy as a Science: Methodology and the Classical Economists (1997), p. 18.
^ James E. Force, Richard Henry Popkin (editors), Newton and Religion: Context, Nature, and Influence (1999), p. 156

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