Many in the west who really should know better think that what we call proper science only began with Copernicus in the 16th century and that what is referred to as the scientific method was only laid out in the 17th century by Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Even those who have some vague awareness that the medieval Islamic Empire went through a scientific Golden Age at a time when Western Europe was mired in its Dark Ages probably view the scholars of Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba as no more than curators of Greek knowledge happy to dust it off and pass it back to an eager Renaissance Europe. The reality is very different.

Between the 9th and 15th centuries, the international language of science was Arabic. Scholars in the Islamic world (Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabians, Zoroastrians, Pagans and Agnostics) contributed towards a spirit of rational enquiry that gave the world algebra, chemistry and the foundations of optics; Persian and Arab astronomers provided the geometrical theories of celestial mechanics that formed the basis of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the Universe; Arab physicians described blood circulation and the inner workings of the eye centuries before Europeans tackled those problems. But the most significant legacy of this golden age was its evidence-based approach.

As a practising scientist, humanist and atheist, I am convinced that the scientific method, and the knowledge humanity has gained from science, gives us far more than “just one way of viewing the world”, a phrase I often hear from those with a religious faith. I have, however, never been a religion-basher. This is partly because I grew up in a household of mixed religious beliefs: Shi’a Muslim father, Protestant Christian mother. So I found tolerance and mutual respect between two people with different faiths as natural, and that extended to my own tolerance and respect of people with faith, despite my own firm belief that they are wrong.

Sadly, the Muslim world today has a long way to go to reclaim that lost spirit of rational enquiry, for it does not yet even have the luxury of being able to accommodate a frank and open dialogue on, say, evolution versus creationism. Yet here is where my views depart from those of many of my fellow humanists and atheists: I believe that to highlight the incompatibility between science and religion (in the Muslim world) can be counter-productive, and a more subtle, tolerant and softly-softly approach is required.

Science as an intellectual pursuit cannot and should not be culture-dependent. The language of science is a common one across the world. And so, just as engaging with the public on scientific issues – from evolution to genetics to nuclear power – is a form of intercultural dialogue, what is fascinating is that the universality of science can also be used as a means of unifying different socio-religious cultures.

Reminding the Muslim world of its scientific heritage can, I believe, give many Muslims a sense of cultural pride at a time when they need all the help they can get if they are steer clear of intolerance and extremism, to embrace liberal and enlightened attitudes, and to keep their nerve in those countries where they have dared to rise up and demand freedom. If science shows intolerance towards religion we should not be surprised if that is reciprocated.

Jim al-Khalili will be delivering Birkbeck College’s 2011 Bernal Lecture, on “The Hidden Story of Medieval Arabic Science”, on 5 May at Senate House, London. More details