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Science in Medieval Islam

Science in Medieval Islam
An Illustrated Introduction

This book offers a fully illustrated, highly accessible introduction to the scientific achievements of medieval Islam.

November 1997
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288 pages | 6 x 9 | 98 halftones, 8 line drawings, 3 maps |

During the Golden Age of Islam (seventh through seventeenth centuries A.D.), Muslim philosophers and poets, artists and scientists, princes and laborers created a unique culture that has influenced societies on every continent. This book offers a fully illustrated, highly accessible introduction to an important aspect of that culture—the scientific achievements of medieval Islam.

Howard Turner opens with a historical overview of the spread of Islamic civilization from the Arabian peninsula eastward to India and westward across northern Africa into Spain. He describes how a passion for knowledge led the Muslims during their centuries of empire-building to assimilate and expand the scientific knowledge of older cultures, including those of Greece, India, and China. He explores medieval Islamic accomplishments in cosmology, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, medicine, natural sciences, alchemy, and optics. He also indicates the ways in which Muslim scientific achievement influenced the advance of science in the Western world from the Renaissance to the modern era. This survey of historic Muslim scientific achievements offers students and general readers a window into one of the world's great cultures, one which is experiencing a remarkable resurgence as a religious, political, and social force in our own time.

  • Illustrations
  • Foreword and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Islam as Empire
  • 2. Forces and Bonds: Faith, Language, and Thought
  • 3. Roots
  • 4. Cosmology: The Universes of Islam
  • 5. Mathematics: Native Tongue of Science
  • 6. Astronomy
  • 7. Astrology: Scientific Non-science
  • 8. Geography
  • 9. Medicine
  • 10. Natural Sciences
  • 11. Alchemy
  • 12. Optics
  • 13. The Later Years
  • 14. Transmission
  • 15. The New West
  • 16. Epilogue
  • Islam and the World: A Summary Timeline
  • Glossary
  • Works Consulted
  • Illustration Sources
  • Index

Howard R. Turner is a documentary and educational film and television writer who served as Curator for Science for the major traveling exhibition "The Heritage of Islam, 1982-1983."


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Seeking knowledge is required of every Muslim....
—saying attributed by tradition to the Prophet Muhammad

The rise, expansion, decline, and resurgence of Islamic civilization form one of the greatest epics in world history. In the course of the last fourteen centuries, Muslim philosophers and poets, artists and scientists, princes and laborers together created a unique culture that has directly and indirectly influenced societies on every continent.

What is Islam? The word means several things. Islam is the youngest of the world's three major monotheistic religions. Islam is a way of life governing all aspects of human behavior. Islam is an intellectual and emotional force that in our time binds together about one out of every five of the world's people, uniting its adherents through a common faith and a written language, despite diverse identities of race, nation, and political affiliation. Islamic culture has always demonstrated, within a unity of spiritual vision, a spectacularly broad diversity of style and expression.

Heirs to earlier cultures of Asia, classical Greece and Rome, as well as Byzantium and Africa, Muslims took possession of their mixed heritage, preserving much of it and transforming much of it. Their cultural and political experience had a profound influence on the late medieval world of Western Europe, where Muslim achievements played an essential part in the evolution of the Renaissance and thus on the formation of later societies, including our own.

During the most recent three centuries the Western world has become familiar with many of the monuments and works of art and literature created in various Islamic periods and lands. The Taj Mahal, the great mosques of Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, and Isfahan, the exquisite miniature paintings that enhance the historical and mythical sagas of Persian and Indian kings, the fabulous tales of the "Thousand Nights and One Night," Omar Khayyam's Rubayyat: these are but a few of the celebrated Islamic creations that we in the West now recognize as integral parts of our own cultural inheritance.

One part of the Islamic heritage has been until recent years less familiar to us, yet it has had a fundamental influence on all post-medieval lives: the historic achievement of Islamic philosopher-scientists, physicians, astronomers, mathematicians, technologists, and naturalists. Here was an elite community that included Christians and Jews as well as Muslims and comprised the first multiethnic and multinational group of its kind in the world's history. The accomplishments of this extraordinary scientific brotherhood are the subject of this illustrated introductory survey.

From the ninth century on, scientists in Islamic lands acquired, through translations into Arabic, a treasury of Greek, Indian, Persian, and Babylonian philosophic and scientific thought. They proceeded diligently to assimilate and systemize this intellectual legacy, all the while enriching it with innovation and invention, particularly in the areas of mathematics, optics, medicine, and astronomy. Their ultimate achievement was an unprecedented and harmoniously synthesized body of knowledge—the world's first truly international science.

What inspired the early scientific effort of the Islamic world? What sustained it? What obstacles confronted its progress as the centuries passed? What factors, within and beyond Islamic lands, contributed to its eclipse? What, ultimately, was the extent of the Islamic scientific enterprise? How did it influence the development of our world of science today? A look at the dynamic birth of Islamic civilization can open the way toward finding answers to these questions.

A Note about the Gregorian and Islamic Calendars

For simplicity's sake, in the following text dates are given according to the Gregorian calendar now in use in most non-Islamic lands. However, any reader interested in deciphering dates found in historic Muslim manuscripts and on astronomical instruments may wish to relate the Muslim date to the corresponding Gregorian one. At the beginning of Islamic civilization, the Caliph 'Umar established a new calendar system, based on the first day of the year (AD 622 in which the Prophet Muhammad left Mecca. This day thus marked the start of Year One in the Islamic calendar. Since that time Muslims have preceded the date with Ax (anno hegirae, representing the year of Muhammad's emigration, the Hegira, as opposed to AD (anno Domini), which has either preceded or followed the Gregorian date since being introduced in Britain in the eighteenth century. Inasmuch as the Islamic year is based on lunar months and amounts approximately to 354 days as opposed to the approximately 365 days of the Gregorian solar year, converting from one calendar to the other requires a bit of calculation. One basic equation does the job, approximately: AD = 622 + (32/33 x AH). Alternatively, AH = (33/32) x (AD - 622). The equation is derived from the fact that every 32 Gregorian years are about equal to 33 Muslim Hegira years. Thus, a Gregorian century amounts to about 103 Muslim Hegira years; ioo Muslim Hegira years equal about 97 Gregorian years. These discrepancies account for the fact that Muslim holidays and festivals may come around in any season. The Gregorian year AD 2000 will begin during the Islamic year AH 1421.

A Note about the Transliterations Used in This Book

To avoid confusion for readers unfamiliar with the Arabic language, only two of Arabic's many symbols and diacritical marks have been included in the text: the `ayn and the 'hamza. The `ayn signifies a sort of rough breath, the 'hamza a glottal sound. Western spelling has been used for placenames most commonly known to Western readers.

The family tree of science traces a complicated ancestry. Egyptian and Babylonian processes of scientific inquiry that developed three thousand years before the birth of Christ were the precursors of Hellenic or Greek investigations, which in turn produced Hellenistic and Harranian (pre-Islamic northern Mesopotamian) and, in part, Persian science. All these influences nurtured the later scientific enterprise of Islamic civilization. This network of transmission was further extended before and during the Islamic era by direct connections, often commercial, between Egypt and other parts of the Hellenistic world, by links between Hellenic and Harranian science, and, last but not least, by important influences from India and China, the first passing through Persia, the second directly, if somewhat intermittently, carried by travelers to Islamic lands.

These varied legacies produced a far more international, intercultural, and abundant inheritance of intellectual riches than had ever before been received by any single civilization. It was a treasury long forgotten or unknown in much of the medieval world up to the Muslim conquests in the seventh century AD. Most important to it were the manuscript remnants that contained the greatest achievements of Greek science, those of the fourth and third centuries BC, in particular, as well as the achievements of Hellenistic scientists five centuries later. These works, long ignored, were found from the eighth century on by Muslim leaders and scholars when they explored Byzantine libraries and other collections of rarities.

The disintegration of Roman civilization during the early centuries of the Christian era was marked by the general deterioration of most of the basic endeavors that enable society to survive and flourish, from producing food in abundance to generating original ways of improving the conditions of daily life. These were not centuries of much significant or extensive cultural creativity. In Europe in the early Middle Ages intellectual and social progress was fitful when not atrophied. The times were more than usually propitious for superstition, belief in magic, and reliance on every kind of prophecy or divination—whatever might help to shore up faltering faith or provide a gratifying substitute for undeniable logic.

The Muslim conquerors at first gave little indication that they would revitalize cultural life in the communities they came to dominate politically and economically. The Arabs' pre-Islamic civilization had not been marked by notable scientific advance. Members of wandering Bedouin tribes or traders, Arabs and Berbers inevitably gained considerable practical knowledge of geology, plants, and animals in managing to survive in the inhospitable landscapes of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. They knew well the limited pasture and the oases, caravan trails, and waterways in and adjacent to their lands; they had learned to use the stars in time-telling and travel. But the emergence of Islam, the vigor of the Muslim conquest, and the accompanying enthusiasm for exploring and exploiting the intellectual and commercial riches waiting in every major community that they conquered soon propelled Muslims beyond the development of practical technology. The time was indeed at hand for the extraordinary intellectual, artistic, and scientific progress achieved throughout Islamic lands in the centuries between 800 and 1600.

The development of the Muslims' imperial civilization turned cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Córdoba into great cultural and commercial capitals, kept in regular contact through expanding networks of land and sea routes. Sponsored largely by caliphs and their royal courts, architecture and the decorative arts flourished, each in ways uniquely regional, yet each in ways recognizably Islamic. Great universities were founded, each one serving thousands of students. By the twelfth century the civilization of Islam was sophisticated far beyond that of Christian Europe. Its society was increasingly urban in character, and its thriving commerce, dominating the entire Mediterranean basin, reflected shrewd, practical, and productive management of people, goods, and wealth. Scholars in the West have long given most of their studies of medieval history a Eurocentric orientation, despite the fact that for at least six centuries, Islam was a uniquely vital cultural and commercial force.

In diverse national and ethnic ways Islam's culture displayed a unified religious spirit long after Islamic imperial power began to wane at the end of the tenth century. However, that spirit was increasingly challenged by a spreading worldliness, a growing focus on earthly as opposed to "celestial" or spiritual matters. This confrontation affected all areas of Muslim life, including the sciences. We must remember that we are speaking generally of science written and carried on in the Arabic language, rather than simply of Muslim science: from the very beginning the Islamic scientific community included many Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and it embraced Indians and Persians as well as Arabs. This ethnic and religious mixture probably rendered early Muslim scientific endeavor more resistant to theological constraint than it would have been had only Muslim Arabs been involved.

In any event, ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and Hindu achievements greatly influenced virtually all scientific development during the first few centuries of the Islamic empire. What seems remarkable is the fervor with which Muslim scientists as a whole embraced the diverse heritage they discovered in their new domains. As a crusading faith, Islam could have been expected to try to eradicate or denigrate most achievements of what were often ideologically perceived as profane, misguided, or inferior societies of the past. This did not happen, instead, the ancient legacy was treasured and utilized almost from the time of the conquerors' arrival. As a first step, an efficient and large-scale means of transmission from past to present was rapidly organized and put into service.

The Period of Translation

The city of Gondeshapur in southwestern Persia was captured by the Arabs in AD 638; it became a center for the dissemination of Greek and other ancient philosophical and scientific knowledge throughout the new Islamic empire. Here flourished a large community of Nestorians, members of a Christian sect that had been charged with heresy and forced to flee from Christian territory late in the fifth century. The city had long supported a notable academy of scholars and physicians, many of whom spoke Greek and Sanskrit as well as Syriac, an Aramaic dialect then in wide use throughout the region. After the Arab conquest, these scholars quickly became familiar with Arabic. An intensive program of translation into Arabic of philosophical, medical, and other scientific manuscripts was sponsored by the new Muslim caliphs, and soon this rapidly expanding enterprise spread to Baghdad and Damascus, the cultural centers of the Abbasid dynasty.

Without historical precedent, the quantity of translations produced in Gondeshapur represented from the start an ecumenical as well as an international effort, involving many Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. It was most often an enterprise prompted by royal decree, reflecting interest on the part of caliphs and other high officials of court and government not only in practical sciences such as medicine and astronomy but also in the less exact precepts of astrology and alchemy. These two exotic disciplines, of course, had already enjoyed centuries of official and public support and would continue to do so for centuries more, in both East and West.

A parallel translation program, from Greek to Latin, was underway at the time in medieval Christian Europe. Sponsored by monasteries such as Monte Cassino and by rulers such as Charlemagne, its goal was the same as that of the effort being undertaken in the Islamic lands: to produce translations of classical Greek texts. This effort, however, did not match the Muslim output in scope or quantity until the twelfth century, when imperial Islam had begun to lose some of its political and cultural supremacy.

Two centuries of Muslim translation succeeded in making the major works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Hippocrates, Galen, Ptolemy, and many others available to Muslim scholars in settlements from Persia to Spain. Not all the translations were of the greatest fidelity or quality, but revisions became frequent as scholarship matured. Flexible and capable of accommodating new concepts, procedures, and the details of science as well as of philosophy, the Arabic language proved to be a resourceful vehicle. At the outset of this enterprise emerged outstanding translators, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a ninth-century Nestorian Christian who was expert in four languages and who produced a mass of work covering much of Greek philosophy and medicine. Another eminent scientist, Thabit ibn Qurra, was particularly noted for his translations and revisions of works on logic, mathematics, and astronomy. A member of a family of distinguished scientists and scholars, he never converted to Islam; he was a member of a pagan sect, the Sabians, who were mentioned in the Qur'an and thus had protected status.

In the early selections of works to be translated, priority was given to subjects deemed most immediately useful, such as medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, the latter two needed in orientation for religious practice and for astrological prediction. However, within two centuries an encyclopedic classical treasury was available in Arabic, embracing Greek knowledge and Hellenistic contributions. This store of cultural riches was capable of filling the intellectual needs of a new civilization even as that civilization was pursuing spiritual, political, and cultural aims radically different from those of ancient Greece and Rome. By the eleventh century Muslim rulers had established appropriate institutions designed to preserve and maintain this treasury and put it to Islamic use.

Islam's first few centuries witnessed the establishment of great libraries and centers of learning in both East and West. The most celebrated of these were located in the seats of political or imperial power. A famous "house of wisdom" (Bayt al-hikma) flourished in ninth-century Abbasid Baghdad; it was a center not only for translation but also for specialized scholarly study and investigation. Notable libraries were established in several Persian cities. In tenth-century Cairo, under Fatimid dynasty rule, one of the libraries contained forty rooms holding many thousands of works devoted to the ancient sciences. In Umayyad Spain, the great capital of Córdoba was, like Cairo and Baghdad, a center of higher learning that drew students and visiting scholars from all regions of Islam. Cairo's al-Azhar, founded late in the tenth century as a training school for preachers, later contained mosque schools (madrasa) and still flourishes today. After nearly a millennium of uninterrupted existence, it is the world's oldest university or college.

A science academy was established during the tenth century at Córdoba, and another at Toledo. Generally, however, advanced education in science was carried out on a personal rather than an institutional scale, within the confines of royal courts and royally sponsored establishments such as observatories and hospitals. A young man seeking high-level education in the sciences had to wait until he had progressed beyond elementary school and the madrasa, where he could receive instruction in basic mathematics. University curricula might include advanced mathematics, some astronomy, medicine, and natural sciences such as biology, but these subjects were treated largely within a framework of Qur'anic fundamentals and interpretation as well as principles of religious law. At the caliph's court, however, the young man might be fortunate enough to be admitted to a circle centered on one of the great teachers—often a person celebrated for achievement in more than one science, a philosopher-physician, perhaps, or a mathematician-astronomer.

Such high-level scholarship represented the upper track of a two-track system. On the lower track, those of the general population who went through elementary education were offered mostly the curricula and concepts that were officially deemed appropriate or adequate for the many. In addition, the procedures of traditional Muslim elementary education did not promote original speculation. Listening, reading, recitation, and preparation by rote formed a great part of the process of learning. As for prospects for young women who might be interested in learning more about the sciences or any other major academic subjects, they did not exist to any significant degree in any Islamic community until the second half of our own century.

The character of Islam's specialized scientific education can be better understood if one considers the traditional Islamic concept of knowledge and the ways in which knowledge and the curriculum were organized and classified in early Islam. Not only was the pursuit of knowledge exhorted by many hadith, the statements traditionally attributed to Muhammad, the Qur'an emphasizes the value of knowledge in grasping the nature of the world around us. As previously noted, Muslim religious doctrine defines the universe as a sign of God's activity; therefore, study of that activity is thought to provide knowledge of the right path toward the proper life on earth and salvation in the life beyond. Muslim religious leaders and educators devoted considerable time to classifying the sciences and clarifying their specific functions as they would help each person to acquire knowledge within an intellectual framework that would serve God's purpose.

Definitive classifications were attempted by such intellectual giants as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Khaldun, the greatest of the Muslim historianphilosophers. Ibn Khaldun's system reveals basic distinctions that were widely adopted. First in his schema came the traditional religious sciences, dealing with examination and readings of the Qurán, the science of tradition, sciences of jurisprudence and dialectics (argument, speculative theology, mysticism, the interpretation of dreams, and philological science.

A second major group, the philosophical sciences, included, first, Aristotelian logic; second, in a sort of umbrella category, physics, including medicine, agriculture, magic, alchemy, and other esoteric disciplines; third, metaphysics; and fourth, mathematics, covering numerical sciences such as arithmetic, calculation, algebra, commercial transactions, the apportioning of inheritances, geometrical sciences such as spherical and conical geometry, surveying, optics, and astronomy, including tabulation and astrology. Finally came music, which was considered a mathematical discipline.

Whatever the variations in degree, the different systems for the classification of learning all reflected a fundamental acceptance of the supremacy of the Islamic Revelation. Eventually there developed profound suspicion, even fear, of influences that might be exercised by intellectual disciplines inherited from the ancient world. There evolved a clear distinction between "revealed" subjects connected with religion and centered around the Qurán and those not connected with religion, considered "rational" subjects. What today we would call physics, biology, agronomy, and the earth sciences belonged to this latter group. As a whole these sciences, termed "philosophical" because they were considered accessible through human reason rather than through faith, were regarded as foreign because of their origins in classical Greece and India. Among them, philosophy in particular, at first praised as a valuable tool inherited from the Greeks, was singled out by some orthodox scholars and leaders as alien and suspect. Ironically, the eleventh-century theologian al-Ghazali's belief in the value of logic in dealing with Islamic legal subjects helped to spread the acceptance of rational process as a valid tool in organizing knowledge.

The mosque schools and the universities' legally oriented faculties took more or less exclusive charge of teaching the religious disciplines, leaving the philosophical, mathematical, and natural sciences to be taught mostly in the small, royal, elite groups described previously. There was little of a democratic character in medieval higher education, within or beyond Islamic lands.

A dynamic new faith, the vitality of a people freeing themselves from a struggle against the harsh elements of desert life, a pressing curiosity about the world that they encountered outside the Arabian heartland, a need for a share in that world's bounty, a language well-equipped for intellectual exploration: all these factors, binding together Muslims in greater unity than existed among any other civilization at the time, generated a powerful motive for Islam's scientific enterprise. The world, all its forms of life, and the heavens above were now subject to an unprecedented exploration and examination by Muslims and other scholars in Muslim lands. And even where spiritual motivation was less pressing than material enthusiasm and practical curiosity, there was power and material reward to be gained from learning more about what the world was made of and how such knowledge could be put to beneficial and profitable use.

In less than four centuries after the first Islamic conquest, philosophers, mathematicians, botanists, physicians, geographers, alchemists, and their peers in the other scientific disciplines, at work throughout the wide reaches of the Islamic empire, had accomplished the remarkable feat of unwrapping the vast intellectual legacy received from past civilizations, analyzing it in relentless detail, fussing with it, testing and re-testing its hypotheses and answers, evolving new ones, and further revising, discarding, or reformulating many of those. From the broadest concepts of the physical universe to details of the smallest scale—including invisible processes within the human body—much was put in order and connected in ways some of which appear to reflect or to parallel the Muslim concept of cosmic unity spelled out in the Islamic Revelation. In sum, a new concept of the universe was put together, in many ways remarkably similar, or at least parallel, to the old ones, in other ways significantly simplified and clarified. More important, from macrocosmic to microcosmic element, this Islamic universe appeared, in general, orderly, functional, workable. It made sense. It represented a critical advance beyond contemporary non-Muslim concepts, most of which it would eventually affect profoundly.

What, specifically, did Islam's medieval scientists accomplish? It seems appropriate to begin the inventory with Muslim ideas about the overall cosmos and all that was in it.



“This book could well become the best means to introduce people to Islam's contributions to science, medicine, and philosophy.... The wonderful illustrations make it even more understandable.”
Emory C. Bogle, Associate Professor of History, University of Richmond


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