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Arabs, Islam and science

   

Introduction

Starting around 750 AD, science flourished under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, gradually spreading its influence as far west as Spain and eastwards into Central Asia, over a period of more than 600 years.

By drawing on a variety of texts - Greek, Indian and Persian - and translating them into Arabic, the early scholars accumulated the greatest body of scientific knowledge in the world … and built on it through their own discoveries.

Often, there was a practical Islamic relevance. Astronomy could be used to work out the direction of Mecca for prayer and mathematics was needed for dividing property according to the Islamic law of inheritance.

Although science flourished under Arab-Islamic patronage, by no means all the important figures in science were Muslims, or even Arabs. The common factor, however, was the Arabic language, which for a time became the international language of science. 

It was only later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Arabic works began to be translated into Latin, that such knowledge passed to the west.

Centuries in the House of Wisdom 
Iraq's golden age of science brought us algebra, optics, windmills and much more. (The Guardian, 23 September 2004)

Timeline of Arab science 
From the time of the Prophet to the 15th century CE.

The great Arab intellectual awakening 
(Qatar Foundation)

Influence of Arab-Muslim science on Western science 
(Qatar Foundation)

Influence of Arab-Muslim science on Asian science 
(Qatar Foundation)


Achievements of Arab-Islamic science

There is no doubt that Arab civilisation in the Middle Ages made an important contribution to the development of science. These achievements – especially in the fields of astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, physics, optics, and mathematics – have tended to be overlooked in the west.

However, attempts to set the record straight are often prone to exaggeration. For example, it is often claimed that in the ninth century Abbas ibn Firnas became the first man to fly. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known for certain about his experiment. The only surviving account of what happened was written by a Moroccan historian some seven centuries later. It said:

"Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one."

Modern air travellers may not be reassured to know that Baghdad now has an airport named in honour of Ibn Firas.

The following articles give differing assessments of what Arab-Islamic science achieved, what its limitations were, and also provide some pointers to its eventual decline:

Arab science in the golden age (750–1258 CE) and today 
By Matthew Falagas, Effie Zarkadoulia and George Samonis

Why the Arabic world turned away from science 
By Hillel Ofek

Rediscovering Arabic Science 
By Richard Covington

The Decline of the Decline of Arabic Science 
By Austin Dacey


Science in action 

In medieval times the various branches of science were not precisely categorised as they are today. Mathematics and astronomy, for example, were closely related. "Science" also included things that today would be considered un-scientific, such as astrology and alchemy.

Mathematics

Islamic mathematics 
From: The Story of Mathematics

Al-Khwarizmi: The father of algebra 
Video of an al-Jazeera programme in which theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili explores al-Khwarizmi's 9th century treatise that also underpins the science of flight and the engineering behind the fastest car in the world.

Contribution of al-Khwarizmi to mathematics and geography 
(Muslim Heritage website)

Mathematics in medieval Islam 
(Wikipedia)

Mathematics and astronomy  
(Qatar Foundation)

Medicine 

Probably the best introduction to the history of medicine in the Arab world is Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts, which is based around an exhibition held in 1994 to mark the 900th anniversary of the oldest Arabic medical manuscript (pictured on the right) at the National Library of Medicine in the United States. The site, which includes illustrations from old manuscripts, also has suggestions for further reading.

The Arab medical sciences 
(Qatar Foundation)

Arabic (or Islamic) influence on the historical development of medicine 
Edited by Professor Hamed Ead

Alchemy and chemistry 

Alchemy in Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah

Alchemy in the context of Islamic science
edited by Professor Hamed A Ead

Alchemy in Islamic times

Chemistry and alchemy 


Pioneers of science

In chronological order

Abd al-Malik Ibn Quraib al-Asmai 
(740-828)
Zoology, botany, animal husbandry

Muhammad Bin Musa al-Khwarizmi (Algorizm)
(770-840)
Mathematics, astronomy, geography, (algorithm, algebra, calculus)

Abu 'Uthman 'Amr ibn Bakr al-Basri al-Jahiz
(776-868)
Zoology, Arabic grammar, rhetoric, lexicography

Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (Alkindus) 
(800-873)
Philosophy, physics, optics, medicine, mathematics, metallurgy

Jabir Ibn Haiyan (Geber)
(Died 803)

Thabit Ibn Qurrah (Thebit)
(836-901)
Astronomy, mechanics, geometry, anatomy

Ali Ibn Rabban al-Tabari
(838-870)
Medicine, mathematics, calligraphy, literature

Abu Abdullah al-Battani (Albategnius) 
(858-929)
Astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry

Abul-Abbas Ahmad al-Farghani (al-Fraganus)
(C. 860)
Astronomy, civil engineering

Muhammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (Rhazes)
(864-930)
Medicine, ophthalmology, smallpox, chemistry, astronomy

Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi (al-Pharabius)
(870-950)
Sociology, logic, philosophy, political science, music

'Abbas Ibn Firnas
(Died 888)
Mechanics of flight, planetarium, artificial crystals, Also, reputedly, the first man to fly.

Abd-al Rahman al-Sufi (Azophi) 
(903-986)
Astronomy

Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (Albucasis)
(936-1013)
Surgery, medicine (father of modern surgery)

Abul Wafa Muhammad al-Buzjani
(940-997)
Mathematics, astronomy, geometry, trigonometry

Abul Hasan Ali al-Masu'di
(Died 957)
Geography, history

Abu Ali Hasan Ibn al-Haitham (Alhazen)
(965-1040)
Physics, optics, mathematics

Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi (Alboacen) 
(972-1058)
Political science, sociology, jurisprudence, ethics

Abu Raihan al-Biruni
(973-1048)
Astronomy, mathematics. Determined the earth's circumference

Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
(981-1037)
Medicine, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy

Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn Yahya al-Zarqali (Arzachel)
(1028-1087)
Astronomy (invented astrolabe)

Omar al-Khayyam
(1044-1123)
Mathematics, poetry

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (Algazel)
(1058-1111)
Sociology, theology, philosophy

Abu Marwan Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar, Abumeron)
(1091-1161)
Surgery, medicine

Abu Abdallah Muhammad al-Idrisi 
(1099-1166)
Geography (world map, first globe)

Abul Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd (Averroes)
(1128-1198)
Philosophy, law, medicine, astronomy, theology

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi
(1201-1274)
Astronomy, non-Euclidean geometry

Nur al-Din Ibn Ishaq al-Bitruji (Alpetragius)
(Died 1204)
Astronomy

Ibn al-Nafis Damishqi
(1213-1288)
Anatomy

Abu Muhammad Abdallah Ibn al-Baitar
(Died 1248)
Pharmacy, botany

Mohammed Targai Ulugh Beg
(1393-1449)
Astronomy

Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun
(1332-1395)
Sociology, philosophy of history, political science


Science and Islam today

In 2013, Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, caused a furore with a post on Twitter which said: "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."

The implication of his remark was that in modern times, unlike the Middle Ages, there is a link between Islam and scientific under-achievement. Critics pointed out that the same argument could be applied to all the world's Chinese or even all the world's left-handed people. Conversely, it might be said that Muslim footballers have scored more goals than all the world's Nobel Prize winners put together.

However, what Dawkins said was factually accurate and the real question is to what extent Islam might be blamed for the situation he described. There is little doubt that the authoritarian forms of religion prevailing in the Middle East today do discourage independent thought. The same, broadly speaking, can be said of the societies in predominantly Muslim countries, and of the governments that rule them. But that is by no means the only factor.

It's probably unfair to compare the achievements of Muslims countries with those of the more advanced western countries. It would be better to compare them with non-Muslim countries at a similar stage of development, for example in Africa and Latin America – where the results are unlikely to be very different.

In that connection it's also relevant to consider the effects of foreign conquest. Ziauddin Sardar, a Muslim writer and critic, explained: "In the last two centuries many Muslim countries have been colonised, they have had their resources raped, their institutions of learning closed and their medicine outlawed. In Indonesia, locals were not allowed to go to universities until 1955. How were these people supposed to make discoveries?"

The first person from a Muslim country to win a Nobel prize was the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam in 1979 – though like many scientists, he worked outside his home country. After graduating at Punjab University, he took a PhD at Cambridge and later became professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London.

Egyptian-born Ahmed Zewail won a Nobel prize for chemistry in 1999, but he was living and working in California.

A lot of scientific research is carried out in the Muslim world, according to Jamil Sherif, secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain's research committee. "At the University of Karachi a lot of work has gone into organic chemistry because the cost of the scientific infrastructure isn't excessive, while a lot of high physics research is problematic, even in Europe," he said.

Universities in the Muslim world are often less well-endowed than in the west. "Historically they have received waqf (Islamic charity) funding but many of these funds have been abolished over the years," Sherif added.

The Arab and Islamic world is also losing talent to the US and Europe. According to the UN Human Development Report of 2003, about 25% of the 300,000 graduates from Arab universities in 1995-1996 migrated abroad.


Science in the Qur'an?

In recent years traditional arguments for a divine origin of the Qur'an have often been supplemented by claims that the Qur'an is a "scientific miracle". The basic idea is that its verses contain information, usually of a scientific nature, that could not have been known to humans in the time of the Prophet – in which case the information must surely have come from God. 

Expounding further on this idea, the Institute of Islamic Information and Education says:

Within the Qur'an are recorded facts about ancient times that were unknown to Muhammad's contemporaries and even to historians in the first half of the 20th century. In scores of verses, we also find references to scientific wonders, some only recently discovered or confirmed, regarding the universe, biology, embryology, astronomy, physics, geography, meteorology, medicine, history, oceanography, etc.

Since the 1980s, the "scientific miracle" of the Qur'an has become a major tool for Islamic proselytising and appears to have met with considerable success. It has also given many Muslims a renewed sense of pride in their religion. In the eyes of others, though, it has done much to discredit Islam. 

Read more ...


Islam and evolution

Muslims have generally adopted a positive approach towards science. There is nothing in Islamic history that compares to the battles between church and science in Christianity. However, some Muslims do find it difficult to reconcile the concept of evolution with their faith.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was given a mixed reception by Muslims: hostility in some quarters and equanimity in others. More recently, however, growing numbers of Muslims have begun to question evolution, often drawing on arguments propagated by Christian Creationists in the United States. 

Read more ...

     

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Last revised on 22 May, 2016