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Natural Sciences

Mazhar Mahmood Qurashi
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Natural Sciences

Under the impetus of Islamic teachings, a civilization grew up in the first two centuries AH that produced a dramatic change of outlook, arising from the integrated concept of knowledge (ʿilm) combining the material and the spiritual aspects in a balanced whole. Starting from the commands to observe, to consider, and to reflect, the desire to acquire knowledge had become a deep-seated yearning. This movement for scientific knowledge and progress led by Muslims lasted for at least seven centuries (from 700 to 1400 CE) and produced more than one hundred men of genius recognized as having significantly changed the course of scientific thought. Among the best known are Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (chemistry), Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (mathematics), Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (medicine), ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Masʿūdī (geography), Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī (physics and geography), Ibn al-Haytham (physics and scientific method), Ibn Sīnā (medicine), ʿUmar Khayyām (mathematics and astronomy), Abū al-Qāsim al-Zahrāwī (surgery), Abū al-Walīd ibn Rushd (philosophy of science) and Ibn Nafīs (physiology).

Early Institutions.

Possibly the first important institution for higher learning in Islam was the Bayt al-Ḥikmah founded by al-Maʿmūn in Baghdad in 830. It functioned as an academy, a translation bureau, a public library, and an observatory. Observatories of this time were also astronomy schools, just as public hospitals, which also made their first appearance during this period, served as centers for medical studies. But the first Islamic academy to make provision for the physical needs of its students and to become a model for later institutions of higher learning was the Niẓāmīyah, founded in 1065–1067 by Niẓām al-Mulk, the Persian vizier of the Seljuk sultans Alp Arslan and Malikshah and the patron of al-Khayyām. The Qurʿān and classical poetry formed the core of study in the humanities (ʿilm al-adab), precisely as the classics did later in European universities. Certain details of the academy 's organization were copied by the early universities of Europe: one lecturer was appointed at a time; the lecturer had under him two or more repetiteurs (sg. muʿīd, repeater) whose duty consisted of rereading the lecture after class and explaining it to the less gifted students—hence the designation “Reader” still current in some universities.

The mosques in almost all Muslim towns served as important educational centers. Through gifts and bequests, mosque libraries became especially rich in religious literature. Other libraries, established by dignitaries or men of wealth as semipublic institutions, accessible to scholars, housed collections of works on logic, philosophy, astronomy, and other sciences. The library (khizānat al-kutub) founded in Shīrāz by the Būyid ʿAḍud al-Dawlah in 977–982 had its books arranged in cases and listed in catalogues and was administered by a regular staff. In the same century, Basra had a library whose founder granted stipends for scholars working in it.

Decline, Western Contacts, and Revival.

This glorious phase was followed by a period of relative inactivity and even decadence that lasted for more than three hundred years (1400–1750), contemporaneous with the period when Europe was assimilating the scientific contributions of al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Sīnā, Ibn al-Haytham, al-Zahrāwī, and Ibn Rushd. One may perhaps agree with M. Bennabi 's analogy that “the Qurʿānic impulsion being deadened, little by little the Muslim world came to a stop like a motor that had consumed its last litre of petrol. No temporal substitute, in the course of history, could replace this unique source of human energy, that is, faith” (p. 9). There followed a period of considerable turmoil and rethinking for the Muslim world, precipitated partly by the political and then the economic and technological dominance of Europe (and later America) over Muslim countries. Bennabi writes:

"On the moral as well as on the social plane, the Muslim was obliged to seek a modus vivendi compatible with the conditions of a new life. From this obscure groping … stemmed the historic movements that would give the Muslim world its present physiognomy. These movements issued from two currents: the “Reformist,” linked to Muslim consciousness, and the “Modernist,” less profound, more fortuitous, and more particularly connected with the aspirations of a new social category, the issue of the Western School (p. 21)."

Both these currents have been active—the first in promoting a philosophical rethinking leading back to original Islam, and the second in impelling Muslims of today to take up seriously the study of modern science and technology as a part of their own heritage, retransmitted to them by the West. The retransmission of modern science to Muslims began in the eighteenth century when Western colonial powers either conquered Muslim lands directly or subjugated their rulers. They needed raw materials for their industrial development, and so local resources were surveyed and studied. To maintain continued occupation and supremacy, the Western powers had to develop better transport, communications, and defense systems, and so they initiated training and education programs for the indigenous populations. Through this unavoidable transfer of science and technology Muslims became acquainted with the modern sciences. The only exceptions were Turkey and Egypt, which had already developed a definite base of modern technology as a result of commerce and sporadic warfare with European countries during the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Scientific Resurgence.

In individual countries there is evidence of modernization early in the eighteenth century, and of scientific activities by the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, with steady growth thereafter. Thus during the last decade of the eighteenth century, one scientific paper was published by a Muslim scientist in the Indian subcontinent, but the nineteenth century saw exponential growth, with fifty-two papers produced in the period 1890–1909. Thereafter, the growth of scientific activity in the subcontinent was very rapid, as documented by Mohammed Ataur-Rahim.

In Egypt Muḥammad ʿAlī (r. 1805–1848) had initiated modernization by establishing schools for various sciences, but his policy was reversed by his grandson ʿAbbās I Ḥilmī (r. 1848–1854) as well as ʿAbbās 's successor Saʿīd (r. 1854–1863). Only two nineteenth-century institutions survived, the National Library and the Royal Geographical Society of Egypt, which were founded by Ismāʿīl (r. 1863–1879). The era of modern science in Egypt effectively began at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Turkish adventure into modern science and technology was also catalyzed by the need to strengthen its military capability, which was essential for the Ottoman sultan to maintain his position. A revolution in military technology was marked by the Ottoman adoption of guns and gunpowder, and particularly in the enthusiastic development, production, and use of field and siege guns or cannon after the crucial war years 1440–1448. A century later, in 1547, the work of casting artillery was carried out in Istanbul by a crew of Germans. Thus began transfer of technology, with associated development of metallurgy and other sciences, which resulted in Turkey possessing a sizable science and technology structure earlier than most other Muslim countries, with some scientific research activity in the nineteenth century.

Islamic Tradition and Western Science.

For an objective assessment of the interaction between science and Islam, it is necessary first to distinguish the mainstream of Islamic thought from its secondary components and minor issues. Islamic teaching is essentially based on obeying the commandments of God in the Qurʿānic injunctions and following the example of the prophet Muḥammad as reported in the sunnah. However, the actual practice as well as the teaching of the Islamic way of life has at various times been encumbered with several accretions. Thus, although Sufism, which may be seen as a form of mysticism, does attempt to trace its origins to the Qurʿān and the ḥadīth, in fact, as Hitti observes, “During and after the second Islamic century, [it] developed into a syncretic movement, absorbing many elements from Christianity, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and Buddhism, and passing through mystical, theosophical and pantheistic stages” (p. 433). S. F. Mahmud writes, “Many Sufi orders now [third century AH] made their appearance and people began to withdraw from the affairs of the world. … Convinced that this world was not a good place, they concluded, though fallaciously, that the world was not a reality. The real world, the new teachers began to say, was the world of God; the temporal world was a transient thing” (p. 141). The pursuit of science and technology would be compatible with mainstream Islamic thought, but essentially incompatible with the otherworldliness of Sufism. It is of interest to note that, just as the rise of Islamic science and technology took place two to three centuries after the foundation of Islam, its decline began nearly three centuries after the spread of Ṣūfī doctrine in the Muslim world.

A similar phenomenon is discernible in the past three centuries, which saw three major reformist movements—the Wahhābīyah in Arabia, Shāh Walī Allāh in India, and the Zaydīyah in Yemen—reemphasizing tawḥīd and rejecting the accretions of Sufism. These were followed a century and a half later by the intellectual modernistic efforts of Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) and Ismāʿīl (r. 1863–1879) in Egypt and of the Aligarh movement of Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (1801–1891) in India, reinforced by the uplifting poetry and philosophy of Allāmah Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938). The pattern that appears to emerge is that social and moral upsurge or stagnation precedes a corresponding scientific development or stagnation by a century or two and so presumably provides the basic motivation.

Modern Scientific Activity and Islam.

Today the products of science and technology are to be found to some extent in all Muslim countries, but local development and assimilation of scientific and technological innovations are apparent in only twenty of the fifty-five members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Major scientific development and research is occurring in perhaps a dozen countries, with the top eight in 1980 being Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq, and Indonesia, which together had about 90 percent of all scientific and technical personnel, a total barely equal to the number in Germany and Japan alone.

In most Muslim countries, the scientists and the leaders of religion within the educational system are far apart; recently, however, a few authors have written on the subject of “Islamic science,” or the development of science afresh from an Islamic perspective. Kaleemur Rahman has attempted a critical description of their efforts. Ziauddin Sardar discusses the specific ideological and intellectual stands of four contemporary schools in this field: the Guénon/Schuon School of gnostic/mystical thought, represented by S. H. Nasr; the school of thought represented by P. Manzoor, M. A. Anees, and Z. Sardar, who call themselves the “Group of Ijmal”; the Aligarh school of criticism of science, represented by M. Z. Kirmani, M. R. Kirmani, M. Kaleemur Rahman, and Rais Ahmad; and scholars like S. Waqar Hussaini, Ali Kettani, Abdus Salam, and Z. R. el-Najjar, most of them actual practitioners of science and technology, who see science as a universal and objective pursuit of truth.

Although S. H. Nasr may well be credited with introducing the term “Islamic science,” his view—which makes Islamic science akin to gnosticism or mysticism and implies that knowledge of everything (or almost everything) is available in the philosophical and scientific thought of the Muslims of the first four centuries AH—is too facile and one-sided, and it represents an extreme viewpoint. At the other extreme, the view of Abdus Salam, Ali Kettani, and certain other scientists and engineers defends present-day science as such without showing definite ways to reconcile it with Islam. Two facts stand out. First, more than two decades of intensive popularization of science at the grassroots level—in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and several other large Muslim countries—has hardly made a dent in scientific and technological deficiencies. We must try to find workable solutions. Second, the problem of reconciling scientific thought with current religious thought still remains virtually unresolved. The problem appears to stem from the fact that there is no direct logical equivalency between the laws of the physical sciences and those of the spiritual disciplines. Accordingly, an extrapolation from one sphere to the other often leads to distressingly contradictory conclusions, and the practitioners of both disciplines retreat into their respective shells.

What is needed is a comprehensive study of the regions of overlap between the spheres, so as to develop a set of unifying principles. Three recent initiatives may lead toward such a synthesis. The Muslim Education Conferences held in 1971 (Mecca) and 1981 (Islamabad) attempted to define the role of education in the Islamic context and to lay down some basic rules for development of appropriate curricula. The Islamization of social and natural sciences, as suggested by S. H. Nasr, has been attempted (for social sciences only) at the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Finally, the Islamabad Conference on Science in Islamic Polity (1983) took a coordinated look at the past, present, and future of science in the Muslim world and recommended positive interaction between scientists and religious scholars. Notable writings in this respect are the COMSTECH journal Islamic Thought and Scientific Creativity of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and recent articles by M. M. Qurashi and colleagues. The future may see both the Islamization of the social sciences and changes in current Islamic thought through interaction with the latest concepts of the physical, biological, and social sciences.



  • Ataur-Rahim, Mohammed. Contributions of Muslim Scientists during the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries Hijri in the Indo-Pakistan Sub-Continent. Islamabad, 1983. Bibliography, alphabetically organized, of the widely scattered published work of Muslim scientists of this period, together with a tabular, decade-by-decade analysis.
  • Bennabi, Malek. Islam in History and Society. Translated by Asma Rashid. Islamabad, 1988. Presents an incisive and original analysis of the philosophical crisis facing the Muslim as well as the Western world.
  • Gillispie, Charles Coulston, ed.Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 18 vols. New York, 1970–1976. Includes 105 Muslim scientists whose contributions significantly altered the course of science.
  • Heywood, C. J.“Notes on the Production of Fifteenth-Century Ottoman Cannon.” In Proceedings of the International Symposium on Islam and Science, November 10–12, 1980, pp. 58–61. Islamabad, 1981.
  • Hitti, Philip K.History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present. 5th ed.London, 1951.
  • Huff, Toby E.The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West. 2d ed.Cambridge and New York, 2003.
  • Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Reprint, Lahore, 1960. Contains a critique of modern philosophical thought and its impact on the future of Islamic culture, with emphasis on “The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam.”
  • Mahmud, S. F.A Short History of Islam. Karachi, 1960. Intended to be “an account of Islam and not of Arabs or Persians, Turks, or Indians,” clarifying several misconceptions.
  • Moravcsik, Michael J.“Scientific Manpower for the Islamic World.” In International Conference on Science in Islamic Polity, November 19–24, 1983. Science and Technology Potential and its Development in the Muslim World, vol. 1, edited by M. Raziuddin Siddiqi, M. M. Qurashi, and S. M. A. Shah, pp. 340–354. Islamabad, 1983.
  • Nadvi, Syed Habibul Haq. Islamic Resurgent Movements in the Indo-Pak Subcontinent during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Critical Analysis. Durban, South Africa, 1987. Excellent comprehensive survey of several recent movements.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study. London, 1976.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Knowledge and the Sacred. Edinburgh and New York, 1989.
  • Qurashi, M. M.“Muslim Contributions to Science” (Part 2). Proceedings of the Pakistan Academy of Science19 (1982): 125–137. Contains an original analysis of the recurring peaks in scientific activity vis-à-vis intellectual activity over the first nine centuries AH
  • Qurashi, M. M., et al. “A Basis for the Integration of Modern Scientific Studies with Islamic Thought,”Islamic Thought and Scientific Creativity1.1 (1990): 19–36; 2.4 (1991): 7–26; and 3.4 (1992): 7–19. Series of papers setting out “a basis for the integration of modern scientific studies with Islamic thought, in the light of basic concepts,” including references to psychokinesis and extrasensory perception.
  • Qurashi, M. M., and S. M. Jafar. “Quantitative Study of Industrial RD and Its Impact on Economic Growth.”Science, Technology Development11, no. 3 (1992): 5–23.
  • Rahman, M. Kaleemur. “Preface to Islamic Science.”MAAS Journal of Islamic Science3, no. 1 (1987): 45–56.
  • Said, Hakim Mohammed, ed.Personalities Noble: Glimpses of Renowned Scientists and Thinkers of the Golden Muslim Era. Karachi, 1983. Provides concise, two-page accounts of the major scientific achievements of two dozen towering scientific and intellectual personalities of the early Muslim era (third to seventh centuries a.h.).
  • Saliba, George. Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. Cambridge, Mass., 2007.
  • Sardar, Ziauddin. “Where 's Where? Mapping Out the Future of Islamic Science.”MAAS Journal of Islamic Science4, no. 2 (1988): 35–63.
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