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


Islam entered history as a monotheistic religion in a disintegrating world when the social systems of antiquity were collapsing and the classical era of Greek philosophical and scientific production was coming to an end. Greek scientific traditions, however, continued in the Muslim empire, and a new golden age of science emerged. Terms like “Islamic science” and “Arabic science” have been widely used but do not reflect the totality of the epistemological systems that developed in the many the regions of the Islamic world and among their diverse peoples: Muslims, Jews, Christians, Syrians, Persians, Arabs, Berbers, Turks, Mongols, and many more. The Arabic word for “science” in the Qurʿān is ʿilm. ʿIlm denotes knowledge, science, learning, and understanding, and it connotes experience, wisdom, dedication, and, in Qurʿānic terms, a distinctive degree of faith attained by superior knowledge and cultivation of human perceptions in order to appreciate divinity. Ūlū al-ʿilm (the people of learning or science) have a unique status in the eyes of God and among members of the Muslim community. The Qurʿān abounds in verses describing the ūlū al-ʿilm or al-rāsikhūn fī al-ʿilm (those firmly established in knowledge). Al-ʿulamāʿ (men of knowledge) are the ones God cites in addition to himself and the angels as witnesses to His oneness: “Allāh witnessed that there is no God but Him and so witnessed the angels and the people of knowledge in justice that there is no God but Him, the owner of all power and wisdom” (3:18). Another example is, “Verily, Allāh is feared by those who have knowledge among his servants” (35:28).

ʿIlm is thus regarded as a divine gift that man should cherish. A further example is in the chapter of the Qurʿān titled “The Bees,” which includes a reminder to mankind that they “are born from their mothers’ wombs without knowledge and that, thanks to God, they have been given their senses of hearing and seeing and the ability to think, for which they should be thankful.

The ʿulamāʿ have also been privileged with piety and respect because they possess superior knowledge of the universe and of God's creation. The Prophet Muḥammad is reported to have said, “Verily, men of knowledge are the inheritors of prophets.” Despite the ascetic tendency of his teachings, the Prophet Muḥammad never rejected life in this world as evil or diabolical. He encourages the pursuit of knowledge and is reported to have said, “Seek knowledge even if it be in China.” These sayings confirm the high regard in which the Islamic tradition holds science and echo the Qurʿān's emphasis on the importance of knowledge and reason for Muslim faith.

Some Muslim intellectuals believe that Islamic sciences may only be studied from the point of view of the schools of thought founded by mystical philosophers like Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1037), Suhrawardī (d. 1191), and Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). According to this point of view, Muslims’ study of the physical universe is not an end in itself but a step on the long path to a higher knowledge of the nonmaterial or spiritual realm of the Divine Principle. This means that Muslim scientists viewed the physical universe as a symbol of the higher spiritual order of divinity. Proponents of this line of thought include Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933), who argues that unity, the central idea of Islam, was employed in the study of sciences. This approach, however, overlooks the fact that a number of scientists in the golden age of Islamic science were not even Muslims. Several of the foremost translators, physicians, and astronomers in the ʿAbbāsid court were Jews, Syrian Christians, and Persians. Ḥunayn ibn Ishāq al-ʿIbādī (d. 873), a leading anatomist and physician of the eye and translator in al-Maʿmūn's court, was a Nestorian Christian Arab. Some, like Thābit ibn Qurrah (d. 903), were Sabians from Harran; others, like Māshāʿallā, were Jews.

The Golden Age of Islamic Science.

Sir Harold Idris Bell, the Oxford papyrologist, ends his work Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest with an allusion to the extent to which Islamic science becomes a continuation of the Greek tradition preserved by the Hellenized people who came under Muslim rule.

"In the Christian churches and monasteries of Europe and Asia men debated subtle points of theology constructed by Greek thought of the teaching and the life and death of a Jewish prophet, and already from the minaret of many a mosque in Arabia sounded the cry of the muezzin, Allāhu akbar; lā ilāha illa allāh, God is great; there is no god but God. Presently, Islam, described by Mommsen as the executioner of Hellenism, was itself to borrow largely from Greek science and Greek philosophy, handing them on in its turn to the thinkers of Western Europe."

Bell's conclusion also emphasizes the translatability of human sciences as they pass from the Babylonian, Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine periods to the Islamic empire.

This translatability did not take place on the spot. In fact, Islam was in close contact with Hellenistic culture for over one hundred years before it began to make general impressions on it. But the Islamic empire inherited not only Egypt, but Persia and India as well. This heritage multiplied the need for a vast movement to translate into Arabic scientific works from such languages as Sanskrit, Syriac, Pahlavi, Persian, and Greek.

Although significant contributions to science began in the eighth century CE, the next two centuries were the golden era of Islamic science. During that time, all fields of knowledge flourished under the patronage of the ʿAbbāsid caliphs. Before the translation movement, Arabic had been the language of the Qurʿān, ḥadīth, and poetry. But as the empire expanded, so did the use of Arabic, which served important sociological and intercultural functions by unifying the Islamic world as Arabic became the dominant vehicle of communication within the Islamic empire. This allowed for vigorous study and the exchange of scientific information.

Philosophical and metaphysical speculations about Islam did not appear in Muslim circles before the ninth century, when full-scale translations of foreign works into Arabic began. Scientists, mathematicians, and astronomers had access to Arabic translations of Persian and Indian sources, in addition to extensive translations from Greek and Latin sources.

Muslim scientists made their own valuable contributions in many fields, thus adding to the body of scientific knowledge and strengthening the scientific methodologies of their time. Most of these contributions took place in the ninth century when many Arabic translations were produced during the reign of the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʿmūn (r. 813–833) and continued under his successors. The Muslim historian Ibn Khaldūn (d.1406) has the following to say about that period:

"Then Allāh brought Islam whose adherents had matchless prominence and took away the world that the Byzantines dispossessed from other nations. At first, Muslims did not pay much attention to science and industries, but as their economy and culture flourished in a manner unavailable to others before them, they mastered industries and became ardent learners of the sciences… Then came [the caliph] al-Maʿmūn, with a desire for knowledge and science ingrained in his faith. He paid all his attention to the sciences and sent emissaries to Roman kings [Byzantine emperors] to dwell on the Greek sciences and to copy their sources into Arabic. For this reason, he sent translators so that the texts were made available to Muslims who studied them [Greek sciences] industriously and developed numerous theories and ideas contradictory to those of the First Teacher [Aristotle], paying special attention to him [Aristotle] on the account of his fame throughout the world. They outstripped their predecessors in all fields of science. Prominent among those scientists and men of knowledge are Abū Naṣr al-Dīn al-Farābī, Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā [Avicenna] in the East, the judge Abū al-Walīd ibn Rushd [Averroës], and the vizier Abū Bakr ibn al-Ṣāyigh [Ibn Bājjah, Avempace] in Andalusia, in addition to many others who attained the highest degree of mastery in science. (Author's translation.)"

Exact Sciences.

This important account by a well-known Muslim Arab historian, a scholar who himself pioneered many fields of study including sociology and historiography, indicates that Arab scientists must have derived a significant portion of their information about the exact sciences and the life sciences from the Greek tradition. Mathematicians in the Islamic empire inherited a rich body of knowledge from their Babylonian, Indian, Persian, and Greek predecessors, which enabled them to develop a science of mathematics flexible in both theory and practice. Arabic translations of Euclid's Elements and Nicomachus's Introduction to the Science of Numbers were fundamental for mathematicians who both benefited from and expanded Euclid's and Nicomachus's theories of numbers. Thābit ibn Qurrah (d. 901) translated most of Nicomachus's work and revised Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn's (d. 910) translation of Euclid's work. Among the most significant Islamic achievements in arithmetic was the gradual evolution of the concept of irrational numbers, developed most extensively by ʿUmar al-Khayyām (d. c.1130) and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1247). In Greek mathematics, Euclid's concept of the irrational was referred to only as a geometric magnitude, not as a number. Islam also inherited the Indian system of reckoning, known in Arabic as ḥisāb, which used nine digits and a special symbol (zero) to indicate an empty place among a number of figures. The system came to be known in Europe as “Arabic numerals.” It is believed to have been transmitted to Europe through the translation of a booklet on Indian arithmetic written by Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (780–850), who was the author of Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa-al-muqābalah, (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) and who introduced algebra (al-jabr) to Europe, and whose name is source of the word “algorithm.” The first comprehensive application of the decimal system to integers and fractions was made by al-Kāshī at the outset of the fifteenth century. This system preceded its European counterparts by two centuries.

Although Islamic geometry during the golden era derived its major precepts from Euclid's Elements, it also benefited from the theories of Apollonius and Archimedes as well as the Indian Siddhantas. Three brothers, Muḥammad, Aḥmad, and al-Ḥasan, also known as Banū Mūsā—the sons of Mūsā ibn Shākir, who lived in Baghdad and served in al-Maʿmūn's court in the ninth century—made significant contributions to ʿilm al-handasah (the science of geometry) by working through Archimedes's problems. Their most important work, On the Measurement of Planes and Spherical Figures, was translated into Latin in the twelfth century by Gerard de Cremona. Other notable geometricians include al-Jawharī, al-Abharī and al-Nayrīzī in the ninth and tenth centuries, Ibn al-Haytham and ʿUmar al-Khayyām in the eleventh century, and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī in the thirteenth century. Ibn al-Haytham (d. c.1040) formulated the famous problem that came to be known among seventeenth-century European geometricians as “Alhazen's problem,” which he introduced in his Kitāb al-manāẓir (Book of Optics), a comprehensive and pioneering work which includes, along with mathematical problems, a new theory of vision and an analysis of rectilinear propagation, reflection and refraction of light, and color.

A new Islamic branch of science that developed from geometry is trigonometry, which constituted the vital link between mathematics and astronomy. Trigonometry developed from three works: the Siddhantas of India, the Almagest of Ptolemy, and the Spherics of Menelaus. Scholars working in the Muslim world made new observations and improved the accuracy of the the Ptolemaic parameters, including the inclination of the ecliptic, mean planetary motions, and equinoctial precession. Observational research, which started in the eighth century, resulted in the historic Maʿmūnic Zīj, an astronomical table generated with the use of observational and computational devices such as astrolabes, quadrants, and armillaries.

Following this example, many types of astronomical research center were established by astronomers in different parts the Islamic world: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ṣūfī (d. 986) in Shīrāz; Abū al-Wafāʿ al-Būzjānī (d. 998) in Baghdad; Ḥāmid al-Khujandī (d. 1000) in Ray; Ibn Yūnus (d. 1009) in Cairo; al-Bīrūnī (d. 1048) in Ghazna; al-Ṭūsī in Marāgheh; Uluğ Bey (d. 1449) in Samarkand—and many more. Translations were still abundant, but individual authorship flourished. Al-Bīrūnī, whose native language was Persian, composed most of his writings in Arabic and is known to have written more than a hundred scientific works on mathematics, astronomy, geography, history, metallurgy, mineralogy, medicine, pharmacology, literature, and philosophy. Like his contemporary Avicenna, al-Bīrūnī was also a student of the renowned Christian scholar and physician Abī Sahl ʿĪsā ibn Yaḥyā al-Musīḥī al-Jurjānī (d. 1000). Al-Bīrūnī's most treasured contribution to astronomy is his Masʿūdī Canon, an unprecedented amalgamation and development of Greek, Indian, and Islamic theories of astronomy and an excellent guide to Islamic astronomy in the early eleventh century. In the twelfth century, Islamic astronomy focused on planetary theory, made available through the Eudoxian model treated in the works of Aristotle and his Greek commentators. Famous contributions to planetary theory were made by such scholars as Ibn Bājjah (d. 1138), Jābir ibn Aflaḥ (d. 1120), Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185), and Ibn Rushd (Averroës, d. 1198) and his student Nūr al-Dīn Abū Isḥāq al-Biṭrūjī (Alpetragius, d. 1204).

Astronomy in medieval Islam is thus a remarkable body of literature, most of which remains untranslated today and survives in about 10,000 manuscript volumes preserved in libraries in southwestern Asia, North Africa, Europe, and the United States. Although a few scholars began to pay attention to this rich corpus over the last century, the majority of those works remain unstudied, and many of them are endangered.

In addition to folk astronomy, medieval scholars in the Muslim world studied spherical astronomy and its relation to the practical needs of everyday life. Spherical astronomy studies the apparent motions of objects on the celestial sphere, which are caused by the daily rotation of the earth, the annual revolutions of the earth and the other planets around the sun, and the revolution of the moon around the earth. Scientists employed spherical astronomy to develop methods for timekeeping as part of the Muslim endeavor to determine the exact time for the five obligatory daily prayers. Muslims also must face the Kaʿbah in Mecca during prayers and therefore require accurate determinations of the qiblah (direction of prayer), not just for prayers but also for the construction of the miḥrāb, the niche in every mosque that indicates the direction of prayer. The qiblah of any given location is determined trigonometrically from the differences in latitude and longitude between that location and Mecca. Another application of Muslim astronomy is the determination of the visibility of the moon, which may pose calendrical challenges if miscalculated. Muslims keep a lunar calendar, and many of their rituals, like fasting in the month of Ramadan and performing the ḥajj, are governed by this calendar. In order to determine the beginning of every new month, Muslim scientists had to make sure that their sightings of the hilāl (crescent moon) were accurate. New astronomical instruments were invented and many existing ones were improved to serve those purposes. Examples include observational instruments such as astrolabes, sundials, and quadrants, and other tools such as celestial globes.

Life Sciences.

Islamic medicine owes a great debt to Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 873), the greatest of all translators, whose translations of and commentaries on works by Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen provided a foundation for the study and advance of medical sciences in the ninth century. Ibn Isḥāq was the first to write a detailed manual on ophthalmology, and his work facilitated Islamic medical research and paved the way for other remarkable scholars, including Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (d. 925), whose contributions advanced the study of internal medicine and whose writings on smallpox and measles gained him wide recognition.

Medieval Islamic scientists were Renaissance men in the sense that they studied all sciences simultaneously. Sciences dealing with living organisms were not seen as separate from the physical sciences, or from philosophy and the humanities. The study of medicine, anatomy, botany, and zoology was therefore conducted by scholars who also studied mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. This interdisciplinarity of Islamic sciences resulted in publications by the same scientist in various fields. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) for instance, known as an Islamic philosopher, also wrote The Canon of Medicine, a categorization of various medical practices, diseases, and drugs and one of the most significant medical references in the Islamic empire and in Europe for many centuries, treating such vital subjects as drug testing and the use of oral anesthetics.

The gulf between the glorious achievements of medieval Islam and the accomplishments of the present day is widening. Scientific disciplines in most Arab and Muslim countries are lagging behind and are staggering under conditions of economic depression and political unrest.



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