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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    The contributions of Muslims to science have been significant, particularly during the Middle Ages. Islamic scholars studied the works of ancient Indian, Persian, and Greek thinkers who had developed important scientific theories. Muslims advanced many fields, including astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and engineering. In modern times, however, Western science and technology have surpassed the Islamic world in scientific achievements. Muslim scholars work to find ways to make scientific progress without compromising Islamic values.

    Golden Age of Science

    From around 700 to 1200 , Muslims led the scientific world. Many royal and wealthy Muslims served as patrons of the sciences. The Abbasid caliph al-Mamun, for example, constructed a research facility in Baghdad called the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma). Scientists congregated there and shared ideas. Influential scholars also funded scientific research, such as the Banu Musa brothers, who made their own contributions to geometry and mechanics.

    Astronomy and Mathematics.

    The most important science in the ancient world, astronomy greatly interested Muslim scholars and led to the creation of many other branches of science. In the mid-700s, Muslims began translating and studying astronomical texts by Indian and Persian writers. The writings of Ptolemy, an ancient Greek scholar, served as the greatest influence on early Muslim astronomers. Ptolemy used geometric models to study the stars. Muslim scholars tested his theories and made their own observations. In many cases, their findings led to corrections in Ptolemy's work.

    Muslim astronomers introduced new mathematical concepts, such as trigonometry, into the science of astronomy. This new field enabled them to make more accurate calculations about the stars and planets. Over the centuries, major observatories arose in cities such as Isfahan and Jaipur, attracting leading astronomers from throughout the Muslim world. The Abbasid caliph al-Mamun launched the first recorded group science project by commissioning astronomers to verify and improve upon Ptolemaic theories. Muslim astronomers also made individual contributions to the discipline. For example, Thabit ibn Qurrah (died 901 ) devised the first known mathematical analysis of motion. Al-Battani (died 929 ), who noticed after 30 years of observation variations in measurements of the sun and moon, allowed for the possibility of an annular solar eclipse. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (died 986 ) accurately illustrated the constellations, providing their locations and sizes. Translated into Latin, his works inspired many star names.

    Islamic culture provided fundamental reasons for astronomical study. Muslims needed to calculate the precise times for daily prayer and to locate the proper direction in which to face during the ritual. They also depended on astronomy to determine the phases of the moon, on which they based their calendar. Other concerns, such as finding direction at night and understanding the connection between the seasons and the planets, also drove Muslims to study the heavens and to develop instruments to measure celestial movements. Astrolabes, quadrants, sextants, sundials, compass boxes, and cartographic grids allowed Muslim astronomers to make accurate calculations. The most famous Muslim observatory, established in the 1200s in Maragha, Iran, promoted the creation of such tools and tables.


    Arab scholars made notable advances in optics, the science of vision. After studying the theories of Greek scholars, they transformed the field with new methods and approaches. The most important optical theorist during this period, Ibn al-Haytham (died 1040 ; known to Europeans as Alhazan), rejected Greeks' explanation of vision, which held that vision results from contact between the eye and an object. Ibn al-Haytham realized that the eye does not see the object itself, but receives an image that occurs when light bounces off the object to the eye. Other opticians studied burning mirrors, mirror reflections, the geometry of vision, and the makeup of the eye. Optics became a new field that far surpassed the research efforts of previous scholars.


    Scholars and scientists in the Islamic world developed sophisticated technologies that greatly increased the prosperity of their societies. They used basic technological information inherited from the early Greeks to create machines for both professional needs and entertainment purposes. Most importantly, they developed methods for lifting water and irrigating farmland—crucial technology in areas where water remained a scarce resource. Engineers also built waterwheels to raise water from rivers to reservoirs; dams to regulate water flow; and networks of canals and underground channels to divert water to farmland. Such projects led to expanded agricultural production and added to the prosperity of cities throughout the Muslim empire. Water engineering contributed to quality of life as well. In the Middle Ages, 70 percent of all water used in Iran came from an elaborate system of qanats (underground conduits).

    Muslim engineers also invented many practical machines and tools, such as water clocks, complex gears, double-acting pumps with suction pipes, crank mechanism devices, and sensitive control mechanisms. They built fountains and various machines for rich patrons. Technological advances also occurred in the production of paper and textiles, military weapons, shipbuilding, mining, and metals.


    Doctors in the Muslim world contributed greatly to the development of medicine. Physicians studied the works of Greek scholars and became familiar with the theories of Hippocrates and Galen. They also used direct observation to refine theories of disease and to develop the best methods of treatment. They adopted Galen's humoral system, which taught that four humors exist within the body—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. According to this system, imbalances in these humors contribute to mood and physical disorders, and various medicines and foods can replenish or diminish the humors as necessary.

    While the Greeks took a philosophical approach to health, Muslim physicians focused on recording case studies and finding cures for diseases. The scientist Abu Bakr al-Razi wrote extensively about illnesses and their cures. His subjects included smallpox, measles, diabetes, and hay fever. He also compiled the first overview of medical history in his book Kitab al-Tibb al-Mansuri (The Mansuri Book of Medicine). The great philosopher and physician Ibn Sina (died 1037 ) composed the most influential work on medical theories in the Middle Ages—al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine).

    Although Islam forbids the dissection of bodies, evidence suggests that some Muslim doctors did conduct dissections. The most striking example comes from the work of Ibn al-Nafis (died 1288 ), who correctly described the ways in which blood flows through the human heart. Galen and Ibn Sina had suggested that blood moves through a hole in the left and right ventricles of the heart. Ibn al-Nafis argued that no such hole exists and that blood reaches the left ventricle of the heart from the lungs. Although some scholars attribute this theory to a lucky guess, others conclude that Ibn al-Nafis must have examined the human body.

    Muslim communities became famous for their hospitals, which treated all patients regardless of religion, gender, or social class. Medical institutions offered surgery and treatment for contagious diseases and mental disorders. They employed a large staff of resident physicians and often included pharmacies and medical libraries as well. Medical costs, in many cases, were covered by waqf endowments given by wealthy Muslims in order to help the poor.

    Natural Sciences.

    Botany and pharmacology also interested Muslim scholars. As with other sciences, Muslim scholars based their early studies on Greek texts but they expanded their work and compiled extensive new data. Botanical research provided information about the medicinal properties of plants. By the late 800s, Muslim physicians in Andalusia (in present-day Spain) had identified nearly almost all the simple uncompounded drugs. In the 1100s, Ibn al-Baytar created a dictionary of medicines and foods that included more than 2,000 entries. This book served as the most comprehensive manual of applied botany in the Middle Ages.

    Alchemy, trying to turn metals into gold, also led to the creation of various medicines. Muslim alchemists developed several compounds that had therapeutic value. They also improved the process of creating drugs, and some of their methods remain in use in modern pharmacology.

    Muslim Sciences in the Modern Era

    After the 1300s, science in the Islamic world declined. Political instability, Mongol invasions, and lack of interest in European technology all contributed to this phenomenon. Science, however, flourished in the European world during the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s. Technological advances allowed Europeans to dominate parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, eventually establishing colonial rule in these regions. While European rule led to political and social upheaval in the Muslim world, it also introduced modern science and technology to Islamic scholars.

    Introduction of Western Science.

    By the mid-1800s, many Muslim leaders had begun to appreciate the importance of modern science. They welcomed the introduction of new technologies such as the printing press, railways, telephones, steamships, and automobiles. The Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali made especially strong efforts to modernize his country, importing a printing press and other mechanical devices. He began major engineering and manufacturing projects and established technical schools with foreign teachers. After his death, however, more conservative Muslim leaders shut down the schools, and the scientific momentum ground to a halt.

    Other rulers also had an interest in science. However, they generally hired Europeans to develop and maintain local technology and did not take steps to train their own population. Muslims who wanted a modern scientific education studied in Europe or in the few Western-style universities that had sprung up in European-dominated areas. Medical schools in the Islamic world began to teach the discoveries of Louis Pasteur and other Western physicians. Scholars started to translate into Arabic modern scientific works, such as Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Many religious leaders, however, opposed modern developments, banning the printing press, public clocks, and other mechanical devices.

    In the early 1900s, however, Muslim leaders began to ignore the ulama and to focus on promoting scientific achievement within the Islamic community. In Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Sudan, new engineering and medical schools sprang up. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk launched an extensive program to modernize factories and agriculture and to promote Western-style schooling. In most areas of the Muslim world, however, industrialization lagged. Leaders continued to import technology from the West.

    Rise of Scientific Learning.

    Most Muslim countries gained their independence from the Europeans in the mid-1900s. After suffering defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 , Islamic leaders realized that they needed to provide better scientific training for their students in order to defend themselves from outsiders. More than 600 science and technology research institutions and centers now exist within the Islamic world. Governments devote the bulk of their resources to science and engineering programs, which attract top students. Turkey promotes programs in hydrology (study of water), textile production, and agriculture. Malaysia has developed programs in electronics, and Indonesia emphasizes aerospace technology. Pakistan, the only Muslim country to have nuclear weapons, conducts research in nuclear energy. Iran and Iraq have pursued petroleum and weapons research.

    Schools that teach science and engineering graduate hundreds of thousands of students each year, but the quality of these institutions generally lags behind that of Western schools. Although the Muslim world accounts for 20 percent of the world's population, it contributes to only 5 percent of scientific discoveries. For the most part, Muslim countries continue to import science and technology rather than to produce it on their own. Muslim scientists living in Europe and North America, however, have achieved much greater success than their counterparts in the Middle East. For example, Mohammad Abdus Salam , a particle physicist from Pakistan, received the Nobel Prize in 1979 with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow . Abdus Salam (died in 1996 ) served as the founder and director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and also headed the Third World Academy of Sciences.

    Conflicts Between Islam and Science.

    Science in much of the Muslim world occupies a separate domain from religion. Most Muslim schools, for example, teach evolution, although governments have banned the study in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The majority of Muslim scientists also appear to accept such developments as Einstein's theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and the big-bang theory, despite the fact that these theories challenge the traditional interpretation of the account of creation in the Qur'an. The philosophical implications of modern science receive little commentary in most Muslim countries. Some issues, however, provoke debate. One such issue is whether the new moon must be visually sighted or whether its position can be predicted with modern astronomical techniques. Weather prediction, too, generates controversy. Traditional Islamic thinking maintains that only God can know the weather, but all Muslim countries support some form of meteorological research and provide weather information. Although traditional Islam also forbids dissection of cadavers, blood transfusions, and organ transplants, almost all Muslim societies accept these procedures.

    A few Muslim clerics, however, have severely criticized the uses and methods of modern science. Some scholars argue that the discipline lacks values and has led to such global problems as weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, and unfair distributions of wealth. Others suggest that because modern science does not concern itself with God, it damages Islam itself. Those who hold these views have demanded changes in the way science is taught. The government of Pakistan, for example, has sponsored research into such topics as the temperature of hell and the chemical nature of jinn (spirits).

    Some Muslims support the development of an Islamic science that offers an alternative to the Western approach. They claim that every scientific fact and phenomenon known today was anticipated at the time of Muhammad and that all scientific predictions have their roots in the Qur'an. Supporters of an Islamic science also reject science that advances knowledge for its own sake. In their view, God's revelation—not human reason—should serve as the ultimate guide to wisdom. Some Muslim scholars insist, for example, that the study of natural disasters must begin with an attempt to understand God's will. Some even propose introducing all scientific facts with a reference to God and removing names associated with specific laws, such as Einstein's Theory of Relativity. These thinkers, however, remain a tiny minority within the Muslim community. Scientists in the Muslim world generally conduct their work without direct reference to religion. As Abdus Salam wrote in an essay published in 1987 , “There truly is no [disparity] between Islam and modern science.” Abdus Salam also argued that science is universal, not specifically Western or Islamic—a view shared by many Muslim scientists.

    Obstacles to Scientific Growth.

    The lack of significant scientific progress in Muslim countries stems from many factors. Most students of science and engineering come from higher income classes. A large number of poorer Muslims lack exposure to science and do not get a chance to make contributions in the discipline. Although women have entered scientific fields, their numbers remain relatively low. In addition, 80 percent of the world's scientific literature appears first in English, and the existing literature in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and other languages is outdated or inadequate for teaching or research. Migration presents another challenge. Top scientists from Muslim countries increasingly take jobs outside their native countries. This “brain drain” has presented major problems in countries like Sudan, where more than 500,000 technicians and scientists have left the country since the 1960s.

    Another factor discouraging scientific thought is the memorization emphasized in primary and secondary education. Graduates of such schools sometimes lack the questioning skills necessary for top-level scientific training. Universities tend to focus on teaching rather than research and have not developed strong doctoral programs or research centers. In addition, universities are chronically underfunded and overcrowded. Muslim countries spend only around 0.5 percent of their gross national product on scientific funding, compared with 2 percent or more in Western countries.

    Strict regimes also create a climate that stifles scientific advancement. They deny freedom of inquiry and dissent, conditions vital to scientific work. Scientists in countries that are governed by such regimes often cannot attend scientific conferences or keep up with new developments in their fields. Despite such challenges, however, scientists in the Muslim world agree on the most important research issues. These include the development of solar energy, desalination projects (removing excess salt from water and farmland), technologies to improve food production in dry areas, irrigation programs, and research in animal sciences. See also Ibn Sina ; Mathematics; Medicine.

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