By Golareh Habibi
In Science Creative Quarterly
At present, when many think of the Middle East, the first word that comes to mind is oil, following close after unfortunately is war. However, the Middle East has a rich history in the development of science. Oddly enough, or perhaps not so strangely, Islam, the prominent religion of Middle Easterners, is intimately connected with the study and development of science. A study, therefore, of Islam’s influence on science is an enlightening journey.
Never before or since has the Middle East been so profoundly shaken by the words of a simple merchant from Mecca in Arabian Peninsula: Muhammad ibn Abdullah recited the verses sent to him by God, which were later collected as part of The Koran , the Islamic Holy text. The Bedouins of the Arabian Desert then brought their language as well as their religion, Islam, to the entire Near East . While The Koran is instrumental in giving believers a source of faith and of a moral and ethical way to act, one of the most important messages that The Koran commands several times is for individuals to seek knowledge and read nature for signs of the Creator, of God . The method of seeking knowledge was through studying nature, in other words, through scientific study. The sacred texts of The Koran thus encouraged the development of science.
Following the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E., science and technology flourished in the Islamic world, even to a far greater extent than in the West. In fact, the infusion of knowledge from Islamic countries into Western Europe aided Renaissance scholars in their pursuit of scientific knowledge . The study of science was viewed as God’s will, and God’s will would not be accomplished lazily. Muslim rulers promoted the translation of Greek philosophy and science texts and encouraged further scientific exploration in many disciplines, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, pharmacology, optics, chemistry, botany, philosophy, and physics .
Truly, the Arabic language was synonymous with learning and science for over five hundred years, a Golden Age that can count among its credits the precursors to modern universities, algebra, the names of the stars, and even the notion of science as an empirical inquiry . For instance, in mathematics, Muslim scholars introduced the use of zero, solutions to quadratic equations, and even the Arabic word algebra . Then, in ninth-century Baghdad, the Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Mamun set up an institute, the House of Wisdom, to translate manuscripts. Among the first works rendered into Arabic was the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy’s Great Work, which described a universe in which the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars revolved around Earth; Al-Magest, as the work was known to Arabic scholars, became the basis for cosmology for the next five hundred years .
The Golden Age for Muslims as the leaders in science continued until the 16th century. The highlight of this era was in the 10th and 11th centuries when three great thinkers strode the East: Abu Ali al- Hasan ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen; Abu Rayham Muhammad al-Biruni; and Abu Ali al-Hussein Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna . Al-Haytham, born in Iraq in 965, experimented with light and vision, laying the foundation for modern optics and for the notion that science should be based on experiment as well as on philosophical arguments. Dr. Lindberg, a Medieval science historian at the University of Wiscosion, has commented that al-Haytham “ranks with Archimedes, Kepler and Newton as a great mathematical scientist” . The mathematician, astronomer and geographer al-Biruni, born in what is now part of Uzbekistan in 973, wrote some 146 works totaling 13,000 pages, including a vast sociological and geographical study of India . Ibn Sina was a physician and philosopher born near Bukhara, also now in Uzbekistan, in 981-1037 . He wrote al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, or The Canons of Medicine, a million-word medical encyclopedia, a seminal volume that was the first to recognize the contagious nature of tuberculosis, to identify meningitis, and to describe all the minute parts of the eye. By the 12th century, the Canons had been translated into Latin, and European medicine relied on this text until well into the 1700s . Thus, if it were not for these Islamic scholars, developments in Western sciences may not have advanced as much as they had.
Scholars say science found such favor in medieval Islam for several reasons. Part of the allure of science was mystical; it was another way for individuals to experience the unity of creation that was the central message of Islam. Also, Islam is one of the few religions in human history in which scientific procedures are necessary for religious ritual . In other words, by studying science and developing its disciplines, Islamic scholars were practicing their faith and accomplishing God’s will. Simply, the requirement that Muslims face in the direction of Mecca when they pray, for example, required knowledge of the size and shape of the Earth. The best astronomical minds of the Muslim world tackled the job of producing tables or diagrams by which the qibla, or sacred directions, could be found from any point in the Islamic world . Basically, an enthusiastic desire to satisfy their religion and faith fuelled these great scholars. As aforementioned, much of the knowledge Muslim scholars developed and transmitted to the Europeans enabled Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance . From the 10th to the 13th century Europeans, especially in those in Spain, were translating Arabic works into Hebrew and Latin as fast as possible. The result was a rebirth of learning that ultimately transformed Western civilization . In his article, “How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science”, Dennis Overbye reported the words of Dr. Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma:”[nothing] in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600” . This holds true as one considers that, during the 16th century, the Ottoman astronomers made astronomical tables that were considered at least as accurate as those of fellow 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe of Denmark, whose observations of the planets served as the basis for Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion . This insightful knowledge that existed and flourished, though, had begun to diminish because of political motives.
Slowly, the Islamic empire began to be whittled away in the 13th century by Crusaders from the West and Mongols from the East. Only a century after, Taqi al-Din,.the Ottomans and their Muslim contemporaries in Mughal India and the Persian Safavid Empire ceased to support scientific research and innovations. As a result, Islamic centers of learning began to lose touch with one another and with the West, leading to a gradual erosion in two of the main pillars of science — communication and financial support . This change was also due in part to the shifting priorities and educational systems of these empires. Not unlike Europe in previous centuries, groups wanting to protect the status quo became more powerful than those advocating growth and experimentation. Meanwhile, building on the earlier accomplishments of Muslim scientists, Europe’s scientific and industrial revolutions began to give the West a military and economic advantage over the Islamic world . At present, in the 21st century, sufficient oil, sufficient money, lack of communication, and conflict of opinions regarding Islam and science could be other answers for why Muslim science has declined.
Muslims found it very humiliating to encounter Western colonial powers in the 19th century, which produced a hunger for Western science and technology, or at least the economic and military power they could produce. Reformers bent on modernizing Eastern educational systems to include Western science could argue that Muslims would only be reclaiming their own, since the West had inherited science from the Islamic world to begin with. In the Western world, science was able to pay for itself in new technology like the steam engine and to attract financing from industry; but in the East it remained dependent on the interest of sultans, caliphs or Shahs . Even in the countries that science and technology were emphasized greatly, not much of the progress were observed. It so sad to see that Muslim countries that used to be known as the symbol of communication, and learning the knowledge from each other become very isolated from the rest of the world.
In contrast, many Western scholars believe that the reason for decline of Muslim science concerns Muslim countries having enough money so they could live without an industrial revolution . By the 19th century, when Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire decided to develop a modern infrastructure, including railroads and telegraph lines, the work had to be contracted to foreign firms. The cash-strapped Middle Eastern governments sold concessions – the right to develop and then profit from these infrastructure development projects – to European companies. These opportunities gave European governments an interest in influencing Middle Eastern regimes, in order to both win the contracts and then protect their investments. In this way, the technological and industrial capabilities of the West reinforced its political and economic power in the region. Technological dependence on the West, however, was seen as a threat to the independence of the Islamic world, and resentment against Western power began to rise .
This reality coincides with the conflict of belief between conservative or fundamentalism Muslim scientists and the so-called Westernized Muslim scientists who could separate out the science and religious . For example, some typical comments from conservative Muslim scientists include “The notion that all knowledge is in the Great Text is a great disincentive to learning” and “It’s destructive if we want to create a thinking person, someone who can analyze, question and create” . For example, it was not Islamic to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water. As Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan, states “You were supposed to say that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water was created” . In this way, scientists would not be belittling the sacred text and fundamental Islamic belief. One response to the invasion of Western science, said the scientists, has been an effort to “Islamicize” science by portraying the Koran as a source of scientific knowledge . Even Muslims who reject the idea of fundamentalism, however, have expressed doubts about the desirability of following the Western style of science, saying that it subverts traditional spiritual values and promotes materialism and alienation . It seems though that they forget the history of Islamic science as characterized in the Golden Age of Islam when the study of science was encouraged by the scholars devout faith in not separating religion – in the sense of faith in accomplishing the will of God – and science. Either way, the developments in science during the Golden Age of Islam has made its mark in the world.
Overall, it is very important that one to know that science is international. Certainly, one cannot neglect the influence of Islamic scholars in the past, and many developments in Western and Eastern science could not have flourished because of their presence. But, the great strides made in all scientific disciplines by scholars cannot be defined by their nationality. Science and technology is fuelled by the sharing of minds and of knowledge. Therefore, “There is no such thing as Islamic science. Science is like building a big building, a pyramid. Each person puts up a block. These blocks have never had a religion. It’s irrelevant, the [colour] of the guy who put up the block” .
1. Frye RN, (1975). The Golden Age of Persia. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Pages 1-7.
2. “Muhammad.” Wikipedia. Online. 3 April 2006.
3. Overbye D, (October 30, 2001). “How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science.” New York Times. Section F. p1.
4. WGBH Educational Foundation (2002). “Cutting-edge science in the Middle East.” Online. 3 April 2006.
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Golareh was born in Tehran, Iran and immigrated to Canada at the age of 18. She has a bachelor’s degree from UBC in cell biology and genetics. It was during her second year of her B.Sc. that she fell in love with research and consequently is pursuing her passion in the Interdisciplinary Oncology Program, where she hopes to one day contribute to the cure for breast cancer.