The ‘Alim and Muslim Science

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The ‘Alim and Muslim Science



Faith and Science . Traditional Muslim culture is characterized by the interweaving of faith into every aspect of life, including government, economics, and scientific study. In fact, the first revelation of the Qur’an mentions reading, teaching (or proclaiming), and writing: “Read! In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, who created man out of a mere clot of congealed blood. Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful, He Who taught the use of the Pen, Taught man that which he knew not” (96: 1-5). The hadiths, or sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, also encourage scholarship and scientific study, with words such as

Verily, the men of knowledge are the heirs of the Prophets.

Seek ye knowledge, from the cradle to the grave.

Those who leave home in the quest of knowledge walk the path of God.

Seek ye knowledge, even unto China.

A person who became a scholar in the Islamic tradition is called an ’alim . Because studying is one of the religious obligations of all Muslims, male and female, the study of God’s creation is considered a religious pursuit. As people gain an understanding of the world around them, it is assumed that they will also learn more about the intercon-nectedness of the physical world and how it is a reflection of the Divine. This sort of scholarship, which combines science and religion, is best exemplified by the Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity), a tenth-century fraternity of intellectuals who lived in Basrah (in present-day Iraq) and produced a body of writings that were combined into fifty-two Risalat (Epistles). Their teachings summarized the knowledge of their time in virtually every field of scientific study, including zoology, medicine, agricultural technology, astronomy, and mathematics, which was their primary interest. Strongly influenced by the Pythagorean-Hermetic school of ancient Greek thought, they emphasized the metaphysical aspect of arithmetic and geometry, including number symbolism. In their treatise “The Metaphysical Significance of Unity and Multiplicity” the Brethren wrote: “Know, oh Brother (may God assist thee and us by His Spirit) that Pythagoras … used to say The knowledge of numbers, and of their origin from unity (which is before two), is the knowledge of the Unity of God, May He Be Exalted; and the knowledge of the properties of numbers, their classification and order, is the knowledge of the beings created by the Exalted Creator, and of His handiwork.’” The writings of the Brethren of Purity influenced the classification of plants and animals, the study of the properties of minerals, and ideas about the proper relationship between humans and the natural world, which the Brethren felt should always be in a state of harmony and balance.

Scientific Legacies . As Islam spread outward from the Arabian Peninsula, it came into contact with many cultures that also had long traditions of scholarship—including Greece, Persia, India, Africa, and China. As traveling Muslim scholars visited or settled in these regions, their influences were absorbed into Muslim thought. Because of the link between religion and science within Islamic thought, the more widespread Muslim civilization became, the more dedication its leaders showed to supporting the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, rulers competed to attract the


The Qur’an instructs Muslims to learn about God’s creation in order to further their faith. Scientists drew particular inspiration from passages such as the following, which point to the wonders of the natural world as signs of God’s mercy, majesty, and power.

It is He Who makes the stars as beacons for you, that you may guide yourselves with their help, through the dark spaces of land and sea. (6: 97)

And among His Signs, He shows you the lightning, By way both of fear, and of hope, and He sends down rain from the sky and with it gives life to the earth after it is dead: Verily in that are Signs for those who are wise. (30: 24)

Source: Yusif ‘Ali, trans., The Holy Qur’an (Brentwood, Md.: Amana, 1989).

greatest scholars, poets, musicians, and philosophers to their courts. Some members of the educated elite traveled during their careers from Africa to China in pursuit of great teachers, libraries, and rare manuscripts. During their travels they encountered peoples of many faiths and cultures who taught Muslims about science and literature while learning about the Islamic faith. The result was one of the greatest exchanges in history of religious, philosophical, and scientific ideas. As one modern scholar, Munir ud-Din Ahmed, has stated, “It seemed as if all the world from the Caliph down to the humblest of citizens suddenly became students. … In quest of knowledge, men traveled over three continents and returned home, like bees laden with honey, to impart the precious stores which they had accumulated to crowds of eager disciples.”

The Bayt al-Hikmah . Before the rise of Islam there was already a tradition of gathering together great minds in an effort to consolidate the wisdom of the time with that of earlier cultures. Egypt, Greece, India, and Persia had all hosted great centers of learning. Yet, historians consider the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), established in 830 in Baghdad, the most significant of these centers because it linked together so many different traditions of ancient learning. Founded by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, Baghdad had become an important center of court culture, scholarly exchange, and world trade by the early ninth century, and because of its location at a major crossroads between the Chinese empire and the markets of the Middle East and Europe, it developed into one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world during the centuries that followed. The city included the palace of the khalifah (caliph), many masjids (mosques), magnificent gardens, enormous libraries, hospitals, and public baths for a population of about one and a half million people. At that time the only city in the world that was larger was Xian, China, with about two million people. Barges from all over the known world made their way up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Baghdad, bringing goods that eventually made their way, either by ship or land, to Africa, India, Central Asia, the Middle East, Spain, and northern Europe. Ships brought luxury goods such as silk, porcelain, spices, ivory, and gold to the great bazaar of Baghdad. From the overland trade routes came furs, jewels, perfumes, and frankincense. The gathering of merchants from the far reaches of several continents brought Baghdad a level of wealth seldom before attained. These riches were not only monetary but cultural as well.

Transfer of Knowledge . In 1258 Mongol invaders from the steppes of Central Asia conquered and laid waste to the city of Baghdad. So complete was their destruction that contemporary writers claimed nothing was left alive when the Mongols rode away from the smoldering ruins of that great city. Though most of the libraries in the city were lost, many scholars were able to flee Baghdad before the onslaught and copies of many of the destroyed books existed in other Muslim libraries. Some settled in Persia, Syria, or North Africa, but a large number of them fled to Muslim Spain, or al-Andalus (Andalusia), which had become a center of scholarship for western Muslim regions. Spain thus became the major conduit through which Muslim learning spread to western Europe. Even before that time, Arabic influences had permeated the Spanish language, and the Arab-Muslim art of refined living—including poetry, music, elegant textiles, and books—had permeated Spanish culture. As a result, the attitude of western Europe toward the Arabs had two contrasting elements: fear of Muslims as non-Christian “infidels” and admiration for the culture and intellect of Arab-Hispanic society, including its magnificent libraries and universities. The elite of Christian Europe sent their sons to Muslim universities in Spain to study the Arabic language as well as Muslim science and philosophy. As early as 854 Bishop Alvar of Cordoba was lamenting the fact that Europe’s young male scholars were turning their backs on Latin and focusing on the study of Arabic. Later, Pope Sylvester II (reigned 999-1003) gained respect from some people (and criticism from others) for his important scholarship on Arabic science. By the twelfth century, scholars were flocking to Spain in search of Arabic manuscripts in the libraries of Muslim cities conquered by Christian rulers.

Muslim Influences . Traces of medieval Europeans’ admiration for the high level of scholarship in Muslim culture are still apparent today. Degree recipients at college graduation ceremonies wear long black robes, and flat, square “mortarboard” hats. Some modern scholars believe that the robe was worn by scholars at early European universities because they equated the long, dark robe worn by Arab scholars with wisdom. The doctoral hood draped over the robe corresponds to the taylasan (hood) worn by Muslim jurists. Modern scholars have also suggested that the traditional mortarboard hat may represent the writing board used by Muslim students. When their teacher quizzed them, they had to put their boards on their heads so they could not cheat by looking at their notes. In some Muslim regions, young students of the Qur’an still sit at the feet of their teachers and write their lessons on these simple boards.


Munir-ud-Din Ahmed, Muslim Education and the Scholars Social Status up to the 5th Muslim Era (Zurich: “Der Islam,” 1968).

Philip Khuri Hitti, History of the Arabs , tenth edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974).

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).

Francis Robinson, “Knowledge, Its Transmission, and the Making of Muslim Societies,” in The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World , edited by Robinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 208-249.

W. Montgomery Watt, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe , Islamic Surveys 9 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1972).