Science, Islam and

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The concept of ˓ilm, "science," has been an important one in the history of Islamicate civilization and has gone a long way to giving this civilization, and all those who participated in it regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, a distinctive shape. Mention is frequently made of several sayings (hadith) of the Prophet that state "seek ˓ilm, even in China."

The Arabic term ˓ilm (pl. ˓ulum) refers more broadly to "knowledge" and its antonym is considered to be "ignorance" (jahl). In its various verbal forms, ˓ilm is found frequently in the Qur˒an. At a fairly early date, however, the concept of ˓ilm was differentiated from that of ma˓rifa. The latter refers to a form of knowledge derived from personal experience or intuition, whereas the former is contingent upon the observation and discovery of first principles. This is not to say, however, that all of the primary sources make a sharp distinction between these two modes of knowledge.

The concept of science in Islam is a vast subject. Historically, Arabs and Persians who were interested in explaining the natural world around them first introduced Greek scientific treatises to the Arabic-speaking world during the eighth century. From the ninth century on, scholars traveled from one end of the empire to the other, carrying books and ideas, thereby insuring what some have called the cultural and intellectual unity of the Islamic world. Since this time, countless Muslims from all over the world throughout the course of many centuries have been involved in scientific developments.

Yet, almost immediately there is a conceptual and taxonomical difficulty. How exactly is the term "Islamic science" defined? Ostensibly, "science" is a universal term that knows no linguistic or ethnic bounds; yet, the adjective "Islamic" implies a particular language by a definable group of people. Does "Islamic science," then, refer to a particular "Islamic" take on science? Or, does it refer to science done by individuals who identify themselves as Muslims? This entry assumes the latter assertion.

An equally difficult hermeneutical problem presents itself: When Arabic speakers use the term ˓ilm did they mean by it something similar to what today is called science? Because the Arabic term is not identical to the Western concept of hard science, it is often used in a number of theological and mystical contexts. For instance, early Muslim hadith criticism was known as ˓ilm al-rijal (lit., "the science of the men" who made up the chain of transmitters, or isnad). Despite the employment of the term ilm there was nothing particularly scientific about it. Likewise, even theology ( ˓ilm al-kalam) was regarded as a science with its own demonstrative method derived from first principles. These principles, however, were not derived from syllogistic reasoning, but the Qur˒an. A more recent trend has fundamentalists arguing that the Qur˒an predicts many important scientific discoveries, thereby validating the Qur˒anic miracle for the believers.

Premodern Scientific Developments

A momentous impetus was given to the development of science in the Islamic world with the accession of the Abbasid caliphate to power and the subsequent foundation of Baghdad as its capital in 762. This resulted in a translation movement that saw, by the end of the tenth century, virtually all of the scientific and philosophical secular Greek works that were available in the Late Antique period (fourth to seventh centuries c.e.) translated into Arabic. These works included many diverse topics such as astrology, alchemy, physics, mathematics, medicine, and the various branches of philosophy. The great majority of these texts were translated from Greek into Arabic by way of Syriac. Furthermore, many of the earliest translators were Christians, many of whom were employed in the renowned bayt al-hikma ("House of Wisdom"). This functioned as the official institute and library for translation and research. The caliph al-Ma˒mun (d. 833) sent emissaries throughout the Mediterranean world to seek out and purchase books on "ancient learning," which were subsequently brought back to Baghdad and translated into Arabic by a panel of scholars. The result was an impressive official library that included many of the most important scientific and philosophical works produced in the ancient world. These works would form the foundation for medieval science, not only in the Islamic world, but also subsequently in the Christian world.

The earliest Greek works translated into Arabic were often made for purely pragmatic reasons. This is why treatises devoted to astrology, mathematics, and alchemy represent some of the earliest scientific works in Arabic. A useful list of the treatises translated into Arabic and when and by whom can be found in the account given by the biographer of Islamic writings, Ibn al-Nadim (d. 995).

A common, though incorrect, assumption has it that the Greeks invented the sciences, the Arabs rescued them from disappearing in the "Dark Ages," and subsequently passed them untouched and uncommented upon to the Renaissance period. This ignores the fact that many people living in the Islamic world wrote commentaries to the works of important individuals such as Aristotle, Galen, and Ptolemy. The genre of the commentary was not a slavish recapitulation of a text, but often a creative way of writing about science and philosophy in the medieval period. Rather than regard commentaries as uncreative, they often allowed scholars to think about scientific matters in such a way that they could validate their claims by putting them in the mouths of ancient sages. In fact, many commentators often used ancient authors to argue the very opposite of what these ancient authors had intended in the first place. So although the Arabs worked within the parameters of science as established by the Greeks, they made many important developments in the Western scientific tradition.

Classification of the Sciences

Many of the medieval philosophers compiled various "lists of the sciences" (ihsa ˓ulum ) and "classifications of the sciences" (maratib al-˓ulum). One of the most famous examples of this is the Enumeration of the Sciences, by al-Farabi (870–950). In the preface to this work, al-Farabi states that his intention is to give an enumeration of all the sciences of his day and provide descriptions of their themes and subject matter. He divides the sciences into those dealing with (1) language, (2) logic, (3) mathematics, (4) physics and metaphysics, and (5) political science, jurisprudence, and dialectical theology. Other lists were compiled by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa˒), Ibn al-Nadim, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Ghazali, and Ibn Khaldun. Ghazali's list is interesting in that he divides all of the sciences into those that are either praiseworthy (mahmuda) or blameworthy (madhmuma).

Such lists, however, are by no means a medieval phenomenon. In 1980 at the Second World Conference on Muslim Education, sponsored by the King ˓Abd al-˓Aziz University in Jiddah and the Quaid-i Azam University in Islamabad, delegates adopted a similar list. The main difference between their enumeration and that of someone like al-Farabi was that theirs begins with the memorization of the Qur an and ends with the practical sciences.


Two caveats must be made at the beginning. First, the Muslims did not invent any of the sciences. Rather, as mentioned, they received texts from the Greeks (especially those of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Euclid) and, in the process, adopted and adapted their theories as they saw fit (e.g., in order to reconcile them with monotheistic sensibilities or with new advances made in observation). Second, the term Arabic science might be better than Islamic science, because there was nothing particular religious about science, and many of the scientists spoke Arabic, even though religiously they might have been Christian or Jewish.

Muslims made many important innovations in a great majority of the sciences. In astronomy ( ˓ilm al-hay˒ a; lit. "the science of the figure"), for example, Muslim thinkers made important advancements, following on the heels of Ptolemy, in discerning the laws governing the periodic motions of the celestial bodies. One of the most famous of the Islamic astronomers was al-Battani (Albategnius). He compiled a catalog of the stars for the year 880, in which he determined the various astronomical coefficients with renowned accuracy. He was also responsible for discovering the motion of the solar apsides. In addition, he also wrote an important introductory treatise that was used in European universities until the sixteenth century. Gradually, in order to reconcile perceived observation of the universe, Muslim thinkers, disagreeing with Aristotle, posited the existence of epicycles that revolved not around the earth, but around the various celestial spheres. This movement away from Aristotle greatly bothered the Andalusi thinkers, especially Ibn Bajja and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who decided to remove the epicycles. This created almost as many problems as it solved. In the thirteenth century, however, at the observatory in Maragha, scientists explained the motions of the heavenly spheres as the combination of uniform circular motions. This is the model that was eventually adopted by European astronomers, such as Copernicus.

Mathematics ( ˓ilm al-hisab; lit. "the science of reckoning") was, according to al-Farabi's classification, divided into seven branches. Furthermore, he divided mathematics into two types: practical (amali) and theoretical (nazari). The former is concerned with numbers as they pertain to numbered things such as tables or humans. The latter, in contrast, is concerned with numbers in the abstract, including the properties that numbers acquire when related to one another or when combined with or separated from one another. In the tenth century, Nichomachus's Introduction was translated from Greek into Arabic. This resulted in the acquaintance of mathematics with other subjects, such as geometry, astronomy, and music. Another important mathematician, and probably the most important Arab physicist, was Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen; d. 1039). Among other things, he attempted, without success, to regulate the flow of the Nile. He also composed over a hundred different scientific treatises, most devoted to medicine, mathematics, and physics. Furthermore, he was responsible for establishing the theorem of the cotangent, in addition to resolving the problem of optics (the intersection of an equilateral hyperbole with a circle) that still bears his name.

In the field of medicine, probably the most important name is Ibn Sina (Avicenna; d. 1037). In his autobiography he informs us that medicine (tibb) was not one of the difficult sciences and he claims to have mastered it by the age of sixteen. Throughout his life he engaged in medical experiments and wrote various treatises on specific topics. He also composed a medical encyclopedia, Qanun fi 'l-Tibb (The canon of medicine), that became the standard textbook on the subject not only in the Islamic world, but also in the West for over five hundred years.

Mention should also be made of two disciplines that medieval scholars considered to be sciences, but which are not thought of in that way today: astrology and alchemy. Both of these sciences provided important sources for an empirical and experimental approach to nature. Whereas Aristotelianism offered an explanatory framework for understanding the physical world, astrology and astral magic supplemented this by providing explanations (and prognostications) for the phenomena of this world in the heavens. Both astrology and astral magic presupposed a thorough knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. In like manner, alchemy (al-kimiya˒ ) was concerned with the transmutation of base metals into precious ones. Although most often associated with the attempt to "create" gold, many regarded it as an important part of natural philosophy.

Islamic Law

Science, as is to be expected, was a very malleable term. It referred not only to those disciplines (e.g., physics, mathematics) that today are considered to be the purview of science, but also to other disciplines whose scientific veracity is rather difficult to ascertain. The Muslims had a tendency to consider every potential discipline as a science, and as a result tried to articulate first principles for them. Important in this regard is the science of law or fiqh. For the practitioners of fiqh, known as the fuquha˒ , the law was a science and consisted of the proper knowledge of the Qur˒an and the sunna.

In its developed form, the science of Islamic legal theory recognized a variety of sources and methods (usul al-fiqh) by which to derive the law. The first principle was the Qur˒an, followed by the sunna which, though second in importance, provided the overwhelming majority of material from which the law was derived. The third principle is consensus (ijma˒ ) of the legal scholars in the name of the entire community. The fourth principle is known as human reasoning (qiyas). These four principles became the means whereby legal scholars could, in their opinion, scientifically determine the legal effects of the textual sources of Islam.

The supreme Muslim science was considered to be religious law as opposed to theology as it was in the scholastic world. This had important repercussions: Because scholastic theologians also did work on logic and medicine, they contended that God could not do what was logically impossible. Islamic fuquha˒ , in contrast, were not interested in deducing religious principles from reason or explaining them rationally.

Having surveyed some of the major features and trajectories of science within the orbit of Islam, the question arises: Why did Islam not carry out a scientific revolution in the same manner that the Europeans did? After all, Islam practiced the various sciences long before Europe and remained ahead of the Europeans until the thirteenth century.

The primary difference resides in the fact that, whereas European scholastics succeeded in developing the modern physical sciences, Islam created a metaphysics that was more interested in mysticism. According to the analysis suggested by John Walbridge in The Leaven of the Ancients (2000), this was the result of several features. First, the Muslim philosophers consistently held the position that the world existed without a temporal beginning and were thus more interested in ontological hierarchies than temporal chains of causality. As a result, they tended to speculate about metaphysics and ontology as opposed to the natural sciences. Second, Muslim theologians (mutakallimun) developed an extreme occasionalism that refused to bind God in any way to the natural order. At its most extreme, even a philosopher such as Ghazali, who believed in the truth of mathematics, argued that God destroyed and created the universe in every instant in accordance with His arbitrary Will. God's law, in other words, was regarded as totally arbitrary and, thus, the notion of natural law was for the most part foreign to Islam. Third, the discovery of mysticism by the Islamic philosophers (beginning with Ibn al-˓Arabi in the thirteenth century) coincided with the almost complete lack of interest in natural philosophy, especially physics and mathematics. The end result was that by the thirteenth century, philosophy increasingly was reduced to metaphysics with the primary tools of its discovery being intuition and mystical experience as opposed to deduction and scientific observation. And so it remained until the modern period when Muslims who engage in scientific discovery use, for the most part, models and paradigms developed by Europeans.

Modern Approaches

For sake of convenience, there are essentially three main trajectories. The first trajectory is that of the "fundamentalists." Many think that the Qur˒an predicts modern science. This approach is based on the assumption that the Qur˒an in its nontechnical language actually refers to modern scientific data (e.g., embryology, geology). This is impossible to verify, yet it is taken by the faithful as proof of the authenticity of their religion. A second attempt to bring science and Islam together is based on, for lack of a better term, apologetics. According to this approach, "Western" science has failed to formulate a vision of truth based on revelation; rather, it relies on the rational and secular principles as handed down by the pagan Greeks. The result is the desacralization of knowledge (cf., Nasr, Qadir). Islam, in contrast, presents a sacred worldview and it is the job of "Islamic science" to ascertain this. Proponents of this approach argue that there is such a thing as Islamic science and that it does not subscribe to the theory of evolution. Accordingly, whenever science threatens religion (e.g., evolution), the former must ultimately give way to the latter. Such a dichotomy between "Western" and "Islamic" science is, as should be clear from this entry, based on essentialism and ignores the fact that for much of its history Islamic science was, for all intents and purposes, Western science. The third and final trajectory seems to be the most mainstream; namely, the thousands of Muslim scientists throughout the globe who engage in the ongoing discovery of scientific principles by means of careful and controlled observation.

An image of a fourteenth-century yellow copper astrolabe appears in the volume two color insert.

See alsoAstrology ; Astronomy ; Education ; Falsafa ; Ghazali, al- ; Ibn ˓Arabi ; Ibn Khaldun ; Ibn Sina ; Ikhwan al-Safa ; Law ; Modernity ; Qur˒an .


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Aaron Hughes

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Science, Islam and

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Science, Islam and