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Modern Science's Debt to Islamic Civilization
Apr 1, 2003


The debt that Briffault speaks of is often referred to as though it should be taken for granted: The Arabs only transmitted Greek science and made no contribution to the overall history of Western science. Fortunately, many historians of science no longer hold this view. The Arabs “ under an Islamic hegemony “ acquired the scientific heritage of earlier civilizations, including classical Greece and Rome, and translated, preserved, and transformed much of it. Their scientific experience profoundly impacted the late medieval world of western Europe, where Muslim scientific achievements were important to the evolving Renaissance and the grand narrative of the history of science.

Until recently, these historic achievements were unknown. Gradually, more evidence showing the magnificent work in Islamic science has come to light. Modern history of science studies show that the productive, original scientific research of Muslim scientists persisted into the sixteenth century. Yet, histories of Islamic science consistently claim that such science declined after the eleventh century due to the opposition of religious authorities (e.g., Imam al-Ghazali), Islamic law, and the absence of a capitalistic economy,(2) to name just a few.

But this theory, in addition to its palpable counter-intuitiveness, fails to explain the growing body of evidence for the rise of science in the Islamic world after the eleventh century. This article will discuss just a part of the accomplishment, importance and originality of Islamic science between the ninth and sixteenth centuries.

Islamic science defined

The more historians deconstruct the grand narrative of their discipline's history, the harder it becomes to assign linguistic, civilizational, and cultural adjectives to science.(3) Using such adjectives as Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Islamic, and more pertinently, western, in this context is quickly becoming obsolete, due to the newly-emerging understanding of the essentially hegemonic meanings such adjectives have always harboured.(4) These terms were often used as analytical categories that imparted some significance at the time when languages, cultures and civilizations used to embody individual characteristics that could distinguish them from one another.(5)

Now, however, such terms no longer serve the same functions, for the new scrutiny now being applied to such grand narratives of the history of science is making it quite obvious that these terms can no longer yield the same analytical results they used to yield.(6) In addition, such terms as culture, civilization, language, and science are no longer the same stable, commonly accepted terms of reference they once were,(7) since they embody ambiguities of their own and embody hegemonic theoretical structures that prohibit their modification with the old adjectives as was once done.(8) Furthermore, the intimate interconnectedness between scientific traditions makes it almost meaningless to speak of a Greek, Arabic or European science as if each had a character of its own.(9)

In light of the above, Islamic science (10) perhaps should mean science conducted mainly in Arabic and within the context of Islamic civilization, for many individuals from different ethnic and religious backgrounds were actively engaged in this undertaking: Christians (e.g., Hunayn ibn Ishaq), Persians (e.g., Ibn Nawbakht), Sabians (e.g., Thabit ibn Qurrah), and Jews (e.g., Masha'allah). Arabic was the main scientific, but not necessarily the native, language of these scientists. While the terms Islamic science and Arabic science are modern historical terms for the science conducted within the context of Islamic civilization, this science is Islamic in the sense that it suited the new and growing needs of Islamic civilization; was available entirely in Arabic, which had replaced Syriac; and was familiar to an increasing number of Muslim translators, students, and scientists./(11) It is in this context that Islamic science will be used in this article.

Of equal importance is the realization that Islamic science, in this context, does not imply religious sciences (e.g., jurisprudence) but rather the natural sciences (e.g., mathematics, astronomy, and physics). Nor does it imply the type of science that states that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, can be found in the Qur'an.(12) This view examines the Qur'an's scientific content and claims that, from relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang theory to the entire field of embryology and much of modern geology has been ˜discovered' in the Qur'an.(13) Its adherents claim that scientific experiments have been devised to discover what is mentioned in the Qur'an but not known to science. Although this view is now the most popular version of Islamic science, it is not the one implied in this article.

Nor does it imply the mystical perspective that equates Islamic science with studying the nature of things in an ontological sense. In this viewpoint, the material universe is studied as an integral and subordinate part of the higher levels of existence, consciousness and modes of knowing.(14) Given such a context, science is not a problem solving enterprise and socially objective inquiry but more a mystical quest for understanding the Absolute.(15) This view also advocates the idea that in this universe, conjecture and hypothesis have no real place; all inquiry must be subordinate to the mystical experience.(16) Thus, its advocates view all science in Islamic civilization as sacred science, a product of a particular mystical tradition that traces its roots to the Greek neo-Platonists. This view, however, has been strongly refuted by Muslim historians of science (e.g., Ahmad al-Hassan) and Western historians (e.g., David King and Donald Hill).

Having said that, in this article Islamic science means any natural science that depends upon observation and experimentation, as well as rational thought in a critical way, that was studied by scientists of various religious and ethnic backgrounds who operated under an Islamic hegemony.

Islamic science remains largely unappreciated

With the exception of a few scholars, the contributions of Muslims scientists have been “ and remain “ poorly understood in the West. Western literature on Muslims presents them as mere torch-bearers of Greek science. This view is a product of Orientalism, which treats the Orient and Orientals as an ˜object' of study inscribed by Otherness.(17) This typology is based on a real specificity but detached from history, and thus conceived as intangible and essential,(18) which, according to Ziauddin Sardar, the European man, from Greek antiquity onwards, becomes the measure of all men everywhere.(19) Accordingly, Muslim contributions to science were deliberately ignored or suppressed, and the view that Muslim scientists produced nothing original remained the orthodox belief until the mid-twentieth century.

In astronomy, for example, Kevin Krisciunas states that it is a common misconception that astronomical research fell into a dazed slumber following Ptolemy [the Greek scientist who lived during the second century], not to reawaken until the time of Copernicus.(20) Accordingly, Western historians of astronomy, like Neugebauer and Delamere, find nothing to report about Islamic astronomy.(21) The distinguished physicist-philosopher-historian Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), on the other hand, believed that: The revelations of Greek thought on the nature of the exterior world ended with the Almagest, (by Ptolemy) which appeared about A.D. 145, and then began the decline of ancient learning. Those of its works that escaped the fires kindled by Mohammedan warriors were subjected to the barren interpretations of Mussulman [Muslim] commentors and, like parched seed, awaited the time when Latin Christianity would furnish a favourable soil in which they could once more flourish and bring forth fruit.(22)

In other words, Muslims were fanatic, rampaging hordes, burners of Greek science, and also pale imitators, copiers of the Greeks.(23) Duhem also believed that: There is no Arabian science. The wise men of Mohammedanism were always the more or less faithful disciples of the Greeks, but were themselves destitute of all originality.(24) Ernest Renan (1823-92), the influential French philologist, believed that Islamic science could only flourish in association with heresy, and that science in Islam was merely parasitic on Greek culture and that Islam was simply a vehicle transmitting Greek philosophy to the Renaissance in Europe.(25) Other historians repeated the view that Muslim scientists acted as unproductive transmitters of Greek science. Von Grunebaum suggested that Islamic science was a mimic of Greek science, and asserted that Islam failed to put natural resources to such use as would insure progressive control of the physical conditions of life. Inventions, discoveries, and improvements might be accepted but hardly ever were searched for."(26)

Prominent historians of Islamic science, however, explain that modern research in Islamic science poses a challenge to what is at best a caricature of history, one that portrays the ˜torch' of science and knowledge as something that was handed down from the ancient Greeks to medieval Europe by way of Islamic scholars.(27) The danger of this representation is that it miscasts the role of the Islamic civilisation in the scientific revolution and undermines the often deep relation between cultures and intellectual movements.(28) Furthermore, it allows historians of classical science to conclude, science as theory is Greek and as experimental method it was born in the seventeenth century,29 thereby neglecting the contributions of Muslim scholars in between.

According to the torch theory, therefore, Islamic science constituted an excavation site, in which the historian is the archaeologist on the track of Hellenism.30 This approach, explains Rashed, has frequently ended up misrepresenting the results of Greek science as well as those of the seventeenth century, a necessary distortion if one wishes to link the two ends of the chain in a continuous history; on the other hand, and not without coincidence, it has led to some famous blunders affecting not only interpretation but comprehension too.(31)

Recent scholarship, however, confirms that Muslim scientists were more than just torch-bearers of Greek science, and that, in fact, they influenced the Renaissance. For example, in his The Middle East, Bernard Lewis explains that Greek science, on the whole rather tended to be theoretical. Medieval Middle Eastern [Islamic] science was much more practical, and in such fields as medicine, chemistry, astronomy and agronomy, the classical heritage was clarified and supplemented by the experiments and observations of the medieval Middle East.(32)

Today there is sufficient information about the quality and staggering quantity of Islamic science. Muslim scientists were active in many fields, from astronomy to zoology, and made original contributions. For example, recent research in astronomy shows that the mathematical models of Ibn Shatir, a fourteenth-century scientist, and the work of astronomers at the famous observatory in Maragha, laid the foundation for the Copernican revolution.(33)

Thus the novelty of Islamic science was that it was not the fruits of chance meetings, but the deliberate results of a massive movement of scientific and philosophical translation, undertaken by professionals “ sometimes rivals “ supported by power and stimulated by the research itself.(34) This movement resulted in the creation of a library on the scale of the world of its time.(35) Hence, for the first time scientific traditions from different backgrounds and languages became elements of one science, whose language was Arabic, and found ways of reacting together to engender new methods and sometimes even new disciplines, such as trigonometry, algorithms, and algebra.

Nevertheless, most people remain unaware of the importance of Islamic science. For example, most Westerners know that the Muslims invented algebra, Arabic numerals, and possibly the zero, but not that Islamic science is a possible concept.(36) Thus the most widely used American university textbook for the history of science (37) shows no interest in Islamic science per se and ignores most of the research on Islamic science conducted during the past 50 years.(38) Europe has no such textbook at all, and the less said about modern Arabic books on Islamic science the better.

Only recently has the Western scholarly community produced a substantial amount of reliable literature on the subject, some even for the general reader. For example, the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1970-80) contains a series of articles on the major Muslim scientists, as does the Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Science (1996).

The contributions of Muslim scientists are even less well understood in the Islamic world itself, let alone elsewhere in the world. No serious modern work of a general nature on Islamic science is available in Arabic, except George Saliba's The Origin and Development of Arabic Scientific Thought (1998). Also, very little of the research of the past 50 years is available or even known in the Muslim world.

According to King, the surviving written works and artefacts relating to the achievements of Muslim scientists are some 10,000 manuscripts preserved in libraries around the world, and some 1,000 instruments preserved in museums and private collections. (39) This is an insignificant number when compared to some of the libraries that existed during Islamic civilization's golden age, when there were about 500,000 such manuscripts on their shelves. Few of the surviving major scientific works have been translated, and modern scholars have never read thousands of these manuscripts. Simply put, the history of Islamic science as a field remains virgin territory. Nevertheless, as little as we know about Islamic science, scholars affirm that every single specialised science in the West owes its origins to the Islamic impulse “ or at least its direction from that time on.(40)

Original contributions and their impact on modern science

Islamic science made many important contributions to the history of European scientific thought. Its importance can be deduced from its original contributions and impact. Islamic science influenced the sciences of the West, and thus had a direct influence on the Renaissance and the scientific revolution.

In the twelfth century, the West discovered, via a translated catalogue of sciences (map of knowledge) by al-Farabi, the existence of a considerable body of Antiquity's scientific work. The West started examining these sciences, including astronomy, biology, botany, mathematics, and medicine. In addition, the medieval European university became the institutional manifestation of al-Farabi's map of knowledge. In fact, the translated work of Islamic knowledge formed the basis and the scientific foundation of the university in its living reality “ the reality of its syllabus, the content of its teaching.(41)

The originality of Islamic science and its significant innovation is clear in several fields, including mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Due to this topic's vastness, this article shall confine itself to these three fields.

Originality in mathematics

Recent research proves that many of the ideas that once were thought to belong to European mathematicians of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were in fact originated by Islamic mathematicians. In many respects, the mathematics studied today is far closer in style to that of the Muslims than of the Greeks.(42)

In the case of mathematics, Muslims initially were transmitters of almost all the important mathematical ideas of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, and the Hellenistic world. But they also made original contributions that directly influenced arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and algorithms. Before learning of Indian numerals and the dust-board system early in the eighth century from Indian and Persian sources, the Muslims used finger computation, also called the arithmetic of the scribes or secretaries because it was used by government bureaucrats. This Indian system could express any number by using only 10 figures, including an empty place for zero, and the results were written out in words. (43) Though this system was far easier than, and superior to, the Babylonian sexagesimal system (in which letters replaced numbers), the latter system was still being used especially by astronomers. While the Babylonian system was developed for practical business needs, the Indian system was inspired by the Hindus' inherent philosophical bent.

The Muslims recognized the importance of the Indian system and thus transformed it into the well-known Arabic numerals. This system, still used today in the West, enabled the West to achieve great breakthrough in mathematics. Arabic numerals became an intensely workable code, one so simple that literally any child can handle it, so flexible that in the hands of the mathematicians it became a vocabulary by which the most complex relations between the most astronomical quantities can be expressed. It was a revolution on a par with the invention of the computer; one was able to reduce the cosmos to a system of ten elementary symbols, from zero to nine. (44)

Arabic numerals were first transmitted and used in the West during the latter half of the twelfth century through the translation of the first part of al-Khawarizmi's The Book of Addition and Subtraction in Indian Arithmetic, which survives as a translation only. By this time, many other important works in Arabic were well ahead of the West, including the work of al-Karaji (c.1000), ˜Umar al-Khayyam (d. 1130), as-Samaw'al (d. c. 1175), and Ibn al-Haytham (d. c. 1040).

Muslims also developed Greek geometry and then used it in surveying, in designing wheels of all kinds, including waterwheels and other systems for drawing water, in improving farming equipment, and, inevitably, in devising engines and devices of war, such as catapults and crossbows.(45) In the ninth century, Thabit ibn Qurra wrote on cubatures and quadratures, and used the method of exhaustions in a manner that anticipated the development of integral calculus; advanced the study of parabolas; and used integral sums to find the area of a parabola's segment. He also translated Appollonius' Conics, several of Archimedes' treatises, and Nicomachus' Introduction to Arithmetic, in addition to calculating the volume of the parabolic and giving a geometrical solution to some third degree figures.(46)

In geometry, Umar al-Khayyam and al-Tusi re-examined the fifth postulate of Euclid concerning the parallel line theorem, which concerns the very foundation of Euclidean geometry.47 Though they did not claim to challenge Euclid's postulates, however, their work eventually led to G. Saccheri's first attempt to formulate a non-Euclidean geometry (1733).

While the Greeks had calculated a table of chords, trigonometry was invented by the Arabs. (48) Muslim scientists were the first to formulate explicit trigonometric functions. The first scientist to use tangents (zill) was the astronomer Habash al-Hasib, who also knew of the sine, cosine, and cotangent functions. More influential was Abu al-Wafa al-Buzanji, the first person to demonstrate the sine theorem for a general spherical triangle and to invent the secant (qutr al-zill). The latter discovery is usually attributed to Copernicus. Al-Biruni wrote the first independent work on spherical trigonometry, calculated the approximate value of a diagonal of one degree, and was the first to demonstrate that for a plane triangle ( a/sinA = b/sinB = c/sinC ).(49)

Muslim mathematicians also invented algebra. Al-Khawarizmi (780-850), the greatest Muslim mathematician and the first to establish algebra, is known for being instrumental in converting Babylonian and Hindu numerals into a simple and workable system that almost everyone could use.(50) He is also best known for originating the mathematical terms and concepts of algebra and the algorithm (which is derived from his name al-Khawarizmi). He composed many astronomical tables, worked on arithmetic and algebra, and is recognized as the founder of algebra, for he initiated the subject in a systematic form and developed it to the extent of giving analytical solutions of linear and quadratic equations.

His book The Book of Summary concerning the Process of Calculating Compulsion and Equation was used until the sixteenth century as the principle textbook of European universities. And it is from its title that the term algebra (al-Jabr: restoration and amplification of something incomplete; muqabala: the balance of the two sides of an equation) was derived. The Toledan translation of his book, Algorismi de numero indorum, had a profound impact upon the West and gave English such words as algorithm and cipher (Arabic for zero) and Spanish the word guarismo.

One of the many other mathematicians, the Persian Ghiyath al-Din Jamshid al-Kashani, devised a theory of numbers and techniques of computation that remained unmatched until recently. He also rediscovered the decimal fraction, discovered initially by al-Uqlidisi and then forgotten for centuries, made a remarkably accurate calculation of , is considered the inventor of the first calculating machine,(51) and is the first person to solve the Newton binomial theorem.

Originality in astronomy

George Saliba, a prominent historian of Islamic science, has greatly advanced our understanding of the importance of Islamic astronomy. He explains that medieval Islamic astronomers were not mere translators but also may have played a key role in the Copernican revolution, which ultimately influenced the Renaissance. The contribution of Islamic science was fundamental to the birth and subsequent development of astronomy in the West, for before this contribution the West had no advanced astronomy. The knowledge developed by Muslim astronomers produced changes in the West as regards the development of trigonometry, instruments, and the local star catalogues, and also affected the growth and development of astronomical theory proper.(52)

Astronomy was a practical science for the Muslims, because they used the stars as guides during their travel. Thus, astronomy became one of their greatest achievements. Its practical importance was also emphasized by the need to determine the prayer direction (qibla) and time regardless of one's location.

Islamic astronomers surpassed the Greek mathematical methods, and developed trigonometry, which eventually provided the essential tools necessary for the astronomy that developed during the Renaissance. Medieval Muslim astronomers felt themselves challenged to find a simpler trigonometric method than that postulated by such earlier astronomers as Ptolemy. The study of astronomy was influenced by ancient sources, and Muslims were acquainted with Indian and Persian sources before Greek ones. The Persian Sassanids' astronomical treatises were translated into Arabic during the eighth century. Ptolemy's work was introduced in the ninth century. Around that time, such scholars as Thabit ibn Qurra and Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated Ptolemy's major work Megalé syntax mathematiké (Almagest in Arabic). By the end of the ninth century, the Arabs had thoroughly studied and were acquainted with the work of Antiquity.

Before the spread of Islam, there was only one observatory in Alexandria; Muslims built observatories all over the Islamic world. The first one, al-Shammasiyah, was built in Baghdad built by al-Ma'mun in 828. Al-Battani built one at Raqqa (Iraq), Abdul Rahman al-Sufi built one at Shiraz (Persia), and in 1023 the Persian prince Ala al-Daula built one for Ibn Sina at Hamadan. Scientists at the famous al-Maragha observatory in western Iran greatly influenced Copernican astronomy, for their work led to the development of a planetary system that was mathematically equivalent to that of Copernicus. Such closeness caused Noel Swerdlow to ask, not whether, but when, where, and in what form Copernicus learned of those scientists.(53)

Advances in planetary theories were primarily the result of criticizing Ptolemy's work, which had dominated the field since the time of al-Battani. While refining and improving the work's details, rising dissatisfaction with many of its aspects led such scholars as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, and Ibn al-Shatir to criticize the Polemic (geocentric) system in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This criticism was, to some extent, very important in the later attacks made against him during the Renaissance. The work of astronomers like Ibn al-Shatir allows modern scholars like Saliba to conclude that at some level the Renaissance “ which was at least partly inspired by the Copernican revolution “ was not a purely European creation.(54) According to him, the role of Arabic astronomy was not to preserve Greek astronomy, but to correct its flaws and finally to seek alternatives to it.(55)

Thousands of Arabic manuscripts in major libraries remain unknown to scholars. However, eminent scholars like George Saliba and David King have advanced our understanding of Islamic astronomy's originality and influence. Unlike the traditional view that Muslim astronomers accepted the Greek work as unalloyed truth, they in fact rejected much of it and forged a new astronomy that, later on, enabled Copernicus to lay the foundation of modern astronomy. Consequently, the original contributions made by Muslims astronomers challenge the idea that Muslim scientists only transmitted ancient Greek science and knowledge to medieval Europe without adding anything.

Originality in medicine

Muslims also excelled in and made original contributions to medicine. Islamic medicine was built on tradition, mainly the theoretical and practical knowledge developed in Greece and Rome. For Muslim scholars, Galen and Hippocrates were the pre-eminent authorities, followed by the Hellenic scholars in Alexandria. Muslim and non-Muslim scholars translated the voluminous writings from Greek (e.g., Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen) into Arabic, thus providing virtually all of Islam's early medical students with their basic reference texts. Then, basing themselves upon these texts, they produced new medical knowledge. In order to make ancient medical works more accessible, understandable, and teachable, Muslim scholars ordered and systematized the vast and sometimes inconsistent Greco-Roman medical knowledge by writing encyclopedias and summaries.

The influence of Islamic medicine in the West was critical, due to the mass of information it conveyed to the West, because it helped establish medicine as a science, and because translated Arabic medical manuscripts gave a decisive direction to the teaching of medicine in the West.(56) Islamic medical knowledge built upon the achievements of classical Greece and Rome as well as that learned from Syriac, Persian, and Indian sources. After the relatively quick assimilation of this knowledge, Islamic medical writings became more systematic and synthetic, with an evident urge to produce the most comprehensive and complete medical reference work yet written.(57) A primary concern of Islamic medical scholars was the organisation of the vast body of knowledge into a logical and accessible format.(58) They also expanded theoretical discourses on causes and symptoms, and frequently introduced examples and procedures of an applied character. It was in this historical background that Islamic medicine developed and advanced, and at its zenith produced such towering physicians like Ibn Sina and al-Razi.

Al-Razi (Rhazes: 865-925) is the keenest original thinker and greatest clinician not only of Islam but of the Middle Ages,(59) and was the Islamic world's greatest original clinical and observational physician. Along with Ibn Sina, they are considered to be among the greatest physicians ever known. In selecting a new site for the great hospital in Baghdad, al-Razi hung up shreds of meat and then chose the spot where they showed the least sign of putrefaction.

Al-Razi applied chemistry and physics to medicine, and wrote a medical encyclopedia and a treatise on smallpox and measles that was the earliest of its kind and considered a masterpiece of Arabic medical literature. He was a pioneer in pediatrics, obstetrics, and ophthalmology. In fact, his The Diseases of Children has led some historians to regard him as the father of pediatrics. He is also considered the inventor of the seton in surgery, and the first to relate hay fever to a rose's scent,(60) isolate and use alcohol (al-kuhul) as an antiseptic, use mercury as a purgative (known in the Middle Ages as Album Rhasis), explain how to remove a cataract, and discuss the papillary reaction or widening and narrowing of an eye's pupil. Furthermore, he mastered the way of treating by psychological shock and of using psychosomatic medicine and psychology. In its English translation, al-Razi's Spiritual Physic devotes 20 chapters to various ailments that upset the soul and the body.

Al-Razi wrote many books on medicine, the major ones being Al-Hawi fi al-Tibb, (The Comprehensive Book), an encyclopedic composition of Greek, Persian, and early Arabic medical knowledge in their entirety, whose modern version is incomplete at 23 volumes.(61) The Sicilian Jewish physician Faraj (Farragut) ibn Salim was the first to translate Al-Hawi into Latin in 1279. Under the title Continens, it was repeatedly printed from 1486 onwards; a fifth edition appeared in Venice in 1542. Prior to the nineteenth century, Al-Hawi can be considered one of the most extensive medical texts ever written by a doctor.

His 10-volume Kitab al-Mansuri (Liber medicinalis ad Almansori), was translated in 1480 by Milan, and also into French and German. Gerard of Cremona translated the ninth volume, under the title Nonus al-Manuri, which remained popular in Europe until the sixteenth century. Here, he developed the science of anatomy by discussing such features as veins, arteries, dispositions of the heart, and so on.

His famous book on smallpox and the measles, Kitab fi al-Jadari wa al-Hasbah (Liber de Pestilentia), was very influential in Europe. It was first translated into Latin in 1565, and then into many other European languages. In fact, 40 editions were printed between 1498 and 1866. In 1848, William A. Greenhill translated it into English. Through this treatise, he became the first to draw clear comparison between smallpox and chickenpox. This treatise demonstrates quite well his concern for therapy, and its thoroughness stands in sharp contrast to the silence regarding the topic in the Hellenistic and Byzantine literature preserved today.(62)

Another great figure, Ibn Sina (Avicenna: 1126-98), was the most renowned physician, philosopher, encyclopedist, mathematician, and astronomer of his time. According to George Sarton, Ibn Sina's thought represents the climax of medieval philosophy.(63)

One of his major contributions to medicine was his famous Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), an immense encyclopedia of medicine that contains some of the most illuminating thoughts on the distinction of mediastinitis from pleurisy; contagious nature of phthisis; distribution of diseases by water and soil; careful description of skin troubles; of sexual diseases, and perversions; of nervous ailments (including love sickness); many psychological and pathological facts clearly analysed.(64) In it, Ibn Sina deals with the general principles of medicine, simple and compound drugs containing 760 types of drugs, disorders of each internal and external organ of the body, and diseases effecting all of the body, especially pathology and pharmacopoeia.

The Canon influenced Europe's medical schools for the next 600 years and was probably the most used of all medieval medical references.(65) Gerard of Cremona translated it in the twelfth century. During the last 30 years of the fifteenth century, 15 Latin editions and one Hebrew edition were published. During the sixteenth century, it was reissued more than 20 times. From the twelfth to the seventeenth century, it was the West's chief medical book and fulfilled that function longer than any other medical work.

Ibn Sina was the first to describe meningitis and differentiate it from meningismus of other acute diseases and to suggest treatment for lachrymal fistula, the first to describe the manner of spread of epidemics and the contagious nature of tuberculosis. He described many details of the eye, such as conjunctive sclera, the cornea, choroids, the iris, the retina, the layer lens, the aqueous humour, the optic nerve, and the optic chiasm.

Other important medical figures were Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar, d.1161) for his work on diet, Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1121-98) for his work on general principles, and the Syrian Ibn al-Nafis (d.1288) for his discovery of the minor circulation of the blood.


The contribution of Muslims to science dispels the common beliefs that they only preserved and transmitted Greek knowledge to the West. Recent studies by competent historians has led to a qualitative shift in our understanding of their contributions. Such historians adduce that Muslim scientists both influenced almost every branch of science and were instrumental in influencing the Renaissance.

Today, however, the Muslim world produces a disproportionately small amount of scientific output, and much of it is of relatively low quality. In numerical terms, 41 predominantly Muslim countries, having about 20% of the world's population, generate less than 5% of its science. Given Muslims past contributions to science, this situation raises several questions: Is there a dichotomy between Islam and modern science? If not, how does one explain the huge gap in scientific output between the Muslim world and the West or East Asia? And what must change so that science can flourish in Muslim countries?

The past achievements of Muslim scientists clearly show that Islam is not the key problem facing scientific achievement in the Muslim world of today. The theory that implies a dichotomy between Islam and science is part of a larger conflict in post-Enlightenment historiography that opposes science and religion in general in post-medieval civilizations. Rather, the problem is a result of cumulative “ as opposed to one dominant “ factors.


  1. Robert Briffault, The Making of Humanity, (London, 1938), p.200.
  2. Among those who suggest this are T. E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); P. Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (Pakistan: Zed Books, 1992); J. J. Saunders, Muslims and Mongols: Essays on Medieval Asia (University of Canterbury: Whitcoulls Ltd., 1977).
  3. George Saliba, Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe, Columbia University
  4. Ibid. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid.
  5. George Saliba, Greek Astronomy and the Medieval Arabic Tradition, in American Scientist 90 (July-August 2002): 367.
  6. We define science as systemized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principle of what is being studied. This definition specifically excludes such applied fields as technology and engineering.
  7. G. M. Wickens The Middle East as a World Centre of Science and Medicine, in Introduction to Islamic Civilisation, ed. R. M. Savory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 113.
  8. Ziauddin Sardar, Islamic Science, 2002/05/Article21.shtml (2/6/2002).
  9. Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid.
  10. Abdel-Malek (1981) quoted in Ziauddin Sardar, Orientalism (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999), 59.
  11. Ibid. 19 Ibid.
  12. Kevin Krisciunas, Astronomical Centres of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 23.
  13. Salah Zaimeche, A Review on Muslim Contribution to Astronomy, (Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, 2002). Online at:
  14. Ibid. 23 Ibid.
  15. Quoted in David C. Lindberg, The Beginning of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 (Chicago: The University Chicago Press, 1992), 175.
  16. Ernest Renan (ed.), Islamism and Science, in Poetry of the Celtic Race and Other Studies (London: W. Scott., 1896), 85. Quoted in Bryan S. Turner, Orientalism, Postmodernism & Globalism (New York: Routledge, 1994), 31.
  17. Von Grunebaum, as cited in Ibid., 71.
  18. Saliba, Greek Astronomy, 360.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Roshdi Rashed, Preface, in Roshdi Rashed (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Sciences (London: Routledge, 1996), 1:x.
  21. Ibid. 31 Ibid.
  22. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East (New York: Touchstone Books 1998), 266.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ahmed Djebbar, Une Histoire de la science arabe, entretiens avec Jean Rosmorduc (A History of Arab Science -- Conversations with Jean Rosmorduc), (Paris: Seuil, 2001), in David Tresilian, Greeker than the Greeks, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 10-16 Jan. 2002, no.568., p. xi.
  25. Ibid.
  26. David A. King, Proposal for an exhibition on Islamic science and technology,
  27. David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1992.
  28. King, Proposal. 39 Ibid.
  29. Goldstein, T., Dawn of Modern Science (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980), 99.
  30. Alain de Libera in Sabbaghi, R., The Arab Forebears of the European Renaissance (interview with French historian and philosopher Alain de Libera), UNESCO Courier (Feb. 1997) 2(6).
  31. J. J. O'Connor and E. F. Robertson, Arabic Mathematics: Forgotten Brilliance? Online
  32. Turner, H. R., Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 45.
  33. Goldstein, The Dawn of Modern Science, 121.
  34. Turner, Science in Medieval Islam, 47.
  35. Nasr, S. H., Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (Westerham: Westerham Press, 1976), 82 and Science and Civilisation in Islam (New York: Plume Books, 1968), 149.
  36. Nasr, Islamic Science, 82.
  37. Huff, T. E., The Rise of Early Modern Science. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 50. According to Baron Carra de Vaux, the Arabs founded plane and spherical trigonometry (Astronomy and Mathematics, in The Legacy of Islam, 1st ed., 276). Likewise, E. S. Kennedy agrees that Arab scientists created trigonometry, the study of the plane and spherical triangle (˜The Arabic Heritage in the Exact Sciences,' Al-Abhath 23 (1970): 337. Also see his The History of Trigonometry: An Overview, in Studies in the Islamic Exact Sciences, ed. E. S. Kennedy et al. (Beirut : American University of Beirut, 1983).
  38. Nasr, Islamic Science, 84.
  39. Turner, Science in Medieval Islam, p.47.
  40. See E. S. Kennedy, A Fifteenth-century Planetary Computer: al-Kashi's Tabaq al-Aanateq', Isis 41 (1950): 180-83 and 43 (1952): 42-50.
  41. Henri Hugonnard-Roche, The Influence of Arabic Astronomy in the Medieval West, in Roshdi Rashed (ed.), Encyclopaedia,1:284.
  42. Swerdlow, N., and Neugebauer, O., (1984), Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus's De revolutioibus (New York: Springer Verlag, 1984). Cited in Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, 54.
  43. Saliba, Greek Astronomy, 360.
  44. In In defence of Copernicus. (Letters to the Editors), American Scientist 90, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 2002): 492 (1).
  45. Danielle Jacquart, The Influence of Arabic Medicine in the Medieval West, in Roshdi Rashed (ed.), Encyclopaedia, 3:963.
  46. Savage-Smith, Emilie, Medicine, in Ibid., 3:913.
  47. Ibid. 59 Ibid.
  48. Savage-Smith, Emilie, Gleanings from an Arabist's Workshop: Current Trends in the Study of Medieval Islamic Science and Medicine, Isis 79 (1988): 246-72.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Savage-Smith, Medicine, 914.
  51. George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (New York: Robert Krieger, 1975), 1:709.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Turner, Science in Medieval Islam,136.