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Islamic History: Part 4 Islam and Science

By Dr. Mansoor Alam 

If one looks at the general picture of the Muslim world today it is hard to find something positive on the horizon. There is political chaos and regional turmoil all over the Muslim world. Muslims seem to have lost control of their affairs. They feel frustrated and helpless. Many Muslim governments are persecuting their people – in the name of Islam. Can Muslims hope for a better future under these circumstances? 

Allah has blessed Muslims with plenty of natural resources. Yet, they are dependent for most of their basic needs – not to speak of their dependence in the field of science and technology, and on knowledge, in general – on non-Muslims. Their resources are being plundered and wasted on an unprecedented scale, while the majority population suffers extreme hardships.  

Muslims generally tend to blame others for their problems. Some blame their rulers. Others blame one another. There may be truth in all of this. But what is lacking from Muslim discourse is an honest and intelligent diagnosis of problems facing the Muslim ummah. 

Representing almost a billion Muslims, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) – the official organ of the Muslim countries for discussing such problems – has become no more than a platform for passing resolutions upon resolutions of empty words with no teeth. No wonder it has been dubbed “Oh! I see!” Most other Islamic organizations, more or less, suffer from a similar fate. 

In the present environment, Muslims mostly live individual lives (in their own little islands) while using the term Ummah in their discussions. Some seem to cooperate on issues affecting Muslim lives, but that is limited mostly to charity work. Muslims do not have a unifying plan (or, rather, are not interested) to chart out the future course of action for the ummah.  Muslims appear to behave like millions of individual atoms without any strong bonds. 

Is there a silver lining in this dark cloud? Will this long, dark chapter in Muslim history ever end? 

When we read the history of Muslim contribution to world civilization, it seems very recent that Muslims were on top of the world. They were pioneers and leaders in all areas of human endeavor. They invented new branches of science and mathematics.  They not only laid the foundation of modern knowledge, but propelled it to new heights. In particular, their contribution to the world of medicine is legendary. 

So what happened? How did Muslims lose this crowning position of power in the world? And how did they lose leadership in science, mathematics and medicine?  

The history of how this loss occurred is heart-wrenching. One way to tell this history is to describe the extraordinary achievements of past Muslims. This makes Muslims feel proud of their past glory – as, indeed, it should; we try to re-live, mentally, at least, the stages of that glory when we talk or write about the history of Islam and science. And this is what we will also do in this article – with one difference. We will not treat this as an end in itself, but with an eye to figure out how to reclaim that past glory. 

We begin with a brief description of the achievements of some of the Muslim scientists, as stated, not by Muslim, but by non-Muslim scholars, to avoid any impression of a Muslim bias. The quotations below may seem extensive but they serve an important purpose to highlight the depth and breadth of the new knowledge that past Muslims created and developed, and which, according to Western historians of science, formed the backbone on which the Western renaissance in science began. This shows that Muslims may have forgotten the lesson of their own past intellectual giants in making science history, but the West has not. It continues to build its scientific superstructure for modern science on the foundations laid by our ancestors. 

 While reading these quotations, it would be beneficial to reflect and ponder on where we are, and whither we are going.

George Sarton pays tribute to Muslim scientists in Introduction to the History of Science:

“It will suffice here to evoke a few glorious names without contemporary equivalents in the West: Jabir ibn Haiyan, al-Kindi, al-Khwarizmi, al-Fargani, al-Razi, Thabit ibn Qurra, al-Battani, Hunain ibn Ishaq, al-Farabi, Ibrahim ibn Sinan, al-Masudi, al-Tabari, Abul Wafa, 'Ali ibn Abbas, Abul Qasim, Ibn al-Jazzar, al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, Ibn Yunus, al-Kashi, Ibn al-Haitham, 'Ali Ibn 'Isa al-Ghazali, al-zarqab, Omar Khayyam - a magnificent array of names which would not be difficult to extend. If anyone tells you that the Middle Ages were scientifically sterile, just quote these men to him, all of whom flourished within a short period, 750 to 1100 A.D.”

In Intellectual Development of Europe, John William Draper writes:

“I have to deplore the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has continued to put out of sight our obligations to the Muhammadans [British term for Muslims]. Surely they cannot be much longer hidden. Injustice founded on religious rancour and national conceit cannot be perpetuated forever. The Arab has left his intellectual impress on Europe. He has indelibly written it on the heavens as any one may see who reads the names of the stars on a common celestial globe.”

Robert Briffault states in his magnum opus, Making of Humanity:

"It was under the influence of the Arabs and Moorish revival of culture and not in the 15th century, that a real renaissance took place. Spain, not Italy, was the cradle of the rebirth of Europe. After steadily sinking lower and lower into barbarism, it had reached the darkest depths of ignorance and degradation when cities of the Saracenic world, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, and Toledo, were growing centers of civilization and intellectual activity. It was there that a new life arose which was to grow into a new phase of human evolution.  The stirring of new life began when the influence of Muslim culture began to make itself felt.

"It was under their successors at Oxford School (that is, successors to the Muslims of Spain) that Roger Bacon learned Arabic and Arabic Sciences. Neither Roger Bacon, nor his later namesake, has any title to be credited with having introduced the experimental method. Roger Bacon was no more than one of the apostles of Muslim Science and Method to Christian Europe; and he never wearied of declaring that knowledge of Arabic and Arabic Sciences was for his contemporaries the only way to true knowledge. Discussion as to who was the originator of the experimental method... is part of the colossal misinterpretation of the origins of European civilization. The experimental method of Arabs was by Bacon's time widespread and eagerly cultivated throughout Europe.

"Science is the most momentous contribution of Arab civilization to the modern world; but its fruits were slow in ripening. Not until long after Moorish culture had sunk back into darkness, did the giant, which it had given birth to, rise in his might. It was not science only, which brought Europe back to life. Other and manifold influences from the civilization of Islam communicated its first glow to European life.

"For although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic Culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the permanent distinctive force of the modern world, and the supreme source of its victory, natural science and the scientific spirit.

"The debt of our science to that of the Arabs does not consist in startling discoveries or revolutionary theories; science owes a great deal more to Arab culture, it owes its existence. The Astronomy and Mathematics of the Greeks were a foreign importation never thoroughly acclimatized in Greek culture. The Greeks systematized, generalized and theorized, but the patient ways of investigation, the accumulation of positive knowledge, the minute method of science, detailed and prolonged observation and experimental inquiry were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. Only in Hellenistic Alexandria was any approach to scientific work conducted in the ancient classical world. What we call science arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of enquiry, of new methods of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics, in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs.

"It is highly probable that, but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution."

In Legacy of Islam, Arnold and Guillaume shed light on Islamic science and medicine:

"Looking back, we may say that Islamic medicine and science reflected the light of the Hellenic sun, when its day had fled; they shone like a moon, illuminating the darkest night of the European Middle Ages; some bright stars lent their own light, and moon and stars alike faded at the dawn of a new day - the Renaissance. Since they had their share in the direction and introduction of that great movement, it may reasonably be claimed that they are with us yet."

Again, George Sarton in the Introduction to the History of Science says:

"During the reign of Caliph Al-Mamun (813-33 A.D.), the new learning reached its climax. The monarch created in Baghdad a regular school for translation. It was equipped with a library, one of the translators there was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809-77) a particularly gifted philosopher and physician of wide erudition, the dominating figure of this century of translators. We know from his own recently published Memoir that he translated practically the whole immense corpus of Galenic writings."

"Besides the translation of Greek works and their extracts, the translators made manuals of which one form, that of the 'pandects,' is typical of the period of Arabic learning. These are recapitulations of the whole medicine, discussing the affections of the body, systematically beginning at the head and working down to the feet."

"The Muslim ideal was, it goes without saying, not visual beauty but God in His plentitude; that is God with all his manifestations, the stars and the heavens, the earth and all nature. The Muslim ideal is thus infinite. But in dealing with the infinite as conceived by the Muslims, we cannot limit ourselves to the space alone, but must equally consider time.

"The first mathematical step from the Greek conception of a static universe to the Islamic one of a dynamic universe was made by Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), the founder of modern Algebra. He enhanced the purely arithmetical character of numbers as finite magnitudes by demonstrating their possibilities as elements of infinite manipulations and investigations of properties and relations.

"In Greek mathematics, the numbers could expand only by the laborious process of addition and multiplication. Khwarizmi's algebraic symbols for numbers contain within themselves the potentialities of the infinite. So we might say that the advance from arithmetic to algebra implies a step from being to 'becoming' from the Greek universe to the living universe of Islam. The importance of Khwarizmi's algebra was recognized, in the twelfth century, by the West, - when Girard of Cremona translated his theses into Latin. Until the sixteenth century this version was used in European universities as the principal mathematical textbook. But Khwarizmi's influence reached far beyond the universities. We find it reflected in the mathematical works of Leonardo Fibinacci of Pissa, Master Jacob of Florence, and even of Leonardo da Vinci."

"Through their medical investigations they not merely widened the horizons of medicine, but enlarged humanistic concepts generally. And once again they brought this about because of their over riding spiritual convictions. Thus it can hardly have been accidental that those researches should have led them beyond the reach of Greek masters. If it is regarded as symbolic that the most spectacular achievement of the mid-twentieth century is atomic fission and the nuclear bomb, likewise it would not seem fortuitous that the early Muslim's medical endeavor should have led to a discovery that was quite as revolutionary though possibly more beneficent."

"A philosophy of self-centredness, under whatever disguise, would be both incomprehensible and reprehensible to the Muslim mind. That mind was incapable of viewing man, whether in health or sickness as isolated from God, from fellow men, and from the world around him. It was probably inevitable that the Muslims should have discovered that disease need not be born within the patient himself but may reach from outside, in other words, that they should have been the first to establish clearly the existence of contagion."

"One of the most famous exponents of Muslim universalism and an eminent figure in Islamic learning was Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna (981-1037). For a thousand years he has retained his original renown as one of the greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history. His most important medical works are the Qanun (Canon) and a treatise on Cardiac drugs. The 'Qanun fi-l-Tibb' is an immense encyclopedia of medicine. It contains some of the most illuminating thoughts pertaining to 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."

"We have reason to believe that when, during the Crusades, Europe at last began to establish hospitals, they were inspired by the Arabs of the Near East... the first hospital in Paris, Les Quinze-vingt, was founded by Louis IX after his return from the Crusade 1254-1260."

"We find in his (Jabir, Geber) writings remarkably sound views on methods of chemical research, a theory on the geologic formation of metals (the six metals differ essentially because of different proportions of sulphur and mercury in them); preparation of various substances (e.g., basic lead carbonatic, arsenic and antimony from their sulphides)."

Ibn Haytham's writings reveal his fine development of the experimental faculty. His tables of corresponding angles of incidence and refraction of light passing from one medium to another show how closely he had approached discovering the law of constancy of ratio of sines, later attributed to Snell. He accounted correctly for twilight as due to atmospheric refraction, estimating the sun's depression to be 19 degrees below the horizon, at the commencement of the phenomenon in the mornings or at its termination in the evenings."

"A great deal of geographical as well as historical and scientific knowledge is contained in the thirty volume meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems by one of the leading Muslim historians, the tenth century al Mas'udi. A more strictly geographical work is the dictionary 'Mujam al-Buldan' by al-Hamami (1179-1229). This is a veritable encyclopedia that, in going far beyond the confines of geography, incorporates also a great deal of scientific lore."

"They studied, collected and described plants that might have some utilitarian purpose, whether in agriculture or in medicine. These excellent tendencies, without equivalent in Christendom, were continued during the first half of the thirteenth century by an admirable group of four botanists. One of these Ibn al-Baitar compiled the most elaborate Arabic work on the subject (Botany), in fact the most important for the whole period extending from Dioscorides down to the sixteenth century. It was a true encyclopedia on the subject, incorporating the whole Greek and Arabic experience."

"'Abd al-Malik ibn Quraib al-Asmai (739-831) was a pious Arab who wrote some valuable books on human anatomy. Al-Jawaliqi who flourished in the first half of the twelfth century and 'Abd al-Mumin who flourished in the second half of the thirteenth century in Egypt, wrote treatises on horses. The greatest zoologist amongst the Arabs was al-Damiri (1405) of Egypt whose book on animal life, 'Hayat al-Hayawan' has been translated into English by A.S.G. Jayakar (London 1906, 1908)."

"The weight of venerable authority, for example that of Ptolemy, seldom intimidated them. They were always eager to put a theory to tests, and they never tired of experimentation. Though motivated and permeated by the spirit of their religion, they would not allow dogma as interpreted by the orthodox to stand in the way of their scientific research."

[All the above quotations are taken from “Quotation from famous historians of science,” Dr. A. Zahoor’s  website http://www.cyberistan.org/islamic/Introl1.html. There are many excellent Muslim websites describing in detail the achievements and biographies of Muslim scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers: for example http://www.ummah.net/history/scholars or http://www.cyberistan.org/islamic]

This approach of describing past Muslim achievements is effective in making us, Muslims, feel proud. It may even motivate a few of us to excel in science – thanks to the West. But in describing the history of Islam and science, should one stop here? Does this approach provide clues about how past Muslims systematically discovered new knowledge? How they invented so much new scientific knowledge without the modern facilities that we have today? Was this the result of their natural instincts or intellectual aptitude? Were they motivated (like most of us) by wealth, career, or fame? Why did they devote their entire lives seeking knowledge of Allah’s creations even while suffering extreme hardships? Most important of all, what was the driving force behind their constant pursuit in advancing the frontiers of new knowledge?  Unless we probe these questions, we will not be able to fully appreciate the achievements of past Muslims or learn from their stories. This we will strive to do in the next article. 

References:

1. George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. I-IV, Carnegie Institute of Washington, Baltimore, 1927-31; Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1950-53.
2. Robert Briffault, The Making of Humanity, London, 1938.
3. T. Arnold and A. Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam, Oxford University Press, 1931.
4. E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire, London, 1900.