Contribution of Ibn Sina to the development of Earth Sciences

Ibn Sina, better known in the West as Avicenna, has a leading contribution in his famous Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and Natural Sciences "Kitab AI-Shifa" presenting principles that inspired scholars like Leonardo Da Vinci.

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Following is the introduction to an article written by Dr.Munim M. Al-Rawi.

The Muslim Civilisation was outstanding in its natural look towards the universe, man and life.

Muslim scientists thought and wondered about the origin of minerals, rocks, mountains, earthquakes and water, etc.

It can be rightfully said that Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 981 - 1037 C.E.) was a true product of the Muslim Civilization in its climax of scientific growth. He contributed to natural sciences (which he called Attabieyat) along with other natural philosophers such as Ikhwan AI-Safa, AI-Biruni and many others. Avicenna's work in "Kitab AI-Shifa" (the Book of Cure, Healing or Remedy from ignorance), the famous Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and Natural Sciences had influenced European scientists during the Renaissance because of it being in a comprehensive and encyclopaedic form. Although Avicenna is better known in Medicine and Philosophy, he was less known in Earth Science. This is because of the nature of the Earth Science itself, and its history of development in Europe. Earth Science was only known as "Geology" in Europe since the Seventeenth century C.E.

The purpose of this rather concise account is to highlight Avicenna's contribution to the development of Earth sciences, and seeking to answer the following points:

1. To close the gap in the history of Geology, which reflects human thought upon the nature of the Earth.

2. To show that Avicenna's original contribution was not the product of an earlier Greek thought.

3. To show that fundamental principles of Geology were put forward many centuries before the Renaissance in Europe.

This article is intended to present Avicenna's principles of Earth Science as he put it in Kitab Al-Shifa, Part 2, Section 5, the Article on Mineralogy and Meteorology, the chapter on Origin of Mountains. Those principles were already known by some historians of Geology, such as Adams (1938), Dennis (1972), Kemmel (1973) and among historians of science such as Sabra (1976) and Wickens (1976).

Unfortunately, some historians of Geology attributed Avicenna's knowledge of Earth science to the Greek science, such as Kemmel (1973). However, in a rather philosophical account titled the Discovery of Time, Toulumin and Goodfield (1965), have acknowledged Avicenna's contribution in the field of geologic time:

"Around A.D. 1000, Avicenna was already suggesting a hypothesis about the origin of mountain ranges, which in the Christian world, would still have been considered quite radical eight hundred years later".


Illustration of Avicenna's Sequence of Events to the
Formation of Mountains, after Al-Rawi, 1983c.

In Ibn Sina's Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and Natural Sciences, Part 2, Section 5, the Article on Mineralogy and Meteorology, he presented a complete coverage of knowledge on what happens on the Earth in six chapters:

1. Formation of mountains;
2. The advantages of mountains in the formation of clouds;
3. Sources of water;
4. Origin of earthquakes;
5. Formation of minerals;
6. The diversity of earth's terrain.

His knowledge on Meteorology, or what happens above the Earth, is also covered in six chapters:

1. Clouds and rain;
2. Causes of rainbow;
3. Features associated with sun reflection on clouds, and rainbow;
4. Winds;
5. Thunder, lighting, comets and meteorites;
6. Catastrophic events which effects the surface of the earth.

In Kitab Al-Shifa, Avicenna had presented fundamental principles of Geology in terms of Earth processes, major events and long geologic time. Those principles were later known in the Renaissance of Europe as the law of superposition of strata, the concept of catastrophisim, and the doctrine of uniformitarianism. Those concepts were embodied in the Theory of the Earth by James Hutton in the Eighteenth century C.E. Kitab AI-Shifa, was also known in the Renaissance of Europe. It was an inspiring source of thought to the founders of geological thought in Europe (such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Steno in the Seventeenth C.E., and most probably later on James Hutton in the Eighteenth C.E.).

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