The Origins of Islamic Science

In the following well documented article Dr Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg surveys the origins of Islamic science, with a special focus on its interaction with the previous intellectual traditions of the ancient world as well as a survey of the beginnings of scientific activity in Arabic. In this first part, he depicts in details the impact of Islamic principle in shaping the contours of the early scientific activity in the Muslim civilisation. Afterwards, in the second part, the author surveys some key contributions of the scientists of Islam in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and medicine.

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Dr. Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg *

Table of contents

1. The Ancient Sciences and the Arabs
1.1. Mesopotamia
1.2. Ancient Egypt
1.3. The Greek legacy
1.4. Various influences in Pre-Islamic Arabia
1.5. The First Occurrences (Awa'il)
2. Islam as a Source of Inspiration for Science and Knowledge ('Ilm)
2.1. The Rise of Islam and the Early Intellectual Fertilisation
2.2. The Islamic Background to Intellectual Activity
2.3. Unity of Knowledge: Religious, Rational and Experimental
2.4. Maurice Bucaille's Theses
3. The Seeds of Islamic Science
3.1. Some Chronology
3.2. Defining Islamic Science
4. Translation as a Source of Knowledge
5. Islamic Science or Arabic Science
6. Astronomy
7. Mathematics
8. Alchemy and Chemistry
9. Medicine
10. Hospitals
11. Notes and References

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Note of the editor

This article is part of Essays on the Origins of Islamic Civilization, available from Kube Publishing Ltd., Markfield, Ratby Lane, Leicestershire, LE 67 9SY, UK (ISBN 0954188292).

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1. The Ancient Sciences and the Arabs

At the beginning of the 7th century CE, very few Arabs could read, write or calculate. However, an elite group of traders who travelled from such towns as Makkah, Yathrib, Khaybar and from Yemen to the centres of ancient civilizations, including Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt, were open to outside influences. A handful of traders were familiar with reading and writing of one sort or another. Among them were members of the Quraysh tribe and it was they who brought foreign influences into Arabian trading centres. Nevertheless, most of the population of Arabia were pastoralists who often quarrelled among themselves. It was only during the pilgrimage season to Makkah that fighting was abandoned by common consent. On the whole the Arabian environment did not encourage the growth of civilized values. It is hard to see how such a primitive people could emerge from centuries of backwardness to a level of culture.

The march of the Arabs from darkness to light is one of the conundrums of history and few historians have adequately explained the phenomena. By harnessing their latent physical and spiritual power, the Arabs somehow reconstructed their own lives. Having begun with a tabula rasa, they achieved an astonishing advancement in their social, political and intellectual life within a very short time. How did they do this? Incredible though it may seem to any uninitiated student of history, these Arabs not only changed their way of thinking but also their view of the world and their role in it. Hardly had they time to imbibe the teachings of a visionary like the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah than they became a powerful conquering force that had won an empire within fifty years of their mentor's death. How could such a people have made any contribution towards the progress of any science, be it natural, physical or social?



Figure 1a-b: Two manuscripts of the Quran: (a) This Quran, written in nasta'līq script, one of the main genres of Islamic calligraphy, is most likely of Persian origin from between the 16th and 17th centuries. (Source). (b) An elegantly illuminated Qur'an from Kashmir, c. 1800, in fine naskh, of which the style and binding point to a North Indian origin. (Source).

Historians must find an answer to these questions and to others which may arise from them. From a historical point of view, it would seem absurd to talk of the origin of any form of Islamic sciences within a century or two of the rise of Islam. How and where do we begin such a discussion? To find an answer to the phenomenal rise of Islam and the Islamic sciences, one looks to the role of Islam in Europe, when Arabic books on science and philosophy were translated into Latin in the Arab Kingdoms of Spain, Sicily and southern Italy and the effect of this development on European society in the 15th and 16th centuries CE.

If we proceed from these preliminaries to a proper discussion of the rise of Islamic sciences, we must take a broader view of world history. In my opinion, the origins of Islamic sciences can be traced back partly to the scientific heritage of Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Persia and India, partly to the inspiration derived from the Qur'an and the Prophetic words of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), and also partly to the intellectual and creative genius of Muslim scientists, thinkers and philosophers during that extraordinary five hundred years of Islamic history (7th-11th centuries CE). It would seem that we need a satisfactory explanation to make sense of the development of Islamic science and the intellectual roots of Islamic civilization.

In trying to approach such a subject we are entering into a potentially controversial area and one that requires a good deal of research and perseverance. Three essential factors need to be analyzed: (1) the origins of the sciences and their effect on the Arabs, (2) the inspiration that the Muslims derived from the teachings of the Qur'an and Hadith, (3) the achievements of the Muslim scientists and thinkers in various branches of knowledge. We may refer to these three essential sources of Islamic science one after another. In doing so, one could not ignore the relevance of Islamic sciences to medieval Europe [1].

1.1. Mesopotamia

Let us recall the heritage of science and technology that preceded the advent of Islam in the 7th century CE and what might have been inherited by the Arabs along with the rest of mankind. It is thought by some that civilization had its earliest manifestations in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (Mesopotamia), where the cities that emerged at Sumer, included Ur (founded ca 4000 BCE), Uruk, and Babylon, which in 600 BCE was the largest city on earth under King Nebuchadnezzar II. Sailing ships were known as early as 5000 BCE; the wheel, which was invented in Mesopotamia, was used by potters, and by armies for transportation. Standard weights were used in commerce (based on the shekel of 8.36 gr. = 129 grains); measures of shekel and mina were used in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE, and records were kept on baked clay tablets; bricks were fired in kilns in the 4th millennium BCE, and the monumental architecture of the Ziggurat featured columns, domes, arches and vaults. The same Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon also gave rise to the Law Code of King Hammurabi (ca 1750 BCE). The Sumerians, who were advanced in astronomy, made star catalogues in the 2nd millennium BCE, identified the Zodiac, and used a 12-month solar calendar along with a 354 day lunar calendar; but in the 3rd millennium BCE regularly used a 360-day calendar, which had been adopted, in a modified form, by Jews and Muslims. The Babylonians recorded a solar eclipse as early as 763 BCE and devised an instrument to detect when a star or planet was due to appear in the south. Some of these achievements resulted from developments in mathematics, notably by the application of multiplication tables. Solutions to quadratic and cubic equations were achieved; theorems governing plane geometry were created, together with a system of sixty for measuring time. Positional notation was in use in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago. The Assyrians used water clocks. King Sargon produced maps in Mesopotamia for the purpose of tax collection (ca 2400 BCE). Medicine and surgery also developed in Mesopotamia, where tooth filling was practiced, physicians established an important profession, and incompetent surgeons were liable to compensate patients in the event of error. Lamps made of stone and pottery were used in ancient Mesopotamia. Although ploughshares were used in Canaan (ancient Palestine), the Mesopotamians used a primitive form of plough called an ard, which has been found in Uruk, and the irrigation system caused a revolution in Mesopotamian agriculture. Metallurgy also developed in this region of the Middle East. A wide range of advances in Mesopotamian civilization became part of the common heritage of mankind.

Figure 2a-b: Two manuscripts of Hadith: (a) the Arba'un hadithan copied by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri in Safavid Iran in the last days of Jumada I, 966/late February 1559 CE (Source); (b) Page from an Ottoman Album of Calligraphies of Prophetic Traditions, signed by Hamdullah ibn Mustafa Dede (Istanbul, ca. 1500). (Source).

1.2. Ancient Egypt

The Egyptian civilization (ca 3000 BCE to 300 CE), which developed after the Mesopotamian, has been credited with instituting a 365-day solar calendar (ca 2773 BCE). In 1500 BCE, it produced the gnomon, the L-shaped indicator found in a sundial and the water clock (ca 1450 BCE). Egyptian medicine, practised by the priests in the 2nd millennium BCE, was the most sophisticated in ancient times, and some carvings of about 2500 BCE depict a surgical operation in progress. Imhotep, an Egyptian (d. ca 2950 BCE), became the architect of Memphis. An early form of hieroglyph (i.e. writing system), the use of papyrus as a writing material, and a number system came into use around 3000 BCE, as did the employment of scribes by the ancient Pharaohs, the process of embalming and mummifying, and the art of the Pyramids. The Giza Pyramids were built between 2700 and 2200 BCE. The paintings and reliefs on the walls of ancient palaces and inside the Pyramids, elegant furniture and the use of bronze for utensils were also among the achievements of the ancient Egyptians, the Pyramids being the high point. Many of these objets d'art are preserved in Egypt and in collections around the world. Knowledge of these ancient civilizations was spread through stories told by Arab sages.

1.3. The Greek legacy

The Greeks also made a significant contribution to science and technology. The Greek civilization, which flourished during 600 BCE-529 CE, was, in a chronological sense, a successor to the Middle Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, but its impact on the Arabs did not occur until two centuries after the advent of Islam. As a historian of science admits: "Although Greek science may have been a continuation of ideas and practices developed by the Egyptians and Babylonians, the Greeks were the first to look for general principles beyond observations. Science before the Greeks, as practised in Babylon and Egypt, consisted mainly of the collection of observations and recipes for practical applications [2].

Science defined as ‘an organized body of thought' and an interpretation of the universe was said to have originated in about 600 BCE with the Ionian school of Greek philosophers, and continued until the early 6th century CE. According to one source, what was achieved before the Greeks was treated as only advances in technology rather than theoretical science. In the brief summary of Greek science and philosophy that fol¬lows, philosophy will be excluded. Greek philosophers studied science out of curiosity, as an effort to know and understand things. They were not inspired by religion or mythology nor were they interested in the application of science. They introduced scientific methods based on reason and observation. They built institutions, such as the Academy, the Lyceum and the Museum. With the closure of the Academy and Lyceum in 529 CE, followed by the Museum, the Greek epoch in the history of science ended. However, their influence spread far and wide for at least another millennium.

Figure 3a-b: Two pages from the oldest known dated Arabic manuscript on paper (dated Dhu al-Qa'da 252/866 CE), folios 2b and This is MS Leiden Or. 298 in Arabic, on paper, 241 folios, and thereby probably the oldest dated Arabic manuscript on paper, bound in a full-leather standard Library binding. The volume contains an incomplete copy of Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu 'Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi (d. 223/837) (Source).

The earliest Greek scientists were Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. Thales (ca 600 BCE) believed that water was the essence of natural phenomena. To him, matter came in three forms: mist, water and earth. He also thought that the stars were made of water. His pupil Anaximander, (ca 545 BCE) was believed to have written the earliest book on science, which claimed that life originated in the sea. Anaximenes (ca 500 BCE), a pupil of the former, thought that air was the essence of the universe, and that a rainbow was a natural phenomenon and not a divine sign.

Aristotle is generally thought to be the father of life sciences. He studied 540 plants and classified plants and animals. He also wrote on embryology. Aristotle believed that the earth was the centre of the universe. The greatest Greek contribution to medicine was made by Hippocrates of Cos, an author of many books, whose Hippocratic Oath is still used as a code of ethics by the medical profession. He freed medicine from superstition and religion. Greek medicine also spread to Rome, where the physician Galen, through his teaching and prolific writings popularised it. The Greek scientist Empedocles formulated the idea of the elements (air, water, earth and fire), which were adopted by Plato and Aristotle. To Plato, geometry was the most suitable method of thinking about nature. Euclid of Alexandria, the author of the Elements, was the most influential Greek geometrician. The Greeks made important contributions to mathematics, which is a science based entirely on reason, with no need for observation or experiment. Pythagoras (5th century BCE) regarded mathematics as the most important branch of science. Diophantus was regarded by some as the Greek founder of ‘algebra' (although the term itself had an Arabic origin). Archimedes founded mathematical physics and discovered the laws of hydrostatics. He also invented the Archimedian Screw, a device designed to raise water for irrigation. The Alexandrian engineer Hero was credited with the invention of a series of automata. The Greeks also built a water-carrying tunnel through a mountain.

Aristotle thought that motion is created by an object trying to reach its natural place. Ctesibius was thought to have been the founder of the Alexandrian school of engineering. Philon was credited with some technical achievements, including a force pump, and a mechanically driven water clock. Ptolemy, a great Greek astronomer from Alexandria, wrote the Almagest, which described the planetary motion and placed the Earth as the centre of the Universe, with the Sun and the Moon revolving around it. In 270 BCE, Aristarchus of Samos challenged Aristotle's geocentric idea, asserting that the Sun was the centre of the solar system. He also emphasized that all other planets revolve around the Sun [3]. Greek and Hellenistic sciences reached West Asia and elsewhere in the wake of Alexander's conquests.

1.4. Various influences in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Some of the ancient buildings of Mada'in Salih in Arabia and the Dam of Marib in Yemen are reminders of how the influence of ancient technology reached Arabia. In the 7th century, the Arabs already had a calendar with twelve months named in Arabic (e.g. Muharram, Safar, Rabi‘ al-Awwal, Rabi‘ al-Thani, Jumada 'l-Ula, Jumada al-Akhir, Rajab, Sha‘ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu'l-Qa‘dah, and Dhu'l-Hijjah) which might have originated in ancient Mesopotamia. The Arabs had no schools or educational institutions in the pre-Islamic era, but these existed in Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa and Harran in Mesopotamia and Persia where some of them were employed at the medical school of Jundishapur (in south-west Persia) during the 6th and 7th centuries. In Syria, Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and Persian influence mingled. From here, Greek science and learning spread to the East and the West. Among the Syrians were two Christian sects. The Nestorians taught Greek science and philosophy in their schools and translated Greek books into the Syriac language and these were translated into Arabic during the Islamic period. Nestorias held theological views contrary to those of the patriarch of Constantinople and consequently they were banned in 481 C.E. Nestorias and his followers fled Byzantium for Syria, but on being persecuted there some of them escaped to Mesopotamia, and few of them were employed at the medical school of Jundishapur (which was founded by the Sassanian King Khusraw Anushirwan in the mid-6th century CE) [4]. The school at Jundishapur survived until the early ‘Abbasid period (9th century CE). Thus education in one form or another was available in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia at the time of the advent of Islam in the 7th century, though the inhabitants of Arabia, on the edge of civilization, remained in ignorance of them.

Figure 4: A page from Kitāb al-jabr wa-'l-muqābala, the first extant algebra text, written in a