Turkish Contributions to Scientific Work in Islam

by Aydin Sayili Published on: 10th September 2004

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Turks have played an active part in the pursuit of science and learning in the Islamic World throughout its history. This activity is outlind here from the very formative stages of the islamic civilization down to the present day.



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Mesopotamia and Egypt are the cradles of civilization. The origins of science can be traced back to these two civilizations. The Greeks inherited the science of these countries appropriated it eagerly. They also endowed it with greater power of articulation and imparted fresh momentum to scientific work. In their hands scientific knowledge was not only considerably enriched, but it also gained substantially in refinement and theoretical stature. But with the beginning of Christianity a period of stagnation gradually set in, and the era called the Dark Ages with all its superstitions and dearth of well-founded scientific enlightenment began to weigh heavily upon the old classical Mediterranean world and the Near East. The situation changed with the advent of Islam.

The history of Islam starts with the Hijra in 622 CE. In that year Prophet Muhammed transferred the scene of his activities from the city of Mecca to Medina. The Prophet died ten years later, but before 650 CE the Muslims had managed to conquer Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia, and in these rapid conquests religious faith had served remarkably as a motivating power for building a gigantic empire.

In the Near and the Middle East the Arab conquerors met with remnants of civilizations far superior to their own, and, as the Islamic community became welded together, these civilizations cooperated actively in the formation of the emerging Muslim civilization. In the vast territory embraced by Islam the Arabs were considerably outnumbered by the non-Arabic elements and, consequently their control over the destiny of Islam decreased significantly. The original conquerors played by no means a passive part, however, in the emergence of the new society.

Taqi al-Din and his colleagues in Istanbul Observatory miniature

The rise of the Abbasid Caliphate, about one hundred and twenty years after the death of the Prophet, marked the opening of a cultural and scientific era, important not only in the history of Islam but also in that of the whole world. This was made possible by the great value attached to knowledge and culture. Consequently, an intense process of cultivation of knowledge constituted a veritably strong component in the very foundations of the emerging Islamic civilization.

In the Islamic Middle Ages, for the first time in history, the cultivation of knowledge came to be looked upon as something that has to be within the reach of every individual. The abundance of public libraries and of schools, even those devoted to higher education, is a shining witness of this attitude and of the extent to which a goal so difficult to be attained was realized in practice. In addition, in Islam the promotion of education came to be considered a duty of the state.

A section of the World Map produced by Piri Reis

The organization of education in Islam reveals some rather important contributions of the Turks to Islamic civilization. The madrasa system came into being during the period of Turkish rule, the first of such institutions formally supported by the state being a creation of the Turkish Seljuqs. In a more general sense too, the birth of the madrasa system owed much to Turkish initiative. It was developed in the region of Transoxiana and Khorasan, where Turks constituted a significant part of the population, and Turkish kings of the Qarakhanid, Ghaznawid, and Seljuq dynasties were the founders of the earliest of such schools. Turks appear, moreover, among the earliest bibliophiles and founders of libraries in Islam.

The most illustrious among Turkish rulers who encouraged and promoted scientific work is, without any doubt, Ulugh Bey. Indeed, if only three rulers should be singled out for consideration as the most remarkable patrons of science throughout the Middle Ages, they would undoubtedly be Al-Ma’mun, Alfonso X, and Ulugh Bey, and Ulugh Bey should certainly be ranked as the most enlightened among them. There will be occasion in the following pages to refer to other Turkish rulers who patronized scientific work when speaking of observatories and hospitals. Names of Turkish rulers in Islam who encouraged scientific work and were personally interested in its cultivation would run into a quite long list.

Turks have played an active part in the pursuit of science and learning in the Islamic World throughout its history. This activity started at the very formative stages of the process of building a historically momentous world civilization and continued, with its various turns of fortune, down to the present day.

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