The Development of Science in the Ancient Islamic Civilization

“The scientific professions and technical skills cannot exist in a society if they are not deeply rooted in that society; there must be a flourishing civilization and a sufficient demand for these disciplines.” – Ibn-Khaldun

  1. Introduction

In the fourth century B.C., when Alexander the Great conquered Asia Minor and founded Alexandria, he set the stage for the great migration of Greek philosophy and science to that part of the world. During the Ptolemaic period, Alexandria, Egypt, was the ecstatic center for the advancement and extent of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean. That great center of learning continued after 641, when Egypt became part of the Muslim state. Subsequently, Syria, Baghdad, and Persia became parallel channels for the communication of principally Greek, Syriac, and pre-Islamic Persian and Indian cultural values. As a result, Islamic philosophy influenced by the writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The great Muslim philosophers e.g. Ibn-Khaldun, Ibn-Sina, Ibn-Rushd, Al-Farabi and Al-Ghazali translated the works of earlier Greek philosophers and added their own significant contributions. It was essentially through such works, intellectually faithful to the originals, that Western civilization was able to benefit from these earlier legacies. These great philosophers produced a wealth of new ideas that enriched civilization, particularly Western civilization which has depended so much on their works. The influence of Islam ultimately made possible the European Renaissance, which was generated by the ideas of the Greeks filtered through the Muslim philosophers. The same is true of early legal writings of Muslim scholars such as Al-Shaybani, who in the seventh century started the case method of teaching Islamic international law that was subsequently put into writing in the twelfth century by a disciple in India. It was the basis for the writings of the legal canonists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries on certain aspects of international law, in particular the laws of war and peace. It is an important fact in Muslim history that civilization flourished only under a stable government with an enlightened science policy and scientific advice. The science policy of a Muslim state was behind translation movement; the establishment of academies, observatories and libraries; the patronage of scientists and the conduct of scientific and technological research.

  1. Islamic Civilization

The Prophet of Islam Muhamad (P.B.U.H) started the message of Islam in Mecca and Medina, and the call for Islam triumphed during his lifetime in Arabia. Abu-Bakr (R.A) was elected as the first caliph in 632. Umar (R.A) succeeded him from 634 until 644. Within few year during Abu-Bakr’s (R.A) and Umar’s (R.A) caliphates the Muslim conquered Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt. During Abu-Bakr’s (R.A) time the Muslim defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Ajnadin in 634. In 635, Damascus opened its gates for the victorious Muslim army. The decisive victory over the Byzantines in Syria was achieved at the battle of al-Yarmuk in 636. In Iraq the Muslim conquest was progressing in a parallel path. The major victory of the Muslims over the Persians took place at al-Qadisiyya in 637. The Muslims took over the capital al-Mada’in and drove the Parsian army outside the frontiers of Iraq. The fate of Persia was decided at the battle of Nahawand in 642 after which all Parsian lands surrendered. As soon as Syria came under Muslim rule, the Muslim armies were directed to Egypt. The conquest of Egypt was achieved without much difficulty. Alexandria, the capital, surrendered in 642. The conquest of Syria, Egypt, Iraq and the Persian territories was achieved during Umar’s (R.A). With the rise of the Umayyad caliphate the Islamic conquests entered their second phase and within twenty years between 692 and 712 the Umayyads added North Africa and Spain to the Islamic state. They, in effect, doubled the size of the state, and before the end of their period a major portion of the world, became part of Islamic civilization.

Islamic scientific developments were the root of knowledge in the worldfrom the second half of the eighth century to the end of the eleventh century. In the era of history when the philosophical and scientific heritage of the ancient world was about to be lost, Islamic scholars stepped in to preserve that legacy from destruction. Islam and its admirers had created a civilization that played very significant role on the world stage for more than a thousand years. One of the most imperative unambiguous qualities of the Islamic civilization is that it is a well-balanced civilization that brought together science and faith, struck a balance between spirit and matter and did not separate this world from the Hereafter. This is what distinguishes the Islamic civilization from other civilizations which attribute prime position to the material aspect of life, physical needs and human instincts, and attach greater attention to this world by endeavoring to instantaneously satisfy wishes of the flesh, without finding a proper place for God and the Hereafter in their philosophies and education systems. The Islamic civilization drew humankind closer to God, connected the earth and heavens, subordinated this world to the Hereafter, struck a balance between mind and heart, connected spirit and matter,and created a link between science and faith by elevating the importance of moral development to the level of importance of material progress. It is owing to this that the Islamic civilization gave an enormous contribution to the development of global civilization. Another definite characteristic of the Islamic civilization is that it spread the spirit of justice, impartiality and tolerance among people, thus the people of different beliefs and views may live together in safety, peace and mutual respect.

  • Scientific Contributions of Islamic Civilization and Muslim Scholars

Islamic civilization can be traced through the written records: Pre-Islamic, early Islamic, Umayyad, the first and second Abbasid, the Hispano-Arabic, the Persian and the modern periods. The numerous influences of these diverse periods can be readily perceived, as can traces of the Greek, the Indian, and the Pre-Islamic Persian. All the way through the first four centuries of Islam, one does not witness the synthesis or homogenization of different cultures but rather their transmittal through, and at times their immersion into, the Islamic framework of values. Islam has been a canal for Western civilization of cultural forms which might otherwise have died out. Pre-Islamic poetry and prose, which was communicated orally, was documented mostly during the Umayyad period (661-750) when the Arab mode of life initiated fluctuation from the simple nomadic life established in the peninsula to an urban and sophisticated one. Contacts with Greece and Persia gave a greater impulse to music, which repeatedly accompanied the recitation of prose and poetry. By the mid-800 in the Baghdad capital of Abbassids under Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun, Islamic culture and civilization as well as commerce and contacts with many other parts of the world thrived. Similarly, great centers of religious learning were also centers of scientific developments and knowledge. Such formal centers began during the Abbasid period (750-1258) when thousands of mosque schools were established.It was in the tenth century that the formal concept of the Madrassah (school) was developed in Baghdad and Baghdad had approximately 300 schools. The Madrassah had a curriculum and full-time and part-time teachers and rich and poor equally received free education. From there Maktabat (libraries) were developed and foreign books acquired. The two most famous libraries were Bait al-Hikmah in Baghdad and Dar al-Ilm in Cairo and universities such as Al-Azhar were also established long before those in Europe.

The traditional Islamic institutions of learning produced several great theologians, philosophers, scholars and scientists. Their contributions in various fields of knowledge point toward the level of scholarship base established among the Muslims. Muslim scholars calculated the angle of the ecliptic; measured the size of the earth; calculated the precession of the equinoxes; explained, in the field of optics and physics, such phenomena as refraction of light, gravity, capillary attraction, and twilight; and developed observatories for the empirical study of heavenly bodies. They made advances in the uses of drugs, herbs, and foods for medication; established hospitals with a system of interns and externs; discovered causes of certain diseases and developed correct diagnoses of them; proposed new concepts of hygiene; made use of anesthetics in surgery with newly innovated surgical tools; and introduced the science of dissection in anatomy. Muslims furthered the scientific breeding of horses and cattle; found new ways of grafting to produce new types of flowers and fruits; introduced new concepts of irrigation, fertilization, and soil cultivation; and improved upon the science of navigation. In the area of chemistry, Muslim scholarship led to the discovery of such substances as potash, alcohol, nitrate of silver, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and mercury chloride. Muslims scientists also developed to a high degree of perfection the arts of textiles, ceramics, and metallurgy.

Islam encourages thinking and acquisition of knowledge, which is also include the scientific knowledge. Hence, the Islamic civilization enormously contributed towards the wellbeing of humanity through advancement in all other fields including science and technology. The contributions in the advancement of knowledge by the Islamic scholars, scientists and philosophers are enormous, some of them summarized below:

  • Jabir ibn Hayyan, Abu Musa (721-815), alchemist known as the “Father of Chemistry.” He studied most branches of learning, including medicine. After the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads, Jabir became a court physician to the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. Jabir was a close friend of the sixth Shia imam, Ja’far ibn Muhammad, whom he gave credit for many of his scientific ideas.
  • Al-Khwarizmi (770–840), was a researcher of mathematics, algorithm, algebra, calculus, astronomy & geography. He compiled astronomical tables, introduced Indian numerals (which became Arabic numerals), formulated the oldest known trigonometric tables, and prepared a geographic encyclopedia in cooperation with 69 other scholars.
  • Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (Alkindus) (800–873), was an intellectual of philosophy, physics, optics, medicine, mathematics & metallurgy.
  • Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari (838–870), was a scholar in medicine, mathematics, calligraphy & literature.
  • Al-Razi (864– 930), a physical and scientist of medicine, ophthalmology, smallpox, chemistry & astronomy. Al-Razi’s two most significant medical works are the “Kitab al-Mansuri”, which became well known in the West in Gerard of Cremona’s 12th-century Latin translation; and “Kitab al-Hawi”, the “Comprehensive Book”. Among his numerous minor medical treatises is the famed Treatise on the Small Pox and Measles, which was translated into Latin, Byzantine Greek, and various modern languages.
  • Al-Farabi (870- 950), excelled in sociology, logic, philosophy, political science & music.
  • Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahravi (936 -1013), was an expert in surgery & medicine known as the father of modern surgery.
  • Ibn Al-Haitham (965-1040), was the mathematician and physicist who made the first significant contributions to optical theory since the time of Ptolemy (flourished 2nd century). In his treatise on optics, translated into Latin in 1270 as Opticae thesaurus Alhazenilibri vii, Alhazen published theories on refraction, reflection, binocular vision, focusing with lenses, the rainbow, parabolic and spherical mirrors, spherical aberration, atmospheric refraction, and the apparent increase in size of planetary bodies near the Earth’s horizon. He was first to give an accurate account of vision, correctly stating that light comes from the object seen to the eye.
  • Abu Raihan Al-Biruni (973-1048), was a Persian scholar and scientist, one of the most learned men of his age and an outstanding intellectual figure. Al-Biruni’s most famous works are “Athar al-Baqiyah” (Chronology of Ancient Nations); “at-Tafhim” (Elements of Astrology); “al-Qanun al-Mas’udi” (The Mas’udi Canon), a major work on astronomy, which he dedicated to Sultan Mas’ud of Ghazna; Ta’rikh al-Hind (A History of India); and “Kitab as-Saydalah”, a treatise on drugs used in medicine. In his works on astronomy, he discussed with approval the theory of the Earth’s rotation on its axis and made accurate calculations of latitude and longitude. He was the first one to determine the circumference earth. In the field of physics, he explained natural springs by the laws of hydrostatics and determined with remarkable accuracy the specific weight of 18 precious stones and metals. In his works on geography, he advanced the daring view that the valley of the Indus had once been a sea basin.
  • Ibn-Sina (981–1037), was a scientist of medicine, philosophy, mathematics & astronomy. He was particularly noted for his contributions in the fields of Aristotelian philosophy and medicine. He composed the “Kitab ash-shifa” (Book of Healing), a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and the Canon of Medicine, which is among the most famous books in the history of medicine.
  • Ibn-Hazm, (994-1064), was a litterateur, historian, jurist, and theologian of Islamic Spain. One of the leading exponents of the Zahiri (literalist) school of jurisprudence, he produced some 400 works, covering jurisprudence, logic, history, ethics, comparative religion, and theology, and The Ring of the Dove, on the art of love.
  • Al-Zarqali (1028-1087), an astronomer who invented astrolabe (an instrument used to make astronomical measurements).
  • Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), was a scholar of sociology, theology & philosophy.
  • Ibn-Zuhr (1091-1161), was a scientist and expert in surgery & medicine.
  • Ibn-Rushd (1128-1198), excelled in philosophy, law, medicine, astronomy & theology.
  • Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi (1201-1274), was the scholar of astronomy and Non-Euclidean
  • Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), was a world traveler, he traveled 75,000 mile voyage from Morocco to China and back.
  • Ibn-Khaldun (1332-1395), was an expert on sociology, philosophy of history and political science.
About Mirza Abdul Aleem Baig 17 Articles
Mirza Abdul Aleem Baig is CAS-TWAS President’s Fellow at USTC, Biomedical Health Informatics Professional and freelance Science Writer.