We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more The Oxford History of Islam - Science, Medicine, and Technology - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Science, Medicine, and Technology


Ahmad Dallal

Miri Shefer-Mossensohn

Science was an extensive cultural undertaking that occupied the minds and energies of many of the leading intellectuals in pre-modern Muslim societies. Indeed, science was practiced on a scale unprecedented in earlier or contemporary human history. In urban centers from the Atlantic to the borders of China, thousands of scientists pursued careers in diverse scientific disciplines. Countless artifacts, ranging from architectural monuments to intricate automata and instruments provide a vivid testimony to the scientific and technological achievements of these scientists. Their written contributions are equally compelling: thousands of scientific manuscripts, from various regions of the medieval Islamic world, are scattered in modern libraries all over the globe. Considerable resources were also devoted for the support of scientific activity in Muslim societies. Until the rise of modern science, no other civilization engaged as many scientists, produced as many scientific books, or provided as varied and sustained support for scientific activity.

The study of the history of Islamic science is itself an extensive endeavor: it calls for an examination of wide-ranging cultural activities, in a vast geographical area, in multi-lingual settings, under different historical conditions, and for a period of at least seven centuries. The sources for the study of this subject are equally daunting, even when only written evidence is examined. Historians of Islamic science are fortunate to have a large number of extant scientific manuscripts that promise to shed light on its history. This abundance gives rise to a number of methodological difficulties, however. Earlier surveys of the history of Islamic science were based on a handful of random studies of scientific treatises. Some of the actual studies were of a high quality; yet ironically, the paucity of hard evidence available to early scholars often enabled them to cover all the fields of science in all-inclusive and often reductive narratives. In the past few decades many more scientific treatises have been critically examined, with the dual effect of providing detailed information about the various scientific disciplines and highlighting the peculiarity of the history of each separate discipline or even fields within disciplines. The starting point for many such fine studies was the world of texts, with only a minority of scholars connecting the text to the daily reality of those who created it.

Another connecting theme was the paradigm of decline. According to this paradigm, after the Islamic Golden Age and the Abbasid Dynasty in the Middle Ages, which were characterized by intellectual curiosity and innovative research, the desire for renewal was lost. They focused on limitations in the Islamic scientific achievements. They identified the roots of obstructions in the face of scientific advance in different spheres of life. Some scholars of Islamic science considered Islam to be a restraint, which imprisoned science in mental chains from which it was unable to liberate itself.

Other scholars who did share the view of decline but did not necessarily tie it with religion per-se, pointed to external reasons that created a burden to Islamic science and technology, like the “infiltration” of strangers, meaning non-Arabs, to the Islamic world. In this context, scholars discussed the Turks’ entrance into and domination of the Islamic world. Their starting point was the establishment of the institution of military white slavery, the Mamluks, during the ninth century. The incursion of the Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century was described as the final blow, which turned the Islamic world into a wasteland and from which it was never able to recover.

The scholars who carried out such studies were first and foremost Arabists in their training. As far as they were concerned, Islam and Islamic culture were, in essence, Arab. A further claim in this scholarship, like in George Saliba's studies, ties the European success to Islamic origins, and maintains that the scientific breakthrough of the west could not have happened without the decisive contribution of Arab-Muslim science.

One of the fine scholars who worked within this paradigms was Frantz Rosneenthal, who was a scholar the Arabic language, literature and culture. His starting point was the world of texts but he connected the text to the daily reality of those who created it. Rosenthal produced a series of studies that quickly were recognized as classical works: on the intellectual climate, on scientific activity (principally in medicine) and on the social reality of the Arab Middle Ages. Another prominent figure was Abdulhamid Ibrahim Sabra who was interested in early modern Islamic science, but his focus was always medieval Arabo-Islamic science and its reception of Greek sciences. His main theory was how Greek sciences actually became acclimatized in Muslim society, though they were treated with a measure of distance.

Many (although not all) of these academics did not master Turkish or Persian, and therefore, were unable to read the relevant manuscripts in the Muslim-Turkic and Persian languages. In their view, this obstacle was not a limitation. They did not value the scientific contribution of Muslim Turks and Persians from the start; thus, they did not expect to find significant new discoveries in the treatises the latter had written. In their opinion, the renunciation of such texts was insignificant.

The Decline Thesis inhibited western historians from dealing with Ottoman science. However, many Turkish scholars were seriously involved with Ottoman science, although many of them only read and wrote in Turkish. Interestingly, many Turkish scholars internalized the orientalist discourse and accepted the premise regarding Muslim decline and religion's responsibility for it. Such Orientalist discourse found a place within nationalistic ideology, which openly advocated Turkish western secular identity. Within this framework, Turkish academics related to the Ottoman past in science only from a very specific angle: the process of the westernization of science or the infiltration of the west into the world of Islam via technology and science. Adnan Adıvar's work on Ottoman science from the late 1930s and early 1940s, which is still considered a basic Turkish-language textbook in the field, is a clear product of a national, western and secular political agenda. A particularly prominent figure in our generation is Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, who produced a long line of studies and bibliographies, most of which are not in Turkish, in order to appeal to their international target audience and thereby enhance the status of Ottoman and Muslim science’s achievements.

The previous scholarship of Islamic science gives the impression that terms like "beginnings", "progress," and "demise" dominated the historiography. The usual narrative was a linear history of either progress or decline. In recent years, however, more and more scholars call for a more critical outlook of Islamic pursuit of science as both social and epistemological activity. Such an outlook appreciates the possibility of multiple interpretations, approaches, and practices. In other words, the linear process is replaced by parallels and irregularities. The current discourse within history of science and technology wishes to study the multi-dimensional nature of scientific research, in tune with the trends in the wider field of history and philosophy of science and technology. Studies now focus on the circumstances that enable (or restrict) scientific activity and freedom of thought, including social connections, economic potential, religious concepts, cultural values and political maneuvers. In other words, the history of science, including in Islamic setting, now deals with social networks, connections between ideas, institutions, and professional organizations. It further wishes to integrate in a meaningful way the non-human factors in scientific process.

Science, Medicine, and Technology

(Left) Astromony, one of the oldest and most esteemed exact sciences in antiquity, flourished in the Islamic lands from the ninth century, when major Greek astronomical texts were translated into Arabic. Many astronomers served the court, as in this depiction of the observatory established by the Ottomans in 1575 at Istanbul.

view larger image

The Cultural Context of Early Muslim Science

Despite the significant increase in studies of Islamic science, the vast majority of scientific manuscripts remain unexamined. Consider the example of al-Biruni (973–1048), one of the greatest Muslim scientists of all time. Al-Biruni wrote more than 150 works, of which only a third are extant. Although he is the most studied of all Muslim scientists, about half of his works have yet to be edited or to receive thorough analysis. Other scientists are less fortunate, and many are known only by name. This shortcoming notwithstanding, the recent accumulation of studies has enabled several historians of Islamic science to provide more informed and differentiated accounts of the scientific disciplines. Drawing on these historical overviews, this chapter provides an account of the scope and cultural significance of scientific activity in Islamic societies, and of the main trends in the development of specific scientific disciplines.

Like most histories of science, this chapter traces scientific developments under a succession of famous scientists. The focus on individuals may give the misleading impression of a linear course of forward progress that connects the various individuals under examination. The advance of science, however, is seldom orderly or predictable: new theories often coexist with old ones for long periods of time before they succeed in replacing the old theories; the importance of a new idea may sometimes go unnoticed for decades or even centuries before it is revived and adopted; and scientific progress in general seems to occur in leaps rather than in a smooth forward flow. It would be more misleading to suggest that the scientific developments in Islamic societies were isolated occurrences, however, or to attribute such advances simply to the personal genius of individual scientists. For every celebrated scientist known to have conducted rigorous research in any field, there are many more practitioners who—although they may not have made significant advances in their fields—provided the context without which such advances would have been impossible. Therefore, it is essential to recognize the existence of a scientific culture that enabled seemingly disjointed leaps from one invention to another, and of communities of scientists that provided temporal and spatial continuity for the culture of science.

Recent research has provided compelling evidence for the continuity and coherence of Islamic scientific traditions. Examples can be found in the tradition of reforming Ptolemaic astronomy that started in the eleventh century and continued until at least the sixteenth, and that spanned most of the Islamic world. Similarly, research on the various disciplines of Islamic mathematics has revealed that for each instance of seemingly isolated scientific breakthrough, there are in fact precedents and successors as well as a community of interested scholars and intellectuals. Almost invariably, original contributions emerge from and enhance a large body of methodical research generated within different traditions. In some cases certain scientists may have been accorded a privileged position simply because they were accidentally discovered by modern scholars, or because their works happened to be translated into European languages. Moreover, certain works may not be impressive when considered in isolation, while their real significance lies in triggering new trends of research or in laying the foundation for future developments within a particular discipline. Such is the importance of al-Khwarizmi's (ca. 780–850) Kitab al-Jabr wal-Muqabala (The book of compulsion and comparison), which introduced the term al-jabr (algebra). Despite its lack of sophistication in comparison to later works of Islamic algebra, this treatise was the indispensable prerequisite for advanced future research in the field.

The cultural coherence of scientific traditions is not merely a factor of their own internal workings. Science flourished in the heart of Islamic urban centers, not only as an integral part of Islamic civilization but also as one of its social institutions. In this sense it would be accurate to call this science “Islamic science.” Although Islam played a role in defining the position and role of science in society, it did not define the cognitive content of the sciences. Religious discourses on science advocated its separateness from religion. As a result, a concept of value-free or ethically neutral scientific knowledge that is not specific to any one particular culture was able to develop. In distinction from religious knowledge, the exact sciences were often called “the sciences shared among all the nations.” In his masterly work, the Muqaddima (Introduction [to the science of history]), the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) eloquently summed up this universal conception of science:

The intellectual sciences are natural to man, inasmuch as he is a thinking being. They are not restricted to any particular religious group. They are studied by the people of all religious groups who are all equally qualified to learn them and to do research in them. They have existed (and been known) to the human species since civilization had its beginnings in the world.

This ideal of cultural neutrality was greatly enhanced by the use of Arabic as the language of a new universal scientific culture. Science in Islamic societies was international; it inherited all the earlier scientific traditions and fused them into one new whole. The large geographic area under Islamic rule during this period enjoyed a high degree of cultural unity. Within this area, scientists from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds participated in the production, exchange, and dissemination of scientific knowledge. The most important factor contributing to the universality of this Islamic scientific culture was the emergence of Arabic as the universal language of communication, not only for the elites but for all peoples within the Islamic empire. Most important, this enabled a level of scientific exchange unprecedented in earlier civilizations.

Many of the scientists who wrote in Arabic were not themselves Arabs. In later periods a few scientists wrote some of their scientific works in their national languages, most notably Persian. In such cases, these scientists also often produced Arabic translations of their works. Still, the vast majority of scientific works produced in the period between the ninth and sixteenth centuries were written in Arabic. Because of the preponderance of Arabic scientific works, and because of the crucial role played by the Arabic language in the subsequent development of the scientific tradition, some scholars of Islamic science suggested, it is perhaps more accurate to call the scientific traditions of Islamic societies “Arabic sciences” rather than Islamic. They explain that the first main cultural transformation that occurred after the establishment of the Islamic empire had more to do with language than with religion. After the early conquests most of the regions and peoples of the ancient world came under Islamic political rule. Outside Arabia, conversion to Islam was gradual and preceded at a slow pace. The linguistic conversion of the conquered lands was much faster, however. Within one century, Arabic became the official language of the state and its bureaucracy, either completely replacing older languages or coexisting with them as the universal language of communication within the empire's vast domains. References in this chapter to Arab scientists are not necessarily to ethnic Arabs (or even Muslims); rather, these references are to scientists who adopted Arabic as a language of scientific expression and communication. However, the translation movement into Arabic was one component of a wider and deeper process of creating a new civilization which fused several languages, cultures and faiths under the dominance of an Islamic elite whose one of its loci was the Persianate world rather than the Arab world.

In addition to religious works, the earliest scholarly contributions among Muslims were of a linguistic nature. Of particular relevance to the later development of science was the extensive compilation efforts by Arabic philologists and lexicographers. The specialized lexicons that were produced in the eighth and ninth centuries represent a large-scale attempt at collecting and classifying Arabic knowledge. These attempts were not always “scientific,” and they were eclipsed by later, more systematic achievements. Nonetheless, these encyclopedic efforts provided a linguistic foundation that fostered the development of various intellectual disciplines.

While the peoples of the Byzantine and Sasanid (Persian) empires were undergoing a gradual linguistic conversion under the new Islamic rule, a deliberate effort was made to appropriate the cultures of these ancient civilizations. In its most obvious manifestation, this effort, once again, was linguistic. As early as the eighth century, but primarily in the ninth, scientific works were translated into Arabic. The main reason often adduced for the rise of Islamic science is the translation into Arabic of scientific works from Persian, Indian, and Greek (in this order of occurrence and importance). Quite the reverse is true, however: translation was not the source of the growing interest in science at the time but a consequence of this interest. Like all emerging social phenomena, the rise of science in Islamic societies is historically contingent, owing as much to active agency as to external determinants. The most influential body of scientific knowledge was undoubtedly the Greek. Yet before the rise of Islam, the existence of the same Greek scientific works among a Greek-speaking population was not in itself sufficient to preclude a period of several centuries of steady decline in scientific activity. Therefore, other factors must have contributed to the emergence of Islamic science. One factor was the growing awareness in the new society of the status of Islamic civilization as heir to world civilizations. At a more tangible level, the increasing complexity of social organization and the subsequent social demand for professional expertise provided opportunities and incentives for aspiring professionals to cultivate scientific knowledge. The foundational philological work done by the early lexicographers was itself a first step in the production of a scientific culture. This work also enriched Arabic technical diction and effectively transformed Arabic into a language of science.

Evidence from the earliest extant scientific sources indicates that the translation movement was concurrent with, rather than a prerequisite for, scientific research in the Islamic world. Simultaneous research and translation did not take place in just one field; rather, such research was the driving force behind the translation of numerous astronomical, mathematical, and medical texts. The massive transfer of scientific knowledge into Arabic is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a mechanical process of translation. The translation movement was itself an aspect of the emergence of Islamic science rather than its sole cause. This emergence was not accidental; it was a result of deliberate and persistent efforts undertaken by professionals who were responding to the demands of their society—efforts that were supported by different segments of society and stimulated by the internal needs of scientific research.

Most of the translations were produced in Baghdad in the course of the ninth century. During the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun (r. 813–33), translation activities gained considerable momentum, and they continued under several of his successors. Translations were frequently produced at the request of patrons who commissioned and financed them. In addition to such rulers as al-Mamun, these patrons included government officials and civil servants as well as scientists and physicians often employed by members of the political elite. Some of the officials who commissioned translations were involved in court politics as well as large-scale development projects undertaken in the rapidly growing urban centers. The most famous example of this group are the Banu Musa brothers, who in addition to their political involvement were among the leading practicing scientists of the time. Some translations were also prepared for various members of the social elite. An official library named the Bayt al-Hikma (the house of wisdom) was established in Baghdad under the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), but gained its reputation in the context of the translation movement during the reign of his son al-Mamun. Many of the acquired and translated scientific and philosophical works were collected in this library, and they were in turn made available to the researchers and translators of the period.

The most famous of these translators was a Nestorian (Christian) Arab by the name of Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi (808–73). Together with a handful of students, he is responsible for the translation of most of the Galenic medical corpus, as well as many other Greek philosophical and scientific treatises. Hunayn left an autobiography in which he lists a large number of the works that he translated from Greek into Syriac or Arabic. He also describes some of the circumstances of his early career. Hunayn started as a disciple of a Baghdad-based Nestorian physician named Ibn Masawayh. Ibn Masawayh belonged to a group of Nestorian families, originally from the city of Gundishapur, that effectively monopolized the practice of medicine in the Abbasid court. The ambitious Hunayn—who at the time knew only Arabic and Syriac—was rebuffed by his teacher when he inquired about Greek medical texts. Disheartened by this experience, Hunayn set out to study Greek on his own to gain access to this medical knowledge. In due time he mastered Greek and was able to outdo his teacher Ibn Masawayh with newly acquired linguistic skills. Thus it was professional competition that dictated the course of Hunayn's career. When he demonstrated the use of this new skill, even members of the small group of Syriac-speaking physicians started requesting translations of new Greek medical texts. These physicians could no longer maintain their privileges by simple monopoly; to survive in an increasingly competitive environment, they had to raise their standards. To do so they needed more books. Some of the Syriac translations were also used as stepping stones for the preparation of Arabic translations. When the Arabic translations were produced, the Syriac intermediaries rapidly fell into disuse. It was the professional demands of the expanding Islamic society, therefore, that gave rise to this sudden and brief surge in Syriac scientific activity in the ninth century.

The context for ninth-century scientific translations from Greek into Syriac was decidedly Islamic. The rise of Islamic science cannot be attributed to the agency of a Syriac scientific culture; rather, this Syriac scientific culture itself received a significant—albeit brief—impetus from the emergence of Islamic scientific activity. Despite the paramount importance of Greek traditions in the development of the Islamic sciences, Islamic science was not a mere museum of Greek scientific knowledge. Islamic science did more than simply preserve the Greek scientific legacy and pass it to its European heirs. The complex process of cultural transmission necessitates that this legacy, even as its texts were being translated, was reformulated and transformed. The final outcome of this transformation was a new science that was informed by (but not reducible to) its individual components. To appreciate the significance of the emergence of this new scientific tradition, the remaining part of this chapter examines some episodes in the development of various Islamic scientific disciplines.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2021. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice