Science in the medieval Islamic world

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This article is about the history of science in the Islamic civilization between the 8th and 16th centuries. For information on science in the context of Islam, see Islam and science.

Science in the medieval Islamic world was the science developed and practiced during the Islamic Golden Age under the Abbasid Caliphate (c. 800–1250) and, to a lesser extent, under the Mamluks and Nasrids during the late medieval period. Islamic scientific achievements encompassed a wide range of subject areas, especially mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Other subjects of scientific inquiry included physics, alchemy and chemistry, ophthalmology, and geography and cartography.

In the 8th century, scholars had translated Indian, Assyrian, Iranian and Greek knowledge into Arabic. These translations became a wellspring for advances by scientists from Muslim-ruled areas during the Middle Ages.[1]


The Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 850

Through the Umayyad and, in particular, the succeeding Abbasid Caliphate's early phase, lies the period of Islamic history known as the Islamic Golden Age, between 692 and 945, with stable political structures and flourishing trade. Major religious and cultural works of the empire were translated into Arabic. The culture inherited Greek, Indic, Assyrian and Persian influences, and a new common civilisation formed, based on Islam. An era of high culture and innovation ensued.[2] Christians especially Nestorian[3][4] contributed to the Arab Islamic Civilization during the Ummayads and the Abbasids by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic.[5] Many scholars of the House of Wisdom were of Christian background.[6]

Fields of inquiry

Islamic science drew primarily upon Arab, Persian, Indian and Greek learning. Islamic scientific achievements encompass a wide range of subject areas, especially mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.[1] Other subjects of scientific inquiry included physics, alchemy and chemistry, ophthalmology, and geography and cartography.[7]

Alchemy and chemistry

Jabir ibn Hayyan (ca. 8th – 9th centuries) wrote on science and alchemy, based on his own experiments. He described laboratory techniques and experimental methods of chemistry. He identified many substances including sulfuric and nitric acid. He described processes including sublimation, reduction and distillation. He utilized equipment such as the alembic and the retort stand. There is considerable uncertainty as to the actual provenance of many works that are ascribed to him.[8][9]

Astronomy and cosmology

al-Biruni's explanation of the phases of the moon

al-Battani (850–922) accurately determined the length of the solar year. He contributed to numeric tables, such as the Tables of Toledo, used by astronomers to predict the movements of the sun, moon and planets across the sky. Some of his astronomic tables were later used by Copernicus.[10] al-Zarqali (1028–1087) developed a more accurate astrolabe, used for centuries afterwards. He constructed a water clock in Toledo. He discovered that the Sun's apogee moves slowly relative to the fixed stars, and obtained a good estimate of its motion.[11] for its rate of change.[12] Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) wrote an important revision to Ptolemy's celestial model. When he became Helagu's astrologer, he was given an observatory and gained access to Chinese techniques and observations. He developed trigonometry as a separate field, and compiled the most accurate astronomical tables available up to that time.[13]

Geography and cartography

A modern copy of al-Idrisi's Tabula Rogeriana, upside-down with North at the top

al-Idrisi (1100–1166) created a map of the world for Roger, the Norman King of Sicily, and wrote the Book of Roger, a geographic study of the peoples, climates, resources and industries of all the world known at that time.[14]


A page from al-Khwarizmi's Algebra

Islamic mathematics could be divided into algebra, geometry and arithmetic. Algebra was mainly used for recreation and had few practical applications. Geometry was studied at different levels. Some texts contain practical geometrical rules for surveying and for measuring figures. Theoretical geometry was a necessary prerequisite for understanding astronomy and optics, and it required years of concentrated work. Soon after the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate and the founding of Baghdad during the mid-eighth century CE, some mathematical knowledge must have been assimilated from the pre-Islamic Iranian tradition in astronomy, which had survived until that time. Astronomers from India were invited to the court of the caliph during the late eighth century, and they explained the rudimentary trigonometrical techniques that were necessary in Indian astronomy. Ancient Greek works such as Almagest of Ptolemy and Euclid's Elements were translated into Arabic language. During the second half of the ninth century, Islamic mathematicians were already making contributions to the most sophisticated parts of Greek geometry. Islamic mathematics reached its apogee in the Eastern part of the Islamic world between the tenth and twelfth centuries CE. Little is known about the biography of most Islamic mathematicians. It is known that they had difficualty finding support for their work. Most of the Mathematical treasuries were written in Arabic language, and a few of them were written in Persian.[15]

Omar Khayyam's "Cubic equation and intersection of conic sections"

al-Khwarizmi (8th–9th centuries), considered the greatest mathematician of Islamic civilization, was instrumental in the adoption of the Indian numbering system, later known as Arabic numerals. He developed algebra, which also had Indian antecedents, introducing methods of simplifying equations, and used Euclidean geometry in his proofs.[16] [17] Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (801–873) worked on cryptography for the caliphate.[18] Avicenna (ca. 980–1037) contributed to the development of mathematical techniques such as Casting out nines.[19] Thabit ibn Qurra (835–901) calculated the solution to a chessboard problem involving an exponential series.[20] al-Farabi (ca. 870–950) attempted to describe, geometrically, the repeating patterns popular in Islamic decorative motifs. His book on the subject is titled Spiritual Crafts and Natural Secrets in the Details of Geometrical Figures.[21] Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), known in the West as a poet, calculated the length of the year to within 5 decimal places. He found geometric solutions to all 13 forms of cubic equations. He developed some quadratic equations still in use. [22] Jamshid al-Kashi (ca. 1380–1429) is credited with several theorems of trigonometry including the Law of Cosines, also known as Al-Kashi's Theorem. He is often credited with the invention of decimal fractions, and a method like Horner's to calculate roots. He calculated π correctly to 17 significant figures.[23]


A coloured illustration from Mansur's Anatomy, c. 1450

al-Razi (ca. 854–925/935) identified smallpox and measles, and recognized that fever was a part of the body's defenses. He wrote a 23-volume compendium of Chinese, Indian, Persian, Syriac and Greek medicine. al-Razi questioned the classical Greek medical theory of how the four humors regulate life processes. He challenged Galen's work on several fronts, including the treatment of bloodletting, arguing that it was effective.[24] al-Zahrawi (936–1013) was a surgeon whose most important surviving work is referred to as al-Tasrif (Medical Knowledge). It is a 30 volume set discussing medical symptoms, treatments, and mostly pharmacology, but it is the last volume of the set which has attracted the most attention over time. This last volume is a surgical manual describing surgical instruments, supplies and procedures. Scholars studying this manual are discovering references to procedures previously believed to belong to more modern times.[25] Avicenna (ca. 980–1037) wrote the major medical textbook, The Canon of Medicine.[26] ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288) wrote an influential book on medicine, believed to have replaced Avicenna's Canon in the Islamic world. He wrote commentaries on Galen and Avicenna's works. One of these commentaries was discovered in 1924, and yielded a description of pulmonary transit, the circulation of blood through the lungs.[27]

Optics and ophthalmology

The eye according to Hunayn ibn Ishaq. From a manuscript dated circa 1200.

Optics developed rapidly in this period. By the ninth century, there were works on physiological optics as well as mirror reflections, and geometrical and physical optics. Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) wrote the book Ten Treatises on the Eye, influential in the West until the 17th century.[28] Abbas ibn Firnas (810–887) developed lenses for magnification and the improvement of vision.[29] Ibn Sahl (ca. 940–1000) discovered the law of refraction known as Snell's law. He used the law to produce the first Aspheric lenses that focused light without geometric aberrations.[30][31] In the eleventh century, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen, 965–1040) rejected Greek ideas about vision, and argued in his "Book of Optics" that light was reflected upon different surfaces in different directions, thus causing different light signatures of objects seen.[32][33] He also studied the effects of light refraction, and suggested that the mathematics of reflection and refraction needed to be consistent with the anatomy of the eye.[34]


Self trimming lamp in Ahmad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir's treatise on mechanical devices

The fields of physics studied in this period, apart from optics and astronomy which are described separately, are aspects of mechanics: statics, dynamics, kinematics and motion.

The Banu Musa brothers, Jafar-Muhammad, Ahmad and al-Hasan (ca. early 9th century) created automated devices described in their Book of Ingenious Devices.[35][36][37]


Historians of science differ in their views of the significance of medieval Islamic science. The traditionalist view, as exemplified by Bertrand Russell,[38] holds that Islamic science, while admirable in many technical ways, lacked the intellectual energy required for innovation and was chiefly important as a preserver of ancient knowledge and transmitter to medieval Europe. The revisionist view, as exemplified by Abdus Salam,[39] George Saliba[40] and John M. Hobson[41] holds that a Muslim scientific revolution occurred during the Middle Ages,[42] Scholars such as Donald Routledge Hill and Ahmad Y Hassan argue that Islam was the driving force behind the Muslim achievements,[43]

According to Ahmed Dallal, science in medieval Islam was "practiced on a scale unprecedented in earlier human history or even contemporary human history".[44] Toby E. Huff[45][46] takes the view that, although Islamic science did produce a number of innovations, it did not lead to the Scientific Revolution. Will Durant,[47] Fielding H. Garrison,[48] Hossein Nasr[49] and Bernard Lewis[50] held that Muslim scientists helped in laying the foundations for an experimental science with their contributions to the scientific method and their empirical, experimental and quantitative approach to scientific inquiry.


The history of science in the Islamic world is open to questions of interpretation. A. I. Sabra opened a recent overview of Arabic science by noting, "I trust no one would wish to contest the proposition that all of history is local history ... and the history of science is no exception."[51]

The Persian philosopher and historian of science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr saw a more positive connection in "an Islamic science that was spiritual and antisecular" which "point[ed] the way to a new 'Islamic science' that would avoid the dehumanizing and despiritualizing mistakes of Western science."[52][53] Nasr identified a distinctly Muslim approach to science, flowing from Islamic monotheism and the related theological prohibition against portraying graven images. In science, this is reflected in a philosophical disinterest in describing individual material objects, their properties and characteristics and instead a concern with the ideal, the Platonic form, which exists in matter as an expression of the will of the Creator. Thus one can "see why mathematics was to make such a strong appeal to the Muslim: its abstract nature furnished the bridge that Muslims were seeking between multiplicity and unity."[54]

Some scholars object to "defin[ing] the achievements of scholars... in terms of their religion rather than their research."[55] Others simply consider such classification futile. For example, Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201–1274), invented his mathematical theorem, the Tusi Couple, while he was director of Maragheh observatory. Tusi's patron and founder of the observatory was the non-Muslim Mongol conqueror of Baghdad, Hulagu Khan. The Tusi-couple "was first encountered in an Arabic text, written by a man who spoke Persian at home, and used that theorem, like many other astronomers who followed him and were all working in the "Arabic/Islamic" world, in order to reform classical Greek astronomy, and then have his theorem in turn be translated into Byzantine Greek towards the beginning of the 14th century, only to be used later by Copernicus and others in Latin texts of Renaissance Europe."[56]

See also


  1. ^ a b Robinson (editor), Francis (1996). The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World. Cambridge University Press. pp. 228–229. 
  2. ^ Hodgson, Marshall (1974). The Venture of Islam; Conscience and History in a World Civilisation Vol 1. University of Chicago. pp. 233–238. 
  3. ^ Rémi Brague, Assyrians contributions to the Islamic civilization
  4. ^ Britannica, Nestorian
  5. ^ Hill, Donald. Islamic Science and Engineering. 1993. Edinburgh Univ. Press. ISBN 0-7486-0455-3, p.4
  6. ^ Hyman and Walsh Philosophy in the Middle Ages Indianapolis, 1973, p. 204' Meri, Josef W. and Jere L. Bacharach, Editors, Medieval Islamic Civilization Vol.1, A-K, Index, 2006, p. 304.
  7. ^ Turner, 2009. Table of Contents.
  8. ^ Masood (2009, pp.153–55)
  9. ^ Lagerkvist, Urf (2005). The Enigma of Ferment: from the Philosopher's Stone to the First Biochemical Nobel Prize. World Scientific Publishing. p. 32. 
  10. ^ Masood (2009, pp.74, 148–50)
  11. ^ Linton (2004), p.97). Owing to the unreliability of the data al-Zarqali relied on for this estimate, its remarkable accuracy was fortuitous.
  12. ^ Masood, Ehsan (2009). Science and Islam A History. Icon Books. pp. 73–75. 
  13. ^ Masood (2009, pp.132–35)
  14. ^ Masood (2009, pp.79-–80)
  15. ^ Meri, Josef W. (January 2006). Medieval Islamic Civilization, Volume 1 An Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 484—485. ISBN 978-0-415-96691-7. 
  16. ^ Toomer, Gerald (1990). "Al-Khwārizmī, Abu Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Mūsā". In Gillispie, Charles Coulston. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 7. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0-684-16962-2.
  17. ^ Masood (2009, pp.139–45)
  18. ^ Masood (2009, pp.49–52
  19. ^ Masood (2009, pp.104–5)
  20. ^ Masood (2009, pp.48–49)
  21. ^ Masood (2009, pp.148–49)
  22. ^ Masood (2009, pp.5, 104, 145–146)
  23. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Ghiyath al-Din Jamshid Mas'ud al-Kashi", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
  24. ^ Masood (2009, pp.74, 99–105)
  25. ^ Masood (2009, pp.108–109)
  26. ^ Masood (2009, pp.104–5)
  27. ^ Masood (2009, pp.110–11)
  28. ^ Masood (2009, pp.47–48, 59, 96–97, 171–72)
  29. ^ Masood (2009, pp.71–73)
  30. ^ K. B. Wolf, "Geometry and dynamics in refracting systems", European Journal of Physics 16, p. 14-20, 1995.
  31. ^ R. Rashed, "A pioneer in anaclastics: Ibn Sahl on burning mirrors and lenses", Isis 81, p. 464–491, 1990
  32. ^ Dallal, Ahmad (2010). Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. Yale University Press. pp. 38–39. 
  33. ^ Lindberg, David C. (1976). Theories of Vision from al-Kindi to Kepler. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-48234-0. OCLC 1676198. 
  34. ^ Masood (2009, pp.173–75)
  35. ^ Masood (2009, pp.161–63)
  36. ^ Lindberg, David (197 8). Science in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press. p. 23,56.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  37. ^ Selin, Helaine, ed. (1997). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 151, 235, 375. 
  38. ^ Bertrand Russell (1945), History of Western Philosophy, book 2, part 2, chapter X
  39. ^ Abdus Salam, H. R. Dalafi, Mohamed Hassan (1994). Renaissance of Sciences in Islamic Countries, p. 162. World Scientific, ISBN 9971-5-0713-7.
  40. ^ (Saliba 1994, pp. 245, 250, 256–257)
  41. ^ (Hobson 2004, p. 178)
  42. ^ Abid Ullah Jan (2006), After Fascism: Muslims and the struggle for self-determination, "Islam, the West, and the Question of Dominance", Pragmatic Publishings, ISBN 978-0-9733687-5-8.
  43. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan and Donald Routledge Hill (1986), Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History, p. 282, Cambridge University Press
  44. ^ Dallal, Ahmad (2010). Islam, science, and the challenge of history. Yale University Press. p. 12. ISBN 9780300159110. 
  45. ^ (Huff 2003)
  46. ^ Saliba, George (Autumn 1999). "Seeking the Origins of Modern Science? Review of Toby E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West". Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies. 1 (2). Retrieved 2008-04-10. 
  47. ^ Will Durant (1980). The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization, Volume 4), p. 162–186. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-01200-2.
  48. ^ Fielding H. Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine: with Medical Chronology, Suggestions for Study and Biblographic Data, p. 86
  49. ^ Nasr, Hossein (1976). Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study. 978-0-905-03502-4. 
  50. ^ Lewis, Bernard (2001). What Went Wrong? : Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Oxford University Press. p. 79. ISBN 0-19-514420-1. 
  51. ^ Sabra (2000) p. 216.
  52. ^ F. Jamil Ragep, "Freeing Astronomy from Philosophy: An Aspect of Islamic Influence on Science," Osiris, topical issue on Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions, n.s. 16(2001): 49–50, note 3
  53. ^ Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1968). "The Principles of Islam". Science and Civilization in Islam. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-946621-11-X. Retrieved 2008-02-03. 
  54. ^ Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam.
  55. ^ Aaen-Stockdale, C.R. (2008). "Ibn al-Haytham and psychophysics". Perception. 37 (4): 636–638. doi:10.1068/p5940. PMID 18546671. 
  56. ^ George Saliba (1999). Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?


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Further reading


External links

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