There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes
The last three chapters gave a very compressed overview of European, Indian and Chinese science up to the beginning of the European Renaissance (about 1450). When we now turn to Islamic science we have to focus again on the 300 years between 850 and 1150, the golden age of Arabic science. Before we do this it is appropriate to take stock and remind ourselves of the state of science in the other three civilizations.
Europe, as we have seen, was in the middle of its Dark Ages, and European science was at its lowest point. India had gone through its own golden age, which had ended around 500, and its science and technology had been in slow decline for some 300 years. China had seen its reunification under the Sui dynasty around 600 and was now the most powerful and most important Asian empire under the Tang dynasty (618 - 907). These factors have to be kept in mind when we now analyze the role of Islam in the global history of science.
The new religion of Islam originated in cities of the Arabian desert, an environment that requires skilled adaptation to the forces of nature for human survival. Agricultural production was restricted to the few oases, which often were not big enough to support the local population. But Arabia is located between Europe, India and China; Arabian traders had plied the Indian Ocean in their dhows for centuries, and trading routes stretched across the Arabian peninsula from the Indian Ocean coast to the Mediterranean Sea.
The people on the Arabian peninsula profited from that trade in two ways. Rich merchant clans controlled the city markets and local government. Desert clans benefited by raiding the camel caravans along the trading routes. Life in the region was thus fraught with danger, and to survive one had to be under the protection of a clan, who would guarantee security against attacks from other clans.
The different tribes worshipped different gods, and the places of worship were established sanctuaries, where people and business were protected from raids and warfare. The sanctuaries were therefore often important market places. Mecca, home of the Hashim clan and the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, was such a market centre and sanctuary.
Under Arabian custom the eldest son of a family inherited the family's wealth and the duty to look after the minors in the family. But the rich merchants of Mecca did not care much about traditional duties, and there was stark contrast between the rich and the poor. Muhammad was a minor himself and experienced what it meant to be dependent on the assistance of others. When he came into a position of power as the Prophet his teachings placed much weight on social responsibility. The "Five Pillars of Islam" include the zakat, the support of the poor in accordance to one's financial ability.
Muhammad's preaching was clearly directed against the lifestyle of the rich merchants who held power in Mecca, and the new Muslim faith spread easily amongst the common people. Desert tribes sought and found protection on the condition that they converted to Islam. At the end of his life Muhammad had succeeded in ending the history of Arabian blood feuds and raids and was the undisputed military leader of a united Arabia.
But the economic conditions in the Arabian peninsula had not changed, and raids remained an economic necessity for survival. By uniting the Arabian clans and desert tribes Muhammad had effectively directed their military energy outwards. The raids took now the form of a conquest of the surrounding regions. (Muhammad himself lead the first such raid with 30,000 men into Syria in 630.) As a consequence the new religion of Islam, that had started as a religion of the disadvantaged against the rich, turned into a religion of a new ruling class that built its empires through conquest.
To build these new empires the new ruling class required the assistance of the conquered people. They could impose their language on many conquered regions (Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and all of northern Africa adopted the Arabic language, and the term "Arabic" has a much wider meaning today as in Muhammad's time); but on their own, the clans and tribes of Arabia had neither the numbers nor the level of civilization required to take over and run such advanced societies as Persia or India.
The need to use existing intellectual resources explains the different treatment of other religions. Jews and Christians had to pay the jizyah, a poll tax levied on all members of the Christian and Jewish communities, but they could maintain religious autonomy, and their synagogues and churches were protected. In contrast, members of other religions ("pagans") were confronted with the choice of conversion to Islam or execution.
The official argument for the special treatment of Christians and Jews was that they are "people of the Book" (ahl al-kitab) who believe in the same God as Muslims and had sacred scriptures. But a more important motivation for leniency towards their beliefs appears to be that the intellectual elite of the existing civilizations, which was needed for the building of the new empires, came from these groups. Support for this analysis comes from the fact that the followers of Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, who could hardly be classified as believers in Allah, were also assigned the status of "people of the Book" as soon as the Islamic empires expanded into the civilizations of Persia and India.
The evolution of Islam from a movement against moral decay and corruption in Mecca's ruling class to an instrument of empire-building led to early contradictions within Islam itself. After Muhammad's death Abu Bakr as-Siddiq became the khalifah (caliph, literally "successor [of the Messenger of God]") and new religious and political head. He was followed by Umar ibn al-Khattab, who adopted the title caliph for the head of the combined civil and religious administration. The first caliphs are considered the rightful followers of Muhammad by the Islam majority known as the Sunnites. Although they were members of the rich ruling class their administration attempted to maintain the ideal of equality of all Muslims. But the increasingly autocratic rule of the governing aristocracy caused the less powerful and less wealthy clans to group around Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's son-in-law, and establish the Shiite branch of Islam.
Unlike Christianity or the beliefs of other people that had been defeated by the Arabian conquest and were tolerated, the Shiite branch of Islam (and other variations of Islam that followed) represented a threat to the political establishment. New branches of the Islamic faith therefore invariably met with violent suppression, and the struggle for political power was regularly pursued in the form of wars of religion between different branches of Islam.
Within less than 100 years the first Arabian empire had gained control over northern Africa, the Middle East and Spain. 800 years later Muslim power had expanded to the Gulf of Bengal. It is obvious that the resources of Arabia were insufficient to control such a vast territory. Other nations had to be enlisted for the task.
The methods to bring others to serve the needs of the empires varied. Slavery was widespread (in Saudi Arabia it was not officially abolished until 1962) and supplied particularly sailors to the navies. On land the use of slaves as soldiers had its dangers; several slave generals established themselves as independent Muslim rulers particularly in the remote African provinces, and in 1250 the Mamluk dynasty of ex-slaves began its rule over the empire from Egypt to Syria that lasted for more than 250 years.
Mercenery troops were a safer option as long as they were well paid; at the time of the Abbasids (when Muslim science was at its peak) Berber, Slav and Turkish mercenaries could be found among the empire's troops. The Ottoman empire introduced the Janissary Corps by recruiting young Christians from the Balkans and giving them special training and status.
The system of Islam embraces more than religious practice; it is a system to structure the society. Islamic (shariah) law regulates the rights and duties of the individual and the various groups of society. As in all other religions the interpretation of the Islamic scriptures and the associated law changes with the circumstances. Examples of ultra-orthodox interpretation are well known in our present days. Less well known is the degree to which the fundamental tenet of Islam to provide for the poor and abstain from greed has been and continues to be a major factor in Islamic life. All Muslim empires set up educational institutions known as madrasahs (Turkish medreses) where education was free and students received free board, lodging and medical care; the running costs were borne by princes and wealthy families. Islamic mosques were and still are large social service centres that often included homes for the elderly, hospitals and orphanages. During the 15th century the great mosque in Edirne built under the reign of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II was the largest social service building of the world; it offered free medical treatment and food services for the poor and operated a madrasah and a medical college.
Social responsibility was also the basis for commercial transactions and remains the foundation of Islamic banking today. The profit made on a transaction has to be spelled out in the contract, and the charging of interest is forbidden under shariah law.
The early development of Arabic science was determined by the necessities of building the Islamic state. The Umayyads, the first dynasty of caliphs, made Damascus their capital in 661 and built the Great Mosque, a masterpiece of religio-social architecture. Some 50 years later they introduced the Chinese technology of paper-making and supplied the madrasahs with writing paper produced in the capital.
Al-Mansur, second caliph of the Abbasids, the second caliph dynasty, founded Baghdad after 762 and made it his new capital. His successors made it the most illustrious city of the time. They amassed incredible wealth; the riches of the court of Harun ar-Rashid, the fifth of the Abbasid caliphs, are vividly described in the tale of "The Thousand and One Nights" (also known as the "Arabian Nights"). For over 50 years Baghdad was considered the richest city in the world.
But the Abbasids needed the help of science to run their empire, so they established a state-run paper mill and ordered the translation of scientific works from all civilizations they encountered.
For the new Arabian empire the translation of scientific and philosophical texts required a major effort. To begin with, the languages of the educated elite of the Middle East were Pahlavi (the language of the Persian empire now governed by Arabs) and Syriac (the language adopted by the Christian church). Persian, Christian or Jewish scholars who knew Greek or Sanskrit did not speak Arabic. An additional problem was that Arabic, the language of desert tribes and merchants, lacked the words for many scientific terms, which had to be invented and explained in simple words for the Arabian reader. As a result, translation was usually achieved in two stages. A Christian, Persian or Jewish scholar translated the text from Greek or Sanskrit into Syriac, and an Arab, who was not necessarily educated in the sciences, completed the translation into Arabic. This continued even after the caliph Abd el-Malik, who reigned from 685 to 705, made Arabic the official language of the empire by decree, until a new generation of scholars had grown up with Arabic as an acquired language.
The main thrust of the translations was initially directed towards astronomy and medicine; astronomy because it was needed to determine the dates of the Islamic festivals, medicine because the rulers valued their health, and also because the new public hospitals required it.
One of the first Arabian scholars who used translations of Greek works to develop own scientific ideas was Jabir, known to the European civilization under his Latinized name Geber. Jabir was keenly interested in the theory of matter and combined chemistry, alchemy and mysticism in his works. Mysticism was and to some degree still is a strong movement in Islam, and Jabir's works were promulgated widely and gained much influence in Europe, where they caused many wasteful attempts to produce gold from mercury and sulfur. Jabir's more scientific writings, about purification of metals in steel production, glass manufacture and other useful applications of chemistry, are still only available in Arabic.
Other Arabian scholars devoted their time exclusively to translations. Ptolemy's work He mathematike syntaxis was translated as al-Megiste ("The Greatest") and became known to Europe as the "Almagest." On al-Mansur's request the mathematician Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari translated the Indian astronomical treatise Mahasiddhanta. The Christian physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who had grown up bilingual (Arabic and Syriac) and had learned Greek during his studies, translated works by Plato, Aristotle and Ptolemy as well as many writings of the two most influential physicians of antiquity, Hippocrates and Galen.
Translating this wealth of philosophical and scientific literature into Syriac and then into Arabic required some 150 years before Arabic science was ready to build on the inherited knowledge and make its own original contributions. This phase began with the decision of caliph al-Ma'mun, who reigned from 813 to 833, to establish a "House of Wisdom" (Bayt al-hilkma), the largest such institution in the Mediterranean region since the Museum in Alexandria, and bring together a team of scientists to verify Ptolemy's data of the Almagest. This produced the first astronomical tables made in an Arabic empire that surpassed all existing tables in accuracy.
The project was helped without doubt by another of the great achievements of Arabic science, the combination of Greek geometry with Indian arithmetic. This was the work of the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, whose name lives on in the word "algorithm." His work Kitab al-jabr wa l-muqabala (literally "The Book of Reduction and Comparison"), from which our word "algebra" derives, was a systematic treatise of geometric problems in algebraic notation and of solutions to quadratic equations. While the solutions were given through algorithms, their proof was provided in geometric form. The introductory chapter stated the motivation for his work:
Easy and ingenious as the Indian place-value number system is, it took science quite some time before its advantages were fully exploited. For 200 years Arabian scientists combined the Indian numbers with sexagesimal fractions (probably an inheritance from Mesopotamian astronomy), and it was not until about 990 that the mathematician al-Karkhi (Abu Bakr Mohammed ibn al-Hassan al-Hasib al-Karkhi) replaced sexagesimal fractions by decimal fractions (Ead, 2003). At about the same time al-Biruni used the Indian number system for problems that cannot be handled with geometrical methods and on that occasion saw a need to describe its use again in minute detail.
The 100 years between al-Khwarizmi and al-Biruni saw important changes in the Arab world. The empire had grown to a size too large to be controlled by a single ruler. For more than 200 years Baghdad had been its political and intellectual centre. In 909 the Fatimid caliphs of northern Africa declared their independence and established their own new capital in Cairo. Baghdad still continued to be important, but more and more scholars worked in new centres of teaching and learning. The Fatimid library in Cairo consisted of forty rooms filled with books, including over 18,000 books on science. (Huff, 1993)
The development between the foundation of the Arabian empire in 661 and the 12th century is seen when we look at the places where the greatest Arabian scientists worked during the centuries:
|c. 750 - 850||Al-Khwarizmi||Born south of the Aral Sea but moved to Baghdad to study and stayed to work there all his life.|
|d. c. 870||Al-Kindi||Worked in Baghdad under caliph al-Ma'mun and successors.|
|865 - 923/932||Ar-Razi||Born in Iran, moved to Baghdad but did not work for the emperor's court, working for various smaller rulers and in public hospitals instead.|
|973 - 1048||Al-Biruni||Never went to Baghdad but travelled to India and settled eventually in Afghanistan.|
|965 - 1039||Al-Haytham||Born in Basra, Iraq; moved to Cairo and worked for the Fatimid dynasty.|
|980 - 1037||Ibn Sina
|Lived and taught in various Persian cities.|
|1126 - 1198||Ibn Rushd
|Lived and worked in Córdoba.|
The fact that these scientists made important contributions to science regardless of where they worked shows how the basis for valuable scientific work had expanded through the Arabian empire. Al-Kindi, known as "the philosopher of the Arabs," was the first major scientist of Arabian descent. As an Arab he was not fluent in Greek but was appointed to the "House of Wisdom" to polish the translations of others. He was an outstanding scholar in all areas of philosophy and science including logic, philosophy, geometry, mathematics, medicine, music and astrology. Al-Kindi introduced and defined many new terms into the Arabic language and added original work to the writings of the ancient scholars.
Ar-Razi, one of the greatest physicians of the Arabian world, wrote a treatise on smallpox and measles that was translated into Latin, Byzantine Greek and all major European languages. Al-Haytham, known to European sciences under his Latinized name Alhazen, revolutionized optics by abandoning the Greek theory that the eye sees by emitting sensory matter, adopting instead the idea that the eye is a receptor of light. Science historians sometimes ponder the question how al-Haytham arrived at this idea. The answer becomes obvious when we remember that Arabian science had its roots in the science of many civilizations: Al-Haytham built on the theory of Varahamihira, who had described the eye as a receptor of light rays 450 years before him, and developed its consequences in his own work.
This expansion of scientific activity across the Islamic world was a golden age for science. Every major city had at least a few madrasahs with associated public libraries. One of the largest libraries of the 10th century was located in Shiraz, Iran; it is reported to have had 360 rooms with specially built cabinets for the books. In the 13th century Marv in eastern Persia had ten well stocked libraries, Baghdad had 30; Damascus in 1500 had 150 madrasahs with libraries. (Huff, 1993)
The ethical requirement of Islam to look after the sick produced some of the most advanced medical treatment and research institutions of medieval times. The Buyid dynasty, who followed the Abassids in 945, built the first large public hospital, the 'Abudi, in Baghdad in 987. It was modelled on the hospital in Gondeshapur, the great centre of learning of the conquered Persian empire, and had consultation rooms for various specialists including the physiologist, oculist, orthopaedist, surgeon, phlebotomist and cupper. Attached to it was a library and a discussion room, which made the 'Abudi a true teaching hospital. (Huff, 1993)
The founding of the 'Abudi in Baghdad was followed in 1154 by the establishment of the famous Nuri hospital in Damascus and in 1284 by the founding of the Mansuri hospital in Cairo. The establishment of large teaching hospitals lead to flourishing medical science. The majority of physicians were Christian, Persian or Jewish. Ibn Sina, the great physician from the turn of the 10th to the 11th century known to the world under his Latinized name Avicenna, was Persian. In the history of medicine Ibn Sina holds a place of honour next to Hippocrates and Galen. Although his name is no longer remembered by people outside the Islamic world, in Muslim countries he is rightly held in the high regard he deserves.
This overview of scientific progress during the time when Arabian science led the world can only be brief and cannot do justice to the many scientists individually who worked under Muslim caliphs and sultans. Ead (2003) gives a list of nearly seventy names of scientists for the period 700 - 1400.
The one outstanding characteristic of the Muslim period of science is the readiness with which its scholars accepted and assimilated scientific knowledge from all known civilizations and progressed by combining the best parts of all and developing them further through own research. In contrast to the European civilization, which has a propensity to proclaim all ideas as its own (remember bishop Severus Sebokt's defence of Indian mathematics against Greek claims of superiority in Lecture 6), Arabian scholars were always full of admiration for the achievements of their mentors. Said al-Andalusi, a historian and scholar at the court of Córdoba, Spain, praised India as "the mine of wisdom." The Ottoman music scholar Mehmed Chelebi acknowledged Greek and Jewish sources in his writings and called Pythagoras the inventor of the science of music and "disciple of King Solomon."
The new religion of Islam played an important role in the establishment of the new scientific spirit in the Arabian world. Culturally and intellectually the rulers of the new Arabian empires were tribespeople from the desert. They had no tradition of intellectual achievement but were skilled and fearless horseback fighters, who could overrun vast regions and keep the defeated people enslaved or bound to the payment of tribute. They did not, in this aspect, differ much from the Mongols, who overran an entire continent in the 14th century. There is, however, one important difference between the Arabian caliphates and sultanates and the Mongol empire. The Arabian rulers had the new religion of Islam to guide them in their aim to establish an empire. They knew their obligations to look after the poor and after the sick and sought the assistance of science in the organization of their empire. The Mongols did not have that ethical ideal; their arrival usually meant senseless death and large-scale destruction.
Conflict between competing dynasties developed well before the Mongol onslaught. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who as a true philosopher-scientist had served in various government positions including vizier (chief minister), had to be on the run for most of his life already at the end of the 10th century and wrote his most important works in prison. Because dynastic conflicts were always accompanied by religious intolerance, he spent much of his time not only on science but also on questions of philosophy and its relationship to religion and turned to mysticism before his death.
A century later the use of religion as an instrument of dynastic struggle took a more serious turn in Córdoba (Spain) when Islam became the only tolerated religion and Jewish inhabitants, among them some of the best physicians, had to flee the city. It was a time when outstanding intellectuals, who under better circumstances would have made important contributions to science, spent much of their time pondering questions of religion again. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides was a physician by training, but most of his writings were on religious problems.
The Arabian physician Ibn Rushd, a contemporary of Maimonides - both grew up in the same city - was ordered by the caliph to produce an interpretation of Greek philosophy acceptable to Islam. Ibn Rushd (who is known mostly under his Latinized name Averroës) was an excellent and gifted scientist, but he spent most of his time trying to defend rational enquiry against the dogma of theologians. His critique of government practices and treatment of women under Islam resulted in constant attacks against him and occasional banishment from Córdoba. Under more favourable circumstances he would no doubt have contributed much more to the development of science.
When the Mongol Timur arrived at Damascus in 1401 the city was the home of Ibn Khaldun, one of the greatest minds of the Muslim world. Generally acknowledged as a historian, Ibn Khaldun was much more than an accurate record keeper of events; he approached history with the mind of a scientist. His main work Muqaddimah ("Introduction to History") broke with the tradition of treating history as religious philosophy and introduced 'ilm al-'umran ("the science of culture") which, in the words of the author,
Ibn Khaldun's analysis of the laws of society were more advanced than the social theories developed by the European philosophers some 300 years later when they struggled to understand the laws of capitalism. (Lecture 22) Living in the 14th century Ibn Khaldun could of course not foresee the rise of capitalism, but the six books of his masterpiece Muqaddimah contain a complete outline of a general sociology, a sociology of politics, a sociology of urban life, a sociology of economics and a sociology of knowledge.
The besieged city of Damascus sent Ibn Khaldun into Timur's camp to plead for the life of its citizens. Timur was most impressed by Ibn Khaldun's knowledge and wisdom, and although he brought the golden age of Muslim civilization to an end by sacking the city, the city's artists and artisans were deported to embellish Timur's capital Samarkand. A handful of scientists were eventually attracted to Samarkand or ordered to move there, and towards the end of the period of Arabic science Samarkand became a late intellectual centre. But Islam had lost its progressive role by that time, and the Islamic dynasties had turned into true feudal regimes, where science flourishes if the ruler has an interest in it and languishes if his interests are elsewhere.
Timur's grandson Ulugh Beg happened to have an interest in the arts and sciences and in astronomy in particular. He built an excellent observatory and made Samarkand a centre of science for a few decades. He made observations himself and found and corrected errors in Ptolemy's tables. Jamshid Al-Kashi, an astronomer at his court, was the first known Arabic author to consider "Pascal's" Triangle. His relatives considered Ulugh Beg a failure as a ruler. He was assassinated on the orders of his son.
The Ottoman and Mughal empires that followed the collapse of Mongol power were true feudal societies. The arts, architecture and other intellectual activity that could enhance the prestige of their ruling houses flourished in them, but they could not rebuild Islamic science to the position that it had enjoyed during the seven hundred years between 700 and 1400.
Benoît, P. and F. Micheau (1995) The Arab Intermediary. In: M. Serres (editor): A History of Scientific Thought, Elements of a History of Science. Blackwell, Oxford, 191 - 221. (Translation of Éléments d'Histoire des Sciences, Bordas, Paris, 1989)
Huff, T. E. (1993) The rise of early modern science. Islam, China, and the West. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Ead, H. A. (2003) Islamic Contributions to Science.
http://www.omarfoundation.org/Culture/History Science.htm (accessed 14 December 2003). Based on Sarton, G. (1975 Introduction to the History of Science, Krieger, Melbourne (Florida, USA).