Islam and Science in 600-1500 AD

By | June 19, 2022

I wanted to write this article in order to understand and summarize the chapters of Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patrica Fara in which the contributions of Islam and Arabs to science are explained. Science was developed and practiced during the Islamic Golden Age under the Umayyads of Córdoba, the Samanids, the Ziyarids, the Buyids in Persia, the Abbasid Caliphate, and beyond, spanning the period roughly between 600 and 1500. Islamic scientific achievements encompassed a wide range of subject areas, especially astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Other subjects of scientific inquiry included alchemy and chemistry, botany and agronomy, geography and cartography, ophthalmology, pharmacology, physics, and zoology.

Western commentators have portrayed Muslims as alien creatures to reinforce their own identity as Europeans. They told stereotypes and scary stories. From a western perspective, science first entered Islamic culture in the 8th century, when the caliphs who ruled Baghdad began to pour money into science. At that time, Arabic had become the international language of science, linking a vast area stretching along the southern Mediterranean coast, as far as the western tip of Spain and the borders of China. When conditions were so favorable, research progressed and theoretical knowledge reached an unprecedented level. Islamic civilization failed to sustain this intellectual momentum, and science was only saved by transferring it to Western Europe in the late 13th century. The golden age of Islam, the establishment of cosmopolitan and large cities in the areas conquered by the Arabs, other than theology; is the creation of an economic and social environment that will support intelligent people who will deal with scientific, philosophical, and literary works with today’s concepts. What is done is to reach the accumulation of ancient civilizations, ancient Greek, and Iranian India, and open it to the access of other non-Muslim countries bordering Muslims as well as Muslims in cultural geography extending from Afghanistan to Spain. This has shaped the history of the world. There are original contributions and inventions in fields such as algebra, optics, etc., which are great things like miracles when you look at today’s Islamic world.

The language of science is Arabic

The Arabic language, which existed in written form before the birth of Islam, firstly spread to spread the Qur’an, but also established itself as the language of culture and administration, and spread as the language of science and philosophy in all countries under Islamic rule after the seventh century.

The Arabic language gradually became richer with words coming from Greek, Syriac, Indian and Iranian languages.

When Muslim scholars were confronted with Greek ideas, they used their own criteria of importance to fit them into their conceptual framework. The most well-known book on the history of European science is Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”. It refers to a beginning, a mathematical basis that will form the basis of knowledge about the physical world. On the other hand, the title of one of the greatest scientific works of the Arabs is “Kitabü’ş-Şifa” and it aims to cure the reader’s ignorance. Several parts of it were translated into Latin and became the standard textbook at Renaissance universities. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) wrote some of his hundred-odd books on the backs of horses and camels, using a pannier that he invented.

Although science and religion are often said to be at war, the scriptures in Islam emphasized that Muslims must acquire knowledge throughout their lives as part of their quest for spiritual perfection. Schools were intertwined with mosques and mostly revelation-based information was processed. Two different institutions emerged over time: observatories and hospitals. They had very large libraries because the teachers of Islam placed great emphasis on the study of texts, especially after a new and inexpensive material such as paper, which quickly replaced papyrus and parchment, appeared. These learning centers spread throughout the Islamic empire and encouraged research into the natural world. The first of the great centers for processing rational knowledge was the caliph’s palace in Baghdad, which was financially supported by the state. This famous school, which had a very large library, attracted many scholars from all over, and these scholars were translating the Greek texts in the library into Arabic. Medical and astrological texts provided useful information in surgery, medicine, and diagnosis, and by the 10th century, an enormous amount of study had accumulated in the hands of the Arabs. Although it was impossible for them to foresee this at the time, this political ambition they possessed ensured that their Greek knowledge was not lost, and deeply influenced later science.

Astronomical observatories played a major role in science education. The most important was the observatory (in Persia, present-day Iran) founded by Genghis Khan’s grandson in 1261 and supported by a religious foundation. This basic plan, which included a school, observatory, and library, spread all over the Islamic world and was later imitated by Europeans visiting frequently visited places such as Istanbul. In addition, centers that are both schools and hospitals were another Islamic innovation that deeply affected Europe.

After the 13th century, science is said to have declined in the Islamic world. So, why did Islamic scholars give up the race and stay in the last place, while carrying the torch of the progress of the Greeks with such great success? The progress of scientific research practiced under Islamic rule was stalled for several reasons. Political changes have played a very important role in this regard. Science flourished when the Islamic world was in peace and prosperity but then began to weaken when financial resources were shifted to armies and agriculture. Especially when Europe embraced the New World, trade and wealth steadily flowed to the West, and Islamic rulers lost their almost global dominance.

The decline of Islamic civilization

On the other hand, the east was gradually weakened by the Crusades, internal conflicts, and finally the Mongol invasion. The Islamic empire was shaken and gradually disintegrated after the last Abbasid caliph was killed by the order of the Mongol emperor in 1258.

Two years after the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1494, Arabs and Jews were expelled from Spain. Arab science gradually began to fade. Knowledge-hungry Europe fell into the Arab scientific treasury and created the Renaissance from the hands of Leonardo De Vinci, Dante, and Michelangelos with what it took from there. However, some works remained secret for a long time, such as Al-Khayyam’s book Algebra, which came to light in 1851.

The Arabs have added their own genius and creativity to the knowledge that has come to them from ancient times.