Science in the medieval Islamic world

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 (also known, less accurately, as Islamic science or Arabic science) was the science developed and practiced in the medieval Islamic world 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.

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]

Scientists within the Muslim-ruled areas had diverse ethnic backgrounds & included Arabs,[2] Persians,[3][4][5][6] Assyrians, Kurds[5] and Egyptians. They also came from diverse religious backgrounds; most were Muslims,[7][8][9] but their ranks also included some Christians,[10] Jews[10][11] and irreligious.[12][13]

Science in the context of Islamic civilisation

The crystallisation of Islamic thought and civilization

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. This era can be identified as the years between 692 and 945,[14] and ended when the caliphate was marginalised by local Muslim rulers in Baghdad – its traditional seat of power. From 945 onward until the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, the Caliph continued on as a figurehead, with power devolving more to local amirs.[15]

During the Islamic Golden Age, stable political structures were established and trade flourished. The Chinese were undergoing a revolution in commerce, and the trade routes between the lands of Islam and China boomed both overland and along the coastal routes between the two civilisations.[15] Islamic civilisation continued to be primarily based upon agriculture, but commerce began to play a more important role as the caliphate secured peace within the empire. The wars and cultural divisions that had separated peoples before the Arab conquests gradually gave way to a new civilisation encompassing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. This new Islamic civilisation used the Arabic language as transmitters of culture and Arabic increasingly became the language of commerce and government.[16]

Over time, the great religious and cultural works of the empire were translated into Arabic, the population increasingly understood Arabic, and they increasingly professed Islam as their religion. The cultural heritages of the area included strong Greek, Indic, Assyrian and Persian influences. The Greek intellectual traditions were recognised, translated and studied broadly. Through this process, the population of the lands of Islam gained access to all the important works of all the cultures of the empire, and a new common civilisation formed in this area of the world, based on the religion of Islam. A new era of high culture and innovation ensued, where these diverse influences were recognised and given their respective places in the social consciousness.[17]

Domains of thought and culture in the High Caliphate

Islamic scholars - a late 16th century Ottoman illustration

The pious scholars of Islam, men and women collectively known as the ulama, were the most influential element of society in the fields of Sharia law, speculative thought and theology. Their pronouncements defined the external practice of Islam, including prayer, as well as the details of the Islamic way of life. They held strong influence over government, and especially the laws of commerce. They were not rulers themselves, but rather keepers and upholders of the rule of law.[18]

Conversely, among the religious, there were inheritors of the more charismatic expressions of Christianity and Buddhism, in the Sufi orders. These Muslims had a more informal and varied approach to their religion. Islam also expressed itself in other, more esoteric forms that could have significant influence over public discourse during times of social unrest.[19]

Among the more worldly, adab – polite, worldly culture — permeated the lives of the professional, the courtly and genteel classes. Art, literature, poetry, music and even some aspects of religion were among the areas widely appreciated by those of a more refined taste among Muslim and non-Muslim alike. New trends and new topics flowed from the center of the Baghdad courts, to be adopted both quickly and widely across the lands of Islam.[20]

Apart from these other traditions stood falsafa; Greek philosophy, inclusive of the sciences as well as the philosophy of the ancients. This science had been widely known across Mesopotamia and Iran since before the advent of Islam. These "sciences" were in many ways contrary to the teachings of Islam and the ways of the adab, but were nonetheless highly regarded in society. The ulama tolerated these outlooks and practices with reservation. Some faylasufs made a good living in the practices of astrology and medicine.[19]

Medieval Islamic science

Fields of inquiry

Islamic science drew primarily upon Arab, Persian, Indian and Greek learning. The extent of Islamic scientific achievement is not as yet fully understood, but is very large.[1] These achievements encompass a wide range of subject areas, especially mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.[1]

Other subjects of scientific inquiry included physics, alchemy and chemistry, cosmology, ophthalmology, geography and cartography, sociology, and psychology.


In medieval Islam, the sciences, which included philosophy, were viewed holistically. The individual scientific disciplines were approached in terms of their relationships to each other and the whole, as if they were branches of a tree. In this regard, the most important scientists of Islamic civilization have been the polymaths, known as hakim or sages. Their role in the transmission of the sciences was central.[21]

The hakim was most often a poet and a writer, skilled in the practice of medicine as well as astronomy and mathematics. These multi-talented sages, the central figures in Islamic science, elaborated and personified the unity of the sciences. They orchestrated scientific development through their insights, and excelled in their explorations as well.[21]


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



A page from al-Khwārizmī's Algebra
Drawing of Self trimming lamp in Ahmad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir's treatise on mechanical devices. The manuscript was written in Arabic.


The views of historians and scholars

On the impact of medieval Islamic science

There are several different views on Islamic science among historians of science.

On the historiography of medieval Islamic science

The history of science in the Islamic world, like all history, is filled with questions of interpretation.

Historians of science generally consider that the study of science in the Islamic world, like all history, must be seen within the particular circumstances of time and place.

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."[60]

Some scholars avoid such local historical approaches and seek to identify essential relations between Islam and science that apply at all times and places.

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."[61][62] 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."[63]

Some historians of science, however, question the value of drawing boundaries that label the sciences, and the scientists who practice them, in specific cultural, civilizational, or linguistic terms. Some scholars consider the practice to be an example of "boosterism" and object that it "defines the achievements of scholars... in terms of their religion rather than their research."[64] Others simply consider it 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."[65]

Role of Christians

Christians especially Nestorian contributed to the Arab Islamic Civilization during the Ummayads and the Abbasids by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic.[66] They also excelled in philosophy, science (such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Qusta ibn Luqa, Masawaiyh, Patriarch Eutychius, Jabril ibn Bukhtishu etc) and theology (such as Tatian, Bar Daisan, Babai the Great, Nestorius, Toma bar Yacoub etc.) and the personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Assyrian Christians such as the long serving Bukhtishu dynasty.[67][68]

Role of Persians

As Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Arab historiographer and sociologist suggests, it is a remarkable fact that with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars in the intellectual sciences were Ajams ("Persians"):

Thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent… they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar … great jurists were Persians … only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, 'If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it' … The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them … as was the case with all crafts … This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana [=modern Central Asia], retained their sedentary culture.
Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Translated by Franz Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye. p. 91.

See also


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  2. 1 2 Masood (2009, pp.173–75)
  3. William Bayne Fisher, et al, The Cambridge History of Iran 4, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 396
  4. Shaikh M. Ghazanfar, Medieval Islamic economic thought: filling the "great gap" in European economics, Psychology Press, 2003 (p. 114-115)
  5. 1 2 Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, p. 430, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01754-9.
  6. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Historian of Economics: Selected Papers from the History of Economics Society Conference, 1994, y Laurence S. Moss, Joseph Alois Schumpeter, History of Economics Society. Conference, Published by Routledge, 1996, ISBN 0-415-13353-X, p.64.
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  8. Hogendijk, Jan P. (January 1999), Bibliography of Mathematics in Medieval Islamic Civilization
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  13. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
  14. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam; Conscience and History in a World Civilisation Vol 1. The University of Chicago, 1974, pg. 234.
  15. 1 2 Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam; Conscience and History in a World Civilisation Vol 1. The University of Chicago, 1974, pg. 233.
  16. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam; Conscience and History in a World Civilisation Vol 1. The University of Chicago, 1974, pg. 235.
  17. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam; Conscience and History in a World Civilisation Vol 1. The University of Chicago, 1974, pg. 236–238.
  18. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam; Conscience and History in a World Civilisation Vol 1. The University of Chicago, 1974, pg. 238.
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