Ian Ackelsberg: Islam and the Sciences

Muslim societies were largely responsible for many concepts that became the foundations of the European renaissance. Not only did Muslim scholars create mathematical concepts that the modern world still functions on today, they also were responsible for bringing some of the most important philosophies of ancient Greece back to Europe after they had mostly been lost. Scientific thought is one of the core foundations of the Islamic religion, and Islamic institutions created the perfect environment to produce some of the world’s greatest thinkers, whose knowledge spread to Europe and greatly influenced the European renaissance.


Focus on science in Islam begins right in the Qur’an. The first word that Angel Gabriel proclaims to Muhammad, “Iqra,” or “read,” can be seen as evidence that literacy and education has always been a central force in Islam, right from the beginning. Moving forward, there are many verses in the Qur’an that stress the importance of knowledge. A modern astrophysicist, speaking on this subject, speaks of the Qur’an’s emphasis on empirical evidence: “The Qur’an draws attention to the danger of conjecturing without evidence (And follow not that of which you have not the (certain) knowledge of… 17:36) and in several different verses asks Muslims to require proofs (Say: Bring your proof if you are truthful 2:111).” Another quote, “The ink of scholars is more prominent than the blood of martyrs,” perfectly describes how Muslims valued education over war, and scholarship over martyrdom. As we can see, the Qur’an clearly emphasises education, rational thought, and scientific analysis.


In addition to the actual text of the Qur’an, early Islamic institutions acted as incubators for theologians, philosophers, scientists, poets, and architects. Islamic empires in the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries were wealthy and powerful, and there was enough of a centralization of government and an economic system that created a division of labor to allow for a good amount of people to be scholars instead of farmers. In addition to the economic institutions that allowed for scholarship, the institution of Mosque was incredibly important. Mosques not only served as places for prayer, but they also were hubs of education. Madrasas, or Islamic schools, all extended from the Mosque. In addition, the institution of waqf, or charitable donation or endowment to Muslim centers of learning, provided enough money to finance scholarship. The Muslim world was home to some of the world’s most extensive libraries. Some examples are the “Houses of Wisdom,” or “Beit al-Hikmah” and “Dar al-Hikmah” in Baghdad and Cairo, which held claim to thousands of books each. Al-Azhar University in Cairo is the oldest continuously running university in the world, and has been an incredibly important institution of learning for the last thousand years.


In addition to Islamic institutions and the text of Qur’an, it would be impossible to talk about the prolifery of Muslim scholarship without discussing some of those scholars themselves. Ibn al-Nadim was one of those great scholars; he was famous for his book, “Kitab Al-Fihrist,” which was a collection of literary works from Arabs and non-Arabs alike from all over the world, compiled in the Arabic language. His book covered topics such as the holy scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (with an emphasis on the Qur’an and Hadith), grammar, history, poetry, theology, law, and non-religious subjects such as magic, alchemy, and the history of other non-abrahamic religions. Al-Nadim’s interest in Aristotle was shared by one of his most well known contemporaries, Al-Farabi, who wrote “Ihsa’ al-‘Ulum,” or the “Encyclopedia of the Sciences,” one of the most detailed scientific encyclopedias of the time. Al-Farabi is partly credited with preserving the original works of Aristotle through his extensive commentary and analysis. He was a scholar of logic, physics, music, psychology, and philosophy. One of Al-Farabi’s most famous books is titled, “Al-Medina Al-Fadila,” or, “The Perfect City,” in which he imagines a real life application of Plato’s Republic. He argues that the perfect city was in fact Medina under the rule of Prophet Muhammad, who acted as the Muslim version of Plato’s idea of “philosopher king.” Farabi had a great influence on the Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, or “Maimonides,” as well as other Andalusian thinkers. He was regarded as second only to Aristotle in knowledge. As important Al-Farabi was, perhaps no one was as important as Ibn Sina. Ibn Sina wrote some of the world’s most important books on science, philosophy, and medicine. As a young man, Ibn Sina quickly became an accomplished physician, healing patients while refusing to accept payments for doing so. He then moved into the world of philosophy, reading Aristotle and Farabi’s commentary on Aristotle. He was accomplished in the world of metaphysics and theology, writing on the nature of God and existence. He also studied chemistry, physics, logic, and psychology. His “Canon of Medicine”, or “Qanun fi A-Tibb” was studied until the mid 17th century as a standard textbook of medicine.


Scholarship was flourishing all over the Muslim world, but there was perhaps no place in the world for scholarship better than Spain between the years of 750 and 1492. In the Spanish golden age, Muslims, Jews, and Christians together produced some incredible works that greatly influenced the European Renaissance. One of the most important Andalusian scholars was Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, who although was not a Muslim, wrote in an Islamic context, and wrote mainly in Arabic. Maimonides was one of the biggest influences of the renaissance philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, who specifically references Maimonides in many of his works. Spain was a melting pot of religious ideology and was a space that was open for great debate and scholarship amongst scholars of many different religious backgrounds.


What could have caused the decline of Islamic preeminence of scientific thought? Some scholars argue that Islamic society actually redistributed money too much and didn’t centrally accumulate enough wealth to compete with new European monarchies that were enormously rich. After the new world was discovered by Europeans in 1492, Muslim civilizations missed out on a huge amount of wealth that was made by colonialism and the slave trade. Only a few centuries later, Muslim societies would end up bearing the brunt of European colonialism, which left scars that are still felt today across the Muslim world. That being said, one cannot look at the European enlightenment without acknowledging its Muslim and Middle Eastern roots.


Works Cited:


Armstrong, K. Islam: A Short History. London: Phoenix Press, 2009.

Brown, D, A New Introduction to Islam, 3rd. Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

Murata, S. and Chittick, W, The vision of Islam. London: New York, 2006.

Nidhal Guessoum. Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. I.B.Tauris. p. 174.