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Arabic Science I

Page history last edited by Marek 15 years, 8 months ago


Arabic Science I


     The spread of Islam occurred within a very short timespan, about 200 years from the time Muhammad began to teach in Mecca. Islam's speedy expansion can be attributed to the concept of Jihad (to strive for a cause). Such growth along with the forced conversions of pagans and the use of Arabic as a common language helped create a diverse society in which the natural philosophies flourished. Conquests of Alexander the Great (4th century BC) and the expulsion of religious sects associated with Christianity meant that Muslims encountered many established places of Greek learning and people versed in Greek philosophy. After the death of Mohammad, Muslim areas were separated into states governed by caliphs. The states required administrative bureaucracies to which educated locals were appointed (Nestorian Christians would become court physicians or advisors in what was Persia). The spread of Islam also brought down political barriers in all parts of the European world that had previously been separated into several empires and warring states.  Trade with the Far East brought paper from China. The cheap material for recording and documentation helped spur translation.  Through a massive translation effort many scientific and philosophical texts that were written in several different languages became consolidated into Arabic allowing for easier consumption and criticism.


 Arabic Translation


     In Baghdad during the Abbasid Dynasty, under the supervision of caliph al-Mansur (754-75), a large effort to translate the Greek and Syriac texts of the Nestorian Christians into Arabic was undertaken. His grandson, Harud ar-Rashid (786-809), sent out for Greek manuscripts to Byzantium. The son of ar-Rahid in turn, al-Mamun (813-833) founded a research institute: The House of Wisdom, which became a clearinghouse for translation.


     Three of the most important translators in the house of wisdom were Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-873), his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn, and Thabit ibn Qurra (836-901).  Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian Christian (knowledge of Greek, Arabic, Syriac), translated Galen, some Hippocratic works, Plato's Timaeus, and some Aristotelian works: Metaphysics, On the Soul, On Generation and Corruption, and a part of Physics.  His son, Ishaq ibn Hunayn, translated Ptolemy's Almagest, Euclid's Elements and more of Aristotle's works.  And finally, Thabit ibn Qurra (a pagan) translated "mathematical and astronomical treatises" such as works of Archimedes (Lindberg 172). The majority of these translations were from Syriac to Arabic and done sentence by sentence to preserve the text's meaning (semantic translation). It is important to remember that due to the philosophical and mathematical complexity of these works, translation, and even more so semantic translation, required high intelligence and intense study.  Translations were also compared to other translations to ensure accuracy. By 1000 A.D., nearly all of the Greek corpus had been translated into Arabic.


     The reasons for translations of the texts ranged from practical means to plain curiosity. Galen's work was useful for developing medicine. Ptolemy's astronomical insight was needed in order to calculate times of prayer and help determine the direction of Mecca, the city to which daily prayers are directed. Aristotle's logic was used in theology and law. Mathematics was widely applicable - commerce, legal and government purposes (division of inheritance). For the most part, Greek natural philosophy was used to aid in the practice of Islam and further well-being in the Muslim commonwealth. It is important to note, however, that the pursuit of science always required justification of utility. Knowledge for its own sake was never endorsed, often led to social stigma and persecution.


Places of Learning  


     There were many places at which a student could get instruction in the Arabic world. Masters lectured their students privately in most cases, although Muslim law was taught publicly and led to a certificate allowing its practice. Basic instruction in reading and writing would occur at Masjids or teacher's homes. A student would continue learning in madrasas - places of higher learning where the Koran, other indigenous writings, poetry, and history would be taught. The focus of these "colleges" was study of Muslim law, although the masters could be approached for private lessons in philosophy or the natural sciences. Study focused on reading, copying and memorizing manuscripts. At the completion of a subject matter, the student obtained a personal ijaza (certificate to teach) from the master. There was no curriculum to follow and a student was free to pursue any courses of study from any master he could find. These studies could sometimes take the form of mathematical education, because mathematics were especially important in the early Muslim world because Muslim law (property division, taxes, etc.) and religion (what exact time to pray, what exact direction to face) were imperative to the execution of a proper Muslim society. There were no degrees or any outside supervision of what was taught. Observatories founded in the Arabic world also offered instruction in astronomy and mathematics. They provided accuracy in celestial observation that was unparalleled until the invention of the telescope and creation of astronomical tables (zij) from which the lengths of seasons, detailed motions of the planets, and distances between terrestrial locations could be computed. For a deserving student, apprenticeships in hospitals along with instruction in medicine were available.


Notable Arabic Natural Philosophers:

  • Al-Kindi: worked in philosophy and optics
  • Al-Battani: Worked in Astronomy
  • Al-Farghani: Worked in Astronomy
  • Ibn Sina: General Natural Philosophy
  • Ibn al-Haytham: Worked in Optics
  • Ibn Rushd: General Natural Philosophy
  • Al-Tusi: Worked in Astronomy
  • Ibn ash-Shatir: Worked in Astronomy


Major Achievements


  • Mathematics: Arabic numerals and the idea of “zero”, a concept which was borrowed from Indians, are of Arabic origin. Algebra is an Arabic invention as well, and while the subject was practiced differently during this time, it was used in much the same way as it is today. The idea of logarithms and trigonometry also came from the Muslim world.


  • Astronomy: Observatories - institutional homes for astronomers and their activities, came into existence, and new instruments such as the quadrant were created, while the astrolabe was perfected.  Muslim astronomers worked in the Greek framework, which they expanded, corrected or rearticulated according to their needs.  They focused on mastery of Ptolemy's Almagest, then compared Ptolemy's model against observations and made corrections where necessary.


  • Optics: Ibn al-Haytham created a theory of optics which had both physical and mathematical aspects. It was an intromissionist theory with light travelling from the object to the eye. Arabic work in the field led to a culmination which lasted to the 17th century.


  • Medicine: Critical discussions on Galen were common. Pulmonary circulation was discovered before its inception in Western Europe.


Decline of Arabic Science


     Arabic science flourished thanks to the complete access to Greek achievement (deductive geometry, logic of proof) and the development of the Arabic-Hindu numeral system, which was easy to use and quantitative enough to make logical suppositions. In astronomy, medicine, mathematics and optics the achievements of Muslim scholars were surpassed in the West only after the scientific revolution. There are many possible reasons why the revolution did not, and perhaps could not have occurred in the land of Islam.


     Warfare between Muslim states, the conquest of Spain and the invasion of the Mongols as well as the rising opposition from conservative forces within Islam meant patronage was more difficult to find. There were no secure institutional homes for the study of natural sciences or even philosophy in general. The travel of students to study under a master or the gathering of notable scholars such as that in the Maragha observatory required a patron that could support the undertaking financially and protect it against religious zealots.


     The reason institutions such as madrasas and observatories lasted only for short periods of time had to do with the law under which they were founded - waqf law. They were established as charitable trusts strictly according to the wishes of the founder, and could only serve purposes sanctified by Islam. There was no way for them to adapt to a changing environment, since they were subject to the literal interpretation of the founding document. For example, the Maragha observatory with a great library was founded in 1259 by the Mongol rulers (notably after the conquest of Baghdad in 1258) under the waqf law with an astrological purpose in mind. Of course astrology had no place in Islam and the project was doomed to failure from its inception (survived less than one hundred years). In any case, during its prime it saw the establishment of the Maragha school of astronomy with such scholars as al-Tusi, al-Shirazi, and al-Shatir.


     The personal tract of learning meant that many accomplishments were buried along with their creators or fell on deaf ears within the Arabic community. Scholars such as Averroes, who was widely read and admired in the West, were sometimes persecuted and their works burnt. There existed only very narrow and unprogressive avenues for development of natural science (or foreign science as it was known) within Islam such as the postion of muwaqqit at a Masjid. A principle of Muslim theology called occasionalism effectively denied the existence of natural law. Legal rulings or fatwas against a particular person or pursuit could be issued by anyone with a certificate to practice law from a madrasa. There was no universal legal tradition to appeal to in a defense. Although paper existed and the technology to print was available in the Arabic lands centuries before it came to Western Europe, nothing came of it. There was a ban on printing in Muslim states into the 19th century (based on Toby E. Huff, "The Rise of Early Modern Science").

     During its prime, the Muslim world lent merit to scientific inquiry, and the modern world owes early Arabic natural philosophers a technological and methodological debt of gratitude. Unfortunately, the era of Muslim scientific thought faded into obscurity for centuries.






Primary Sources



Key Terms and Definitions

Caliphs:  The succesive leaders of Islam and the Muslim world after Mohammed's death.

Koran:  The holy book of Islam containing the teachings of Mohammed.

Masjid:  A place of worship in the Muslim religion, also where some religious study was done in Muslim faith.

muqqawit:  A muslim timekeeper employed in Masjids in order to calculate prayer times; trained in astronomy

House of Wisdom: founded by caliph al-Mamun; the "clearing house" for the translation of documents

Madrasas: places of higher learning, with a purpose of teaching Muslim law, although the masters taught other subjects as well though only privately



Relevant Links




Comments (13)

Garry Polley said

at 3:35 pm on Sep 25, 2008

I have created the page. Feel free to edit away.

liz mastroianni said

at 7:53 pm on Sep 25, 2008

i edited the page. cahnged some of the wording and the sentence about caliphs but overall good summary

jgm829@... said

at 3:29 pm on Sep 26, 2008

I edit some of the grammar and sentence structures of the page.

Grant Berry said

at 2:52 pm on Sep 27, 2008

A little formatting, and I threw in a few facts here and there.

Alyson Collins said

at 11:12 am on Sep 29, 2008

there seems to be some sort fo mix up with who wrote what with: Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Ishaq ibn Hunyan, and Thabit ibn-Qurra.
I don't have my handout with me so I won't veture to figure it out yet. And also there's no mention of who trans. Euclidean stuff.
I'll try to straighten it out later. Or maybe it is right and my notes are mixed up. Any thoughts?

Alyson Collins said

at 12:32 pm on Sep 29, 2008

added some on paper, don't know if it makes sense right there but I couldn't find any better place. I also split up the important translators some and what was up there was correct, my notes were just wrong.

Garrett McCormack said

at 8:41 pm on Sep 29, 2008

just added some terms and a couple sentences.

jonathan stutte said

at 10:27 pm on Sep 29, 2008

commented a little on the effect of language and trade

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 10:44 am on Sep 30, 2008

Rawr, it didn't save my changes. Ah well, I suppose I'll have to redo it.

Kristy Carey said

at 1:20 pm on Sep 30, 2008

Basic editing.

Marek said

at 1:14 pm on Oct 14, 2008

... in progress

Marek said

at 5:39 pm on Oct 17, 2008

rewrote the introduction, added information on the decline of Arabic science, madrasas

Larry_Crump said

at 10:48 am on Oct 21, 2008

Hey all, I added some about the fall of Arabic scientific inquiry in the wake of conservative Islam, added support to the role of mathematics in the Madrasa system, and made a few cultural corrections. First, I replaced "Islamic" with "Muslim" because there is no such thing as an Islamic person. Muslim people follow Islam (kinda like saying Catholicismic instead of Catholic). Also, the concept of jihad equating a "holy war" is a bad western translation. A more accurate translation would be "to pursue something with all your heart" or something like that. I also replaced the term "Mosque" with "Masjid", which spell check says is not a word but believe me it is. When the Europeans pushed the Moors out of Spain, a European general was credited with pledging that he would wipe out Muslim religious centers (i.e. Masjids) like so many mosquitoes , which is where mosque comes from so it actually kinda equates to a racial slur in the world of conservative Islam. If you get a chance, look at a Muslim religious center. It'll actually say "Masjid" on the side. But I think that is it.

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