Tuesday, November 24, 2009

507)'The Sciences' from the IIS's 'Muslim Philosophy And The Sciences' by Dr Alnoor Dhanani; Quotes of Aga Khan IV

"From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, the Muslim civilizations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using and preserving all preceding study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy, among other areas of learning. The Islamic field of thought and knowledge included and added to much of the information on which all civilisations are founded. And yet this fact is seldom acknowledged today, be it in the West or in the Muslim world, and this amnesia has left a six hundred year gap in the history of human thought"(Aga Khan IV, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA, 1996)

"The Muslim world, once a remarkable bastion of scientific and humanist knowledge, a rich and self-confident cradle of culture and art, has never forgotten its past.The great Muslim philosopher al-Kindi wrote eleven hundred years ago, "No one is diminished by the truth, rather does the truth ennobles all". That is no less true today"(Aga Khan IV, Speech,1996, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.)

For century after century, the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks and many other Islamic societies achieved powerful leadership roles in the world—not only politically and economically but also intellectually. Some ill-informed historians and biased commentators have tried to argue that these successes were essentially produced by military power, but this view is profoundly incorrect. The fundamental reason for the pre-eminence of Islamic civilizations lay neither in accidents of history nor in acts of war, but rather in their ability to discover new knowledge, to make it their own, and to build constructively upon it. They became the Knowledge Societies of their time."(Aga Khan IV, Speech, 2nd December 2006, Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan)

“Parts of the Ummah are concerned about the relationship between Muslims and the contemporary knowledge society, which is now principally rooted in the West. It is my deepest conviction, my deepest conviction, that we must make that knowledge society our own, in keeping with the Alid tradition towards the intellect, but always doing so within the ethics of our faith. Thus, I have sought from my Jamat your Nazrana of time and knowledge.”(Aga Khan IV, Paris, France, July 11th 2007)

The above are 4 quotes and excerpts taken from Blogpost Four Hundred, a collection of around 100 quotes on the subjects of Knowledge, Intellect, Creation, Science and Religion:


Like Islamic Hellenistic philosophy, the study of science in Islamic civi­lisation was inspired by the love of learning, which had initiated the translation of texts from Greek and Syriac, as well as texts from other languages, primarily Sanskrit and Pahlavi. In its heyday, individuals from al­most every ethnic and religious persuasion were en­gaged in the scientific enterprise, and then, in all of the disciplines of science: the mathematical sciences, the physical sciences, the life sciences including medicine, and the “pseudo-sciences” of alchemy, astrology and so on. This enterprise may be broadly characterised as broadening scientific knowledge by investigating and solving puzzles and problems. This does not mean that science was static or lacking in originality. The critical attitude, which pervades all classical and medieval Islamic learning, entailed an examination of the fundamental premises of scientific theories. Whenever necessary, theoretical and methodological innovations were proposed, even going as far as to found new disciplines or to transform received scientific procedures. Furthermore, the milieu of Islamic civilisation suggested its own problems, which engaged the minds of its scientists. Material factors also contributed to the scientific enterprise: the es­tablishment of endowed institutions, primarily academies (for example, the above-mentioned House of Wisdom), libraries, hospitals, observatories, and pa­tronage, which flourished even with the disintegration of the unitary empire and the establishment of local dynasties and principalities. Most patrons employed scientists as astrologers or physicians. However, the intercon­nectedness of disciplines was such that an astrologer, for example, needed to know astronomy, and could not know astronomy without being versed in mathematics and natural philosophy, which, in turn, re­quired familiarity with the cosmology of Islamic Hellenistic philosophy. With the passage of time, a new scientific role arose, that of the mosque timekeeper who was re­sponsible for calculating prayer times as well as deter­mining the start of the months of the Islamic lunar calendar.

The scientific contributions of Islamic civilisation are enormous. Yet, at this stage of our knowledge of the scientific enterprise of Islamic civilisation, with the continuing discovery of new manuscripts and the in­complete analysis of known works, remarks about the achievements of scientists or about the general charac­ter of science must remain tentative (this is true for all of the intellectual disciplines prac­ticed in classical and medieval Islam). The following survey of the sci­ences in the world of classical medieval Islamic civilisation must therefore be regarded as preliminary. Moreover, it is illus­trative rather than exhaustive.

Mathematical Sciences

An inkling of the contribution of classical and medieval Islamic science to contemporary mathematics survives in our continuing usage of the terms “Arabic numerals,” “algorithm,” and “alge­bra.” These terms illustrate the study of number theory, meth­ods of calculation, and the establishment of algebra as an independent mathematical subject. But beyond this, the mathematicians of Islamic civilization were engaged in plane and spherical geometry, trigonometry, as well as the solu­tion of higher orders of equations.

The significance of “Arabic numerals” cannot be overemphasised. These numerals and their underlying methods of calculation are now common-place in every part of the world. Today, it is impossible to conceive of any arithmetical calculation which does not utilize these numerals or the methods of calculation associated with them. Yet, these numerals actu­ally originated from India, and were therefore known as “Hindu numerals” in the Muslim world. They constitute the decimal system that we use today, consisting of nine numerals (from one to nine) and the zero (the etymology of “zero” is derived through French and Italian from the Arabic term sifr, meaning zero). These numerals are used in conjunction with a place value notation, such that the number 1367 is equal to 1x103 +3x102 +6x101 +7x100 ( that is to say that the value of each numeral depends on its place in the number, and each place in the number indi­cates a value in powers of ten). These numerals were probably introduced to Islamic civilisation with the translation of Sanskrit astronomical works during the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. Prior to this, Hellenistic mathematics had used a cumbersome system similar to Roman numerals as well as a sexagesimal system whose origins are Babylonian. In the sexagesimal system, numbers were represented in base sixty, similar to our continuing use of degrees, minutes, and seconds (sixty minutes equals one degree, sixty seconds equals one minute, etc.). The sexagesimal system was primarily used in astronomy. The prospect of performing arith­metical operations of addition and subtraction in such a system, to say nothing of multiplication and division, is daunting indeed.

The first systematic discussion of the decimal value system was made by Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (died after 847 CE). Al-Khwarizmi was active in mathematics and astronomy and was a member of the House of Wisdom. In his Treatise on Calculations with Hindu Numerals, he deals with the basic arithmetical opera­tions of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, as well as with sexagesimal fractions, and the extraction of square roots. Later mathematicians like Abu al-Wafa’ al-Buzjani (died 997-8 CE), Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (died after 1050 CE), and ‘Umar al-Khayyam (died circa 1131 CE), who is better known as a poet, worked out methods to extract higher roots. A significant advance in the decimal system was made by Abu al-Hasan al-Uqlidisi’s invention of decimal fractions in 952-953 CE. Interestingly, this invention seems to have subsequently been lost until reinvented by Ghiyath at-din al-Kashi (died 1429 CE), who added a sign indicating the decimal point. Al-Uqlidisi also adapted calculation methods for ink and paper in place of the dust-board. His contemporary Al-Buzjani further popu­larised the decimal system with his arithmetical text­book for bureaucrats.
Al-Khwarizmi is also the famous algebraist who coined the Arabic phrase al-jabr wa al-muqabala (restoration and balancing), which is the origin of the term “algebra.” Arithmetical and geometrical methods for discovering unknown quantities had already been worked out in Babylonian, Hindu, and Greek mathe­matics. Al-Khwarizmi’s innovation was to combine these together and create algebra. The process of “restoration” refers to the removal of negative quanti­ties. Thus, in the equation 2x+4 = 9-3x, the step to get 5x+4 = 9 is restoration. The subsequent step of “bal­ancing” reduces positive quantities on both sides of the equation and results in 5x = 5. Al-Khwarizmi discussed methods for solving equations of the second order (quadratic equations). He pointed out the practical ap­plications of his method in solving problems of survey­ing as well as inheritance shares (which are quite complex under Islamic law). Later mathematicians like Abu Bakr al-Karaji (flourished circa 1000 CE), al-Samawal ben Yehuda al-Maghribi (died 1180 CE), and ‘Umar al­-Khayyam devised methods for the solution of higher or­der equations.

The most advanced mathematics is found in as­tronomy. Here we find significant advances in geome­try (particularly, spherical geometry), trigonometry, and methods of calculation. The pre-eminent text of Greek astronomy was Ptolemy’s Almagest, which is de-voted largely to predicting positions of the planets. Ptolemy used spherical geometry as well as a trigono­metric function called the chord, (given an angle find the length of the chord subtended by this angle for a circle with a radius of sixty units), for which he provides a table. However, the use of this function was cumber­some. Indian astronomers, on the other hand, used the well-known sine function and had calculated its value for every 3°. In the Islamic milieu, once again, the Greek and Indian heritage was combined so that by the beginning of the tenth century, the modern trigonometric functions of sine, cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant, and cosecant were established, as were the additional theorem of sines and the sine law. Trigonometry came into its own with the astronomer Nasir al-din al-Tusi’s (died 1273 CE) discussion of this subject independent of any reference to astronomy. Apart from the discovery of these functions, Muslim mathemati­cians laboured diligently to produce tables to greater degrees of accuracy, culminating in the sine table pro­duced by the fifteenth-century astronomers at the Samarkand observatory, which has values for each minute and is accurate to the order of one to seven hundred million.

In addition to astronomical problems, mathemati­cians applied spherical trigonometry to solve the specific prob­lem related to Muslim ritual observances, namely, finding the direction of prayer (qibla), Mecca from any point on the earth, and determining times of prayer which are associated with shadow lengths and the times for daybreak, noon and sunset. The former had already been solved by several mathematicians in the ninth century. The mathemati­cian Ibn Yunus (died 1009 CE), a member of the House of Science in Cairo, is thought to have been the first to systematically solve the latter, for which he compiled tables for the latitude of Cairo. The fourteenth-century mathematician Muhammad al-Khalili, who was em­ployed as a timekeeper at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, went much further in his tables for these and other problems. Significantly, his qibla tables are for every possible degree of latitude and longitude, while his prayer timetables are for the latitude of Damascus.

Physical Sciences

In the physical sciences, Muslim scientists were en­gaged in problems of natural philosophy, optics, and as­tronomy. The discussion of natural philosophy (focussed on the structure of matter, space, time, and motion) was largely between the religious philosophers and the Islamic Hellenistic philosophers. The former subscribed to atomism and the existence of the vacuum. In addition, they were proponents of an impetus theory of motion. Such views were in sharp op­position to Aristotelian natural philosophy. The two groups were therefore engaged in an examination and refutation of the ‘other’ system. Nevertheless, the religious philoso­phers’ theory of motion may have played a role in Ibn Sina’s formulation of his non-Aristotelian theory of “forced” and “natural” motion. Furthermore, Abu al­-Barakat al-Baghdadi (died after 1165 CE) rejected the Aristotelian theory of time and place and also believed that a vacuum was possible under certain circum­stances. Finally, as has been noted above, Ibn Bajja re­jected a key aspect of Aristotelian dynamics, that is, Aristotle’s formulation of the relationship between force, resistance, and velocity.

For the Hellenistic and early Islamic scientists, optics was a mathematical examination of light rays as they were transmitted through or reflected by various media, including lenses and mirrors of various shapes. This examination drew upon the works of Euclid and Ptolemy and advocated a theory of vision in which a cone of “visual rays” streamed from the eye to the visual object. A different account of vision was formulated by the Aristotelian natural philosophers (including Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd) in their discussion of perception. For them, vi­sion is the reception of the “form” of the visual object by the eye. A third account of vision formulated by such medical writers as Galen and his followers (in­cluding the translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq) held that, as visual rays emerged from the eyes, the air was trans­formed into an instrument of vision. Therefore, the act of vision was the result of the contact of the “instru­ment” with the visual object. In the eleventh century CE, mathematician-scientist al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (died 1040 CE) criticised the theories of his predecessors and revolutionised mathematical optics in his Optics. He maintained that optical inquiry “requires a combination of the natural and mathematical sciences”, thus anticipating one of the key methodological positions of the seventeenth century Scientific Revolution – the mathematisation of physics. Furthermore, Ibn al-Haytham recognized that any ac­count of optics must include an account of vision and must therefore discuss the psychology of visual per­ception.

Methodologically, Ibn al-Haytham’s work is signifi­cant for its clear concept and use of experiment to con­firm the specific properties of light by setting up a controlled situation where certain parameters may be varied. With regard to vision, he rejects the visual ray hypothesis (rays stream from the eye to the visual ob­ject) in favour of the natural philosophers intromission hypothesis (vision is the reception of the form of the vi­sual object in the eye). Ibn al-Haytham’s achievement was to reverse the direction of the visual rays of the mathematicians and hence mathematicise the “forms” of the natural philosophers. Surprisingly, the Optics does not seem to have made an impact in the Muslim world un­til the thirteenth century CE, and then only in the commen­tary on the Optics by Kamal al-din al-Farisi (died circa 1320 CE). In this work, al-Farisi formulated an explanation of the shape and colours of the primary and secondary rainbow on the basis of refraction and reflection in raindrops. Quite independently, a similar formulation was almost simultaneously arrived at in medieval Europe by Theoderic of Freiberg (died circa 1310 CE).

Ibn al-Haytham’s critical outlook also extended to astronomy where he was again critical of mathemati­cal models of planetary motion and their lack of cor­respondence with physics. Astronomy was a technical mathematical science based primarily on Ptolemy’s Almagest, although Sanskrit astronomical works had been translated into Arabic in the eighth century. The subsequent history of astronomy in classical and medieval Muslim civilisation consists of both theory and observations. Observations were made not only by individ­ual astronomers but were also conducted within the institution of the astronomical observatory – this insti­tution is one of the contributions of Muslim civilisa­tion to science. It was founded and established in Baghdad in the ninth century by the Caliph al-Mamun. The Baghdad observatory was staffed by several as­tronomers who were charged with revising Ptolemy’s astronomical tables on the basis of fresh observations. The result was compiled into the Tested Astronomical Tables. The Baghdad observatory is but one of several obser­vatories founded in classical and medieval Islam. Others include the famous Maragha observatory of the thirteenth century which was under the supervision of Nasir al-din al-Tusi and the fifteenth-century observatory of Ulugh Beg in Samarkand, both of which compiled their own as­tronomical tables. The precision reached by these ob­servatories was such that one modern author has exclaimed that the astronomer Tycho Brahe could have easily been a Turk! The influence of Arabic ob­servational astronomy survives in star names in use today, many of which are derived from Arabic, as are common astronomical terms such as “nadir,” “az­imuth,” and “zenith.”

Astronomical measurements required innovation in measuring instruments. Here, too, Muslim stronomers surpassed their predecessors by designing new instru­ments, revising older ones, and sometimes building ex­tremely large instruments to increase accuracy. The astrolabe is an example of an astronomical instrument that was derived from the Greeks but was improved by Islamic astronomers. Primarily used for determining the position of celestial bodies, it was combined with a number of movable plates and arcs to graphically solve complex trigonometrical functions and thereby deter­mine direction or time of prayer.

Theoretical innovation in astronomy was initiated by Ibn al-Haytham’s critical remarks about Ptolemy’s planetary models. According to the then prevalent Aristotelian natural philosophy, celestial bodies could only move in geocentric circles around the stationary earth. While Ptolemy had acknowledged this principle in his Almagest, he had to abandon it in his planetary models in order to account for observed positions of planets. Ibn al-Haytham objected to this practice in his Doubts against Ptolemy. This initiated a research project that culminated in the formulation of a new method of de­vising planetary models by Nasir al-din al-Tusi in the thirteenth century. Significantly, the same objections underlie Nicolaus Copernicus’ reformation of Ptolemaic astronomy. Moreover, Copernicus’ earlier work on the motion of the moon resembles the discussion of al-Tusi, raising speculation of a possible Muslim influence on the Polish as­tronomer who revolutionised astronomy with his helio­centric system.


The medicine of classical and medieval Islamic civilisation was primarily derived from Greek medicine, in particular, the writings of Hippocrates and Galen. Some of the trans­lators of these texts, including Hunayn ibn Ishaq had been trained at the medical centre of Jundishapur. The physicians to the Abbasid caliphs during the eighth and ninth centuries, from the Christian med­ical family of Jurjis ibn Bukhtishu‘, were also affiliated with Jundishapur. Not surprisingly, most physicians of this period were Syriac Christians. In an amusing anecdote, a contemporary Muslim physician laments that he would be more successful if only his name were George!
The most significant contribution of Islamic civilisation to medicine was the establishment of the hospital as an institution for the treatment of pa­tients and training of physicians. Hospices for the sick, poor, travellers, and orphans had existed in Byzantium and were the model for the Umayyad caliph Walid’s (reigned 705-715 CE) charitable institution for the care of lepers, the blind, and the infirm. The first real hospital (bimaristan), however, was built in Baghdad by Harun al-Rashid and was modeled after Jundishapur. This was soon followed by several other hospitals all over the Islamic world from Spain to India. Hospitals were built by caliphs, court officials, and wealthy individuals. Hospital revenue, derived from en­dowments under the control of a board of trustees, pro­vided for the salaries of the medical staff as well as provisions for the patients. Endowments were reli­giously motivated, for charitable acts are greatly emphasised in the Qur’an. Hospitals were institutions where medical care was available to all regardless of their religious affiliations; hospitals also were centres of medical education, although there is some evidence which suggests that in later periods medi­cine was sometimes taught in mosques and madrasas (schools).

The ‘Adudi hospital in Baghdad, for example, was founded by the ruler ‘Adud al-Dawla in 982 CE. It had twenty-four physicians, and its specialists included ophthalmologists, surgeons, and orthopaedists. When the traveller Abu al-Husayn ibn Jubayr (died 1217 CE) vis­ited Baghdad two hundred years later, the hospital was still functioning. He tells us that it was as large as a castle and had its own water supply from the Tigris River. Another great hospital was the Nasiri hospital of Cairo completed in 1284 CE. It had an annual endowment of one million dirhams. Formerly a palace with accommodation for eight thousand per­sons, it had separate wards for fever, ophthalmia, sur­gical cases, dysentery, etc. as well as a pharmacy, dispensary, storeroom, mosque, and a library. It also had a large administrative staff, attendants of both sexes, and lec­ture halls.

Islamic physicians, while respectful toward their Hellenist predecessors, were not content simply with the preservation of past medical knowledge. This is ex­emplified in the work Doubts against Galen by the fa­mous physician and philosopher Abu Bakr al-Razi. Al-Razi believed in the progress of knowledge, which was to be achieved by adopting a critical attitude to­ward past authoritative figures . Al-Razi is the author of numerous medical works, including the twenty-three volume Kitab al-Hawi, which contains many personal obser­vations and interesting case histories, and a small trea­tise On Smallpox and the Measles, which contains the first clear account of these two diseases. Al-Razi’s works were influential but unsuitable as introductory texts as they omitted discussion of the general princi­ples of medical science. Recognising this deficiency, ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi (died ca. circa 982 CE) wrote his Kitab al-Malaki in which the subject matter is treated in a clear and concise, although sometimes dry, manner. This medical text was very soon surpassed by Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi l-Tibb), which became the medical textbook of the Islamic world (it even became the medical textbook in the Latin West, was one of the earliest printed books, and was printed thirty-six times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries). However, in keeping with the critical attitude of Islamic civilization toward knowledge, the Canon had its own critics. One of them, not surprisingly, was the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (who, as we have seen above, disagreed with Ibn Sina's philosophi­cal doctrines) and his younger contemporary Abu al-‘Ala ibn Zuhr (died 1131 CE). The latter not only rejected the Canon for his library, but used its paper for writing prescriptions! In the East, the reception of the Canon was more favourable, and it attracted several commen­tators. One of these was ‘Ali al-Qurashi, also known as Ibn al-Nafis (died 1288 CE), the director of the Nasiri hos­pital in Cairo. Ibn al-Nafis was the first to argue for the exis­tence of pulmonary circulation, claiming that blood pumped by the right ventricle of the heart is sent to the lungs where it mixes with air and then returns to the heart’s left ventricle. However, Ibn Nafis’ discovery was not made on the basis of anatomical dissection but rather by logical argument. There is a strong likelihood that the European Renaissance author Michael Servetus (died 1553 CE) was directly influenced by the discovery of Ibn al-Nafis, and that the English doctor William Harvey’s (died 1657 CE) discovery of the circulation of the blood de­pends on the work of Servetus.

A widespread myth holds that science and philoso­phy were marginal to the civilisation of Islam and that, for the most part, the scientific and philosophical en­terprise in Islam was stagnant, preserving Hellenistic knowledge until Europe shook off the slumber of the Dark Ages and ushered in a renaissance of learning, culminating in the Scientific Revolution of the seven­teenth century. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientific and philosophical activity in Islamic civilisa­tion, as has been illustrated above, was vigorous. It was engaged in both the preservation and advancement of knowledge; it posed foundational questions; it was crit­ical of the authority of the past; it made methodological contri­butions to science; and it formulated new discoveries and theories.

Taken from:

Easy Nash

The Qur'an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
The Quran tells us that signs of Allah's Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
This notion of the capacity of the human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives: Aga Khan IV(2007)
Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2006)
The Holy Qu'ran's encouragement to study nature and the physical world around us gave the original impetus to scientific enquiry among Muslims: Aga Khan IV(1985)
The first and only thing created by God was the Intellect(Aql): Prophet Muhammad(circa 632CE)