The Origins of Islamic Science
Dr. Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg *
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Table of contents
1. The Ancient Sciences and the Arabs
1.2. Ancient Egypt
1.3. The Greek legacy
1.4. Various influences in Pre-Islamic Arabia
1.5. The First Occurrences (Awa'il)
2. Islam as a Source of Inspiration for Science and Knowledge ('Ilm)
2.1. The Rise of Islam and the Early Intellectual Fertilisation
2.2. The Islamic Background to Intellectual Activity
2.3. Unity of Knowledge: Religious, Rational and Experimental
2.4. Maurice Bucaille's Theses
3. The Seeds of Islamic Science
3.1. Some Chronology
3.2. Defining Islamic Science
4. Translation as a Source of Knowledge
5. Islamic Science or Arabic Science
8. Alchemy and Chemistry
11. Notes and References
Note of the editor
This article is part of Essays on the Origins of Islamic Civilization, available from Kube Publishing Ltd., Markfield, Ratby Lane, Leicestershire, LE 67 9SY, UK (ISBN 0954188292).
* * *1. The Ancient Sciences and the Arabs
At the beginning of the 7th century CE, very few Arabs could read, write or calculate. However, an elite group of traders who travelled from such towns as Makkah, Yathrib, Khaybar and from Yemen to the centres of ancient civilizations, including Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt, were open to outside influences. A handful of traders were familiar with reading and writing of one sort or another. Among them were members of the Quraysh tribe and it was they who brought foreign influences into Arabian trading centres. Nevertheless, most of the population of Arabia were pastoralists who often quarrelled among themselves. It was only during the pilgrimage season to Makkah that fighting was abandoned by common consent. On the whole the Arabian environment did not encourage the growth of civilized values. It is hard to see how such a primitive people could emerge from centuries of backwardness to a level of culture.
The march of the Arabs from darkness to light is one of the conundrums of history and few historians have adequately explained the phenomena. By harnessing their latent physical and spiritual power, the Arabs somehow reconstructed their own lives. Having begun with a tabula rasa, they achieved an astonishing advancement in their social, political and intellectual life within a very short time. How did they do this? Incredible though it may seem to any uninitiated student of history, these Arabs not only changed their way of thinking but also their view of the world and their role in it. Hardly had they time to imbibe the teachings of a visionary like the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah than they became a powerful conquering force that had won an empire within fifty years of their mentor's death. How could such a people have made any contribution towards the progress of any science, be it natural, physical or social?
Figure 1a-b: Two manuscripts of the Quran: (a) This Quran, written in nasta'liq script, one of the main genres of Islamic calligraphy, is most likely of Persian origin from between the 16th and 17th centuries. (Source). (b) An elegantly illuminated Qur'an from Kashmir, c. 1800, in fine naskh, of which the style and binding point to a North Indian origin. (Source).
Historians must find an answer to these questions and to others which may arise from them. From a historical point of view, it would seem absurd to talk of the origin of any form of Islamic sciences within a century or two of the rise of Islam. How and where do we begin such a discussion? To find an answer to the phenomenal rise of Islam and the Islamic sciences, one looks to the role of Islam in Europe, when Arabic books on science and philosophy were translated into Latin in the Arab Kingdoms of Spain, Sicily and southern Italy and the effect of this development on European society in the 15th and 16th centuries CE.
If we proceed from these preliminaries to a proper discussion of the rise of Islamic sciences, we must take a broader view of world history. In my opinion, the origins of Islamic sciences can be traced back partly to the scientific heritage of Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Persia and India, partly to the inspiration derived from the Qur'an and the Prophetic words of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), and also partly to the intellectual and creative genius of Muslim scientists, thinkers and philosophers during that extraordinary five hundred years of Islamic history (7th-11th centuries CE). It would seem that we need a satisfactory explanation to make sense of the development of Islamic science and the intellectual roots of Islamic civilization.
In trying to approach such a subject we are entering into a potentially controversial area and one that requires a good deal of research and perseverance. Three essential factors need to be analyzed: (1) the origins of the sciences and their effect on the Arabs, (2) the inspiration that the Muslims derived from the teachings of the Qur'an and Hadith, (3) the achievements of the Muslim scientists and thinkers in various branches of knowledge. We may refer to these three essential sources of Islamic science one after another. In doing so, one could not ignore the relevance of Islamic sciences to medieval Europe .
Let us recall the heritage of science and technology that preceded the advent of Islam in the 7th century CE and what might have been inherited by the Arabs along with the rest of mankind. It is thought by some that civilization had its earliest manifestations in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (Mesopotamia), where the cities that emerged at Sumer, included Ur (founded ca 4000 BCE), Uruk, and Babylon, which in 600 BCE was the largest city on earth under King Nebuchadnezzar II. Sailing ships were known as early as 5000 BCE; the wheel, which was invented in Mesopotamia, was used by potters, and by armies for transportation. Standard weights were used in commerce (based on the shekel of 8.36 gr. = 129 grains); measures of shekel and mina were used in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE, and records were kept on baked clay tablets; bricks were fired in kilns in the 4th millennium BCE, and the monumental architecture of the Ziggurat featured columns, domes, arches and vaults. The same Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon also gave rise to the Law Code of King Hammurabi (ca 1750 BCE). The Sumerians, who were advanced in astronomy, made star catalogues in the 2nd millennium BCE, identified the Zodiac, and used a 12-month solar calendar along with a 354 day lunar calendar; but in the 3rd millennium BCE regularly used a 360-day calendar, which had been adopted, in a modified form, by Jews and Muslims. The Babylonians recorded a solar eclipse as early as 763 BCE and devised an instrument to detect when a star or planet was due to appear in the south. Some of these achievements resulted from developments in mathematics, notably by the application of multiplication tables. Solutions to quadratic and cubic equations were achieved; theorems governing plane geometry were created, together with a system of sixty for measuring time. Positional notation was in use in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago. The Assyrians used water clocks. King Sargon produced maps in Mesopotamia for the purpose of tax collection (ca 2400 BCE). Medicine and surgery also developed in Mesopotamia, where tooth filling was practiced, physicians established an important profession, and incompetent surgeons were liable to compensate patients in the event of error. Lamps made of stone and pottery were used in ancient Mesopotamia. Although ploughshares were used in Canaan (ancient Palestine), the Mesopotamians used a primitive form of plough called an ard, which has been found in Uruk, and the irrigation system caused a revolution in Mesopotamian agriculture. Metallurgy also developed in this region of the Middle East. A wide range of advances in Mesopotamian civilization became part of the common heritage of mankind.
Figure 2a-b: Two manuscripts of Hadith: (a) the Arba'un hadithan copied by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri in Safavid Iran in the last days of Jumada I, 966/late February 1559 CE (Source); (b) Page from an Ottoman Album of Calligraphies of Prophetic Traditions, signed by Hamdullah ibn Mustafa Dede (Istanbul, ca. 1500). (Source).
1.2. Ancient Egypt
The Egyptian civilization (ca 3000 BCE to 300 CE), which developed after the Mesopotamian, has been credited with instituting a 365-day solar calendar (ca 2773 BCE). In 1500 BCE, it produced the gnomon, the L-shaped indicator found in a sundial and the water clock (ca 1450 BCE). Egyptian medicine, practised by the priests in the 2nd millennium BCE, was the most sophisticated in ancient times, and some carvings of about 2500 BCE depict a surgical operation in progress. Imhotep, an Egyptian (d. ca 2950 BCE), became the architect of Memphis. An early form of hieroglyph (i.e. writing system), the use of papyrus as a writing material, and a number system came into use around 3000 BCE, as did the employment of scribes by the ancient Pharaohs, the process of embalming and mummifying, and the art of the Pyramids. The Giza Pyramids were built between 2700 and 2200 BCE. The paintings and reliefs on the walls of ancient palaces and inside the Pyramids, elegant furniture and the use of bronze for utensils were also among the achievements of the ancient Egyptians, the Pyramids being the high point. Many of these objets d'art are preserved in Egypt and in collections around the world. Knowledge of these ancient civilizations was spread through stories told by Arab sages.
1.3. The Greek legacy
The Greeks also made a significant contribution to science and technology. The Greek civilization, which flourished during 600 BCE-529 CE, was, in a chronological sense, a successor to the Middle Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, but its impact on the Arabs did not occur until two centuries after the advent of Islam. As a historian of science admits: "Although Greek science may have been a continuation of ideas and practices developed by the Egyptians and Babylonians, the Greeks were the first to look for general principles beyond observations. Science before the Greeks, as practised in Babylon and Egypt, consisted mainly of the collection of observations and recipes for practical applications ."
Science defined as ‘an organized body of thought' and an interpretation of the universe was said to have originated in about 600 BCE with the Ionian school of Greek philosophers, and continued until the early 6th century CE. According to one source, what was achieved before the Greeks was treated as only advances in technology rather than theoretical science. In the brief summary of Greek science and philosophy that fol¬lows, philosophy will be excluded. Greek philosophers studied science out of curiosity, as an effort to know and understand things. They were not inspired by religion or mythology nor were they interested in the application of science. They introduced scientific methods based on reason and observation. They built institutions, such as the Academy, the Lyceum and the Museum. With the closure of the Academy and Lyceum in 529 CE, followed by the Museum, the Greek epoch in the history of science ended. However, their influence spread far and wide for at least another millennium.
Figure 3a-b: Two pages from the oldest known dated Arabic manuscript on paper (dated Dhu al-Qa'da 252/866 CE), folios 2b and http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/E-publications/witkam_oldest_dated/or00298-239b-x.jpg241b. This is MS Leiden Or. 298 in Arabic, on paper, 241 folios, and thereby probably the oldest dated Arabic manuscript on paper, bound in a full-leather standard Library binding. The volume contains an incomplete copy of Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu 'Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi (d. 223/837) (Source).
The earliest Greek scientists were Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. Thales (ca 600 BCE) believed that water was the essence of natural phenomena. To him, matter came in three forms: mist, water and earth. He also thought that the stars were made of water. His pupil Anaximander, (ca 545 BCE) was believed to have written the earliest book on science, which claimed that life originated in the sea. Anaximenes (ca 500 BCE), a pupil of the former, thought that air was the essence of the universe, and that a rainbow was a natural phenomenon and not a divine sign.
Aristotle is generally thought to be the father of life sciences. He studied 540 plants and classified plants and animals. He also wrote on embryology. Aristotle believed that the earth was the centre of the universe. The greatest Greek contribution to medicine was made by Hippocrates of Cos, an author of many books, whose Hippocratic Oath is still used as a code of ethics by the medical profession. He freed medicine from superstition and religion. Greek medicine also spread to Rome, where the physician Galen, through his teaching and prolific writings popularised it. The Greek scientist Empedocles formulated the idea of the elements (air, water, earth and fire), which were adopted by Plato and Aristotle. To Plato, geometry was the most suitable method of thinking about nature. Euclid of Alexandria, the author of the Elements, was the most influential Greek geometrician. The Greeks made important contributions to mathematics, which is a science based entirely on reason, with no need for observation or experiment. Pythagoras (5th century BCE) regarded mathematics as the most important branch of science. Diophantus was regarded by some as the Greek founder of ‘algebra' (although the term itself had an Arabic origin). Archimedes founded mathematical physics and discovered the laws of hydrostatics. He also invented the Archimedian Screw, a device designed to raise water for irrigation. The Alexandrian engineer Hero was credited with the invention of a series of automata. The Greeks also built a water-carrying tunnel through a mountain.
Aristotle thought that motion is created by an object trying to reach its natural place. Ctesibius was thought to have been the founder of the Alexandrian school of engineering. Philon was credited with some technical achievements, including a force pump, and a mechanically driven water clock. Ptolemy, a great Greek astronomer from Alexandria, wrote the Almagest, which described the planetary motion and placed the Earth as the centre of the Universe, with the Sun and the Moon revolving around it. In 270 BCE, Aristarchus of Samos challenged Aristotle's geocentric idea, asserting that the Sun was the centre of the solar system. He also emphasized that all other planets revolve around the Sun . Greek and Hellenistic sciences reached West Asia and elsewhere in the wake of Alexander's conquests.
1.4. Various influences in Pre-Islamic Arabia
Some of the ancient buildings of Mada'in Salih in Arabia and the Dam of Marib in Yemen are reminders of how the influence of ancient technology reached Arabia. In the 7th century, the Arabs already had a calendar with twelve months named in Arabic (e.g. Muharram, Safar, Rabi‘ al-Awwal, Rabi‘ al-Thani, Jumada 'l-Ula, Jumada al-Akhir, Rajab, Sha‘ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu'l-Qa‘dah, and Dhu'l-Hijjah) which might have originated in ancient Mesopotamia. The Arabs had no schools or educational institutions in the pre-Islamic era, but these existed in Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa and Harran in Mesopotamia and Persia where some of them were employed at the medical school of Jundishapur (in south-west Persia) during the 6th and 7th centuries. In Syria, Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and Persian influence mingled. From here, Greek science and learning spread to the East and the West. Among the Syrians were two Christian sects. The Nestorians taught Greek science and philosophy in their schools and translated Greek books into the Syriac language and these were translated into Arabic during the Islamic period. Nestorias held theological views contrary to those of the patriarch of Constantinople and consequently they were banned in 481 C.E. Nestorias and his followers fled Byzantium for Syria, but on being persecuted there some of them escaped to Mesopotamia, and few of them were employed at the medical school of Jundishapur (which was founded by the Sassanian King Khusraw Anushirwan in the mid-6th century CE) . The school at Jundishapur survived until the early ‘Abbasid period (9th century CE). Thus education in one form or another was available in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia at the time of the advent of Islam in the 7th century, though the inhabitants of Arabia, on the edge of civilization, remained in ignorance of them.
Figure 4: A page from Kitab al-jabr wa-'l-muqabala, the first extant algebra text, written in about 825 CE by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. (Source).
To see education in perspective we should now turn to some Arabic sources. Some taken from Ibn Qutaybah's (d.276 AH/ 889 CE) short encyclopaedia entitled al-Ma‘arif (Book of Knowledge)  and al-Khwarizmi's Mafatih al-Ulum  (Keys to Sciences), (composed ca 977 CE), and the history of philosophers, physicians, astronomers and mathematicians known in Arabic as Ta'rikh al-Hukama'  by Ibn al-Qifti (d. 1248). Al-Khwarizmi's book is regarded as the first attempt to survey the Islamic sciences. The work of Ibn al-Qifti, who was employed by the famous Saladin (Salah al-Din Ayyubi), comprises 414 biographies, including the biographies of Greek philosophers and physicians such as Euclid, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Ibn Sina, al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, al-Razi and Ibn Rushd.
The Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula lived close to the Near Eastern civilizations of antiquity. Knowledge of ancient arts, sciences and technology was transmitted to them from their wisemen (hukama') and elders in the form of folklore, tales and myths, and was passed on from generation to generation, although it is hard to determine exactly how much information was transmitted to the Arabs before the rise of Islam. The Arabs called the ancient sciences ‘ulum al-awa'il (literally, "sciences of the ancients") and on becoming civilized under Islam acknowledged that the ancient knowledge belonged to the category the awa'il (first occurrences, antiquity) as a theme in a chapter or as a title of a book. As we have already indicated, the Arabs until the 6th century CE transmitted everything orally, including Arabic poetry.
We learn from Ibn Qutaybah in al-Ma'arif every ancient thing known to the Arabs. The book begins with a chapter on the creation myth, which cites the Genesis in the Old Testament as a source narrated by Wahb ibn Munabbih. The interpretation of Islamic history begins with the story of Adam and Eve and proceeds to narrate the role of the Prophets and Messengers chosen by God from their children as part of the process of passing divine guidance to mankind from generation to generation. The story of the Prophets and Patriarchs was also narrated by the great Arab historian al-Tabari in his book Ta'rikh al-Rusul wa'l-Muluk (History of the Prophets and Kings).
Ibn Qutaybah claimed that before the advent of Adam and Eve, the earth was inhabited by spirits (Jinn). According to Ibn Qutaybah, Adam had tilled the soil and Eve had woven cloth and by so doing the pair had provided the essential first steps towards a civilized life. Adam's son Qabil became a farmer, and his brother Habil a shepherd . Adam had 40 sons and 20 daughters. Adam was seen as a Prophet of God who received divine revelations. Among the revelations he received were ones which prohibited the eating of dead flesh (carrion). He also learnt from God about the alphabet and writing (e.g. the cuneiform). However, there is no evidence to substantiate this ‘myth'. Whether or not writing originated with Adam, we know from ancient inscriptions in Mesopotamia that some form of writing came into existence during the civilization of Sumer in the 3rd Millennium BCE.
Among the descendants of Adam were many Prophets including Seth ( Arabic Shith) who, it is claimed, lived 912 years and received fifty revelations; then came Noah, whose descendant was Idris (Enoch) . Noah is associated with the story of the Flood and the construction of an Ark in which a pair of every living creature was saved from extinction. Among the children of Noah were Sam (whence the Semites) and Ham (whence the Hamites or Hamitics of Africa) who, according to Ibn Qutaybah, were Prophet of God . Among the other Prophets listed by Ibn Qutaybah were: Hud, Salih, Abraham, Isma'il (Ishmael), Ya‘qub (Jacob), Yusuf (Joseph), Ayyub (Job), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Dawud (David), Sulayman (Solomon), Uzair (Ezra), Danyal (Daniel), Shu‘aib, Ilyas, Yasa‘, Zakariyah (Zakharaya), Yahya (John), Jarjis, Dhu'l-Qifl, ‘Isa (Jesus) and Muhammad .
According to the same author the total number of Prophets (as educators of mankind) was 124,000. Among them were 315 prophet-messengers (Nabiy Rasul); five of them were of Syriac origin, namely Adam, Shith (Seth), Idris (Enoch), Noah and Ibrahim (Abraham); and five were Arabs, namely Hud, Salih, Isma‘il, Shu‘aib and Muhammad (peace be upon all of them). Ibn Qutaybah also claimed that the first prophet of the Israelites was Moses (Musa) and their last prophet was ‘Isa (Jesus) . This last view, which was expressed in the 9th century CE, may be considered contro¬versial today.
The stories of these Prophets served as illustrations of the divinely inspired educators of mankind. Moreover, the ‘creation myth' cited by Ibn Qutaybah had been repeatedly en¬dorsed by Islamic writers over the centuries. A modern doctoral dissertation of Cambridge University entitled ‘The Problem of Creation in Islamic Thought' examines the subject comprehensively from the standpoint of primary sources, such as the Qur'an, Hadith, Commentaries and Kalam (speculative theology) . On the whole, Islam upholds the theory that every creature in heaven and on earth was created by God Almighty. This resembles the theory of divine creation ex nihilo. Therefore, mankind should offer praise and prayer to Him as an act of thankfulness and gratitude. From an Islamic perspective, there is no support for Darwinism.
1.5. The First Occurrences (Awa'il)
A number of Arabic books on the subject of Awa'il or the first occurrences refer to things dating from antiquity. According to Qalqashandi and Hajji Khalifah, the science of Awa'il introduces the first occurrences and events (awa'il al-waqa'i' wa-'l-hawadith) . Such books cover religious as well as secular subjects . The origins of things relating to the Islamic period are usually reliable, but the same cannot be said with certainty about events in the remote past, which could be merely legends or myths. Some of the topics are also of scientific interest. For instance, the Arab belletrist Tha‘alibi claimed that the name of Prophet Idris (Enoch) was associated with the study of astronomy, including observations on ‘the pattern of the heavenly spheres and their influences on human affairs . Idris was also credited with the invention of writing. Similarly, the Jewish Prophet Joseph (Yusuf) was said to have used papyrus for writing on. Moreover, the Jewish prophet Dawud (David) was credited with inventing the coat of mail and Solomon (Arabic Sulayman ibn Dawud) (968-928 BCE), with the making and use of soap . According to Freud, ‘we are not surprised by the idea of setting up the use of soap as an actual yardstick of civilization' . Soap removes dirtiness and promotes cleanliness. Hippocrates is regarded by some Arabs as the earliest Greek writer on medicine . It was in the light of the Awa'il tradition that Arab writers, including Ibn Qutaybah, Ibn Sa‘d and al-Jahiz, cited the name of Khalid ibn Yazid ibn Mu‘awiyah (d.82 AH /701 CE) who was praised as a poet, orator and a man of sound judgement. He was the first Arab to have books of astronomy (al-nujum), medicine (al-tibb) and alchemy (al-kimiya') translated into Arabic .
Figure 5: Page from a manuscript of the Algebra (Maqalah fi al-jabr wa-'l muqabalah) of ‘Umar Al-Khayyam (1048-1131). Manuscript on paper, 56 leaves, 13th century. Columbia University Libraries, Smith Oriental MS 45. (Source).
The achievements of these ancient people in science were celebrated in the genre of the Awa'il. The curiosity and innovative spirit of early Muslims especially following the conquest of the ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent was limitless. A result of this interaction between the Islamised Arabs and non-Arabs was cross-fertilisation. The rapid cultural expansion of Islam resulted in many conversions from ancient faiths. In turn, Muslims became acquainted with the culture, history and sciences of the ancient civilizations. For instance, an Arab prince named Khalid ibn Yazid b. Mu‘awiyah developed an interest in ancient science and is now regarded as the first Arab alchemist. He encouraged a number of Egyptian scholars to translate books on alchemy, medicine and astronomy from the Greek and Coptic languages into Arabic for his private library. In this enthusiasm for alchemy, Khalid was aided by an Egyptian monk named Stephens or Maryanos. Khalid is also remembered as a writer on science . By the end of the 8th century scientific curiosity was recognised. A foundation had been laid and in the following century many scientists achieved distinction in Islamic society.
2. Islam as a Source of Inspiration for Science and Knowledge ('Ilm)
2.1. The Rise of Islam and the Early Intellectual Fertilisation
The 7th century witnessed the intellectual and cultural transformation of the Arab people principally as a result of some unique events that occurred in Arabia. The preaching of Islam (da‘wah) by the Prophet Muhammad to his fellow tribesmen, and their reluctant but gradual conversion to the new faith through a process of persuasion and political struggle, influenced the behaviour and outlook of the Arabians, who became imbued with a new sense of purpose. For the first time they were exposed to a set of new ideas on the creation, the Supreme Creator, the purpose of life on Earth and in the Hereafter, the need for a code of ethics in private and public life, the obligation to worship the one and only Lord Almighty of the Universe (Allah), through ritual prayers on a regular basis and sessions of remembrance (dhikr, plural adhkar) or meditation, and to pay homage to a religious and political head as personified by the Prophet Muhammad and, to his Successors or Caliphs (Ar., Khalifah, pl. Khulafa') as leaders of the new community (ummah). All this was new to the Arabs. The whole package of Islamic teachings was propagated by the Prophet and accepted by his fellow Arabs within a generation (610-632 CE).
The Prophet Muhammad taught the peoples of Arabia a great deal. Before the advent of Muhammad, the Arabs had no books and no sacred scriptures. The Qur'an was the first Arabic book and the first scripture in the Arabic language. Its chapters and verse were unique in style and substance in purest Arabic. The Arabs who, from time immemorial, had memorised poems and proverbs, found it easy to learn a part or the whole of the Qur'an for ritual prayer. For the Arabs, the Qur'an, it would seem, was a substitute for old Arabic poetry. The difference was that poetry was recited at home and in the market, whereas the Qur'an was recited only after ablution and reverential devotion. Incidentally, the word "al-Qur'an" means ‘the recitation' or the reading. It is essentially a book of revelation from God, embodying Islamic law and ethical code.
Through an understanding of the Qur'an, the Arabs began to think and behave differently from their polytheistic ancestors (mushrikun), becoming more like Jews and Christians in their monotheism. Thus they had begun to reflect on the mysteries of the universe and the importance of being imbued with a sense of brotherhood. For the first time their lives were regulated by a book of revelation and were turned around by it. The Qur'an was to Muslims what the Bible was to the Christians and the Torah to the Jews; and they were more affected by the Qur'an than Christians and Jews were by their Scriptures.
Figure 6: The title page of Ibn Sina's (11 century CE) Kitab Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb taken from a printed copy of the book, based on a Florentine manuscript, in the rare book collection of the Sibbald Library at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. (Source).
When the Islamic education was introduced to his disciples by the Prophet through the process of da‘wah (‘call to Islam'), it was as though a whole people went to school to read, write and memorise their first primer, al-Qur'an. Among the celebrated teachers of the Qur'an in early Islam, were ‘Ubadah ibn al-Samit, Mus‘ab ibn ‘Umayr, Mu‘adh ibn Jabal, ‘Amr ibn Hazm , and Tamim al-Dari. These teachers were sent to various parts of Arabia and beyond. Islamic education begins with the lessons of the Qur'an. It is a religious duty and an obligation for every Muslim to preach and teach to his fellow Muslims and non-Muslim acquaintances what he knows of the Qur'an and the Traditions. Such a process of informal mass education and Islamisation began in the Arabian Peninsula during the Prophet's last years and the process was carried forward under his successors. These early Muslims also became familiar with the life style of the Prophet (Sunnah). Everything the Prophet said, did, approved of, condemned and encouraged others to do became the source of inspiration for Muslims and the Sunnah (custom, or Islamic way of life) for the Muslim community. The Qur'an describes Muhammad as the unlettered/illiterate Prophet (al-Nabi al-Ummi) , which was true at the time of his receiving the first revelation from God through the angel Gabriel (Jibril) at the age of 40, when he was ordered to ‘Read in the Name of God who creates, creates man from congealed clot; Read and your Lord is most gracious, Who teaches by the pen; (He) teaches what man(kind) does not know' . To Archangel Gabriel's command, Muhammad replied that he was unable to read, a clear indication of his illiteracy, his knowledge of Jewish and Christian religions being based on what Gabriel communicated to him directly. However, according to an authority on Muhammad, after he received the divine order to ‘read' (Iqra'), ‘he could - and did - learn how to read and write, at least a bit' . This explains how letters he dictated to his amanuenses were signed by him. Therefore, by the end of his life Muhammad was literate. The collection of Muhammad's words and thoughts and his tacit approval is known as hadith (plural ahadith). This hadith became one of the basic sources of Islam.
2.2. The Islamic Background to Intellectual Activity
The question that now arises is: ‘What is the relevance of the Qur'an and Hadith to Islamic science?' To begin with, everything Islamic is influenced by these two sources. The learning process of the Arabs began with the Qur'an and everything else followed accordingly. The Prophet told his disciples: "Wisdom (Hikmah) is the object for the believers" . Thus Muhammad created an incentive to pursue all kinds of knowledge, including science and philosophy.
The questions that we should ask and to which we should find answers are: ‘does Islam encourage or stifle knowledge in a broad sense and secular sciences in particular? Is there any conflict between reason (‘aql) and revelation (wahy) in Islam?'
The Arabic term ‘ilm literally means science and knowledge in the broadest sense. It is derived from the Arabic verb ‘alima, to know, to learn. Therefore, ‘ilm implies learning in a general sense. The Prophet Muhammad, like all the Semitic Prophets before him, was an educator and spiritual mentor. He contended that the pursuit of knowledge (‘ilm) is a duty (fardh) for every Muslim . This statement unmistakably attaches the highest priority to knowledge and encourages Muslims to be educated. Another statement praises religious knowledge even more highly, maintaining that it is a key to various benefits and blessings and that those who teach the Qur'an and Hadith have inherited the role of the ancient Prophets . In a separate statement, Muhammad said that the scholars of religion (‘ulama') are the trustees of the Messengers (of God) (umana' al-Rusul) . In praise of knowledge, the Prophet also said that the pursuit of knowledge is superior to ritual prayer (Salah), fasting (during Ramadan), pilgrimage (Hajj) and the struggle for Islam (Jihad) in promoting the cause of God . This last Tradition is often misinterpreted by some Muslims who think (quite mistakenly) that religious learning and the pursuit of science exempts them from prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and Jihad. This is not at all the intention of the statement. What it emphasizes is that religious education is no less important than the time and efforts devoted to Salah, Sawm, Hajj and Jihad. Thus learning gets priority over those usual duties of a believer.
Figure 7: Nasir al-Din al-Tusi is pictured at his writing desk at the high-tech observatory in Maragha, Persia, which opened in 1259. © British Library. (Source).
The concept of science and knowledge was also widely diffused in the Prophet's Traditions and in Arabic belles lettres (adab). It only proves the point that Islam inspires its adherents to think of science or knowledge not only for its spiritual and utilitarian value, but also as an act of worship. Some of the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad elevated the pursuit of knowledge as an act of worship. The discourse on knowledge in Arabic sources frequently use two terms, ‘ilm and ‘aql. The former applies to sacred knowledge as well as profane science, and ‘aql connotes intellect or intelligence.
2.3. Unity of Knowledge: Religious, Rational and Experimental
The first subjects that began to take shape among Muslim scholars after the spread of Islam were related to the commentary on the Qur'an (tafsir), Traditions (Hadith) and Asma' al-Rijal (biographies of Hadith scholars), Sirah (Biography (of the Prophet) and Maghazi (Battles of the Prophet), Usul al-Din (theology), Fiqh (Jurisprudence) and Usul al-Fiqh (methodology/principles of Jurisprudence). The Arabic language was classified by Ibn Khaldun as an auxiliary science to explain the terminology of the Qur'an . It would therefore appear that during the 1st and 2nd Hijri centuries a number of new subjects were gradually developed to explain the Qur'an, the Traditions and Islamic history. On the whole the study of basic religious sciences was given priority over other subjects.
The Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i (d. 204/820) classified science into two broad categories, science of the bodies (‘ilm al-abdan) and science of the religions (‘ilm al-adyan) . In the hierarchy of science Islamic scholars placed religious subjects at the top of their list, although secular sciences, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy and philosophy were recognised as useful branches of knowledge. From the ‘Abbasid period onwards, Muslims were avid readers of religion, science and philosophy. In fact, religious and philosophical sciences developed in parallel. Although some religious scholars (the ‘ulama' and fuqaha') undervalued philosophical sciences , such secular subjects were, however, widely tolerated, allowed to flourish in Islamic society and were accommodated in the educational curriculum. The critical attitude of the ‘ulama' towards the philosophical sciences has belatedly attracted severe criticism from some Orientalists . More often than not, it seems quite clear that there was no clear division between sacred and profane sciences. Usually, scholars of the calibre of Ibn Khaldun divided science into two classes, namely the traditional sciences (‘ulum naqliyah) and the philosophical sciences (‘ulum 'aqliyah) .
Figure 8a-b: The front and back of an Islamic Astrolabe in the Whipple Museum, Cambridge. This astrolabe is signed "Husain b. Ali" and dated 1309/10 AD. It is probably North African in origin, and is made of brass. It has four plates (for the front of the astrolabe, representing the projection of the celestial sphere and marked with lines for calculation), each for a specific latitude, and 21 stars marked on the rete (the star map, with pointers, fitting over the plate). (Source).
Many outstanding scholars emphasized the unity of knowledge. Thus scientists of the calibre of Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Kindi, al-Khwarizmi, al-Razi, al-Biruni, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina were as adept in the religious (sacred) sciences as in the profane sciences of medicine, philosophy, astronomy or mathematics. They were conscious of the various dimensions of science.
The Prophet Muhammad was credited with a number of statements regarding cleanliness, health and medicine. These were collected together and became known to Muslims as the Prophetic medicine (al-tibb al-nabawi). A number of books bear this title, including one written by Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah  and another by al-Suyuti . These books contain some authentic statements of the Prophet and include herbal medicine and natural cures. Drinking honey and reciting the Qur'an are recommended as a panacea for all kinds of ailments. One such Tradition asserts that every disease has a cure . In other words, God has provided cures for all kinds of disease. Commenting on this and other Traditions, Muhammad Asad says that when his followers read the Prophet's saying (quoted in al-Bukhyii): "God sends down no disease without sending down a cure for it as well". They understood from this statement that by searching for cures they would contribute to the fulfilment of God's will. So medical research became invested with the holiness of a religious duty  Ibn Khaldun, while commenting on the Prophetic medicine, said that it resembled medicine of the nomadic type, which is not part of the divine revelation, and therefore is not the duty of Muslims to practise it .
It is generally believed by Muslims that no contradiction exists between religion and science. However, this is not the case in Europe, as we shall see.
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by: Dr. Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg, Mon 30 August, 2010