Islamic Contributions to Science

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Islamic scholars and scientists played a significant role in defining and shaping philosophy and science. What were the points of agreements and departures from the western thoughts? Ashoka, in this in-depth research, uncovers an area less visited, exclusively in Different Truths.  

The word ‘Islam’ in the title denotes both Islam as religion and as civilisation; because Islamic religion and Islamic civilisation are essentially connected with each other from every point of view. Two sources of Islam, the Qur’an which is God’s revelation and Prophet Mohammed’s Tradition (Sunnah), which is a first-hand interpretation of the Qur’an, are two main sources of that is called today Islamic Philosophy and Islamic Science; and no doubt they are deeply rooted in those sources. For, from the very beginning the Muslims have regarded it as the project of civilisation. The Qur’an is an admonition to all people forever. Islamic philosophy is profoundly rooted in it; obviously, it is not a book of philosophy, nor one of science. Nevertheless, Muslim philosophers made considerable use of it to lend weight to the philosophical views and doctrines. The Qur’an was and still is considered to be rational and to contain a message inviting people to reason and speculate; as it is well known.

Franz Rosenthal very rightly pointed out that undeniable fact by saying that “Ilm (knowledge) is Islam.” And that we could add without hesitation: Islam is knowledge. Since the Qur’an, being a very different, in content, of any sort of holy books, does not only speak of religious matters as such but also nearly all things of the universe from small things like a mosquito to the biggest thing like the sun, stars, oceans and so on. So, as we have mentioned above the Muslims consider the Qur’an as the project of civilisation. Undoubtedly, the Qur’an is not a book of philosophy or of science as such, but it gives a lot of concerning man, nature, and natural and human histories. Then it asks the man to think about God, nature, and history by and with every like the eye, ear, reason and heart in order to understand that which is. Therefore, many of the Qur’an end: to look at, think about, reason on, understand, mediate, and remember?

But, despite this, some western thinkers of the nineteenth century like V. Cousin, for example, denied the very existence of Islamic Philosophy and Islamic Science and maintained that the teachings of Islam opposed to all free discussion and investigation, and therefore Islam has never risen to aid philosophy and science throughout the centuries of its existence. No doubt those western thinkers have simulated Islam to the Christianity of Medieval Popes with a great ignorance. In fact knowledge, philosophy and science were the very foundations of the rise of Islamic civilization. That is why, as Franz Rosenthal again said, knowledge is one of those concepts that have compared Islam to religion and as a civilisation, and given it their distinctive characteristics and complexion. In fact, there is no other concept that has been operative as a determinant of Islamic philosophy and science in all their aspects to the same extent as Ilm (knowledge).

This is not to deny the fact that Islamic Philosophy and Science have been influenced by foreign sources, mostly by Greek philosophy. But this is not simply and repetition of Greek philosophy as some orientalists have wrongly pretended; the first of these was a French orientalist E. Renan, who had said once that Semitic race has no ability to produce philosophy and science. But when he wrote an “Advertisement” for a later edition of his famous book “Averroes et l’Averroisme” he said the Arabs have an original philosophy. Thus Renan contradicted himself like many others. It is unfortunate that it was not Renan’s later judgment, but his previous racial prejudice, which had an effect on other later generation orientalists, including Léon Gauthier, Th. J. De Boer, R. Rudolf Walzer, and J. David Carson.

Fortunately, there are a number of orientalists who did not in the past and do not today share that fallacious opinion of the first group of orientalists. One among them is Henry Corbin, he finds even worth talking about any foreign source for Islamic Philosophy other than the Qur’an itself; and speaking of the origins of Islamic thought says, “La question ne sera pas de discuter ce que les occidentaux trouvent ou ne trouvent pas dans le Qur’an mais de savoir ce que les Musulmans y ont trouvé en fait…”

Islamic Philosophy

Islamic Philosophy can be differently defined, but as the name implies it refers to the philosophy produced by the Muslim thinkers within the framework of Islamic culture and milieu. The birth of speculative thought in the Muslim World began as early as the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed himself. After the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632, early Muslims were faced with so many religious and socio-political problems, and in order to solve them, they put forward so many different thoughts and there came into existence different sects. Their birth paved the way for more philosophical thinking.

But the pure philosophy (al-falsafa), which is, in fact, an Arabic rendering of the Greek world “philosophia” started to flourish with the establishment of the Baytu’l Hikma by the Abbaside caliph al-Ma’mûn in 829; and from this date onward the translation movement into Arabic was accelerated under the patronage of the same caliph. Mainly Greek philosophical and scientific texts had been translated into Arabic. That translation movement enriched, no doubt, the rising Islamic thought in terms of quantitative and qualitative development in the following centuries.

Islamic Philosophy in its broader sense can encompass pure philosophy, theology (kalâm), Sufism and methodological aspects of Islamic jurisprudence; and its main schools of philosophy can be classified as follows:

Rational Theology: What is call today Islamic theology was from the very beginning a rational movement. Although religiously motivated Islamic theology dealt with so many problems of the times from economic to philosophical. Especially with the rise of Mu’tazila it became a philosophically oriented theology. It is true that many theologians have criticized the Greek way of philosophising and philosophy mainly for its metaphysical assumptions. Nonetheless, Islamic theology can be regarded as an original and creative philosophy. Indeed, some Muslims and orientalists, like G. Dugat and Ibrahim Madkhur for example considered Islamic theology as an original creation of Muslim thinkers and Islamic culture. Amongst the most important schools of theology are Mu’tazilisme, Asharitisme, Maturidisme and Shiisme.

Peripatetic Philosophy: This is what is properly called al-Mashshâ’iyya. Peripatetic philosophy as the name implies refers to the Aristotelian way of philosophising in the Islamic milieu. Of course, this does not mean that Muslim Philosophers have only been influenced by Aristotle; in addition, Socrates, Plato, Plotinus and some of the Hellenistic philosophers were well known to Muslim philosophers. The majority of eminent Muslim philosophers, such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Rushd are representatives of this school.

Illuminative Philosophy: Another important school of philosophy is al-Ishrâkiyya initiated by a famous philosopher Shihabu’d-Din Yahya as-Suhrawardi, in the twelfth century. We could incorporate it intellectual mystical movements such as wahdat al-wujûd (unity of existence), wahdat al-shuhûd (unity of witnessing) and wahdat al-Qusûd (unity of willing). Illuminative philosophy is qualified by some modern scholars as perennial philosophy. Ibn al-Arabî, Dawûd al-Qaysarî, Isma’il al-Ankarawî, al-Jilî and Molla Sadra as Sufis and philosophers are some of the important thinkers of this school.

Greek Heritage

Although Islamic philosophy, especially the peripatetic school took many ideas from the Greek heritage, Muslim Philosophers have developed, reshaped and enriched those Greek ideas in such way that they became Islamic as they themselves originated and created uncountable new concepts, ideas and thoughts. Here, of course, we have not enough time and space to recall all of their original contributions. We will restrict ourselves to a few examples.

As it is known, Muslim peripatetic took the principle of causality from Aristoteles for example; but they inverted the order of Aristotle’s four causes, by putting on the top the efficient cause as the first cause, being in the third rang the Aristoteles. For them, it is God who can be the first and ultimate cause of everything. Some Muslim thinkers, like Abû Hâtim al-Razi, have added to the four causes one more, which they had named as “instrumental cause”. Ibn Sinâ (Avicenna) and al-Farabi, for example, Plotinus’ cosmology; but changed the nature of the absolute One of Plotinus into Allah. The absolute One of Plotinus does not think of anything, even of himself whereas al-Farabi and Ibn Sina’s One is necessarily thinking as having the necessary attribute of thinking; He thinks Himself as well as the created beings. Otherwise, the One could not be active and efficient; the One of Islam or Allah cannot be in potentiality. As Th. J. de Boer pointed out, al-Farâbi was the first to bring to our attention the problem of “ante rem”, “in re” and “post rem”. When this idea of al-Farâbi passed to western Middle Age theologians and philosophers, they started to discuss the issue whence such movements as realism, conceptualism, and nominalism came into existence. Again al-Farâbi was the first to make the distinction between analytical and synthetical concepts long before Leibniz and Kant. No doubt al-Farâbi is the pioneer of Kant for the idea that existence is not predicative at all. Ibn Sinâ has also many contributions and innovations. He was the first to make a clear distinction between essence and existence. For Ibn Sinâ, the center of thinking man’s personal identity is soul or spirit. In order to prove this Ibn Sinâ used a parable of flying man (al-insânu’tâ’îr), the same parable is also used by Descartes for his “cogito ergo sum” and we could say that Descartes was inspired by Ibn Sina. And here is one more example from Ibn Sina; in order to refute the inniatism of Plato, he says that man’s mind is by birth empty like a white sheet of paper. This is nothing but J. Locke’s “tabula rasa”.

As for al-Gazâli, he is also a very innovative philosopher or theologian-philosopher famous for his severe criticism of peripatetic metaphysics. Among his original ideas and thoughts is occasionalism, which is indeed very similar to that of Malebranche. The existential and ethical optimism of his “This world is the best possible world,” is verbally repeated by Leibniz. And there is no doubt, al-Ghazali is the pioneer of Pascal’s “Pari de Pascal”. Al-Ghazali is also famous for his rejection of the theory of natural causality. Like D. Hume later on, Al Gazali maintains that what is called cause or causality is but a mere impression deriving from the habit of observing phenomena as being necessarily linked. These few examples show how Islamic thought is original and independent from Greek heritage in many respects.

Interpretations of Islamic Philosophy

Among interpretations of Islamic philosophy by contemporary western scholars is that of Henry Corbin, which seems too allegorical, esoteric and mystical. One consequence of his interpretation is that everything must be read rather in sacred terms in the sense of the Shiite and especially Isma’ili concept. The second interpretation is put forward by Leo Strauss, according to whom everything must be read in a negative sense. He imagines that Muslim philosophers were normally persecuted for their ideas by theologians and ulamâ. This led Muslim philosophers to disguise their true opinions either by paying lip service to religious truths or through a technique of writing designated to divert the hostile attentions. The third is the interpretation of some of the USSR’s orientalists, Russian and Muslim who represented many Muslim philosophers, from al-Farabi to Ibn Khaldûn, as socialists, materialists, and atheists. Of course, for us, no one of such interpretation is acceptable and correct as a general interpretation of Islamic philosophy or Muslim philosophers.

It is not possible to adequately discuss the relationship of Islamic philosophy with modern European philosophy here and speak of the chain of ideas that relate these two. Philosophy of Science: Let us now return to Islamic science and to say few things concerning its nature and characteristics. Islamic science in its formative period in the ninth century was also influenced from foreign heritages, especially from the Greek. But Muslim scientists rejected sooner the Greek philosophy of science which they found very theoretical and speculative; a scientist like al-Birûni even found it mythological. Therefore, they established a new philosophy of science, whose minute methods and approaches are observation, experiment, and quantitative empiricism. As a matter of fact, hey have not only corrected some Greek scientific theories but also accomplished many new scientific ideas,discoveries and innovations in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and technology.

We cannot enumerate here all the valuable scientific contributions of Muslim scientists. But in order to show their creativeness in different fields of science we would like to give some examples. The famous mathematician al-Kharizmi was the first to use “zero” as number outside the Indian subcontinent. By proving the wrongness of the fifth postulate of Euclid, Nasiru’din Tûsi established anti-Euclidian geometry long before modern mathematicians. Some North African Muslim mathematicians, such as Ibnu’l Banna and al-Qalasadi invented modern numerals that Europeans called “Arabic Numerals”, as well as algebraic signs and denotations. Spherical trigonometry, which properly speaking did not exist among the Greeks was introduced and developed by al-Battani and Thabit ibn al-Qurrâ.

Muslim Astronomers and Copernicus           

Al-Birûni and other Muslim astronomers severely criticized Ptolemy’s planetary model and almost established a new model, which is very similar to that of Copernicus; that is to say a heliocentric system. Al-Battani discovered the movements of the sun’s apogee. Ibn Rush is the first scientist to observed solar spots. Ibn Sina is said to have employed an air thermometer. And Ibn Yunûs certainly did use the pendulum for the measurement of time.

The Muslim astronomers determined with remarkable accuracy the procession of the equinoxes and the movement of planets which were quite unknown to the Greeks. As Columbus himself said it in one of his letters, his voyage was made possible by Ibn Rush’s geographical and astronomical teachings and with al-Battani’s Tables Regiomontanus that constructed the Ephemerides.

As to the field of physics and optics Muslim scientists also made many important contributions. Ibnu’l-Haytham [(Alhazan of Latins) Haytham] was the first to establish the correct theory of vision; and he was the pioneer for Kepler’s Laws of reflection and refraction of light. Al-Birûni was the first scientist to speak of universal gravitation.

In the field of chemistry, the first name to be mentioned is Geber of westerns, Jâbir ibn Hayyam. He made chemistry as an empirical science and was to first to discover nitric acid, sulphuric acid, silver nitrate and aqua regain in which gold and silver could be dissolved. Here let us remember again the name of al-Birûni; because he was the first to use a kind of hydrostatic balance, known as “Pycnometer” in the West, for the determination of specific gravity of minerals.

Muslims, scientists also contributed a lot to medicine and pharmacology. The eminent physician Abû Bakr Zakariyya ar-Râzî (Rhazes of Latins) was the first to distinguish between small-pox and measles. The princes of physicians Ibn Sinâ was the first to make distinguish the kinds of meningitis. And his famous disciple Ibn Nafs discovered the small blood circulation, which is transmitted by Michal Servitor to the West in the sixteenth century. Small-pox vaccine has been practiced since the fifteenth century in Istanbul. Lady Montagu has transmitted it from Istanbul to London in 1718 as she herself narrated in her Letters. As far as we know, to cure some mental desires, al-Kindi and Ibn Sinâ are said to have used music.

These few examples that we have just mentioned suffice to show that like Islamic Philosophy, Islamic science is also original and not merely a repetition of Greek heritage. Though some orientalists have pretended that after the death of Ibn Rushd in 1198 Islamic investigation in the Muslim World is dead. What is true is that no real Aristotelian, like Ibn Rushd, who has spent his whole life to interpret Aristoteles, emerged any more in the Islamic World. But philosophical and scientific activities survived long after his death that so many historians said, the period between the tenth and fifteenth centuries was the Golden Age of Islamic Philosophy and Islamic Science.

Islamic Science and Philosophy

On the other hand, both Islamic Science and Philosophy have played twofold undeniable important role in the history of mankind and notably in the history of Europeans. The first is that Islamic philosophy and science preserved the Greek heritage in Arabic translation from loss and transmitted it to medieval Europe through translations. Since early western Christian authorities found Greco- thought pagan and then dangerous for the Christian faith, they did not permit its teaching in schools; and in the year 529 they asked the emperor Justinianus I to close the Athenian School. Indeed he exiled seven Neo-Platonist philosophers from Athens.

The second and most important role of Islamic philosophy and science is that the translation of Muslim thinkers’ works into Latin, Hebrew and some vernacular languages, awakened Europeans from their dark and long sleep. This translation movement was started by Pope Slyvesrter de Sacy II himself in the tenth century; he opened like Baytu’lHikma a school of translation in the city of Rippol. As a result of this Europeans, Christian and Jew, learned again philosophy and science from the Muslims. It was under the influence of Islamic culture that the European Renaissance took place firstly in Spain and Italy. In speaking of Ibn Sina’s influence upon Medieval Europe A.-M. Goichon said this: “Cette philosophie Arabe venait comme un soufflé tout chargé d’effluves nouvelles, grecques et orientales, vivifiant le jeune esprit de l’Europe, tout ouvert.”

  1. Briffault expressed his view on how Islamic philosophy and science is the driving force behind modern Europe. He says: “ It is highly probable that but for the Arabs modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed that which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution. For although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the paramount distinctive force of modern world and the supreme source of its victory – natural science and the scientific spirit. The debt of our science to the Arabs does not consist in startling discoveries or revolutionary theories; science owes a great deal more to Arab culture; it owes its existence. The ancient world was, as we saw, pre-scientific. What we call science arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of inquiry, of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs.”


Some very knowledgeable colleagues have remarked on why I had not included the remarkable Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam here. I had had the pleasure of interacting with Dr. Salam only once and the giant left a deep impression on me. He was also superlatively generous about myself as a recently published book Scientist of the East indicates:

“I firmly believed that with the breadth of knowledge now makes it impossible for someone to be a polymath in the 20th century-until I met Dr. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad.”

Therefore it would have been my pleasure to include him in the discussions. However although he considered himself a devout Muslim, the sect he belonged to (Ahmaddiya) is not regarded as representative of Islam in several countries.

(From the Oration delivered by the author in Zurich in 2014)

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the internet.

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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad