Space Time and Physics Mathematics

Islam and Science: concordance or Conflict? By Prof. Abdus Salam 2/5

Early Islam and Science

How seriously did the early Muslims take these injunctions of the Holy Qur’an and of the Holy Prophetsa?

Barely a hundred years after the Holy Prophet’ssa death, the Muslims had made it their task to master the then-known sciences. Systematically, they translated the entire corpus of the then known knowledge in their religious language, Arabic. Founding institutes of advanced study (Bait-ul-Hikmas), they acquired an ascendancy in the sciences that lasted for the next 350 years.

A semi-quantitative measure of this is given by George Sarton in his monumental History of Science. Sarton divides his story of the highest achievement in science into Ages, each Age lasting 50 years. With each, he associates one central figure: thus, 500-450 B.C. is the Age of Plato, followed by the Ages of Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes and so on. From 750 to 1100 CE, however, it is an unbroken succession of the Ages of Jabir, Khwarizmi, Razi, Masudi, Abu’l-Wafa, Biruni and Omar Khayam. In those 350 years, Arabs, Turks, Afghans and Persians—chemists, algebraists, clinicians, geographers, mathematicians, physicists and astronomers of the commonwealth of Islam—held the world stage of sciences. Only after 1100 C.E, in Sarton’s scheme, do the first Western names begin to appear; however, for another 250 years, they share the honours with men of Islam like Ibn Rushd, Nasir-ud-din Tusi and Ibn Nafis.

An important reason for the success of the scientific enterprise in Islam was its international character. The Islamic commonwealth itself cut across nations and colour; and early Muslim society was tolerant of men from outside it, and of their ideas.

An aspect of reverence for the sciences in Islam was the patronage they enjoyed in the Islamic Commonwealth. To paraphrase what H.A.R. Gibb has written about Arabic literature to the parallel situation for the sciences: To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditional…on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. Where Muslim society was in decay, science lost vitality and force. But so long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in patronising the sciences, the torch was kept burning.

The Golden Age of Sciences in Islam

The Golden Age of Sciences in Islam was doubtless the Age around the year 1000 C. E, the Age of Ibn-i-Sina (Avecenna), the last of the medievalists, and of his contemporaries, the first of the moderns, Ibn-al-Haitham and Al Biruni. Ibn-al-Haitham (Alhazen, 965-1039 CE) was one of the greatest physicists of all time. He “enunciated that a ray of light, in passing through a medium, takes the path which is the easier and ‘quicker.’” In this he was anticipating Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries.4 He enunciated the law of inertia, later to become Newton’s first law of motion. He described the process of refraction in mechanical terms, by considering the movement of “particles of light” as they passed through the surface of separation of two media, in accordance with the rectangle law of forces—an approach later rediscovered and elaborated by Newton. Part V of Roger Bacon’s “Opus Majus” is practically a copy of Ibn-al-Haitham’s optics. No wonder Bacon “never wearied of declaring that a knowledge of Arabic and of Arabic Science was the only way to true knowledge.”
Al Biruni (973-1048 CE), Ibn-i-Sina’s second illustrious contemporary, worked in Afghanistan. He was an empirical scientist like Ibn-al-Haitham. He was as modern and as un-medieval in outlook as Galileo, six centuries later, with whom he shares the independent (prior) discovery of the so-called Galilean invariance of the laws of nature—the liberating statement that the same laws of physics apply here on earth and on the starry-orbs in the heavens.

There is no question that Western Science is a Greco-Islamic legacy. However, it is commonly alleged that Islamic science was a derived science, that Muslim scientists followed the Greek theoretical tradition blindly and added nothing to the scientific method.

This statement is false. Like all periods of intense scientific work, one first builds on what one has inherited; this is followed by an age of maturity when doubts are raised on the teachings of the old masters followed by a break. Such a break came with the rise of observation and experiment, early in the sciences of Islam; its clearest exponents were Ibn-al-Haitham and Al Biruni. Listen to this assessment of Aristotle by Al Biruni:

“The trouble with most people is their extravagance in respect of Aristotle’s opinions, they believe that there is no possibility of mistakes in his views, though they know that he was only theorising to the best of his capacity, and never claimed to be God’s protected and immune from mistakes.”

Or this on geology, with its insistence on observation:

“…But if you see the soil of India with your own eyes and meditate on its nature, if you consider the rounded stones found in earth however deeply you dig, stones that are huge near the mountains and where the rivers have a violent current, stones that are of smaller size at a greater distance from the mountains and where the streams flow more slowly, stones that appear pulverised in the shape of sand where the streams begin to stagnate near their mouths and near the sea—if you consider all this, you can scarcely help thinking that India was once a sea, which by degrees has been filled up by the alluvium of the streams.”

And finally, Al Biruni on medieval superstitions:

“People say that on the 6th (of January) there is an hour during which all salt water of the earth gets sweet. Since all the qualities occurring in the water depend exclusively upon the nature of the soil…these qualities are of a stable nature…Therefore this statement…is entirely unfounded. Continual and leisurely experimentation will show to anyone the futility of this assertion.”

According to Briffault5:

“[T]he Greeks systematised, generalised, and theorised, but the patient ways of investigation, the accumulation of positive knowledge, the minute methods of science, detailed and prolonged observation and experimental inquiry were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. 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, and 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. ‘Modern’ science is the most momentous contribution of the Islamic civilisation.”

These remarks of Briffault are reinforced by Sarton:

“The main, as well as the least obvious, achievement of the Middle Ages was the creation of the experimental spirit and this was primarily due to the Muslims down to the 12th century.”

One of the tragedies of history is that this dawning of the modern spirit in sciences with Al Biruni and Ibn-al-Haitham was interrupted; it did not lead to a permanent change of course in scientific methodology. Barely a hundred years after they worked, creation of high science in Islam came to a halt. Mankind had to wait a full 500 years before the same level of maturity and the same insistence on observation and experimentation was reached again, with Tycho Brahe, Galileo and their contemporaries.

By Professor Abdus Salam, to be continued…


4. H.J.J. Winter, Eastern Science, (London: John Murray, 1952), 72-73.

5. Roger Briffault, “Making of Humanity,” quoted in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, ed. Muhammad Iqbal, (Lahore: M. Ashraf, 1971), 129-130.