The Golden Age of Arabic Science

Contemporary Islam is not known for its engagement in the modern scientific project. But it is heir to a legendary “Golden Age” of Arabic science frequently invoked by commentators hoping to make Muslims and Westerners more respectful and understanding of each other. President Obama, for instance, in his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, praised Muslims for their historical scientific and intellectual contributions to civilization:

It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.

The decline of scientific activity is the rule, not the exception, of civilizations. Just like the rise and fall of Republics. Like the Arabs, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations both were at one time far more advanced than the West. While the West is now a story of scientific success, this was not always the case. The Dark Ages, now referred to as the (politically correct) Middle Ages, were shrouded in quite a bit of darkness. And there are plenty of people in the West today with a Middle Ages mindset, doing their best to drag everyone else back there. Hopefully their best will not be good enough!

The West is where the scientific revolution took place, but when would it have happened if the candle of knowledge was not lit in the Arab world during the Middle Ages? Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Arab world until about 1600. Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.

The Golden Age of Arabic Science was extraordinarily productive, with the contributions made by Arabic thinkers often original and ground-breaking. Jews, Christians and Muslims all participated in this flowering of science, art, medicine and philosophy, which endured for at least 500 years and spread from Spain to Persia.

The most oft-repeated claim about the Golden Age of Arabic Science is that Muslims invented algebra. This claim is largely true: initially inspired by Greek and Indian works, the Persian al-Khwarizmi (c. 780-850) wrote a book from whose title we get the term algebra. The book starts out with a mathematical introduction, and proceeds to explain how to solve then-commonplace issues involving trade, inheritance, marriage, and slave emancipations. (Its methods involve no equations or algebraic symbols, instead using geometrical figures to solve problems that today would be solved using algebra.) Despite its grounding in practical affairs, this book is the primary source that contributed to the development of the algebraic system that we know today.

The Golden Age also saw advances in medicine. One of the most famous thinkers in the history of Arabic science, and considered among the greatest of all medieval physicians, was Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (c. 854-925), known in the West as Rhazes. Born in present-day Tehran, Rhazes was trained in Baghdad and became the director of two hospitals. He identified smallpox and measles, writing a treatise on them that became influential beyond the Middle East and into 19th century Europe. Rhazes was the first to discover that fever is a defense mechanism. And he was the author of an encyclopaedia of medicine that spanned twenty-three volumes. What is most striking about his career is that Rhazes was the first to seriously challenge the seeming infallibility of the classical physician Galen. For example, he disputed Galen’s theory of humours, and he conducted a controlled experiment to see if bloodletting, which was the most common medical procedure up until the 19th century, actually worked as a medical treatment. (He found that it did.) Rhazes provides a clear instance of a thinker explicitly questioning, and empirically testing, the widely accepted theories of an ancient giant, while making original contributions to a field.

Breakthroughs in medicine continued with the physician and philosopher Abu Ali Abdulloh Ibn-Sino (c. 980-1037), or Ibn Sina for short, known in the West as Avicenna, whom some consider the most important physician since Hippocrates. He authored the Canon of Medicine, a multi-volume medical survey that became the authoritative reference book for doctors in the region, and — once translated into Latin — a staple in the West for six centuries. The Canon is a compilation of medical knowledge and a manual for drug testing, but it also includes Avicenna’s own discoveries, including the infectiousness of tuberculosis.

Like the later European Renaissance, the Arabic Golden Age also had many polymaths who excelled in and advanced numerous fields. One of the earliest such polymaths was Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al Farabi (c. 872-950), or al-Farabi for short, known in the West as Alpharabius, a Baghdadi thinker who, in addition to his prolific writing on many aspects of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, also wrote on physics, psychology, alchemy, cosmology, music, and much else. So esteemed was he that he came to be known as the “Second Teacher” — second greatest, that is, after Aristotle.

Another great polymath was Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni (c. 973-1048), or al-Biruni for short, who wrote 146 treatises totalling 13,000 pages in virtually every scientific field. His major work, The Description of India, was an anthropological work on Hindus. One of al-Biruni’s most notable accomplishments was the near-accurate measurement of the Earth’s circumference using his own trigonometric method; he missed the correct measurement of 24,900 miles by only 200 miles. (However, unlike Rhazes, Avicenna and al-Farabi, al-Biruni’s works were never translated into Latin and thus did not have much influence beyond the Arabic world.)

Another of the most brilliant minds of the Golden Age was the physicist and geometrician Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (c.965-1040), or Ibn al-Haytham for short, known in the West as Alhazen. Although his greatest legacy is in optics — he showed the flaws in the theory of extramission, which held that our eyes emit energy that makes it possible for us to see — he also did work in astronomy, mathematics and engineering.

And perhaps the most renowned scholar of the late Golden Age was Abu l-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd (c. 1126-1198), or Ibn Rushd for short, known in the West as‎ Averroes, a philosopher, theologian, physician, and jurist best known for his commentaries on Aristotle. The 20,000 pages he wrote over his lifetime included works in philosophy, medicine, biology, physics and astronomy.

Scientific activity was reaching a peak when Islam was the dominant civilization in the world. One important factor in the rise of the scholarly culture of the Golden Age was its material backdrop, provided by the rise of a powerful and prosperous empire. By the year 750, the Arabs had conquered Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and much of North Africa, Central Asia, Spain, and the fringes of China and India. Newly opened routes connecting India and the Eastern Mediterranean spurred an explosion of wealth through trade, as well as an agricultural revolution.

For the first time since the reign of Alexander the Great, the vast region was united politically and economically. The result was, first, an Arab kingdom under the Umayyad caliphs (ruling in Damascus from 661 to 750) and then an Islamic empire under the Abbasid caliphs (ruling in Baghdad from 751 to 1258), which saw the most intellectually productive age in Arab history, aka the Golden Age. The rise of the first centralized Islamic state under the Abbasids profoundly shaped life in the Islamic world, transforming it from a tribal culture with little literacy to a dynamic empire. To be sure, the vast empire was theologically and ethnically diverse; but the removal of political barriers that previously divided the region meant that scholars from different religious and ethnic backgrounds could travel and interact with each other. Linguistic barriers, too, became less of an issue as Arabic became the common idiom of all scholars across the vast realm.

The spread of empire brought urbanization, commerce and wealth that helped spur intellectual collaboration. In the year 800, while the Latin West (with the exception of Italy) was “relatively backward”, the Arab world was highly urbanized, with twice the urban population of the West. Several large metropolises — including Baghdad, Basra, Wasit and Kufa — were unified under the Abbasids; they shared a single spoken language and brisk trade via a network of caravan roads. Baghdad in particular, the Abbasid capital, was home to palaces, mosques, joint-stock companies, banks, schools and hospitals; by the 10th century, it was the largest city in the world.

As the Abbasid empire grew, it also expanded eastward, bringing it into contact with the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese and Persian civilizations, the fruits of which it readily enjoyed. (In this era, Muslims found little of interest in the West, and for good reason.) One of the most important discoveries by Muslims was paper, which was probably invented in China around 105 CE and brought into the Islamic world starting in the mid-8th century. The effect of paper on the scholarly culture of Arabic society was enormous: it made the reproduction of books cheap and efficient, and it encouraged scholarship, correspondence, poetry, record keeping and banking. The arrival of paper also helped improve literacy, which had been encouraged since the dawn of Islam due to the religion’s literary foundation, the Koran.

The single most significant reason that Arabic science thrived was the absorption and assimilation of the Greek heritage — a development fuelled by the translation movement in Abbasid Baghdad. In 9th century Baghdad, the Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Mamun set up an institute, the House of Wisdom, to translate manuscripts. Among the first works rendered into Arabic was the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy’s “Great Work”, which described a universe in which the Sun, Moon, planets and stars revolved around Earth; Al-Magest, as the work was known to Arabic scholars, became the basis for cosmology for the next 500 years.

Greek thought had already been diffused in the region, slowly and over a long period, before the Abbasids and before the advent of Islam. Greek thought spread as early as Alexander the Great’s conquests of Asia and North Africa in the 300s BCE, and Greek centres, such as in Alexandria and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (238-140 BCE in what is now Afghanistan), were productive centres of learning even amid Roman conquest. By the time of the Arab conquests, the Greek tongue was known throughout the vast region and it was the administrative language of Syria and Egypt.

The Baghdad translation movement is in many ways equal in significance to the Italian Renaissance, or the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries in the West. While most of the great thinkers in the Golden Age were not themselves in Baghdad, the Arabic world’s other cultural centres likely would not have thrived without Baghdad’s translation movement. This movement, which mostly flourished from the middle of the 8th century to the end of the 10th, was a self-perpetuating enterprise supported by the entire elite of Abbasid society: caliphs and princes, civil servants and military leaders, merchants and bankers, and scholars and scientists; it was not the pet project of any particular group in the furtherance of their restricted agenda. When science and other initiatives are supported by individual patrons/sponsors, the support disappears when these patrons/sponsors change their priorities, or when they are no longer around, any institutions/initiatives that they might have supported often disappears with them.

The rise to power of the Abbasid caliphate in the year 750 was a revolution in the history of Islam, as important a turning point as the French and Russian revolutions in the history of the West. Instead of tribe and ethnicity, the Abbasids made religion and language the defining characteristics of state identity. This allowed for a relatively cosmopolitan society in which all Muslims could participate in cultural and political life. Their empire lasted until 1258, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph (along with a large part of the Abbasid population). During the years that the Abbasid empire thrived, it deeply influenced politics and society from Tunisia to India.

When Europe was shrouded in the relative darkness of the Middle Ages following the end of Greco-Roman civilisation, Arabic astronomers were observing the heavens from observatories in Samarkand, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Marrakech and Córdoba, where Islamic physicians, philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, geographers and alchemists were pursuing their researches, preserving and extending the knowledge that they had obtained principally from the ancient Greeks, with some contributions from ancient Mesopotamia, Sasanian Persia, India and China.

It was through these men of science and learning that knowledge gained in the Islamic world passed to Europe, beginning as far back as the 9th and 10th centuries. From the 10th to the 13th century, Europeans, especially in Spain, were translating Arabic works into Hebrew and Latin as fast as they could. The result was a rebirth of learning that ultimately transformed Western civilization. Translations from Arabic to Latin inspired the developments that led to the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, with the theories and discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Islamic scholars continued to do original work up to the middle of the 16th century, particularly in astronomy, creating geometric models that fit the observed phenomena of planetary behaviour better than those designed by Ptolemy and which in turn influenced Copernicus. They continued to debate the great question of whether the earth moved, propose new and revolutionary ideas, create new calculations and design ground-breaking mathematical and astrological models well into the 16th century and perhaps even into the 17th century in some places. From the 15th century, migrants, diplomats, scholars, merchants, missionaries and adventurers from eastern, southern and western Europe flocked to the Ottoman Empire. Some of them brought with them knowledge of Galileo, Descartes and Newton and in turn absorbed Islamic knowledge of mathematics and astrology.

But by the 17th century Europe had forgotten its debt to Islam, for although Newton, in saying that he had seen farther than his predecessors ‘by standing on the shoulders of Giants’, gives credit to earlier European and ancient Greek thinkers, he makes no mention of the medieval Arabic scholars from whom Europe had first learned about science. Many modern historians of science are beginning to establish the important role that Arabic scientists and philosophers played in the European Renaissance and the subsequent scientific revolution.

Copernicus, who overturned the Ptolemaic universe in 1530 by proposing that the planets revolved around the Sun, expressed ideas similar to the Muslim astronomers in his early writings. This has led some historians to suggest that there is a previously unknown link between Copernicus and the Islamic astronomers, even though neither ibn al-Shatir’s nor al-Tusi’s work is known to have ever been translated into Latin, and therefore was presumably unknown in the West.

Dr Owen Gingerich, an astronomer and historian of astronomy at Harvard, said he believed that Copernicus could have developed the ideas independently, but wrote in Scientific American that the whole idea of criticizing Ptolemy and reforming his model was part of “the climate of opinion inherited by the Latin West from Islam”.

So why did Eastern science decline? Nobody has answered that question satisfactorily. Pressed, historians offer up a constellation of reasons.

The Islamic empire began to be whittled away in the 13th century by Crusaders from the West and Mongols from the East.

Christians reconquered Spain and its magnificent libraries in Córdoba and Toledo, full of Arab learning. As a result, Islamic centres of learning began to lose touch with one another and with the West, leading to a gradual erosion in two of the main pillars of science – communication and financial support. Add to the lack of funding a predilection for authoritarianism (with a couple of exceptions, every country in the Middle Eastern parts of the Muslim world has been ruled by an autocrat, a radical Islamic sect or a tribal chieftain), a failure to reconcile faith and reason, lack of support for free inquiry and free speech, a deep nostalgia for the Islamic classical period, an unrealistic belief that the good life is best approximated by returning to a pristine and pious past, and a rejection of modernity as defined by the West, and the result is a closed culture, intellectual laggardness and a spirit of science as dry as the desert.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only three scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (Mohammad Abdus Salam for physics in 1979, Ahmed Zewail for chemistry in 1999 and Aziz Sancar for chemistry in 2015). Two Muslims have won Nobel Prizes for literature and seven Muslims (including 3 women) have won Nobel Prizes for peace.

Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. The UN Arab Human Development Report 2003 Building a Knowledge Society makes for interesting (and sobering) reading and highlights the development challenges in the Arab world represented by the three serious deficits in knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment, and the self-created and external obstacles to overcoming these deficits.

Freedom-constraining measures implemented by governments in some developed countries that have gradually eroded basic human rights protections in the same countries have given authorities in some Arab countries another excuse to enact new laws limiting civil and political freedoms. The Arab countries as a group adopted an expanded definition of terrorism, which assumed institutional expression at the regional level in “The Arab Charter against Terrorism”. This charter was criticised in Arab and international human rights circles, because the expanded definition opens the door to abuse. It allows censorship, restricts access to the Internet and restricts printing and publication. Moreover, the Charter neither explicitly prohibits detention or torture, nor provides for questioning the legality of detentions. Furthermore, it does not protect personal freedom, since it does not require a prior judicial order authorising the wire-tapping of individuals or groups (Amnesty International).

The increasing number of travel restrictions imposed by some countries in the West have interrupted cultural exchanges between the Arab world and the West and cut off knowledge acquisition opportunities for young Arabs. The New Scientist has an article about how the travel ban is already stopping scientific collaboration.

“Freedom of communication is absolutely essential for science to function,” says Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “It’s not just nice for people to attend conferences and communicate in person, it’s part of the practice of science. And being able to have scientists from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, that’s essential to the practice of good science.”

So, authoritarian rule, policies eroding civil liberties and personal freedom, restrictions on free speech and free inquiry, closing off borders, disregard for the judiciary, reduced funding for science … it’s a slippery slope!

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