The Social Foundations of Islamic Science

Based on Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971); Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (Routledge, 1998); John Livingston, The Rise of Science in Islam and the West (Routledge, 2018).

Greek knowledge was all but lost in the centuries before Islam. In the west the Roman empire came under attack as early as the third century, and in response, the Romans more frequently chose military men as their emperors. These men spoke no Greek themselves, and favoured equally rough-hewn men as their subordinates. The Greek language lost its cachet and the Roman elite stopped studying it. Greek became so little known in the west that even scholars could not read books written in that language. From the fall of the western empire in 476, to the capture of Toledo in 1085, European Christians were barely aware of Greek philosophy.

In the east, Alexandria became the last bastion of Greek knowledge. The astronomer Claudius Ptolemy lived and worked in Alexandria in the second century, the mathematician Diophantus in the third, and the neoplatonist John Philoponus in the fifth, but the tradition of Greek scholarship eventually disappeared even there. Christianity had become the official religion of the whole Roman empire in 380, but it evolved differently in the east and in the west. Eastern (Byzantine) Christianity became more ascetic than its western counterpart, more prone to doctrinal disputes, and more suspicious of pagan thinking. The Byzantines valued Greek philosophy as part of their heritage but believed that it had been superseded by the revelations of Christianity. Unable to either embrace or abandon Greek philosophy, the Byzantines simply preserved it. Their empire lasted for a thousand years, but the Byzantines made no significant contributions to science.

The earliest Muslims shared the Byzantines’ disregard for pagan knowledge. Their mission was to expand Islam’s domain by conquering new lands and proselytizing their inhabitants. Like the Byzantine Christians, they were certain of the truth and completeness of their own religious revelation, and felt no need for Greek philosophy.

As Islam’s empire matured, the Muslim elite began to take an interest in certain kinds of knowledge, especially astrology and medicine. Foreign books on these subjects — mostly Greek, but also Persian and Hindu — began to be translated into Arabic. A feedback loop between book translations and Islamic scholarship soon developed: the translations led Islamic scholars to new questions that required further translations to answer. Islamic scholarship gradually widened to encompass most fields of study. The fields in which Islamic scholars made the most fundamental advances were optics, mathematics, and astronomy.

The Rise of Islam

Muhammad had reached middle age when he began to experience what he believed were revelations from God. These revelations took the form of verses. They were recorded by Muhammad’s companions and then compiled as the Qur’an. Taken together, the Qur’an and the hadiths (the sayings of Muhammad) constitute the sacred writings of Islam.

Muhammad quickly attracted followers. His first revelation occurred in 610, and by 630, his adherents controlled the prosperous towns of Mecca and Medina. Part of the appeal of his teachings was that settled Arabs, having grown prosperous through trade and agriculture, had outgrown the ethic of their nomadic predecessors. This ethic emphasized a man’s place in a tribal community. A web of social interactions and obligations governed his actions. He could hold the respect of the community through acts of generosity or wisdom, but also through acts of senseless bravado or swift vengeance. Men sometimes acted in ways that harmed outsiders in order to maintain their status within their own communities. Such actions were deemed acceptable, even admirable, when the Arabs were nomadic desert-dwellers, their tribes separated by vast stretches of sand. Once the Arabs were settled and urbanized, the same actions led to endless conflict.

Muhammad offered the Arabs an entirely new ethic. He expected them to see themselves, not as the sum of their community ties, but as individuals. They would be entirely alone at the Last Judgment — no community, not even family — and their conduct during their lives must prepare them for that single moment of judgment. Their only allegiance must be to God. The Arabs readily absorbed this new ethic.

Under Muhammad as a religious leader, peace came to towns whose magnificent style of life had plainly outstripped the rough ethics of the desert, with murderous results. As the inhabitants of Medina said: “Allah has sent us a prophet who will make peace between us.” It was as an arbitrator, backed by a core of devoted fighting-men, that Muhammad rose to power in Arabia.1

By the time of his death in 632, Muhammad had brought peace to the whole of the Arabian peninsula.

As revolutionary as this ethic was to the Arabs, it merely brought them into line with the rest of the Near East.

The Muslim guided his conduct by exactly the same considerations as did any Christian or Jew throughout the Fertile Crescent. He, too, was a “God-fearer.” He, too, faced…the Last Judgment, infallibly revealed to him in a Sacred Book. He, too, must think on it day and night. The Syrian [Christian] hermit…was venerated because he summed up an ideal of behaviour to which the populations of the Near East subscribed without question — even if the majority prudently avoided exposing themselves to acting on it. Muhammad imposed this ideal on all his Arab followers. In so doing, he brought the Arabs into civilization as it was known in the seventh-century Near East.2

The Muslim concept of “People of the Book” is an explicit recognition of these commonalities.

In the first few decades after Muhammad’s death, Islamic armies took control of Persia, much of the Byzantine empire, and part of the Mediterranean coast of Africa. Despite their military strength, Islam’s generals avoided warfare whenever they could.

The career of Muhammad, who had created a religious empire in Arabia almost exclusively through negotiation, provided the first caliphs with precedents for acute diplomacy. In the first decades of their conquests, the Arabs gained quite as much by treaty as by the sword: key cities, such as Damascus and Alexandria, fell because the Muslim High Command was instantly prepared to offer generous terms — protection and toleration in return for a fixed tribute.3

Islam’s empire expanded in a different way under the Umayyad dynasty (651-750).

The Umayyad empire was an undisguised Arab supremacy, based on the partially Islamized warrior-aristocracy of the Arab tribes. The Bedouin way of life of the Arab aristocracy, though castigated by Muhammad, saved Islam. It was the Chieftains of the Bedouin tribes who created the Arab war-machine with their rude followers, and it was the style of life of this warrior-aristocracy — and not the sheltered piety of the core of devout Muslims — that held the empire together.4

As before, the conquered territories paid tribute to their overlords but were not rigidly governed. Territories such as Syria, Egypt, and Persia grew more prosperous through increased trade and an agricultural revolution.

The lifting of barriers between India and the Eastern Mediterranean saw the systematic importation into Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean of numerous strains of plants, legumes, and fruits and the development of new ones, as well as agricultural techniques and a knowledge of intensive farming and full use of fallow lands. Thus, much more than trade,…it was the agricultural revolution of the first centuries after the Arab conquests that provided much of the wealth of the early empire.5

Muhammad had decreed that all of Islam’s adherents were equal, so Arab Muslims had to share control of the empire with non-Arab converts. Moreover, the Arabs had come from a highly decentralized political regime, so few of them had the skills needed to administer a large and complex empire. These skills were more common among the converts from old and well-established civilizations such as Syria and Persia. Converts from these areas would ultimately hold more power than their numbers warranted.

Syrians and Persians became the pillars of Islamic civilization: they came to be the administrators, the lawyers, the theologians, even, within only a century, the professors of Arab poetry. Medieval Islam was very largely the creation of Muslim non-Arabs.6

The Umayyads attempted to halt the slide of authority away from the Arabs, but non-Arab resistance to their policies grew into a full-blown revolution that overthrew their dynasty. Their successors, the Abbasids (750-1258), turned away from territorial expansion, instead seeking to consolidate the empire.

With the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate, the slow-moving ideals of an organized and expensive imperial administration replaced the fearful mobility of the Bedouin armies.7

The old dynasty’s capital had been Damascus, but the Abbasids built a new capital — Baghdad — in the heart of Persia. Baghdad would become the largest and wealthiest city in the world.

The Translation Movement

The Abbasids initiated the systematic translation of foreign scholarly books into the Arabic language.8 Some of the translated books were written in Sanskrit, some were written in Pahlavi or Syriac, but most were written in Greek. This translation movement continued for more than two centuries, and did not end until every significant Greek book of a mathematical, scientific, or philosophic nature had been translated. It was not an elitist movement, and it was not a purely Islamic movement.

The support for the translation movement cut across all lines of religious, sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and linguistic demarcation. Patrons were Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’ites, generals and civilians, merchants and land-owners.9

The translation movement led to rapid scientific progress, but it was not begun for that purpose.

The primary concern of Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, was establishing the legitimacy of Abbasid rule. The Abbasids had come to power through what was essentially a Muslim civil war, so there was a need for reconciliation among Muslims. There was also a need to consolidate the support of the Persians, who had been instrumental in bringing the Abbasids to power. The majority of the Persians were still Zoroastrians, so al-Mansur had to devise an expanded ideology — expanded beyond Islam — that would lock the Persians into his political coalition.

This was done by promulgating the view that the Abbasid dynasty, in addition to being the descendants of the Prophet and hence satisfying the demands of both Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, was at the same time the successor of the ancient imperial dynasties in Iraq and Iran, from the Babylonians through the Sasanians, their immediate predecessors…They were able to incorporate Sasanian culture, which was still the dominant culture of large masses of the population east of Iraq, into mainstream Abbasid culture.10

The translation movement was one aspect of this policy. It was inspired by a long-established Zoroastrian tradition:

Zoroaster received from Ohrmazd the Good God the texts of the Avesta, which include all knowledge. The destruction wrought upon Persia by Alexander the Great, however, caused these texts to be dispersed throughout the world. The Greeks and the Egyptians derived their knowledge from these Zoroastrian texts which Alexander had translated into Greek and Coptic. Subsequently Sasanian emperors took it upon themselves to collect all these texts and the knowledge that was derived from them from the various places where they had been scattered: the sources named India and Byzantium.11

This tradition grossly misrepresents the chronology of human knowledge, and should be understood as a backstory written by the Zoroastrians to magnify their own importance.12

One of the emperors who acted upon this tradition was Sabur (r. 241-71). Surviving documents show that he

… collected the non-religious writings on medicine, astronomy, movement, time, space, substance, accident, becoming, decay, transformation, logic and other crafts and skills which were dispersed throughout India, the Byzantine Empire and other lands, and collated them with the [Zoroastrian sacred text] Avesta.13

The tradition was still influential during the first century of Abbasid rule. By initiating the translation movement, al-Mansur showed that he was following in the footsteps of previous Persian emperors, thereby solidifying his claim that he was their natural successor.

The earliest translations were overwhelmingly astrological. Astrology was part of Persian beliefs, and al-Mansur embraced the practice.14 The translation of astrological texts was a double demonstration of al-Mansur’s connection to the Sasanian emperors. Medical texts were also frequently translated. Galen’s anatomy texts were particularly valuable to Muslim scholars, because Islam prohibited dissection of the human body.

Translations often involved intermediate languages. Translations from Greek to Syriac were common during the ninth century. Many of the Syriac editions were then translated into Arabic. Important books were translated more than once, with the later and more accurate translations being direct from Greek to Arabic. Likewise, there were few direct translations from Sanskrit to Arabic; instead, “Indian scientific material in astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and medicine passed into Arabic mainly through Persian (Pahlavi) intermediaries.”15

Among the most important scientific translations during the reign of al-Mansur were the Hindu astronomical handbook known as Sindhind (translated directly from Sanskrit), Ptolemy’s Almagest, Euclid’s Elements, and Aristotle’s books on logic.16

Another Persian idea adopted by the Abbasids was the “House of Wisdom,” which originally meant a palace library, especially one that preserved the history of the people. The earliest surviving mention of the Abbasid’s House of Wisdom is in documents that date to the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809). No surviving documents describe its founding. The Abbasid’s House of Wisdom is most strongly associated with al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833), who extended its activities to include mathematical studies and astronomical observation. Al-Ma-mun was an enthusiastic patron of the translation movement, but the popular depiction of the House of Wisdom as a sort of manufactory for book translations is unfounded.

Al-Ma’mun was as concerned with consolidating his rule as al-Mansur had been. He came to power after a civil war fought against his brother, who had become caliph upon the death of their father. The war ended with a year-long siege of Baghdad, during which much of the city was destroyed. The brother was captured and killed, allowing al-Ma’mun to claim the caliphate.

Al-Ma’mun’s mother was Persian, and he had been raised in an environment that emphasized the values of the Persian elite, including its commitment to scholarship. One of these values was the translation movement itself.

As a young man he read and studied zealously the books of the ancients, al-Ahbari tells us. By the time he became caliph, it is certain not only that he as an individual had internalized values that considered the translation movement and all that it stood for as a cultural good, but also that these values were the dominant ones among intellectuals…That he would actively promote the translation movement, therefore, as all his predecessors had done before him, never came…into question.17

There were two areas in which this tradition of scholarship served al-Ma’mun’s political interests: the centralization of Islamic religious authority, and war against the Byzantines.

Islam was not hierarchical. When a dispute over dogma arose, religious leaders would attempt to persuade their adherents of the rightness of their own opinions. Al-Ma’mun considered this system to be too haphazard and sought to make himself the final arbiter of religious disputes. He would make his decisions in conjunction with the most learned theologians, and these decisions would be based upon dialectic argumentation, as set out in Aristotle’s books on logic.18

Al-Ma’mun also sought to push back the borders of the Byzantine empire. In order to justify his attack, Muslims were portrayed as superior to Byzantines, and the translation movement was presented as evidence of this superiority.

The Byzantines were portrayed as deserving of Muslim attacks not only because they were infidels…but because they were also culturally benighted and inferior not only to Muslims but also to their own ancestors, the ancient Greeks. The Muslims, by contradistinction, in addition to being superior because of Islam, were also superior because they appreciated ancient Greek science and wisdom and had translated their books into Arabic. This superiority is even transferred to Islam itself as a religion; the Byzantines turned their back on ancient science because of Christianity, while the Muslims had welcomed it because of Islam.19

The translation movement arose out of social and political maneuvering, but in the end, an opportunistic policy paid enormous scientific dividends. The movement yielded a great deal of practical knowledge, and provided the foundations for a developing scientific and philosophical tradition. The demand for translations supported the continuation of the movement for more than two centuries.

The Muslims were (imperfectly) aware of what Greek and Hindu scholars had accomplished, and translated their books as needed. They believed that any scholarly study should begin with a review of what was already known or hypothesized — wherever that knowledge might be found. When al-Kindi (d. c. 870) began to apply philosophy to theology, for example, he ordered the translation of metaphysical works by Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus. A second example of this approach comes from mathematics, and a third from optics.

The famous book on algebra by al-Khwarizmi, which was to revolutionize mathematical studies forever, appeared…about half a century after the translation of Euclid’s Elements…Al-Khwarizmi’s demonstrations of different algebraic formulae for solutions are inspired by Euclid insofar as they rest on the idea of the equality of areas.20

The optical books by Diocles, Anthemius of Tralles, and Didymus were translated into Arabic as a result of the practical interest of scholars and rulers in burning mirrors. The legend of Archimedes setting fire to the flotilla of Marcellus during the siege of Syracuse…alerted mathematicians to the possibility of actually reproducing the feat. The available Greek works on the subject were thus tracked down, translated into Arabic, and al-Kindi wrote an independent treatise on the subject correcting and advancing in many ways the work of the Greek authors.21

Al-Kindi wrote candidly about the value of foreign scholarship:

We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and of acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. For the seeker of truth nothing takes precedence over the truth, and there is no disparagement of the truth, nor belittling either of him who speaks it or of him who conveys it. No one is diminished by the truth; rather does the truth ennoble all.22

The translation movement was self-catalyzing: new translations raised new issues, and the resolution of these issues required still more translations. This dynamic gradually broadened the scope of Islamic scholarship. The Muslims translated only what they needed, but in the end, they needed everything.

Islam and Philosophy

The ancient Greeks had no dogma and no holy books. Their religion was a performative one, requiring only their participation in rituals and festivals. It did not constrain their attempt to explain the world in natural terms. By contrast, the revelation of Muhammad was the central fact of Islamic life. Muslims absorbed only those parts of Greek philosophy that could be made compatible with this revelation. This limitation eventually narrowed their scientific outlook.

The Muslims were interested in selected scientific fields or in particular scientific problems, like optics. In each case, the subject was appealing because it had practical applications. Pure scientific theory, the lure of scientific knowledge for its own sake that had animated the ancient Greeks, was not [appealing]. Nor were Muslim scientists concerned with using science to develop a coherent world view based on reason or a universally applicable method of testing ideas…The ability to amplify Greek scientific knowledge along its own lines did not go hand in hand with the desire to forge connections among all the sciences or to contemplate the possibility of alternative scientific paradigms.23

Islamic philosophy was, from its beginning, a form of theology. The earliest Muslims were aware of incongruities in the Qur’an, and developed traditions that harmonized them. They held that the Qur’an was to be understood literally: references to the hands and face of God imply that God is a being of recognizable form. Their literalism led them to conclude that people do not have free will. “Man, like other creatures, has neither power, will, nor choice.”24 Every person’s actions are preordained, and so is his fate on Judgment Day.

This theology was challenged during the ninth century by the Mu’tazilites. Their arguments were based on Greek dialectics and incorporated elements of Greek philosophy. Their primary concerns were divine justice and God’s unity.

The Mu’tazilites sought to reconcile divine justice with the existence of evil. They argued that God’s decrees are not arbitrary.

Good and evil are not conventional or arbitrary concepts whose validity is rooted in the dictates of God…but are rational categories which can be established through unaided reason…[Furthermore,] God cannot enjoin what is contrary to reason or act with total disregard for the welfare of His creatures, in so far as this would compromise His justice and His wisdom.25

God would not decree that a person will commit evil acts, and yet evil acts are present in the world. These propositions are consistent only if people have some degree of free will. The puzzle, never satisfactorily resolved, was how to explain free will without impinging upon God’s absolute sovereignty.

The Mu’tazilites rejected the idea that God can be characterized by positive attributes, such as wisdom or bodily form. His only characteristic is his “oneness” — he is a single transcendent essence. This belief owed much to the Greeks: the Mu’tazilites were “influenced by the Aristotelian concept of God as the pure actuality of thought,…as well as by [Plotinus’s] view that God, who transcends thought and being altogether, can only be known negatively.”26 It was at odds with the Qur’an’s many references to God’s hand and face and footstool, so the Mu’tazilites argued that the Qur’an must sometimes be read metaphorically. They also rejected the traditional belief that the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated, arguing that it was inconsistent with God’s oneness.

The Mu’tazilites employed Greek philosophy only in a piecemeal fashion. Al-Kindi used it to construct a comprehensive theology. He was strongly influenced by Aristotle, and also by neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Proclus. Although he was not himself a Mu’tazilite, his conclusions — including “the creation of the world ex nihilo, the resurrection of the body, the possibility of miracles, the validity of prophetic revelation, and the origination and destruction of the world by God”27 — mirrored those of the Mu’tazilites. His insistence on God’s oneness led him to negative theology: “Anything that can be said of something else will be inapplicable to the absolutely one.”28

The Mu’tazilites were strongly supported by al-Ma’mun, but their arid and passionless theology did not appeal to the common people and was opposed by traditional scholars. A new school of philosophy, the Ash’arites, developed in reaction to them.29 The Ash’arites used the same methodology and addressed the same issues, but came to conclusions that were much closer to traditional theology:

The Quran was the eternal mind and speech of God. As such, the Quran had to be understood literally, anthropomorphisms and all…All human decision and action had been predetermined by God at the moment of creation. God’s greatness could not be constrained to a human concept of justice…Nature did not operate according to causal relationships but by the direct action of God ordering each event, a shadow being caused not by a tree blocking solar rays but by God creating the shadow independent of any object between the sun and the shadow.30

The Ash’arites, like the Mu’tazilites, found that there were elements of theology that defied reasoned analysis.

The anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Qur’an were to be accepted bi-la kayf – without asking how – and the paradoxes to God’s power and human free will ultimately made it impossible for man to comprehend the will and justice of God.31

The Ash’arites’ reformulation of traditional beliefs became the theology of the Sunnis, Islam’s dominant sect. There are two ways in which it diminished the influence of science in Islamic society. The first way was simply its intense conservatism.

Traditional ways and practices, called taqlid (molding, forming and casting in a mold) was opposed to innovation, bid’a, doing things in a way not prescribed by tradition of the Prophet. Bid’a was therefore to be avoided in case the particular innovation was religiously reprehensible.32

Greek philosophy was one of the innovations that a devout Muslim should avoid lest it lead him astray. The second way was its adoption of the doctrine known as occasionalism, which was essentially a denial of causality:

In every instant, in every atom of time, the universe was annihilated and recreated by God’s command…Time was atomistic; the intervals of non-time separating the atoms of time were states of nonexistence, instantaneous universal annihilations, which obviated the flow of nature and events by cause and effect relationships. God’s atomizing of time into imperceptible instants of annihilation and reintegration made Him the sole cause in all existence. 33

According to this doctrine, a ball thrown into the air falls back to earth only because at every moment of its flight, God has willed it to do so.

Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was an ardent defender of Sunni theology. He studied with Ash’arite teachers and had a deep knowledge of Greek philosophy. He was also strongly attracted to Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism whose practitioners sought unmediated knowledge of God. According to al-Ghazali,

The mystical approach to God is the deepest and most meaningful, but it cannot be expressed in words without it sounding mad and heretical…The ineffable must remain ineffable.34

Al-Ghazali reinforced both of the Ash’arites’ “anti-science” ideas, namely, the dangers of Greek philosophy, especially its metaphysics, and the rejection of causality. Indeed, it is for the vehemence of his denial of causality that he is most widely known:

According to us the connection between what is usually believed to be a cause and what is believed to be an effect is not a necessary connection; each of the two things has its own individuality and is not the other, and neither the affirmation nor the negation, neither the existence nor the non-existence of the one is implied in the affirmation, negation, existence or non-existence of the other — for example, the satisfaction of thirst does not imply drinking, nor recovery the drinking of medicine, nor evacuation the taking of purgative, and so on for all the empirical connections existing in medicine, astronomy, the sciences, and the crafts.35

On the dangers of philosophy, al-Ghazali again emphasized that even seemingly neutral concepts are a danger to faithful Muslims.

Al-Ghazali…accepts that there are parts of astronomy (for example, the theory of solar and lunar eclipses) that are based on apodeictic demonstration and are thus “impossible to deny;” such things are, in and of themselves, unconnected with religious matters. However, these “neutral” and true aspects of mathematics may seduce the unwary student into believing that certainty also exists in the physical and metaphysical theories of the philosophers, some of which stand in contradiction to Islamic religious dogma. Thus the study of these sciences must be limited and constrained, for “few there are who devote themselves to this study without being stripped of religion and having the bridle of godly fear removed from their heads.”36

Nevertheless, al-Ghazali refrained from condemning mathematical studies, arguing that

…there is nothing here obliging us to deny the science of arithmetic which informs us in a specific manner of the paths of sun and moon, and of their conjunction and opposition.37

An astronomy that conformed to al-Ghazali’s ideology would be stripped of its physical attributes. Islamic astronomy seems to have developed in accordance with this dictum.

Even the more philosophically inclined of the Islamic astronomers seem, for the most part, to be intent not only on demarcating astronomy from natural philosophy but also on making it as independent as possible.38

Al-Ghazali is sometimes accused of blocking the progress of Islamic science, and given both his prominence and his beliefs, this claim is not without foundation. But did al-Ghazali change Islamic society, or did he simply embody the changes that were already in progress? His ideas were consistent with Ash’arite ideology, which was already being absorbed by Islamic society. And Islam’s shift away from science seems to have been due, at least in part, to the rise of Sufism, which looked inward to the human mind or soul rather than outward to the physical world. Here, too, al-Ghazali was a follower as much as he was a leader.

In any case, the “golden age” of Islamic science came to an end in the twelfth century. Ideas that did not mesh with Islam’s “founding ideas” were marginalized.

The ideas that shaped Islamic life had an inner logic that defined the options open to Muslim intellectuals and thus channeled Islamic intellectual life in particular directions. The issue was not a lack of freedom for individual creativity…but rather that those whose efforts cut across the grain of the formative ideas of Islamic society, like al-Farabi and the early philosophers, did not shape the central core of Islamic thought. Those who could make their intellectual creativity flow into channels that the founding ideas of Islam had opened won enduring influence. Such thinkers included al-Ghazalı, who saw that the place for logic was in the legal curriculum, and Suhrawardi, who saw that the natural role of philosophy was as the interpreter of mysticism.39

The sciences that continued to progress were those that had practical applications within Islamic society. Medicine was one of these sciences. Mathematics, despite its abstractions, was another. The mathematician al-Khwarizmi explained that his goal was to provide the solutions that “men constantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, lawsuits and trades, and in all their dealings with one another, or where the measuring of lands, the digging of canals…are concerned.”40 Astronomy also had great practical importance within Islam. The lunar calendar determined the dating of major festivals such as Ramadan, and there were prescribed times for daily prayers. The direction of Mecca was also important, both for participation in daily prayers and for the construction of mosques. All of these things were within the purview of the astronomers.

Islamic science, like the Greek science that came before it and the European science that came after it, was moulded by a variety of social forces. The next post (here) discusses some of its most important achievements.

  1. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, p. 191.
  2. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, p. 191.
  3. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, p. 193.
  4. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, p. 194.
  5. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 12.
  6. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, p. 198.
  7. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, p. 202.
  8. The overlap of language groups in the Near East meant that some translations were necessary for administrative purposes. The Umayyads engaged in this kind of translation, but there is no evidence that they translated scholarly books (Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 23).
  9. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 5.
  10. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 29.
  11. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, pp. 40-1.
  12. The same kind of myth-making has occurred elsewhere. For example, there is no compelling archeological evidence of the Jewish exodus, or of the existence of a powerful King David.
  13. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 36.
  14. It is not clear whether his belief was sincere or strategic. Astrology had not previously been part of Islamic culture. It had, however, been part of Greek culture, and both Aristotle and Ptolemy had written about it.
  15. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 24.
  16. Testimony of al-Ahbari, an early ninth-century historian. Quoted by Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 30.
  17. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 83.
  18. Here, “dialectic” means that in involves a dialogue between two (or more) proponents, in which propositions are tested and refined. Dialectic arguments were central to the philosophies of Socrates and Plato.
  19. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 84.
  20. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 117.
  21. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, p. 117.
  22. Quoted by Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, pp. 158-9.
  23. Marcia Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400 (Yale, 1997), p. 136.
  24. Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 48.
  25. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 49.
  26. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 59.
  27. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 70.
  28. Peter Adamson, “Al-Kindi and the Reception of Greek Philosophy”, in Peter Adamson and Richard Taylor, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge, 2005), p. 35.
  29. The Ash’arites were named for the philosopher Abu Hasan al-Ash’ari (c. 874–936). The Mu’tazalites took their name from an Arabic word that meant to withdraw or stand apart.
  30. Livingston, The Rise of Science in Islam and the West, p. 95.
  31. John Walbridge, God and Logic in Islam (Cambridge, 2010), p. 51.
  32. Livingston, The Rise of Science in Islam and the West, p. 97.
  33. Livingston, The Rise of Science in Islam and the West, pp. 96-7.
  34. Al-Ghazali, quoted by Livingston, The Rise of Science in Islam and the West, p. 107.
  35. Al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers.
  36. Jamil Ragep, “Freeing Astronomy from Philosophy: An Aspect of Islamic Influence on Science,” in Ragep, in Islamic Astronomy and Copernicus (Turkish Academy of Sciences, 2022), p. 25.
  37. Al-Ghazali. Quoted by Jamil Ragep, “Freeing Astronomy from Philosophy: An Aspect of Islamic Influence on Science,” in Ragep, in Islamic Astronomy and Copernicus (Turkish Academy of Sciences, 2022), p. 26.
  38. Jamil Ragep, “Freeing Astronomy from Philosophy: An Aspect of Islamic Influence on Science,” in Ragep, in Islamic Astronomy and Copernicus (Turkish Academy of Sciences, 2022), p. 31.
  39. Walbridge, God and Logic in Islam, pp.13-4.
  40. Al-Khwarizmi. From Frederic Rosen, editor and translator, The Algebra of Mohammed Ben Musa (1831), p. 3.