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The best books on Science and Islam

recommended by Amira Bennison

The Great Caliphs by Amira Bennison

The Great Caliphs
by Amira Bennison


Islamic scientific discoveries underpinned much of the European Renaissance and the Islamic world inspired Europe as much as Greece and Rome did, says Cambridge professor Amira Bennison. She recommends the best books to get a better understanding of the Islamic contribution to modern science.

The Great Caliphs by Amira Bennison

The Great Caliphs
by Amira Bennison

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Your first choice is Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam.

This book dovetailed with a television programme of the same name and looks at different areas of science in which the Islamic world excelled. It uses the word ‘science’ in the medieval sense, including, for example, philosophy working from Aristotelian material. It all started in Baghdad, Iraq, with the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate in 750AD, and for about 200 years material was translated from Greek into Arabic. This was called The Translation Movement and it started slowly but was in full swing by about 800AD.

The Arabs particularly excelled at mathematics, and algebra is an Arab innovation from that time, created by the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi (born in Baghdad in 780AD). He also developed the Hindu-Arabic numerical system which is used around the world today and includes the concept of zero which was unknown in Roman mathematics. Al-Khwarizmi worked at the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) in Baghdad. The House of Wisdom acquired and translated scientific and philosophic treatises, particularly Greek, as well as publishing original research.

They were also good at geography and astronomy. They weren’t just translating material and leaving it at that – they then had their own ideas; for example, to prove Ptolemy wrong. They were brilliant at maps and calculated the circumference of the earth almost exactly in the 9th century ­– they knew it was a sphere.

Who did?

The Banu Musa brothers in 830AD. They were courtiers of the caliphate but also scientists and patrons themselves. There were three brothers: Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa ibn Shakir, Ahmad ibn Musa ibn Shakir and al-Hasan ibn Musa ibn Shakir. The Banu Musa brothers were among the first group of mathematicians to begin to carry forward the mathematical developments begun by the ancient Greeks.

Nearly 50 years before, in 786, not long after the father of the Banu Musa brothers, Musa ibn Shakir, was born, Harun al-Rashid became the fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. Harun ruled from his court in Baghdad over the whole Islamic empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean to India. He tried to establish the intellectual disciplines – an example of this change is seen in the life of Musa ibn Shakir, who was a robber in his youth but then turned to astronomy.

The next caliph, al-Ma’mun, continued the patronage of learning started by his father. Musa ibn Shakir had become a friend and when he died al-Ma’mun became guardian to his sons. The brothers were given the best education in Baghdad, studying geometry, mechanics, music, mathematics and astronomy. Al-Ma’mun built up a library of manuscripts, collecting important works from Byzantium. In addition to the House of Wisdom, he set up observatories in which Muslim astronomers could build on the knowledge acquired by earlier peoples.

In astronomy the brothers made many contributions. They were instructed by al-Ma’mun to measure a degree of latitude and they made their measurements in the desert in northern Mesopotamia. They also made many observations of the sun and the moon from Baghdad. Muhammad and Ahmad measured the length of the year, obtaining the value of 365 days and 6 hours. Observations of the star Regulus were made by the three brothers from their house on a bridge in Baghdad in 840-41, 847-48, and 850-51.

“The Arabs particularly excelled at mathematics, and algebra is an Arab innovation from that time, created by the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi”

Then there was al-Sarabi, the first Arab philosopher who engaged with translated material, almost certainly Plato’s Republic. With the Translation Movement it’s often tempting to assume people were simply absorbing the translated material, but they were genuinely engaging with it, often disproving what came before.

The book includes a chapter entitled ‘Beyond The Abbasids’, demonstrating that science didn’t die a completely natural death at the end of the Abbasid era. The author does looks at the contemporary myth of Islam being backward and not promoting scientific thought or independent thought of any kind – the idea that Islam is very tradition-bound. People tend to extrapolate from that that there is a contradiction between Islam and science. This attitude is also a product of the Enlightenment in Europe, a product of a Christian context not a Muslim one. In the Enlightenment the idea did develop that there was this conflict between faith and reason and that you couldn’t really have the two side by side. Obviously that’s an ongoing debate – how do you reconcile faith and science? That kind of discussion is part of a product of the imperial age, where the Islamic world was seen as stagnant and backward.

What about your second book, George Saliba’s Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance?

This again stresses that it’s not just that the Arabs were so nice for translating and preserving a lot of ancient Greek texts, but that there was a great deal of selectivity in the translations and a lot of building on what had been translated. The thriving scientific tradition in the Islamic world underpins a lot of things that happen in the European Renaissance.

So, all these Greek texts were translated into Arabic in the 8th and 9th centuries and then translated back into European languages again in the 12th century European Renaissance?

Yes. Everything was preserved in Baghdad – the empire was controlled from Baghdad and there was a lot of Greek spoken throughout the empire, so a lot of the texts were in Byzantine monastic libraries originally, and people like the Banu Musa brothers travelled around trying to locate the documents they were interested in. The texts were later translated back, mostly at the Mediterranean contact points in Spain and Sicily, often by Jews who knew Arabic. The texts sometimes went into Hebrew before being translated into Castillian or Italian. Cities like Taledo, in Spain, had big translation movements in the 11th and 12th centuries, as Christians were becoming interested in the scientific knowledge of Muslims. I often tell my students that Arabic was being taught at Oxford in the 17th and 18th century as a normal part of the curriculum.

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A lot of scientific material on engineering re-entered Europe via the Arabic, and even some of Aristotle’s work came back to Europe in this way. One of the most important Muslim philosophers, Averroes (that’s the Spanish form of his name) commented on Aristotle and much of that commentary arrived in Europe and Latin scholars engaged with it. Averroes died in 1199. The other big name is Avicenna, a Persian, who wrote a compendium of medicine that was still taught at the Sorbonne in Paris until the 17th century. It’s an encyclopedic summation of Arabic and Islamic medical knowledge. They were already doing complex surgery at this point. Arabic physicians looked on in horror at the Christians’ lack of knowledge during the Crusades, apparently: ‘No, don’t chop that leg off! We could mend it!’

The Knights of St John [also known as the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights of Malta] who founded a hospital for pilgrims in Jerusalem in 1080 were modelling their idea on the Muslim hospitals they had seen. Most towns in the Islamic world would have had a hospital by the 10th century.

But this surge of development ended at some point?

To be completely blunt, there was always an economic aspect for the support of science and knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The early Abbasid caliphate was very wealthy, so that money could be put into scientific knowledge. But when you see Baghdad ceasing to be a centre of knowledge it’s also a time of economic difficulties, a huge recession if you like. It often is simply more about whether patrons have enough money. This aspect often gets ignored because people want to put an ideological spin on it. I hate to be cynical but at the end of the day if you are not paying a scientist they are not going to be doing science.

Now tell us about Dimitri Gutas’s Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society.

Gutas is very keen to flag up the role of the caliphs as patrons committed to an intellectual project. He looks at the Translation Movement and looks at what was happening in the 9th century in Baghdad. He sees the Abbasid caliphs as being important in patronising the translation of scientific knowledge from Greek into Arabic and its further development by Arabic-speaking scholars and researchers. Saliba sees the Translation Movement as beginning earlier, and being, not exactly generated from the bottom up, but a movement that was initiated by people working within the bureaucracy, who were trying to get the edge in employment terms. A lot of what they were doing was mathematical and astronomical, in terms of working out the correct taxes for times based on the harvest. For people who wanted to keep ahead in the civil service, translating information of this kind from Greek into Arabic was a way of improving their employment opportunities. Either way, the term Translation Movement is a rather humble name for a phenomenon that is as culturally important as the Renaissance but that isn’t much known about outside the Arab world.

“The Koran says, ‘For every disease, Allah has given a cure.’ It was this belief that there is a cure for every disease that encouraged early Muslims to engage in biomedical research.”

The one thing both Gutas and Saliba are keen to point out is that it was not an unreflective borrowing of materials. Muslims seemed to be quite focused in what they wanted. They had their interests – for instance, no Greek literature was translated. They had no interest in Homer. But they did target the particular areas of science that they wanted to see developed. Both scholars point out that when translation stopped that doesn’t mean Islamic science stopped. That’s an assumption that Muslim scholars were doing nothing with it, that they were just translating it and passing it on, but the point is that they were developing it. So they naturally got to the point where they surpassed the Greek heritage, they didn’t need it any more.

Now tell us about Peter Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith’s Medieval Islamic Medicine.

This book looks at the development of medicine within the Islamic world, a well-developed area of scientific activity. For example, how it intersects with popular or folk medicine of various kinds, such as prophetic medicine – religious sayings or medico-religious sayings which are attributed to the Prophet. It’s a socio-cultural look at medicine. Hospitals developed in the Middle East in the 10th century and they knew about Hippocrates and the Hippocratic oath. The Nestorian Christians were often prominent physicians in the Islamic state under the Muslim caliphs and were instrumental in establishing these hospitals. They had wards for men and women, and children’s wards; they had lunatic asylums where they used quite modern therapies, such as music therapy. They were working on the Greek Hippocratic theory of the humours: yellow bile, blood, black bile and phlegm. So if somebody is ill their humours are out of balance. The first psychiatric hospital was built in medieval Cairo.

The origin for all these medical advancements came directly from the Prophet. The Koran says, ‘For every disease, Allah has given a cure.’ It was this belief that there is a cure for every disease that encouraged early Muslims to engage in biomedical research. The Qalawun Hospital in Cairo could care for 8,000 patients, with a staff that included physicians, pharmacists, and nurses. There were even research facilities that discovered, for example, the contagious nature of diseases, and research into optics and the mechanisms of the eye. Muslim doctors were removing cataracts with hollow needles over 1,000 years before Western physicians.

Your last book is Rosenthal’s The Classical Heritage in Islam.

This is the primer really. He gives some actual texts in translation – some medical and some philosophical – and you get a taste of what was actually being translated and what it was like. Rosenthal considers the translations to be hugely important. Not just from a scientific aspect but also from the point of view of Islamic theology, the ability to reason, to use logic derived from Greek philosophical technique. The ways in which argumentation and dialectic developed owes so much to the Greeks.

Apart from just being stupid, why do I not know about all this already?

Well, Western civilisation has tended to leave out Islam, even though the Islamic world inspired Europe as much as Greece and Rome did. Before colonisation Europe didn’t have a problem recognising Arab innovations, but Christianity’s view has always been that Islam is a heresy. The problem really arose with colonial imperialism and the idea that everyone non-European was inferior, and that has effected how other cultures are perceived. The Islamic world was written out for political reasons. Now we can see that not everything comes from the Middle East, but that the Islamic world has made a huge contribution to science and culture through the ages, and that culture was not only preserved by the Muslims but also built upon. The British school history curriculum focuses mainly on Hitler.

January 11, 2010

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Amira Bennison

Amira Bennison

Amira Bennison is Professor in the History and Culture of the Maghrib at Cambridge University and a fellow of Magdalene College.

Amira Bennison

Amira Bennison

Amira Bennison is Professor in the History and Culture of the Maghrib at Cambridge University and a fellow of Magdalene College.