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Islam and Science
By Engr. Iqbal A. Khan

The Arabs who had wielded the arms with such remarkable success, that they
had become the masters of a third of the knows world in a short span of
thirty years, met with even greater success in the realm of knowledge. But
the west has persistently endeavoured to under-rate the achievements of
Islam. Writing in his outspoken book The intellectual Development of
Europe, John William Draper says, "I have to deplore the systematic manner
in which the literature of Europe has contrived to put out of sight our
scientific obligations to the Mohammadans. Surely they can not be much
longer hidden. Injustice founded on religious rancour and national conceit
cannot be perpetuated for ever. What should the modern astronomer say,
when, remembering the contemporary barbarism of Europe, he finds the Arab
Abul Hassan speaking of turbes, to the extremities of which ocular and
object diopters, perhaps sights, were attached, as used at Meragha? What
when he reads of the attempts of Abdur Rahman Sufi at improving the
photometry of stars? Are the astronomical tables of Ibn Junis (A.D. 1008)
called the Hakemite tables, or the Ilkanic tables of Nasir-ud-din Toosi,
constructed at the great observatory just mentioned, Meragha near Tauris
(1259 A.D.), or the measurement of time by pendulum oscillations, and the
method of correcting astronomical tables by systematic observations are
such things worthless indications of the mental State? The Arab has left
his intellectual impress on Europe, as, before long, Christendom will have
to confess; he has indelibly Written it on the heavens, as any one may
see who reads the names of the stars on a common celestial globe."

What is Science?
Science, has been defined as, "the ordered knowledge of natural phenomena
and the relations between them. Its end is the rational interpretation of
the facts of existence as disclosed to us by our faculties and senses." The
celebrated scientist Sir J. Arthur Thomson considers science to be "the
well criticised body of empirical knowledge declaring in the simplest and
tersest terms available at the time what can be observed and experimented
with, and summing up uniformities of change in formulae which are called
laws verifiable by all who can use the methods." According to another well
known scientist Karl Pearson the hypotheses of science are based on
"observed facts, which, when confirmed by criticism and experiment, are
turned into laws of Nature."

Experimental Method
Observation and experiment are the two sources of scientific knowledge.
Aristotle was the father of the Greek sciences, and has made a lasting
contribution to physics, astronomy, biology, meteorology and other
sciences. The Greek method of acquiring scientific knowledge was mainly
speculative, hence science as such could make little headway during the
time of the Greeks.

The Arabs who were more realistic and practical in their approach adopted
he experimental method to harness scientific knowledge. Observation and
experiment formed the vehicle of their scientific pursuits, hence they gave
a new outlook to science of which the world had been totally unaware.
Their achievements in the field of experimental science added a golden
chapter to the annals of scientific knowledge and opened a new vista for
the growth of modern sciences. Al-Ghazali was the follower of Aristotle in
logic, but among Muslims, Ishraqi and Ibn-iTaimiyya were first to undertake
the systematic refutation of Greek logic. Abu Bakr Razi criticised
Aristotle's first figure and followed the inductive spirit which was
reformulated by John Stuart Mill. Ibn-i-Hazm in his well known work Scope
of Logic lays stress on sense perception as a source of knowledge and
Ibn-i-Taimiyya in his Refuttion of Logic proves beyond doubt that induction
is the only sure form of argument, which ultimately gave birth to the
method of observation and experiment. It is absolutely wrong to assume
that experimental method was formulated in Europe. Roger Bacon, who, in
the west is known as the originator of experimental method in Europe, had
himself received his training from the pupils of Spanish Moors, and had
learnt everything from Muslim sources. The influence of Ibn Haitham on
Roger Bacon is clearly visible in his works. Europe was very slow to
recognise the Islamic origin of her much advertised scientific
(experimental) method. Writing in the Making of Humanity Briffault admits,
"It was under their successors at the Oxford School that Roger Bacon
learned Arabic and Arabic science. Neither Roger Bacon nor his later
namesake has any title to be credited with having introduced the
experimental method. Roger Bacon was no more than one of the apostles of
Muslim science and method to Christian Europe; and he never wearied of
declaring that the knowledge of Arabic and Arabic science was for his
contemporaries the only way to true knowledge. Discussions as to who was
the originator of the experimental method......are part of the colossal
misrepresentation of the origins of European civilization. The
experimental method of Arabs was by Bacon's time widespread and eagerly
cultivated throughout Europe....Science is the most momentous contribution
of Arab civilization to the modern world, but its fruits were slow in
ripening. Not until long after Moorish culture had sunk back into darkness
did the giant to which it had given birth, rise in his might. It was not
science only which brought Europe back to life. Other and manifold
influences from the civilisation of Islam communicated its first glow to
European life. 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 permanent distinctive force of the modern world, and the
supreme source of its victory-natural science and the scientific spirit..,
The debt of our science to that of 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. The astronomy and mathematics of Greeks were a foreign
importation never thoroughly acclimatized in Greek culture. The Greeks
systematised, generalised and theorised, but the patient ways of
investigations, the accumulation of positive knowledge, the minute methods
of science, detailed and prolonged observation and experimental enquiry
were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. Only in Hellenistic
Alexandria was any approach to scientific work conducted in the ancient
classical world. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the
European world by the Arabs."' In his outstanding work The Reconstruction
of Religious Thought in Islam, Dr. M. Iqbal, the poet of Islam writes,
"The first important point to note about the spirit of Muslim culture then
is that for purposes of knowledge, it fixes its gaze on the concrete, the
finite. It is further clear that the birth of the method of observation
and experiment in Islam was due not to a compromise with Greek thought but
to prolonged intellectual warfare with it. In fact the influence of Greeks
who, as Briffault says, were interested chiefly in theory, not in fact,
tended rather to obscure the Muslim's vision of the Quran, and for at least
two centuries kept the practical Arab temperament from asserting itself and
coming to its own." Thus the experimental method introduced by the Arabs
was responsible for the rapid advancement of science during the mediaeval

Chemistry as a science is unquestionably the invention of the Muslims. It
is one of the sciences in which Muslims have made the greatest contribution
and developed it to such a high degree of perfection that they were
considered authorities in this science until the end of the 17th century A.
D. Jabir and Zakariya Razi have the distinction of being the greatest
chemists the mediaeval times produced. Writing in his illuminating History
of the -Arabs, Philip K. Hitti acknowledges the greatness of Arabs in this
branch of science when he says, "After materia medica, astronomy and
mathematics, the Arabs made their greatest scientific contribution in
chemistry. In the study of chemistry and other physical sciences, the
Arabs introduced the objective experiment, a decided improvement over the
hazy speculation of Greeks. Accurate in the observation of phenomeha and
diligent in the accumulation of facts, the Arabs nevertheless found it
difficult to project proper hypotheses."

Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Geber) who flourished in Kufa about 776 A.D. is known as
the father of modern chemistry and along with Zakariya Razi, stands as the
greatest name in the annals of chemical science during mediaeval times. He
got his education from Omayyad Prince Khalid Ibn Yazid Ibn Muawiyah and the
celebrated Imam Jafar al-Sadiq. He worked on the assumption that metals
like lead, tin and iron could be transformed into gold by mixing certain
chemical substances. It is said that he manufactured a large quantity of
gold with the help of that mysierious substance and two centuries later,
when a street was rebuilt in Kufa a large piece of gold was unearthed from
his laboratory. He laid great emphasis on the importance of
experimentation in his research and hence he made great headway in chemical
science, Western writers credit him with the discovery of several chemical
compounds, which are not mentioned in his twenty-two extant Arabic works.
According to Max Meyerhof "His influence may be traced throughout the whole
historic course of European alchemy and chemistry." He is credited, with
the writing of 100 chemical works. "Nevertheless, the works to which his
name was attached" says Hitti, "were after the 14th century, the most
influential chemical treatises in both Europe and Asia."" He explained
scientifically the two principal operations of chemistry, calcination and
reduction, and registered a marked improvement in the methods of
evaporation, sublimation filtration, distillation and crystallization.
Jabir modified and corrected the Aristotelian theory of the constituents of
metal, which remained unchanged until the beginning of modern chemistry in
the 18th century. He has explained in his works the preparation of many
chemical substances including "Cinnabar" (sulphide of mercury) and arsenic
oxide. It has been established through historical research that he knew
how to obtain nearly pure vitrilos, alums, alkalis and how to produce 'the
so-called liver' and milk of sulphur by heating sulphur with alkali. He
prepared mercury oxide and was fully conversant with the preparation of
crude sulphuric and nitric acids. He knew the method of the solution of
gold and silver with this acid. His chemical treatises on such subjects
have been translated into several European languages including Latin and
several technical scientific terms invented by Jabir have been adopted in
modern chemistry. A real estimate of his achievements is only possible
when his enormous chemical work including the Book of Seventy are
published. Richard Russell (1678, A.D.) an English translator ascribes a
book entitled Sun of Perfection to Jabir. A number of his chemical works
have been published by Berthelot. His books translated into English are
the Book of Kingdom, Book of Balances and Book of Eastern mercury. Jabir
also advanced a theory on the geologic formation of metals and dealt with
many useful practical applications of chemistry such as refinement of
metals, preparation of steel and dyeing of cloth and leather, varnishing of
waterproof cloth and use of manganese dioxide to colour glass.

Jabir was recognised as the master by the later chemists including
al-Tughrai and Abu al-Qasim al-Iraqi who flourished in the 12th and 13th
centuries respectively. These Muslim chemists made little improvement on
the methods of Jabir. They confined themselves to the quest of the
legendary elixir which they could never find.
Zakariya Razi known as Rhazas in Latin is the second great name in
mediaeval chemical science. Born in 850 A.D. at Rayy, he is known as one
of the greatest physicians of all times. He wrote Kitab al Asrar in
chemistry dealing with the preparation of chemical substances and their
application. His great work of the art of alchemy was recently found in
the library of an Indian prince. Razi has proved himself to be a greater
expert than all his predecessors, including Jabir, in the exact
classification of substances. His discription of chemical experiments as
well as their apparatus are distinguished for their clarity which were not
visible in the writings of his predecessors. Jabir and other Arabian
chemists divided mineral substances into bodies (gold, silver etc.), souls
(sulphur, arsenic, etc.) and spirits (mercury and sal-ammoniac) while Razi
classified his mineral substances as vegetable, animal and mineral.

The mineral substances were also classified by Al-Jabiz. Abu Mansur
Muwaffaq has contributed to the method of the preparation and properties of
mineral substances. Abul Qasim who was a renowned chemist prepared drugs
by sublimation and distillation. High class sugar and glass were
manufactured in Islamic countries. The Arabs were also expert in the
manufacture of ink, lacquers, solders, cements and imitation pearls.

The Holy Quran had awakened a spirit of enquiry among the Arabs which was
instrumental in their splendid achievements in the field of science, and
according to a western critic led them to realise that "science could not
be advanced by mere speculation; its only sure progress lay in the
practical interrogation of nature. The essential characteristics of their
method are experiment and observation. In their writings on Mechanics,
hydrostatics, optics, etc., the solution of the problem is always obtained
by performing an experiment, or by an instrumental observation. It was
this that made them the originator of chemistry, that led them to the
invention of all kinds of apparatus for distillation, sublimation, fusion
and filteration; that in astronomy caused them to appeal to divided
instrument, as quadrant and astrolabe; in chemistry to employ the balance
the theory of which they were perfectly familiar with; to construct
tables of specific gravities and astronomical tables, that produced their
great improvements in geometry and trigonometry."l

The Muslims developed physics to a high degree and produced such eminent
physicist as Kindi, Jahiz, Banu Musa, Beruni, Razi and Abdur Rahman Ibn

Abu Yusuf Ibn Ishaq, known as al-Kindi was born at Kufa in themiddle of the
9th century and flourished in Baghdad. He is the most dominating and one
of the greatest Muslim scholars of physics. Over and above this, he was an
astrologer, philosopher, alchemist, optician and musical theorist. He
wrote more than 265 books, the majority of which have been lost. Most of
his works which survived are in Latin having been translated by Gerard of
Cremona. Of these fifteen are on meteorology, several on specific weight,
on tides, on optics and on reflection of light, and eight are on music.
His optics influenced Roger Bacon. He wrote several books on iron and
steel to be used for weapons. He applied mathematics not only to physics,
but also to medicine. He was therefore regarded by Cardon, a philosopher
of the Renaissance, "as one of the 12 subtlest minds." ·He thought that
gold and silver could only be obtained from mines and not through any other
process. He endeavoured to ascertain the laws that govern the fall of
bodies. Razi investigated on the determination of specific gravity of
means of hydrostatic balance, called by him Mizan-al-Tabii. Most of his
works on physics, mathematics, astronomy and optics have perished. In
physics his writings deal with matter, space, time and motion. In his
opinion matter in the primitive state before the creation of the world was
composed of scattered atoms, which possessed extent. Mixed in various
proportions with the articles of void, these atoms produced these elements
which are five ih number namely earth, air, water, fire and celestial
element. Fire is created by striking iron on the stone.

Abu Rehan Beruni, was a versatile genius, who adorned the durbar of Mahmud
of Ghazni. His outstanding achievement in the realm of physics was the
accurate determination of the weight of 18 stones. He also discovered that
light travels faster than sound. He has also contributed immensely to
geological knowledge by providing the correct explanation of the
formation'of natural spring and artesian wells, He suggested that the Indus
valley was formerly an ancient basin filled with alluvial soil. His Kitab
al Jawahir deals with different types of gems and their specific gravity.
A voluminous unedited lapidary by Betuni is kept in manuscript form in the
Escorial Library. It deals.with a large number of stones and metals from
the natural, commercial and medical point of view. Barlu Musa has left
behind him a work on balance, while Al-Jahiz used hydrostatic balance to
determine specific gravity. An excellent treatise had been written by
Al-Naziri regarding atmosphere.

Khazini, was a well known scientist ofIslam, who explained the greater
density of water when nearer to the centre of the earth. Roger Bacon, who
proved the same hypotheses afterwards based his proof on the theories
advanced by Khazini. His brilliant work Mizanul Hikma deals with gravity
and contains tables of densities of many solids and liquids. It also
contains "observation on capillarity, uses of aerometer to measure
densities and appreciate the temperature of liquids, theory of the lever
and the application of balance to building." Chapters on weights and
measures' were written by Ibn Jami and Al-Attar. Abdur Rahman Ibn Nasr
wrote an excellent treatise on weights and measures for the use of Egyptian

The Muslim scientists made considerable progress in biology especially in
botany, and developed horticulture to a high degree of perfection. They
paid greater attention to botany in comparison to zoology. Botany reached
its zenith in Spain. In zoology the study of the horse was developed
almost to the tank of a science. Abu Ubaidah (728--825 A. D.) who wrote
more than 100 books, devoted more than fifty books to the study of the

Al-Jahiz, who flourished in Basra is reputed to be one of the greatest
zoologists the Muslim world has produced. His influence in the subject may
be traced to 'the Persian'Al-Qazwini' and the Egyptian 'Al-Damiri'. His
book 'Ritab al Haywan' (book ori animals) contains germs of later theories
of evolution, adaptation and animal psychology. He was the first to note
changes in bird life through migrations, Re described the method of
obtaining 'ammonia from animal offal by dry distilling.'

Al-Damiri, who died in 1405 in Cairo and who was influenced by Al-Jahiz is
the greatest Arab zoologist. His book Hayat Haywarz (Life of animal) is
the most important Muslim work in zoology. It is an encyclopaedia on
animal life containing a mine of information on the subject. It contains
the history of animals and preceded Buffon by 700 years.

Al-Masudi, has given the rudiments of the theory of evolution in his well
known work Meadows of gold. Another of his works Kitab al-Tanbih wal
Ishraq advances his views on evolution namely from mineral to plant, from
plant to animal and from animal to man.

In botany Spanish Muslims made the greatest contribution, and some of them
are known as the greatest botanists of mediaeval times. They were keen
observers and discovered sexual difference between such plants as palms and
hemps. They roamed about on sea shores, on mountains and in distant lands
in quest of rare botanical herbs. They classified plants into those that
grow from seeds, those that grow from cuttings and those that grow of their
own accord, i.e., wild growth. The Spanish Muslims advanced in botany far
beyond the state in which "it had been left by Dioscorides and augmented
the herbology of the Greeks by the addition of 2,000 plants" Regular
botanical gardens existed in Cordova, Baghdad, Cairo and Fez for teaching
and experimental purposes. Some of these were the finest in the world.

The Cordovan physician, Al-Ghafiqi (D. 1165) was a renowned botanist, who
collected plants in Spain and Africa, and described them most accurately.
According to G. Sarton he was "the greatest expert of his time on simples.
His description of plants was the most precise ever made in Islam; he
gave the names of each in Arabic, Latin and Berber".l His outstanding work
Al Adwiyah al Mufradah dealing with simples was later appropriated by Ibn

Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn Muhammad Ibn AlAwwan, who flourished at the end of
12 century in Seville (Spain) was the author of the most important Islamic
treatise on agriculture during the mediaeval times entitled Kitab al
Filahah. The book treats more than 585 plants and deals with the
cultivation of more than 50 fruit trees. It also discusses numerous
diseases of plants and suggests their remedies. The book presents new
observations on properties of soil and different types of manures.

Abdullah Ibn Ahmad Ibn al-Baytar, was the greatest botanist and pharmacist
of Spain-in fact the greatest of mediaeval times. He roamed about in
search of plants and collected herbs on the Mediterranean littoral, from
Spain to Syria, described more than 1,400 medical drugs and compared them
with the records of more than 150 ancient and Arabian authors. The
collection of simple drugs composed by him is the ilaost outstanding
botanical work in Arabic. "This book, in fact is the most important for
the whole period extending from Dioscorides down to the 16th cenfury." It
is an encyclopaedic work on the subject. He later entered into the service
of the Ayyubid king, al-Malik al-l(amil, as his chief herbalist in Cairo.
From there he travelled through Syria and Asia Minor, and died in Damascus.
One of his works AI-Mughani-fi al Adwiyah al Mufradah deals with
medicine. The other Al Jami Ji al Adwiyah al Mufradah is a very valuable
book containing simple remedies regarding animal, vegetable and mineral
matters which has been described above. It deals also with 200 novel
plants which were not known upto that time. Abul Abbas Al-Nabati also
wandered along the African Coast from Spain to Arabia in search of herbs
and plants. He discovered some rare plants on the shore of Red Sea.

Another botanist Ibn Sauri, was accompanied by an artist during his travels
in Syria, who made sketches of the plants which they found.

Ibn Wahshiya, wrote his celebrated work al-Filahah al-Nabatiyah containing
valuable information about :animals and plants.

Many Cosmographical encyclopaedias have been written by Arabs and Persians,
which contain sections on animals, plants and stones, of which the best
known is that of Zakariya al-Kaiwini, who died in 1283 A. D. Al-Dinawari
wrote an excellent 'book of plants' and al-Bakri has written a book
describing in detail the 'Plants of Andalusia'

Ibn Maskwaih, a contemporary of Al-Beruni, advanced a definite theory about
evolution. According to him plant life at its lowest stage of evolution
does not need any seed for its birth and growth. Nor does it perpetuate
its species by means of the seed.

The great advancement of botanical science in Spain led to the development
of agriculture and horticulture on a grand scale. "Horticulture
improvements" says G. Sarton, "constituted the finest legacies of Islam,
and the gardens of Spain proclaim to this clay one of the noblest virtues
of her Muslim conquerors- The development of agriculture was one of the
glories of Muslim Spain."'

Transmission to the West
The Muslims were the pioneers of sciences and arts during mediaeval times
and formed the necessary link between the ancients and the moderns. Their
light of learning dispelled the gloom that had enveloped Europe. Moorish
Spain was the main source from which the scientific knowledge of the
Muslims and their great achievements were transmitted to France, Germany
and England. The Spanish universities of Cordova, SeviIle and Granada were
thronged with Christian and Jewish students who learnt science from the
Muslim scientists and who then popularised them in their native lands.
Another source for the transmission of Muslim scientific knowledge was
Sicily, where during the reign of Muslim kings and even afterwards a large
number of scientific works were translated from Arabic into Latin. The
most prominent translators who translated Muslims works from Arabic into
European languages were Gerard of Cremona, Adelard of Bath, Roger Bacon and
Robert Chester. Writing in his celebrated work Moors in Spain Stanley Lane
Poole says, "For nearly eight centuries under the Mohammadan rulers, Spain
set out to all Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened
State-Arts, literature and science prospered as they prospered nowhere in
Europe. Students flocked from France, Germany and England to drink from
the fountain of learning which flowed down in the cities of Moors. The
surgeons and doctors of Andalusia were in the van of science; women were
encouraged to serious study and the lady doctor was not always unknown
among the people of Cordova. Mathematics, astronomy and botany, history,
philosophy and jurisprudence, were to be mastered in Spain, and Spain
alone. The practical work of the field, the scientific methods of
irrigation, the arts of fortification and shipbuilding, of the highest and
most elaborate products of the loom, the gravel and the hammer, the
potter's wheel and mason's trowel, were brought to perfection by the
Spanish Moors. Whatever makes a kingdom great and prosperous, whatever
tends to refinement and civilization was found in Muslim Spain."l

The students flocked to Spanish cities from all parts of Europe to be
infused with the light of learning which lit up Moorish Spain. Another
western historian writes, "The light of these universities shone far beyond
the Muslim world, and drew students to them from east and west. At Cordova
in particular there were a number of Christian students, and the influence
of Arab philosophy coming by way of Spain upon universities of Paris,
Oxford and North Italy and upon western Europe thought generally, was very
onsiderable indeed. The book copying industry flourished at Alexandria,
Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad and about the year 970, there were 27 free
schools open in Cordova for the education of the poor.

Such were the great achievements of Muslims in the field of science which
paved the way for the growth of modern sciences.

Hast thou seen him who maketh his desire his god, and Allah sendeth him
astray purposely, and sealeth up his hearing and his heart, and setteth on
his sight a covering? Then who will lead him after Allah (hath condemned
him)? Will ye not then heed?
(23rd Ayah, Surah Jaathiyah,

(Holy Qur'an)

References to Embryology in Holy Qur'an

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