Muslim Contribution to Science

Muslim Contribution to Science

The Solar System

The astronomer who is said to have studied the solar system and presented the heliocentric theory for the first time was a Greek, known by the name of Aristarchus of Samos. He died in 270 BC. However, this theory of the sun being at the centre, and of the earth revolving around it, never gained popularity in those early times.

Then came the age of Ptolemy, who lived in the second century AD. Ptolemy’s astronomical system represented the earth as the fixed centre of the universe, with the sun and the moon, and other stars and planets revolving around it. Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler carried out researches which ultimately proved falsity. But it was the Muslims, who first transferred to Europe the concept of the earth being round and the almost correct concept of the causes of the ebb and flow of the tides.

Solar SystemThis geocentric theory of the universe appeared to be in conformity with the beliefs the Christians had developed after Jesus Christ. These beliefs were give the final seal of approval at the famous Church Council held at Nicaea, a city in Asia Minor, in AD 325. After the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine the Great (280-337), the faith spread all over Roman territory. Now vested with tremendous power, the Christians patronized, in particular, the theory of Ptolemy. The curtain of darkness fell over the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus. The wrong concept about the revolution of the earth remained predominant for such a long period of time, it was due to the error of regarding something non-sacred as sacred. The Christians believed that the earth was a sacred sphere, being the birthplace of the son of God (Jesus). Because of this belief, they found the notion that the earth was the centre around which the whole universe revolved exactly in accordance with their religious beliefs. It was this idea of the earth’s sacredness which came in the way of the Christians making any further investigation.

Of geocentricity, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984) says:


“There was no further scope for cosmology in the model, which continued to be taught and used almost everywhere until the 17th century.”

It was not until 1495 that Copernicus arrived at the conclusion that the earth was not the centre of the universe. After a long period of research devoted to astronomical studies, he was forced to conclude that the planets revolved around the sun. But, fearing the opposition of the Church, he refrained from publishing his findings until 1543.

The Muslims, however, did not suffer from the error of regarding as sacred that which was non-sacred. They were in a position to reflect upon matters of scientific interest with open minds, and in a purely academic way. When they found that the heliocentric theory was more rational, they accepted it without any hesitation.

Edward McNall Burns writers that the heliocentric theory developed by Aristarchus (310-320 BC), although destined to fall into oblivion for four hundred years, has today become an established fact. This is after many centuries of men’s minds being dominated by Ptolemy’s geocentric theory.

Of all the subjects developed by the Spanish Muslims, there was none brought to a higher degree of perfection than science. In fact, in this field, their successes were such as to have no parallel in history. They distinguished themselves in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine, etc. As McNall Burns writes:

“Despite their reverence for Aristotle, they did not hesitate to criticize his notion of a universe of concentric spheres with the earth at the centre, and they admitted the possibility that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun.”

The Muslims arriving at the correct hypothesis of the solar system’s functioning was made possible only because Islam had broken down the walls of conditioned thinking which had acted as a barrier to man’s intellectual progress. As soon as this artificial barrier was out of the way, the caravan of human thought began to move on its journey with a hitherto unimaginable rapidity. And thus it brought us finally to the spectacular scientific feats of the present century.

In 830 AD, Al-Mamun established in Baghdad his famous Bayt al Hikmah, a combination library, academy and translation bureau, and an astronomical observatory. This work started under the patronage of the stats. Al-Mamun’s astronomers performed one of the most delicate geodetic operation — the measuring of the length of a a terrestrial degree. The object was to determine the size of the earth and its circumgerence on the assumption that the earth was round. The measurement, carried out on the plain of Sinjar, north of the Euphrated, and near Palmyra, yielded 562 Arabic miles as the length of a degree of the meridian — a remarkably accurate result, exceeding the real length of the degree at that place by about 2877 feet. This would make the circumference of the earth 20,400 mules and its diameter 6500. Among those who took part in this operation were the sons of Musa ibn Shakir and al-Khwarizmi, whose tables, revised a century and a half later by the Spanish astronomer Maslamah Maslamah al-Majrity and translated into Latin in 1126 by Adelard of Bath, became the bases for other works both in the East and the West.

In those days, Muslims were so ahead of other nations that when they were driver out of Spain, the astrolabes they left behind, by means of which they had studied heavenly bodies, were turned into the clock tower of a church, as the Christians did not understand their use.


Galileo (d. 1442) is generally considered to be the inventor of the telescope. But the truth is that long before his time, Abu Ishaq ibn Jundub (d.767) had already made observations of the heavens. He had devised certain rules for observing distant objects and, in accordance with those rules, he had invented a telescopic instrument. It was this initial telescope which was further developwed by Galieleo, and which ws the actual forerunner of the now highly perfected electric telescope of modern time.


Just as diseases have afflicted man in every age, so has the science of medicine always existed in one form or the other In ancient times, however, the science of medicine never reached the heights of progress that it did in the Islamic era and also latterly, in modern times.

It is believed that the beginning of the science of medicine — a beginning to be reckoned with — was made in ancient Greece. The two very great physicians who were born in ancient Greece were Hippocrates and Galen. Hippocrates lived in the fifth and fourth century BC. However, very little is known about his life. The historians of later times hae estimated that Hippocrates was probably born in 460 BC and died in 377 BC. Some historians, on the other hand, even have doubts about his being a historical figure. It has also been questioned whether the books on philosophy and medicine supposedly writter by someone else and later attributed to him.

Galen is considered the second most important philosopher and physicist of this period of antiquity. He was born probably in AD 129 and died in AD 199. Galen had to face stiff opposition in Rome, and most of his writings were destroyed. The remainder would also have been lost to posterity if the Arabs had not collected them in the ninth century and translated them into Arabic. These Arabic translations were later to reach Europe, in the eleventh century, where they were translated from Arabic into Latim.

The science of medicine came into being in ancient Greece about 200 years before the Christian era and flourished for another two centuries. In this way, the whole period extended over about four or five hundred years. This science did not see any subsequent advance in Greece itself. Although a European country, Greece did not contribute anything to the spread of its own medical science in Europe, or to modern medicine in the West. These facts are proof that the atmosphere in ancient Greece was not favourable to the progress of medicine.

The Greek medicine which was brought into being by certain individuals (effort was all at the individual level, as the community did not give it general recognition) remained hidden away in obscure books for about one thousand years after its birth. It was only when these books were translated into Arabic during the Abbasid period (750-1258), and edited by the Arabs with their own original additions, that it became possible for this science to find its way to Europe, thus paving the way for modern medical science.

As the Prophet (pbuh) said, “God has sent the remedy for every disease in the world except death.” This saying of the Prophet (pbuh) was the declaration of the leader of a revolution. No sooner did he announce to the world this truth about medicine than history began to be shaped by it in many practical ways.

Medicine was probably the first Greek science to attract the Arabs because of its obvious practical importance. Then they developed it to the extent of establishing medical colleges and hospitals, which did not exist in Greece. Not merely was it taught in the colleges of Iraq, but the teaching was accompanied by a flourishing medical service. The first hospital in Baghdad was founded about the year 800 on the initiative of the Caliph Harun al Rashid, and records have been preserved of the founding of four other hospitals there in the first quarter of the tenth century. A thirteenth century hospital in Cairo is said to have had accommodation for 8,000 persons. It had separate wards for male and female patients, as well as for different categories of ailment. The staff included physicians and surgeons, pharmacists, attendants of both sexes and administrative officers, and besides sotr-rooms and a chapel, there were facilities for lecturing and a library.

The Arabs thus made extraordinary advances in medicine through their research. The first important physician was Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (d. 923), known in Europe as Rhazes. He wrote voluminously on many scientific and philosophic subjects, and over fifty of his works are extant. His greatest work, Al-Havi, was translated into Latin as theContinens, (the comprehensive book). It was the first encyclopaedia of all medical science up to that time, and had to be completed by his disciples after his death. For each disease he gave the views of Greek, Syrian, Indian, Persian and Arabic authors, and then added notes on his clinical observations and expressed a final opinion.

The greatest writer on medicine was Ibn Sina or Avicenna. He was also one of the two greatest Arabic philosophers. His eminence in medicine was due to his ability to combine extensive theoretical knowledge and systamatic thought with acute clinical observation. His vast Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi’t-Tib) was translated into Latin in the twelfth century and was used much more than the works of Galen and Hippocrates. It dominated the teaching of medicine in Europe until at least the end of the sixteenth century. There were sixteen printed editions of it in the fifteenth century, one being in Hebrew, twenty editions in the sixteenth century and several more in the seventeenth. Roughly contemporary with Ibn Sina was the chief Arabic writer on surgery and surgical instruments, Abul Qasim az-Zohrawi (d. after 1009), usually known in Latin as Abulcasis.

The gift of careful observation did not disappear and certain fourteenth century Arab doctors in Spain wrote knowledgeably, about the plague as they had experienced it in Granada and Almeria.


Smallpox is considered one of the most dangerous diseases in the world. It is a highly contagious disease, characterized by fever and the appearance of small spots leaving scars in the form of pits. The symptoms include chill, headache, and backache. The spots appear about the fourth day. This is a fatal diseas. Even if one survives the attack the skin is scarred permanently.

According to present records, theis disease was identified in Egypt in 1122 BC and is also mentioned in ancient Indian books written in Sanskrit. In the past this disease gripped many countries in the form of dangerous epidemics. Thousands of people fell prey to it. As far back as 1156 BC visible evidence in the pock-marked face of the mummy of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses V, who died in that year. (His embalmed body was found inside a pyramid). Even then, it took thousands of years for this dreaded disease to be investigated scientifically.

It was not until the end of the ninth century, subsequent to the emergence of Islam, that this medical fact was unearthed for the first time. The first name which became prominent in history in this connection was that of the well-known Arab physician, Al-Razi (865-925), who was baorn in Raii in Iran. In search of a remedy for the disease, he investigated it from the purely medical standpoint and wrote the first book on the subject, called, Al-Judri wa al-Hasba. This was translated into Latin, the academic language of ancient Europe, in 1565 in Venice. It was later translated into Greek and other European languages, and thus spread all over Europe. Its English translation, published in London in 1848, was entitled, A Treatise on Smallpox and Measles.

Researchers have accepted that this is the first medical book on smallpox in the whole of recorded history. Prior to this, no one had ever done research on this topic.

After reading Al-Razi’s book, Edward Jenner (1749-1823), the English physician who became the inventor of vaccination, was led to making a clinical investigation of the disease. He carried on his research over a twenty year period, ultimately establishing the connection between cowpox and smallpox. In 1796, he carried out his first practical experiment in inoculation. This was a success, and the practice spread rapidly, in spite of violent opposition from certain quarters, until, in 1877, it was announced by the UN that for the first time in history, smallpox had been eradicated.


Abdullah ibn Baytar (d. 1248) was the best known botanist and pharmacist of Spain, in fact, of the Muslim world. He travelled as a herbalist in Spain and throughout North Africa, and later entered the service of th Ayyubid al-Malik al-Kamil in Cairo as chief herbalist. From Egypt he made extensive trips throughout Syria and Asia Minor. One of his two celebrated works, Al-Mughni fi al Aswiyah al-Mufradah, is on materia medica. The other, Al-Jami`fi al-Adwiya al-Mufradah, is a collection of simple remedies from the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds embodying Greek and Arabic data supplemented by the author’s own experiments and researches. It stands out as the foremost medieval treatise of its kind. Some 1400 items are considered, of which 300, including about 200 plants, were novelties. The number of authors quoted is about one hundred and fifty, of whom twenty were Greek. Parts of the Latin version of Ibn al Baytar’s Simplicia were printed as late as 1758 at Cremona.

In fact, the Muslims started investigating herbal species, and succeeded in enriching Dioscorides’ Herbal by 2000 species.

Objective Experiment

After materia medica, astronomy and mathematics, the Arabs made their greatest scientific contribution in chemistry. This brought chemistry out of the sphere of alchemy and gave it the status of a regular science based on observation. In the study of chemistry and other physical sciences the Arabs introduced the objective experiment, a decided improvement over the hazy speculations of the Greeks. It was through them that the world was first introduced to the scientific method.

Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. 817) used findings based theron in his scientific studies, the written accounts of which were transmitted to Europe in translations. Thinking went on developing along these lines until it formed the basis for experimental science as it is known today.


After al-Razi, Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815) is ranked greatest in the field of medieval chemical science. He more clearly recognized and stated the importance of experimentation than any other early alchemist, and made noteworthy adavanced in both the theory and practice of chemistry.

Jabir’s books were held as the final authority on chemistry in Europe uptill the fifteenth century. The initial ladder to the modern western chemistry of the eighteenth century was produced by Jabir. It is believed that Jabir wrote two thousand books on different sciences. So many scholarly books had never been written before the Muslim eposh by any single writer.


HistoriographyHistory should not focus solely on royal actions and prerogatives throughout the ages, but should be a study of the sum of all activities of all groups of human beings, whatever the framework, political or civilizational, within which they interact. In the long history of mankind, this approach, developed only during the last few centuries, is relatively new. History, or historiography, is now equated with “man-story” as opposed to the “King-story” of the pre-modern era. “King-story”, made up of elaborate descriptions of kings, along with copious details of the palaces they occupied and the generals they commanded, had made no mention of the common man, even if his achievements were marked by greatness. The only man considered worthy of mention was the one whose head was adorned by a crown. Ancient history thus amounted to a belittling of humanity in general.

In old historical records, the most striking omissions are the lives and influence of the great prophets of the world. Today, people would find it very strange if a history of the freedom struggle of India laid no stress on the role Ghandi, or if a history of the erstwhile USSR omitted Lenin altogether. But a far strange history is one bereft of all mention of those pious souls, who were the messengers of God. The sole exception to this rule of omission is the Final Prophet, the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). The reason for his prominent inclusion in historical records is that, by setting in motion the Islamic revolution, he was able to change exactly those factors — the undemocratic, polytheistic and superstitious nature of society — which in the past had been responsible for such astonishing lucanae in the writing of human history. There can be no doubt that it was the Islamic revolution which made it possible for historiography to proceed on ceientific lines.

In known human history, Ibn Khaldun (1331-1406) is the only historian to have changed the pattern of historiography. It was he who raised historiography from the level of mere King-story to the level of genuine man-story. “Kingology” was changed into sociology. The truth is that the science known today as sociology is the gift of Ibn Khaldun. He himself claimed that he was the founder of sociology, and there is no reason to dispute his claim.

Khaldun’s greatness was acknowledged in a similar vein by Robert Flint: “As a theorist on history he had no equal in any age or countgry until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later; Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers.”

It was indeed Ibn Khaldun who gave to Europe the modern science of history. And it was Islam which bestowed this gift upon him. The Islamic revolution produced Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Khaldun produced the modern science of history.

Professor Philip K. Hitti writes:

“The frame of Ibn-Khaldun rests on his Muqaddama (Introduction to his book on history). In it he presented for the first time a theory of historical development which takes due cognizance of the physical facts of climate and geography aw well as of the moral and spiritual forces at work. As one who endeavoured to formulate laws of national progress and decay, Ibn Khaldun may be considered the discoverer — as he himself claimed — of the true scope and nature of history, or atleast the real founder of the science of sociology. No Arab writer, indeed no European, had ever taken a view of history at once so comprehensive and philosophic. By the consensus of critical opinion Ibn-Khaldun was the greatest historical philosopher Islam produced, and one of the greatest of all time”

In Book I of the Muqaddamah, Ibn Khaldun sketches a general sociology; in Books II and III, a sociology of politics; in Book IV a sociology of urban life; in Book V, a sociology of economiics; and in Book VI, a sociology of knowledge. The work is studded with brilliant observations on historiography, economics, politics, and education. It is held together by his central concept of asabiyah, or social cohesion. Thus he laid the foundation of a science of history which is not based on the descriptions of kings, but which is, in a vaster sense, based on the economics, politics, education, religion, ethics, and culture of the whole nations.

Historians have generally acknowledged that the science of history remained undeveloped before the emergence of Ibn Khaldun, and that he was the first person to develop a philosophy of history. The Encyclopaedia Britannica even goes so far as to say that “he developed one of the world’s most significant philosophies of history.”

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