Quotations from famous historians of science

Quotations from famous historians of science

Western writers have often used the word Arabs or Muhammadans for Muslims and Arabic civilization for Islamic Civilization. In other instances, the words Saracen(ic) and Moor(ish) are also used for Muslims (Arabs and non-Arabs) from various parts of Europe, Africa, Arabia and Asia. According to a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) anyone whose primary language is Arabic is an Arab despite his ethnic origin, place of birth, or national origin. Arabic was the medium of communication throughout the Muslim world until a couple of centuries ago, regardless of the type of activity whether religious, social or scientific. During 800-1500 C.E. essentially all scientific works were written in Arabic. It is only after colonization of Muslim lands that this practice became less prevalent and in many instances was eliminated.

George Sarton’s Tribute to Muslim Scientists in the “Introduction to the History of Science,” I

“It will suffice here to evoke a few glorious names without contemporary equivalents in the West: Jabir ibn Haiyan, al-Kindi, al-Khwarizmi, al-Fargani, al-Razi, Thabit ibn Qurra, al-Battani, Hunain ibn Ishaq, al-Farabi, Ibrahim ibn Sinan, al-Masudi, al-Tabari, Abul Wafa, ‘Ali ibn Abbas, Abul Qasim, Ibn al-Jazzar, al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, Ibn Yunus, al-Kashi, Ibn al-Haitham, ‘Ali Ibn ‘Isa al-Ghazali, al-zarqab, Omar Khayyam. A magnificent array of names which it would not be difficult to extend. If anyone tells you that the Middle Ages were scientifically sterile, just quote these men to him, all of whom flourished within a short period, 750 to 1100 A.D.”

John William Draper in the “Intellectual Development of Europe”

“I have to deplore the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has continued to put out of sight our obligations to the Muhammadans. Surely they cannot be much longer hidden. Injustice founded on religious rancour and national conceit cannot be perpetuated forever. The Arab has left his intellectual impress on Europe. 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.”

Robert Briffault in the “Making of Humanity”

“It was under the influence of the arabs and Moorish revival of culture and not in the 15th century, that a real renaissance took place. Spain, not Italy, was the cradle of the rebirth of Europe. After steadily sinking lower and lower into barbarism, it had reached the darkest depths of ignorance and degradation when cities of the Saracenic world, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, and Toledo, were growing centers of civilization and intellectual activity. It was there that the new life arose which was to grow into new phase of human evolution. From the time when the influence of their culture made itself felt, began the stirring of new life. 
“It was under their successors at Oxford School (that is, successors to the Muslims of Spain) that Roger Bacon learned Arabic and Arabic Sciences. Neither Roger Bacon nor later namesake has any title to be credited with having introduced the experimental method. Roger Bacon was no more than one of apostles of Muslim Science and Method to Christian Europe; and he never wearied of declaring that knowledge of Arabic and Arabic Sciences was for his contemporaries the only way to true knowledge. Discussion as to who was the originator of the experimental method….are part of the colossal misinterpretation 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, which it had given birth to, rise in his might. It was not science only which brought Europe back to life. Other and manifold influence from the civilization 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 Astronomy and Mathematics of the Greeks were a foreign importation never thoroughly acclimatized in Greek culture. The Greeks systematized, generalized and theorized, but the patient ways of investigation, the accumulation of positive knowledge, the minute method of science, detailed and prolonged observation and experimental inquiry were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. Only in Hellenistic Alexandria was any approach to scientific work conducted in the ancient classical world. What we call science arose in Europe as a result of new spirit of enquiry, of new methods of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics, in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs. 

“It is highly probable that but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution.”

Arnold and Guillaume in “Lagacy of Islam” on Islamic science and medicine

“Looking back we may say that Islamic medicine and science reflected the light of the Hellenic sun, when its day had fled, and that they shone like a moon, illuminating the darkest night of the European middle Ages; that some bright stars lent their own light, and that moon and stars alike faded at the dawn of a new day – the Renaissance. Since they had their share in the direction and introduction of that great movement, it may reasonably be claimed that they are with us yet.”

George Sarton in the “Introduction to the History of Science”

“During the reign of Caliph Al-Mamun (813-33 A.D.), the new learning reached its climax. The monarch created in Baghdad a regular school for translation. It was equipped with a library, one of the translators there was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809-77) a particularly gifted philosopher and physician of wide erudition, the dominating figure of this century of translators. We know from his own recently published Memoir that he translated practically the whole immense corpus of Galenic writings.” 
“Besides the translation of Greek works and their extracts, the translators made manuals of which one form, that of the ‘pandects,’ is typical of the period of Arabic learning. These are recapitulations of the whole medicine, discussing the affections of the body, systematically beginning at the head and working down to the feet.” 

“The Muslim ideal was, it goes without saying, not visual beauty but God in His plentitude; that is God with all his manifestations, the stars and the heavens, the earth and all nature. The Muslim ideal is thus infinite. But in dealing with the infinite as conceived by the Muslims, we cannot limit ourselves to the space alone, but must equally consider time. 

“The first mathematical step from the Greek conception of a static universe to the Islamic one of a dynamic universe was made by Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), the founder of modern Algebra. He enhanced the purely arithmetical character of numbers as finite magnitudes by demonstrating their possibilities as elements of infinite manipulations and investigations of properties and relations. 

“In Greek mathematics, the numbers could expand only by the laborious process of addition and multiplication. Khwarizmi’s algebraic symbols for numbers contain within themselves the potentialities of the infinite. So we might say that the advance from arithmetic to algebra implies a step from being to ‘becoming’ from the Greek universe to the living universe of Islam. The importance of Khwarizmi’s algebra was recognized, in the twelfth century, by the West, – when Girard of Cremona translated his theses into Latin. Until the sixteenth century this version was used in European universities as the principal mathematical text book. But Khwarizmi’s influence reached far beyond the universities. We find it reflected in the mathematical works of Leonardo Fibinacci of Pissa, Master Jacob of Florence, and even of Leonardo da Vinci.” 

“Through their medical investigations they not merely widened the horizons of medicine, but enlarged humanistic concepts generally. And once again they brought this about because of their over riding spiritual convictions. Thus it can hardly have been accidental that those researches should have led them that were inevitably beyond the reach of Greek masters. If it is regarded as symbolic that the most spectacular achievement of the mid-twentieth century is atomic fission and the nuclear bomb, likewise it would not seem fortuitous that the early Muslim’s medical endeavor should have led to a discovery that was quite as revolutionary though possibly more beneficent.” 

“A philosophy of self-centredness, under whatever disguise, would be both incomprehensible and reprehensible to the Muslim mind. That mind was incapable of viewing man, whether in health or sickness as isolated from God, from fellow men, and from the world around him. It was probably inevitable that the Muslims should have discovered that disease need not be born within the patient himself but may reach from outside, in other words, that they should have been the first to establish clearly the existence of contagion.” 

“One of the most famous exponents of Muslim universalism and an eminent figure in Islamic learning was Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna (981-1037). For a thousand years he has retained his original renown as one of the greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history. His most important medical works are the Qanun (Canon) and a treatise on Cardiac drugs. The ‘Qanun fi-l-Tibb’ is an immense encyclopedia of medicine. It contains some of the most illuminating thoughts pertaining to distinction of mediastinitis from pleurisy; contagious nature of phthisis; distribution of diseases by water and soil; careful description of skin troubles; of sexual diseases and perversions; of nervous ailments.” 

“We have reason to believe that when, during the crusades, Europe at last began to establish hospitals, they were inspired by the Arabs of near East….The first hospital in Paris, Les Quinze-vingt, was founded by Louis IX after his return from the crusade 1254-1260.” 

“We find in his (Jabir, Geber) writings remarkably sound views on methods of chemical research, a theory on the geologic formation of metals (the six metals differ essentially because of different proportions of sulphur and mercury in them); preparation of various substances (e.g., basic lead carbonatic, arsenic and antimony from their sulphides).” 

Ibn Haytham’s writings reveal his fine development of the experimental faculty. His tables of corresponding angles of incidence and refraction of light passing from one medium to another show how closely he had approached discovering the law of constancy of ratio of sines, later attributed to snell. He accounted correctly for twilight as due to atmospheric refraction, estimating the sun’s depression to be 19 degrees below the horizon, at the commencement of the phenomenon in the mornings or at its termination in the evenings.” 

“A great deal of geographical as well as historical and scientific knowledge is contained in the thirty volume meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems by one of the leading Muslim Historians, the tenth century al Mas’udi. A more strictly geographical work is the dictionary ‘Mujam al-Buldan’ by al-Hamami (1179-1229). This is a veritable encyclopedia that, in going far beyond the confines of geography, incorporates also a great deal of scientific lore.” 

“They studied, collected and described plants that might have some utilitarian purpose, whether in agriculture or in medicine. These excellent tendencies, without equivalent in Christendom, were continued during the first half of the thirteenth century by an admirable group of four botanists. One of these Ibn al-Baitar compiled the most elaborate Arabic work on the subject (Botany), in fact the most important for the whole period extending from Dioscorides down to the sixteenth century. It was a true encyclopedia on the subject, incorporating the whole Greek and Arabic experience.” 

“‘Abd al-Malik ibn Quraib al-Asmai (739-831) was a pious Arab who wrote some valuable books on human anatomy. Al-Jawaliqi who flourished in the first half of the twelfth century and ‘Abd al-Mumin who flourished in the second half of the thirteenth century in Egypt, wrote treatises on horses. The greatest zoologist amongst the Arabs was al-Damiri (1405) of Egypt whose book on animal life, ‘Hayat al-Hayawan’ has been translated into English by A.S.G. Jayakar (London 1906, 1908).” 

“The weight of venerable authority, for example that of Ptolemy, seldom intimidated them. They were always eager to put a theory to tests, and they never tired of experimentation. Though motivated and permeated by the spirit of their religion, they would not allow dogma as interpreted by the orthodox to stand in the way of their scientific research.”


  1. George Sarton, “Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. I-IV,” Carnegie Institute of Washington, Baltimore, 1927-31; Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1950-53.
  2. Robert Briffault, “The Making of Humanity,” London, 1938.
  3. T. Arnold and A. Guillaume, “The Legacy of Islam,” Oxford University Press, 1931.
  4. E. Gibbon, “Decline and Fall of Roman Empire,” London, 1900.

Dr. A. Zahoor and Dr. Z. Haq

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