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History and Seerah

Science and Islam: Challenging History


By Sabour B. (Sayf)

The history of science has always been based upon the cooperation and disclosure of ideas between mankind. Every notable scientist and every remarkable achievement has always been grounded upon the work of predecessors. As Isaac Newton, the father of physics and calculus said, “If I have seen further than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” These “giants” that Newton spoke of are recognized to be the pioneers of the scientific revolution, which is known to have began with Copernicus and continued through brilliant minds such as Galileo, Kepler and Descartes. These men are all known to have set the stage for Newton to end the revolution with an exclamation mark and shape modern science in the way it is known today.[1] The flaw with this historical model is that it fails to address the shoulders of the giants from the Islamic world whom Copernicus himself had stood upon. The contributions of Muslim scientists were so ground-breaking from previous global traditions and such foundational keystone ideas that the true revolution of science began in the Islamic world, and the incorrectly named revolution by Europeans was in fact an extension of their effort.

Modern Science

Before one can argue why the work of Muslim scientists changed the entire realm of science one must understand what modern science has become and what it had previously been, thus defining what can be classified as revolutionary. Without such a criterion to judge by, any advancement throughout history can be argued as a part of the scientific revolution all the way back to the invention of the wheel. One must understand that the scientific method today is built upon empiricism, which includes measurements, observations, experimentally testable hypotheses and at the very core mathematical models. This equipment allows for scientists to make their aim mathematically accurate and descriptive theories whose truth can be evaluated with more measurements, observations and experiments. The entire realm of physics is based upon the application of the precision and tools of calculus to describe the observable world. Chemistry is essentially the application of the models derived from physics, and in extension biology is the application of the rules governing chemistry. So in essence, mathematics is the ultimate tool from which all disciplines of science are built. This along with empirical observations and paired with the experimental design allow for initial discovery, constant critique of ideas and reshaping of theories to fit the perceivable world. Theories that are found to be more accurate than previous ideas may be seen as innovative, but these are simply the fruits that are gained from the more important methodology. Even today, centuries after the “revolution” in Europe, there are many breathtaking mysteries and inconsistencies with our scientific models, thus correctness cannot be the heart of what shapes modern science.[2] The ultimate quintessence of science is this scientific approach itself, and the pinnacle of revolutionary insight is what has molded it to take its present form.

The Aristotelian View

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The work of the medieval Greeks, Chinese, Persians and Indians, however, do not contain this rigorous empiricism and mathematization of the world which is characteristic of modern science. In fact, the predecessors of Muslim revolutionaries vehemently opposed the idea of a mathematically describable universe. The Greeks, despite their massive advancements in the field of geometry, were of the Aristotelian view that the powerful math they were already aware of was divorced from the real world. They felt that the world of geometry was an abstract realm composed of perfect shapes of squares, circles and triangles and that the natural world was filled with imperfection and irregular, odd shapes.[3] This Aristotelian view was so widespread and globally accepted that even with Islamic philosophers and scientists it was the dominant view. Also, the scientific theories themselves describing the natural world were not proposed in the form of an experimental and empirical approach, but were tightly knit with philosophical ideas and mythical traditions. Philosophers had created their own personal metaphysical ideas about the nature of the universe and then attempted to fit their observations into this understanding, rather than use observations to shape their understanding of the universe.[4] Such crippling ideas were so far off from a fruitful analytical approach and  stood as a complete roadblock eclipsing the true scientific methodology.


Even if the philosophy of the Greeks did not tamper with the worldview of the relationship between science and math, they did not have the tools necessary to unite the two fields. The math required to describe the world relies heavily on the manipulation of equations and the usage of multiple variables – algebra. The term algebra has notable Arabic etymology; its original pronunciation would be Al-Jabr, meaning restoration. The name was coined and the discipline first established by the 7th century Muslim scientist Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi in his book, Al-Kitab al-mukhtaṣar fi hisab al-gabr wa’l-muqabala, “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing.” Because of the massive translation movement pioneered by the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun, a massive wealth of knowledge was brought directly into the Islamic world from all over the globe.[5] This along with the centrality of the Islamic empire in the known world allowed for Al-Khwarizmi to learn the intuitive geometry necessary from the Greeks and pair that knowledge with the precise arithmetic of the Indians.

The Greeks themselves could not advance their arithmetic to the level of the Indians because of the clunky nature of their Roman numeral system. The Indians however had established the immensely useful decimal (base ten) system of numerals and were able to quickly speed through multiplications, divisions, additions and subtractions in a few simple steps that would require the Greeks pages of work. Yet at the same time, important geometric calculations and properties of shapes were unheard of for them. Al-Khwarizmi did not simply just put the two together, but it required a very ingenious and revolutionary way of thinking to make use of the two disciplines and create an entirely new one. Beforehand, mathematicians would simply state something such as the square root of one hundred was ten, and ten multiplied by itself was one hundred and then go through the same process with more and more numbers. All of a sudden, Al-Khwarizmi came along with a completely different thought process that the number itself did not matter, and was indeed the least exciting part of the math. The most important part of math would be the usage of all the techniques necessary on the path to the final calculation of an unknown. Now the thought had become something such as any number, regardless of magnitude, would be equal to itself if the root was taken of it and then squared. This, as one can recognize, is also the basis of a very simple algorithm.[6] The name itself algorithm is a failed Latin translation of Al-Khwarizmi’s name and the idea of an algorithm has become the foundation for all of the techniques of algebra, calculus, and even modern computer science.

The Power of Al-Khwarizmi’s Book

At first hand, one may not fully grasp the immenseness of this discovery, and the massive centrality of algebra in every aspect of science. With the power of Al-Khwarizmi’s book, scientists finally had the tools necessary to use logical mathematics to describe the behavior of nature. One was able to use geometry to establish precise models based on several variables for the previously thought irregular universe and then seek out and make a few simple observations to grasp hold of a much larger and previously unattainable description of the world. The easiest example for someone to truly appreciate the wonder at hand would be to imagine how a scientist would measure something as impossible as the size of the Earth. Without algebra, the only silly and unfeasible method for determining such a value would be to stick ruler after ruler across the entire world. Using algebra however, the 9th century Muslim scientist Al-Biruni was able to calculate the size of our massive planet using four, and only four, simple measurements that can be replicated within ten minutes. Three angles were measured using a normal astrolabe and one distance using a ruler. With some quick trigonometry and algebra, Al-Biruni was able to calculate the radius of the Earth to awe-inspiring precision, less than one percent off from the known value today![7] This revolutionary idea of being able to describe immensity and complexity previously beyond our reach using mathematical simplicity is truly the endeavor of modern physics. The fruits of this groundbreaking algebra are witnessed with countless marvels throughout time such as Einstein’s famous e=mc², an algebraic equation so simple it only contains two measurable variables and one constant, yet so powerful that mankind can use it to create nuclear weaponry capable of destroying the entire planet.

Al-Haytham Challenges Status Quo

Along with Al-Biruni, many other Muslim scientists began to separate themselves from the Greek wavelength of thinking. The idea attributed to Copernicus for introducing mathematical models and empiricism was in fact already being developed centuries before him in the Islamic world by the 9th century Muslim scientist Ibn Al-Haytham. He, not Copernicus, originated the revolution of doubt, or shukook in Arabic, of Greek science and philosophy and pioneered the fusion of mathematics, empiricism and experimentation into science. Copernicus is also credited for his fearless challenge of the previously unshakable idea of the geocentric orbit, originated by the Greek Claudius Ptolemaist in the 2nd century. However, evidence from Al-Haytham’s work shows that he was historically the first person to be so heavily critical of Ptolemaist. In one of his books, Al-Haytham challenges the geocentric orbit by saying “Ptolemaist assumes an arrangement that cannot exist.”[8] Although he did not have the observations and mathematical equations necessary to publish a definitive piece destroying Ptolemaist, he was the initiator of future discovery by challenging scientists to do more research and make more observations regarding this illogical geocentric system. The scientists in the Islamic world who would take on this challenge from Al-Haytham would later be the same scientists whose ideas influenced Copernicus.

Along with the revolution of shukook, Al-Haytham is also accredited for being the first man to design the scientific method for experimentation. His ground-breaking work on shukook of Greek optics was not published in the same manner that scientific work was previously published in. Instead of simply presenting his ideas and expecting his readers to believe him, he encouraged reproducibility and analysis of the way he carried out his procedures. He provided testable hypotheses and then sought to prove or disprove them, followed by discussing the results and formulating a conclusion.[9] Such a procedure has become the complete foundation for all the work of science. Every single lab report and scientific research paper is written in the format which Al-Haytham designed. Future scientists in Europe would be so strongly influenced by this methodology that they would use this approach that Al-Haytham had provided them with to carry on their own investigations, leading to the wealth new ideas flowing out of Europe.

As one can see, the fundamental concepts of the scientific approach, mathematization and empiricism, were revolutionized and brought forth out of the crippling style of medieval science originally in the Islamic world and then shared with Europeans. These truly modernizing ideas were poured into Europe through later translations of Arabic work and through the interaction of Muslims and Europeans in Venice, Italy. The strong Islamic influence on Venice can be easily noticed even today with its close similarity to Middle Eastern architecture, notably in the House of the Camel. Shakespeare himself speaks of “merchants and Moores,” Moores being an almost derogatory term for Muslims arriving from the Islamic world to do trade.[10] Texts have been found which show instructions for prospective European merchants looking to travel to the Islamic world to work with Muslims, teaching them how to conduct themselves and even how European’s could attain respect by growing their beards. Many of the foundational works of Muslim scientists were translated into Latin, with Al-Khwarizmi’s book of algebra arriving in the 12th century, approximately 500 years after its initial publishing. The work of another Muslim scientist, Al-Battani, who recorded rigorous observations of celestial bodies in the 8th century, was translated in this time period as well. Even the work of the most famous and influential Muslim physician, Ibn Sina, was translated in the 15th century.[11] At this point, Europeans had the means to acquire knowledge from the beginning of the true scientific revolution in the Islamic world, and they were able to continue this tradition of change with their own magnificent contributions.

The Muslim Scientific Revolution

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the continuation of the Muslim scientific revolution through to Europe can be seen within Copernicus’s work itself. In his book which is claimed to have begun the revolution in the 14th century, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” Copernicus made massive use of the observational data tables provided by Al-Battani almost 700 years prior. Even if the modern historical account cannot accept Copernicus to be the intellectual heir of Muslims, Copernicus himself quotes Al-Battani and mentions his great debt to him.[12] As if the influence of rigorous observations and the algebraic methodology was not enough, there is also even pejorative evidence that Copernicus had directly copied, possibly even plagiarized, the work of another Muslim scientist, Nasir al-Din Al-Tusi, without any recognition. Al-Tusi was the leader of the first observatory used as a center for scientific research in the world during the period of the Mongol invasion in the 11th century, and there he made countless observations and rigorous measurements of the motion of heavenly bodies. Most notably however, he is known for his correction of many problems in Ptolemaist’s geocentric model by proposing the mechanism known as the Tusi couple. In his work, he uses geometric and algebraic diagrams to express how planets move in the form of circles embedded within other circles. When compared to Copernicus’ work, one can see an illustration in which there is an exact replica of the diagram Tusi used in his book to explain the Tusi couple. The diagram Copernicus uses is so alike, that even the variables Al-Tusi made use of in Arabic such as “alif, dal, jum” and so on correspond to the exact same sounding letters in Latin, “A, D, G” and so on in precisely the same spots Tusi used in his own diagram.[13] Such decisive proof shows that Copernicus, the “father” of the scientific revolution, was indeed firmly based on the shoulders of previously established Muslim scientific endeavors.

With so many keystone and groundbreaking ideas stemming out of the Islamic world which had direct influence on Europe, one cannot help but question the modern historical account of the scientific revolution. As stated previously, the contributions of Islamic scientists were so crucial because they directly shaped modern science itself, and they were so radically different from previous thought, that the Islamic scientists must belong to the scientific revolution. The revolution more accurately begins with Al-Khwarizmi’s development of algebra, the essence which gives all science possibility. This revolution then continued through many, many notable scientists in the Middle East such as Al-Haytham, Al-Biruni and Al-Tusi. The intellectual movement then bridged to Europe through Copernicus, and continued from there through the ingenious minds of Galileo, Kepler and Descartes for the revolution to be finalized and the shape of modern science to be completed by Isaac Newton. To truly honor the work of pioneers, there is a tradition within science to name units of measurement and new discoveries after past scientists, such as the newly discovered element 112 Copernicium. Since Al-Khwarizmi is still technically recognized with algorithm, it is proposed for scientists to remain true to their historical heritage and upon discovery of element 113, grant it the name Haythamium.

“The bulk of the research for this essay is credited to this very entertaining documentary, which can easily be found online. Al-Khalili, Jim. “Science and Islam” on BBC Four. (Oxford Scientific Films), 2009.

1 Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Pr., 1957), 142.

2 Henry P. Stapp, ”Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer,” Springer, 2007, 145-146.

3 J. Al-Khalili, “Science and Islam” on BBC Four, (Oxford Scientific Films), 2009.

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  1. Pingback: Science and Islam: Challenging History | | Syed Adnan Ahmed Blog

  2. elham

    July 13, 2010 at 9:33 PM

    BarakAllahu feek for showing us the importance of the works of Medieval Muslim scientists.It always annoyed me that they would mention European scientists with such reverence as if they had shouldered all scientific breakthroughs by themselves and with no help other than Muslim- preserved Greek works!.

    I was first interested in learning more about the contribution of Muslims to science when I was in my first year of uni and was listening to a lecture on the history of the study of plants.He would list everyone from Europeans to Chinese to even Israelis! but not one Muslim!! I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know anything about a Medieval Muslim botanist so I went on a search to find out myself, and lo and behold,its there was a sea of knowldege before me. Naturally I was quite angry at that lecturer that I seriously thought of letting him know,but it was clearly a deliberate attempt at brainwashing students from him.

    After that, I never stopped reading on the Muslim Science of that era and the influences the civilization particularly had( for example the three-course meal,wearing gowns and a turban after graduation to imitate the Muslims when returning to Europe or the keeping of gardens!) , even though its very irritating to see the way they distort history to this present day.

    • Sayf

      July 14, 2010 at 2:45 AM

      I know exactly what you mean, I think a lot of people don’t realize how heavily intertwined Western and Islamic science really are. Fortunately though I had a bunch of cool profs/teachers who would take interest in teaching students about fascinating scientific history from all over the globe.

      In reality the list of cool science from the Middle East is endless, and I think everyone has a favorite. One of mine is a specially designed fireproof suit. It doesn’t seem very useful for that time, but actually they would put it on an army of soldiers and light them all on fire before they charged for battle. LOL!

      Also remember Baghdad was annihilated after the Mongol invasion, imagine all the epic science we don’t know about!

      • elham

        July 14, 2010 at 4:04 PM

        A fireproof suit! I never came across that. One of mine is Al-Jazari’s robotics,the genius inventor he was.
        Oh,please don’t remind me of the Mongols they were one of the reasons the civilization went downhill. But I guess they had atleast added some more architectural touches in their time.

        • Son of Adam

          July 14, 2010 at 4:55 PM

          “Fireproof clothing: In 1260, Egyptian Mamluk soldiers at the Battle of Ain Jalut wore fireproof clothing to protect themselves from gunpowder fires as well as chemicals in gunpowder warfare. Their clothing consisted of a silk tunic (still worn by Formula One drivers underneath their Nomex fire suits), aketon (from the Arabic al-qutn “the cotton”), and mainly a woolen overtunic that protects against fires and chemical weapons, similar to the clothing worn by modern soldiers for protection against biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Due to the effectiveness of their fireproof clothing, the Egyptian soldiers were able to attach gunpowder cartridges and incendiary devices to their clothing.”( Wikipedia)

  3. Middle Ground

    July 14, 2010 at 3:30 PM


    Why are so many scholars anti-science, still comparing science to philosophy?

    • Sayf

      July 16, 2010 at 8:50 PM

      Walaikum Salaam,

      I dunno, every single scholar that I’ve learned from has been encouraging science and academics. I’ve seen a lot of anti-science laypeople, and I think that comes from a lot of misconceptions about the big bang and evolution. Plus there are a lot of atheist pseudo-scientific arguments floating around.

  4. Ify Okoye

    July 14, 2010 at 8:10 PM

    Salaam alaykum,

    Excellent essay! I’ve been interested in this area for awhile now and my interest was re-sparked by attending Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick’s Western Sunrise class where he emphasized many of these points. The Golden of Age of Islam set the stage for the later Renaissance and Scientific Revolution in Europe.

  5. Saladin

    July 15, 2010 at 10:28 PM

    The modern world certainly owes a great debt to the Islamic libraries. Without Islamic scholars and innovators, as well as those repositories of knowledge, I probably wouldn’t be able to post this comment today. Thanks for the article! Great read!

  6. Ibn Al-Rawandi

    July 17, 2010 at 1:22 PM

    Muslims, in their rush to glorify Islam, tend to exaggerate the role Muslims played. To be fair, Islam’s detractors minimize the role Muslims played in the development of science in similar fashion.

    I emphasized Muslims because Islam as a religion is the antithesis of Science. Science and Islam (or any of the other monotheistic religions for that matter) are mutually antagonistic. Science promotes critical thinking, questioning of core assumption, collecting evidence, testing hypothesis and reevaluating old conceptions based on new evidence.

    Islam, on the other hand, promotes strict adherence to a collection of preconceived ideas irrespective of new evidence. It vehemently discourages independent thinking and basing believes on evidence. Instead, it encourages following the Quran.

    Lets give credit to those who deserve it. Human beings — Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus etc — contributed immensely to scientific progress. But it wasn’t so because of their religious believes but INSTEAD of their faith.

    May God bless Ibn Sina, Giordano Bruno and Einstein.

    • Sayf

      July 17, 2010 at 3:33 PM

      I was waiting for a comment like this.

      “Islamic” science is not any more Islamic than Einstein’s work is “Jewish/Agnostic” science, or Newton’s work is “Christian” Science. However there is a fine point that you have to recognize, Einstein’s work is recognized as “Western” science and Newton’s work is “European” science, alongside “Greek” and “Chinese” science (and my intention was not to belittle their work). Thus, you should realize that the context in which this is being described is relative to the society which produces such work, here being an Islamic theocracy, a society whose sole point of distinction is its religious adherence.

      It seems that in an attempt to refute a straw-man argument you’ve overshot the issue. Strict but academic adherence is the most logical approach to what a person concludes is revelation. With that premise in mind, what is the Islamic position on critical observations of the world around us (science)? It’s extremely encouraged actually, how many ayah’s of the Qur’an can you think of directing us to observe, observe and observe?

      Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of night and day, and the ships which run upon the sea with that which is of use to men, and the water which Allah sendeth down from the sky, thereby reviving the earth after its death, and dispersing all kinds of beasts therein, and (in) the ordinance of the winds, and the clouds obedient between heaven and earth: are signs (of Allah’s Sovereignty) for people who have sense. (2:164)

      Let’s see that covers physics, astronomy, climatology, chemistry, biology etc.

      For me, studies in the field of science have always been complimentary to my faith and a source of spiritual/intellectual pondering and amazement (Woah! That’s how electromagnetism works? Subhan’Allah!).

      To say Science and Islam are mutually antagonistic is essentially the definition of comparing apples and oranges (or milk and roller-coasters!). The only time Science and Islam would be in direct disagreement is on the extremely, extremely rare occasion that derivation from scripture and science conclude irreconcilable beliefs, and this occurs hardly enough to make such a blanket statement. One of the only examples I can think of is when scientists believed the Sun was stationary (sorry can’t find source, let me know if this is not the case) whilst the Qur’an told us the Sun indeed has some sort of an orbit. Even that’s not the case anymore of course because science tells us now the Sun does move relative to the galactic core.

      • Son of Adam

        July 17, 2010 at 8:31 PM

      • Son of Adam

        July 17, 2010 at 8:33 PM

        I think what you’re thinking of is Heliocentrism.

        • Sayf

          July 17, 2010 at 8:43 PM

          Jazak’Allah khair bro, I found it in there under the “modern science” part.

          I also want to point out that the bulk of research for this essay comes from a documentary done by a non-Muslim Professor, Jim Al-Khalili. Although one could argue he has bias towards his Iraqi nationality (which he doesn’t) – he has no problem naming his work “Science and Islam”.

    • Amad

      July 17, 2010 at 10:26 PM

      I emphasized Muslims because Islam as a religion is the antithesis of Science.

      This website is a Muslim sanctuary. I am sure you’ll find other sites to continue your atheist agenda. Thanks for enlightening us with your arrogance. Bye bye.

    • Saad

      July 17, 2010 at 11:41 PM

      I think that your conclusion that islam and science are mutually antagonistic is false. The conclusion that religion and science are antagonistic is a western construct that simply cannot be imported into Islam. This is because you simply cannot export the contentious issues from Judaism and Christianity into Islam. Unlike the Bible, the Quran does not say that the earth was created in six earth days. Rather the Quran describes the creation of the universe to be one which took six periods, and the details of those peiods does not contradict science. Additionally, whatever you look at in the Quran, it works well with science. Where is the space for antagonism then?

  7. Ibraheem

    July 22, 2010 at 7:43 PM

    Great article! :) On my own blog, i have listed the various Muslim scientists and their achievements on the right column of the blog. Do check it out. Their achievements will blow ur mind! :)

  8. BQ

    July 27, 2010 at 4:55 PM

    where did the references vanish to after #3?
    woul appreciate the rest.

    • Sayf

      July 28, 2010 at 12:25 AM

      Pretty much all repeats, mostly taken from the doc by Prof. Al-Khalili.

      • BQ

        July 29, 2010 at 4:49 PM

        i understand where you took the article from mostly but that doesnt help me in the context that i needed it. the thing is, its a requirement for any article that when you mention references, you have to give them at the end, otherwise the article looses its appeal and provides less weight when one is reading. I really speak from the point of view of the non-muslim. you want to convince them, provide the references at the end.
        jazaakallah for a gr8 article still. i learned alot.

        • Sayf

          July 29, 2010 at 9:20 PM

          You’re right, the references should link back even if they are repeats.

          This piece isn’t really meant for a target audience, it’s just interesting discussion.

          • BQ

            July 31, 2010 at 1:55 AM

            I think it should be targeted. For too long, we have been asleep. Incidently, yesterday a westerner was saying (i was there) that its really funny when muslims claim that they were the first to do so-and-so thing…. he mentioned some scientific discovery… cant remember which one. Our ignorance (mine in this case) can be really frustrating. I know we did those things he mentioned but I just didnt know the references, so i remained silent. really frustrating.
            Now you have this really exciting article and i would really like to see it become superb. please complete the list of references. i would really really appreciate it.
            I thankyou again for an article that was really refreshing.
            jazaakallah khairun

          • Sayf

            July 31, 2010 at 2:29 AM

            With the exception of [1], [2] and [10], everything is a reference back to Prof J.Al Khalili’s research. Again, please check it out. 3 hours well spent.

            [10] (the moor thing) is simply a reference to one of the class lectures delivered by a prof of mine, and it’s semi-common knowledge. so not really a reference.

            Hope it helps bro.

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