Post 42: Science & Islam

I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).

The Rise of Islam

When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.

The Golden Age

Book CoverAfter this beginning the book spends a large portion of its length on the Abbasid dynasty, and understandably so as this is often described as the Golden Age of Islamic Science. In the mid 8th century the Caliph Al-Mansur moved his capital from Damascus to Baghdad and began to create a wonderful city than would show off the glories of his empire. The city’s wealthy leaders set themselves up as patrons of the arts and sciences, and gathered together scholars from wherever they could find them. These scholars were able to openly and freely discuss religious (not just Muslim, but Christian, Jewish etc. too) and philosophical ideas, often inspired by the new translations of Greek texts that were appearing (itself helped by the newly discovered technique of paper-making – a hugely underrated factor in this academic boom). This may have been a form of one-upmanship towards rivals and the Byzantines or a way to genuinely improve the standards and religion of the Caliphate, but regardless of the intentions the salons flourished.

The high point of all this was the Caliph Al-Mamun. A follower of the Mu’tazila school of Islam, he supported the use of rationalism and inquiry to figure out how to properly follow the religion. In the cause of this, he encouraged this kind of scholarship and acted as patron for several leading figures in Islamic science. He also involved the usual crowd of Christian, Jews and ancient Greek philosophers. Unfortunately this does not mean that he encouraged free debate, and his attempts to clamp down on rival Islamic schools would come back to haunt his favoured scholars. The persecution in their name would cause them to lose favour with the ordinary people and the balance of power would swing in the direction of more traditionalist schools that took revelation over rationalism.

Even after this decline, Islamic science and technology still had a major role to play. Progress continued right the way into the Ottoman Empire, but it became increasingly sporadic – dependent on relatively short term patronage, while Christendom was developing permanent universities for learning. It suffered a particularly huge blow with the invasions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as the Mongols sacked Baghdad, Samarkand and other cities in the East and the crusaders made a nuisance of themselves in the West.


Meanwhile, in the south of what is now Spain the Umayyad dynasty was building cities like Granada and Cordoba that could rival the likes of Baghdad and Damascus. The would similarly attract scholars of all religions and disciplines to study. In fact, so good were the libraries and facilities that scholars from the east would soon begin to flock westwards for their work. Hospitals and the study of healing was a huge part of Islamic science – it was particularly encouraged in the Qur’an – and Andalusia was no exception. There were a huge amount of exceptional doctors in this period and I’ll hopefully cover them in one of the upcoming posts.

In the end, this gloriously intellectual reign would be cut off by the Reconquista and the return of Christian rule to Spain. This links into one of the biggest effects of Islamic science – its influence on the explosion of Christian science in the Renaissance. I don’t want to play down its importance by itself, but the role that Islamic scholarship played in the West was vital and I really must cover it. Take Nicolas Copernicus, for example, a great guy would proposed the revolutionary (literally) idea of a heliocentric universe to explain the observations of astronomers. He used a mathematical theorem known as the Tusi couple in his work, without crediting it. As might be guessed this was first proposed years earlier by a Persian astronomer Al-Tusi, and the similarities in their proofs leaves little doubt that Copernicus was aware of this work.

This was not an isolated incident, and there are numerous such stories throughout this era which show how widespread the knowledge and discoveries of the Islamic world had become. They weren’t just some aborted diversion, but a part of the continual development of science that made later work possible. The works of older philosophers too were passed on from Islam to Christianity, including the likes of Aristotle.

Beyond the Caliphate

Masood also looks at the period beyond the age of Islamic rule, as the great empires of the Ottomans and the Mughals fell apart and were replaced by western powers (often the British). Unfortunately not as much information on the science of the Mughals has survived but they were certainly not left behind, and there are figures of note in alchemy and engineering (including Sheikh Din Muhammad, the first man to bring shampoo and curry houses to England). Under the British, the old problem of Al-Mamun emerged – encouraging learning and rationalism is fine, but it’s hard to win sympathy when you’re trying to replace the traditional culture.

In the modern world, it’s all a bit of a mixed bag. Turkey has some very good universities, Pakistan has good research in some areas of physics (producing Abdus Salam, the first muslim Nobel prize winner), Iran does a lot of genetic work. Masood’s conclusions for today (in 2008) are probably a little out of date now, but they are rather interesting – there is no conflict necessary between Islam and science, but its growth will always be stunted while its main backers remain as unpopular governments (be that foreign colonials, rival sects or dictatorial military governments) that are seen to be using the subject for their own ends. People want the freedom to believe and forcing them to change or hide those beliefs only leads to resistance.


For many years Islam and Science (which are now often seen as opposing things) lived alongside, and in some areas like medicine were even boosted by each other. The decline is hard to pin down but Masood makes a nice case (especially for such a simple book) to link it to political instability, and a backlash against forced cultural change. The modern conclusions that finish the book are interesting, but with the Islamic world undergoing massive upheaval since 2008 they could be somewhat out of date.

So, why was I disappointed in this book? Well there just wasn’t enough science in it for me. Ethan Masood clearly knows his stuff and there was much mores than I expected about the inter-relation between culture, politics and science, but at times the writing skims over rather a lot and sinks into name dropping (apparently) important figures without really showing how or why they are important. In the attempt to cover everything, the actual details that make the story compelling are often left out. It’s an interesting book, but there are definitely better works out there on the topic (I’m a fan of Jim Al-Khalili’s stuff). However, it does give a very simple, if uneven, introduction to novices.


One thought on “Post 42: Science & Islam

  1. Excellent! My favorite Historical subject is the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), as well as the Islamic empire that followed. I was looking to read this book, but I think i will pass now. thanks for the review.

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