Is Contribution to Science Only a Western Enterprise

Salman Ahmed Shaikh

Ehsan Masood in his book ‘Science and Islam: A History’ writes that Muslim contribution to science is largely forgotten or at least neglected, except by a few diligent specialists[i]. Science is universal and is not just a Western enterprise. If we are to ignore all science produced by religious people, then we would have hardly anything completely unique and new to say. Muslim scientists pioneered many works in science, followed by people of contemporary times who were also not averse to religion. Nobel Laureate and seminal contributor in Quantum Physics, Max Planck once stated “It was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls.”

Quite a significant number of Nobel Prize winning scientists in the last century alone believed in religion and God and have also done pioneer work in modern branches of science. Despite the spread of misinformation about religion, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2009 found that just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power.

As a matter of fact, Islam does not negate critical inquiry. Muslim scholars who understand this viewpoint are supportive of stem cell research, genetic engineering and robotics within ethical bounds. Even traditional Muslim scholarship in early-twentieth century was not sceptical of evolution as a scientific explanation, which can be seen in the writings of Syed Qutb[ii] and Maulana Syed Abul-Ala Maududi[iii].

In history, we find that Muslim scientists were the first to break free from the axiomatic approach and introduced an observational approach to science. The paradigm shift with an observational approach which brought impetus to science has origins in early Muslim scientific work rather than in post-renaissance. Robert Briffault, in his book ‘The Making of Humanity’, asserts that the very existence of science, as it is understood in the modern sense, is rooted in the scientific thought and knowledge that emerged from Muslim Middle East. He also writes: “What we call sciences arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of inquiry; of new methods of investigation, of the method 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.”[iv]

Muslims took the Greek works, updated them and translated them for wider use in both the East and the West. In 763, The House of Wisdom was founded in Baghdad. For every translated book, the state used to pay quantity of gold equal to the weight of the book so as to provide state patronage and incentives. The University of Qarawiyyin, the world’s oldest university was founded by Fatima Al-Fihri. The Al-Azhar mosque library contained 200,000 volumes. In addition to that, there were hundreds of such libraries spread in the Muslim world. The first medical centre was the Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital, founded in 872 in Cairo. This hospital provided free medical assistance to anyone who needed it without any religious, ethnic or other differences.

In those times, Muslims as well as people from around the globe with diverse religious backgrounds could carry out research under the patronage of Muslim civilization. Donald Campbell writes:

“In Europe,  the  unsettled  conditions  led  to the  discouragement  of  scholarship,  while  the  Caliphs of  Baghdad,  on  the  other  hand,  afforded  protection and encouragement to the scholars of all religions.”[v]

Francis Ghiles in his essay writes: “At its peak about one thousand years ago, the Muslim world made a remarkable contribution to science, notably mathematics and medicine. Baghdad in its heydey and southern Spain built universities to which thousands flocked. Rulers surrounded themselves with scientists and artists.”[vi]

In astronomy, Muslim scientists did pioneer work which connects them with the modern scientific age, both in terms of the substance of their research and most importantly because of their commitment to evidence based scientific inquiry. Omar Khayyam and also Al Battani determined the length of the solar year with only a minute error and they did not even have the modern equipment to work with. These scientists used an astrolabe, which was built by the Muslim mathematician, Ibrahim Al-Fazari.

Copernicus benefited from the observations and geometric models of Al Battani, Al-Tusi and Ibn Al-Shatir for his monumental breakthroughs. The criticism of Ptolemy’s models appeared in the work of Muslim scientists. Copernicus built upon that critical work. Al-Battani raised trigonometry to higher levels and computed the first table of cotangents. Al-Biruni laid the foundation for modern trigonometry. Al-Biruni discussed the theory of the earth rotating about its own axis. He determined earth’s circumference without modern telescopes.

UNESCO declared 2015 as the International Year of Light to celebrate amongst others Ibn Al-Haytham’s achievements in optics, mathematics and astronomy. He explained refraction and discussed gravity. He provided scores of experiments to verify his scientific work as well as performed the foundational work on building a modern camera. In essence, he promoted an experimental and evidence based approach to study the physical realities. Will Durant in his book ‘The Story of Civilization’ writes: “Muslim scholars introduced precise observation, controlled experiment and careful records.”[vii]

In describing the right attitude to science, Ibn Al-Haytham wrote:

“The duty of the man, who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content and attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.[viii]

Thus, the spirit of objective inquiry in understanding physical realities was very much there in the works of these Muslim scientists.

The seminal work on Algebra comes from Al-Khwārizmī and Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa) has quoted him. Al-Khwārizmī, the pioneer of Algebra, wrote that given an equation, collecting the unknowns on one side of the equation is called ‘al-Jabr’. The word Algebra comes from that. He developed sine, cosine and trigonometric tables, which were later translated in the West. He developed algorithms, which are the building blocks of modern computers.

In biology and medicine, there were several noteworthy contributions by Muslims. Al-Razi wrote the first book on smallpox, called, ‘Al-Judri wa al-Hasba’. Ibn-e-Sina’s Canon of Medicine was used as a standard medical text in even as late as the 17th century in Europe. Al-Zahravi was one of the pioneer surgeons and he developed various surgical instruments and methods, which were state of the art at that time and some are still used today. He is also reported to have performed the first caesarean operation. Ibn al-Nafis described the pulmonary circulation of the blood quite a few centuries before William Harvey.

In chemistry, Muslim scientists carried out perfume distillation, glass making, minting of coins and grouping chemicals based on chemical characteristics, which later on led to the modern periodic tables. In 780, Jabir ibn Hayyan, a Muslim chemist who is considered by many to be the father of chemistry, introduced the experimental scientific method for chemistry, as well as laboratory apparatus such as the alembic, still and retort, and chemical processes such as pure distillation, liquefaction, crystallisation, and filtration. Al-Jazari developed mechanical devices like watermills and water wheels to ease water management.

Even in social sciences, Muslims were modern and advanced compared to their age. The birth of capitalism as per Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” began in Western Europe and spread to North America[ix]. Benedict Koehler in his recent book “Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism” argues that it is Islam, rather than Christianity that provided the organizational and ideological elements that combined and gave rise to some positive features of Capitalism.[x]

The author explains that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was Himself an established entrepreneur. The author further emphasizes that Mecca was not only a Holy place, but also a very significant trading centre at that time. The author contends that Islamic teachings provided extensive guidelines on fair trade. Islamic teachings also gave due importance to writing business contracts and honouring them, both as a religious and a civic duty.

Islamic venture capitalism based on Mudarabah and Musharakah was conducive to long distant trade and to match the skills and endowments of labor and capitalists respectively. The currency system based on commodities like gold and silver was also advanced enough at that time to avoid the problems of barter trade, such as indivisibility of tradable commodities and having to match double coincidence of wants. Benedikt Koehler writes:

In Baghdad, by the early tenth century, a full-fledged banking sector had come into being: exchanging gold and silver coins and lending money to government and to merchants who were able to pay money into accounts in one city and draw money in another. These drafts had several names – one of them was the Persian word ‘cak’ that has come down to us as check.”

The right to private property for men as well as women has also been duly recognized in Islamic law since fourteen centuries ago. Islamic institutions and business practices were later on adopted in Venice and Genoa. There were other Islamic institutions assimilated in Europe like Charities, Waqf and institutions of higher learning, like the Madrasah. The author argues that these higher learning institutions were models for the oldest colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

Among the Muslim contributions to social sciences, Imam Ghazali and Ibn-e-Khuldun discussed the concept of the labor theory of value and division of labor in economics several centuries earlier than Adam Smith. The famous Laffer curve in economics was first discovered by Ibn-e-Khuldun.

In ancient history, people had regarded rivers, springs, and the sea as gods and worthy of worship. They held them to be objects of reverence rather than of conquest. Imbued with the philosophy of Monotheism, Muslims saw these phenomena of nature as God’s creations. Belief in Monotheism freed inquiry and made it possible to use materials as creatures rather than regarding them as objects of worship.

Muslims did not force Galileo to let go his discovery. In fact, most scientific discoveries found their way into Muslim areas without much opposition. When Mongols made Tigris River black with ink of thousands of books in the siege of Baghdad, it was not Islam holding back science.

Even after the Islamic Golden Age, the majority of scientists who did the ground-breaking work in major fields of modern science were religious. Doing science does not require faith. However, it would be a strange idea that one cannot believe in religion while simultaneously contributing to science.


[i] Masood, E. (2009). Science and Islam. Icon, London.

[ii] Siddiqui, M. N. & Islahi, S. A. (1991). “Qur’an Aur Science: Afadat-e-Syed Qutb (Qur’an and Science: Valuable Insights of Syed Qutb)”, 3rd Edition, Lahore: Islamic Publications Limited.

[iii] Maududi, S. A. A.  (1955). “Ta’alimat”. Lahore: Islamic Publications Limited.

[iv] Briffault, R. (1919). “The Making of Humanity”. London: G. Allen & Unwin.

[v] Donald  Campbell,  2002. “Arabian Medicine and its Influence on the Middle Ages”, Vol. I, London: Routledge.

[vi] Ghiles, Francis “What is wrong with Muslim Science”, Nature, 24 March 1983.

[vii] Durant, W. (2011). “The Age of Faith: The Story of Civilization” (Vol. 4). UK: Simon and Schuster.

[viii] Alhazen, quoted in “Muslim Journeys.” Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2013.

[ix] Weber, M. (1930). “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, London: Unwin Hyman.

[x] Koehler, B. (2014). “Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism”. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

About Salman Ahmed Shaikh

PhD Economics, National University of Malaysia. Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance. Author, Researcher, Teacher and Consultant. He can be contacted at:
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