The Advocates for Islam recently led a conference about Islamic contributions to science.
The lecture was given by Diane Boulanger, who, having accepted Islam in 1987, was disturbed by the lack of knowledge the general public has about Muslim contributions to science and technology. She wrote a paper on the subject during her tenure at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education here at U of T.
A philosophy of learning
One important point discussed at the conference was that the Qur’an, which describes a philosophical way of life, does not only apply to science but to being a Muslim in general. Diane Boulanger specifically acknowledged that “having a scientific mind is similar, for me, to being a Muslim.” Dr. Ali Hussein, a professor at Ryerson, explained a Muslim is “not somebody who covers himself from facts, [it is] someone who is open. If honesty is not there, there is no Muslim.”
The presentation was certainly an eye-opener for those who have been immersed in a Western education. In the 700 years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the European Renaissance—when much scientific discourse was considered heretical by Christendom—the Islamic world was preserving and enlarging upon the bodies of knowledge acquired from antiquity.
Muslims claim that much of the motivation for this acquisition of knowledge comes from the Qur’an. There is one clear reference where Allah refers to the “pursuit of knowledge as a way to make humans stand shoulder to shoulder with the angels.” Another verse in the Qur’an says: “those who are truly in awe of God are those who have knowledge.” The Qur’an dwells on individual responsibility instead of following blindly. In Europe during the Middle Ages, the scientific method was ignored in favour of Plato’s Theory of Forms, which required only reason and logic to understand the universe. According to Plato, what we experience with our senses is actually an imperfect copy of what is really there and hence, our senses offer an imperfect representation of reality. In the Qur’an, in contrast, importance is placed on an open mind and a reliable following of one’s senses, which led Muslims directly to the scientific method.
A “book of guidance”
Seen in this way, the Qur’an is a book of guidance, which can be applied to science. It mentions using the stars for guidance and this, coupled with a Muslim scientist’s need to know the direction to Mecca (the direction one prayed toward) was behind the development of geodesy and astronomy. Al-Battani, who created astronomical tables of observations, Al-Sufi, who wrote his Book of Constellations, and Ibn Yunus, who created a set of planet and eclipse data later used by Newton, were three such pioneers.
Al-Biruni—perhaps the most prominent figure of the Golden Age of Islamic science—made several major achievements: the discovery that the Earth circles the sun; an attempt to measure the circumference of the Earth; and his inference, through the discovery of fossils, that there must have been a sea in the area of Mesopotamia some time in the distant past.
Islamic contributions to medicine are no less impressive. Ibn Sina, a contemporary of Al-Biruni, composed 270 manuscripts which, less than a century after his death, were being used at Montpellier’s university in France. Similarly, a Muslim surgeon wrote a surgical manual in 1470, used by contemporaries in Venice. The West also has the Islamic world to thank for the discovery of the pulmonary circulatory system.
Perhaps the only contribution generally credited to Muslim scholars is that of the development of Arabic numerals, which, ironically, is not entirely legitimate. Our familiar numerical system was adopted from Indian scholars by Abu Al-Qasim, and later passed on to Europe. Al-Qasim was also responsible for writing the book Al-Jabar, which would later be mispronounced as algebra.
Also discussed was the lasting importance of the science and learning that occurred in the Muslim world and how, in Spain during the Middle Ages, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in peace and all were allowed to realize their full potential.
The scientific pursuits in Spain, perhaps largely influenced by teachings from the Qur’an, encouraged Europeans to visit Spain for their studies, bringing back necessary knowledge for the eventual Renaissance of Europe.