Scientific Awakening--Islamic Background

[ Islamic Background ] [ Copernicus-Kepler-Brahe ] [ Galileo ] [ Newton ] [ Enlightenment ]

European intellectuals, scientists, mathematicians owed an enormous debt to the Islamic world for keeping alive and adding to the philosophical traditions of the Hellenistic world that fell into disarray with the fall of Rome and Europe's descent into the Dark Ages (Spodek 355). Arabic translations of "lost" wisdom were preserved in texts by Greeks, Jews, Persians, Indians, et al. This "...intersection of intellectual traditions ... enriched mathematics, astronomy, and medicine" (Spodek 355). In the 8th century, Arabic emerged as the language of scholars as Islamic merchants fanned out across the known world; they brought the Baghdad caliphate into contact with the rest of the world. Hunayn ibn Ishaq (9th c) oversaw a "house of wisdom" that produced translations of Greek authors (Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Euclid) as well as works in Syriac, Sanskrit, and Persian (Spodek 355).

The Islamic advance began almost immediately after the death of the Prophet, carried by merchants, pilgrims, and warriors from the Arabian peninsula to Spain and North Africa in the West and India in the East, giving dar al-Islam* a truly hemispheric scope (Fields, et al. 306). "...Muslims established a commonwealth stretching from Spain to Central Asia" (Teresi 136). With the conquest of Persia (later Il-khan, Iran) in the 7th century, Persian became a second language in the Islamic world. Subsequently, for centuries, Islamic (mainly Arab) merchants dominated the commercial camel caravan routes of Eurasia as well as the sea lanes (in lateen-sailed dhows--see right) of the Mediterranean, Red, Arabian Seas, and the Indian Ocean. The wealthy merchant, Ramisht amassed a gigantic fortune thought to include half a million dinars** on one voyage alone. While living luxuriously, he also endowed a hospital and a religious sanctuary in Mecca (Bentley and Ziegler 371).
image source--Bentley and Ziegler 371

*literally, "the abode of peace," usually interpreted as the lands where Islam predominated
**gold coins that comprised the basic currency of dar al-Islam


As the Umyyad and Abbasid Empires consolidated and spread their rule, they created a trading zone (see map, left) that reached from Iberia to India and came to include the Swahili states of east Africa. "Commerce throughout this zone served as a vigorous economic stimulus for both the countryside and the cities of the Islamic world" (Bentley and Ziegler 368). Cultural diffusion affected all participants. Such staple crops as sugar cane and rice, vegetables such as spinach, artichokes, eggplant, citrus such as oranges, lemons, limes, other fruits such as bananas, coconuts, watermelon, mangoes, and industrial crops such as cotton, indigo, and henna all traveled from their points of origin to other parts of the commercial zone (Bentley and Ziegler 368). As food supplies increased, diet became more varied. Peasants and farmers experimented with crop rotation, fertilizers, new methods of irrigation and their findings were published in numerous manuscripts and pamphlets. "Before the 13th century, there was an extraordinary confluence of genius and innovtion, particularly around Baghdad" (Rothstein C9).

image source--Fields, et al. 307

Cities such as Delhi, Samarkand, Bukhara, Isfahan, Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Palermo, Córdoba, and Toledo were thriving commercial and urban centers in dar al-Islam. The adoption of paper (and refinement of its technology) from China advanced publishing and record-keeping. By the 10th century, mills in Persia, Arabia, Egypt, and Spain produced paper (Bentley and Ziegler 368-9). Islamic merchants introduced or transmitted these technologies ( paper making, silk-weaving, ceramic firing, cartography) all over dar al-Islam (Stearns, et al. 314-315).


In the 8th century CE, while western Europeans remained stuck in the feudal dark age, the World of Islam, led by the Arabs, began their intellectual and cultural hegemony. Scientists and mathematicians built upon earlier--Greek, Indian, and Persian--foundations; they both accumulated and expanded knowledge across a broad spectrum of disciplines. "...Islamic civilization outstripped all others in scientific discoveries, new techniques of investigation, and new technologies" (Stearns, et al. 314). Muslim technicians, scholars, and artisans improved devices for the military, for measuring and/or mapping the heavens, for creating charts, maps, and tables. They combined pure science with technological application. Until "...the 15th century, Muslim scholars were unequaled in astronomy" (Teresi 136). One reason they were so interested in examining and mapping the heavens was to insure their holy buildings and prayers were oriented accurately in the direction of Mecca. On the left and right (mirror images?,) a 15th century Persian miniature depicts scientists working at a variety of tasks.

(Stearns, et al. 315) (Musselman < >)

Islamic scholars addressed such thorny issues as revealed truth (the Koran/Qu'ran) vis à vis rational deduction. Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina, or Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, was an intellecutal superstar. Ibn Sina/Avicenna (980-1037) came from near Bukhara in present-day Central Asia and earned fame for his studies in medicine under the patronage of Persian shahs in Isfahan. His prodigious curiosity led him to study not only medicine but logic, theology, geometry, and astronomy. He wrote dozens of tracts, the most famous of which was the Qanun fi'l-tibb (Canon of Medicine.) Islamic rulers, especially those in moorish Spain, sponsored pharmacies and medical schools, and "required that prospective doctors pass...medical examinations (Fields, et al. 310).Author John Noble Wilford terms Ibn Sina/Avicenna "the colossus of philsophy between Aristotle and Descartes" (18).

Artist's rendering of Ibn Sina/Avicenna above.
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In the Qanun, Ibn Sina/Avicenna addressed medical topics, including the importance of diet, emotion, and environment on human health. He assessed the benefits of some 760 different drugs. In the 12th century, his massive tome was translated into Latin; by the 15th century, the Qanun was Europe's basic medical text, remaining, in the words of Dr. William Osler, "a medical bible for a longer time than any other work" (Monsur 2). Contemporaries acknowledge that Ibn Sina was a most "famous physician, philosopher, encyclopaedist, mathematician and astronomer of his time" (Martin 1). In addition to his monumental medical treatise, Ibn Sina also wrote Kitab al-Shifa, a philosophical encyclopedia that ranged across physics, mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, economics, and politics. Look left for the frontispiece of a 16th century Latin translation of Ibn Sina's/Avicenna's medical treatise. Christian Europe latinized his name to Avicenna and relied on his works well into the 17th century.


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Almost every country and nation in the Islamic world has honored Ibn Sina with a commemorative stamp, as indicated with the 1992 stamp (right) from the Islamic Republic of Iran. As Wilford noted, Ibn Sina/Avicenna conducted important research in contagious diseases and anatomy (18).


image source < >


"Arabs adopted and transmitted Hindi numerals and the decimal system, including the zero..." (later misnamed "arabic" numbers) and in the 9th century, al-Khwarazmi developed or invented algebra (al-jabr, restoration) (Spodek 355). "...[F]rom a practical point of view, Indian numerals vastly simplified bookkeeping for Muslim merchants working in the lively commercial economy..." (Bentley and Ziegler 378).
Top row: modern western (Arabic) numerals
2nd row: early Arabic numerals
3rd row: Arabic letters used as numerals
4th row: modern Arabic (eastern)
5th row: early Arabic (eastern)
6th row: early Devanagari (Indian)
7th row: later Devanagari (Indian)
Until the 8th century most cultures/societies used numerals
as below for the number 323:
Egyptian: 999 nn III; Roman: CCC XX III

The story of zero (0) is a fascinating one. Its origins can be traced to the idea of a placeholder in ancient Sumer, then Egypt, then to 7th century India where its use was formalized into arithmetic operations (Wallin.) During the era when Muslim merchants ruled the waves and the caravan routes, zero made its way to Baghdad, to North Africa. The Moors brought zero to Europe via Spain. See Wallin article for more detail. Imagine trying to do mathematics (or simple arithmetic) without zero! Note large size of image that connotes its importance!

image source < >


In the 11th century, al-Biruni formulated number theories that evolved into trigonometry and wrote extensively on astronomy. In the 13th century, Nasir al-Din's studies in mathematics and cosmology proposed a model of the universe that explained the movement of the moon around the earth, that Copernicus later adapted into his heliocentric model (Bulliet, et al. 348). 14th and 15th century Islamic scholars, mathematicians, and astronomers accurately predicted eclipses from observatories, such as the one built by Timur's grandson Ulugh Beg in Samarkand (Bulliet, et al. 348). Al-Kashi calculated a more precise value for pi. Islamic astronomers knew that the world was round. It was Arabs who perfected the astrolabe, the instrument used by sailors to determine their location at sea, out of sight of land (Spielvogel 245). Contemporary scholars now believe that Arab "mathematical and astronomical theories...informed Copernicus..." (Spodek 356). Omar Khayyám, better known as the poet of the Rubáiyát, explored algebra in depth, investigating the quadratic formula and cubic equations (Brummett, et al. 263). In chemistry, al-Razi originated the schemata that divided material substances into categories of animal, vegetable, and mineral (Stearns, et al. 314).


Islamic/Arab scholars excelled as cartographers, and their maps were copied in the courts of Christian Europe. Al-Idrisi (1099-1166,) a Moroccan who studied at Córdova and served in the court of Roger II (Norman ruler of Sicily,) devised a "map of the world." His map centered the world of his own experience, that is on the sacred city of Mecca. His vision shows a world-island surrounded by a world-sea. Africa exists but is largely unknown, lying ill-defined at the top of the map. According to the Muslim conventions of the 12th century, he oriented his map with South at the top and North at the bottom (Brummett, et al. 264). Have a look at the unrecognizable (left) and recognizable (right) graphics below.


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Dar al-Islam preserved and disseminated the scientific/philosophical works of the ancients, housing them in Baghdad's "house of wisdom." The list of achievements is long and impressive. At the many observatories throughout the Islamic world, astronomers--before Copernicus--"recomputed and refined Ptolemy's coordinates..." (Teresi 143). European scholars learned of Islamic studies and rediscovered Aristotle's writings in Moorish Spain in the 12th century. Islamic discoveries and innovations were translated variously into Latin and/or Greek and contributed mightily to the Scientific Awakening, conventionally launched by Copernicus in the 15th century.

(Stearns, et al. 307)

For more information on Islamic/Arab contributions to science and scholarship, visit
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"Arabic Numerals." Islam and Islamic History and the Middle East, ed. by Ismail Nawwab, et al. Online Available.
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The Applied History Research Group. The World of Islam to 1600. Online Available.
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Background Image: Leonard-Amodeo, Kristine. "The Greatest Name."
Art Sacred. Online Available. < >

Bentley, Jerry and Herbert Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters, vol ii, 2nd ed. Boston, et al. McGraw Hill, 2003.

Brummett, Palmira, et al. Civilization Past and Present, 9th ed. New York, et al.: Longman/Addison-Wesley, 2000.

Bulliet, Richard, et al. The Earth and Its Peoples, 3rd ed. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005.

Fields, Lanny, et al. The Global Past. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

Henry Davis Consulting. "Al-Idrisi's 'World Map.'" Cartographic Images. Online Available
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Marvin, Chris. "Ibn Sina (Avicenna.)" Online Available
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Monsur, Ahmed. "Ibn Sina (Avicenna) - doctor of doctors." Online Available.
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Muller, Jerry Z. "The Pope's Banker." Book Review: The New York Times. 2 August 2015.

Musselman, Elizabeth Green. "Muslim Astronomers." History of Science. Online Available
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Rothstein, Edward. "To Each His Own Museum, as Identity Goes on Display." The New York Times:
The Arts
. 29 December 2010.

Spielvogel, Jackson. World History: The Human Odyssey. Belmont, et al.: West Educational Publishing, 1998;

Spodek, Howard. The World's History, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Stearns, Peter, et al. World Civilizations, 3rd ed. New York, et al.: Longman/Addison-Wesley, 2001.

Teresi, Dick. Lost Discoveries. New York, et al.: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Wallin, Nils-Bertil. "How was zero discovered." Yale Global Online. Online available.
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Wilford, John Noble. "The Muslim Art of Science." The New York Times Books Review.
22 May 2011.


McKee, Peggy. "Islamic Background." The Scientific Awakening. Updated. August 3, 2015 . Online Available.
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(McKee. "Islamic Background.")

***Unfortunately, several of the sites have flown away or been taken down by their authors/sponsors.


Author: Peggy McKee
Last modified: August 3, 2015