Celebrating the contributions of the Islamic world to natural sciences

Celebrating the contributions of the Islamic world to natural sciences

Celebrating the contributions of the Islamic world to natural sciences

Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion worldwide with almost two billion followers. As a Muslim scientist at the Babraham Institute, I wanted to highlight some contributions from the Islamic world to the natural sciences. In a second blog will discuss how Muslim scientists can be supported in the workplace and beyond in the face of rising Islamophobia.

Deep roots – the Islamic Golden Age

Sciences in the Islamic world have always been firmly rooted in metaphysics and spirituality, avoiding any chasm between science and religion, and Islamic civilisations have contributed extensively to classical and modern scientific thought. Learning about these contributions is relevant to everyone working in STEM. It provides an important but underappreciated perspective which decolonises and democratises the history and philosophy of science.

Shortly after the founding of Islam in 610 CE, the Middle East entered the Islamic Golden Age (8th-13th century), a period characterised by a scientific, economic and cultural flourishing. Scholarly pursuits of early Muslims were inspired by Quranic verses encouraging observation and inquiry of the natural world and enabled by the bustling trade routes between major centres of learning. Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco is widely recognised as the oldest higher education institution in the world, founded between 857-859 AD. Contrary to common assumptions about the contributions of women in Muslim civilization, it was created by a woman named Fatima al-Fahiri. Early Muslim scientists laid the foundation for the rigorous scientific method adopted during the European Renaissance which developed into the system we use today.

The father of algebra

One of the most well-known early scientists was Al-Khwarizimi, a 9th century Persian mathematician and astronomer. He is known as the ‘father of algebra’, a word derived from the title of his seminal work, Kitab al-Jabr Wa I-Mugabala (The Book of Reasoning and Balancing). He popularised the modern Hindu-Arabic numerical system where the position of a digit in a number changes its value and he demonstrated how to solve quadratic equations by completing the square. He was one of the most famous scholars of Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), Baghdad’s intellectual powerhouse.

From clinical trials to evolution

Medical research and practice are also inextricably linked with Islamic scholarship. Hospitals, with wards and teaching centres, were first established in 9th century Cairo and provided free healthcare. Around that time, a Persian physician named Al-Razi built the first hospitals in Baghdad and introduced the use of control groups when testing methods to treat meningitis, becoming an early proponent of double-blind placebo controlled clinical trials. Ibn Sina, a 10th century philosopher and physician, compiled Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), a comprehensive text which was widely copied and translated, becoming the standard medical reference for centuries.

Even the theory of evolution by natural selection has roots in the Islamic world. The 9th century Muslim scholar al-Jahiz discussed several aspects of natural selection in his work Kitab al-Hawayan (Book of the Animals):

“Animals engage in a struggle for existing, and for resources, to avoid being eaten, and to breed... Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to their offspring.”

The so-called Islamic Golden Age ended with Mongol invasion and the destruction of the House of Wisdom in 1258. After the fall of Baghdad, there was a relative lull in scientific contributions from the Islamic world. However, Islamic civilisations around the world continued cultures of learning and scholarship, manifested by major literary works in theology, philosophy and poetry, as well as grand architectural projects of the Ottoman and Mughal Empires. Arguably, the real decline in intellectual contributions of the Islamic world can be linked to centuries of subjugation and exploitation by Western imperialism, followed by decades of political instability and conflicts due to proxy wars, invasions, and religious fundamentalism.

Modern Muslim scientists

Learning about the rich heritage of Islamic scholarship not only inspires Muslims to pursue scientific careers but also motivates them with a sense of pride in their work. Modern Muslim scientists follow in this tradition like Nobel prize winners Ahmed Zewail, Aziz Sancar and Mohammad Abdus Salam. Atta-ur-Rahman is a chemist from my home city of Karachi. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first Muslim laureate of the UNESCO Science Prize (1999).

Sadly Islamophobia is rising in Europe and equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives often overlook minority faith groups. Even race equality efforts fail to address the intersectional challenges of racialised religious minorities. The intense secularisation of Western academia, especially within natural sciences, inadvertently excludes conversations on access, equality and inclusion of religious staff. The problem is worsened for adherents of marginalised faith groups which are often underrepresented at all levels and require provisions at work to practice their religion.

Followers of all religious groups should be welcomed and supported at higher education and research institutions and in a second blog I will look at barriers Muslims face and how organisations can support Muslim staff.


Image description: Taqi al-Din and other astronomers at the Istanbul Observatory. Istanbul University Library, F 1404, fol. 57a (Ṣehinṣename, Book of the King of Kings)

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