Rise of Islamic sciences

For any scientific knowledge to be developed there needs to be certain institutional arrangements, economic conditions, and cultural values that stimulate scientific inquiry. For the early Muslim empire, these institutions of learning arose among a diverse territorial and population expanse. Some of the reasons why scientific activity began emerging in the early Muslim world were:

1.   Islam encouraged learning of sciences

The unique characteristic of the rise of Islamic sciences is that religion and science were not considered to be in opposition with each other. Muslim scholars have continuously proven that the Qur’an itself promotes scientific inquiry and encourages the Ummah to seek knowledge. Some of the verses of the Qur’an and Hadith which have been used by Muslim scientists to justify their scientific inquiry include:

“Surely, In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day, in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies, with which He revives the earth after its death and spreads in it all kinds of animals, in the change of the winds and the clouds between the sky and the earth that are made subservient, there are signs for rational people.” (Qur’an 2:164)

“Indeed in the alternation of the night and the day and what Allah has created in the heavens and the earth, there are signs for those who are God fearing.” (Qur’an 10:6)

“And he subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the Heavens and on Earth: Behold in that are signs indeed for those who reflect.” (Qur’an 45:13)

“A believer never stops seeking for knowledge until he enters Paradise.” (Tirmidhi)

“Seeking knowledge is a duty on every Muslim.” (Bukhari)

Hence, it is no surprise to see early Muslim scholars who were dealing with different sciences. They were aware that there was much more to be discovered. They did not have the precise details of the solar and lunar orbits but they knew that there was something extremely meaningful behind the alternation of the day and the night and in the precise movements of the sun and the moon as mentioned in Qur’an. The Islamic prayer, which was required to be in the direction of Mecca, generated curiosity in geography. The observation of Ramadan for thirty days of the year required Muslims to acquire knowledge in astronomy. The ablution process of Muslims before they stand for prayer and conduct other religious ceremonies prompted early Muslim scientists to examine hygiene and dietary habits. The learning and application of arithmetic was necessary for dividing inheritances according to Islamic law and keeping exact time of the day in order to observe prayer. As a result of this, many of the great scientists of Islamic civilization were also religious scholars. For example, Ibn Al-Shatir was one of the greatest astronomers in the Muslim world; he was also the official time-keeper in the Ummayad mosque in Damascus. Another example is that of Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in Latin, who was a great philosopher and also a religious judge in Spain.

2.   Territorial expansion and contact with different cultures and societies

The early Muslim empire expanded very rapidly during the 7th and 8th centuries. Muslims came in contact with the cultural and scientific traditions of the societies it took over into its domain. This constituted mainly of the Persian, Sassanid, and Byzantine empires, which were largely disintegrating empires at the time. These empires had scientific knowledge which the Muslims borrowed from and later went on to develop their own contributions.

3.   The Caliphs’ patronage and support of the sciences

The Caliphal support of scientific activity was another driving force for Muslim scientists to pursue knowledge in the sciences. With the ascension of power by the Ummayad Caliphate at the end of the 7th century and later Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th century, the support for scientific inquiry began to pick up steam. Since the Caliphs were regarded as the ultimate ruler of the Muslim Ummah, it was upon their motivation that society developed positive cultural values in support of scientific learning. One example of this can be found in the Abbasid era Caliph Al-Mamun (813 – 833). It was he who developed a keen interest in foreign cultures, sending delegations of scholars to Asia Minor and Cyprus to bring back Greek books. He also arranged measurements of the diameter of the earth and sent out groups of scientists to investigate the geographic locations of various events described in the Qur’an. Later Caliphs continued to support scientists in their search for knowledge. They built libraries and observatories and employed scientists, who were often bureaucrats, to find answers to different scientific questions.

4.  Political reasons promoting the study of the sciences.

There were also political reasons for promoting scientific activity. As the early Islamic empire expanded, the Muslim intellectuals came across non-Muslim intellectual communities. Although there was no initial inclination to convert the non-Muslims to Islam, there was an urge to find ways to be able to debate with them on the philosophical and scientific superiority of Islam. This led to the study of logical methods, called Ilm-al-Kalam. Religious elites did not object to the learning of logical methods at that time because they wanted to debate the intellectual supremacy of Islamic rational thought with the intellectual elites of the newly conquered lands, who consisted mainly of Christians and Jews. The study of rational methods for religious debates, in turn, created an environment of tolerance and intellectual competition in which scientific progress could be obtained. As a result of this, Muslim political authorities, as well as wealthy merchants, supported the establishment of large libraries for the study of science.