EDITORS’ NOTE: The highly acclaimed BBC documentary, Science and Islam, aired in 2009 and 2010 as three, one hour episodes. The video below amalgamates all three episodes into a single three hour documentary. To directly view a particular episode, click on the time indexes listed below.
Mawlana Hazar Imam on Islam’s Scientific Legacy
From the seventh to the thirteenth century Muslim civilisations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using, and preserving the study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. Yet this fact is seldom acknowledged today, be it in the West or in the Muslim world. This amnesia has left a 600-year gap in the history of human thought.
At the height of [Islamic] civilisation, academies of higher learning reached from Spain to India, from North Africa to Afghanistan. One of the first and greatest research centres, the Bayt al-Hikmah established in Baghdad in 830, led Islam in translating philosophical and scientific works from Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian classics. By the art of translation, learning was assimilated from other civilisations. It was then advanced and furthered in new directions by scholarship in such institutions as the Dar-al-Ilm — the House of Science, which during the ninth and tenth centuries spread to many cities, through colleges like those of al-Azhar in Cairo [founded by Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Fatimd Imam/Caliphs ancestors], Qarawiyin at Fez in Morocco, Zaytuna in Tunis and the eminent Spanish centre of Cordoba, founded between 929 and 961.
Everywhere, whether in the simplest mosque schools or in universities, teaching was regarded as a mission undertaken for the service of God. Revenue from endowments provided students with stipends and no time limit was set for the acquisition of knowledge. Above all, following the guidance of the Holy Qur’an, there was freedom of enquiry and research. The result was a magnificent flowering of artistic and intellectual activity throughout the Ummah.
Muslim scholars reached pinnacles of achievement in astronomy, geography, physics, philosophy, mathematics and especially, in medicine. The great British scientist Isaac Newton remarked that if he was able to see further than his predecessors, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Among those giants who made possible the scientific revolution in Europe were Ibn Sina, whose ‘Canon of Medicine’ was a standard text for five hundred years; al-Idrisi, the geographer; Ibn Rushd, the philosopher, and a host of other Muslim scientists who had produced the notion of specific gravity, refined Euclid’s theories, perfected geometry, evolved trigonometry and algebra, and made modern mathematics possible by developing Indian numerals and the concept of the zero as a numeral of no place value, an invention crucial to every aspect of technology from that time onwards to the present day. Their Socratic principles of education, so sympathetic to Muslims and so characteristic of the great Islamic teaching institutions of the golden age, are still and are likely to remain universally accepted practices of advanced teaching.
It is no exaggeration to say that the original Christian universities of Latin West, at Paris, Bologna and Oxford, indeed the whole European renaissance, received a vital influx of new knowledge from Islam — an influx from which the later Western colleges and universities, including those of North Africa [America], were to benefit in turn.
BBC Documentary Video: Science and Islam
Science and Islam is a three-part BBC documentary about the history of science in medieval Islamic civilization presented by Jim Al-Khalili. The series is accompanied by the book Science and Islam: A History written by Ehsan Masood.
- Part 1: The Language of Science (time index 0:00:00)
- Part 2: The Empire of Reason (time index 0:58:36)
- Part 3: The Power of Doubt (time index 1:59:28)
Part 1: The Language of Science
Physicist Jim Al-Khalili travels through Syria, Iran, Tunisia and Spain to tell the story of the great leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries.
Its legacy is tangible, with terms like algebra, algorithm and alkali all being Arabic in origin and at the very heart of modern science – there would be no modern mathematics or physics without algebra, no computers without algorithms and no chemistry without alkalis.
For Baghdad-born Al-Khalili this is also a personal journey and on his travels he uncovers a diverse and outward-looking culture, fascinated by learning and obsessed with science. From the great mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, who did much to establish the mathematical tradition we now know as algebra, to Ibn Sina, a pioneer of early medicine whose Canon of Medicine was still in use as recently as the 19th century, he pieces together a remarkable story of the often-overlooked achievements of the early medieval Islamic scientists.
Part 2: The Empire of Reason
Al-Khalili travels to northern Syria to discover how, a thousand years ago, the great astronomer and mathematician Al-Biruni estimated the size of the earth to within a few hundred miles of the correct figure.
He discovers how medieval Islamic scholars helped turn the magical and occult practice of alchemy into modern chemistry.
In Cairo, he tells the story of the extraordinary physicist Ibn al-Haytham, who helped establish the modern science of optics and proved one of the most fundamental principles in physics – that light travels in straight lines.
Prof Al-Khalili argues that these scholars are among the first people to insist that all scientific theories are backed up by careful experimental observation, bringing a rigour to science that didn’t really exist before.
Part 3: The Power of Doubt
Al-Khalili turns detective, hunting for clues that show how the scientific revolution that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe had its roots in the earlier world of medieval Islam. He travels across Iran, Syria and Egypt to discover the huge astronomical advances made by Islamic scholars through their obsession with accurate measurement and coherent and rigorous mathematics.
He then visits Italy to see how those Islamic ideas permeated into the West and ultimately helped shape the works of the great European astronomer Copernicus, and investigates why science in the Islamic world appeared to go into decline after the 16th and 17th centuries, only for it to re-emerge in the present day.
Al-Khalili ends his journey in the Royan Institute in the Iranian capital Tehran, looking at how science is now regarded in the Islamic world.
Image: Screen shot from video (Fair use/dealing)