restricted access Science and Religion in the History of Islam
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Science and Religion in the History of Islam AHMAD DALLAL Before the coming of Islam, and for over a century after its rise, Arabs had no science. Without exception, historians of Islamic science have rightly identified the ‘‘translation movement,’’ the bulk of which took place in the course of the ninth century, as the most important factor in the emergence of an Islamic scientific culture. This translation movement provided the knowledge base of the emergent sciences. However, the scientific activity that followed was a complex phenomenon that does not lend itself to single track and static explanations and is not reducible to translation. Despite the paramount importance of the Greek scientific tradition, Arabic science was not a mere museum of Greek scientific knowledge. Evidence from the earliest extant scienti fic sources indicates that the translation movement was concurrent with, rather than a prerequisite for, scientific research in the Islamic world. Simultaneous research and translation took place in more than one field, and in more than one case, even when some of the scientific texts were being translated, they were also reformulated and transformed. As such, the translation movement itself was an aspect of an emerging scientific culture and not its mechanical cause. The practical social and political needs of vibrant Muslim societies and polities, coupled with theoretical and scholarly needs, gave rise to and nurtured a systematic translation movement that had a great impact on the subsequent development of a scientific culture in the Muslim world. Beyond beginnings, however, the scale of Islamic scientific activities is vast. Science in medieval Muslim societies was practiced on a scale unprecedented in earlier or contemporary human history. In urban centers from the Atlantic to the borders of China, thousands of scientists pursued careers in diverse scientific disciplines that far exceeded the number of sciences practiced in 22 science and religion in the history of islam  23 antiquity. Until the rise of modern science, no other civilization engaged as many scientists, produced as many scientific books, or provided as varied and sustained support for scientific activity. Historical and literary sources of various kinds provide abundant evidence for the social respectability of many branches of the rational sciences such as logic, arithmetic, medicine, geometry, astronomy, algebra, and philosophy. For example, the biographical dictionaries of religious scholars often celebrate their knowledge of the rational sciences. Many of these scholars combined expertise in the religious and rational sciences. Furthermore, specialized biographical dictionaries were compiled to celebrate scientists; biographical dictionaries, it should be noted, serve the important function of identifying and sanctioning communities of scholars. Another indicator of the respectability of rational sciences is the use of the same discourse and idioms in praising knowledge in rational as well as religious sciences. Finally, the constant presence of the rational sciences in all classification of sciences reflects not just social but also epistemological sanction of the rational sciences. Historical sources indicate that the twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a shifting professional alliance between various religious and rational disciplines, providing new space for the intersection of rational and religious sciences, thereby lending the rational sciences added prestige and respectability . For example, as of the twelfth century, a large number of scholars specialized in h .adı̄th (traditions of the Prophet Muh .ammad) and medicine, including the famous thirteenth-century scholar Ibn al-Nafı̄s who discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood. Another common specialization in this period combines the subjects of us .ūl al-dı̄n (principles of religion), us .ūl al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence), and logic; or theology (kalām), logic, and astronomy. Further evidence suggests that scientific education was pervasive and widespread through at least the sixteenth century and was central to mainstream intellectual life in Muslim societies. This integration is reflected in the large number of religious scholars who were also competent and original scientists. In addition to the combination of specific scientific and religious disciplines in the persons of individual scholars, several scientific subfields were integrated into the standard curriculum of religious educational institutions. These include the fields of farā’id . (inheritance algebra), a subfield of algebra that deals with inheritance law, and ‘ilm al-mı̄qāt (time keeping), a subfield of 24  surveys practical astronomy that deals with such questions as timekeeping, finding the direction of prayer, and lunar visibility computations. In addition to enhancing the status of...


Subject Headings

  • Religion and science -- Congresses.
  • Christianity -- Doctrines -- Congresses.
  • Islam -- Doctrines -- Congresses.
  • Bible -- Criticism, interpretation, etc. -- Congresses.
  • Koran -- Criticism, interpretation, etc. -- Congresses.
  • Christianity and other religions -- Islam -- Congresses.
  • Islam -- Relations -- Christianity -- Congresses.
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