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  • A Bold New Enterprise:The Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam
  • Yakup Bektas (bio) and Roger Sherman (bio)

Re-creating Islam's "Golden Age" of Science and Technology

From about the mid-eighth to the thirteenth century CE, that is, during the long Abbasid dynasty (750-1258), the countries that came under the Islamic sphere of influence, with Baghdad as the center, became remarkably active in philosophy, natural philosophy, astronomy, medicine, technology, and literature. Historians have described this period as the "Golden Age of Islam," especially with reference to discoveries and accomplishments in science and technology.1 Here, we evaluate a daring though problematic attempt to communicate the history of these to the general public through the medium of an institution of a new type: a scholarly museum of replicas and reproductions.2 [End Page 619]

Although it is overused and now passé, this phrase "Golden Age" is still useful in referring to a period characterized by the scale and maturity of philosophical, scientific, and technological endeavors in a wide range of fields—astronomy, algebra, cartography, geography, navigation, alchemy, optics, architecture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, and botany—that helped shape modern science and technology. But the story of how this Arabic-Islamic knowledge influenced European science and technology, one of the most intriguing episodes in the history of the disciplines, is still little known. For that matter, equally little known are the scope and nature of the scientific and technological achievements in Islam itself.

In mainstream historiographies, the place of Islamic science and technology has, until recently, often been neglected, or else barely mentioned.3 The ideas or innovations that did not arise in Europe itself have traditionally been traced back to Greek or Roman antiquity, in which Western Europe has acknowledged its origins in literature, art, philosophy, science, and technology. The Renaissance is thus considered to have begun with the rediscovery of this largely forgotten ancient world through the finding of early Latin writings and translations (often via Arabic) of and commentaries on Greek texts. Even those later scholars who appreciated the Arabic-Islamic heritage sometimes reduced it at best to a loyal though passive keeper of Greek texts and legacy.

Recent scholarship on the classical period of Islam suggests a very different development. When the great translation effort began in the early Abbasid dynasty, the Islamic world was already enjoying a highly sophisticated and dynamic culture. This made it possible, in the first place, to translate into Arabic and hence appreciate major Greek philosophical, astronomical, mathematical, medical, and geographical texts. But more importantly, scholars analyzed these texts and added their own contributions. An obvious example is astronomy. The writings of Ptolemy and other Greek astronomers had a great appeal in Islam, especially in the search for better timekeeping, which was crucial for the proper conduct of its rituals. Islamic astronomers extended the Greek techniques as they developed geodetic methods and astronomical devices (sundials, astrolabes) for practical uses. Examples include determining the time of day, especially for daily prayers; sunrises and sunsets, especially for the annual, month-long Ramadan fast that shifted continually according to the lunar calendar; and azimuths, especially the direction of Mecca (qibla). Big mosques and madrassas had their own timekeepers who used a variety of instruments [End Page 620] and techniques to determine time. Through these practical applications came the recognition of the value of observation and experimentation. By the time that Islamic learning came into open contact with European learned circles, it was in a highly matured state. The work of such scholars as Aydin Sayili, Edward Kennedy, David King, George Saliba, and Fuat Sezgin now offers a wealth of insights into this Islamic scientific and technological culture and suggests that the European Renaissance cannot be properly understood without a grasp of its connection to the Islamic world.4 Their work also indicates that European interaction with Islam was far more substantial and multifarious than previously supposed. The first crucial wave of interaction and transmission of Islamic science and technology to Europe came during the Crusades (1095-1291), and others followed for several centuries thereafter. The interaction occurred not only through translations into Byzantine Greek and Latin, but also...