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Muslim Contribution to Science and Culture (5)
Science and Religion
M.A.R Khan

‘Belles-Lettres,’ Religious Literature and Philosophy

In this brief sketch it is impossible to do more than just mention a few outstanding works on Arabic literature (sacred and secular). Abu-Al-Aswad-Al-Du’ali who flourished at Basrah and died there probably in 688 or 689 AD, aged 85, is generally considerd to be the discoverer of Arabic grammar (Ibni Khallikan, Vol I, Pg 663). Khalil Ibni Ahmad (born in ‘Oman 717 AD, died in Basrah in 791 or 792 AD), is generally regarded as the founder of Arabic prosody. He certainly systematized its grammar and wrote an unfinished lexicon called “Kitab al-’Ayn”. His Persian pupil, Sibawayh (d: 793 AD) composed the first basic textbook on Arabic grammar called “Al-Kitab”. Later, Jamal Uddin Abu ‘Amr ‘Uthman Ibni ‘Umar Ibn Al-Hajib (1175-1249 AD) wrote in addition to his “Al-Kafyah” and “Al-Shawyah” (concise works on Arabic grammar), “Kitab Al-Maqsad Al-Jalil Fi ‘Ilm Al-Khalil”, on the subject of prosody.

More famous than either of the above two names is that of Abu-Al-Qasim Muhammad Ibni ‘Umar Al-Zamakhshari (1075-1144 AD) called Jar-Allah for having lived in Mecca for a long time. His grammar “Kitab-ul-Mufassal” and lexicon “Kitab Muqaddimat-ul-Adab” (Arabic-Persian) are still considered standard works. Mention may also be made of Abdul-Rahman Al-Anbari’s history of Arabic Literature and philology entitled “Kitab Al-Nuzhat Al-Alibba’ Fi Tabaqaat Al-Udaba”. He was a lecturer at the famous Nizamiyah of Baghdad. So was Shaykh Abul-Farj Ibni Al-Jawzi, an encyclopaedic writer on many branches of learning, including “Al-Muntazam”. Poetry kept up its hold on the Arab mind in all countries and climes. Many poets preferred the Jahiliyah style but Persian influence somewhat modified this tendency. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every educated Arab (both in the East and the West) indulged in versification. Among poets of later times may be mentioned Al-Mutanabbi (915-65 AD), laureate at the court of Sayf-Al-Dawlah Hamadani, whose ornate and flowery style made him one of the most popular and widely quoted Arab poets of all times. Among notable prose-writers (whose list will require a lifetime to prepare) a few prominent ones have already been mentioned before (e.g. the authors of “Al-Aghani” and “Al-Fihrist” etc.) while discussing works on history, biography and geography. For excellence of style (though somewhat affected) Badi’-uz-Zaman Al-Hamadhani (969-1008 AD) and, after him Al-Hariri (1054-1122 AD), author of the famous “Maqamaat”, are generally considered unrivalled. No account of Arabic literature will be considered satisfactory without a reference to the tales of “Alf Laylah wa Laylah” that centre round the court of Harun-ur-Rashid at Baghdad and of the Mamluk Sultans at Cairo. They are supposed to have been told by different authors at different times and to be based on works of Persian origin.

To attempt a discussion of religious literature published in Arabic will take us far away from our prescribed course even if we considered ourselves competent for the task. Even a cursory acquaintance with the standard works on Hadith and Fiqh and a knowledge of the great pains taken to collect and verify the former and systematize the latter will show how solidly and judiciously the Muslim Shari’at is built. It is really marvellous how the early Muslim scholars of Tradition (the Muhaddithin) and theological jurists performed their self-imposed duties unmoved by opposition and undaunted by authority. No wonder that Muhammad Ibni Ismail Al-Bukhari (810-70 AD), Muslim Ibni-Al-Hajjaj (d: 875 AD), Abu-Da’ud (d: 888 AD), Al-Tirmidhi (d: 892 AD), Ibni-Majah (d: 886 AD) and Al-Nasa’i, the authors of the six canonical works on Hadith, are still held in great veneration; and that about 30 million Muslims are technical adherents of the school of Malik Ibni Anas (715-95 AD); 188 million adherents of Al-Nu’man Ibni Thabit Abu-Hanifah (d: 767 AD); 73 million of Muhammad Ibni Idris Al-Shafi’i (d: 820 AD) and 3 million of Ahmad Ibni Hanbal (d: 855 AD)1.

There were a number of Muslim Philosophers both in the East and in the West. They did not feel the necessity of propounding new hypotheses of forming novel schools of thought. All the great philosophers of Islam were sincere Muslims. Whenever they thought there was some apparent lack of harmony between the teachings of the revealed religion and discoveries of science, they tried to reconcile the two as both were regarded as correct. This process came to be known as scholasticism in the best sense of the word. Foremost among such Eastern Muslim philosophers were Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibni Sina’ and Al-Ghazzali. We shall mention a few facts about the lives and works of each of them.

Abu-Yusuf Ya’qub Ibni lshaq Al-Kindi was of pure Arab extraction, born at Kufa in the middle of the ninth century and flourished at Baghdad. He was an all-round scientist in addition to being a great philosopher of the school of Aristotle. In Neo-Platonic spirit he aimed at reconciling Aristotelian views with Platonic ideas. His best and most popular work was his “Optics” which in its latin translation was used as textbook in the West for a number of years until replaced by Ibn Al-Haytham’s more complete work later. He was author of over 250 works on different subjects; philosophy, alchemy, astrology, theory of music, etc., some of which are extant only in their Latin versions, others being completely lost---the common lot unfortunately of most Arabic works published before the Tartar invasions. Al-Kindi gives full significance  to  rhythm  (Arabic: Iqa’) as an important constituent of Arabic music, showing thereby that mensural music was known to the Arabs centuries before the Christian peoples of Europe.

Muhammad Ibni Muhammad Ibni Tarkhan Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (Latin: Alpharabius) was a Turk born in Transoxiana in 870 AD, and flourished at the court of Sayf-Al-Dawlah Al-Hamadani. He died at Baghdad in 950 AD. Besides being a first-rate philosopher, he was an expert in both the theory and practice of Music. His commentaries on Aristotle, Plato and other Greek philosophers reveal his belief in the reconcilability of Aristotelianism with Platonism through the medium of Sufism. Among his books are “Risalah Fususul Hikam”, “Risalah Fi Ara’ Ahlal Madinah Al-Fadilah” and “Siyasah Al-Madaniyah”, the last two being based on the ideas of Plato’s “Republic” and Aristotle’s “Politics”. His work on music, “Kitab Al-Musiqial Kabir” presents him in the light of a great practical authority on this subject. He played exquisite music on the lute (Arabic: al’ud) and could move the entire court of Sayf-Al-Dawlah to roaring laughter or to tears according to the character of the tunes he played.

Ibni-Sina’s work as a physician has already been dealt with in connection with the development of Arab medicine. His philosophy is embodied (along with other matter) in his encyclopaedic treatise “Kitab Al-Shifa” (Sanatio). It may be taken to represent Aristotelian traditions modified by Neo-Platonic ideas and at the same time kept in control by Muslim theology. He died at a comparative early age (57 years) but left a permanent impression on all the intellectual disciplines of the Middle Ages: physics, mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, economics, politics, logic, psychology and music. He was keen on experimental work also, to which his investigations on specific gravity and the design of a simple device similar to that of the modern Vernier (for increase in accuracy of length measurement) bear ample testimony.

Such abstract physical subjects as the nature of motion, of contact, force, vacuum, infinity, light and heat, were also tackled by him, and his powerful intellect, inspite of the paucity of correct data available in those days of early science, could lead him to sound conclusions, as for instance the finite velocity of light and the impossibility of chemical transmutations. He was probably the most comprehensive and clear-headed scientist of Islam and certainly one of the most famous of all nationalities, places and times.

Abu-Hamid Al-Ghazzali, born in 1058 AD at Tus where he died in 1111 AD, was one of the noblest men of all times and the greatest theologian of Islam. He fixed the ultimate form of the Ash’ariya system founded by Abul-Hasan ‘Ali Al-Ash’ari (d: 935-6 AD) of Baghdad (viz., tacit belief in religious dogmas outside the reach of worldly comprehension). Al-Ghazzali’s mental struggles to reconcile the tenets of Islam with the teachings of prevailing philosophy and science are recorded in his own words. He was at one time a professor at the Nizamiyah at Baghdad, then turned a sceptic for a while, wandering about for twelve years in search of truth and mental peace, and finally found solace in Sufism. His masterpiece, “Ihya’ Al-’Ulumiddin” and other similar works were widely read by Muslims, Jews and Christians and contributed to the spread of scholasticism in Asia and Europe, as may be judged by their influence on Thomas Aquinas and even Blaise Pascal. Some European critics attribute to his (and Al-Ash’ari’s) teachings the decline noticed in the prosecution of scientific studies among Muslims from the twelfth century omwards. But this seems to be too weeping a remark. There were many more potent factors that brought about this decline and Al-Ghazzali was himself a great advocate of seeking truth in matters both spiritual and temporal.

Early Arab Notions of Chemistry, Biology and Allied Sciences

Chemistry is generally supposed to be an accidental product of alchemy, but it would be a fairer appreciation of human intellect to say that early misconceptions of chemical phenomena by adventurous man tempted him, after his acquaintance with the glamour of gold and precious stones, to dabble in alchemy, just as his early attempts to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies misguided him to believe in astrology. Centuries of bitter experience and disappointments directed him into the right tracks, and the results of prolonged observations and experiments ultimately led him to build up the modern sciences of astronomy and chemistry. Before the advent of the Arabs on the intellectual scene, man knew the main properties of the metals he employed and the preparation of their simpler compounds, as well as the manufacture of glass. The Arabs acquired all this knowledge with their characteristic quickness and added considerably to it. They developed the processes of crystallization and precipitation, distillation and sublimation and were thereby able to obtain a number of substances (old and new) in a state of comparative purity, like mercury, ammonia, alum, soda, borax, nitre, basic lead carbonate, arsenic and antimony, etc. The bulk of this knowledge came to be associated with the name of Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan Al-Tusi Al-Sufi, who flourished mostly in Kufah nearabout 776 AD. Some of his books (translated by Berthelot) bear fanciful names, e.g., “Book of the Kingdom”, “Book of the Balances”, “Book of Eastern Mercury”, etc. He put forward a Sulphur-Mercury theory of the six metals known in his day to explain their different properties depending, as it was alleged, on the difference in proportion of their two constituents. Nevertheless he deals with many useful practical applications of chemistry like refinement of metals, preparation of steel, dyeing of cloth and leather, varnishes to water-proof cloth and protect iron, use of manganese dioxide to colour glass and of iron-pyrites for writing in gold and distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid.

In the absence of complete publication of Jabir’s works much confusion prevails in discriminating between the writings of Jabir and Geber’s Latin Treatises of the twelfth and later centuries. If the Jabir-Geber mystery is solved many other important discoveries in chemistry like the preparation of mineral acids (sulphuric, nitric, hydrochloric and aqua-regia) may ultimately be placed to Jabir’s credit. It is quite possible that Geber is only a Latin form of Jabir. It may be noted that Jabir Ibni Aflah, a Spanish Arab astronomer (d: 1145 AD) is also called Geber in mediaeval works on astronomy.

In the ninth century ‘Utarid Ibni Muhammad Al-Hasib (or Katib) compiled a work “Manafi-’Al-Ahjar” dealing with the properties of certain minerals. A much better compilation entitled “Azhar-Al-Afkar Fi Jawahir-Al-Ahjar” by Shahab-Al-Din Al-Tifashi (who died in Cairo in 1253 AD) discuss the properties (medicinal and ‘magical’), purity, price, place of origin, etc, of 24 precious stones.

Biology in its modern sense had to wait till the invention of microscopes of high power, but rudimentary notions concerning the habitat, behaviour, and classification of animals and plants were eagerly acquired and recorded by the Arabs even from the Umayyad days. Their interest in the breeding of horses and camels was responsible for some early works of this kind. ‘Abdul-Malik Ibni Al-Quraib Al-Asma’i, a very pious Arab of Basrah (739-83 AD) besides being a good student of Arabic poetry wrote “Kitabul-Ibil”, “Kitabul-Khail”, “Kitul-Wuhush”, “Kitabus-Sha’ “ and “Kitab Khalqul-Insan”, the last mentioned work revealing a considerable knowledge of human anatomy.

Al-Nazzam (d: 845 AD), a leader of the Mu’tazilite school, that believed in the creation of the Qur’ān, propounded a theory of evolution, according to which Adam and all his descendants though created by God at one and the same time were in a state of Kumun and appeared in succession at their appointed times in accordance with a preordained plan. His pupil, ‘Uthman ‘Amr Ibni Bahr Al-Jahiz (d: 868-9 AD) of Basrah wrote a book on animals called “Kitab Al-Hayawan”, but its treatment savoured more of theology and folklore than strict biology. Nevertheless it refers to the struggle of animals for existence and their adaptation to environment. Al-Jawalaqi who flourished in the first half of the twelfth century and ‘Abdul-Mu’min who flourished in the second half of the thirteenth century in Egypt, also wrote books on horses. The greatest ‘Zoologist’ among the Arabs was Al-Damiri (1405 AD) of Egypt whose book on animal life, “Hayat-Al-Hayawan” has been translated into English by A.S.G. Jayakar (London 1906, 1908).

More scientific work was done by the Arabs in Botany. Use of plants and their products in medicine primarily induced them to attend to this subject. Muwaffaq-Uddin Shams-Al-Riyasa Ibni-Jami’ (d: 1193 AD), an Egyptian Jew, and physician to Salah Uddin, wrote on lemons and rhubarb and their uses. In dealing with Spanish Islam we shall refer to the herborization of Muslim Scientists of Spain. Among Eastern Muslims we may mention Ibni Al-Suri-Al-Dimashqi’s deliberate search for plant in the country surrounding Damascus and the mountains of Lebanon, where he studied them at different stages of their growth, in the first half of the thirteenth century.

Much valuable information may be gleaned from the writings of Al-Biruni and Ibni-Sina on physical geography and rudiments of geology. Al-Biruni’s correct explanation of rise of water in springs and his suggestion concerning the origin of the Indus Valley have already been referred to. He was also the first to observe a fixed number of petals in flowers, 3,4,5,6 or 18, never 7 or 9. Al-Dinawari also wrote a book on plants. Ibni-Sina’s views on the formation of mountains are interesting. His treatise on minerals was the main source of knowledge on this subject for generations.




1. These statistics are based on information available almost fifty years ago, when this work was written.  (Editor)

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