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Muslim Contribution to Science and Learning
Science and Religion
Waheed Uddin Khan


An atmosphere of free investigation is essential to the progress of science. In former times, however, such an atmosphere was extremely rare, thanks to various kinds of man-made beliefs. There were many cases in those days of an intelligent, scholarly person discovering a certain truth while pondering over his subject, only to find people turning against him and his discovery because they found it clashing with their superstitious beliefs. That was why innovative thinking could not make any progress.

One of the most notorious examples of the suppression of new ideas in antiquity was the condemnation of the renowned Greek philosopher, Socrates, to death, by drinking hemlock in 399 B.C. He was accused of ignoring the gods worshipped by the Athenians, of making new inventions in religion and of corrupting the youth of Athens.

Another such example – as late as the seventeenth century – was that of Galileo (1564-1642), the Italian astronomer who offended the Church simply by endorsing the Copernican view of the planets moving round the sun. He was sentenced by a religious court and thrown into prison. When he saw that death awaited him, he was forced to recant before the Inquisition. Kneeling, with both his hands on the Bible, he solemnly withdrew his ‘far-fetched’ theory of the movement of the planets around the sun. He not only rejected this theory, but said that he considered it ‘abominable’.

This was not just an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of the intellectual malaise created by the Christian scholars of those times. The search for new truths and the discovery of nature’s secrets remained forbidden pastures to them for centuries. Such activities were reviled as black magic and a part of satanic teachings. In such circumstances, it was impossible for research and investigation to be carried on with any success. In the Middle Ages, it was solely due to the Muslims that such work could be given any impetus, thanks to the Qur’ān having removed the kind of mental blocks that had stood in the way of people of other faiths, such as Galileo.

An appropriate attitude to scientific matters began to be encouraged for the first time after the Islamic revolution. This process then went on unhampered, ultimately leading to the age of modern discoveries. Following is a brief description of the contribution of the Muslims in various fields of science and learning.

The Solar System

The astronomer who is said to have studied the solar system and presented the heliocentric theory for the first time was a Greek known by the name of Aristarchus of Samos. He died in 270 B.C. However, this theory of the sun being at the centre and of the earth revolving around it never gained popularity in those early times.

Then came the age of Ptolemy, who lived in the second century A.D. Ptolemy’s astronomical system represented the earth as the fixed centre of the universe, with the sun and the moon, and other stars and planets revolving around it.

This geocentric theory of the universe appeared to be in conformity with the beliefs the Christians had developed after Jesus Christ. These beliefs were given the final seal of approval at the famous Church Council held at Nicaea, a city in Asia Minor, in A.D. 325. After the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine the great (280-337), the faith spread all over Roman territory. Now vested with tremendous power, the Christians patronised, in particular, the theory of Ptolemy. The curtain of darkness fell over the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus.

Of geocentricity the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984) says:

There was no further scope for cosmology in the model, which continued to be taught and used almost everywhere until the 17th century.1

It was not until 1495 that the Copernicus arrived at the conclusion that the earth was not the centre of the universe. After a long period of research devoted to astronomical studies, he was forced to conclude that the planets revolved around the sun. But, fearing the opposition of the Church, he refrained from publishing his findings until 1543.

The Muslims, however did not suffer from the error of regarding as sacred that which was non-sacred. They were in a position to reflect upon matters of scientific interest with open minds, and in a purely academic way. When they found out that the heliocentric theory was more rational, they accepted it without any hesitation.

Edward Mcnall Burns writes that the heliocentric theory developed by Aristarchus (310-230 B.C.), although destined to fall into oblivion for four hundred years, has today become an established fact. This is after many centuries of man’s minds being dominated by Ptolemy’s geocentric theory.

Of all the subjects developed by the Spanish Muslims, there was none brought to a higher degree of perfection than science. In fact, in this field, their successes were such as to have no parallel in history. They distinguished themselves in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine, etc. As McNall Burns writes:

Despite their reverence for Aristotle, they did not hesitate to criticise his notion of a universe of concentric spheres with the earth at the centre, and they admitted the possibility that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves the sun.2

The Muslims arriving at the correct hypothesis of the solar system’s functioning was made possible only because Islam had broken down the walls of conditioned thinking which had acted as a barrier to man’s intellectual progress. As soon as this artificial barrier was out of the way, the caravan of human thought began to move on its journey with a hitherto unimaginable rapidity. And thus it brought us finally to the spectacular scientific feats of the present century.


Just as diseases have afflicted man in every age, so has the science of medicine always existed in one form or the other. In ancient times, however, the science of medicine never reached the heights of progress that it did in the Islamic era.

It is believed that the beginning of the science of medicine – a beginning to be reckoned with – was made in ancient Greece. The two very great physicians who were born in ancient Greece were Hippocrates and Galen. Hippocrates lived in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. However, very little is known about his life. The historians of later times have estimated that Hippocrates was probably born in 460 B.C. and died in 377 B.C. Some historians, on the other hand, even have doubts about him being a historical figure. It has also been questioned whether the books on philosophy and medicine supposedly written by him were actually written by someone else and later attributed to him.3

Galen is considered the second most important philosopher and physicist of this period of antiquity. He was born probably in A.D. 129 and died in A.D. 199. Galen had to face stiff opposition in Rome, and most of his writings were destroyed. The remainder would also have been lost to posterity if the Arabs had not collected them in the ninth century and translated them into Arabic. These Arabic translations were later to reach Europe, in the eleventh century, where they were translated from Arabic into Latin. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984) concludes its article on Galen:

Little is known of Galen’s final years.4

It is a fact that ancient Greece produced some very fine brains and some very high thinking in this field. But the respective fates of Galen and Hippocrates show that the atmosphere in ancient Greece was conducive neither to the rise of such people to their due eminence, nor to the growth of medicine as a science. Different kinds of superstitious beliefs were an obstruction in the path of free inquiry; for instance, the attribution of disease to mysterious powers, and the sanctification of many things, such as plants which had healing properties.

The science of medicine came into being in ancient Greece about 200 years before the Christian era and flourished for another two centuries. In this way, the whole period extended over about four or five hundred years. This science did not see any subsequent advance in Greece itself. Although a European country, Greece, did not contribute anything to the spread of its own medical science in Europe, or to modern medicine in the West. These facts are proof that the atmosphere in ancient Greece was not favourable to the progress of medicine.

The Greek medicine which was brought into being by certain individuals (effort was all at the individual level, as the community did not give it general recognition) remained hidden away in obscure books for about one thousand years after its birth. It was only when these books were translated into Arabic during the Abbasid period (750-1258), and edited by the Arabs with their own original additions, that it became possible for this science to find its way to Europe, thus paving the way for modern medicine science.

The reason for this is that before the Islamic revolution, the world had been swept by superstitious beliefs and idolatry. The environment in those times was so unfavourable that whenever an individual undertook any academic or scientific research, he would seldom receive encouragement. More often than not, he had to face severe antagonism. Indeed, whenever any scientific endeavour at the individual level came to the notice of the authorities, it would be promptly and rigorously suppressed. In a situation where diseases and their remedies were traditionally linked with gods and goddesses, what appeal could the scientific method of treatment have for the people? Only when the monotheistic revolution came to the world in the wake of Islam did the door open to that medical progress which saw its culmination in modern medical science. One example would be worthwhile here:

Smallpox is considered one of the dangerous diseases in the world. It is a highly contagious disease, characterised by fever and the appearance of small spots leaving scars in the form of pits. The symptoms include chill, headache, and backache. The spots appear about the fourth day. This is a fatal disease. Even if one survives the attack, the skin in scarred permanently. According to present records, this disease was identified in Egypt in 1122 B.C. and is also mentioned in ancient Indian books written in Sanskrit. In the past, this disease gripped many countries in the form of dangerous epidemics. Thousands of people fell prey to it. As far back as 1156 B.C. this disease was taking its toll of human life, there being visible evidence in the pock marked faced of the mummy of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses V, who died in that year. (His embalmed body was found inside a pyramid). Even then, it took thousands of years for this dreaded disease to be investigated scientifically.5 Now we know that smallpox is a contagious disease resulting from virus infection, and such remedies have been discovered as can ward off attacks, provided suitable precaution are taken in advance. But is was not until the end of the ninth century, subsequent to the emergence of Islam, that this medical fact was unearthed for the first time. The first name which became prominent in history in this connection was that of the well-known Arab physician, Al-Razi (865-925), who was born in Ray in Iran. In search of a remedy for the disease, he investigated it from the purely medical standpoint and wrote the first book on the subject, called, Al-Judri wa al-Hasba. This was translated into Latin, the academic language of ancient Europe, in 1565 in Venice. It was later translated into Greek and other languages, and thus spread all over Europe. Its English translation, published in London in 1848, was entitled, A Treatise on Smallpox and Measles. Researchers have accepted that this is the first medical book on smallpox in the whole of recorded history. Prior to this, no one had ever done research on this topic.

After reading Al-Razi’s book, Edward Jenner (1749-1823), the English physician who became the inventor of vaccination, was led to making a clinical investigation of the disease. He carried on his research over a twenty-year period, ultimately establishing the connection between cowpox and smallpox. In 1796, he carried out his first practical experiment in inoculation. This was a success, and the practice spread rapidly, in spite of violent opposition from certain quarters, until, in 1977, it was announced by the UN that for the first time in history, smallpox had been eradicated.

Now the question arises as to why such a long time had elapsed between the initial discovery of the disease and the first attempts to investigate it medically with a view to finding a remedy. The reason was the prevalence of shirk, that is, the holding of something to be sacred when it is not, or the attribution of divinity to the non-divine. Dr. David Werner writes: ‘In most places in India, people believe that these diseases are caused because the goddess is angry with their family or their community. The goddess expresses her anger through these diseases. The people believe that the only hope of a cure for these diseases is to make offerings to her in order to please her. They do not feed the sick child or care for him because they fear this will annoy the goddess more. So the sick child becomes very weak and either dies or takes a long time to get cured. These diseases are caused by virus infection. It is essential that the child be given plenty of good to keep up his strength so that he can fight the infection.’

When Islam came to the world, it banished such superstitious beliefs about disease announcing in no uncertain terms that none except God had the power to harm or benefit mankind. The Creator was the one and only being who had such power. All the rest were His creatures and His slaves. When, after the Islamic revolution, such ideas gained ground, people began to think freely and independently of all superstitious. Only then did it become possible to conduct medical research into diseases in order to discover appropriate remedies.

Only after this intellectual revolution had come to the world did it become possible to make smallpox the subject of inquiry. Only then did it become possible for such people as Abu Bakr Razi and Edward Jenner to rise and save the world from this dreaded disease by discovering a remedy for it.

The real barrier to finding a cure was the generally accepted body of superstitious beliefs based on idol worship; these beliefs were swept away for the first time in history by Islam.


On account of superstitious beliefs becoming attached to language, linguistics, as a science, stagnated for thousands of years. Writing of this failure to Dr Ernest Gellner, a linguist very aptly commented: ‘Linguistic philosophy has an inverted vision which treats genuine thought as a disease and dead thought as a paradigm of health.’

In antiquity, it was generally believed that writing was the gift of God, as in the Indian concept of ‘Braham lipi.’ Words and the forms of speech were considered to have been given to man by the gods and, as such, they commanded the highest veneration from humans. John Stevens, in his book Sacred Calligraphy of the East, presents research carried out by himself, which shows that the concept of ‘sacred’ calligraphy persisted for centuries. Scholars differed as to the origin of calligraphy, whether in Egypt, China, India, or any other place. One idea, however, was universal: writing was divine. It was inherently holy. Writing was the speech of the gods.

That human languages have been the object of superstitions for thousands of years is a matter of historical record. It was supposed that certain languages had divine origins, and that their speakers enjoyed a special status above others. For instance, for centuries the Greek language had been supposed to be superior to other languages, Greek being the language of the gods, while other languages were those of barbarians.

The same was the case with Hebrew. In the Jewish Christian world it was an age-old belief that Hebrew was God’s own language and that it was the first language to be used in the world. Wonderly and Engene Nida, who have made a detailed study of the influences of Christian beliefs on languages, have made this analysis:

One of the facts which retarded linguistic progress was the belief among early Christian writers, and persisting well into the Renaissance era, that all languages were derived from Hebew.6

The concept of ‘divine’ language was wholly a product of superstitious beliefs, having nothing to do with reality. Whenever it comes to be supposed of a language that it is the language of the gods, it becomes an object of reverence in people’s eyes with the status of a sacred language. It can no longer remain an object of investigation. After this stage, making a critical analysis of it, or advocating a new method to develop it, or any other such progressive attitude towards it, were looked upon as heretical, and akin to being sacrilegious. All such efforts are seen by the people as presumptuousness, rather than as a sincere attempt to develop the language. This state of arrested development was typical not only of the ancient languages, but of all other departments of thought, innumerable kinds of superstitious beliefs having stemmed the tide of intellectual progress. It was the revolution based on monotheism which broke down this barrier for the first time in history. This revolution originated in Arabia, and finally came to exert its influence all over the world. Human history then entered the age of realism, leaving behind the age of superstition.

The very moment when the Qur’ān announced that there was no god but the one God, the scientific way of thinking was set in motion. People began thinking about things independently of unrealistic, mental barriers. This way of thinking went from strength to strength until, finally, it led to the present scientific revolution.

The monotheistic practice of according the status of divinity to the one and only God, and denying sanctity to all else, diverted all other creatures and things of any special status they may have had.

It was actually the ‘divine’ status of things which had been acting as a barrier to their becoming of research and investigation. Once all these things were shorn off their former so-called divinity, they naturally came down to the level of being proper subjects for research and investigation. It is this unique achievement of Islam which entitles it to be regarded as the creator of the modern age.


The present system of numerals was first invented in India. That was in an age, however, when all that was traditionally established had come to be regarded as holy, while all that was invented was suspect. As such, this method of writing numerals could not become widely known, and continued for a long time to remain hidden in privately owned books. The new invention did not, therefore, gain currency: people clung to the old method, considering it to be holy.

Having learnt that in the recently established Baghdad empire great appreciation was shown for new inventions, an Indian traveller went in 771 to Baghdad, which was then under the rule of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mansūr. The Indian pundit introduced into Baghdad a treatise on astronomy, a Siddhanta (the Arabs called it sind hind) and a treatise on mathematics. By order of Al-Mansūr these books were translated into Arabic by Muhammad Ibn Ibrāhīm al-Fazarī, between 796 and 806. The famous Arab mathematician, Al-Khwārizmī (780-850) went through this translation into which the digit zero had been introduced. He found that with the nine Indian figures, 1-9, and the zero sign, any number could be written. Calling these the ‘Indian’ numerals, Al-Khwārizmī pronounced them the most satisfactory, and advocated their general adoption.

Philip K. Hitti writes:

Al-Khwārizmī, writing in the first half of the ninth century, was the exponent of the use of numerals, including the zero, in preference to letters. These numerals he called Hindi, indicating their Indian origin. His work on the Hindu method of calculation was translated into Latin by Adelard of Bath in the twelfth century and as De numero indico has survived, whereas the Arabic original has been lost.7

In ancient times, Roman numerals were in general use in Europe. In this system, letters are used to express numbers, a method adopted by the Greeks and some other ancient nations, and later by the Romans, who used the seven letters – M.D.C.L. X.V.I. – in various combinations. For instance the figure 88 would be written as LXXXVIII. This was a cumbersome method and made calculation extremely difficult. The Europeans, however, regarded the Roman numerals as holy – a gift from the gods. As a result, they failed to revise their thinking in this matter. Regarding non-holy numerals as holy was the reason they failed to make any progress in science and mathematics for several hundred years. It was the Islamic revolution which for the first time dispelled the aura of sanctity surrounding the numeral and ushered in the era of scientific progress in Europe.

Leonardo of Pisa was the most distinguished mathematician of the Middle Ages. He helped introduce into mathematics the Hindu-Arabic numerals and the number sequence that bears his name.

Little is known about Leonardo’s life beyond the few facts given in his mathematical writings. It is probable that he was born in Pisa, Italy. During Leonardo’s boyhood, his father, Guglielmo, a Pisan merchant, was appointed consul, or chief magistrate, over the community of Pisan merchants in the North African port of Bugia (now Bejara, Algeria). Leonardo soon joined him. With a view to future usefulness the father sent his son to study calculation with an Arab master. Leonardo later described his enjoyment in learning the art of the nine Indian figures. Leonardo also travelled to Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Sicily, etc., where he studied different numerical systems and methods of calculation but never found one as satisfactory as the Arabic numerals.

When Leonardo’s Liber abaci first appeared, Arabic numerals were known to only a few European intellectuals through translation of the writings of the ninth century Arab mathematician and astronomer Al-Khwārizmī. Leonardo began his explanation of the notation by observing: ‘The nine Arabic figures are; 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures and with the sign 0… any number may be written, as is demonstrated below.’ The first seven chapters dealt with the notation, explaining the principle of place value, by which the position of a figure determines whether it is a unit, ten, hundred and so forth, and demonstrating the use of the numerals in arithmetical operations. The techniques were then applied to such practical commercial problems as profit margin, barter, money changing, conversion of weights, partnerships, and interest.

The Liber abaci, which was widely copied and imitated, drew the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who was a patron of science. In the year 1220, Leonardo was invited to appear before the Emperor at Pisa, and there he propounded a series of problems, three of which Leonardo presented in his books. The first two belonged to a favourite Arabic type. Wilfried Blunt writes:

And supposing the tide of Islam and not been stemmed? Nothing so delayed the advance of science in the West as the clumsiness of the Roman numerals. Had the Arabic numerals, which had reached Baghdad from India towards the end of the eighth century, been soon afterwards introduced into the adopted by western Europe as a whole, much of that scientific progress which we associated with the Renaissance in Italy might have been achieved several centuries earlier.8

For those who are interested in the origins of the concept of zero in India, the Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi has published a 22 page booklet in English entitled, ‘The Story of Zero,’ which has been written for the general reader as well as for children by Dilip M. Salwai.

Before this invention there existed no simple method of representing large figures. According to one method, certain words were fixed for particular figures like Sahasara for 1,000. Aayota for 10,000, Laksha for 100,000, and Koti for 1,000,000. The invention of zero revolutionised the science of mathematics, for now it became extremely easy to denote large figures.

Brahma Gupta (598-660), who was born in Multan, was the first notable person to work out a method of using the zero. However his method had some shortcomings. Later on Bhaskar (1114-1185), who was born in Bijapur, wrote a book in Sanskrit called Lailawati, in which he described the zero concept in simpler and more understandable terms.

R. K. Murthi, in his review of this book, writes:

It boosts our sense of national pride to note that the zero was conceived of in India.9

The writer of Lailawati tells us that ‘the Indian numbers first entered Spain, then Italy, France, England and Germany… Indian numbers were accepted completely… Their adoption turned out to be the turning point in the history of mathematics and science.10

It is true that the concept of zero originated in India, but it is not true that it reached the western world directly from India: it was through the Arabs that it reached the West. That is why the West calls these numerals Arabic rather than Indian. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

Arabic numerals – the numbers, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 they may have originated in India, but were introduced to the western world from Arabia.11

The Encyclopaedia tells us, moreover, that these numbers became known to western intellectuals in the ninth century through the writings of the Arab mathematician, Al-Khwārizmī, whose explanations of numbers in Arabic reached Europe through Latin translations.12

Bertrand Russell writes:

About 830, Muhammad Ibn Mūsā Al-Khwārizmī, a translator of mathematical and astronomical books from the Sanskrit, published a book which was translated into Latin in the twelfth century, under the title Algorimi de numero Indrum. It was from this book that the west first learnt of what we call ‘Arabic’ numerals, which ought to be called ‘Indian’. The same author wrote a book on algebra which was used in the West as a text-book until the sixteenth century.13

In spite of the concept of zero having originated in India, for several hundred years it received no recognition in India itself. It came to be generally known in India only when first the Arabs and then the West adopted it. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

The invention, probably by the Hindus, of the digit zero, has been described as one of the greatest in the history of mathematics. Hindu literature gives evidence that the zero may have been known before the birth of Christ, but no inscription has been found with such a symbol before the ninth century.14

It is true then that the concept of zero had first formed in the mind of an Indian. But at that period in history, India was dominated wholly by polytheism and superstition. Everything was shrouded in mystery and inventions were abhorred. That was why the concept of zero did not receive general recognition in ancient India. It was reduced to a mere discovery of an individual, and thus failed to win general approval. The seed of India, neglected at home, did, however, fall on fertile soil in Muslim Baghdad, where it flowered into a tree and then, via Muslim Spain, spread all over Europe.

Yet, without Islam having first put an end to the concepts of polytheism and superstition, the concept of zero – like so many other innovative ideas – could not have been universally welcomed.


The river was one of those phenomena of nature held to possess divine attributes. People believed that therein dwelt a mysterious spirit which caused the water to move and made it useful or harmful.15

The river Skamandros in ancient Greece evidently was so personified, according to Aeshines, a fourth century B.C. Greek orator. Girls bathed in it before marrying and used to say: ‘Skamandros, accept my virginity.’ Magical rites in which water serves as a substitute for semen or the fertility of men were numerous.16

Because rivers were held to be sacred in ancient times (even to this day, some are still held sacred) people began to worship them and offer sacrifices to them. It was this concept of holiness that hindered man in his conquest of nature. People saw rivers in the form of deities rather than in the form of physical objects to be exploited by common methods. That is why the use of river water in agriculture remained limited in antiquity. It is astonishing that the history of irrigation had its beginnings in relatively modern times.

With the onset of the Islamic revolution based on monotheism, it was revealed to man that the river was a creature and not a creator, it was a servant and not the Lord. Only then was it possible for man to give thought to finding ways and means to exploit rivers on a large scale. That is why we come across the fact in history books that there is no precedent in any nation to the large-scale irrigation system developed by the Spanish Muslims.

The Spanish Muslims developed agriculture to such an extent that it became a regular science. They studied trees and carried out research on the properties of soil. Vast expanses of land which had hitherto been lying infertile were then converted into orchards and lush green fields. It was a virtual green revolution. Philip K. Hitti writes:

They dug canals, cultivated grapes and introduced among other plants and fruits, rice, apricots, peaches, pomegranates, oranges, sugarcane, cotton and saffron. The south-eastern plains of the peninsula, especially favoured by climate and soil, developed important centres of rural and urban activity. Here wheat and other grains as well as olives and sundry fruits were raised by a peasantry who worked the soil on shares with the owners.

The agricultural development was one of the glories of Muslim Spain and one of the Arab’s lasting gifts to the land, for Spanish gardens have preserved to his day a ‘Moorish’ imprint. One of the best-known gardens is the Generalife (from Al-Jannat al-arif the inspector’s paradise), a Nasrid monument of the late thirteenth century whose villa was one of the outlying buildings of the Alhambra. This garden, proverbial for its extensive shade, falling waters and soft breeze, was terraced in the form of an amphitheatre and irrigated by streams which, after forming numerous cascades, lost themselves among the flowers, shrubs and trees represented today by a few gigantic cypresses and myrtles.17

Charles Sinobose, a French author, writes that the Spanish Arabs adopted the method of irrigation by canals. They also dug large wells. Those who discovered new sources of water were given sizeable rewards. In Spain, they dug broad canals, and then subdivided them, with the result that the arid plain of Valenica was turned into a vast trace of lush green. They established a permanent department of irrigation which supplied all kinds of relevant information.

Describing Muslim Spain, Bertrand Russell writes:

One of the best features of the Arab economy was agriculture, particularly the skilful use of irrigation, which they learnt from living where water is scarce. To this day Spanish agriculture profits by Arab irrigation works.18

It is a fact that the Muslims who went to Spain brought about a veritable green revolution. There they established such irrigation systems for fields and orchards as were unprecedented in history. However, strangely enough, Bertrand Russell attributes this to their having lived in the past in desert areas, where water is scarce. This explanation is meaningless. The true, underlying cause of this feat is the monotheistic revolution which had overhauled the minds of Arabs. Prior to this, people had seen rivers, springs, and the sea in the form of gods. They held them to be objects of reverence rather than of conquest. The Arabs with their changed mind saw these phenomena of nature in the form of God’s creations. They saw them with the eye of conquering them for exploitation. It was this mental revolution which enabled the Arabs to perform their historic feats in the world of irrigation and agriculture.

How can we learn methods of irrigation in the desert where water is scarce? Ignorant of the true source of this Arab skill, Bertrand Russell linked it, quite irrelevantly, to their life in the desert, sans water, instead of to their mental revolution which had come about thanks to monotheism. The science of irrigation was developed not because of their desert life but because of their monotheistic thinking.


The starting point in Arnold Toynbee’s philosophy of history is his contention that the proper unit of historical study must be a civilisation, rather that the traditional unit, the nation state.19

Both these concepts, however, hinge on the same principle: that history should not focus solely on royal actions and prerogatives throughout the ages, but should be a study of the sum of all activities of all groups of human beings, whatever the framework, political or civilizational, within which they interact. In the long history of mankind, this approach, developed only during the last few centuries, is relatively new. History, or historiography, is now equated with ‘man-story’ as opposed to the ‘King-story’ of the pre-modern era. ‘King-story’, made up of elaborate descriptions of kings, along with copious details of the palaces they occupied and the generals they commanded, had made no mention of the common man, even if his achievements were marked by greatness. The only man considered worthy of mention was the one whose head was adorned by a crown. Ancient history thus amounted to a belittling of humanity in general.

While real events relating to non-kings were regarded as undeserving of any mention, even legendary tales and concocted stories about the kings were preserved in writing as if they were great realities. Take, for instance, the building of Alexandria, the renowned coastal city named after its founder, Alexander the Great. Many strange stories are associated with the foundation of this city. One of them concerns sea genies who were said to have put obstacles in the path of building when the work was first started. Alexander, so the story goes, decided to see for himself what the genies were about. He gave orders for a large box of wood and glass to be made, and when it was ready, he had himself lowered in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the genies and then back on land, he had metal statues cast to look exactly like the dragons. These statues were then laid under the foundations of Alexandria. When the sea genies came there, and saw that genies like themselves had been killed and buried in the foundation, they became frightened and ran away. The fact that this tale gained currency shows the credulous state in which the whole world lived before the advent of Islam.

In old historical records, the most striking omissions are the lives and influence of the great prophets of the world. Today, people would find it very strange if a history of the freedom struggle of India laid no stress on the role of Gandhiji, or if a history of the erstwhile U.S.S.R. omitted Lenin altogether. But a far strange history is one bereft of all mention of those pious souls, who were the messengers of God. The sole exception to this rule of omission is the Final Prophet, the Prophet Muhammad (sws). The reason for his prominent inclusion in historical records is that, by setting in motion the Islamic revolution, he was able to change exactly those factors – the undemocratic, polytheistic and superstitious nature of society – which in the past had been responsible for such astonishing lacunae in the writing of human history. There can be no doubt that it was the Islamic revolution which made it possible for historiography to proceed on scientific lines.

In known human history, Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) is the only historian to have changed the pattern of historiography. It was he who raised historiography from the level of mere King-story to the level of genuine man-story. ‘Kingology’ was changed into sociology. The truth is that the science known today as sociology is the gift of Ibn Khaldūn. He himself claimed that he was the founder of sociology, and there is no reason to dispute his claim.

Ibn Khaldūn’s greatness was acknowledged in a similar vein by Robert Flint:

As a theorist on history he had no equal in any age or country until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later; Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers’.20

It was indeed Ibn Khaldūn who gave to Europe the modern science of history. And it was Islam which bestowed this gift upon him. The Islamic revolution produced Ibn Khaldūn and Ibn Khaldūn produced the modern science of history. Professor Philip K. Hitti writes:

The fame of Ibn Khaldūn rests on his Muqaddamah (Introduction to his book on history). In it he presented for the first time a theory of historical development which takes due cognisance of the physical facts of climate and geography as well as of the moral and spiritual forces at work. As one who endeavoured to formulate laws of national progress and decay, Ibn Khaldūn may be considered the discoverer – as he himself claimed – of the true scope and nature of history, or at least the real founder of the science of sociology. No Arab writer, indeed no European, had ever taken a view of history at once so comprehensive and philosophic. By the consensus of critical opinion Ibn Khaldūn was the greatest historical philosopher Islam produced, and one of the greatest of all times.

In Book I of the Muqaddamah, Ibn Khaldūn sketches a general sociology; in Books II and III, a sociology of politics; in Book IV a sociology of urban life; in Book V, a sociology of economics; and in Book VI, a sociology of knowledge. The work is studded with brilliant observations on historiography, economics, politics, and education. It is held together by his central concepts of ‘asbiyah, or social cohesion. Thus he laid the foundation of a science of history which is not based just on the description of kings, but which is, in a broader sense, based on the economics, politics, education, religion, ethics, and culture of the whole nation.21

Historians have generally acknowledged that the science of history remained undeveloped before the emergence of Ibn Khaldūn, and that he was the first person to develop a philosophy of history. The Encyclopaedia Britannica even goes so far as to say:

He developed one of the world’s most significant philosophies of history.22

The question arises as to how it became possible for Ibn Khaldūn to discover something which had remained undiscovered for centuries. The answer is that other historians were born before the Islamic revolution, while Ibn Khaldūn was born after it. On the basis of monotheism, Islam had brought about a revolution which eliminated the difference between the king and the commoner. All human beings, the offspring of Adam and Eve, were held to be equal. It was, uniquely, this great revolution of equality that paved the way for an Ibn Khaldūn – himself a product of this revolution – to lay the foundation of modern history in which the central position was held not the ‘royal figures’ but by humanity itself.

One belief which had hampered the development of the science or art of history was polytheism. The whole period prior to Islam was pervaded by polytheistic beliefs which were supportive of divine kingship.

The King has often stood as mediator between his people and their god, or as the god’s representative.23

Some kings pretended to be incarnations of God or even gods themselves, without feeling the need to rationalise their claims. They did so in order that by the ‘divine right of kings’, their absolute sovereignty should never be questioned. Even where monarchs made no such claims, they were credited with divinity, because divinity was universally associated with kings. Whenever the common people came upon anything that was out of the ordinary, they regarded it as supernatural and, if it was a person, they took him to be a god, or a manifestation of a god. Naturally, this mentality was not discouraged by the kings.

The ancient rulers, on the contrary, encouraged such superstitious notions so that people would continue to regard them as superior beings. In known history, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) was the first ruler who refuted such superstitious beliefs, showing them to be without foundation. In this way, he lead mankind to the path of enlightenment, eliminating the differences between men on an intellectual plane. He held as baseless all those suppositions and superstitions which had been responsible for creating and perpetuating the slave-master mentality.

Towards the end of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, Māriyah Qibtiyah bore him a beautiful and vivacious son in Madīnah. The Prophet named him Ibrāhīm, after the Prophet Abraham. Ibrāhīm was just one had a half years old when, in the tenth year of Hijrah (January 632 A.D.), he died. It so happened that the death of Ibrāhīm coincided with a solar eclipse. From ancient times, one of the many prevailing superstitions was that the solar and lunar eclipses were caused by the death of some king or other important personage. They were meant to show, they thought, that the heavens mourned the death of the exalted in status. At that time, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) was the ruler of Arabia. For this reason, certain of the Madīnans began attributing the eclipse to the death of the Prophet’s son. As soon as the Prophet heard of this, he refuted it. There are several accounts of this incident in the books of Hadīth. One of these is recorded as follows:

One day the Prophet came in great haste to the mosque. At that time the sun was in eclipse. The Prophet began to say his prayers and, by the time he had finished, the eclipse was over. Then, addressing the congregation, he said that people imagined that the sun and moon went into eclipse at the death of some important person, but that this was not true. The eclipses of the sun and moon were not due to the death of any human being. Both the sun and the moon were just two of God’s creations, with which He did as He willed. He told them that when they saw an eclipse, they should pray to God.24

When the whole of Arabia had come under the domination of Islam, the Prophet (sws) made a farewell Hajj pilgrimage in his last days, along with 125,000 companions. During this pilgrimage he delivered a historic sermon. This sermon was a declaration of human rights: ‘Hear, O people. All human beings are born of a man and a woman. All the apparent differences are only for the sake of introduction and identification. The most worthy before God is the one who is the most God-fearing. No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab and vice versa. No black has any superiority over a white and vice versa. Taqwā (piety) is the only thing which will determine one’s superiority over others.’ To this the Prophet (sws) added: ‘All things of the period of ignorance before Islam are trampled down by my steps.’ For the first time in ancient history, all sorts of inequality and discrimination were almost entirely eliminated.

Only then did a new civilisation come into being in which all human beings were equal. Speaking of the successors of the Prophet, Abū Bakr and ‘Umar, Mahatma Gandhi noted that ‘though they were masters of a vast empire, they lived the life of paupers.’

This revolution was so powerful that even at a later period, when the rot had taken root in the institutions of the government, and the Caliphs had been replaced by ‘emperors,’ the pressure of Islamic civilisation was so great that none of these ‘emperors’ could live in the style of the ancient monarchs. In Islamic history there are many such instances. The following incident, which took place during powerful ruler of Muslim Spain, is an apt illustration.

This sultan had a palace built for himself called Al-Zahrah, to the east of Cordova, which was of such immensity that the word palace was not adequate to describe it. This magnificent residence came to be known as Al-Madīnah Al-Zahrah (the brilliant town). But, in spite of being so powerful and living in such magnificence, the sultan did not regard himself as being above the law. Before the Islamic revolution it was an accepted fact that the king was superior to a common man. For instance, the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad (sws), in spite of being a Christian: ‘had married his niece, Martina, thus offending the religious scruples of many of his subjects, who viewed his second marriage as incestous.’25 It was known to the people that this marriage was illegal, yet there was no public outcry. This was because Heraclius was a king and, therefore, above any judgement by human standards. As a king, he had the right to do as he pleased.

In ancient times, this extraordinary concept of the greatness of kings was so firmly implanted as a matter of superstitious belief that ordinary citizens had begun to consider their monarchs to be innately superior creatures. The observance of special rites and rituals by kings was aimed at reinforcing this way of thinking. The kings had thus, in their respective empires, achieved a temporal greatness which was on a parallel with God’s prerogative in the vastness of His universe. It was but natural that historiography should come under the influence of this concept of the ‘divine right of the kings’ so that, in practice, it became a chronicle of the lives of royal families with scant reference to the common man.

With the onset of the Islamic revolution in Arabia and in the neighbouring countries, objects of nature like the sun and the moon were dislodged from their divine pedestals. In like manner, kings were removed from the seat of extraordinary greatness. Now a king was just a human being like any other.

The influence of the Islamic revolution, which ultimately reached Asia, Africa and many European countries, paved the way for a new atmosphere on a universal scale. With the new way of thinking, the old king-centred mentality gave way to a man-centred ethos.

The most eminent of the Mamlūk historians was Al-Maqrizī, a disciple of Ibn Khaldūn. It was through him in the fifteenth century that Ibn Khaldūn’s theories were introduced into Egypt. Later, other Muslims countries came under their influence. Between 1860 and 1870 a complete rendering of the Muqaddamah was published in French, thus introducing his historical theories into Europe. These thoughts took root in the soil of Europe, and gained great popularity. Vico and other western historians developed this art, finally giving rise to the modern form of historiography.

(Courtesy: “Islam: Creator of the Modern Age”.)





1. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984), Vol. 18, p. 1013.

2. Edward Mc Nall Burns, Western Civilisation (New York, 1955), p. 36.

3. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984), Vol. 8, pp. 942-43.

4. Ibid., Vol. 7, p. 850.

5. Ibid., Vo. 9, p. 280.

6. William L. Wonderly and Eugene Nida in Linguistics and Christian Mission, Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 5, pp. 104-144.

7. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (London, 1970) p. 573.

8. Wilfried Blunt, quoted in The Times (London), April 2, 1976.

9. The Times of India (New Delhi), January 30, 1989, p. 6

10. Dilip M. Salwai, Story of Zero (New Delhi).

11. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984), Vol. I, p. 469.

12. Ibid., Vol. 10, p. 817.

13. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Society (London, 1984), p. 416.

14. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984), Vol. I, p. 1175.

15. Ibid., Vol. 17, p. 129.

16. Ibid., Vol. 12, p. 882.

17. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (London, 1970), p. 528.

18. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 416.

19. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984), Vol. X, p. 76.

20. Ibid., Vol. 9, p. 148.

21. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (London, 1970), p. 568.

22. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984), Vol. 9, p. 147.

23. Ibid., Vol. V, p. 816.

24. Miskhat al-Masabih, Chapter entitled Salat al-Khushu.

25. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984), Vol. 8, p. 782.


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