Academic journal article Islam & Science

Reflections on Some New Studies on Applied Science in Islamic Societies (8Th-19th Centuries)

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Reflections on Some New Studies on Applied Science in Islamic Societies (8Th-19th Centuries)

Article excerpt

Recent research on Arabic scientific and legal manuscripts, as well as on astronomical instruments, has led to a new understanding of the different ways in which Muslim scholars over many centuries applied scientific methods to determine the times of prayer and the sacred direction (qiblah).

Keywords: New studies on the history of Islamic science; qiblah; times of prayer; World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca; The Call of the Muezzin; Instruments of Mass Calculation; The Sacred Geography of Islam; Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science Series.

Muzaffar Iqbal kindly invited me to pen a few thoughts for this journal as I see through press the third of four books dealing with aspects of applied science in Islamic civilization. I have been fortunate enough to work in manuscript libraries and museums all over the world for over 30 years, and these books are the main fruits of this enterprise. (Believe me, the frustrations of such activities and the attendant discomforts sometimes outweigh the pleasures.) The books, I would maintain, deal with topics of fundamental importance to the history of Islamic civilization, yet these topics have not been dealt with previously, because only a very few unrepresentative sources had been unearthed.

Both Muslim scientists and Muslim legal scholars addressed what I have called "science in the service of Islam", that is:

(1) the regulation of the strictly lunar Muslim calendar;

(2) the organization of the times of prayer; and

(3) the determination of the sacred direction (qiblah) towards the Ka'bah in Makkah.

These new books supplement my three volumes of Variorum reprints published a few years ago and dealing mainly, but not exclusively, with these same three topics. (1) All of my studies clearly distinguish between:

(1) the scientific tradition pursued by the select few in Islamic societies, (2) and

(2) the folk scientific tradition (devoid of any mathematics beyond simple arithmetic and of any astronomy other than what can be observed with the naked eye) favored by the legal scholars of Islam. (3)

An appreciation of the dichotomy between the approaches of the scientists and the legal scholars is essential to an understanding of why scientific activity flourished for so long, but also eventually declined, in Islamic societies. This is never mentioned by anyone who has written on the nature of science in the Islamic world, let alone on its decline. It is also important for the notion of "Islam and Science" or "Science in Islam", for when Muslim scientists, using mathematics, addressed problems provided by the tenets of Islam, they came up with completely different solutions from those proposed by the legal scholars, who used the Qur'an and the hadith, together with the simple procedures of folk science. For a modern example, consider the two schools of North American Muslims regarding the qiblah: one group maintains it is north of east in North America (based on geography and mathematics) and the other favor south of east (based on a naive modern kind of folk geography).

In the sequel, I shall briefly describe the contents of each of the new books. I shall also discuss the problem that, because of the nature of the transmission of knowledge these days, this flurry of new books on practical aspects of Islamic ritual and scientific highlights of Islamic civilization will probably never reach a serious Muslim scholarly audience in the form that I am publishing them.

The first book, entitled World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca and published in 1999, examines the way in which Muslim scholars for over a millennium dealt with the determination of the qiblah. (4) Here we witness the ingenuity of scientists from the 9th to, say, the 15th century, as they confronted a complicated problem of mathematical geography: their results are impressive by any standards. …

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