Academic journal article Islam & Science

Science in Islam

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Science in Islam

Article excerpt

Science made great, even revolutionary, strides in medieval Islam and Muslims and Arabic-writing non-Muslims (largely Christians, Jews, and Syriac-speaking Harranian star-worshippers who were thoroughly Hellenized by the time Islam emerged in history) share credit for the remarkable achievements in this field.

A. Characteristic Features: An Analytical Survey

One characteristic feature of Islam's scientific achievements is what may be called its double dialectic: on the one hand, the interplay, dialogue, and substantive exchange among different scientific streams that flowed into Islam from other cultures; and, on the other, cross-currents and cross-fertilizations between science and other Arabic disciplines, or between different scientific disciplines themselves, or within various ramifications and aspects of a single scientific field internally. So we see, for example, a problem arising in Greek astronomy being resolved by Indian astronomical methods; or, again, breaking open of a moribund mathematical legacy of the Greeks such as the study of triangles and giving it an independent and free existence by the application of aspects of Hindu mathematics after developing the latter in highly original ways. Indeed, Islam took over not only both the Alexandrian and Athenian Greek scientific legacies, which loom very large in complex ways in Arabic, dominant especially after the ninth-century, but it directly naturalized into its own cultural matrix a host of other scientific traditions too, in particular Persian, Harranian, Byzantine, and of course Indian traditions, cultivating at the same time Near Eastern Hellenism and Hermeticism, and espousing also some other attitudes and products of the Old World.

Medicine constitutes one clear case here. Thus one notes that the dominant, court sponsored, elite-patronized, mainstream Aristotelian-Galenic system of the Islamic world was itself a synthesis of many different elements. In general physiology and pathology, Galen had espoused the famous Hippocratic doctrine of the four humors, but his anatomy had come from the Alexandrian medical tradition; then, he had taken over the pharmacology of Dioscorides; and, finally, his physiology drew heavily upon Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian conceptions--all of this, along with other Greek ideas, was picked up by the Islamic world. But, then, this package was further mixed in Islam with Syrian, Persian, and Indian ideas, bringing with them some Hermetic tendencies and additional pharmacological data. The story is in fact even more complicated by the historical situation that in parallel with the Aristotelian-Galenic medicine other medical traditions also existed in Islamic society--particularly the one called Prophetic Medicine, based on naturalistic Qur anic declarations and Prophetic Traditions (Hadith) concerning healing of the sick and reversing magical spells. A time comes in the Islamic Middle Ages when these two currents begin to ride on each other, replacing the Hellenized philosopher-physician by the Islamic legist-physician, with non-trivial consequences for both the theory and practice of scientific medicine.

But the other horn of the double dialectic shows us more: so in the case of mathematics, for example, one fords for the first time in history vigorous applications of one mathematical discipline to another. But more generally, there is to be seen an unprecedented, complex pattern of substantive movements not only between science and other indigenous or naturalized fields of rational inquiry, but also between science and material culture. What has been called a 'double movement' between metaphysics and mathematics constitutes an instructive example here. Thus we find the famous Muslim theologian-astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274)--whose momentous mathematical device, the 'Tusi Couple', made an appearance as an integral element in none other than the system of Copernicus--borrowing combinatorial rules from algebraists for the articulation of an ontological doctrine of the emanation of multiplicity from the One that he found in the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic speculations of the 'Grand Master' (al-Sluaykk al-Ra'is) Ibn Sina (Latin Avicenna, d. …

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