Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction

By Ahmad, Imad-ad-Dean | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction


Ahmad, Imad-ad-Dean, The Middle East Journal


Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction, by Howard R. Turner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. xx + 230 pages. Tables to p. 237. Gloss. to p. 240. Bibl. to p. 246. Illustration sources to p. 252. Index to p. 262. $40 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

Insofar as the author of this book has focused on the theme suggested by its subtitle, "an illustrated introduction to science in medieval Islam," he has done an excellent job. Howard R. Turner presents a historical summary of the subject in a readable, concise and generally accurate fashion. The 106 illustrations of mainly Muslim scientific texts, instruments and structures-all in black and white-are attractive and pertinent. The book is well organized and interesting, and appropriate for an undergraduate course in medieval science, but the epilogue is disappointing. There he attempts-as so many non-Muslim Western analysts of Islam do-to explain the current state of science in the Muslim world in terms of a conflict between reason and revelation. This perspective comes out of Christian history and sheds more confusion than light on the problems and controversies in the Muslim world today.

The first three chapters introduce the reader to the classical Islamic civilization (7th to 15th c.), to the forces and bonds that held it together and to the roots of Islamic science in previous Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Iranian and Indian civilizations. These chapters are a good introduction to the subject, but their main flaw is the absence of an appreciation of the role that the Quranic message played in the development of that science.

Chapters four through 12 admirably review medieval Muslims' contributions in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, medicine, the natural sciences, alchemy and optics. In each field, the reader can see how Muslims studied, assimilated, adapted and expanded upon the knowledge that was produced by earlier civilizations and cultures with which they came in contact. The examples are somewhat biased towards the Hellenistic cultures, a reflection of the author's Western source material, but the existence of other influences is acknowledged.

Although the author gives many examples of the increasing importance of empirical research, he seems to be unaware of the importance of the fact that the Quran encouraged observation of the material world and provoked Muslim respect for the empirical aspect of the sciences, in contrast to the rationalistic ancient Greeks. Turner discusses the similarity between Ibn al-Shatir's planetary models and those of Copernicus, but does not seem to realize the significance of Ibn al-Shatir's concern for the empirical failings of the Ptolemaic model. Ibn al-Shatir developed a model for the motions of planets (first proposed by al-Tusi) which dispensed with Ptolemy's cumbersome concepts of the "equant" and "eccentric" and described planetary motion by a set of linked epicycles. …

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