Islamic Philosophy and Science

The prodigious output of scientific, medical and philosophical writings in the Islamic empires and dynasties from about 750 to 1400 is the subject of this week’s lessons.  We are especially interested in how this was absorbed by and received in Europe by the Latin based academies and scholars between about 1050 and 1500. What accounts for the extensive amount of Arabic scholarship in these areas is a combination of a very successful commercial system and empire that allowed merchants and rulers to profit from local production and long distance trade.  Arabic as the new language of this widespread commercial empire was fused with Islamic religion and ethics to encourage a sense of fairness in the marketplace and ensure standards of quality and some guarantees of protection for its merchants and artisans.

The state also took up a great interest in sponsoring scholarship and the support of the translation movement in the 8th and 9th centuries in Baghdad, Damascus and elsewhere encouraged the intensive study of Greek and other texts for sources on all aspects of science, medicine and engineering technology. Arabic-Muslim scholars and engineers inherited the knowledge of the Roman system of engineering and gained much from the presence of Greek and Syriac speaking and literate non-Muslim clerks whom they hired to translate manuscripts into Arabic.  As a result of this process many of these literate clerks were absorbed into the state’s services and may have converted or likely taught others who were Muslim in these languages.  The effect was that by the 10th century, a young scholar like Ibn Sina (Avicenna is his Latin name) was able to procure copies written in Arabic of Galen and Aristotle’s texts on medicine in his native city of Bukhara in Central Asia.

Philosophical interest in the Arab-Muslim world received great impetus from the encounter with Greek scholarship in Syria and Iraq where the conquering Muslim armies settled among Greek speaking clerics and administrative clerks in Damascus and other cities that were now under Muslim control. During the Abbasid rule of the Caliphs Mansur (r. 745-775) and Al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) there was a special interest for its practicality were the texts of Aristotle, whose works on logic and catalogues of knowledge provided a useful method for argument both in theology and science (Brentjes, .

Medicine was the most important of these sciences, for it also provided its scholars a means of earning a living as well-read and practiced physicians.  Appointments as  a court physician was well-paid and earned the physician money and afforded him time and means to acquire other texts in the sciences to pursue in his spare time.  lbn Sina’s own memoirs are highly instructive into how as an adolescent he acquired key texts, was tutored and also gained knowledge of arithmetic calculations and notations from Indian vendors in Bukhara.

This video section about Ibn Sina from  Jim Al-Khalili’s documentary series gives you some sense of the importance and range of Ibn Sina’s medical textbook, the Qanun al-Tibb (Laws of Medicine) that when translated into Latin became a major medical textbook in Europe until the modern period.

Several helpful summaries of the development of Islamic Science including the early use in the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghadad of Greek translators of the peripatetic Greek texts, from Aristotle and later include the following:

Brentjes, Sonja and Morrison, Robert. 2011. The sciences in Islamic societies (750-1800). Vol. 4 in New Cambridge History of Islam:  Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert Irwin, 564-639.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Gutas, Dimitri. 1998 . Greek thought, Arabic culture:  The Graeco Arabic translation movement in Baghdad and early ‘Abbasid society (2nd 4th/8th 10th centuries) (New York and London).

Taylor Richard. 2011. “Philosophy,” in Vol. 4, New Cambridge History of Islam:  Islamic Cutlures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert Irwin, 532-563.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.