Starting around 750 AD, science flourished under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, gradually spreading its influence as far west as Spain and eastwards into Central Asia, over a period of more than 600 years.
By drawing on a variety of texts - Greek, Indian and Persian - and translating them into Arabic, the early scholars accumulated the greatest body of scientific knowledge in the world … and built on it through their own discoveries.
Often, there was a practical Islamic relevance. Astronomy could be used to work out the direction of Mecca for prayer and mathematics was needed for dividing property according to the Islamic law of inheritance.
Although science flourished under Arab-Islamic patronage, by no means all the important figures in science were Muslims, or even Arabs. The common factor, however, was the Arabic language, which for a time became the international language of science.
It was only later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Arabic works began to be translated into Latin, that such knowledge passed to the west.
Centuries in the House of Wisdom
Iraq's golden age of science brought us algebra, optics, windmills and much more. (The Guardian, 23 September 2004)
Timeline of Arab science
From the time of the Prophet to the 15th century CE.
The great Arab intellectual awakening
Influence of Arab-Muslim science on Western science
Influence of Arab-Muslim science on Asian science
There is no doubt that Arab civilisation in the Middle Ages made an important contribution to the development of science. These achievements – especially in the fields of astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, physics, optics, and mathematics – have tended to be overlooked in the west.
However, attempts to set the record straight are often prone to exaggeration. For example, it is often claimed that in the ninth century Abbas ibn Firnas became the first man to fly. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known for certain about his experiment. The only surviving account of what happened was written by a Moroccan historian some seven centuries later. It said:
"Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one."
Modern air travellers may not be reassured to know that Baghdad now has an airport named in honour of Ibn Firas.
The following articles give differing assessments of what Arab-Islamic science achieved, what its limitations were, and also provide some pointers to its eventual decline:
Arab science in the golden age (750–1258 CE) and today
By Matthew Falagas, Effie Zarkadoulia and George Samonis
Why the Arabic world turned away from science
By Hillel Ofek
Rediscovering Arabic Science
By Richard Covington
The Decline of the Decline of Arabic Science
By Austin Dacey
Science in action
In medieval times the various branches of science were not precisely categorised as they are today. Mathematics and astronomy, for example, were closely related. "Science" also included things that today would be considered un-scientific, such as astrology and alchemy.
From: The Story of Mathematics
Al-Khwarizmi: The father of algebra
Video of an al-Jazeera programme in which theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili explores al-Khwarizmi's 9th century treatise that also underpins the science of flight and the engineering behind the fastest car in the world.
Contribution of al-Khwarizmi to mathematics and geography
(Muslim Heritage website)
Mathematics in medieval Islam
Mathematics and astronomy
Probably the best introduction to the history of medicine in the Arab world is Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts, which is based around an exhibition held in 1994 to mark the 900th anniversary of the oldest Arabic medical manuscript (pictured on the right) at the National Library of Medicine in the United States. The site, which includes illustrations from old manuscripts, also has suggestions for further reading.
The Arab medical sciences
Arabic (or Islamic) influence on the historical development of medicine
Edited by Professor Hamed Ead
Alchemy and chemistry
Alchemy in the context of Islamic science
edited by Professor Hamed A Ead
Pioneers of science
In chronological order
Abd al-Malik Ibn Quraib al-Asmai
Zoology, botany, animal husbandry
Muhammad Bin Musa al-Khwarizmi (Algorizm)
Mathematics, astronomy, geography, (algorithm, algebra, calculus)
Abu 'Uthman 'Amr ibn Bakr al-Basri al-Jahiz
Zoology, Arabic grammar, rhetoric, lexicography
Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (Alkindus)
Philosophy, physics, optics, medicine, mathematics, metallurgy
Jabir Ibn Haiyan (Geber)
Thabit Ibn Qurrah (Thebit)
Astronomy, mechanics, geometry, anatomy
Ali Ibn Rabban al-Tabari
Medicine, mathematics, calligraphy, literature
Abu Abdullah al-Battani (Albategnius)
Astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry
Abul-Abbas Ahmad al-Farghani (al-Fraganus)
Astronomy, civil engineering
Muhammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (Rhazes)
Medicine, ophthalmology, smallpox, chemistry, astronomy
Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi (al-Pharabius)
Sociology, logic, philosophy, political science, music
'Abbas Ibn Firnas
Mechanics of flight, planetarium, artificial crystals, Also, reputedly, the first man to fly.
Abd-al Rahman al-Sufi (Azophi)
Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (Albucasis)
Surgery, medicine (father of modern surgery)
Abul Wafa Muhammad al-Buzjani
Mathematics, astronomy, geometry, trigonometry
Abul Hasan Ali al-Masu'di
Abu Ali Hasan Ibn al-Haitham (Alhazen)
Physics, optics, mathematics
Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi (Alboacen)
Political science, sociology, jurisprudence, ethics
Abu Raihan al-Biruni
Astronomy, mathematics. Determined the earth's circumference
Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
Medicine, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy
Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn Yahya al-Zarqali (Arzachel)
Astronomy (invented astrolabe)
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (Algazel)
Sociology, theology, philosophy
Abu Marwan Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar, Abumeron)
Abu Abdallah Muhammad al-Idrisi
Geography (world map, first globe)
Abul Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd (Averroes)
Philosophy, law, medicine, astronomy, theology
Nasir al-Din al-Tusi
Astronomy, non-Euclidean geometry
Nur al-Din Ibn Ishaq al-Bitruji (Alpetragius)
Ibn al-Nafis Damishqi
Abu Muhammad Abdallah Ibn al-Baitar
Mohammed Targai Ulugh Beg
Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun
Sociology, philosophy of history, political science
Science and Islam today
In 2013, Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, caused a furore with a post on Twitter which said: "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."
The implication of his remark was that in modern times, unlike the Middle Ages, there is a link between Islam and scientific under-achievement. Critics pointed out that the same argument could be applied to all the world's Chinese or even all the world's left-handed people. Conversely, it might be said that Muslim footballers have scored more goals than all the world's Nobel Prize winners put together.
However, what Dawkins said was factually accurate and the real question is to what extent Islam might be blamed for the situation he described. There is little doubt that the authoritarian forms of religion prevailing in the Middle East today do discourage independent thought. The same, broadly speaking, can be said of the societies in predominantly Muslim countries, and of the governments that rule them. But that is by no means the only factor.
It's probably unfair to compare the achievements of Muslims countries with those of the more advanced western countries. It would be better to compare them with non-Muslim countries at a similar stage of development, for example in Africa and Latin America – where the results are unlikely to be very different.
In that connection it's also relevant to consider the effects of foreign conquest. Ziauddin Sardar, a Muslim writer and critic,explained: "In the last two centuries many Muslim countries have been colonised, they have had their resources raped, their institutions of learning closed and their medicine outlawed. In Indonesia, locals were not allowed to go to universities until 1955. How were these people supposed to make discoveries?"
The first person from a Muslim country to win a Nobel prize was the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam in 1979 – though like many scientists, he worked outside his home country. After graduating at Punjab University, he took a PhD at Cambridge and later became professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London.
Egyptian-born Ahmed Zewail won a Nobel prize for chemistry in 1999, but he was living and working in California.
A lot of scientific research is carried out in the Muslim world, according to Jamil Sherif, secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain's research committee. "At the University of Karachi a lot of work has gone into organic chemistry because the cost of the scientific infrastructure isn't excessive, while a lot of high physics research is problematic, even in Europe," he said.
Universities in the Muslim world are often less well-endowed than in the west. "Historically they have received waqf (Islamic charity) funding but many of these funds have been abolished over the years," Sherif added.
The Arab and Islamic world is also losing talent to the US and Europe. According to the UN Human Development Report of 2003, about 25% of the 300,000 graduates from Arab universities in 1995-1996 migrated abroad.
Science in the Qur'an?
In recent years traditional arguments for a divine origin of the Qur'an have often been supplemented by claims that the Qur'an is a "scientific miracle". The basic idea is that its verses contain information, usually of a scientific nature, that could not have been known to humans in the time of the Prophet – in which case the information must surely have come from God.
Expounding further on this idea, the Institute of Islamic Information and Education says:
"Within the Qur'an are recorded facts about ancient times that were unknown to Muhammad's contemporaries and even to historians in the first half of the 20th century. In scores of verses, we also find references to scientific wonders, some only recently discovered or confirmed, regarding the universe, biology, embryology, astronomy, physics, geography, meteorology, medicine, history, oceanography, etc."
Since the 1980s, the "scientific miracle" of the Qur'an has become a major tool for Islamic proselytising and appears to have met with considerable success. It has also given many Muslims a renewed sense of pride in their religion. In the eyes of others, though, it has done much to discredit Islam.
Islam and evolution
Muslims have generally adopted a positive approach towards science. There is nothing in Islamic history that compares to the battles between church and science in Christianity. However, some Muslims do find it difficult to reconcile the concept of evolution with their faith.
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was given a mixed reception by Muslims: hostility in some quarters and equanimity in others. More recently, however, growing numbers of Muslims have begun to question evolution, often drawing on arguments propagated by Christian Creationists in the United States.