Islamic Sciences

Bringing Muslims back to science
Is Muslim religious discourse on scientific matters killing the scientific aspirations of the religious?

By Mohamed Ghilan, Al Jazeera, April 11, 2014

The most important rule in Islam is “judgment on anything is a branch of conceptualising it”. To determine whether a belief can be accepted by a Muslim or not, this is the first and most often repeated principle. However, when it comes to matters scientific, this indispensable rule for correct judgment is paradoxically the most disregarded one.

Ever since the decline of the Islamic civilisation and the end of its Golden Age, Muslims have ironically taken up superstitious and irrational thinking habits they had previously dropped when they originally accepted the Message of Prophet Muhammad. The ideas that the sun could eclipse for the death of someone, that certain numbers have magical powers, or that birds flying in a certain direction indicates an omen of some kind were among superstitious beliefs explicitly pointed out by Prophet Muhammad and in verses in the Quran for their irrationality. Unfortunately, it seems that Muslims have gone full circle. Out of the top 20 countries in overall science output, Turkey is the sole Muslim representative, barely sneaking in at number 19.

Overly simplistic explanations of this phenomenon have pointed to Al-Ghazali (c 1058-1111), one of the most influential Muslim theologians. His work, The Incoherence of Philosophers, is cited for its negative impact on Muslim thinking. This, however, is a grave misrepresentation of Al-Ghazali, his attack on contemporary philosophers, and the Islamic civilisation as a whole. (more…)

In 1981, during a trip to Egypt, I bought the old multi-volume Cairo edition of the mother of all Arabic dictionaries: al-Zabidi’s Taj al-‘Arus. It took up an entire suitcase and was so heavy that I paid the porter extra. As I arrived home, the handle broke and the books spilled in the landing of my home. Those were the days when most Arabic books had to be physically bought in the Middle East and carried home in luggage. Books that used to be accessible only in major libraries are often available online today. If one is patient just about any classic Arabic text from the past is available online. Some are pdf scans, where there is a treasure trove at and It is usually best to search these sites in Arabic. But even a ouja-board Google search in Arabic can yield full texts.


Mohammed at the Kaaba. Miniature from the Ottoman Empire, c. 1595. Source: The Topkapi Museum, Istanbul

Folk Astronomy and Islamic Ritual

Astronomy was relevant to Muslims in large part because of several of the ritual duties proscribed in the Quran and Islamic tradition. The three most important of these are determining the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadân, reckoning the times for the five daily prayers, and determining the proper direction of the qibla or sacred direction toward Mecca. While Muslim astronomers later worked out mathematical solutions to some of these problems, correct timing and orientation could be achieved by those untrained in astronomy and with virtually no computation skills beyond simple arithmetic (King 1985:194). (more…)

Time Reckoning

Era means a definite space of time, reckoned from the beginning of some past year, in which either a prophet, with signs and wonders, and with a proof of his divine mission, was sent, or a great and powerful king rose, or in which a nation perished by a universal destructive deluge, or by a violent earthquake and the sinking of the earth, or a sweeping pestilence, or by intense drought, or in which a change of dynasty or religion took place, or any grand event of the celestial and the famous tellurian miraculous occurrences, which do not happen save at long intervals and at times far distant from each other. Al-Bîrûnî (1879:16)

Time is relative. Given the modern world’s reliance on formalized calendars and machines that define time for us, it is easy to forget that the expansion of Islam occurred at a time when telling time was not dependent on a formal science of astronomy. How time is measured is not only a practical issue but also reflective of the desired interval of duration and the precision in defining it. Simple observation of the sun rising and setting, as well as its location, can easily yield calendars to determining hours, days, months and years. Similarly, the moon’s phases made it a useful measure for the Islamic lunar calendar. Observations of movements by the stars, as well as the planets, also provided practical ways of measuring units of time both short and long. (more…)

from Ibn Balkhi’s manuscript on astronomy, 850 CE

It was He that gave the sun his brightness and the moon her light, ordaining her phases that you may learn to compute the seasons and the years. He created them only to manifest the truth. He makes plain His revelation to men of understanding. Yûnus 10:9 (Dawood 1968:64)

When the Quran was revealed in seventh century Arabia as the basis for Islam, references were made to the sun, moon and stars as evidence of the creative power and practical foresight of God. The idea that God, or a particular god or goddess, had created the visible heavens was not unique. Creating stories about astronomical phenomena is as old as the first civilizations that appeared in the ancient Near East. Some of these survived, in highly edited variants, in the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. As Muslim science evolved, a variety of religious and scientific knowledge from classical Greek texts, as well as Zoroastrian and Hindu sources, was encountered. While the influence of these classical and textual traditions on Islamic astronomy has been the focus of much previous study on the history of Islamic science, little attention has been paid to the oral folk traditions of peoples who embraced Islam. How ordinary Muslims viewed the same heavens visible to educated scientist or illiterate shepherd is the subject of this chapter. For practical reasons the focus here will be on the Middle East, especially the textual information on the pre-Islamic Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula and contemporary tribal groups in the region.

What is Islamic Folk Astronomy?

It is unfortunate that many times the idea of “folk astronomy” is understood mainly by what it is not. (more…)

Ibn Sina’s (d. 1037 CE) Qanun, copied in Shiraz in 1645 CE

For anyone interested in the history of Islamic medicine, there are some rare editions of texts by famous Muslim scholars like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Masawayh, al-Antaki, al-Damiri, and others, including a few 19th century French translations published in North Africa. These are available to view or as pdfs at Yale University’s library. Below is the press release about the collection:


This digitized collection of selected volumes of medical books and manuscripts, dating from 1300 to 1921, is drawn from the Medical Historical Library, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. This collection reflects the Arabic and Persian intellectual efforts that translated, augmented, and transmitted Greek and Roman medical knowledge to Western societies during the Renaissance. It includes iconic works by authors such as Avicenna and al-Razi.

The Medical Historical Library, originally formed by the joining of three collections by bibliophiles Harvey Cushing, John Fulton, and Arnold Klebs, has over 120,000 volumes dating from the 12th to the 21st centuries. While primarily composed of works in Western medicine and science, a smaller selection of Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts are a “hidden collection” in the Library. Through the support of the Arcadia Fund, the Medical Historical Library was able to digitize Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts, as well as early translations in Latin, French, and English. (more…)

Urban structure of Doha until the 1960s; Source: Scharfenort 2012 (Exhibition in Msheireb Enrichment Center)

The second issue of the new journal Arabian Humanities, with selections in both English and French, is now available online here.

The table of contents is reproduced below:

Juliette Honvault
Villes et dynamiques urbaines en péninsule Arabique
Cities and Urban Dynamics in the Arabian Peninsula

Claire Beaugrand, Amélie Le Renard et Roman Stadnicki
Au-delà de la Skyline : des villes en transformation dans la péninsule Arabique [Texte intégral]
Beyond the Skyline: Cities in Transformation in the Arabian Peninsula [Texte intégral | traduction]

Nelida Fuccaro
Preface: Urban Studies in the Arabian Peninsula: 6 Thoughts on the Field [Texte intégral]
Préface : Les études urbaines en péninsule Arabique
1. Croissances, politiques et projets
Growth paths, politics and projects

Brigitte Dumortier
Ras al‑Khaïmah, l’essor récent d’une ville moyenne du Golfe [Texte intégral]
Ras al‑Khaimah : the recent dynamics of a middle size city of the Arab‑Persian Gulf

Steffen Wippel
Développement et fragmentation d’une ville moyenne en cours de mondialisation : le cas de Salalah (Oman) [Texte intégral]
Development and Fragmentation of a Globalizing Secondary City: The Case of Salalah (Oman)

Sebastian Maisel
The Transformation of ‘Unayza: Where is the “Paris of Najd” today? [Texte intégral]
La transformation de ‘Unayza : où en est le « Paris du Najd » ?
Philippe Cadène
Koweït City : planification urbaine et stratégie régionale [Texte intégral]
Kuwait City: Urban Planning and Regional Strategy (more…)

عجايب المخلوقات وغرايب المخلوقات الموجودات

The Arabic manuscripts collection of the Wellcome Library (London) comprises around 1000 manuscript books and fragments relating to the history of medicine. For the first time this website enables a substantial proportion of this collection to be consulted online via high-quality digital images of entire manuscripts and associated rich metadata.

This has been made possible by a pioneering partnership between the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Wellcome Library, and King’s College London, with funding from the JISC Islamic studies programme.

These manuscripts are part of the Wellcome Library’s Asian Collection, which comprises some 12,000 manuscripts and 4,000 printed books in 43 different languages. The Islamic holdings include Arabic and Persian manuscripts and printed books, and a small collection of Ottoman manuscripts and Turkish books. The core of these collections relates to the great heritage of classical medicine, preserved, enlarged and commentated on throughout the Islamic world, stretching from Southern Spain to South and South-east Asia.

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