The Birth & Origins of Islamic Sciences

The golden age of Islam, insofar as the intensity of the religious and spiritual life and the realization of its ideals are concerned, must be identified with the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad- Allah bless him and give him peace- and the first Muslim community at Medina. But just as the seed sown in the ground grows into a tree and finally bears fruit only after the passage of time and the gaining of nourishment from a suitable soil, so did the tree of Islamic civilization bear its intellectual and artistic fruits several centuries after its inception, during which it was nourished by the legacy of the previous civilizations to which Islam became the heir. The arts and sciences, as well as philosophy and metaphysics, reached their zenith of formal perfection and became fully articulated only after Muslim society had become completely consolidated, and only after the tenets of the Islamic revelation had been realized in concrete and tangible forms so as to make the new civilization distinctly Islamic, even when elements of non-Islamic origin had been incorporated into it.

The spread of Islam and the subsequent consolidation of Muslim society is one of the most rapid and decisive events in human history. By the end of the earthly career of the Prophet, under the banner of Islam, the whole of Arabia was united for the first time, and by A.D. 700, that is, less than eighty years after the birth of Islam, the new religion had spread over the whole of the Middle East and North Africa and its domain stretched from the Indus Valley to Andalusia. Moreover, unlike the only other expansion that can be compared in any way to it, namely, the Mongol invasion of Western Asia seven centuries later, the effect of the Islamic conquest was permanent. Except for Andalusia, from which the Muslims were expelled in the fifteenth century, every country into which Islam spread during that short period became Islamicized, and in many cases “Arabicized,” and has remained so until the present day.

As might be expected, this sudden expansion and the conquest of such a vast territory by the Muslims needed time before the conquered domain could be transformed into a society constructed upon the Islamic pattern. There was at this moment an urgent need to find administrative codes and rules of government for situations that had never existed in the Arabian Muslim community at the time of the Prophet, and to apply the laws of the Quran and the practices of the Prophet to new circumstances which had never occurred before. So it was that the early caliphs, the four who followed the Prophet immediately – al-khulafā al-rāshidūn – as well as the Umayyads, spent most of their energy in solving the immediate problems of creating an Islamic society. They supported and cultivated such sciences as the reading and interpretation of the Quran, assembling the traditions or hadiths of the Prophet, and systematizing the study of the Arabic language, all of which were of immediate concern to the new community inasmuch as the sacred law of this new society – the Shari’ah – was based on the Quran, the hadith, and its language.

Preoccupation with such immediate concern prevented the Umayyads from turning their attention to the vast heritage which the hands of fate had placed in reach of the Muslims, and so, during this early period of Islamic history, there was only an occasional figure like Khalid ibn Yazid who began to cultivate interest in pre-Islamic sciences, and only very rarely was a book translated from Greek or Syriac into Arabic. Rather, this early period was one in which the traditional religious sciences of Quranic commentary and hadith became fully established, and the study and cultivation of the Arabic language reached a high state of accomplishment with the formation of the Kūfa and Baṣra schools of grammar and the appearance of many outstanding grammarians, poets, and literary critics.

It was inevitable, however, that sooner or later the Muslims would turn their attention to the treasury of pre-Islamic sciences that had been stored within the very citadel of Islam. Before the rise of Islam, the writings of many of the masters of the school of Alexandria, which itself was the meeting place of Hellenic, Jewish, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultural currents, were translated into Syriac and transplanted to Antioch, and from there, farther east to such cities as Nisibis and Edessa. This situation, which was of great consequence insofar as it concerned the later Islamic civilization, had been brought about by the schisms that had developed in the eastern Christian churches. This internal division had separated the Nestorians, and later the Monophysites, from the Greek-speaking orthodox church and had forced them to establish their own schools and centres of learning and to cultivate their own language, namely Syriac, in order to be independent of the Greek-speaking church of Alexandria and Byzantium from whom they had separated.

Encouraged by the Persian kings, who were naturally opposed to the Byzantines and who therefore favoured the opponents of their enemies, Nestorians spread far into the domains of the Persian Empire and had even established churches in Central Asia. Moreover, wherever these churches spread, they carried with them the Hellenistic philosophy and theology which Christianity had made its own, along with a tradition of reading and interpreting the Greek texts which contained the sciences and philosophy.

In addition to the Christian centres of learning, there was also the city of Ḥarrān, home of the Ṣābeans, who had preserved and propagated much of the learning of the more esoteric schools of the Hellenistic period, such as Neopythagoreanism and Hermeticism, into the Islamic period. Hermeticism had also entered into Persia even before the rise of Islam, and in some Pahlavi writings, which were later translated into Arabic, such Hellenistic elements along with certain Indian ones were combined with properly speaking Iranian modes of thought.

The Persian kings had also established a school in Jundīshapūr to compete with the Byzantine centres of learning, where Indian, Christian, and Jewish philosophers and scientists were brought to teach and study. It was at this centre that the Indian tradition of medicine was established and combined with that of the Greeks; and here also that Hindu astronomy and astrology became known to the Sassanids, and with the help of the Hindu astronomers the famous astronomical tables called the Ziji shahriyrārī were compiled. In such cities as Jundīshapūr, Ḥarran, Edessa, and Nisibis a great deal of the learning of the Greeks and Babylonians, as well as that of the Hindus and Persians, was preserved as a living tradition of learning well into the Islamic period.

Moreover, once the Muslims turned their attention toward the pre-Islamic sciences and sought to integrate them into their civilization, they found within easy reach people who were competent in translating the sources into Arabic. In these centres, all of which lay within the domain of the Muslim world, there were scholars, mostly Christian and Jewish and some Persian, who had a thorough knowledge of the subject with which they were dealing and who also knew Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi, or Sanskrit, as the case might be, as well as the Arabic language into which they were making translations. And so, with the advent of the Abbasids, especially under Harūn Rashīd, al-Ma’mūn, and al-Mu’tasim, when attention began to turn toward pre-Islamic sciences and a vast effort was made to translate the sources into Arabic, there were qualified translators easily accessible to the seat of the caliphate in Baghdad.

Within two centuries, ranging from about A.D. 750 to 1000, an immense corpus of metaphysical, philosophical, and scientific works was translated into Arabic from Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi, and Sanskrit by several schools of translation that differed from each other in competence and aptitude. Mention must be made especially of such masters of translation as the Christian Hunain ibn Isḥāq and his son, Isḥaq ibn Hunain, who also prepared critical texts before translating them; the Harranian Thabit ibn Qurrah, and the convert to Islam from Zoroastrianism, Ibn Muqaffa’, all of whom enriched the Arabic language immensely through their translations and prepared the ground for the formation of the various schools of philosophy and the sciences. These schools, which followed on the heels of the translation of this vast corpus into Arabic, came into being as a result of the application of Islamic principles to the various forms of knowledge thereby inherited and the integration of these forms of knowledge into the Islamic perspective.

Of course, it may be asked why suddenly the attention of the Muslim community turned toward the pre-Islamic sciences and philosophy to the extent that the caliphs established and financed large centres for the translation of books into Arabic. Perhaps the best answer that can be given to this important question is that by this time, the Muslims had come into contact with Jewish and Christian religious authorities who were defending the tenets of their faith and also attacking those of Islam by appealing to arguments drawn from Aristotelian logic and philosophy of which the Muslims were ignorant. Such debates are known to have taken place in Damascus. Most likely it was in order to supply the Islamic faith with intellectual armour of a similar kind, and thereby to preserve the power of the Shari’ah, upon which their own authority depended, that the caliphs, especially al-Ma’mūn, spent so much effort to have philosophic and scientific works translated into Arabic.

This is not to deny the private interest of the early Abbasid caliphs in the pre-Islamic sciences, but there must also have been a more general cause connected with the interest of the Muslim community and the caliphate to which it was connected, to have caused such an unprecedented effort to be made on the part of these rulers to have the “wisdom of the ages” translated into Arabic. With the philosophy and much of the science of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians at hand, the Muslims gradually began to bring into being the various intellectual perspectives which have dominated the horizon of Islamic civilization ever since. The schools of law and the sufi brotherhoods became separately established in the third Islamic century, and the revelation which was until that time still close to its origin, and therefore in a state of ‘fusion’, became ‘crystallised’ into its components. In a similar manner, the various intellectual perspectives, after several centuries, absorbed the nourishment provided by the vast heritage of the ancient world, already existing in Arabic, into the Islamic world view, and founded the diverse schools of philosophy and the arts and sciences. We can thereby legitimately refer to these schools as Muslim, since the concepts and formulations used by them were integrated into the Islamic view even if they originated elsewhere.


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