From the very beginning, Islam has not separated religion from the pursuit of knowledge and many scientific and artistic contributions to the history of mankind have come from Islamic scholars and within Muslim countries. Vital discoveries in science, medicine and philosophy have enlightened many populations and people of all kinds of faiths have always sought out Islamic universities throughout history to obtain that knowledge. This was made possible because of Islam’s lifelong commitment to learning and the high level of knowledge that is required to be obtained by all Muslims in their lives.
In the modern world, religion and science often seem at odds with one another, but in Islam; Muslims are encouraged to explore and understand the natural world to discover the signs of Allah that are repeatedly talked about in the Holy Qur’an. It asks people to think about and contemplate the various laws of nature, the extent of the universe as we know it, and even the tiniest of particles on earth which make up universes in their own right. Questions are not shot down as rebellion but, rather are encouraged and made obligatory on every Muslim to seek answers for themselves. People are never asked to follow Islam blindly without analyzing their validity and legitimacy for themselves. Within the Qur’an itself, there are numerous references to various scientific processes and natural laws, many of which people at that time had no concept of but which continue to be proven true again and again with the advent of modern scientific discovery. Two of these are as follows:
- The Creation of the Universe: According to the Qur’an, in Chapter 21, Allah is said to have created the universe in an explosion which created the earth and other heavenly bodies to form in perfect harmony with one another. Do the unbelievers not see that the heavens and the earth were joined together before We ripped them asunder? And we made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe? In Chapter 51, there is a reference to Allah’s continual expansion of the sky. These references fall in accordance with modern theories regarding the Big Bang, how the universe is actually continually expanding, and that all life is originated from water. How this could have been revealed 1400 years prior to these theories to an illiterate man is baffling.
- Development of Life: Perhaps some of the most startling verses of the Qur’an that receive a lot of attention are those that refer to the gestation of a human life in the womb and the various stages of life that people go through. The fact that this document clearly and correctly illustrates how a human develops in vitro when no such knowledge was available at the time is a miracle in itself. We reproduced him from a tiny drop, that is places into a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then We made the drop into a hanging clot, then developed the hanging clot into a lump. Then We made the lump into bones and covered the bones with flesh. We thus developed out of it a new creature. So blessed be Allah, the best to create! (Qur’an 23:12-14)
Areas in which Muslim scholars made significant contributions to our understanding of the world include:
- Medicine: The first modern hospitals were established in the Islamic world, starting in Baghdad in 805CE. The first facilities of these kinds already had libraries and medical schools attached to them to facilitate healing and learning simultaneously. The great medical discoverer Abu Bakr al-Razi is one of the most famous Muslim pioneers in medicine and wrote over 200 books on the mastery of observation and experimentation. His writing was diverse and covered disease pathology for smallpox, measles, scabies, allergies, kidney stones, as well as information on oral hygiene and pediatric health. Some famous Muslim scholars are known in the West only by their anglicized names and so many historians or laypeople have no idea that they were Muslim. The same is true for Avicenna whose real name was Abu Ali Ibn Sina. His written masterpiece, known as The Canon of Medicine was an encyclopedia of medical knowledge that outshone any Greek or Roman discoveries by millions of words at the time. It includes disease pathology and diagrams, descriptions and details of their cures and an outline of over 760 medicinal plants that is still consulted by herbalists and drug developers to this day. It was considered the main medical school text until the 19th
- Astronomy: This was a religious need in the Islamic world in order to understand direction of prayer and to sight the moon for the month of fasting called Ramadan. In order to determine when things occurred in the Islamic calendar, Muslim scholars were always consulting the heavens, studying the course of the sun and moon and mapping out the sky. Eventually, after building observatories all over the Muslim world, astronomers took to revising many of the acclaimed astronomical theories of the time, particularly those from Ptolemy. Just prior to the 11th Century, one Muslim physicist named Ibn Al-Haytham postulated that the height of the Earth’s atmosphere was approximately 32 miles. Modern data confirms that the Earth’s atmosphere extends 31 miles, meaning that Al-Haytham was remarkably close in his accuracy at a time with much less instrumentation.
- Mathematics: This was a specialty of early Islamic philosophers and many mathematicians came from the Islamic world. One of the greatest was known as Abu Abdullah al Khawarizmi – a man born in modern day Uzbekistan who was raised near Baghdad. He is the father of algebra as we know it, so much so that our word for it comes from the title of his book Al-Jabr wa al-Muqabilah. The term algorithm is said to derive its name from his last name etymologically.
- Geographically: Calculating the earth’s circumference, mapping out nations and discovering new geographical landscapes were among early Muslims’ first priorities. The known world was something to be discovered and documented for all to follow, especially as the Islamic empire continued to grow and expand. One of the better know Muslim geographers was named al-Idrisi who was raised in Muslim Spain and was commissioned to produce a world map on behalf of the King of Sicily at the time. Explorers of the period such as Christopher Columbus, would use his maps for their exploration and sailing because of their detail and accuracy.