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Science in Islam

In year 130 A.H. (747 A.D.), Muslims captured a number of Chinese troops during the war and brought them to the command post tents. On the way to the tents, the Chinese reached a deal with the Muslims and thought them how to produce paper. In return, the Muslims released the Chinese troops and let them return to their homeland. However, what the Chinese left among the Muslims changed the history of the Islamic knowledge and civilization. Having improved the papermaking know-how they had learnt from the Chinese, the Muslims developed the bookbinding. The technique, which was first initiated by the Muslims, later became a platform for the academic growth of the Islamic civilization in the middle of the 8th century A.D. Nevertheless, books were not the only feeders of that shining age in the history of science and Islamic civilization.


Islamic teachings on science

A brief look at what Islam teaches us shows how much the religion is concerned with science and education. In the holy Quran and in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), not to mention other notable religious figures, huge emphasis has been put on learning knowledge. For instance, the verses 4 and 5 of the Surat Al-Alaq, the Almighty God, as the ultimate teacher, teaches the man what he does not know by the means of pen, « (اَلَّذی عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ (۴) عَلَّمَ الْاِنْسَانَ مَا لَمْ یعْلَمْ (۵ ) » i.e. … "(Allah) Who taught (to write) with the pen (4) Taught man what he knew not (5)." The same goes when the holy Quran highlights the importance of the pen as the tool for learning and spreading science and knowledge by swearing to the pen, «ن وَالْقَلَمِ وَمَا یسْطُرُون » i.e. "Noon. I swear by the pen and what the angels write."

Quotes and sayings of the holy prophet are also full of recommendations for learning science and knowledge. The prophet has not only constantly urged Muslims to learn and be educated, he has made it a duty for them, «طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِیضَةٌ عَلَی کلِّ مُسْلِمٍ وَ مُسْلِمَة » which means that leaning science and knowledge is a duty for all Muslims. Or the quite famous words of the prophet, saying «اُطلُبوا العِلمَ ولَو بِالصِّینِ », which orders Muslims to learn the science even if it is based in China. It clearly shows how much Islam is concerned with the priority of knowledge. Such emphasis on science and recommendations for learning the techniques and knowledge by the Islamic leaders should also be regarded as one of the factors behind the rapid academic and scientific growth during the beginning Islamic centuries. The shining era which started from the 2nd century A.H.  (8th century A.D.) and continued for the upcoming 5 centuries is known as the Islamic Golden Age.


The Islamic Golden Age

Muslims is the golden era of the Islamic civilization experienced massive progress in various sciences. The support by the governments, building of universities and observatories, the translation of scientific books and major academic works of the time from Greek, Syriac and Pahlavi were among the main elements of rapid scientific advancement by the Muslims in that age.


At the beginning of the era, Baghdad University became the hub for translation movement in Islamic civilizations. The huge efforts made by Muslim scholars in various scientific fields, the translations conducted from other languages into Arabic and writing new books gradually prepared the ground for the establishment of one of the big libraries of the time in that university called the Bayt-ul-Hekmat which means the house of wisdom in Arabic. Thabit ibn Qurra was one of the leading academic figures in the beginning years of the second century who translated more than 100 works in mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, natural sciences, music, medicine and veterinary medicine. Learning the papermaking technique from the Chinese captives was the turning point in the transformation period and put the Muslims in a higher position in terms of spreading science and education. The translations and scientific papers were written down on papers and then through the works of the Muslim bookbinders, they were turned into the current books which led to huge transformation in the expansion of science and knowledge. The progress achieved in the manufacturing of paper and the bookbinding industry gave rise to the establishment of big libraries across the Islamic world, from Shiraz and Nishapur to Cairo and Qurtubah. These were the first lending libraries in history; which provided readers with access to the books and they could borrow out any books they wanted. The expansion of science and improvement in the educational methods and the libraries paved the way for the establishment of big universities around the Islamic civilization. University of Al- Qarawiyyin in Morocco in the 2nd century A.H. decorated its graduates in medicine with certificates or the Al-Azhar University, initiated around the century later, is still regarded as one of the major universities of the Muslim world.


The fertile ground made it easier for the Muslim scholars to conduct researches and innovation during the golden era. Muhammad ibn Musa Khwarizmi, the renowned Muslim mathematician, astronomer, historian and geographer published the first books on the calculation techniques in the beginning years of the third century. The term Algorithm, which means a step-by-step procedure for solving an equation, is named after Al- Khwarizmi to honor his great role in calculation and mathematics.


At the height of glorious years of the Islamic civilization, Omar Khayyam al-Nishapuri successfully calculated the earth’s orbit movement around the sun. He also managed to solve the grade 3 equations and invented a theory on equivalent relations.


Muhammad ibn Jabir Battani was another prominent Muslim mathematician who hugely inspired his successors like Copernicus. Other notable figures like Kepler and Galileo were also interested in his astronomical observations.


In the 4th century, Avicenna wrote the most famous encyclopedia in science, philosophy and medicine at that time. Works like Kitab Al-Shifa and Al-Qanun, written by Avicenna, are still viewed among the major works of medicine’s history. Such advancements entrenched a thorough scientific approach among the Muslim scholars and gave rise to more prominent figures in the late 4th century like ibn al-Haytham.


Ibn al-Haytham is viewed by many as one of the leading figures in inventing scientific methodologies, especially in experiment and research. His methodology in research and the way he experimented various issues has led many to call him the first real scientist in the world. Ibn Haytham is also known as the father of the modern optics, experimental physics and scientific method.


These are few examples of the invaluable and priceless academic works produced by Muslims at that time. There are many other works, produced in the golden age of Islamic civilization, which left a huge impact on the world of science in the coming centuries and they are still regarded among the most important scientific and technological achievements in the history. However, the Mongols’ invasion of Iran and the capture of Baghdad changed the situation and triggered a decline in the Islamic civilization.


The academic decline and the new rise

After the decline of the Islamic civilization, it was the turn for the Europeans in the Renaissance period to start translating scientific world authored in the Islamic golden age. It is no surprise that Europeans became familiar with Greek philosophers and scientists through the translation of their works from Arabic and Persian. The translated books from Arabic and Persian into European languages hugely influenced the academic growth in the region. The familiarity with the modern sciences, among other reasons, was the main factors for the Europeans and the Western civilization in general to become the frontrunners of the scientific advancement in the world over the past centuries.  However, we have seen a new ideological, academic and cultural movement in Muslim societies over the past few decades. The movement has triggered a growth in the scientific and technological output of the Muslim countries. Muslim scientists continue to play a major role in the advancement of science and technology in the world. If the current movement is accompanied with appropriate planning and good solutions, it could pave the way for Islamic countries to experience more growth in their scientific and technological output and gain a better position at the global level.


Establishing contacts between academic centers and researchers and improving the regional communication between the Muslim countries are few examples of the solutions based on which we can accelerate the current scientific growth in the Muslim world.  Granting scientific prizes are among the best methods for establishing academic relations and cooperation between academic centers at the regional level. Bearing all this in mind, the Policy-Making Council of the International Mustafa Prize hopes it can improve the regional academic cooperation through encouraging and spreading education in the Islamic countries. The prize aspires to become a turning point in the scientific and technological progress of the Islamic countries.

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