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Debra Preston | 08 Jun : 12:58
I am just writing a Dissertation for my MA in Religion, Death and Culture at Winchester University on The Symbolism Of Stoning and need some help. I would like to reference the article by Sunshine Gladheart but have no date or publication information. Also any other information/ articels would be ver much appreciated ( can not read the German article on this site) Debra Preston

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Achievements and limitations of scientific thinking in the mediaeval Islamic world, F. d. Blois
e107 on Monday 18 December 2006 - 09:42:50 | Read/Post Comment: 0
Essay by François de Blois - The School of Oriental and African Studies "SOAS" (UK)

Achievements and limitations of scientific thinking in the mediaeval Islamic world [1]

François de Blois

Recently there has been a lot of talk from politicians and journalists about the clash of civilisations, about the battle between civilisation and barbarity and also about the relative worth, or worthlessness, of different civilisations. At this symposium, where we are concerned mainly with contacts between civilisations in history, it is impossible not to say at least a few words about these matters. It is a mistake, though a common one, to write the history of the past as though it were an allegory for contemporary history. The past needs to be understood on its own terms. It is also a mistake to pursue the study of the past in the hope that we can learn something from it about the present. The one thing that history teaches is that mankind has never learned anything from history (Hegel said this already) but continues to make the same mistakes time after time. History is actually quite a useless endeavour.

But if we want to understand the past we do need to confront our own prejudices. So, before turning to the announced theme of my talk, I would like to prefix some general remarks about some of my own prejudices, which you may or may not share.

First, I think that most reasonable people now accept that all cultures need to be understood on their own terms and that every culture has its own individual worth and that in this sense it is not really comparable with other cultures. This is true not only of the so-called advanced civilisations but also of the so-called primitive societies. The indigenous cultures, say, in the Brazilian rain forest or in New Guinea obviously do not have the same level of technology, or the same complexity of social organisation as the so-called advanced societies, but they have their own legitimacy and value.

At the same time, we should not let our acceptance of and our respect for the multifarity of human experience deflect us from the fact that in the history of science and technology there is indeed something that can justifiably be called progress. Humanity’s understanding of the workings of nature and its mastery of nature are objectively more advanced now than they were two thousand years ago, and they were more advanced then than they were four thousand years ago. But this progress has not been at a steady pace, it has not proceeded uniformly in all parts of the world, and it is not irreversible. At certain times and in certain places knowledge has progressed, at other times and in other places it has stagnated and at other times and in other places it has also regressed.

As is very well known, the first so-called high civilisations, characterised by urban settlements, elaborate social stratification and mastery of the art of writing, emerged in a small number of isolated places in the course of the fourth and third millennia before Christ such as Egypt, Iraq, and the Indus valley, followed, somewhat later, by China and few other places. At this time people in other parts of the world, such as Northern and Mediterranean Europe, had much simpler forms of social organisation, did not build cities, were not literate and had a less advanced level of technology and a less comprehensive understanding of the workings of nature.

By the beginning of the Christian era the peoples on the Northern shores of the Mediterranean sea were at the forefront of scientific innovation and had overtaken such ancient centres of civilisation as Egypt and Iraq. A thousand years later, at the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, the tables were turned, with the countries of the by then predominantly Muslim Near East such as Egypt, Iraq or Persia standing at a generally more advanced level of technology and scholarship than the countries of Christian Europe. Another five hundred years later the tables were turned once again with the renaissance and the beginning of modern science in Europe, but a general stagnation of scientific knowledge in the Near East.

But there is not only the question of uneven development in different geographical regions. There is also the fact that across whole continents, perhaps even across the whole globe, there have been extended periods of rapid development of scientific knowledge alternating with equally long periods of stagnation. If we concentrate for the moment on the Western half of our Eurasian land mass, that is to say, on Europe, the Mediterranean countries and Asia west of the Indus, we can observe two great periods of feverish innovation and progress in the understanding of nature: first, roughly the last half millennium before the Christian era, say from about 600 BC to 100 AD, with its enormous advances in mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology, engineering, philosophy and many other fields. These discoveries took place in various states scattered around the shores of the Mediterranean, and were effected by people of diverse ethnic groups, but who mostly used the Greek language for their teachings and writings. The second period of rapid scientific progress was in the latter half of the second millennium of the Christian era, from the renaissance to the present, mainly in Europe, but in the last hundred years of the millennium also in other continents. In between these two ages of feverish innovation lie some 1500 years, the so-called middle ages, when the progression of human knowledge was much less rapid. It would not be true to say that science made no progress in the West or the Middle East during that period, but the rate of progress, the number of new discoveries, the amount of original thinking is quite markedly less than in the half millennium before, or in the half millennium after. The scientific work that was done consisted mainly of the preservation and reformulation of the discoveries made in antiquity.

This very striking and undeniable stagnation of original scientific thinking during the whole of the middle ages must have some reason, but it is not easy to say exactly what that reason was. One would like, naturally, to find some objective, materialist explanation for this state of affairs, something like climactic change, global warming, global cooling, or the like. (The Black Death, with its notoriously catastrophic consequences for the populations of the Near East and of Europe, was too late to explain the phenomenon with which we are concerned here). A case could be made for ascribing some of the setbacks suffered by civilisation in this period to the desiccation of the Eurasian grasslands and the consequent increase in transcontinental nomadism with the inevitable negative effects on sedentary civilisation. We can in fact observe a whole series of large-scale invasions of nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes into the ancient heartlands of European and Asiatic cultures, first the migration of the Germanic tribes into the western half of the Roman empire, then the incursion of Arab tribes into the eastern Roman and Sasanian empires, the Slavic settlement in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, then the Turkic and Mongol migrations into Central and Western Asia, the second wave of Arab migration into North Africa and the second wave of Turkic migration into Western Asia. All of this indubitably led to a temporary or long-term disruption of sedentary life, the decline of agriculture, the disruption of urbanism. But nomadic invasions do not explain everything and it is striking that China, which bore the main brunt of successive waves of invading nomads, and especially of the Mongols, did not experience the kind of stagnation that we observe in Europe and the Near East in the mediaeval period.

But there are also other, human and cultural factors in the mediaeval predicament, not least in the sphere of religion. It is not, I think, an unfair generalisation to say that cultures dominated by monotheistic scriptural religions have, on the whole, been less conductive to scientific progress than those dominated by pagan religions. With scriptural religions I am referring specifically to Judaism and its two offspring, Christianity and Islam. In the ancient world, not only among the Greeks, but also with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, and others, people thought that the natural world was full of gods and that the gods manifested themselves in the workings of nature. But this means that to understand what the gods are up to one needs to study nature. The Babylonians, for example, thought that the stars are gods and believed that by charting the seemingly erratic movements of the heavenly bodies they could fathom the intentions of the gods. This endeavour led them to initiate the science of astronomy, but also the pseudo-science of astrology. The Greek intellectuals of the classical period did not believe any more in the old gods and goddesses, but they inherited from their pagan culture their curiosity about the workings of nature, their belief that the study of nature is a legitimate and laudable human activity. The monotheistic scriptural religions do believe that the natural world was made by the one true god, but they teach that this god reveals himself primarily through his inspired prophets, who record the knowledge that they have received, not through the observation of nature, but directly from the creator, in revealed scriptures. God is the source of all true knowledge and man can partake in this knowledge through the study of the holy books.

In its most radical form, the belief in divinely revealed books leads to the conviction that everything that is really true or useful is contained in these books and that all other learning is superfluous, or indeed pernicious. But not everyone in the middle ages thought in this way. There were many who believed that the books of the ancients, for example the medical writings of Galen or the scientific and philosophical treatises of Aristotle, also contain valid knowledge. But generally speaking, mediaeval Christian and Muslim scholars read Galen and Aristotle in the same way that they read the Bible and the Koran, not as an incentive to creative and original thinking but as the encapsulation of eternal truths, truths that can be assimilated, but not really improved.

There are a very small number of exceptions. There is, notably, the philosopher and doctor Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’ ar-Razi, who lived in Persia in the tenth century, and who criticised Aristotle in his philosophical writings and Galen in his medical works. [2]

But he also rejected the Koran and the Bible and all other religious scriptures and maintained that the prophets who brought these books had received their inspirations not from god but from maleficent demons. In these views ar-Razi had no followers, though his medical treatises were read, both in the Islamic world and in Christian Europe. It does, of course, say something for the intellectual atmosphere in tenth-century Persia that ar-Razi could expound such shocking views and still escape with his life.

The general consensus in the Islamic and the Christian middle ages was that the books of the ancients either had to be rejected outright, as irreconcilable with divine revelation, or else they had to be accepted without question. This view contrasts, as I have said, with the attitude of the Greeks in the classical period, but also, at least to a certain extent, with that of the ancient Indians. The Indians, like the Christians and Muslims, did have the concept of a revealed divine scripture, the Veda, but there were also schools of thought in ancient India who rejected the authority of the Veda, notably Buddhists and Jains, but also some such schools within what we anachronistically call Hinduism, and there was nearly always a situation where various religions existed side by side in relative harmony and could compete for followers. Thus the authority of the book, though powerful, was not as oppressive as it was in Christendom and Islam.

And book worship does have its positive sides. One of the great achievements, perhaps even the greatest achievement of mediaeval Islamic scholarship was in the science of linguistics, a science that was nurtured by the endeavour to understand as fully as possible the word of god as encapsulated in the Koran. The study of the Arabic language achieved a level of sophistication which far outstripped that of the ancient Greek grammarians. The Indian grammarians too were inspired by their study of the Vedas to a very high level of scholarship.

The overwhelming preponderance of book learning crumbled in the West with the emergence of modern science in the renaissance and the age of the enlightenment. Modern scientific thinking was born and progressed in the course of a bitter struggle against the teachings of the church; it reached its zenith in the 19th and 20th centuries when Christianity had virtually ceased to have any significant following among educated people in the advanced European countries.

The countries of the Islamic east have not participated to any significant degree in the scientific revolution of the last five hundred years. There are doubtless many reasons for this, but the continued dominance of mediaeval religious thinking is certainly one of the factors that has impeded the progress of these countries. There have been some significant secularising movements, especially in the 19th century and the first three quarters of the twentieth, but in recent years they have experienced a rather spectacular decline. This too has its reasons, which we cannot, perhaps, discuss today.

The upshot is that scientific knowledge and scientific activity in the classical Islamic world was represented, not exclusively, but mainly, by the reception and reformulation of the scientific discoveries of antiquity, in the first instance, of Greek antiquity. The reception of ancient scientific knowledge took place, first of all, in the translation of major scientific writings from Greek to Arabic. This process is very well documented; a large number of these translations have survived in manuscripts, and the titles of quite a few others are mentioned in the surviving works. The translation of Greek scientific writings began in the second half of the eighth century and was largely complete by the end of the tenth. This process gave the Islamic world most of the medical writings of Galen, a large portion of the medical works attributed to Hippocrates, virtually all of the surviving scientific and philosophical writings of Aristotle, some of Plato’s dialogues, the Elements of Euclid and several other works on mathematics, the Almagest of Ptolemy, that great compendium of ancient astronomical knowledge, a few books on optics and geography, Greek commentaries on several of the mentioned works, and a few more. Only very few of these books were translated directly from Greek to Arabic. The great majority of the Arabic versions were made from earlier translations into Syriac, the Church language of most of the Christians of the Near East. In some cases, the Arabic translations are based on relatively old Syriac versions, made before the time of the Muslim conquests, but in many cases, Greek scientific books were translated in the Islamic period into Syriac, and then retranslated into Arabic by the same translator or by a pupil of his. In the majority of instances, both the Greek-Syriac translation and the Syriac-Arabic retranslation were made by Christians, many of them professional doctors in the service of the Muslim rulers, but in some cases, the Syriac-Arabic translations were undertaken by members of the small pagan community which survived in northern Syria, in Harran, probably until the end of the ninth century. As far as I can see, none of the translations from Syriac were made by Muslims. Although Muslim doctors and philosophers defined themselves as disciples of Galen and Aristotle, and although they composed a large number of commentaries on Greek works, no Muslim scholar of the middle ages ever seems to have attempted to learn enough Greek to be able to read the masters in the original language. A much smaller number of translations of Greek books were made not from Syriac versions, but via Middle Persian. It is evident that a fair number of Greek scientific writings had been translated into Middle Persian at the time of the Sasanian empire, possibly via Syriac versions, and that after the conquest of Sasanian Persia by the Arabs, some of these books were retranslated from Middle Persian to Arabic. In other words, Greek learning came to the Muslims not only from the West, but also from the East.

As is very well known, many of the classical Greek writings on science and philosophy first became known in Western Europe through translations from the Arabic, or through Hebrew translations of Arabic versions. Also a fair number of Arabic commentaries on the classics and original Arabic writings on philosophy, medicine, astronomy etc. were translated into Latin during the middle ages. One can even read, in semi-popular, journalistic writings on the history of the science that it was the Arabs or Muslims who saved the heritage of classical antiquity and that without them all of these ancient scientific works would have disappeared from the face of the earth. However, this is not really the case. For one thing, as already mentioned, the actual process of translation which conveyed these Greek writings across the Middle East and north Africa to the west was not the work of Arabs or Muslims, but of oriental Christians, Syrian pagans and Jews. More importantly, the vast majority of the Greek books that arrived in Europe through Arabic translations also survived in the original language in manuscripts that were copied and studied throughout the middle ages in the Byzantine empire, and these were eventually brought from Byzantium to the west during the renaissance, when western Europeans began once again seriously to study Greek and to translate the classics directly from Greek into Latin and also into the European vernacular languages. Without the Arabic translations, these books might not have become known in Western Europe as early as they did, but they would not have been lost.

I have already mentioned that a number of Greek scientific writings became known in the Islamic world not through the Graeco-Syriac tradition, but through renderings of translations made in Sasanian Persia. But it is also evident that the Sasanian Persians had likewise translated a number of Indian writings on astronomy, medicine, logic and perhaps a few other sciences into their own language, Middle Persian. [3]

Unfortunately none of these translations have survived in that language, but we do know that several originally Indian books were later translated from Middle Persian to Arabic, and there is information in surviving Arabic books that seems to derive from these translations. This Indian input was probably most significant in the realm of mathematics, notably the well-known invention of zero. The Greeks, as is known, generally thought of mathematics in the language of geometry. Arithmetical relations were conceived mostly in terms of the ratio between lines of differing lengths or the like. The invention of zero meant that mediaeval and modern mathematics can deal more transparently with abstract arithmetical and algebraic concepts. The second great achievement of ancient Indian mathematics was the replacement of the Greek chord by the Indian sine as the basis of trigonometry. This too came to the West via the Near East. [4]

It should also be mentioned that in the 13th and 14th centuries, following the Mongol invasion, that is to say in the period when Western Asia and China formed, for the first and only time in history, two provinces of the same great empire, there was a period of perhaps a hundred years which witnessed a significant influx of scientific knowledge, specifically in astronomy, medicine and technology, from China to Western Asia. In this context one thinks in particular of the work of the Persian astronomer Nasir ad-din Tusi.This migration of ideas was, as far as I can see, almost entirely one-sided. Chinese science and technology migrated westward, but there was no significant reception, at least in this period, of Near Eastern or Hellenic science in China. The pax mongolica was, in any event, of brief duration. After the conversion of the Il-khans, the Mongol regents of Persia, to Sunnite Islam Persia and its dependencies isolated themselves politically and culturally from the realm of the Great Khan in China and the flow of knowledge from Eastern to Western Asia dried up.

What all of this means is that science in the mediaeval Islamic world encompassed influences from both West and East, from Hellenic civilisation (with its obvious Babylonian and Egyptian sources and components), from pre-Islamic Persia and India, and later also from China. The merging of these multifaceted impulses is a specific feature of classical Islamic civilisation and one of its principal strengths. But this too needs to be seen in its proper context. The scientific culture of mediaeval Islam was first and foremost the offspring of the Hellenised civilisation of late-antique Western Asia. The influences from Persia, India and China were very much less significant. This can be seen most tangibly by comparing the enormous number of scientific books translated from Greek and Syriac with the small number of books translated from Middle Persian and Sanskrit (one could, if one wanted, count the titles in both categories enumerated in the late 10th-century Fihrist of an-Nadim), but it can be measured also on the content of Arabic scientific writings. I would venture to claim that of the corpus of scientific knowledge that existed in the mediaeval Islamic world some ninety percent is likely to have had its roots in Near Eastern Hellenism, five percent perhaps to have come from further east, and at best five percent was the product of original scientific thinking in the Islamic world. The most important original thinking was, incidentally, in the most abstract sciences, that is to say in mathematics (with its important Indian leven) and physics, and to a certain extent also in mathematical astronomy. But purely abstract speculation is perhaps the field of human endeavour that is least prone to being swayed by the storms of military history and religious dogmatism.

François de Blois


In October 2001 I was invited to speak on ‘Greek and Indian influences on scientific thinking in the Islamic world’, on the second day of a two-day symposium on ‘Science in History: Global collaboration in developing our common heritage’, held at Manchester Metropolitan University as part of its programme of Adult Continuing Education in Multicultural Studies. The following is, slightly revised, the paper that I prepared for presentation at that gathering, though I did not actually deliver it in this form. In the course of the first day of the proceedings it became clear to me that this contribution would not go down well with the audience and I decided to replace it by a considerably watered-down oral presentation of some of the same ideas. Even in that form, my remarks provoked a good deal of controversy. I take this opportunity to thank the organiser of the symposium, Mr Burjor Avari, for his hospitality and the other speakers at the gathering, and to the audience, for their stimulating remarks. I am also very much obliged to my friend Dr Raymond Mercier for his very frank and highly critical written comments on a draft of the paper. I have accommodated some, but probably not enough, of his points in the course of subsequent revision.


The best overview of his life and work is still the article by P. Kraus and Sh. Pines, “Râzî”, in the old edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (the corresponding article in the new edition is no improvement). Some points of detail are discussed in my paper, “Shuhayd al-Balkhî, a poet and philosopher of the time of "Râzî”, BSOAS 59, 1996, 333-7. Râzî’s astonishing critique of Galen, ash-Shuqûq 'alâ Jâlînûs, has recently been published, for the first time ever, in Tehran.


Both categories of translations are discussed in the article “Tardjama, III, (translations from Middle Persian)” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, new edition, and in the literature mentioned there.


For the last point see my remarks (in English) apud A. Panaino, Tessere il cielo, Rome 1998, 155-7.

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