Science & Islam

saiI have never accepted the proposition that science started with Galileo and Newton. Or that it grew out of Christianity. This just seems to be a Eurocentric and Christian chauvinist distortion of history.

The BBC documentary series Science and Islam will help to break down these misunderstandings. Jim Al-Khalili fronts the documentary. He is a physicist from the University of Surrey and author of the book Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed. Science and Islam is a 3-part series and in episode 1, “The Language of Science,” Jim Al-Khalili describes the “translation movement’ – the translation of Egyptian,  Greek, Persian, Indian and Chinese scientific sources into Arabic. This helped preserve the ideas for later exploitation. But it is important to stress that this wasn’t passive.  Islamic medieval societies also contributed to science – especially in areas of mathematics, medicine and map making.

In Episode 2 “The Empire of Reason” Al Khalili discusses the origins of chemistry, measurement of the circumference of the earth and the immense contribution of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham – who he describes as the inventor of the scientific method. Fascinating!

Can we now look forward to a similar treatment of the history of science in Greek, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese societies?

My hat tip to Science & relgion News

Science and Islam: Episode 1 – The Language of Science Part 1

Here are the remaining parts of the first episode: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

Science and Islam: Episode 2 -The Empire of Reason

Part 1,   Part 2,    Part 4,     Part 5,     Part 6.

See also:
Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science Lecture by George Saliba
from Hampshire College Science and Religion Lecture series

Video playlists:
Science and Islam: The Language of Science
Science and Islam: The Empire of Reason
Science and Islam: The Power of Doubt

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10 responses to “Science & Islam

  1. Thanks for the pointer to this documentary. It really is quite fascinating in a whole bunch of ways. I had already been aware of the significance of Muslim scholars but it is still great to have all of these ideas presented together in this format.


  2. Pingback: The Haygoods - - Canon In D | Canon In D Major

  3. Hi Ken,

    I am not sure and have not watched the documentaries, but I think that when people attribute the beginning of science to Galileo they mean the systematic approach to hypothesizing and collecting evidence through experimentation.

    Of course scientific thought have existed even from the ancient Greeks, but Galileo put everything together, most important of all experimentation, abstraction, and mathematical support.


  4. Also, Jim Al-Khalili’s “Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed” makes for a quite interesting read as motivation to get deeper into Quantum physics.


  5. Jim Al-Khalili is correct: Ibn al-Haytham did use a systematic approach to testing hypotheses with experimentation. The inventor of analytic geometry, he also incorporated higher mathematics into his work–all this six hundred years before Galileo, who, along with other scientists in Europe, was familiar with Ibn al-Haytham’s experiments through the translation of his Book of Optics. Anyone interested in learning more about this great man is invited to read my 2007 book, Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist. A sample chapter of the book is posted on my website. Enjoy!


  6. Bradley – I want to recommend your book to our local library for purchase. Can you tell me it it is aimed at children (presumably young adults) or adults?



  7. The Eurocentric and Christian orientation of history as taught to schools students in the “West” has bothered me for years. Not just for science history, either. One of my favourite accounts is that of Ibn Battutah’s travels.

    It’s appalling just how biased this presentation of history really is. To be fair, it is hard to include all of history, there is rather a lot of it, but it’s omitting far too much to be comfortable and his horribly close to being self-promotional its writing out of the roles of others.

    Having said that, I think there is caution needed against swinging too far in the opposite direction, too. Rather like how a little too much is sometimes attributed to the Chinese in a sort of hyped-up mystical “Far East knowledge” thing.

    FWIW, I have visited one or two of the old science sites in Central Asia, e.g. Ulugh Beg’s observatory near Samarkand.

    Excuse me if I’m name-dropping, but I have fond memories of these trips! 🙂


  8. I agree with you, Heraclides, about the dangers of swinging too far in the opposite direction. Too much of that goes on.

    The old science sites in Central Asia sounds very interesting. I couldn’t help thinking, while watch Science and Islam, how disappointing for me it is not to have visited such places.

    Perhaps there is an untapped market for science tourism?


  9. Ken,

    Thank you for your interest in my book.

    It was written for young adults. The reading level is grades 5-8 (U.S.), but the book is designed to appeal to high schoolers, as well. I don’t really write “down” to that level; it pretty much is where I like to keep my prose anyway–about the same as newspapers and magazines. Basically, I just write the best book I can. I believe that many adults would enjoy it, too. You can read a sample chapter that includes a description of Ibn al-Haytham‘s most famous experiment on my website.

    If the library orders from me, I would be happy to inscribe and sign the book.


  10. @8:

    Perhaps there is an untapped market for science tourism? Probably is, but I can’t help but think it’d be a pretty select market! I make a habit of tracking down universities and science sites when I’m in off-beat countries. Nothing obsessive, it’s just I’ve found that there is a “connection” between university people around the world that les you connect with the local scientists and gets you past the usual tourist, view-their-country-at-a-distance thing. Once I’ve finished this dratted grant application, I might start scheming another “hare-brained” trip…

    [off-topic] Those interested in reductionism, etc, might like the discussion in this blog article:


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