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History of Science Islamic and early medieval science

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 7: Islamic and Early Medieval Science

Reading 1: Arabic science

# Due Date Pts Activity Time
2 Wednesday 11:59 p.m. 15

Islamic science

2 hrs.

Without a doubt, there were many more scientists in the middle ages than in Greek and Roman antiquity, and many of them wrote in Arabic. We will spend the next three weeks getting to know a few of these medieval scientists in Europe and the Middle East. In this assignment we will focus on medieval Islamic scientists. For an introduction to Islamic science, read the following:

  1. Watch the video at Janux introducing Islamic science.
  2. Supplementary notes on Islamic science by Kerry Magruder (includes timeline). I prepared these notes because casual readers of Lindberg's text might seriously misinterpret his discussion of Islamic science. For example, near the beginning of the 20th century, Pierre Duhem wrote: "There is no Arabic science. The wise men of Mohammedanism were always the more or less faithful disciples of the Greeks, but were themselves destitute of all originality" (quoted in Lindberg, 1st ed., p. 175). The last half-century of scholarship in the history of science has made Duhem's conclusion untenable. My notes provide an overview of some of the issues involved.
  3. David Lindberg, Beginnings of Western Science,

Note that by "Islamic" science we are referring to the natural knowledge of anyone who wrote in Arabic, regardless of whether they were Muslims or ethnically Arabic. People who wrote in Arabic might be Jewish, European, Persian, African, etc. Although the culture was thoroughly pervaded by Islamic religious sensibilities, we might just as easily refer to Islamic science as Arabic-language science, for many Jewish, Christian and pagan writers contributed to the cosmopolitan Islamic culture. Arabic was the "lingua franca" of the time. In this course we will use Islamic science and Arabic science interchangeably.

Cf. Dates to remember.


TOPIC QUIZ: The statements are either True or False. When you take the quiz at Janux, you will see 12 of these statements, chosen at random, worth 2 points each.

  1. T or F ? When the Roman empire split into two east and west regions, the Byzantine empire in the east suffered more economic decline, social upheaval and political disruption due to invasion than the Latin West.
  2. T or F? Constantinople fell to invaders long before the city of Rome itself.
  3. T or F? Simplicius (Simplikios) was an important Byzantine Neoplatonic physicist and cosmologist in the 6th century.
  4. T or F? The Christian John Philoponos (Philoponus) argued strongly for the authority of Aristotle in the 6th century.
  5. T or F? According to Lindberg, religion played a decisive role in obstructing the spread of Greek learning.
  6. T or F? In part due to the influence of the Nestorians, 6th century Persian intellectuals developed an appetite for Greek learning.
  7. T or F? Christian translators, scientists, and physicians in Persian and Islamic cultures were invariably forced by the sword to convert to the surrounding Persian or Islamic religions.
  8. T or F? Over a period lasting nearly a thousand years, and encouraged by Nestorian influence, Greek texts were translated into Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic in widespread use in the Middle East.
  9. T or F? From the time of its writing in the 7th century, the Qur’an (Koran) helped to stabilize Arabic as a written language.
  10. T or F? In the 8th century, with al-Mansur and the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad, Islamic culture became transformed into a centralized state that required the participation of intellectuals with diverse ethnic identities and varied religious persuasions.
  11. T or F? The grandson of al-Mansur, Harun ar-Rashid, maintained a Christian physician in his court.
  12. T or F? Al-Ma’mun, Harun’s son, founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad where Hunayn ibn Ishaq led a collaborative effort to translate scientific works into Arabic and Syriac.
  13. T or F? Thabit ibn Qurra translated the Almagest of Ptolemy into Arabic in the 12th century.
  14. T or F? In Islamic culture, fields of learning were divided into two categories: the traditional disciplines based on the Qu’ran; and the foreign sciences based on reason and critical discussion.
  15. T or F? The “appropriation thesis” interprets the role of science in Islamic culture as marginal because of its status as a handmaiden to theology and the traditional disciplines.
  16. T or F? Lindberg argues that Greek learning found a secure institutional home in Islamic culture through the madrasas, which functioned as the equivalent to medieval universities.
  17. T or F? Pierre Duhem’s interpretation of the role of science in Islamic culture was closer to the marginality thesis than the appropriation thesis.
  18. T or F? Lindberg argues that the writing of commentaries on Greek scientific works may sometimes count as original contributions to the development of science.
  19. T or F? Important Islamic contributors to the development of Ptolemaic astronomy include Ibn al-Haytham, al-Farghani, Thabit ibn Qurra, and al-Battani.
  20. T or F? For at least 500 years after the initial efforts at translation, Islamic scientists continued to advance the development of every branch of Greek science.
  21. T or F? Centers of Islamic activity in the sciences stretched from Baghdad in the east, to Cairo in Egypt, and as far away as Cordoba in Spain.
  22. T or F? Lindberg attributes the decline of Islamic science in part to the loss of peace, prosperity and patronage.
  23. T or F? Most scholars in Islamic culture were ethnically Arab in origin.
  24. T or F? Madrasas incorporated mathematical and astronomical instruction to support their programs of religious instruction.
  25. T or F? Qibla refers to the calculation of appropriate times of prayer.
  26. T or F? Astronomical observatories illustrate the importance of astronomy for the traditional sciences.
  27. T or F? Astronomers of the Maragha observatory developed a model of the motion of the Moon that was used by Copernicus.
  28. T or F? Ibn Rushd (or Averroes) wrote the Canon, an important medical treatise.
  29. T or F? Ibn Sina (or Avicenna) wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Aristotelian corpus.
  30. T or F? Arabic astronomers criticized Ptolemy for geometrical devices like the equant that could not be represented by physical models.
  31. T or F? Astronomical instruments at Samarqand were larger than those of Tycho Brahe.
  32. T or F? Ali Qushji demonstrated propositions essential to Copernicus around 1430, and affirmed the possibility of the motion of the Earth.
  33. T or F? Islamic scientists continued to develop the alternative to Aristotle’s theory of natural motion proposed by John Philoponos, which became known as impetus theory and is similar to 17th century concepts of inertia.


"If he shall not lose his reward who gives a cup of cold water to his thirsty neighbor, what will not be the reward of those who by putting books into the hands of those neighbors, open to them the fountains of eternal life?” Thomas à Kempis

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux