Essay: Depiction of the development of Arabic Islamic sciences by the example of medicine

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Im folgenden findet ihr ein kurzen Essay zur islamischen Kulturgeschichte in englischer Sprache.


Essay: Depiction of the development of Arabic Islamic sciences by the example of medicine




September 11th2001 marked the beginning of a new era. With the attacks against the World Trade Center and its consequences a strong focus emerged on the Islamic world. Muslim minorities in Western civilizations were more than ever confronted with questions about Islam, religiously motivated violence and the religion’s history. As a result many Orientals[1] asked, “Why is our civilization in this mess? What went wrong?”. They also wanted to know their impact on history and wondered, “What did Orientals contribute to and achieve in the history of mankind?”. Many began researching these questions. Within the dominion of the former Islamic Empire, they found a diverse mixture of different creeds and ethnicities. These people had adopted the old sciences, preserved them and found new methods to deal with current questions[2]. During this process the Oriental culture of sciences passed through different phases: First, there was an adoption of ancient knowledge (1st phase), followed by a fruitful spirit of inventiveness (2nd phase) which contributed the Oriental part to the world’s history of science. The Oriental innovations were assimilated by the Western[3] world (3rd phase) but were then unfortunately followed by a phase of stagnation (4th phase).


I will give a rough overview for each of these phases and explain them on the basis of examples. The phases lasted over different periods of time—decades or even centuries—and were characterized by different religious and non-religious scientists. My focus is set on medical sciences. My goal is to point to the universality of science throughout different religions, different cultures and different ethnicities which affect one another and critically absorb each other’s findings and knowledge.


In the closure I will go by the question of what the Oriental world can do to tie in with science in the modern age again. I try to suggest solutions to find out how the Orient can regain its old greatness like a phoenix from the ashes.


1st phase: Absorbing knowledge

In the 7th century the Oriental world began absorbing the existing knowledge of other cultures. During this century, according to Islam, the last Prophet, Mohammad, started to preach. After his death his companions started to spread to greek-roman areas such as Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Northern Africa, Mesopotamia, Persia, Spain and Sicily. Through warfare these lands quickly became part of the Islamic Empire. Nevertheless, many Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others lived in these newly acquired lands and worked in its administrations[4]. Their sciences, especially concerning medical fields, were far better developed than the ones the new rulers and populations brought along. Therefore, this wide knowledge had to be transferred into the Arabic language and culture. The newly arrived Orientals shared an enormous willingness to adopt this knowledge.

Many different cultures and ethnicities shared this process of adoption. For example, during the 6th century a medical educational book had been written in Greek language, which was then—at the beginning of the 7th century—translated into Syrian language and was finally—at the end of the 7th century—also transcribed into the Arabic language. A Jewish scholar took on this task and in the process also added two chapters[5]. At the same time, Physicians in the town of Gundisapur, the center of knowledge in the Persian territory, translated further Syrian and Greek medical texts into the Arabic language[6]. Some of those physicians were also called to Bagdad to practice and teach there[7]. They built the “house of wisdom” in Bagdad, a science academy following the example of the Academy of Gundisapur. Through gathering more knowledge little by little the new Oriental rulers took over the health care system, hospitals and schools of the previous Emperors in the acquired lands[8].

The most important figure in connection with the translations of medical works was a Nestorian Christian called Hnain ibn Ishaq. Being a pharmacist’s son he had traveled to many different regions and had learned to speak different languages prior to returning to the “house of wisdom”. He influenced the Arabic scientific language by adopting Greek terms. He translated in a conceptual way rather than on a word for word-basis. Because of his more than one hundred translated books and some own manuscripts he played a major role both in the “house of wisdom” and also in the exploration of scientific methods in the Oriental culture[9]. The most important text he translated was Galen’s “methodi gelendi”, one of the highly influential medical texts of all times.


2ndphase: Building knowledge

Once it could be read by Orientals, Galen’s text was subsequently criticized by a Persian called Abu Bakr ar-Razi, one of the most important characters in the phase of building knowledge. The developments in medicine and pharmacy in the 9th Century were highly linked to this man. His works influenced these two branches of science. He accomplished to establish new medical approaches for example on optical perception. Ar-Razi also wrote books in different fields of sciences such as natural sciences and philosophy. His biggest achievement was the medical work called “Kitab al-Hawi”[10].

Another crucial work was written by an Arab Muslim called Abul Qasim Halaf ibn al-Abbas az-Zahrawi in Andalus[11]. His achievements in surgery and surgical instruments were enormous[12]. In ophthalmology the Christian Isa al-Kahhal brought forth substantial progress[13]. The Persian Ibn Sina wrote a book called “Qanun” which until the 17th century was said to be the most important medical teaching book[14]. At the same time Ibn Gulgul composed a basic work on medical history comprising different cultures. It explains how science progressed from the ancient times until the time Ibn Gulgul lived during the 10th century[15]. In the next century followed the well-known Jewish scholar Maimonides, who wrote over 10 medical books in the Arabic language and worked as a court physician for Salahaddin al-Ayubi[16].

Another outstanding figure of the late 10th century was the Persian Muslim Ibn al-Haitham (in Western texts mostly known as Alhazen). He concerned himself with different sciences such as physics, astronomy, and mathematics and achieved significant progress in all of them. For example, he invented the camera obscura in the scientific field of optics, which equates the well-known pinhole camera that is still crafted by many students today. His work was characterized by empirical studies and experiments. In his “book of optics” he describes the eye’s construction and from there on develops a detailed theory of human vision. He also developed various new methods on the fields of natural sciences and thus laid the cornerstone for further explorations and innovations[17].


3rdphase: Assimilation in the “West”- Sicily, Byzantium and Andalus

It is not surprising that all these perceptions, books and innovations soon found their way into the Western world of sciences again. But how did this happen?

There are a couple of causes to be mentioned: Firstly, the arrival of Western scientists in the back then Islamic Andalusia and Sicilia; secondly, the crusades and the capture of Jerusalem in 1091, which lead to Christian ruling over many parts of Syria and it’s scientific centers; thirdly, the fall of Toledo in 1085 and the conquest of Sicilia by the Normans 1091. These events formed the beginning of the reception in Europe[18].

The first translations were therefore written in Salerno in the late 11th century[19]. The Norman king Roger I. incorporated the Oriental sciences into his kingdom after conquering Sicilia[20]. Emperor Friedrich II. then carried on the dialogue by asking the still known “Sicilian Questions” to Ibn Sbin and other scholars. The questions concerned with natural sciences, philosophy and theology[21].

The second and third wave of reception of the Oriental knowledge began in the first half of the 12th century when Toledo was still a part of the Oriental culture and continued on during the second half of the 12th century when Toledo was already under Christian rule[22]. The translation of Ibn Sina’s “Qanun” became the basis of principle rules of scientific medicine[23]. The translation of different Arabic manuscripts into Latin concerning all kinds of sciences found its peak during the 12th and 13th century in Andalusia[24].

One very important person of the 13th century was Alfons XI. from Castile. Under his rule many translations were conducted and institutions for sciences were founded[25]. In the French area, for example at the “school of Toulouse”, many intellectuals—mainly Jews—played a major role in the translation of Arabic manuscripts. They translated the texts into Hebrew and Latin[26].

Oriental sciences also reached England. Important figures were Adelard of Bath and Robert Grosseteste. Of Bath traveled some Oriental countries such as Syria and translated Arabic texts into Latin[27]. Grosseteste brought the Oriental sciences to Oxford University[28].

The development in Byzantium took place in two steps: Firstly, from the 9th to 13th century and secondly, from the 13th to the 14th century[29]. Professor Sezgin writes, “After the process of introducing the Arabic astronomy to Byzantium during the 11th and 12th century had been quite successful, the further urge for development was not only interrupted by the Latin crusaders in Constantinople (1204-1261) but also did the acquired translations disappear. But it did not take long until at the turn from the 13th to the 14th century there grew a new interest in Oriental sciences. This time it found its’ way to Constantinople from the East.”[30]. The reception of Islamic sciences in Byzantium connected middle and Eastern Europe to Persia so that new scientific progress quickly reached Europe[31].

In medical fields an Arab called Constantinus Africanus played a major role. He owned a couple of medical manuscripts which he collected on his journeys through the Orient. He and his older brothers in Salerno translated them during the first wave of reception. He passed off the Latin translations as his own books and some as written by Greek scientists. Among those books was Ali ibn al-Abbas al-Magusi’s handbook. Historians today argue why Constantinus Africanus did this. Some think that the Western civilizations would not have been open to the books had they known they were written by Muslims. Others think he wanted to pride himself with the accomplishments, which seems reasonable as he also claimed some books to be by himself which had been written by Christians, i.e. the “book of ophthalmology” by Hunain ibn Ishaq[32].

As shown the phase of reception was lively and full of exchange between different cultures and ethnicities.


4thphase: Stagnation

The more surprising it seems that this phase was followed by such harsh stagnation. While the Western nations grew in political and cultural importance the Orient fell behind.

The crusaders deported weapons technology from the Orient to the Occident and developed it further for their own better use[33]. In the meantime, the Mongol invasions of Europe lead to destruction of libraries and scientific centers (for example the above mentioned “house of wisdom”). The ongoing defeats in Portugal and Spain (especially Toledo) resulted in the annihilation of Oriental rulership in Grenada in 1492. Nevertheless, in the 17th century the Iberian Peninsula played a leading role in preserving the scientific heritage under Christian rule. The Europeans began expanding. Among others through the discovery of the American continent as well as the circumnavigation of Cape Horn, Europe’s leading political and military relevance grew steadily[34].

In the meantime the Oriental world, on the opposite, remained static. Sciences became less important and innovations and inventions stayed absent. Also, the absorption of foreign inventions did not take place any longer. One very vivid example is the (non-)use of the letterpress for the spreading of scientific knowledge. When in the 8th century Oriental troops reached Central Asia, they brought home the knowledge on producing paper. Until then they had written on parchment, papyrus or leather. Paper was soon widespread in the Oriental sciences. The production process was copied by Western rulers during the 13th/14th century[35]. But when Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 developed the letterpress, the first Hebrew letterpress was used in 1493, but the Orientals did not adopt this helpful innovation. The reason for this was that Oriental rulers prohibited printing in Arabic script on death penalty due to religious qualms. This prohibition was loosened and only kept up for religious texts in the early 18th century but still it took until 1831until eventually the first Arabic letterpress was brought to the Orientals by a Hungarian called Ibrahim Müteferrika[36].

In the recent past other circumstances added to the stagnation of sciences. Religious restrictions merged with civil wars, newly formed militias as well as unstable states and ended up making the Orient too risky to be a center of attraction and exchange for Western scientists. Scientific progress came to a lasting halt.



Looking at the development of the Oriental civilizations and especially the more recent phase of stagnation, different points are conspicuous to have been the reason why these civilizations played an important role in the history of sciences:

The different ethnicities and religious denominations were able to adopt the existing knowledge, use and expand it. This shows that an open exchange of knowledge with Roman-Greek scientists was possible and fruitful. As stated above translations were a very important part of this process. In the present-days the practice of translating foreign-language scientific texts is conducted much less than in earlier centuries. Orientals are missing an awareness for their own cultural history and their role in the history of sciences. A reanimation of the Oriental world through technical and scientific books, practices and instruments in their ancestors’ spirit is necessary but also possible.

The Islamic world is in a post-colonial era. The independence of the respective states did not lead to stable nations, in which Oriental communities have the freedom to articulate, gather or expand knowledge. Since their independence the Oriental countries have been shaped by dictatorships, revolutions, revolts and corruption. Since the Arabic spring various developments can be witnessed, which have either lead to civil wars, counter revolutions, military coups or the attempted symbiosis of the Islamic religion and democratic principles. Neither one resulted in positive outcomes for scientific research or knowledge enhancement. The oriental nations can only pass the current phase of stagnation when finding back their former thirst for knowledge and receiving more aid for a positive development.

Orientals need to recollect themselves to their successful times of scientific exchange by reopening institutions such as the “house of wisdom” or reviving mosques as places of cultural commutation. As many Oriental countries have been shaped by the above mentioned events Western Muslims will play a major role in this process. They live in a multi-ethnical, cultural and religious society and can bring along their positive experiences from thereon. They can thus lead nowadays Oriental societies back to their roots. Centuries ago the Orientals learned from foreign scientists. Today they need to take up that practice again.

What it takes for this process to be successful is self-confident, free and stable states which are open enough to let everyone study different sciences. These states must have rulers that care most of all about the people’s prosperity instead of their own wealth. But also the people itself, foundations and other institutions need to create a framework for people to study without financial or humanly restrictions. We all need to know that the history of sciences was formed by a broad variety of cultures and religions and that no people have the right to claim these achievements for them themselves. Muslims and Non-Muslims together must find a way to revive their inventiveness, creativity and innovativeness in the spirit of our common ancestors who have always advanced together, not separately.




Kreiser, K., & Neumann, C. K. (2005). Kleine Geschichte der Türkei. Bonn: Philipp Reclam jun.

Leven, K.-H. (2008). Geschichte der Medizin – Von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. München: C.H.Beck.

Schipperges, H. (1964). Die Assimilation der arabischen Medizin durch das lateinische Mittelalter. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.

Sezgin, F. (2003). Wissenschaft und Technik im Islam, Bd.1 – 5. Frankfurt am Main: Institut für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften. (PDF

Steinschneider, M. (1960). Die Arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlangsanstalt.

Strohmaier, G. (1996). Die Rezeption und die Vermittlung – die Medizin in der byzantinischen und in der arabischen Welt. In: Die Geschichte des medizinischen Denkens . Antike und Mittelalterhrsg. v. M. D. Grmek. München: C.H.Beck

Watt, M. W. (2002). Der Einfluß des Islam auf das europäische Mittelalter. Berlin: Wagenbach



[1]             The term „Orientals“ is hereafter used to collectively and more legibly describe the people belonging to Islamic religion as well as Arabic ethnities.

[2]             See for example “1001 Inventions and The Library of Secrets” [31.12.2014]

[3]             The term “Western” is used in differentiation to the term “Orientals”, i.e. it means the people that do not belong to the group of Orientals but are mainly (non-Islamic) Europeans or North Americans.

[4]             Watt, Einfluss S. 14 – 22. Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.2-3.

[5]             Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.4.

[6]             Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.5-9.

[7]             Strohmaier, Rezeption und Vermittlung, S. 157 – 158. Ullmann, Medizin im Islam S. 115 – 117.

[8]             Watt, Einfluss S. 55 -56.

[9]             Ullmann, Medizin im Islam S. 115 – 117.

[10]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.17-18. Watt, Einfluss S. 58.

[11]           Ullmann, Medizin im Islam S. 149 – 150.

[12]           Watt, Einfluss S. 59. Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 95 – 96.

[13]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.32.

[14]           Ullmann, Medizin im Islam S. 152 – 154. Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.31-32.

[15]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.23.

[16]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.27/171.

[17]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.25 – 31.

[18]           Watt, Einfluss S. 70 – 83.

[19]           Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 49 – 54.

[20]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, 145 – 146.

[21]           Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 166 – 172.

[22]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.93 – 95 Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 85 – 88/99 – 103.

[23]           Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 93.

[24]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.89.

[25]           Watt, Einfluss S. 86. Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 86.

[26]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, 96 – 97. Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 123 – 129.

[27]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.97 -98.

[28]           Schipperges, Die Assimilation, S. 160.

[29]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.156 – 157.

[30]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.157.

[31]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.159 [translated by the author].

[32]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S.90 – 99.

[33]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S150.

[34]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S172 – 175.

[35]           Sezgin, Islam und Technik Bd.1, S175 – 179.

[36]           Kreiser, Kleine Geschichte der Türkei, S.265.

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  1. Abdullah

    Assalamu alaykum
    interessanter Beitrag geehrter Bruder