Corlett Novis explores the frequently overlooked history of medieval Islamic science and how it can help us better appreciate one of the world’s largest faiths.
Our age has become defined, in part, by a revival of disparaging views about certain faiths. Associations with terrorism, primaeval traditions and dictatorial regimes have skewed our collective understanding of the identity and history of one of the world’s largest faiths and cultures. Islam has a history rich with beauty, enlightenment and scientific progress, and the following figures found no conflict between their faith and the science they practised, instead perceiving their religious beliefs to be an important part of their scientific and academic work.
Avicenna (or Ibn Sīnāas he was known in Arabia) was a widely influential 11th-century polymath contributing to such disparate fields as Chemistry, Geology, Mathematics, Astronomy, Psychology and even Theology. Avicenna not only described the formation of mountains and valleys, but also the movement of planets and the transmutation of substances through alchemy. His influence over medicine was so far-reaching, both geographically and historically, that his medical texts survived for hundreds of years in Europe long after the decline of his own scientific era. Avicenna also stressed the scientific importance of a method of “experimentation as a means for scientific inquiry” rather than a dogmatic adherence to the knowledge of the ancients. It wouldn’t be until the time of the Scientific Revolution hundreds of years later that Europeans would hold the same belief.
Al-Razi was another prolific polymath whose work had seemingly no limitations. His achievements range from being a pioneer in ophthalmology to being the first to distil a variety of chemical compounds like sulfuric acid in around the 9th Century. Also believed to be the founding father of paediatrics, Al-Razi is considered by historians to have been the most important medical scholar in the Arabic world: like Avicenna, his medical texts survived in Europe long after his death. Al-Razi even went as far as to write about medical ethics, attacking charlatans for their fake remedies. The debate around fake medicine is so timeless that it still happens today with respect to traditional medicine and homeopathy.
To Westerners, Averroes (or Ibn Rushd) is perhaps the best known of the golden-age scholars of ancient Islam, and even then his name is still unfamiliar to many in Europe. Averroes’ 12th-century commentaries on Aristotle and Plato contributed dramatically to the Renaissance in Europe and were very popular among intellectuals during this period. More important to the Islamic world, Averroes was outspoken about the compatibility between science and faith, frequently arguing that the two were complimentary forces. Averroes even went as far as to argue in his book ‘The Harmony of Religion and Philosophy’ that God’s divine law demanded that the able-minded study science to further the common good and to better understand His creation.