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Myth buster

Rediscovering Islam's forgotten scientific contributions
March 4, 2009
Astronomers at work in the Istanbul Observatory (1577-80).

Courtesy of Istanbul University Library

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Mongolian invaders and Christian crusaders mounted countless attacks on the Muslim Middle East. This caused great disruption in a number of Islamic societies. One response in certain regions was the rise of leaders who imposed restrictive Islamic orthodoxy.

Many historians believed this was the point when the Muslim world began turning its back on rational thought, including its once progressive advances in science. But F. Jamil Ragep, a science historian at McGill University, is helping to dispel this myth.

The pursuit of science was robust in the Middle East in the 9th and 10th centuries. In Baghdad, for example, sciences such as medicine, astronomy and mathematics flourished. In fact, almost all the stars in the sky have Arabic names, thanks to 10th-century Muslim astronomers, and the mathematics later developed by Muslim scientists was essential to Copernicus’s 16th-century theory of a sun-centred solar system. 

This rich scientific foundation was not easily destroyed, argues Ragep, Canada Research Chair in the History of Science in Islamic Societies. “There are literally tens of thousands of manuscripts throughout the world which document that Islamic science did not die in 1200 but that it actually started thriving again in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

When Ragep studied Islamic science as a graduate student at Harvard University 25 years ago, many thought he was wasting his time looking for something that didn’t exist. But since then, he has discovered such a wealth of scientific treasures in the Middle East that he is creating a massive database to document his finds — a sort of map of buried treasure.

F. Jamil Ragep
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F. Jamil Ragep
F. Jamil Ragep

The Islamic Scientific Manuscripts Initiative, as he calls it, will catalogue the ever-growing stockpile of historic Islamic scientific manuscripts from the Muslim world — from Spain to China — between the 8th and 19th centuries. In collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, Ragep has produced a first draft of the database containing 1,100 authors and hundreds of manuscripts, and more work is expected in coming years.

“Those of us who are working on this material feel it is important to get it out there,” says Ragep. “I can’t read all these works; they’re very complex. But what we can do is show the metadata, the lay of the land, and establish a foundation for the next generations who come along to study these in more detail.”

The project has already yielded surprising discoveries about how information was transmitted centuries ago. Sciences such as astronomy and mathematics, for example, were being taught regularly at Islamic religious schools, or madrasas. And Ragep says it is likely that scientific information was spread from Europe to Asia through the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Some scholars argue that notable discoveries from the Islamic culture were made by individual intellectuals toiling away in isolation.

“If you take all this material, document it and put it in a database, you suddenly see that it was not just a lone genius,” says Ragep. “There were dozens and dozens of people reading, writing texts and studying.”

Figure used by 15th-century astronomer, Ali
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Figure utilisée par l’astronome du 15e siècle Ali Qushjī, Fī anna aṣl al-khārij… illustre le passage d’une cosmologie géocentrique à une cosmologie copernicienne, sans doute apparue à Samarkand, en Ouzbékistan, vers 1430.
Courtesy of the Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul, Turkey

Ingrid Hehmeyer, an associate professor of the history of science and technology at Toronto’s Ryerson University, has also battled ignorance of Islam’s proud scientific tradition, and she believes that Ragep’s efforts will offer some clarity.

“We try to remind people that there’s an enormous wealth of knowledge we haven’t paid any attention to,” she says.

Her own work in Yemen has uncovered many historical manuscripts in the most remote private libraries. “There are treasures there that nobody is aware of because these private libraries are not catalogued,” says Hehmeyer. She believes this material will become increasingly available through Ragep’s work. “And people are going pick up that this is happening in the Middle East. These treasures buried there that might revolutionize our understanding of science.”

Both Hehmeyer and Ragep have seen an increased interest in Islamic science history since the September 11 attacks.

“In a weird way, it’s been a golden age for the study of Islamic science,” says Ragep. “I never thought that anyone would care all that much about my work, but within a few months of 9/11, I was interviewed extensively and asked to give talks in all sorts of places. There has been a great reception to the idea that Islam is not completely hostile to rationality, that it’s more complex. And people in general have given it a hearing.”

And hearing the truth is the first step to debunking one of history’s greatest myths.