Science and Math

Welcome to Horace Mann's webpage on:

Science & Mathematics in Medieval Islamic Cultures

Introduction: There were astonishing (surprising) achievements by Muslim scholars (people who study, students) and scientists during the period from approximately 750 to 1050 A.D. This period is called a "Golden Age" of the Islamic World. Great advances were made in the Abbasid Islamic Empire (with its capital in Baghdad) even up to 1258 when the Mongols invaded the empire and destroyed its capital. Great achievements also continued in Muslim Spain, in Cairo, Egypt at later time periods, but the glorious "Golden Age" was the best period for science and mathematics. These achievements greatly influenced learning in Europe, as well. Without the Muslim achievements at this time, much of the learning from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt would have been lost forever.



I. Why was there a Golden Age?

What were the factors (all the reasons) that brought about a "Golden Age"? Why did it end? [The following is a simplification and reworking of an article from "Islamic History in Arabia and the Middle East: The Legacy" and other sources. Also see The Golden Age of Islam.]


A. Encouragement of Scholarship (studying) within Islam

The Muslims were encouraged by the Prophet Muhammad himself to "seek learning even as far as China". In the area of medicine, the Prophet Muhammad also encouraged a scientific approach. He said, "For every disease, Allah has given a cure," and scientists were encouraged to find those cures. This attitude toward learning and research was a powerful reason that science developed so much under Islam. Moreover, Islam encouraged learning in order to read the Qur'an, which begins: "Recite!" (which is also translated: "Read!").

Here are some more Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) which encouraged learning:

"He who pursues the road of knowledge Allah will direct to the road of Paradise... The brightness of a learned man compared to that of a mere worshiper is like that of a the full moon compared to all the stars.... Obtain knowledge; its possessor can distinguish right from wrong; it shows the way to Heaven; it befriends us in the desert and in solitude, and when we are friendless; it is our guide to happiness; it gives us strength in misery; it is an ornament to friends, protection against enemies.... The scholar's ink is holier than the martyr's blood.... Seeking knowledge is required of every Muslim....

From Science in Medieval Islam by H. Turner, University of Texas Press, 1995. Page 17


B. Geographic Unity:

During this period the territory of the Muslim Empire included present-day Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, Spain, parts of Turkey and Turkey, and more! People came from all those lands to Baghdad. This brought about a sharing of ideas from different parts of the world.

The Abbasid Caliphate about 950 A.D.


C. Development of Paper

A third important reason for the Golden Age was the establishment of a paper mill (factory) in Baghdad. Paper was first invented in China and then the Muslims learned how it was made. (Actually Chinese papermakers were taken prisoner and forced to teach their captors how to make paper!) Soon paper replaced parchment (the skin of animals) and papyrus (a plant made into a kind of "paper" in ancient Egypt). The development of paper made it possible for a great many people to get books and learn from them. This was an important advance which affected education and scholarship.

Courtesy, Museum of Paper Making. Also see a map of the History of Paper which shows the slow spread of papermaking through the Middle East, across North Africa, and into Europe.


D. A Unified Language

Another important reason for the "Golden Age" was the development of Arabic into the language of international scholarship. This was one of the most significant events in the history of ideas. Scholars could communicate with one another, and ideas were translated from Greek, Latin, ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and languages from other parts of the world. In the ninth century the Caliph al-Mamun encouraged the translation of Greek and Byzantine knowledge. With the approval of the Byzantine emperor, the caliph sent scholars to select and bring back Greek scientific manuscripts (handwritten works) for translation into Arabic. This knowledge could be read and discussed by scholars from all over the Islamic Empire.

Arabic painting of Socrates, a Greek philosopher

E. "The House of Wisdom - Bayt al-Hikmah"

The House of Wisdom was a place where scholar-translators tried to translate into Arabic the important philosophical and scientific works of the ancient world, especially from Greece and Egypt. They also tried to show how Islam could include exloring new ideas and experiments (rationalism). The House of Wisdom was set up by Caliph al-Mamun in 1004 A.D. in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire. It was the greatest "think tank" the medieval world had ever seen! Without the translations and research that went on here, much of the Greek, Latin, and Egyptian knowledge would have been lost to the world.

The historian al-Maqrizi described the opening of the House of Wisdom in 1004:

" In 1004 A.D. 'The House of Wisdom' was opened. The students took up their residence. The books were brought from [many other] libraries ... and the public was admitted. Whosoever wanted was at liberty to copy any book he wished to copy, or whoever required to read a certain book found in the library could do so. Scholars studied the Qur'an, astronomy, grammar, lexicography and medicine. The building was, moreover, adorned by carpets, and all doors and corridors had curtains, and managers, servants, porters and other menials were appointed to maintain the establishment. Out of the library of Caliph al-Hakim those books were brought which he had gathered-- books in all sciences and literatures and of exquisite calligraphy such as no king had ever been able to bring together. Al-Hakim permitted admittance to everyone, without distinction of rank, who wished to read or consult any of the books.

(Cited by Stone in Sardar & Davies: The Legacy of Islam: A Glimpse from a Glorious Past )

F. The Importance of Books to the Muslims

Adapted from: Sardar & Davies: The Legacy of Islam: A Glimpse from a Glorious Past

"Within two hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the book industry was to be found in almost every corner of the Muslim world. Indeed, the whole of Muslim civilization revolved around the book. Libraries (royal, public, specialized, and private) had become common. Bookshops were found almost everywhere and book authors, translators, copiers, illuminators, librarians, sellers, and collectors from all classes and sections of society, of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, competed with each other in the making and selling of books.

"There were many libraries from which to borrow books in the Muslim civilization. Historians list thirty-six libraries in Baghdad alone around the middle of the thirteenth century, and that does not include the House of Wisdom!

"There were similar libraries in Cairo (Egypt), Aleppo (Syria) and the major or cities of Iran, Central Asia and Mesopotamia. In addition to the central government libraries, there was a huge network of public libraries in most big cities, and prestigious private collections which attracted scholars from all parts of the Muslim world.

"Of course, one could always buy books. A manuscript ... was about the size of the modern book, containing good quality paper with writing on both sides, and bound in leather covers. An average bookshop contained several hundred titles, but larger bookshops had many more ... The list of books sold in one bookstore was more than sixty thousand titles in many subjects: language and calligraphy, Christian and Jewish scriptures, the Qur'an and commentaries on the Qur'an, language books, histories, government works, court accounts, pre-Islamic and Islamic poetry, works by various schools of Muslim thought, biographies of numerous men of learning, Greek and Islamic philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, Greek and Islamic medicine, literature, popular fiction, travel (to India, China, Indochina), magic, other subjects and fables!"


From another historian/traveler Al-Wazan (also known as Leo Africanus) we learn that in the city of Timbuktu, Mali in West Africa, books were very precious. At the height of the city's golden age in the mid-16th century, Timbuktu boasted not only the impressive public libraries, but also private ones which included many of the rarest books ever written in Arabic. The libraries of Timbuktu grew through a regular process of hand-copying manuscripts. Al-Wazan commented that "hither are brought divers manuscripts or written books, which are sold for more money than any other merchandise." [See The Islamic Legacy of Timbuktu, Erols site.]


Above: The Public Library of Hulwan, Baghdad from a scene in Maqamat al-Hariri. The leather-bound books were stacked into niches cut into the wall. The last line in the Arabic text above is a common proverb still in use: "During an exam, a person is either honored or disgraced."


You are at Islamic Science and Mathematics, Part One

Go to Advances in Sciences, Page Two: Chemistry, Astronomy, and Geography

Go to Islamic Sciences, Page Three: Medicine, Botany, Optics.

Go to Islamic Sciences, Page Four: Why did the "Golden Age" end?

Go to Islamic Mathematics, Page Five


Books and Magazines

  1. Beshore, George, Science in Early Islamic Cultures, Franklin Watts/Grolier, New York, 1998. This is written for students in middle schools and is a good overview and introduction.
  2. Silver-Burdett: Rise of Islam by Moktefi, 1986, pages 56-57. Also a good introduction for middle school students; however, this book is out of print.
  3. Rise of Islam by J. Child, Peter Bedrick Books, N.Y., 1993, pages 32-33
  4. The Arabs in the Golden Age by Moktefi, Millbrook Press, Conn., 1992, pages 50 - 51
  5. Science and Civilization of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (especially Chpt. 5 mathematics)
  6. Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction by Howard Turner, University of Texas Press, 1997. This book has chapters on Mathematics, Astonomy, Astrology, Geography, Medicine, Natural Sciences, Alchemy, Optics, etc. It is written for adult students in a university, but has excellent illustrations.
  7. ARAMCO World: January-February, 1986 "Arabs and Astronomy" p. 4 - 19.
  8. ARAMCO World: May-June, 1982 "Science: The Islamic Legacy"
  9. ARAMCO World: May-June, 1992 "Muslims and Muslim Technology in the New World" p. 38-41


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information