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Prof. Allen G. Debus

Recent research in the History of Science has shown the importance of Islamic achievements  of the eighth through the thirteenth centuries A.D. as well as the essential contribution of Islamic science to the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the rapid development of the history of science in recent decades has shown us that there is much to be learned by moving outside of the traditional internalist and positivistic viewpoint that characterized the history of science when it was dominated by George Sarton and Alexander Koyre. I was encouraged by the work of the organizers of the recent conference on "Science in Islamic Polity" held in Islamabad. They wrote that their conference would:

Serve its real purpose only if the delegates, instead of dwelling on the past and merely reflecting the erstwhile glory of Islam, would concentrate on the present and recommend concrete action program for the resurgence of scientific thought and the spirit of discovery in Islamic Polity, with a view to bringing the Islamic countries at par with the West in the matter of Science and Technology, in as short a time as possible.

I am not one who believes that the purpose of history is to forecast the future. However, I do believe that history is essential for an understanding of the present and if we do not understand the present it will be very difficult for anyone to plan for the future. If our interest in the past remains positivistic in the sciences then we will continue to comb the older Arabic texts primarily for precursors to the moderns. Such research will surely lead to other discoveries of great importance for our understanding of the background to modern science, but it will do little to help us to understand the long period of decline and if we do not understand this how can we possibly suggest remedies for the future.

Let me suggest then that historical methodology is important. For this reason I will discuss some interpretations of the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and on the basis of this research make some suggestions for future research in the history of Arabic science.

The history of science as an academic subject in this century is due largely to the efforts of George Sarton. But Sarton had a strong personal view of what this subject should be. He wrote that science is "systematized positive knowledge" and that the main object of historians of science should be "not simply to record isolated discoveries, but rather to explain the progress of scientific thought, the gradual development of human consciousness, that deliberate tendency to understand and to increase our part in the cosmic evolution". In short, as a positivist Sarton sought a history of real science that is science, as we know it today.

Sarton also believed in a hierarchy of the sciences. Mathematics stood at the top since it was necessary for the mathematical sciences; astronomy, physics and chemistry. Only eventually as we followed this scheme would we descend to the life sciences. And, as he believed that the biological sciences stood far below the mathematical sciences, he believed that medicine was lower still. Indeed, he felt that medical historians had presented a warped version of scientific history because of their insufficient scientific knowledge.

George Sarton died in 1956, but by that time his view of the history of science was already on the wane. The most recent writings in the field then were critical of Sarton and the author most frequently referred to, as a model was Alexander Koyre, the Russian philosopher of science. It is understandable that Koyre should have insisted on a close linkage between scientific and philosophical thought, but history was also important for him because through it we would be given a sense of the 'glorious progress" of the evolution of scientific ideas. Like most other scholars in the field Koyre centered his research on the development of physics and astronomy in the period from Copernicus to Newton. He explained the Scientific Revolution as a fundamental change in world views from Aristotelian to Copernican. This revolution was not to be explained by changes in society, a move from contemplation to active research, or even "the replacement of the teleological and organismic pattern of thinking and explanation by the mechanical and causal pattern". In a sense the Scientific Revolution was for Koyre the triumph of the mathematical influence of Plato over the anti-mathematical influence of Aristotle. And yet, if Sarton would have disagreed with Koyre over the importance of Plato for the rise of modern science, both would have agreed that the subject of the history of science was science and that this was the story of progress.

The development of the field in the past quarter century has been characterized for the most part by a rejection of the internalist and positivistic viewpoints of both Sarton and Koyre. For instance, Sarton had dismissed alchemy, astrology and natural magic as "pseudo-sciences" which could be ignored by historians. A series of books by Walter Pagel, beginning with his magisterial paracelsus in 1958 pointed out that religious motives as well as Sarton's "pseudo-sciences" were major factors in the crystallization of modern science. Recognizing the fallacy of Sarton's positivism for historical research, Pagel argued that such an approach "based on the selection of material from the modern point of view, may endanger the presentation of historical truth.

Indeed, histories in which "discoveries and theories of the past are taken from their original context to be judged alongside modern scientific and medical entities" are likely to be dangerously misleading. Pagel's answer was a call for historical context. When this has been done, he explained:

It will then appear that not only certain standards of technical equipment made discoveries possible, but that these can be seen also as the offspring of certain non-scientific ideas and of a particular cultural background.

[The History of Science] will then appear much more complicated than it does in the usual perspective of straight lines of progress. Yet we will have to embark on the cumbersome task of reconstructing ancient thought if we wish to write history and not best sellers.

The work of Pagel was seconded by that of the late Dame Frances Yates who wrote a series of books relating the Scientific Revolution to the mystical Hermetic texts to which she described the Ranaissance interest in natural magic and the rise of experimental method". In short, both Pagel and Yates argued that the Western Scientific Revolution could not be explained without an understanding of religious themes and mysticism evident in the works of the period.

More recently there has been an increased interest in the social context of science. Thus Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) is a monumental contribution to our understanding of the early modern intellectual scene in England while Christopher Hill has used the recent studies of alchemy and the Paracelsians as an integral key to his understanding of the English Civil War. Margaret Jacob has gone much further to argue that the triumph of Newtonian physics may have been due less to the internal worth of Newton's science than it was to the fact that English theologians sought a powerful ally through their espousal of the Newtonian synthesis. For her, the social explanation of the triumph of Newtonianism is to be found in "its usefulness to the intellect al leaders of the Anglican Church as an underpinning for their vision of what they liked to call the "world politick". The ordered, providentially guided, mathematically regulated universe of Newton gave a model for a stable and prosperous polity, ruled by the self-interest of men". In short, we see here an explanation of the Newtonian triumph on grounds totally divorced from the ac that Newton's work represents the culmination of nearly a century and a half of scientific discussions and reseleading from the De revolutionibus orbium (1543) of Copernicus to the Principia mathematica (1687).

Of course those who seek to maintain the dominance of traditional internalist studies in the field have been distressed by these developments. At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in December 1979, Charles C. Gillispie lashed out against those who accepted the new methodologies in the field. As reported in Science. Gillispie complained that "the history of science is losing its grip on science, leaning heavily on social history, and dabbling with shoddy scholarship". He attacked those who discussed scientific problems but who had little or no scientific training. Of course Gillispie's plea for a return to the values of Koyre has been dismissed by the social historians of science who have replied that:

The social history of science has by now established itself within the discipline as a legitimate method of approaching the past. Despite recent rearguard action, notably by C.C. Gillispie, most historians accept that the traditional practices of analyzing theoretical developments within the sciences need to be supplemented by the study of the changing social foundations of scientific activity. The "internal vs. external" debates of the late 1960s are, one hopes a thing of the past.

My point has been to indicate that historical methodology in the history of science is currently in a state of flux. The field is moving far beyond its earlier emphasis on internalist, technical developments. A rising new interest in science and religion, the social setting of science and even the pseudo-sciences is doing much to broaden our understanding of the complex nature of scientific growth.

But how does this affect the history of Arabic science to date, very little. If we turn to the Journal of the History of Arabic Science we note that the great bulk of current research is devoted to technical aspects of Arabic science in the period from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries A.D. The papers we read there deal with mathematics, astronomy, technology and medicine. All too seldom do we find an author such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr who indicates the religious substrate of the science he discusses. Anton Heinen has criticized the current state of this subject in noting that.

The available source material is exploited and interpreted in a somewhat naive, isolated manner. Thus writings of a primarily theological or mystical nature are left to the theologians, while natural scientists, for their historical studies, concentrate on the early books on mathematics, astronomy, medicine and the like.

In fact, he adds physical questions are often enmeshed in theological ones and should be studied in that context.

The situation described by Heinen is similar to that relating to the study of the Scientific Revolution a quarter century ago. At that time scholars confined themselves almost exclusively to science, as we understand it today. The fact that Newton wrote almost as much on alchemy as he did on mechanics, that he published a book on the prophecies of Daniel, and that he discoursed on the chronology of ancient kingdoms could be ignored because these subjects were not "science". Today we know better. We cannot understand Newton unless we understand the total Newton the mystic as well as the founder of classical mechanics. Indeed, it would seem that his search for world order, world harmony, was spurred by his mystical bent. There are those who argue that his physics may have been dependent upon it.

In a larger sense, the Western Scientific Revolution itself was part of a very broad intellectual spectrum. Even if we turn solely to the scientific and medical texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we soon become aware that the concerns of authors interested in a new philosophy of nature went far beyond astronomy and the physics of motion. No group was more insistent on change than the followers of Paracelsus (1493-1541), the Swiss-German chemist and physician who sought to overturn the Aristotelianism and Gelenism of the Universities. Both he and his disciples hoped to return to a pristine theology imparted by God to Adam and to a certainty that could be found through divine Revelation seen in the Holy Scriptures and in God's created book of nature. These Paracelsians were deeply influenced by the Reformation as well as by their search for a new science. Their works cannot be understood without taking into account their religious motives. Their insistence on this very point became a subject of debate between them and the mechanists for well over a century after the death of Paracelsus. In sharp contrast with the Paracelsians, the mechanical philosophers sought to divorce the study of science from religious consideration. This separation of science and religion has been a characteristic of Western science since the late seventeenth century and any attempt to explain the development of European science without taking this into account would necessarily be incomplete.

In a paper I prepared for the International Congress of the History and Philosophy of Science held in Islamabad in 1979. I rapidly reviewed the confrontation between the Mechanical Philosophers and the more mystical Chemical Philosophers who followed Paracelsus and then went on to compare the outcome of this debate with the contemporary scene in Islam. In Europe we witness at this time the foundation of the first modern scientific academies with their attendant journals while a series of discoveries lead from Copernicus to Kepler, Galileo, Isaac Newton and classical mechanics.

In the biological sciences we have a similar progression in anatomy from Vesalius to Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood. The Paracelsians, however, determined as they were to overturn the traditional science and medicine of Aristotle and Galen, were eventually discredited by the mechanists because of their religious enthusiasm and their mystical approach to nature.

In Islam during this crucial period we find very few references to the monumental discoveries that led to the Scientific Revolution. An understanding of nature apart from religious considerations was not appealing to Islamic authors. There are very few references to those Western astronomers and mechanists whose work led to the new science of Isaac Newton. However, as I have pointed out earlier, there is one significant exception: the work of Paracelsus and his followers was known in he Arabic speaking world.

The Gayat al-itqan fi tadbir badan al insan was completed no later than 1640 by the Aleppan physician, Salih Ibn Nasr Allah Ibn Sallum (d. 1669/1670). He is one of the very few Arabic texts reflecting the events of the contemporary Western European Scientific Revolution and although this is evident throughout the work it is seen especially in the fourth section titled "New Chemical Medicine invented by Paracelsus". The work is indeed what it purports to be, a treatise on the chemical medicine of the Paracelsians. Ibn Sallum rejected the humoral pathology of Galen and placed reliance on the three Paracelsian principles, Salt, Sulphur and Mercury. He accepted the concept of a universal medicine and went on to describe the occult properties of plants and minerals as well as their connection with the planets and the parts of the human body. He also discussed the doctrine of signatures and cited the works of several other western followers of Paracelsus. An appendix to this work claims to be a translation of Oswald Croll's Basilica chymica (1609) which was one of the most important discussions of chemical medicine produced in this period.

Julio Samso has published a paper on the effect of Spanish-Tunisian contacts in science a medicine in the Renaissance and he has noted a number of Paracelsian translations that exist in Tunis. The point to be made here is that references to Paracelsus and his mystical religiously oriented medicine are not uncommon in Arabic texts. This is in stork contrast to the very few references to western physicists and astr.

There seem to be very few studies on the lack of Arabic references to the Western Scientific Revolution. And those who have touched on the work of Ibn Sallum have emphasized that this text represents the introduction of modern medicine and chemistry in Islam. This conclusion may well be so, but is this only question we want to ask?

If we are truly interested in the present state of Islamic science I think that we should also be asking why Paracelsus was of interest to Islamic scholars and Galileo was not. This involves the question of the transmission of science as well as broader cultural factors that either promote or discourage science. Considerable time and effort has been spent on the problem of the transmission of Greek science to Islamůand similarly there has been much interest in the transmission of Islamic science to the West in the Middle Ages. However, cultural influences are normally mutual exchanges. Interest in Islamic scientific texts in the West of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is now well documented. On the other hand why should there have been relatively little interest in Western science in Islam in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries even though that science and technology were making it possible for Western European nations to dominate the rest of the world. If we want to assess Islamic science today we should be trying to understand why Islam did not turn to the new developments in the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nor need we limit ourselves to that particular period. We may choose other more recent crucial developments in the sciences. Here I am thinking particularly of Darwinian evolution. This is a subject with distinct religious overtones as we see today in the Creationist debate. If we are interested in understanding the relationship of religion to science in Islam the case of evolutionary theory is surely a significant one for historians to examine in detail.

There are as yet few studies relating the history of Islamic science to the present. One exception is an article by Ahmad Y. Hassan, titled "Some Obstacles Hindering the Advance of Science and Technology in the Arab Countries". Here he writes of the great achievements of the medieval period and of the importance of Islamic science for the rise of Western science. But then he continues by discussing the prevention of Arab Progress which he ascribes to Western injustice and persecution, Arab disunity, cultural domination and the use of foreign languages, economic dominance and the isolation of one Arab Country from another.

There is surely truth to some of Hassan's arguments, but I think that it will be necessary to go beyond accusing the West of domination and complaining of Arab disunity if we are to seek remedies for the future. I believe that there is a real role for History to play in all of this. To be sure history is playing an important role in resurrecting the importance of the great period of Islamic science. There is no longer any question of the crucial role played by the transmission of Greek and Arabic science and medicine in the rise of Western science in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However if we are to understand the present it may be less important to rediscover the high points of medieval Islamic science than it is to examine the later period.

To what can we attribute the lesser interest in the sciences in Islam in the period after the thirteenth century?. A key to this may well be found in religion. Surely the work of Al-Gazzali (eleventh century A.D.) pointed away from the sciences. He questioned the value of mathematics, complained that logic was being overestimated and said that the natural sciences were not to be rejected, but that they were peripheral subjects for the true believer.

I think that at least some Islamic historians should be concentrating on the course of the sciences after the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Instead of asking whether sixteenth century anatomists used the work of Ibn al-Nafis in regard to the lesser circulation, without crediting him, they should be asking whether the scientific achievements of the West were known to Arabic scientists. Why was there so little reaction to the Scientific Revolution? At that time there was little Western domination to contend with. We should be looking for cultural and religious change that may have affected interest of the sciences. Surely we want to know what works in the sciences were being copied and being read at this time.

Only a few years ago the situation in Iran had significant scientific overtones. There the Shah sought a rapid technological modernization. But there was over-whelming cultural and religious reaction to this program. I think that the lesson is clear, scientific progress must be acceptable with the desires of the people. I believe that gifted youths can be educated at the most advanced research laboratories of Western Universities, but unless the desired results correspond to what the people of a country want, there is little hope for their acceptance. I think it is necessary to give the benefits of a European education to the best students, but the resultant excellence in a new "golden era" of Islamic science will occur only if it proceeds within the traditional Islamic culture and religion. To accomplish this difficult task Islamic scientists, statesmen and religious leaders must work together in harmony for the future.


  1. 'International Conference on Science in Islamic Polity -Its Past Present & Future" (Islamabad: Pan Graphics, 1983), p.1.
  2. GEORGE SARTON, "Introduction to the History of Science" (3 vols. in 5, laltimore: Published for the Carnegie Institution of Washington by Williams and Wilkins, 1927-1947), 1 p. 3.
  3. Ibid., p. 6.
  4. GEORGE SARTOB, "A History of Science; Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), PP. xi-xii.
  5. ALEXANDRE KOYRE, "Etudes Galileennes" (3 parts, 1935-1939; reprinted in one volume, Paris, Hermann, 1966), p. 11.
  6. ALEXANDRE KOYRE, "From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe" (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1957), p. v.
  7. SARTON, "Introduction", 1, p. 19.
  8. WALTER PAGEL, "The Vindication of Rubbish", Middlesez Hospital Journal (Autumn, 1945), 1-4.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 4.
  11. See particularly FRANCES A. YATES, "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; London: Routledge & Regan Paul; Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1964) and "The Rosicrucian Enlightenment"' (London and Boston: Routledge & Regan Paul, 1972).
  12. CHRISTOPHER HILL, "The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972; New York: The Viking Press, 1973), see especially pp. 231-246.
  13. MARGARET C. JACOB, "The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720" (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), p. 18.
  14. WILLIAM J. BROAD, "History of Science Losing Its Science"' Science, 297 (January 25, 1980), 389.
  15. PAUL WOOD, "Recent Trends in the History of Science; The dehumanisation of history", BSHS Newsletter, No. 3 (September, 1980), 19-20.
  16. See the "Brief Index to Volumes 1 through 5" (1977-1981), Journal for the History of Arabic Science, 5 (nos. 1 and 2).
  17. ANTON M. HEINEN, "Mutakallimun and Mathematicians; Traces of a controversey with lasting consequences"' Der Islam, 55 (1978), 57-73.
  18. See ALLEN G. DEBUS, "The Chemical Philosophy; Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth Centuries" (2 vols., New York: Science History Publications, 1977).
  19. ALEN G. DEBUS, "Mysticism and the Rise of Modern Science"' History and Philosophy of Science: Proceedings of the International Congress of the History and Philosophy of Science Islamabad, 8-13 December, 1979 (Karachi, Hamdard Foundation Press, 1983), pp. 46-61.
  20. An exception will be found in JUAN VERNET's Astrologia Y Astronomia en el Renacimento: La revolucion copernicana (Barcelona: Ariel, 1974) and his 'Copernico y los Arabes" in Actas del II Coloquio Hispano Tunecino de Estudios Historicos (Madrid/Barcelona, mayo 1971) Instituto Hispano-Arabe de Cultura, Madrid, 1973), pp. 191-208.
  21. See DEBUS, "Mysticism and the Rise of MoScience", pp. 56-57; SAMI K. HAMARNEH, "Arabic-Islamic Alchemy. Three Interwined Stages", Ambix, 29 (1982), 47-87 (83-84); Owsei Temkin, Galenism: Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 132; Manfred Ullmann, Die Die Medizin im Islam (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970) pp. 106-107, 182-184: Paul Richter, 'Paracelsus im Lichte des Orients"' Archiv fur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, 6, (1913).
  22. JULIO SAMSO, ETHNICA (Barcelona), 9 (1975), 243-254.
  23. AHMAD Y. HASSAN, "Some Obstacles Hindering the Advance of Science and Technology in the Arab Countries", Historia Scientiarum, 19 (1980), 31-46.
  24. SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR, "Science and Civilization in Islam" (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).