Staff review by Chris Saliba
Ehsan Masood opens our eyes to the history of scientific
achievement in the Islamic world.
A scientific tradition is not something we equate with Islam.
London based science writer Ehsan Masood tries to rectify this error
in his appealing history, Science and Islam. Covering roughly
the period between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Masood
concentrates on what is considered an Islamic Golden Age. Islam
produced a wealth of great thinkers in the sciences during this era:
geographers, astronomers, physicians, engineers, pharmacologists,
inventors, surgeons, mathematicians etc. The list is almost endless.
This Golden Age started under the Abbasid caliphate, when Islamic
scholars energetically took to translating the great works of Greek
and Roman thinkers. Coupled with this enthusiasm for translation was
the mastering of paper production, learnt from the Chinese. This
would have a huge impact on the spread of learning, as paper was so
One discipline where Islam truly excelled was medicine. Hospitals
during the Golden Age employed physicians, surgeons and
opthalmologists, as well as nurses, administrators and orderlies.
Another area in which Islam excelled was astrology. The need to pray
five times a day meant that there was always a strong interest in
studying the slant of the sun and the position of the stars, so as to
ascertain correct prayer times. Historians agree that eminent Islamic
astrologers influenced Copernicus.
The most obvious influence of Islamic science on the world today
is in the use of Arabic numerals. While what we call Arabic numerals
were actually derived from India, it was the mathematician
al-Khwarizmi who perfected the system we use for modern science and
commerce. Key scientific words such as algebra, algorithm and alchemy
are also Islamic in their provenance.
Science and Islam offers an accesible overview of some 500
years of Islamic thought and scientific endeavour. Ehsan Masoon
writes in a beautiful lapidary prose, making his book a joy to read.
The sections on great Islamic cities in their hey day, like Bagdad
and Cairo, are a special treat for the reader who likes to time
travel to exotic times and places. How magical Baghdad must have been
in the ninth century, when it was the fabled city of The Thousand
and One Arabian Nights.
A book that helpfully explains the rise of Islamic science, it
unfortunate fall, and what needs to be done now to encourage
scientific learning in the modern Islamic world.
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