Archive Edition

The Gulf University and Science in the Arab-Islamic Commonwealth – Part 1

Paper presented by Professor Abdus Salam at the Symposium on the ‘Future Outlook of the Arabian Gulf University’, on 11th May 1983, in Bahrain.

‘Allah is He who made (it possible) for you (to acquire) mastery over the ocean; thus (your) craft can ply thereon, with Allah’s command. Allah is He, who gives you subjection over all that is in Heaven and on Earth: Herein are Allah’s signs for a people given to reflection.’

Taffakur and Taskhir (Science and Technology)

I have quoted these verses from the Holy Qur’an for they speak of the two concepts of ‘taffakur’ and ‘taskhir’ together in the same place.

Taffakur is the reflection on, and discovery of, the laws of nature (science); taskhir is the acquiring of mastery over nature through technology. Both these, throughout the ages, have been the shared urges of mankind. It is the glory of Islam that the Holy Quran, by repeated injunctions, enjoins their pursuit as bounden obligations on the Muslim community. And as in the verses above, there is the emphasis that taffakur and taskhir (science and techno- logy) are not distinct; they form part of the same spectrum.

Following these injunctions, barely a hundred years after the Prophet’s [sa] death, the Muslims had made it their task to master the then-known sciences. With feverish haste, but systematically, they translated the entire corpus of the then- known knowledge in their religious language, Arabic. Founding institutes of advanced study (Bait-ul-Hikmas) and prestigious universities (like the Nizamiyyah), particularly in this part of the world, they acquired an ascendancy in sciences that lasted for the next 600 years.

The Level of Scientific Creation in Islam

A semi-quantitative measure of this is given by George Sarton in his monumental History of Science. Sarton divides his story of the highest achievement in science into Ages, each lasting 50 years. With each, he associates one central figure: thus, 500 – 450 BC is the Age of Plato, followed by the Ages of Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes and so on. From 750 to 1100 CE, however, it is an unbroken succession of the Ages of Jabir, Khwarizrni, Razi, Masudi, Abu al-Wafa, Biruni and Omar Khayam. In those 350 years, Arabs, Turks, Afghans and Persians —chemists, algebraists, clinicians, geographers, mathematicians, physicists and astronomers of the commonwealth of Islam- held the world stage of sciences. Only after 1100 CE, in Sarton’s scheme, do the first Western names begin to appear; however, for another 250 years, they only share the honours with men of Islam like Ibn Rushd, Nasir-ur-din Tusi and Ibn Nafis.

To mark the level of this achievement and to emphasise the originality and calibre of science in Islam, I shall take my own subject of physics as an example. Contrary to the views of the Greeks — and I quote from H.J.J. Winter’s Eastern Science

‘Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980—1037 CE) regarded light as an emission by the luminous sources of particles travelling at finite speed; he understood the nature of heat and force and motion.’

His contemporary, one of the greatest physicists of all time, Ibn al Haitham (Alhazen, 965 -1039 CE), who started work at nearby Basrah and then migrated to Egypt, made experimental contributions of the highest order in optics and ‘enunciated that a ray of light, in passing through a medium, takes the path which is the easier and “quicker”.’ In this he was anticipating Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries. He enunciated the law of inertia, later to become Newton’s first law of motion, and described the process of refraction in mechanical terms, by considering the movement of ‘particles of light’ as they passed through the surface of separation of two media, in accordance with the rectangle law of forces (an approach later rediscovered and elaborated by Newton).

Al Khazini of Merv (12th Century CE) in a remarkable treatise entitled The Book of the Balance of Wisdom, worked out a theory of universal gravity directed towards the centre of the earth; he was also responsible for the assumption that air has weight and for original work on capillarity. Qutb-ud-Din al Shirazi (1236-1311 CE) and his pupil Kamal-ud-Din gave the first explanation of the rainbow, stated that the speed of light is in inverse ratio to the optical, rather than the material, density of the medium; and that hyperboloidal lenses avoid spherical aberration.

In assessing this work, let us not forget that most of these men were only part-time physicists. They were universalists-physicians, astronomers, lexicographers, poets and even theologians at the same time.

In this recital I have not mentioned al Biruni (973-1048 CE) who, working in Afghanistan, was a great experimenter like his contemporary Alhazen. He was as modern and as un-medieval in outlook as Galileo, six centuries later, with whom he shares the independent (prior) discovery of the so-called Galilean invariance of the laws of Nature – the liberating statement that the same laws of physics apply here on earth and on the starry-orbs in the heavens.

I have mentioned some of the great new ideas in physics due to the Muslims. But like all science, the bulk of the scientific work in Islam is not a record of what these universal luminaries did; it is painstaking, slow accumulation of data, supplemented with critical examination, exposition and commentary on the work of their peers. As Brian Stock has remarked in his perceptive review Science and Technology and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages:

‘The most remarkable feature is… that science in one form or another was the part-time or full-time occupation of so large a number of intellectuals.’

Consider in this respect the following extract from the entry under ‘Euclid’ in al-Nadim’s ‘Catalogue of Sciences’, the – Fihrist:

(The Elements) was twice translated by al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ibn Matar: one translation, the first, is known under the name of Harunian, while the other carries the label Ma’munian and is the one to be relied and depended on. Furthermore, Ishaq ibn Hunain also translated the work, a translation in turn revised by Thabit ibn Qurra al-Harrani. Moreover, Abu Uthman Al-Dimashqi translated several books of this same work; I have seen the tenth in Mosul, in the library of Ali ibn Ahmad al-Imrani (one of whose pupils was Abul- Saqr al-Qabisi, who in turn in our time lectures on the Almagest). al-Nayrizi also commented upon it, as did al-Karabisi…Further, al-Jawhari… wrote a commentary on the whole work from beginning to end. Another commentary on book V was done by al- Mahani…Furthermore, Abu Ja’far al-Khazin al-Khurasani…composed a commentary on Euclid’s book, as did Abu al–Wafa, although the latter did not finish his. Then a man by the name of Ibn Rahiwayh al-Arrajani commented on Book X, while Abu al-Qasim al-Antaqi commented on the whole work…Further, a commentary was made by Sanad ibn Ali…and book X was commented upon by Abu Yusuf al-Razi.

With this meticulousness, no wonder one of the earliest scientists to worry about Euclid’s axiom of parallels was Nasir-ud-din Tusi.

As Stock remarks:

Al-Nadim’s catalogue is complete…However there is one aspect of Mathematics he omitted, this was the practical. Nadim did not say that the diffusion of Hindu-Arabic numerals and the decimal positional system was brought about by trade. Nor did he mention that Muslim mathematicians, to a much greater degree than the Greeks, interested themselves in everyday problems. Masha’Allah, the noted astrologer (d. ca. 815-20 CE), was the author of a treatise on commodity prices. Abu al-Wafa combined original work on Euclid and Diophantus with books bearing such titles as “What is Necessary from Geometrical Con- struction for the Artisan.” In these works the theory was old but the examples were new. One may doubt that the most refined theory penetrated commercial circles, but commerce stimulated the theorists and oriented them towards the concrete.

Such was the temper of the Islamic Society – basic sciences as related to their applications to life; taffakur and taskhir. In this context one may quote Sarton again:

‘The main, as well as the least obvious, achievement of the middle Ages was the creation of the experimental spirit and this was primarily due to the Muslims down to the 12th century.’

In planning for the super university of the Gulf States, we heard yesterday at this meeting an exposition of this new institution as a possible university of technology (taskhir). Today, I shall be emphasising the other side of the coin; the aspects of taffakur (science), which lie at the heart of all modern technology. I wish to emphasise that in the context of the Arab-Islamic Commonwealth of nations, we must also give the highest priority to the creation of sciences and I wish to outline the steps we need to take, both in regard to the evolution of the super university at Bahrain as well as outside it, if we are to regain our rightful self-respecting place among the comity of nations. The proposed university in Bahrain is rightly placed to help achieve this pre-eminence in sciences as a pre-condition for pre-eminence in technology. Just as Bahrain has successfully developed the highest traditions in sophisticated banking in a short span of time, I believe it also has a potential to develop sciences, through the establishment of centres of excellence at the proposed university. From ancient times, Bahrain has been at the crossroads of civilizations and cultures with a tradition of nurturing and toleration of new and venturesome ideas – a pre-requisite for the developing of sciences.

The Present Picture of Sciences in Islamic Countries

What is the picture of science and technology in the Islamic Commonwealth? For purposes of identification, the Arab-Islamic peoples fall into six geographical regions. First and foremost are the nine countries of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. The second region consists of the Arab northern tier; Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. The third region comprises Turkey, Muslim Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fourth (most populous) region consists of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, (plus the Muslim minorities in India and China). In the fifth region are the Arab countries of North Africa, while the sixth region would comprise the non-Arab African countries. If we consider the present enrolment in scientific and technological education in the 18-23 year age group at the universities as an index of high scientific potential, the Islamic countries average 2% of the relevant age group compared to the norms of around 12% for the developed countries. A similar ratio of 1:6 prevails also in respect of GNP expenditures on scientific and technological research and development. No detailed statistics of numbers of those engaged in scientific research are available. However, in the Background Paper submitted to the first meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference, which was held in Islamabad during 10-13 May 1983, a figure of around 45,136 research and development scientists and engineers was given for the entire Islamic world, compared to one and a half million in the USSR and four hundred thousand in Japan.

According to Zahlan, an analysis of these and similar figures reveals that so far as physics is concerned, the Arab-Islamic community is around one-tenth in size and one-hundredth in scientific creativity in research publication, compared to the international norms. Pakistan, which is one of the most advanced of Islamic countries in physics, has 19 universities, but only 13 Professors of physics, and a total of 42 Physics Ph.D. teachers and researchers in all its universities-this for a population of 80 millions. To compare, the corresponding numbers at one College at one university in the United Kingdom – the Imperial college of Science and Technology – are 12 Professors and 100 researchers.

These figures are dismal; what makes them more dismal is the unfortunate fact that our scientific effort is isolated from international science. As a measure of this, it is amazing, but true, that with the exception of Egypt, which is a member of sixteen unions, no other Arab or Islamic country uniformly subscribes to more than five International centres of scientific research have been created or are located within our confines; few international scientific conferences are organized there; very few of us, if living and working in our own countries, are privileged to travel to scientific institutions and meetings outside; such travel, as a rule, is considered wasteful luxury. The situation is a little better in Arab OPEC countries; it is dismal in non-Arab Islamic lands. It was this isolation which prompted me to propose the creation of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics so that others do not make exiles of themselves if they wish to keep themselves abreast in newer developments in this subject. This Centre belongs to two United Nations Agencies – IAEA and UNESCO; some 175 Arab and Muslim physicists (out of around 1000 from developing countries) are supported at the Centre every year. Of these, 25 are supported by the Kuwait Foundation for Science and Kuwait and Qatar Universities; the rest come with funds provided by IAEA, UNESCO or the benefactions I can secure from Italy or Sweden.

To give an outside observer’s assessment, writing in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, of 24 March 1983, Francis Giles raises the question ‘What is wrong with Muslim science?’ This is what he says:

At its peak about one thousand years ago, the Muslim world made a remarkable contribution to science, notably mathematics and medicine. Baghdad in its heyday and southern Spain built universities to which thousands flocked: rulers surrounded themselves with scientists and artists. A spirit of freedom allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to work side by side. Today all this is but a memory.

Expenditure on science and technology may have increased in recent years though that increase has been, perforce, limited to oil- rich countries…Some of these countries are busy fighting wars which cost billions of dollars – no doubt they have little time for science. Trade structures are dominated by imported technology and most countries have economic and scientific systems geared to imitation rather than originality.

Even the recent wealth provided by oil exports makes relatively little difference…since policy and politics, much to the displeasure of many scientists, are closely linked in the Middle East. The region is dominated by dictatorships, benevolent or otherwise…further complicating any attempt to allow science to take root indigenously. Not surprisingly the brain drain to industralised countries continues to debilitate intellectual life throughout the Middle East.

The same issue of Nature contains another article on Research Manpower in Israel from which I quote:

The need for a substantial increase in the number of academically trained people to work in research and development is widely accepted. The National Council for Research and Development has urged that their country will need 86,700 such people in 1995; compared with 34,800 in 1974-an increase of 150 per cent.

Compare the figure of 34,800 with 45,136 researchers in all Islamic countries (the population ratio is around 200).

The article continues:

In the 1960s Professor Derek de Solla Price of Yale University developed a method for measuring scientific manpower in various countries based on the total of reserachers who had papers published in major professional journals and con- cluded that in this country there are five times as many scientists as would be expected for its population and gross national product. Price insists that the situation is no different today; the country still possesses an enormous reservoir of trained people, something for which she has every reason to be grateful because her scientists and technicians more than compensate for the lack of oil and minerals.

The New Gulf University

With this bleak picture of science in the Arab-Islamic Commonwealth, is it any wonder that the prospect of a super university in the Arab-Islamic lands excites me, first and foremost, to remedy the situation in the pursuit of the traditional basic sciences of physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology at the highest levels, as a prelude to sciences in application. My vision is that of prestigious universities of science arising – perhaps one in each of the six regions of Islam – the new Gulf University among them —consisting of centres of excellence, second to none in quality in the world, in one or more of the scientific disciplines, experimental and theoretical. These centres would be open internationally, their facilities would be among the finest in the world; the modalities of their operation non-bureaucratic. And there would be guaranteed financial access to these centres and their facilities for all researchers within the Arab-Islamic Commonwealth, so that the poorest faculties in the poorest of the Arab-Islamic countries can also keep in touch with living science through using these facilities.

The men to staff such facilities would come internationally, but in particular from the seventh region of Arab-Islamic science. This region consists, in Zahlan’s count, of the twenty thousand researchers from the Arab-Islamic countries who are now working in Europe and America. I have the vision of these men coming to Bahrain and other super universities, at least as part-time associ- ates, to bring about the renaissance of sciences in our Commonwealth through their active contact. This will happen provided we create here the conditions which prevailed in the days of early Islamic science, particularly in this region. 

The reasons for Muslim Pre-Eminence in Sciences before 1000CE and for the Subsequent Decline

What were the conditions which helped the Muslims develop sciences at a feverish rate in the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th centuries? What were the reasons for their pre-eminence? One may think of three: first and foremost, the Muslims were following the repeated injunctions of the Holy Qura’n and the Holy Prophet (sa). According to Dr. Muhammad Aijazul Khatib of Damascus University, nothing can emphasise the importance of science more than the remark that ‘in contrast to 250 verses which are legislative, some 750 verses of the Holy Qur’an – almost one eight of it – exhort believers to study nature-to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of the Community’s life.’

The second reason, which is connected with the first, was the status accorded in Islam to men of knowledge and science, —the alims [scholars]. The Holy Qur’an emphasises the superiority of the alim, the man possessed of knowledge and science, by asking: how can those who do not possess these attributes ever be equals to those who do?

The Prophet of Islam (sa) said: ‘The quest for knowledge and science is obligatory upon every Muslim, man and woman.’ He enjoined his followers to seek ilm [knowledge] even if they had to travel to far Cathay in its search. Clearly in the context of China, he was emphasising science and not religious knowledge, besides pointing out the internationalism of the scientific quest.

This brings us to the third reason for the success of the scientific enterprise in Islam: its international character. The Islamic commonwealth itself cut across nations and colour; moreover early Muslim society was very tolerant of men from outside it, and of their ideas.

An aspect of this reverence for the sciences in Islam was the patronage they enjoyed in the Islamic-Arabic Commonwealth. To paraphrase what H.A.R. Gibb has written about Arabic literature to the parallel situation for the sciences:

To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditional…on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. Where Muslim society was in decay, science lost vitality and force. But so long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in patronising the sciences, the torch was kept burning.

This situation did not last indefinitely, however, and after 1100 CE science in Islam started to decline. By 1350, the decline was almost complete. Why did we in Islamic lands lose out?

No one knows for certain. There were indeed external causes, like the devastation caused by the Mongols, but, grievous though it was, it was perhaps more in the nature of an interruption. Sixty years after Ghengiz, his grandson Halagu was founding an observatory at Maragha, where Nasir-ud-din Tusi worked. In my view, the demise of living science within the Islamic commonwealth was more due to the internal causes of discouragement to innovation (taqlid) and of isolation of our scientific enterprise.

To emphasise this, consider Imam Ghazzali’s (1058 — 1111 CE) injunctions in the first chapter of his great Ihaya Ulum-ud-Din (The Revival of Religious Learning). Imam Ghazzli laid stress upon the acquiring and creating of those sciences, which are necessary for the development of Islamic society, specifically mentioning mathematics and medical sciences. He designated these sciences as Farz-e-Kefaya – an obligation for the whole community, but one which can be discharged on its behalf, by a certain number of its members, other- wise the entire community would consist of transgressors. In his Al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal the Imam says:

A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by a man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in the revealed truth opposed to these sciences by way of either negation or affirmation, and nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion.’

These injunctions notwithstanding, soon after Imam Ghazzali wrote, the temper of the age had turned away from science, either to Sufism with its other worldliness or to a lack of tolerance and taqlid in sciences as in other fields of learning.

To illustrate this, let me quote from Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE), one of the greatest social historians and one of the brightest intellects of all time in his field. Ibn Khaldun writes, in his Muqaddimah:

We have heard of late, that in the land of the Franks, and on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, there is a great cultivation of philosophical sciences. They are said to be studied there again, and to be taught in numerous classes. Existing systematic expositions of them are said to be comprehensive, the people who know them numerous, and the students of them very many…Allah knows better, what exists there. But it is clear that the problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs. Therefore, we must leave them alone.

Ibn Khaldun displays little curiosity, no wistfulness. The apathy his words appear to convey led to isolation and, as everyone knows, isolation in the sciences and veneration for authority it engenders, spells intellectual death. In our great days in the 9th and 10th centuries, we had founded, in Baghdad and Cairo, international institutes of advanced studies (Bait-ul-Hikmah), and assembled international concourses of scholars there. But from 1300 CE, no more. Any science that was cultivated was concentrated in religious seminaries, where tradition was valued more than innovation. The very encyclopaedic nature of knowledge and science in Islam was now a hindrance in an age of specialisation. The whole- some faculty of criticism, by which a young researcher questions what he is taught, re-examines it, and brings forth newer concepts, was no longer tolerated or encouraged.

To complete the story, from Ibn Khaldun’s days, this intellectual isolation continued – even during the great empires of Islam, the empires of Osmani Turks, of the Iranian Safvis, and of the Indian Mughals. It is not that the sultans and the shah-in-shahs were not cognizant of the technological advances being made by the Europeans; they could hardly have been unaware of the intrusive superiority of the Venetians or the Genoeses in the arts of gun- founding, or of the navigational and ship-building skills of the Portuguese who controlled the oceans of the world, including all oceans bordering on Islamic lands, and even the Hajj sea routes. But they seem never to have realized that navigational skills of the Portuguese were not accidental; these had been scientifically developed and sedulously cultivated starting with the research establishment of Sagres set up in 1419 by Prince Henry the Navigator.

But even while they envied and sought the technologies involved, they failed to understand the basic interrelation between science and technology. In 1799, for example, Selim III introduced the modern studies of algebra, trigonometry, mechanics, ballistics and metallurgy into Turkey – and imported French and Swedish teachers – so as to rival the European skills of gun-founding. But he failed to accent basic scientific research in these subjects, and Turkey never caught up with Europe.

Thirty years later, Muhammad Ali in Egypt had his men trained in the arts of surveying and prospecting for coal and gold. But it did not strike him, or his successors, to train Egyptians long-term in the basic sciences of geology. Even today, when we have come to recognize that technology is the sustenance and the power, we have not appreciated that there are no short cuts to it, that basic science and its creation must equally become part of our civilization as a precondition of a mastery of science in application and technology. If one was being Machiavellian, one might discern sinister motives among those who try to sell us the idea encapsulated in the catch- phrase ‘technology transfer’ without ‘science transfer.’

About the Author: Theoretical Physicist Professor Abdus Salam was an Ahmadi Muslim who had the honour of winning the Nobel Prize in the field of physics in 1979. He was also the founder of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.


  1. The Holy Qu’ran, 45:12-13