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The Concept of Science in Early Islamic History
Anis Hamadeh
Printed in: Periodica Islamica  6(1): 7-14,1996

1. 'Ilm as a witness to Islamic culture and its development

T he Arabic concept 'ilm (plural 'ulum) is central to a complex historical process, which is marked by an overall systematization of knowledge in the growing Islamic community of the ninth century. For half a millennium Muslims and Arabs had fostered dozens of 'ulum, from astrology to zoology, and gained an important position in the world history of science. Since the heyday of Islamic culture corresponds with its scientific peak, the history of Islam can also be read as the history of its sciences. The pillars of science in Islam are Sibawaihi's grammar from the eighth century, still valid today, the emergence of an autonomous legal system, the introduction of scholasticism, and the renewal of the Greek sciences - the latter two being later continued in Christian Europe.

One of the earliest observers and critics of the scientific process in Islam is Ibn Khaldun (d.808/1406). In his famous Muqaddimah he searches for mechanisms in human society, devoting his last and longest chapter to the sciences in Islam in their global historical context. According to his philosophy, the sciences prosper where the population is dense and where the hadara is at a climax stage1, hadara being a developmental form of society, meaning culture more than agriculture. (1)

It is, in fact, possible to extract a theory of science out of Ibn Khaldun's philosophy, and his views can in many respects be compared to those of the modern philosophy of science and sociology.(2) All agree that science partly depends on factors that lie in social and psychological circumstances, outside the scientific activity itself. Another shared approach is the regard of the sciences as being handed down from society to society through time, place, and language barriers, in what one could call a heritage continuum. George Sarton, for example, the father of the history of science, uses a tree metaphor to describe today's blossoming sciences and their roots in antiquity.(3)

Yet, the harmony between Ibn Khaldun and modern theoreticians is deceptive. The fourteenth century Muslims and Arabs use the word ilm, which cannot precisely be translated into ,,science" or ,,Wissenschaft," just like Greek ,,episteme" and Latin ,,scientia" are not synonymous with other concepts of science. The translation problem represents the differences in culture and development. which hide behind the concepts. Sarton's ,,tree of knowledge," too, cannot account for a general definition of science: ‘ilm, for example, here must be seen as both the blossom of the Islamic tree, and as the trunk of the European tree. The tree metaphor in general is a good model to explain the twentieth century blossoms, but it has little flexibility to answer how the blossoms of one tree can turn into roots and trunks of other trees.

The historians of science stand at crossroads: they can follow the method to define science according to modern standards and demand answers from history. The results of such research informs them, for example, how in astronomy the geocentric theory was replaced by a heliocentric one, or how at some stage astrology was more and more separated from the formerly united discipline, or how philosophy developed to what it is today. The second way of the crossroads is to set aside all ,,presentism" and to account for the cultural identity of the respective concepts of science and the developmental stages each of them goes through, because these factors can be regarded as responsible for their difference in meaning. The researcher here begins with an indigenous concept of science, e.g. ‘ilm, and defines science in immediate accord with the inherent criteria of ‘ilm. Due to the important role of social and psychological factors, the result indudes a characterization of the culture, which is connected with the respective concept of science, as well as its development relative to the development of the concept, in addition to the analysis of the sciences themselves. In short: the study of ‘ilm can reveal important aspects of life in the history of Islam. In this context, it is worthwhile to remember Martin Plessner's still topical article from 1931 ,,Die Geschichte der Wissenschaften im Islam als Aufgabe der modernen Islamwissenschaft," where the author calls for the study of how the Arabs and Muslims themselves assessed their concept of science, rather than to examine what today is regarded as their achievements.(4) The attempt to give a universal definition of science thus is, in this approach, discarded, or at least postponed, in favour of the study of cultures and their development. Once the inherent criteria of the concepts of science are established, they may further lead to judgments on the relevance of urbanization, monotheism, literacy, and other evidence of evolutionary stages regarding factual world history, and, perhaps, regarding social behaviour in general (5).With different concepts of equal abstraction and significance, Norbert Elias in his book Ueber den Prozess der Zivilisation had shown how this method works. He found the first mention of French ,,civilitè" in its specific sense in Erasmus von Rotterdam 1530 and of French and German ,,civilisation/Zivilisation" in the eighteenth century.(6) He sees those concepts as an ,,Inkarnation" of occidental thought (7), because along with them goes a large social transition from a feudal to a civil society, which entailed a change of table manners and behaviour in general.

It is the purpose of the present artide to focus on this alternative approach, to apply it to the history of science, and to provide an outline for the case study of ‘ilm.

2. From -l-m to the ‘ulum

To understand the concept of science that was current in the medieval Islamic societies one has to resort to its genesis in the seventh and eighth centuries. ‘ilm was literally born in the first breath of Islam: in Sura 96 , which is believed to be the oldest part of the Quran, dating from about 610, where it appears: ,,He, (God) who taught (‘allama) the use of the calamus. He taught man what he did not know before." In preislamic days, the root ‘-l-m was marginal. An early meaning was ,,sign" and "mark," a minor meaning was "enclosing an abundance." Franz Rosenthal in the introductory chapter of his Knowledge Triumphant favours a semantic shift from “mark" to ,,know" as in German ,,merken." (8) In the Qur'an, ‘ilm and its root forms are found about every hundred words in average. Here it only means ,,knowledge," covering both God’s unfettered, all-embracing knowledge, as well as the knowledge of the believers. Without any plural form in can with similar frequency be detected in the Prophetic traditions (hadith). It is strongly connected with the bearer of this knowledge, who is the ’alim (plural ‘ulama’). The ‘alim is the person who knows best, what a Muslim can know, and what he or she is to know and in this way has a claim for universal knowledge. lt can be called a humanistic ideal, but it is, in the beginning, no scientific ideal, because at that time the Arabs did not have a concept of science. Traditional concepts like sina'a (craft, technique, later additionally synonymous with ‘ilm and ma'arif (portions of knowledge, kinds of knowledge) were much more general in their usage and were no technical terms. It is true that systematic individual disciplines had existed in early Islam, but they did not have the overall structure that came with the new meaning of the concept ‘ilm.

The easiest way to differentiate between the Qur'anic meaning ,,knowledge" and the later meaning ,,science" is to consider that ‘ilm, knowledge" has no plural form. So wherever the word ‘ulum occurs, it can only mean ,,sciences." It is a remarkable fact that even the later dictionaries like the Lisan al-'Arab do not at all account for the meaning ,,science" of ‘ilm : there is no fitting definition, the only antonym is jahl, ,,ignorance," there is no adjective ‘ilmi , and the plural form ‘ulum is missing! This comes rather unexpected, since the dictionaries were written in a time when the ‘ulum discourse had long been in bloom. And even in the earliest Islam intellectual activity as well as branches of knowledge had existed. The sources say that ‘Abd Allah b. al-'Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet, taught different subjects according to the days of the week: exegesis, law, the Prophet's expeditions, pre-Islamic history, and poetry (9). A similar kind of curriculum was followed for the education of princes. We know of mosques and other locations of education and intellectual exchange. Moreover, the early caliphs had specialists who systematically gathered knowledge for them in certain fields to satisfy the practical needs of the caliphs and courts. It is also important to recognize the development of the Arabic and Islamic disciplines Qur'an, Hadith, law, poetry, lexicography, and especially grammar before ‘ilm or any concept with comparable content, was used as a generic term to organize all the knowledge material that was current in the community. This and the missing of a dictionary definition of ‘ulum strongly support the thesis that the notion of science, as developed in the enumerations and classifications of the ‘ulum, cannot be Arabic in origin.

One of the first to use ‘ulum was al-Kindi (d.ca.252/866), often called the Philosopher of the Arabs. He lived in a time characterised by the rise of Baghdad, the rationalistic Mu'tazila movement, the impact of Iranian secretaries such as the Barmakids, the translation of the Greek heritage, and the beginnings of paper manufacturing in the Islamic world. In this climate, a new meaning of ‘ilm was born: science.

3. Three humanistic ideals establish the system of the ‘ulum

Although the notion of disciplines had existed before, it was only later that people regarded them as a system. The important innovation in the late eighth or early ninth century can be formulated as the organisation of all knowledge of all things in a single system. This can be concluded from the endeavour of intellectuals in Islam to write enumerations of the sciences in a formalized manner. They are the main source for general information on the subject. Another source is the forewords of books from the individual disciplines.

At first glance, the ‘ulum are of two kinds: they are Islamic or foreign, meaning mostly Greek. This division is a commonplace for medieval intellectuals in Islam. Sometimes it is given a methodological implication in that the islamic ones are called ,,transmitted" (naqli) and the Greek ,,rational" sciences (‘aqli). As an example for this typical two-block-thinking one can refer to Ibn Hazm (d.456/ 1064) who explains in his treatise on the hierarchy of the sciences that there are seven sciences to all the peoples, three of which are culture-bound (jurisprudence, history, and language), and four which are universal (astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy)(10). An alternative way of dividing the ‘ulum is the three-block-schema which additionally recognizes propaedeutic sciences (‘ulum niyadiya or ‘ulum al-aadaab). They typically consist of all the disciplines connected with language from a linguistic and an aesthetical point of view. Moreover, they are associated with the notion of basic (propaedeutic) knowledge within the whole of the sciences, so that often elementary mathematics and history, sometimes logic, are found in the third block where there is one.

Yet, Greek sciences are transmitted (naqli), too, and the Islamic disciplines have a clear rational and developmental aspect. As regards the propaedeutic sciences, they may be practical in the learning curriculum, but they are not substantially defined against the others. All in all, the blocks overlap and consist of a heterogenous set of disciplines. They can be divided in different ways and grouped around different centres.

In order to find proper criteria of ‘ilm, one has to begin with the question how each of the heterogeneous disciplines, despite differing evaluations, assessments, and emphasis, could be called an ‘ilm. In comparing the different treatises on the sciences, one can detect an answer in shifts of competence through the centuries. They involve three ideals, which can roughly be associated with the three mentioned blocks of 'ulum: a Greek ideal in the ninth, an Iranian one in the tenth, and an Arabic-Islamic ideal in the eleventh century. Although the system had been productive and in motion after 1100, the concept of science had by then gathered all relevant criteria of its meaning. As will be shown, these three ideals interacted in a fruitful rivalry and made up the concept of science in medieval Islam.

During the early conquests, and thus the internationalisation of Islam, two other humanistic ideals - next to the ‘alim -, entered the Arabic-Islamic community: firstly, the Greek philosophical ideal of wisdom in the failasuf.  It, especially with Aristotle, created a systematic and theoretical approach to knowledge, which was taken over in the first enumerations of the ‘ulum. It is quite possible that the development of the concept ‘ilm was a direct result of reading Aristotle, and that the Greek systematic notion of the sciences (epistemai) motivated the plural form ‘ulum for lack of terminology. This would imply that the new meaning of 'ilm is one of the numerous loans of Greek concepts, one being the concept ‘illa for ,,cause," which before the transformation process, had no such meaning. The Aristotelian classification schema also gave form to the branched knowledge that had already existed. It provided a formula, which the Arabs adopted, and which lost much of its theoretical and methodological character in the following development (11). Later, the interaction resulted in a mutual exchange of form, content, and method, so that for the whole process it is more precise to say: the diverse disciplines established each other as ‘ulum.

Al-Kindi seems to be the first to write on the division of the sciences in Arabic (Aqsaam al-‘Uluum; lost). The first extant source on the topic is short and written by Qosta b. Luqa (d.ca.299/912) who is influenced by al-Kindi (12).  Balkhi's is lost, and next in chronological order is al-Farabi (d.339/950): Ihsaa' aI-‘U1uum, the first extended treatise on the subject. From then on there are over twenty sources on the system of the sciences until the time of Ibn Khaldun.

Whereas the names above refer to philosophers, inspired by Greeks, the enumeration topic was used and taken over by non-philosophers in the tenth century. Together with the wise failasuf the educational ideal of the adib (plural udaba) came into being. It was closely related to the activities of Iranian secretaries at court. They felt obliged to know both the Islamic and the Greek sciences, and - as they were writers by profession - emphasized aesthetical language. They were involved in court life and had a lot of money at their disposal, which they used to patronize the sciences of their need and liking. Thereby they biased the conceptualization of 'ilm. The educational ideal entered the upper class and the class of booksellers, literati, and other city intellectuals who were interested in current affairs (e.g. Jahiz, al-Khwarazmi, lbn an-Nadim, Ikhwan as-Safa, Tauhidi). The udaba and secretaries also sponsored translators and philosophers within the Islamic frame. With this new claim for competence in the sciences outside the Aristotelian adherents goes a ,,trend toward their establishment of adab as an autonomous field," recently discovered by Heinrichs (13).

In the eleventh century Islamic orthodoxy set in and gave the systematization of knowledge a new direction; it stressed the religious value of the ‘ulum as a basis for their acceptability. Ibn Hazm and the great al-Ghazali dealt at length with the system of the sciences and proved that the Islamic ideal of the ‘alim, in the meantime, had gained convincing competence in the field - at the latest, when al-Ghazali was able to reconcile all knowledge in Islamic terms. The ‘ulama’ could reach so far only because they were intellectually emancipated from the failasuf and the adib by then. That was at a time, when all relevant Greek books were already translated and analyzed, and the time, when the Islamic scholastic method began to influence Europe (14). As a result of this trend, a lot of apologia appeared, in medicine, logic, history, and various other ‘ulum. During and after this change, the Greek sciences were not generally refuted, but the ideal of the failasuf or hakim lost ground, and his attributes were absorbed by the new responsibles for the knowledge department, the ‘ulama.'

The concept of science in Islam is thus in great parts composed of the intellectual achievements of the three competing ideals and can truly be called ecclectic. In the eleventh century the scientific system had gone through the hands of failasuf, adib, and ‘alim. This is a major reason to explain why the material is heterogeneous and often alternatively assessed. There are, for instance, different conceptions of mathematics and different evaluations of medicine, alchemy, music, grammar and so on; the subject history does not even appear in most of the enumerations written by the philosophers.

4. Inherent criteria of ‘ilm

The ‘ulum as described in the tenth and the eleventh centuries share more than just a family resemblance. The following items seem noteworthy:

· Interdisciplinarity: Every 'ilm is part of an overall system. Most of the dividers stress that the ‘ulum interact and stand in relation ta each other. Grammar and lexicography, for example, are needed to understand the Qur'an. Mathematics are basic for the inheritance law, logic for physics, the Prophetic traditions for jurisprudence, and so forth (15). It is, in fact, the idea of unity that counts here and that is aspired to by the medieval scientists in Islam, whereas the actual linkages of 'ulum differ from author to author. The so-called ,,aiding sciences" (‘ulum aaliya) play a special role here, because they denote method-centred disciplines like logic, mathematics, and grammar, which are to be applied to the other sciences.

· Dividability:     The root q-s-m is typical of scientific thought in Islam. An ‘ilm can usually be divided into sub-sciences which in turn divide into issues, methods, and all kinds of factors. Thus the interaction of the ‘ulum is highly flexible and often marked by a hierarchical ranking of major and minor disciplines. The subdivisions into issues prove that Muslims conceptualized ‘ilm to a great extent as an accumulation and management of facts.

· Benefit: Every ‘ilm, be it of philosophical, propaedeutic, or aesthetical nature, has to prove its usefulness. There is an important distinction to be made between the benefit in this world and the benefit in the thereafter, yet both are taken to show the scientific nature of disciplines.

· Authorities: The reference to authorities is expected in every ‘ilm. The tradition of a founder or pioneer guarantees the solidity of the science in question. In the disciplines hadith and history the isnad form was introduced, the function of which was to trace back the text to its authority, a method which was taken over into adab and into the general ‘ulum discourse.

· Textuality:    Although Schoeler (16) convincingly shows that the transmission of knowledge had both a scriptural and an oral aspect, it must be stressed that the spread of paper manufacturing, beginning with the reign of Harun ar-Rashid, is an important basis for the genesis of the scientific system in Islam. The connection between science and scriptuality can be witnessed in the simultaneous genesis of the foreword as a literary genre in the ninth and tenth centuries (17). Then, apologies and references to the limitations of the authors appeared defining which ‘ilm the book at hand belonged to. This scientific aspect in the forewords may have been inspired by the eight kephalaia questions which the Greeks used as introductions to their scientific books (18). In fact, the swelling libraries of the 10th century needed a practical catalogue form, so librarians like Ibn an-Nadim were actively involved in the shaping of the ‘ulum discourse, for example, by his inclusion of literary disciplines among the ‘ulum, as well as basically all other scriptural corpora (19). On a different scale, the notion of a standard text had existed with the first Arabic book, the Quran, which provided a basis for the ‘ulum discourse.

· Terminology:   Not only books and lores could be ordered with the system of the ‘ulum, but also terminology. The best example is the Keys of the Sciences of al-Khwarazmi (20). All the ‘ulum have a specific set of terms, which can serve as a criterion of distinction. The Keys also shows, vice versa, that most Arabic terminology can be coordinated with the sciences.

· Learning procedure: In all of the three mentioned ideals there are ideas about how to learn best. That presupposes an equality of structure in the ‘ulum in that they all are accessible via a shared learning method. The teaching and learning method for the ‘ulum is text-centred and mainly hermeneutical in character.

The above list bears different levels of analysis and is not meant to be either homogeneous or exhaustive. It is only a rough picture of what during the early Islamic history was called an 'ilm  because of its structure. The aspect of truth is neglected in this list, because it can well be rendered by the more pragmatic questions of benefit and ranking.

To summarize: the system of the sciences in Islam is characierised by a coexistance of rivalry and cooperation of the three humanistic ideals of ‘alim, failasuf and adib. In the enumerations of the sciences and related early works criteria became apparent, through which scientific critique was possible. They help to explain how the Islamic scientific culture developed a system which influenced all Mediterranean thought that followed it.

1 See the heading of the third paragraph of the sixth chapter of the Muqaddima, which is equivalent of this statement. Ed. 1967 (2nd cd.). Bairut. (Ta'rikh al-Allama Ibn Khaldun, vol. 1).
2 See for example Kuhn, Thomas (1962): The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Univ. of Chicago; Luhmann. Niklas (1994) (2nd ed.), Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Fleck. Ludwik (1994)(3d ed.). Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache. Frankfurt; Sarton, George (1956): History of Science; Stimson, Dorothy (1962), Sarton on the History of Science. Cambridge. Mass.. p. 12f. ,where the author also refers to Marx.
3 Sarton as in note 2: pp.6f. pp.10f. For Ibn Khaldun. see eg.the l9th paragraph of chapter six: The Rational Sciences and their Branches."
4 published in Tuebingen: p. 12.
5 Elias, Norbert (1993) : Ueber den Prozess der Zivilisation (2 vols.), Frankfurt: vol 1.
6 ibid. For ,,civilitè" see p.66; for ,,Zivilisation" in Kant see p.8; for ,,civilization" in Mirabeau see p.47.
7 ibid., p.65.
8 Published 1970 in Leiden.
9 See the entry ,,,Abd Allah b. al-'Abbas" in the Encyclopedia of Islam (1961) (2nd ed.).
10 Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), Risala fi Maratib al-Ulum. From Ihsan Abbas (1983): Rasa'il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi. vol.4. Bairut.p.78.
11 ,For the exact adoption there is Hein, Christel (1985). Definition und Einteilung der Philosophie. Frankfurt, and Maroth, Miklos (1994): Die Araber und die antike Wissenschaftstheorie. Leiden.
12 Cf Daiber, Hans (1990): Qosta b. Luqa (9.Jh.) über die Einteilung der Wissenschaften. Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften 6/1990. pp.93-129.
13 Heinrichs, W. (1995): The Classification of the Sciences and the Consolidation of Philology in Classical Islam. From: J.W.Drijvers/A.A.MacDonald (eds.), Centres of Learning. Leiden, p.139.
14 Cf Makdisi, George (1995): Baghdad, Bologna, and Scholasticism. From: Centres of Learning as in note 13: pp. 150ff.
15 Cf for example Ibn Hazm as in note 8:pp.Slff.
16 Schoeler, Gregor (1992): Schreiben und Veroeffentlichen. Zu Verwendung und Funktion der Schrift in den ersten islamischen Jahrhunderten. Der Islam 69,' 1992 (Hamburg). It is the last of four articles on the topic.
17 See  Freimark, Peter (1967), Das Vorwort als Literarische Form in der Arabischen Literatur. Diss. Muenster. Freimark does not emphasize the connection between science and foreword.
18 Cf the forewords of Ibn al-Akfani (d. 1348), Irshad al-Qasid ila Asna l-Maqasid. Ed. byJ.J.Witkam, 1989 Leiden. (De egyptische arts lbn al-Akfani...). -And: Maqrizi (d. 1442), Kitab al-Mawa'iz' wal-i’tibar bi-Dhikr al-Khitat wal-Athar. Ed. in Bulaq 1853f
19 Ibn  an-Nadim (d.990), Fihrist. Ed. by Rida 1988 (3d ed.)(no place); chapters 3,4, and 8.
20 Khwarazmi (d.ca.982), Mafatih al-'Ulum. Ed. by G.van Vloten, 1895 (reprinted1968), Leiden.

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