Muslim Scientists and Thinkers–Muhammad Ibn al-Idrisi

February 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Syed Aslam,


Muhammad Ibn al-Idrisi  was born in Andalusian city of Ceuta,  in 1099 C.E. He was the descendant of Idrisid the ruler of Morocco who were said to be the direct descendant of Hazrat Hasan (ra) the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (s). Al-Idrisi received his  education in Cordoba.  He traveled to many distant places, including Europe, Africa and Asia to gather geographical data and plant samples. After  traveling a few years he gathered enough information and accurate measurements of the earth’s surface to complete a rough world map. His fame and competence eventually led to the attention of Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily, who invited him to produce an up-to-date world map.  He left Andalusia and moved to Sicily and worked in the court of the Norman king till he died in the year 1166 CE.

Mohammad al-Idrisi was a great geographer, cartographer, botanist, traveler and poet. In the West he is best known as a geographer, who made a globe using a silver sphere for King Roger of Sicily.

Al Idrisi’s contribution to geography was tremendous.  His book; ‘Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq,’(The Delight of Him Who Desires to Journey Through the Climates) also known as Roger’s Book, is a geographical encyclopedia which contains detailed maps and information on European countries, Africa and Asia. Al-Idrisi completed his encyclopedia in a very unique way.  In addition to his personal travel and scholarship, he  selected some intelligent men who were dispatched to distant lands  accompanied by draftsmen. When these men returned, al-Idrisi inserted the information in his treatise.  On the basis of these observations made in the field, and from data derived from  earlier Arabic and Greek geographers,  he brought the data up to date. The book and associated maps took 15 years to complete.  It is unquestionably among the most interesting monuments of Arabian geography. In addition, the book is the most voluminous and detailed geographical work written about 12th century Europe.

Al-Idrisi compiled a more comprehensive encyclopedia, entitled ‘Rawd-Unnas wa-Nuzhat al-Nafs’ (Pleasure of Men and Delight of Souls). Al-Idrisi’s knowledge of the Niger above Timbuktu, the Sudan, and of the head waters of the Nile was remarkable for its accuracy. For three centuries, geographers copied his maps without alteration. The relative position of the lakes form which the river Nile starts its journey, as mentioned in his work, does not differ greatly from the modern map.

Al-Idrisi built a large global map made of silver weighing approximately 400 kilograms. He meticulously recorded on it the seven continents with trade routes, lakes and rivers, major cities, and plains and mountains. It is known to have been a colossal work of geography, probably the most accurate map of Europe, north Africa and western Asia created during the Middle Ages. The presentation of the Earth as a round globe was revolutionary idea in the Christian world because they believed that the earth was flat. Al-Idrisi knew that the earth was round, and he even calculated the circumference of the earth to be 22,900 miles, a difference of eight percent from the present value, and explained the revolutionary idea about earth like this;  “The earth is round like a sphere, and the waters adhere to it and are maintained on it through natural equilibrium  on the surface of the earth, the air which suffers no variation. It remained stable in space like the yolk in an egg. Air surrounds it on all sides.

Al-Idrisi’s book, Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq, represents a serious attempt to combine descriptive and astronomical geography. This book was not as grand as his other books, apparently because some truths of geography were still veiled from the author, nevertheless it is also considered a major geographic monument.

He also made the world map on a great disk almost 80 inches in diameter and weighing over 300 pounds–fabricated out of silver, which was chosen for its malleability and permanence.

Al-Idrisi’s other major contribution was his work on medicinal plants, which he discussed in several books, especially Kitab al-Jami-li-Sifat Ashtat al-Nabatat. (Simple Book of Medicinal Plants) He studied and reviewed all the literature on the subject of medicinal plants and came to the conclusion that very little original material had been added to this branch of knowledge since the early Greek work. He started collecting  medicinal  plants wherever he he traveled. Thus, he is credited for having added a large number of new medicinal plants, together with their evaluation to the medical science. He has given the names of the herbs in many languages like Greek, Persian, Hindi, Latin, Berber and Arabic.

Al-Idrisi was a traveler who wrote about what he saw–some historians compare him to Marco Polo–but al-Idrisi’s work was much more scientific, and generally more objective, than Polo’s work. While al-Idrisi’s books have survived in their original manuscript form, whereas Marco Polo’s writings exist primarily as later transcriptions which were often altered.

Al-Idrisi, no doubt, was a great geographer and traveler who produced original work in the field of geography and botany. Some historians regard him as the greatest geographer and cartographer of the Middle Ages. His books were translated into Latin and became the standard books on geography for centuries, both in the east and west.


Muslim Scientists and Thinkers–Abu Waleed Ibn Rushd

September 18, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Syed Aslam

ibn rushd Abu Waleed Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes in  Europe, was born in 1128 A.D. in Cordoba, Andalusia (now Spain). He came from a prestigious family  of lawyers and judges.  Ibn Rushd received his education in Cordoba and lived a quiet life, devoting most of his time to pursuing knowledge. He studied his familial profession, specializing in law and medicine, making good use of the magnificent library of Cordoba with its half million books.   After graduating, he practiced in al-Andalus as well as Marrakesh in North Africa. The Berber sultan offered him a judgeship in Seville, and with the patronage of the ruler, he soon moved to Cordoba as a judge–the position his father had once held. Here he passed a pleasant life for fifteen years and authored many books including a commentaries on Plato’s Republic. In 1195CE sultan’s son al-Mansur became the new ruler who banished Ibn Rushd from Cordoba and burned all his books on philosophy because of his  criticism of the Berber rulers in his commentaries. However, as a result of intervention of  leading scholars he was forgiven. He lived  another two years and died in 1198 CE in Marrakesh, capital of the Berber kingdom. Three months later his body was brought back to his beloved Cordoba to fulfill his wish.

By education, Ibn Rushd was a physician and lawyer, but he proved to be the greatest philosopher and thinker of Europe in the middle ages. He also made remarkable contributions in the fields of medicine, music, astronomy, physics, jurisprudence and psychology.

He authored more than 100 books and treatises in his life time, in which twenty were in  medicine and the rest on philosophy and other subjects. His well known treatise  Kitab al-Kulyat fi al-Tibb, Compendium of Medical Knowledge, was written while he was working in Marrakesh.  In it Ibn Rushd throws light on various aspects of medicine, including the diagnoses, cure and prevention of diseases. The treatise was divided into seven books arranging in it the works of the best physicians from the classical Greek and the Islamic world and contains several original observations of his own. Its Latin translation was known as Colliget and it became the standard text in the European universities  for several centuries.

Given his family history, it was perhaps obvious that ibn Rushd would devote some his time to jurisprudence (fiqh). His grandfather was a major figure in the Maliki school of fiqh, and so was he. By his own account it took twenty years to complete his book Bidayat al Mujtahid wa al Muqtasid; Beginning of the Independent Jurist and End of the Mere Adherent of Precedent, an excellent work on fiqh. As the title shows, he favored ijtihad or independent thinking in the areas of fiqh without specific guidance from Qur`an and ahadith.      

In astronomy ibn Rushd wrote a treatise on the motion of the sphere, Kitab fi-Harakat al-Falak. He also wrote a commentary on Almagest, the great book of mathematics and astronomy written in Alexandria Egypt in 200 CE.  He rejected the Ptolemaic model of the universe and argued for a strictly concentric model of the universe.  He wrote an excellent commentary on Aristotelian physics and was the first to to define and measure force. He defined force as the rate at which work is done–this is also the modern definition.  He wrote a valuable commentary on Aristotle’s treatise, De Anima, which deals with the nature of living things.

Ibn Rushd started his philosophical work while he was in Marrakesh, and he produced his first book; Kitab  al-Jawami fil Falsafa; The Compendium of Philosophy. Here he touched on subjects like physics, earth, meteorology, logic and metaphysics, some of these topics would occupy him for the rest of his life, His most important work Tuhafut al-Tuhafut, Incoherence of Incoherence, was written in response to Ghazali’s book The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Here he counterattacked al-Ghazali  objections one by one in a conciliatory manner. He advocated the harmony between religion and philosophy and argued that they need each other to seek the same truth.   Ibn Rush was criticized by some Muslim scholars for this book, which nevertheless had a profound influence on European thought and gave them a jump-start in reason and rationalism which ushered in the west’s “Age of Enlightenment.”

He wrote three commentaries on the works of Aristotle, the shortest, Jami, may be considered a summary of the subject. The intermediate was Talkhis and the longest was the Tafsir. These three commentaries would seem to correspond to different stages in the education of pupils; the short one was meant for beginners, the intermediate for students familiar with the subject, and finally the longest was for advanced studies. The longest commentary was, in fact, an original contribution as it was largely based on his analysis including interpretation of Qu’ranic concepts. These commentaries are considered as one of the greatest intellectual reservoir ever developed in philosophy.

After confronting conservative theologians, Ibn Rushd became a bit bold and tried to take on tougher  opponents–the rulers and kings. Close to end of his life he choose to write a commentary on Plato’s Republic, one of the  great masterpieces of Greek thought. He could have explained all those wonderful ideas of this excellent work; further, he described the Andalusian rulers as decadent tyrants. Ibn Rushd’s criticism of rulers and his political philosophy in the commentary got his book burned. He had advocated revolutionary ideas like public education, even distribution of wealth, and women’s rights; it was a plea for social justice.

When the Latin translations of his  work reached Europe in  the 13th century, they were like arrows hitting a bull’s eye. The European intelligentsia were hungry to look at the world in a new way, which Ibn Rushd provided in a big way with his commentaries and his philosophy. A new phenomena of Averrosim derived from his Latin name Averroes started to take hold among the learned people of Europe, especially the professors of newly opened universities. The Catholic church was horrified and saw the storm cloud gathering. The Pope formed a commission to look into this new phenomenon, and by 1231 CE Aristotelian philosophy, all the Ibn Rushd commentaries and his books on philosophy were banned through all of Christendom.  But it was too late, the genie was out of the bottle. The sparks of this new flame drifted northward and eastward.

One of the staunchest Averroists, Pietro d’Abano, a professor of medicine and philosophy in an Italian university, defied the decrees of the church and brought Aristotle and Ibn Rushd into the University of Padua’s curriculum in 1306 CE. He argued that experiments, observations and logic were new machines for finding truth.  This use of machines invented by Greek and Muslim philosophers was too much for the Catholic church to take- the Inquisition was formed by the Church to combat Averrosim,  and it condemned d’Abano on numerous counts. He died in 1315 CE before the Church could get him but that did not stop the Inquisition, they eventually ordered his dead body burned at the stake.

Ibn Rushd’s philosophical work, which fascinated, inspired and influenced the West, were of little interest to the Muslim world, where he is remembered as a great physician. The Islamic rejection of Ibn Rushd as a thinker and philosopher is no doubt partly because of his criticism of religious orthodoxy.


Muslim scientists and thinkers–Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

September 11, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Syed Aslam

Imamghazali Abu Hamid  al-Ghazali,  also known in west as Algazel, was born at Tus, Iran in the year 1058 CE. His father died while he was very young. He received his early education at Tus and at the age of fourteen he went to Gurgan. Here he studied Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and after seven years he moved to the city of Nishapur and became the student of famous scholar Abu Maali Juwayni.

He soon acquired a high standard of scholarship in religion,  philosophy and fiqh. The vizier of the Seljuk Sultan, impressed by his scholarship, appointed him as a Professor at the Nizamiyah University of Baghdad, which was the most reputed institution of learning at that time.

After a few years, however, he gave up his academic pursuits and worldly interests and became a wandering ascetic.

After spending  some time in Jerusalem, Makkah and Medina he came back to Tus and spent several years in seclusion. He finally ended his seclusion, opened a Sufi school khanakah and started teaching and lecturing. He remained in Tus until his death in December of 1111 CE.

Among the Muslim theologians, al- Ghazali was the most influential; in addition he was a philosopher, a Jurist and a Sufi mystic. He was a prolific writer, authoring more than 70 books. Probably his major work, the multi-volume Ihya ul-Uloom ud-Din, (The Revival of Religious Sciences), can be divided into four parts, which cover perhaps all aspects of Islam, including Islamic jurisprudence, theology and Sufism.

In this series he pointed out that the traditional teaching about Islam did not convince him in his adolescence. His conviction came later, through his Sufi mystical experience. In his autobiography; The Deliverance from Error, he recounts how his spiritual crisis was resolved by a light from God, the key to all knowledge. The Sufi mystical experience brought changes in his theological thought.

Al-Ghazali authored two books on Islamic theology, The Middle Path in Theology and The Jerusalem Epistle. In both books the theological position he expressed matches with the Asharite school of thought. He wrote three books on Aristotelian logic, The Standard Measure of Knowledge, The Touchstone of Proof of Logic and The Just Balance.

Al-Ghazali was  very much interested in logic and philosophy, and he studied intensively while he was teaching at Baghdad. He composed two books on philosophy; The Intention of the Philosopher, in which he has summarized his own conclusions about philosophy, and set the stage for the  second book; The Incoherence of the Philosophers. In this book he has used exhaustive logic against philosophers. He vehemently rejected Aristotle, Plato and all Muslim philosophers starting from eighth century who incorporated the ancient Greek philosophy into Islamic theology. The main among them were  al Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. Point by point, he refuted their arguments.

For 100 years his arguments were unchallenged.  Ibn Rushd, an Andalusian  philosopher, made a counter-argument in his book The Incoherence of the Incoherence, but the epistemological course of Islamic thought had already been set by al-Ghazali.

Al-Ghazali divided knowledge into three categories; praiseworthy, permissible and blameworthy–which he has discussed in his book Ihya Ulum-id-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences). All learning connected to religion is praiseworthy, but when mixed with other than religion sometimes becomes blameworthy. Learning medicine and mathematics he said are permissible and declared it as farze Kefayah, not ferze Ayin. If a man in a town or a locality acquires such knowledge, the whole community get absolved from the sin.

In his book al-Mustasfa which he wrote towards the end of his life, he stated that arithmetic and geometry are pure rational sciences and as such not recommended for study. They fluctuate between false and true knowledge that yield no practical application. He saw no usefulness in the study of physics and said some part of the subject as it was understood in his time contradicted the Shariah and thus were useless or blameworthy.

Al-Ghazali believed in the certainty of God which he experienced by mystic revelation, a phenomena he said was beyond logic or sensory perception. He argued that you can not prove the presence of God by logic or philosophy, and saw philosophy as largely a waste of time and inadequate for discovering the truth. Contingent events, he said, are not subject to natural physical cause, but are direct result of God’s constant intervention. This concept of God is consistent with the Asharite school of theology.   

Al-Ghazali’s work had a widespread influence on western medieval scholars especially Thomas Aquinas. He received wide recognition in the religious institutions of the Ottoman empire, southeast Asia, and Africa. In the Indian subcontinent, he enjoyed wide recognition both among the Deobandi school as well as the arch-rival Barelwi school.