1. Muslim Spain and Islamic Science

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Muslim Spain and Islamic Science


(From "A Golden Era?" Chapter7, "The Wrath of Allah" plus new material)


The Moors in Spain

In 711 CE, Tariq, an Arab general, with 12,000 Berbers crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco and won the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors expanded north into France but were stopped at Tours by Charles "The Hammer" in 733. The Moorish area was pushed south below the Pyrenees and later confined to Andalusia. "Only those places which offered armed resistance were subjected to the full rigor of Islamic custom, summary execution of all adult males and the enslavement of women and children: this grim fate seems to have befallen the inhabitants of Cordova, Zaragoza and possibly Merida."' Religion was of little consequence as the "Spaniards were as much pagan as Christian: the new creed promulgated by Constantine had made little impression among the general population".2

The owners of arable land had to pay land-tax (kharaj) and all non-Muslims a poll-tax (jizya). "So valuable was the jizya to the treasury that the Sultans of Cordova were in no hurry to convert the dhimmis to Islam."3 Slaves who belonged to dhimmis, however, could emancipate themselves by repeating the Shahadah ("There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet"). To avoid paying the jizya and to ingratiate themselves with their rulers, the Spaniards began to convert to Islam, at first a trickle but accelerating with time so that by 1200 CE some 90 per cent of those living in Moorish Spain were Muslims. (This sort of thing happens in all colonies; e.g. many native officials of French Indo-China became Christians.)

The Berbers had been allotted cold, mountainous land north of Andalusia and in 740 they revolted against the Arab elite who considered "non-Arab Muslims as second class citizens."4 Also a few years later there was in-fighting between various Muslim factions, for example, the Umayyads and troops loyal to al-Saffah, "the Butcher", the first of the Abbasids. For 50 years or more there was a breakdown of administration, towns abandoned and forced resettlement of populations.

By the end of the eighth century many of the Spanish converts were studying Islamic theology with the fanaticism of new recruits. Sultan Hakam was incurably light-hearted about religion: he just enjoyed life. The theology students sought to replace him.


In 796 an attack on him failed and he crucified the ringleaders. In 806 the rebels were killed and piled in a ditch. Thousands of theology students from a certain suburb of Cordova attacked the palace in 813. Hakam had the suburb set alight and cut down the fanatics who retreated to save their families. He destroyed the suburb and exiled its inhabitants.

Hakam's son, Abd-er-Rahman II had a gentle nature and was a lover of poetry. He created gardens, built palaces, bridges and mosques.

For a time, Andalusia split into a number of estates with feudal barons often murdering or enslaving their neighbours and destroying their crops and vineyards.

Abd-er-Rahman III became Sultan in 912. (In 929 he assumed the title Kaliph.) He re-united Moorish Spain and carried war to the northern barbarians. In 920 he put the garrison of Muez to the sword and in 923 he entered Pamplona and destroyed its cathedral. He was not just a warrior, however: he was a patron of the learned and fond of science. He brought in teachers from Byzantium, Persia and Egypt and employed teams of translators and copyists (Mostly Jews and Christians.). Students came to Cordova from all parts of Europe. Buyers were sent to distant lands to gather seeds and plants for his gardens.

Irrigation had existed in Roman times but the Moors greatly expanded it with the introduction of thousands of waterwheels. Increased productivity released labour for the projects of the Kaliph and other wealthy patrons of the arts.

During his 50 year reign, Abd-er-Rahman built 50 000 upper class homes, 100 000 dwellings for commoners, 700 mosques and 900 public baths. After Spain returned to Christendom, circa 1567, Philip II had all the public baths destroyed. (The medieval Christians forbade washing as a heathen custom. A saint was proud of the fact that, at the age of sixty she had never had a wash.) The Great Kaliph had 10000 labourers working daily building a new city, Medinah Ez-Zahra. His palace had, for example, a harem for over 5000 women. It also accommodated 3000 pages and eunuchs.

Abd-Er-Rahman's son, Hakam II was a real bookworm. He sent agents throughout the East to buy rare manuscripts and gathered together 400 000 books. (The destruction of most of his library in 1013 by the Berbers was a serious blow to Arab literature"5)

Later in the tenth century, Prime Minister Almonzor placated the Muslim theologians by publicly burning the proscribed books on their list. He sacked a number of monasteries and carried away their wealth.

By 1010 anarchy had returned to Andalusia. Mass-murder, looting and assassination became common-place, Cordova was wrecked and palace after palace was ravaged by the Berbers. Medinah Ez-Zahra was reduced to a heap of blackened stones, its garrison put to the sword and the mosque desecrated as the men, (among them 60 promising scholars) women and children sheltering therein were butchered. Some 20 or so independent city-states came into existence. Some supported the arts: Mo'tamid of Seville not only collected books but the heads of his enemies. Andalusia was therefore easy picking for a new Berber invasion of the Almoravids, a puritan Muslim sect from Morocco. The Jews and Christians suffered the intolerance of the Almoravids: they were cruelly persecuted, massacred or else transported.

Within 20 years the brave, taut army of Almoravids degenerated into a drunken rabble of brigands and petty tyrants who could not repulse the raids of the northern Christians. The Andalusians, now mainly Muslims, rose up and expelled the Almoravids only to become subject to the Almohads or "Unitarians" another fanatical Muslim sect from North Africa.

The Christians in the north decided the fate of the Almohads in 1212 at Las Navas where they killed almost 600000 Moors. The Muslim region of Spain was reduced to the kingdom of Granada which replaced Cordova as the centre of the arts and sciences. Despite the turmoil of the times, Fletcher gives this period (1150-1250) as the time when the bulk of Arab literature was translated into Latin. For example Adelard of Bath (1075-1160) disguised himself as a Muslim and studied at Cordova; he translated Euclid's "Elements" from the Arabic translation into Latin and Ptolemy's "Almagest" from Greek into Latin.6

In 1236 the Great Mosque was converted into Cordova Cathedral -poeticjustice because the site had originally been that of a Christian church. The famous Aihambra, the Red Palace, was built at Granada. Peace was maintained by the Moors paying tribute to the Christians.

In 1481, Abu-l-Hasan refused to pay the "protection money" and raided the Christians at Zahara returning to Granada laden with loot and bringing back the residue of its inhabitants.

Retribution was to follow. The city-fortress of Malaga was starved into submission and the 15,000 Moors who could not ransom themselves were taken into slavery. In similar fashion, the Muslim castles fell one by one. The Moorish king was allowed to leave Spain but was blinded by the Sultan of Fez on his return to Africa.

No aid came to Granada from the Sultans of Turkey and Egypt and in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella accepted the capitulation of the city. The Moriscos (Spanish Muslims) flocked to convert back to Christianity. Cardinal Ximenes7, however, considered that the conversions were taking too long and, in 1499, convinced Isabella to persecute the Moriscos. The queen promulgated a decree wherein the Moors were given the choice of baptism or exile, leaving their children behind in Spain. The majority apostacised from Islam but a number rebelled in 1501. Passive resistance became the tactic for the last of the Moriscos. By taqqiya, Muslims are legally able to deny their religion if they face persecution. For 50 years they outwardly conformed but, for example, once home washed off the holy water.

In 1567 Philip enforced laws making the Moriscos relinquish bathing, their language, their Arabic names, customs and ceremonies. In 1568 the second Morisco rebellion began: priests were murdered, churches desecrated and torture used against Christians. The commander of the Catholic forces would not accept surrender: men, women and children were butchered by his order. This took place in November 1570- the few left were enslaved. In 1610, half a million more Moriscos were rounded up and deported to Africa.

Did Moorish Spain enjoy a Golden Era? Richard Fletcher, Reader of History at the University of York reminds us that "the scientific and philosophical scholarship of the Greeks and Persians had been lost to the West but was introduced to European intellectual life via the Islamic world in Spain. The work of Newton would have been inconceivable without Muslim mathematics and navigational instruments such as the astrolabe made possible the great voyages of discovery by European explorers. "8

"But Moorish Spain was not a tolerant and enlightened society even in its most cultivated epoch."9 There was beauty but little tolerance. Witness the Jews of Granada who were butchered "in 1066, or the Christians who were deported by the Almoravids to Morocco in 1126." Learning was restricted to a small elite who had the means to study: also fundamentalists persecuted the scientists from time to time. For centuries, anarchy rather than good order and civilized behavior, had been the general rule.



Islam and Knowledge

Muslim modernists have tried to argue that one verse out of eight in the Qur'an states that man must search for knowledge. However the Arabic word used is "ilm" which refers to "religious knowledge" rather than knowledge of the real world. Even today, a number of Western scientists compartmentalize the two types of knowledge - one compartment for rational knowledge from Monday to Friday and one for the supernatural on Sunday. Thus, Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) argued that "cultivation of science should be totally independent of the Muslim creed."'0

In the fourteenth century Islamic fundamentalists finally succeeded against secular knowledge. "But then the dark night of ignorance, ... the flood of misdirected scholarship [theology], enveloped the glimmer (of truth)." ~ Since that time science and technology have retrogressed in the Islamic world. Examples abound: for example, Ibn Rushd was tolerated in Muslim Spain by Kaliph Abu Yaqub but when the latter died in 1184, the new Kaliph, Abu Yusuf prohibited the study of science and logic. Ibn Rushd's "Commentaries on Aristotle" wherein he opposed "revealed" and unverifiable truths and supported rational truths proved by science were condemned by both Islam and the Christian Church. Ibn Rushd and other students of philosophy were exiled from Cordova and most of his books were burnt.

Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer. His works were considered skeptical, irreverent and sacrilegious by the ulama and had to be passed around covertly.

Another great Muslim thinker was Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037). He had a profound knowledge of many subjects, he had memorized the Qur'an at the age of ten and was a doctor at seventeen. His great work on medicine, "Al-Qanum" remained the textbook for many centuries. But he was an independent spirit: if he thought a glass of wine would prove to be a pick-me-up he would have one regardless of what was written in the Qur'an. On several occasions he had his books banned and had to flee persecution. A contemporary Islamic fundamentalist, Imam Al-Ghazzali 12 called him an infidel and even today fundamentalists attack him. Witness this quote from the Saudi- financed "Islamic World Review

"The story of famous Muslim scientists of the Middle Ages such as Al Kindi, AI-Farabi, Ibn-al-Haytham and Ibn Sina shows that, aside from being Muslims, there seems to have been nothing Islamic about them or their achievements. On the contrary, their lives were distinctly unIslamic. Their achievements in medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematics and philosophy were a natural and logical extension of Greek thought." 13

Al-Kindi was a rationalist who had his library confiscated and, at the age of sixty, was subjected to fifty lashes.

Al-Farabi "depended on pure reason, not Shariah, for discriminating between good and bad." 14By order of the Emir he was hit on the head with his book a number of times and consequently he lost his sight.

For science to flourish one essential is a commitment to free and critical discussion. A number of early Muslims still had inquiring minds receptive to rational knowledge but all the time religious orthodoxy was becoming stronger until rationalism was stifled.

The opposite was true in the West: with the growth of towns and manufacturing, a capitalist class, independent of the feudal church began to need technology and science. The Church no longer had a monopoly of all knowledge and science began to develop slowly but surely.



"Qur'anic Science"

The term Qur' anic Science is a misnomer because there is practically no information relating to natural phenomena in the Qur'an - even less than one would expect from an illiterate shepherd or camel-driver. The Sun, Moon and stars receive mention as Allah's "signs" but there is no attempt at a scientific explanation: instead of a cosmogeny, Allah merely issues the command, "Be!"

Qur'an (21:30), Have not the disbelievers seen that the heavens and Earth were one piece and we parted them?", is cited as anticipating the Big Bang theory.

Maurice Bucaille, "The Bible, the Qur'an and Science" correctly points out that the Genesis version of Creation is not in accord with fossil evidence - birds and whales appeared after land vertebrates (reptiles and land mammals respectively.) The Qur'an cannot be so criticized because it is not as ambitious as the Bible for "there appears only one passage in the Qur'an where a definite sequence is plainly established between events in the Creation. Viz. (79:27/33)

"Are you the harder to create or is it the heaven that (Allah) built? He raised its canopy and fashioned it with harmony. He made dark the night and he brought out the forenoon. And after that He spread it out. Therefrom he drew out its water and its pasture. And the mountains He has fixed firmly. Goods for you and your cattle."

Bucaille quotes (41:11), "Moreover (Allah) turned to the Heaven when it was smoke and said to it and to the earth " as evidence that the Qur'an contains 20th Century knowledge of interstellar galactic material, pure hydrogen which can hardly be called "smoke". He also uses, "Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds", the plural indicating knowledge of planets other than Earth and, possibly, inhabited planets in other stellar systems.

Bucaille believes these following verses provide information: "the sky (Allah) raised it (sic) (55:7) and "(Allah) holds back the sky from falling on the Earth except by His leave " (22:65) (Shades of Henny Penny! The old Arabs undoubtedly knew about meteorites.)

"The sun and the moon (are subjected) to calculations." (55:5) - the ancient Egyptians were thus able to predict accurately the flooding of the Nile, thousands of years before the Qur'an.)

Much is made of the next quote: "(God is) the One Who created the night, the day, the sun and the moon. Each one is travelling in an orbit with its own motion." (21:33) I suggest that, taking the verse as a whole, that night and day are mentioned and that the motions of the Earth are ignored, the old, incorrect notion of the Sun going around the Earth is implied rather than the modern knowledge that the Sun moves elliptically through the Milky Way with a period of roughly 250 million years and that day and night are due to Earth's rotation on its axis. Moreover omniscient Allah does not elaborate on the motion of the Moon. Most of its apparent motion is NOT due to its "orbit with its own motion" around Earth (approx. 28 days) but to Earth's rotation on its axis.

. Further on astronomy, is Qur'an (18:86): "When he (Dhu al Qarnayn) reached the setting of the Sun, he found it in a spring of murky water." (Perhaps this may have been Allah's little attempt at levity, but it does make one wonder how literally one can take Qur'an) authority" to do so. This verse implies that the Sun is very much smaller than Earth whereas the converse is true. Also that the Sun moves across the Earth and "sets" at night, rather than that a spherical Earth turns on its axis.

The location of the Moon and stars in the Qur'an certainly gives the wrong impression: " We have indeed adorned the LOWER heaven with the beauty of the stars." (37:6, similarly (67:3,5) and (41:12)) and "Do you not see that Allah has created the seven heavens one above the other, and made the moon a light in their midst " (71:15-16).

But the stars are vastly further away than the Moon. (The average distance from Earth to Moon is 384,400 km, while Proxima Centauri, the closest star to us apart from Sun (150,000,000 km) is 40 trillion kilometres.

Bucaille calls on people with a knowledge of Science and Arabic to translate the Qur'an so that it will sound more modern and contain terms such as atoms, the expanding universe, etc. Thus AYA (51:47) "With power and skill did We construct the Firmament: for it is We Who create the vastness of space." This respectable 7th Century statement becomes (Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Cairo), "The Heaven, We have built with power. Verily, We are expanding it." (51:47)

Space travel is said to have been predicted by (55:33)

"O ye assembly of Jinns and men! If it be ye can pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the earth, pass ye! Not without authority shall ye be able to pass! Apparently the Russian and American cosmonauts had "Allah's authority to do so. Seriously, though, there are mentions of space-travel in other "tales of the ancients".

There are a number of verses wherein "Allah" suggests that the father is the sole genetic parent e.g. (6:98) "It is He Who hath produced you from a single person; here is a place of sojourn and a place of departure." And (23:13), "Then We placed him (mankind) as a drop of sperm in a place of rest." Although sperms are mentioned a number of times, ova are not. Moreover, the sperm come not from the testicles but (86:5-7): He (man) is made from a gushing fluid which issues from between the loins and ribs." Also the verses on embryology leave much to be desired. The fertilized egg cell is not a "clot of blood" (confusion with menstrual blood?) (22:12-14 et al) Nor does the "chewed meat" become bones "which are then clothed with flesh" (2:259 et al). By the eighth week there are little muscles working BEFORE ossification has started!

Again on biology, (20:53) " with it We have produced diverse pairs of plants each separate from others." But the majority of plants do not come in pairs but have male and female organs on the one plant. Another biological blunder is in Qur'an (27:18,19) where Solomon overhears a conversation of ants. In reality, ants communicate by smells rather than sound.

There are a number of verses in the Qur'an regarding rain, springs of water, etc. but unlike Bucaille I do not find them extraordinary e.g. "Have you observed the water you drink? Do you bring it down from the rain clouds? Or do We? If it were Our will, We could make it salty. Then why are you not thankful?" (56:68-70) Again we consider the rain as one of Allah's "signs" rather than the verses contributing information about "the Water Cycle".

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera! Basta as the Italians say.



The Islamization of Knowledge


"A four-year course on the principles of Islam... must be introduced as the "core" program for all students regardless of their field of specialization." More than this the "great task facing Muslim intellectuals and leaders: to recast the whole legacy of human knowledge from the viewpoint of Islam." 15

For example, students in a Malaysian hydrology course had to search the Qur'an for keywords such as "sun and heat, wind, thunder, lightning, shade and cold, deserts, etc." "An advanced topic introduced for discussion was: Is it possible to stop or induce rainfall through prayers?" 16

Islamic Science proposes to investigate such fundamental problems as "the Angle of God (sic)", "the Speed of Heaven (sic)", "the Mechanics of Doomsday (sic)" and "the Chemical Composition of Jinns and how to use them to solve Pakistan's energy shortage". 17 It would be all very funny except that recalcitrant professors in Hoodbhoy's own university were jailed and tortured for dissenting from Zia's official line.




1 P 18 "Moorish Spain", R.Fletcher, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992)

2 P27 ibid

3. P 44 "The Moors in Spain", S. Lane-Poole (T.F.Unwin, London, 1899)

4. P 47 ibid

5. P 155 bid

6. P 83 "A History of Pi", P. Beckman (Barnes & Noble, NY, 1993)

7. P 80 ibid Ximenes, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain was "directly responsible for the cruel deaths of 2500 persons and had 24,000 books burnt at Granada."

8. R. Fletcher, back cover.

9. ibid, P 172-173

10. P 145 "The Unnatural Nature of Science", L. Wolpert (Faber & Faber, London, 1992)

11. Adapted from P103 "Creation Revisited: The Origin of Space, Time and the Universe". P.W. Atkins, Penguin Books, 1994 Atkins was referring to the dark age of Christian scholasticism but it aptly describes this period of Islam.

12. P 87 "A History of Pi" "Scientific studies shake men's faith in God and undermine religion."

13. P 113 Quoted in "Islam & Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality", P. Hoodbhhoy (Zed Books, London, 1991)

14. 14. loc cit (Quoted from "Journal of Islamic Science".)

15. P 17-18,20 "Islamization of Knowledge", The International Institute Of Islamic Thought, Virginia, 1989.

16. P 46/47, "Teaching Islamic Sciences and Engineering", S.W.A. Husaini, Kuala Lumpur, 1985.

17. P149 P.Hoodbhoy