Islam strongly encourages the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge both through the verses of the Holy Qur’an and the statements of the Prophet (s.a.w) and his Holy Household.
Additionally, Islam teaches Muslims to explore the natural world, push the boundaries of their imagination and seek knowledge and understanding. The Qur’an and the narrations of the Infallible Prophet (s.a.w) and Imams (a.s) encourage Muslims to ponder their existence, question the natural world and its mechanics and most importantly pursue a higher reality and awareness through knowledge.
The Qur’an is replete with verses such as:
“Have they not considered the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and what things Allah has created.”
“Will they not regard the camels, how they are created? And the heaven, how it is raised? And the hills, how they are set up? And the earth, how it is spread?”
“Allah will exalt those who believe among you, and those who have knowledge, to high ranks.”
These and other verses are constant reminders about the importance of learning and knowledge from an Islamic perspective, as it is only through knowledge of our surroundings and exploration of our intellectual abilities that we can recognise God's true splendour and majesty.
Muslim Scholarship in the Sciences
Science began flourishing among Muslims from the second/eighth centuries, aided by many factors such as the translation of works by ancient scholars from Greece, China, India and Persia. Also the establishment of institutes of learning that were patronised by rulers and wealthy and influential people; and the development of advanced paper making skills and the production of books.
These factors drove the wheels of innovation and produced magnificent advancements in human understanding in various sciences and disciplines.
However, it is worthy to note that the majority of the scholars and scientists mentioned in this article were not limited to one science, discipline or field; rather they believed in the connectedness and universality of knowledge and its applications. Thus, upon examining the legacy of various such scholars, we find that they mastered various disciplines, reflecting a true thirst for knowledge of the world in its various realms.
Jabir b. Hayyan (d. circa 200AH/815AD):
Jabir b. Hayyan is a figure shrouded in mystery due to the many debates and divergent accounts surrounding his life and work. Numerous historians and writers have even proposed that he is a fictitious character that did not ever exist.
The voluminous books and treatises attributed to him, dealing with various sciences and disciplines are also contested. Fuelling the uncertainty about Jabir b. Hayyan is the fact that scholars do not know the exact date of his birth; nor do they know his family history, background or details of his early life. In many ways he seems to have appeared out of nowhere and made an immense contribution to human knowledge.
However, ample proof has been presented by other scholars and historians who validate the existence of Jabir b. Hayyan, and the authenticity of works attributed to him, which include the statements of Jabir b. Hayyan's students.
Jabir b. Hayyan was an intellectual titan and polymath who was an esteemed philosopher, logician, physician, astronomer, astrologer and mathematician in addition to mastering other disciplines. However, he became most famed as the founding father of chemistry, with hundreds of books attributed to him.
All accounts of Jabir b. Hayyan mention that he was a close student of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (a.s). Further, in many of Jabir b. Hayyan's works, he attributes his knowledge to his teacher Imam al-Sadiq (a.s) with statements such as “My master Ja‘far told me” and “I took this knowledge from Ja‘far b. Muhammad, the master of his age.”
It is quite clear to his biographers, and anyone who takes a glance at his legacy, that he was mainly influenced by Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (a.s). Further, it should be noted that the history books do not mention any other teachers for this great Muslim scientist and pioneer.
Ya‘qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi (d. 256AH/873AD):
Named the “Philosopher of the Arabs,” Ya‘qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi was a master philosopher, mathematician, physician, astronomer and musician. Historical sources do not contain detailed information about Ya‘qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi's early life and career; however, he was born in Kufa into a privileged family which belonged to the Arab tribe Kindah.
He is also reputed to have studied and pursued his knowledge in the city of al-Basrah, where eastern philosophies and sciences were popular, and in Baghdad, the capitol of the Abbasid Kingdom, which was witnessing an unparalleled scientific and cultural movement at the time.
In Baghdad Ya‘qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi became famed for his knowledge and translation skills, resulting in his closeness to the ruling family. Ya‘qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi is widely considered to be a Shi‘a scholar as he was born in the Shi‘a heartland of Kufa. Further, he ends most treatises with a specifically Shi‘a supplication in which he praises the Prophet (s.a.w) and his household.
Scholars have also highlighted a question mentioned in “Kulayni’s al-Kafi” by Ya‘qub b. Ishaq to Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (a.s), in which he enquires how a person should worship a God that he does not see. The editor of the book states in a footnote that some scholars believed Ya‘qub b. Ishaq to be Ibn al-Sikkit, however, he did not live to see the Imamate of al-Hasan al-Askari (a.s), therefore is most likely someone else. Further, the scholars and philosophical biographer Abd Allah Ni‘mah states that it is most probably Ya‘qub b. Ishaq al-Kindi. Other scientists who have made immense contributions to the development of human understanding include:
Ibn Sina, Abu Ali al-Husayn b. Abd Allah (d. 428AH/1037AD):
He was possibly one of the most famous Muslim physicians and philosophers. He was a polymath who wrote “al-Qanun fi’l-Tibb” (the canon of medicine) which was a standard medical text book in both the Islamic world and Europe. He was also a master mathematician, logician and musician.
Abu’l Rayhan al-Bayrunu (d. 440AH/1047AD):
A philosopher, physician, astronomer, geographer, historian, poet and linguist. Considered to be one of the greatest Muslim scholars, his contributions are too numerous to mention.
The scientists and scholars above are but a very modest sample of Muslim scientific scholarship that blazed the trail of scientific discovery and intellectual investigation. Their legacies are worthy of independent and in depth study in order to better understand their genius and true place among the luminaries of human civilization.
Bibliography and Further Reading
- Qur’an (7:185).
- Qur’an (88:17-20).
- Qur’an (58:11).
- Al-ThahabI, MuHammad b. AHmad b. Uthman, Tarikh al-Islam, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, Beirut, Vol. 5, p. 279.
- Ibn Khallikan, Ahmad b. Muaammad b. Ibrahim, Wafayat al-A‘yan wa Anba’ Abna’ al-Zaman, Dar al-Thaqafah, Beirut, 1968-1972, Vol. 6, pp. 400-401.
Al-Sadr, Hasan, al-Shi‘ah wa Funun al-Islam, Mu’asassat al-Sibtain al-Alamiyyah, Qum, 1427/2006, p.355.
Al-Sadr, Hasan, al-Shi‘ah wa Funun al-Islam, Mu’asassat al-Sibtain al-Alamiyyah, Qum, 1427/2006, pp.359-360.
Al-Najashi, Abu’l ‘Abbas Ahmad, Rijal al-Najashi, Mu’asassat al-Nashr al-Islami al-Tabi‘ah li-Jama‘at al-Muddarisin fi Qum, 1416, p. 434.
 Qur’ān (88:17-20).