Generals on research and development when Islam arrived


Rumor has it that Islam put a stop to scientific progress and no better symbol for this than Islamic commander Amr ibn al-‘As burning the renowned library of Alexandria. Egypt was conquered during Umar ibn al Khattabs kaliphate by Muslim troops in 641 AD and Ibn al ‘As made Memphis its new capital, where it had been Alexandria for the last thousand years. Truth is that the most important sections of this famous library had been burned on several occasions, first during the siege of the city under Julius Caesar, 47 BC, then another part was lost during emperor Aurelian fighting a revolt by queen Zenobia of Palmyra around 270 AD and zealous Christians under Byzantine Emperor Theodosius had sacked the subsidiary library at the Serapeum in 391 AD. Christian emperor Theodosious I had ordered destruction of all pagan temples among which the Serapeum in Alexandria which may have housed the remaining books of the famous library. Whether Ibn al ‘As destroyed the remaining part of the library, is most probably a popular myth spread by Edward Gibbon and Nicolas Wade (‘Burning the Book of Nature’). Bernard Lewis claims that opponents of the Shia Fatimid caliphate had spread the story of the Fatimids falsely accusing Umar ibn al Khattab for supporting a library’s destruction, which is a sin in Islam.

In the Prophet’s days, at least at a practicable travel distance, the Persian Sassanid empire was the main promotor of science and medicine and the East Roman empire, the Byzantines, its main enemy and persecutor. Byzantine emperor Zeno had the main Greek scientific centers closed and its scholars found refuge in the important Persian city of Gondeshapur, Khuzestan. Astronomy, philosophy, medicine and useful crafts in the Greek tradition came to flourish and the Persian king ordered Greek and Syriac works to be translated into Pahlavi: the written Iranian language also used at the court. The language lost its common use after about 900 AD and was then preserved by the Zoroastrian clergy. We may state therefore that in the Prophet’s days science was practised in Persia and it relied on Persians and Greeks and their tradition, however, also Indian and Chinese scholars were invited to Gondeshapur. After the Muslim conquest in 638 AD the academy of Gondashapur survived and persisted its status of institute for higher learning for several centuries. Its hospital was probably the first ever in the Muslim world. Caliph al Ma’mun, however, founded in 832 AD the famous Baytu l Hikma, the House of Wisdom, Baghdad, which gradually became the Muslim intellectual center.

Another accusation from non-Muslims is that Qur’anic verses were copied from known philosophical and scientific works, perhaps in response to people like Harun Yahya and Maurice Bucaille stating that Qur’anic text never contradicts scientific facts. What were the main ideas on science and nature in the early 7th century AD and did Qur’anic revelations correspond with them? This question has been posed and explored many a time and led to many creative and imaginative answers that are by no means to be discarded even nowadays. We start our voyage in Greece and travel clockwise to the middle and far east and end in Europe.

New York Times, NCBI,


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Filed under Known scientific research & development during the rise of Islam

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