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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 14    Issue 08   01 - 31 January 2020

Islam’s Interactive Inclusiveness

In earlier times, the institution of slavery was closely intertwined with the prisoners of war. Slavery provided an alternative to prisoners of war, who were otherwise killed by the victorious camp. Similarly, it provided a refuge to destitute prisoners of war who had nowhere to go and had no means of sustenance. In pre-Islamic Arabia as well as in many ancient civilizations, prisoners of war were generally enslaved and treated like chattel. The Bible says that in the event of victory in a war, male prisoners of war are to be killed (Deuteronomy 21:10). Islam made a radical departure from earlier practices by emphasising not only that the prisoners of war should be treated in a humane manner but also their liberation. According to the Quran, war prisoners are to be liberated gratuitously or on payment of ransom (47:4). According to Islamic law, a prisoner of war qua prisoner should not be killed. However, this does not preclude his trial and punishment for crimes beyond rights of belligerency. According to Islamic law, prisoners are to be well treated and given food and clothes. The costs for their food and clothing are to be borne by the Islamic state. Among prisoners, a mother is not to be separated from her child nor any other near relatives from each other.

In the Battle of Badr, in which Muslims dealt a crushing defeat to the Meccans, 70 prisoners of war were captured. Umar’s considered opinion was that since the Meccans were the worst enemies of Muslims who had treated them in the most barbaric manner, the prisoners of war deserved no mercy. He therefore suggested that they should be executed without any hesitation. Abu Bakr disagreed with Umar’s opinion and suggested that they should be set free on payment of ransom. He reckoned that the payment of ransom would weaken the economic position of the Meccans and strengthen that of Muslims who were badly in need of financial resources. The Prophet agreed with Abu Bakr’s suggestion.

The equivalent of a hundred camels was fixed as ransom. A few of the prisoners paid the ransom and secured their freedom. In the case of prisoners who could not afford to pay the ransom, their relatives and friends collected the money and paid the ransom on their behalf. Some of the prisoners were too poor and had no relatives to help them, but they were literate. The Prophet told them that they could secure their release if each one of them taught ten Muslim children to read and write. They agreed to the offer. A few prisoners were neither literate nor had relatives who could come to their rescue. They were set free after they gave an assurance to the Prophet that they would not engage in any kind of aggression or hostility against Muslims in the future.

Following the battle of Hunayn, about 6,000 men and women were held prisoner. The Prophet ordered them to be honourably released.

Imam Bukhari, in his celebrated work Al-Sahih has narrated this incidence under the caption “Justification for appointing non-Muslims as teachers of Muslims.”

A Chapter in the Historiography and Sociology of Islamic Science

In his stimulating and deftly argued book The Theft of History (2006), Jack Goody uses an evocative metaphor -- the ‘theft of history’-- to describe a particularly iniquitous aspect of Eurocentrism. The theft of history, according to Goody, refers to the take-over or expropriation of history by the West. He says: “The past is conceptualized and presented according to what happened on the provincial scale of Europe, often Western Europe, and then imposed upon the rest of the world.” The theft of history, according to Goody, is reflected in the widely-held view among Western intellectuals and historians that some of the key institutions of modern times, such as science, democracy, mercantile capitalism and modernity, were invented in Europe. Goody argues that Europe has deliberately neglected or underplayed the history of the rest of the world, as a consequence of which it has misinterpreted much of its own history. He states that the claim that these institutions originated in Europe is historically untenable, and the fact of the matter is that they can be found over a much more widespread range of human societies (Goody 2006:125,215).

Goody points out that the underlying assumption behind European uniqueness or exceptionalism, which is reflected in the Eurocentric view of the Renaissance and of much of the history of science in the West, is the clash of cultures, civilizations and religions, popularized by Samuel Huntington. This model of the clash of civilizations, Goody asserts, does not account for very much.

I would like to carry Goody’s brilliant argument a little further and draw attention to what may be termed as the theft of the history of science in the Western context. I draw upon the researches of Fuat Sezgin to substantiate and elaborate this idea. The theft of the history of science and medicine is vividly reflected in the plagiarism and expropriation of the researches, discoveries, instruments and devices invented by Muslim scientists by European scientists and scholars in the medieval period, in the fraudulent claims of authorship of books and treatises written by Muslim scientists, and in claims of originality and precedence for European scientists over scientific and medical discoveries made by Muslim scientists and physicians in earlier times.

Some of the highly important works in medicine that were written by Muslim physicians and were translated into Latin were wrongly attributed to Galen and other Greek physicians. Thus, Ishaq ibn Imran’s work Kitab al-Malaykhuliya and Ibn al-Jazzar’s book Kitan al-Bah were attributed to Galen (d. 200 CE) and Alexander of Tralles (d. 605 CE) for centuries. It was only in the first half of the 20th century that this theft of the history of science was brought to light. Ibn Sina’s book Kitab al-ahjar was wrongly attributed to Aristotle. Raymundus Lullus (d. 1315) resisted, without success, the dissemination of Islamic science in Europe. He fraudulently claimed the authorship of some books in chemistry and other branches of sciences which were actually written by Muslim scientists.

Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288) was the first scientist who discovered and described the coronary vessels and the pulmonary circulation. He contradicted Galen, who held that blood passes from one side of the heart to the other through septal pores. In one of his major works, Sharh tashrih al-Qanun, Ibn al-Nafis argued that there are no pores in the cardiac septum, and that blood flows from the right side of the heart via the pulmonary artery to the lung, where it is aerated and purified in the alveoli. It then returns via the pulmonary veins to the left part of the heart.

Andreas Alpagus (1522), who was a professor at Padua University in Italy and was a great admirer of the contributions of Muslim scientists and physicians, learnt Arabic, undertook extensive travels to Islamic lands and stayed in Damascus for nearly 30 years. In the course of his stay in Damascus, he delved into the treasures of Arabic learning and translated many Arabic works on science and medicine into Latin. One of these translated works was Sharh tashrih al-Qanun of Ibn al-Nafis. This translation was printed in Venice in 1547. Shortly after the publication of the translation, half a dozen works written by European scientists described the pulmonary circulation exactly the way it was described by Ibn al-Nafis, but without acknowledging the source. In 1553, Michael Servitus described the pulmonary circulation in his book Christianismi Restitutu and claimed it as his own discovery. Similarly, the second edition of Vesalius’s book De Humani Corporis Fabrica described the pulmonary circulation, which was evidently lifted from the Latin translation of Ibn al-Nafis’s work. Interestingly, the first edition of Vesalius’s book, printed in 1542, did not mention this ‘discovery’. In the same way, the works of Valvarde (1554), Cesalpino (1554), Realdo Colombo (1558) and William Harvey (1628) described the pulmonary circulation, without revealing the source (Abdel-Halim 2008)

Vesalius, who is credited with the discovery of the pulmonary circulation in Western accounts of the history of science, was quite familiar with the works of Muslim scientists and physicians, through Latin translations as well as the original Arabic works. He had a fairly good knowledge of Arabic and had even translated a part of Al-Razi’s celebrated work Kitab al-Mansuri in Latin.

For nearly three centuries, the discovery of the pulmonary circulation was attributed to the English biologist William Harvey. In 1924, an Egyptian physician, who was studying medicine at Albert Ludwig University in Germany, discovered a manuscript of Ibn al-Nafis’s book Sharh tashrih al-Qanun. A close study of the manuscript revealed that Ibn al-Nafis had accurately described the pulmonary circulation three hundred years before Harvey.

Constantine the African (d. 1087) was a Christian Arab merchant of Algiers who had a keen interest in Arabic works in science and medicine. He travelled to Italy and brought from there many Arabic books written by Muslim scientists and translated some of them into Latin. He not only suppressed the names of the Muslim authors of the books he translated but also shamelessly attributed their authorship to Greek writers and even to himself. For nearly two centuries, Ali ibn Musa’s book Kamil al-sinaa al-tibbiyya was considered to be a work of Constantine the African.

Michael Scott (d. 1235), who knew Arabic and was fascinated by the works of Muslim scientists, translated some Arabic works on science and medicine into Latin. These included the work of Nur al-Din al-Batruji on astronomy and Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on some of Aristotle’s works. He then rehashed the contents of some of these books into a new book and attributed its authorship to Nicolaus Damascenus, who lived in the first century CE.

The discovery of camera obscura in optics, spherical triangles in mathematics and Jacob’s Staff in astronomy is attributed to the French mathematician and astronomer Levi Ben Gerson (d. 1344). In reality, these discoveries were made by Muslim mathematicians, scientists and astronomers centuries before Gerson. Strangely, people who perpetrated this scientific fraud did not care to reflect as to how a single person could have made such amazing discoveries in three distinct fields of science.

The Arabic works on science and medicine that were translated into Latin in the medieval period included the commentaries of Muslim scientists and physicians on the works of the Greek botanist Dioscorides, who lived in the first century CE. The translators attributed the commentaries, which contained valuable botanical information, to Dioscorides, and not to Muslim scientists. Some fair-minded European historians of science, such as Cumston, have noted that many of the medicinal herbs and substances attributed to Dioscorides were in fact of Islamic origin.

Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) is considered the father of several sciences, including botany, zoology, chemistry and meteorology. It was believed, until recently, that his scientific knowledge was derived from classical Greek sources. It has now come to light that he was ignorant of Greek and that he became familiar with Aristotle’s ideas through the commentaries of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina on Aristotle’s works. The Italian scholar Robertus Grosseteste (d. 1253) is considered the most influential defender and exponent of Aristotle in Europe. Historians of science have now discovered that he had no direct access to Aristotle’s original works and that his writings on Aristotle were almost entirely based on the commentaries of Arab scientists on Aristotle’s works.

Western historians of science generally maintain that the foundations of trigonometry as an independent science were laid by the German mathematician and astronomer Regiomontanus (d. 1476). Fuat Sezgin has convincingly argued that the real credit for founding trigonometry goes to Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274).

It is generally believed that Roger Bacon (d. 1292) was the founder of the experimental method in science. In the 19th century, C. Prantil (d. 1893) took exception to this view and argued that Bacon was greatly influenced by the views of Muslim scientists, mathematicians and physicists, including Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Razi, Ibn Zuhr and Al-Zahrawi, who emphasized, centuries before Bacon, that the experimental method lay at the heart of scientific research. Prantil’s argument was supported by E. Wiedemann and M. Schramm, who pointed out that the credit for the invention of the experimental should indeed go to Muslim scientists.

The most important factor in the theft of the history of science and medicine that has been outlined in the foregoing was a deeply entrenched feeling of prejudice, antipathy and hostility towards Islam. A set of ideological, political and cultural factors, including the legacy of the Crusades, confrontations with the Ottoman Empire, the ideology of white supremacy and European colonialism, have been responsible for this perception (Southern 1962; Daniel 1960; Rodinson 1987; Reeves 2000).

Mercifully, from the late 19th century, a growing number of European scientists, historians of science and orientalists began to recognize and acknowledge the pivotal role of Muslim scientists in the advancement of science and medicine and the debt of the European Renaissance to their seminal and outstanding contributions. The names of Jean Jacques Sedillot (d. 1840), Joseph Reinaud (d. 1867), Franz Woepcke (d. 1864), Carl Kraus (d. 1946), Eilhard Wiedemann (d. 1925), George Sarton (d. 1956), Heinrich Suter (d. 1922), Carlo Alfonso allino (d. 1938), Ignatius J. Kratchkovsky (d. 1951), Heinrich Schipperges (d. 2003), Julius Hirschberg (d. 1925), M. Ullman and George Saliba are particularly note-worthy in this connection. George Sarton perceptively observed, “We shall not be able to understand our science of today if we do not succeed in penetrating its genesis and its evolution.” Sarton wrote a monumental work An Introduction to the History of Science (1927-48), in which he paid a glowing tribute to the original and wide-ranging contributions of Muslim scientists.

In recent years, historians of science, scientific institutions, universities and publishing houses in the West have made admirable efforts at rectifying the injustice done to the monumental contributions of Muslim scientists, astronomers, mathematicians and physicians. The Wellcome Group published The Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts on Medicine and Science in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library in 1967. The contributors in The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance (1983) have highlighted and documented the outstanding and wide-ranging contributions of Islamic civilization during the medieval period which were a forerunner of the European Renaissance and which exerted a profound and enduring influence on science, medicine, technology, architecture and art in Europe (Hayes 1983). The Dictionary of Scientific Biography (16 vols, 1970-80), edited by C. C. Gillispie, contains useful entries on Muslim scientists. Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Sciences (1996), edited by Rashed Roshdi and Regis Morelon, offers carefully analyzed and painstakingly documented information on the wide-ranging contributions of Muslim scientists.


Jack Goody, Jack (2006) The Theft of history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goody, Jack (2010) Renaissance: The One or the Many? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rabie, E. Abdel-Halim (2008) ‘Contributions of Ibn al-Nafis (1210-1288 AD) to the progress of medicine and urology’ Saudi Medical Journal, 29 (1), 2008 (www.smj.org.sa)

Southern, R. W. (1962) Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Daniel, Norman (1960) Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rodinson, Maxime (1987) Europe and the Mystique of Islam. (trans. by Roger Veinus) Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Reeves, Minou (2000) Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Mythmaking. New York: New York University Press.

Hayes, A. J. ed. (1983) The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Dallal, Ahmad (1999) ‘Science, Medicine and Technology’ In John L. Esposito, ed. The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

(Extracted from A.R. Momin, ed. Sociology in Islamic Perspective: Selected Readings, 2017, pp. 232-240)

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