The Golden Age of Andalusian Science

The Golden Age of Andalusian Science

EVERY SCIENCE IN A MAJOR CULTURE HAS ITS GOLDEN age and my treatment of Andalusian science will focus on this period. Once that science is situated in time and space, it will help those of us living in a different time and very pluralistic world to better appreciate its significance. The period between the eighth and 15th centuries – or the second and ninth centuries of the Islamic calendar – tends to evoke for Westerners distant images of darkness, confìicts between men of religion and men of science, intellectual barrenness, religious intolerance and so on. The immediate reference is to medieval Europe, but it is assumed that elsewhere in the world, the prevailing situation must have been the same. As history tells us, however, Andalusia (as Muslimruled Spain was known) can hardly be associated with such unfavorable images. On the contrary, Andalusia has charmed students of its history, culture and civilizational achievements. Many authors have lavished the region with praise in their writings, evoking images of enlighttenment and tolerance. Philosoph}1, science, literature and the arts flourished. Several of its natives, such as Ibn al-‘Arabi from Murcia, became among the greatest spiritual thinkers. Andalusia was perhaps the only place in Europe where followers of the three Abrahamic faiths – Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative peace, produced a common culture and civilization, and maintained this culture over a long period of time. No wonder some Westerners today are nostalgic for Andalusia.

Andalusia was rivaled in knowledge, wealth and power only by the Muslim East, but the Spanish region itself was the Muslim West. Although its body was in Europe, in mind and spirit, it was closer to the Arab-Muslim world. Intelectually spiritually and culturali)1, Andalusia was part and parcel of the vast Muslim world that extended from the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula in the west to China in the east.
Andalusia’s contributions to Islam had been immense, though the same can be said of its contributions to the Latin West. Its intellectual contributions were largely in the field of mathematics, natural science and medicine. Arab-Muslim science in Andalusia flourished for several centuries. Its origin and rapid growth as a scholarly effort and as a statesupported institution could be traced to the 10th century patronization of scholarship initiated by Abdul Rahman III (d.961), founder of the Umayyad caliphate in Cordova. He sought to create a new learning culture in Andalusia on the basis of the cultural and scientific achievements of Baghdad. His son, Al-Hakam II (d.976), energetically continued this court tradition of learning and scholarship.

The golden age of Andalusian science ought to be identified with the 1 1 th and 1 2th centuries, when all the big names lived. The period was the most productive in terms of scientific creativity and literary output, but the brilliance was not unique to Andalusia. Although the region might have been the most advanced center of scientific activities in Europe, on the larger international stage, it shared the limelight with other places such as the Middle East and Central Asia. It was not just the golden age of Andalusian science, but also the golden age of Islamic science as a whole. This fact provides evidence that Andalusian science was part of a larger scientific enterprise within the cultural unity fostered by Islam. To the Muslim world, Andalusia was its westernmost wing, which, together with the rest of the Maghreb, constituted a single cultural unit.

It was remarkable at that time to see a lot of exchange of scientific information between Andalusia and the rest of the Muslim world. Quite a number of men of science from Andalusia were known to have traveled to the Muslim East and just as many from the East traveled to Andalusia for various reasons. Historical records point to many scholars making frequent long distance travels within the Muslim world and beyond. Such travels were a significant factor in the internationalization and globalization of Islamic science.


I use the word “scientist” to include mathematicians, natural scientists, medical doctors and geographers. The word “scientist” is of course a modern invention. Scientists as specialists in the modern sense were practically nonexistent in medieval Islam as was the case among other civilizations of the period. The medieval scientist was a person who had encyclopedic interest in all the known sciences of the day and Andalusian scientists belonged to the same intellectual species. In contrast to the modern specialist who knows more about less, the medieval scientist knew something about everything. Although these medieral scientists might appear to be “generalists,” they created new knowledge in the different sciences, thereby contributing to the advancement of those disciplines in factual content, technical methods and even in the creation of new independent scientific disciplines. Algebra, trigonometry, optics and engineering were the most well known of the new disciplines created by Muslim scientists.

It is important to note that medieval sciences were classified and organized on the basis of epistemic principles different from the ones used in modern science. For example, when scientists mentioned mathematics, they were not referring to the domain of study we today classify by the same name. Their idea of mathematics included the subjects of astronomy and music in addition to arithmetic and geometry.

Only the most accomplished names in Andalusian science are mentioned here. There were many other lesser known figures who contributed to the field. All names mentioned were Muslims, but the scientific enterprise in Andalusia was the result of collaborative efforts by Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars and scientists. Muslims led and dominated the field of science and technology and were credited with most of Andalusia’s scientific discoveries and innovations. The period of growth and expansion in Andalusian science, however, also witnessed the collaborative efforts of Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars, researchers and translators in the production of new knowledge and in its cross-cultural diffusion. We may mention the role of Jewish and Christian translators in advancing the ongoing Muslim synthesis, philosophical and scientific, and in the dissemination of Islamic science in their religious communities.

The nature and role of translation activities as a factor of scientific growth needs to be noted. Scholars of the three faiths participated in these activities for linguistic and scientific reasons, and succeeded in translating Arabic works into Hebrew Latin and Castilian, and revising existing Arabic translations of Greek works. Translations were carried out either by individuals or “schools.” Important from the point of view of intercultural relations in Andalusia were the schools of translators. Worth mentioning is the 10th century group of translators in Cordova associated with the Jewish physician, Hasday ibn Shaprut, and the 13th century translation school in Christian-ruled Toledo, patronized by Alfonso the Wise (Alfonso X el Sabio) (1221-1284). Ibn Shaprut was instrumental in organizing the Cordova community of Jewish scholars and supporting Hebrew translations of Arabic works. Alfonso the Wise, on the other hand, was noted for his great interest in the translations of Arabic works into Latin. Both the Cordova and Toledo groups of translators included Muslims, Jews and Christians, some of whom were trilingual or scientists in their own right.

Andalusia had excelled primarily in botany and agriculture, astronomy and medicine. The leading botanists were Abu ‘Ubaid al-Bakri and Ibn Hajjaj in the 10th century, al-Ghafiqi (d. 1 165) and Ibn al-Awwam in the 1 1 th century, Abu’l-‘Abbas al-Nabati and Abu Marwan Ibn Zuhr (d. about 1 161) in the 1 2th century, and Ibn al-Baytar in the 13th century. They are among the greatest medieval botanists for their production of the period’s most excellent writings on botany and agriculture. The Book of Agriculture (Kitab alfalahah) by Ibn alAwwam is considered the most important medieval work on the subject. It contained 34 chapters dealing with agriculture and animal husbandry. More than 580 plants came up for treatment in the book not to mention the discussion of 50 fruit trees for cultivation. The book was also noted for its treatment of plant diseases and their remedies, and its pioneering attempt to discover a new soil science.

Al-Ghafiqi was a renowned collector of plants in Spain and Africa. On the basis of this collection, he wrote about drugs and plants, which turned out to be the most accurate work in the history of Islam. In the words of writer George Sarton, AlGhafiqi was “the greatest expert of his time on simples. His description of plants was the most precise ever made in Islam; he gave the names of each in Arabic, Latin and Berber.”

Ibn al-Baytar was perhaps the greatest pharmacist of medieval times. He was considered to have written the best work on the subject of simple drugs, with his description of more than 1,400 medical drugs as an outstanding encyclopedic work unsurpassed during the period. Al-Nabati or Abu’l’Abbas the botanist was known for his writings on plants found along the African coast from Spain to Arabia.

It is quite clear that Andalusian botanists were interested in plants for their theoretical considerations and practical applications. The pursuit of botany was closely linked to the application of this knowledge to agriculture and medicine. Not surprising!)’, Andalusia came to be noted for its advanced agriculture, unique botanical gardens and outstanding achieve ments in pharmacology. The Arabs introduced an ingenious irrigation system in Andalusia, thus allowing its agriculture to become the most advanced of the medieval period. Such elaborate irrigation systems supplied water to fields and gardens and, along with the advanced practice of agriculture and horticulture, Andalusia was able to modify the Persian garden “into a new form, which has survived to this day as the Spanish garden.”

Andalusia also excelled in medicine. It produced notable figures in Islamic medicine, each of whom authored the most advanced medical treatises of the time, thus helping to chart a new course for medical theory and practice. Interestingly, Andalusia’s most famous philosophers were also physicians. Among them were Ibn Tufail, Ibn Rushd and the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. Ibn Rushd, better known as a commentator on Aristotle, was credited with several medical works including an encyclopedia entitled The Book of Generalities on Medicine, and his commentaries on Ibn Sina’s medical works. Maimonides wrote 10 medical works, all in Arabic.

Andalusia’s fame in medicine was gained through the work of al-Zahrawi, the greatest Muslim figure in surgery. Concession Kitab al-tasrif), the work that earned him the title “father of surgery,” was translated into Hebrew, Latin and Castilian. The treatise on surgery is only one of 30 volumes of a medical encyclopedia treating all aspects of medicine and contained much that was original. It has been widely recognized in the Muslim world and the West as the “first independent surgical treatise ever written in detail.” The work also included an unprecedented 200 pictures of surgical instruments, many of which had been invented by al-Zahrawi himself. Included in the treatise are detailed descriptions of all known surgical operations and the instruments used in each of them. Of all medical works produced by Muslims, alZahrawi’s book was, until modern times, second only to Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine in popularity among medical circles in the West.
Abu Marwan Ibn Zuhr, the most famous member of the Avenzoar family (known for its two generations of distinguished medical doctors) is also worth mentioning. He wrote several medical works, the most important of which is the Book of Diets. Historians of medicine generally consider him the greatest clinical physician produced by Andalusia. Taking the medieval period as a whole, he is ranked second only to Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (d. 925), or Rhazes. In the field of pharmacology, which is closely related to botany and medicine, the works of al-Ghafiqi and al-Baytar were of general significance.

Related to medicine is the institution of hospitals and public health. Andalusia was famous for its chain of hospitals, which was con- sidered the most advanced in medieval times. It has been said that Cordova alone had 50 hospitals and 900 public baths. As in other major cities in medieval Islam, hospitals in Andalusia also played an educational role not unlike that of our modern teaching hospitals.

As for Andalusian achievements in mathematics and astronomy, leading astronomers were Abu’l-Qasim al-Majriti, who lived in the 10th and nth centuries, al-Zarqali in the nth century and Jabir ibn Aflah in the 12th century. Although alMajriti was an astronomer and alchemist, he was more famous for his Hermetical and occult writings. Nonetheless, he was an accomplished astronomer with several works on the subject to his credit. His writings include several commentaries on the astronomical tables of the famed mathematician from the East, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi. He also commented on the Planisphaenum of Ptolemy and wrote a treatise on the astrolabe.

But the person who should be regarded as the most outstanding astronomer from Andalusia is al-Zarqali. He was an inventor who became famous for the sahifah, a flat kind of astrolabe, which gained the attention of Western astronomers after detailed descriptions of it were published in Latin, Hebrew and several other European languages. As an observational astronomer, his most important contribution is the editing of the Toledan Zij (“The Toledo Tables”). This astronomical table, based on observations carried out in Toledo, was really the product of collaborative work al-Zarqali had carried out with several Muslim and Jewish scientists. Like his sakifah, the Toledo Tables attracted wide attention among astronomers in the Muslim and Latin worlds and were used by them for centuries. Copernicus, in his famous book De Revolutionibus Orbium Clestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), acknowledged al-Zarqali’s contributions to astronomy. In the theoretical domain, al-Zarqali wrote the explicit proof of the motion of the apogee of the sun with respect to the fixed stars. He measured its rate of motion as 12.04 seconds per year, which is remarkably close to the modern calculation of 1 1 .8 seconds.
An important development in Andalusian astronomy in the 1 2th century was the growing criticism that had been directed against the Ptolemaic planetary system. The first to express dissatisfaction with the system was Jabir ibn Aflah, followed by strong criticisms from philosophers such as Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufail, who were motivated by the intellectual need to defend the Aristotelian cosmological scheme. These criticisms did result in one or two new theories. Ibn Bajjah proposed a system based on eccentric circles, whereas Ibn Tufail presented his theory of spiral motion, which presented the system as one of homocentric spheres. Although these new theories did not find any practical applications, the Andalusian critiques of Ptolemaic astronomy left an impact on the minds of Renaissance astronomers.


Andalusian science is significant for our times: it shows that members of the three Abrahamic faiths can work together to produce a common culture and civilization. It helped expand medieval science to new frontiers and influenced the development of science in the West during the Renaissance, which subsequently lead to the rise of modern science. For the contemporary Muslim world, Andalusia shows the way Islam can again be a source of inspiration for progress in science within the context of a pluralistic world.

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