Islamic Studies Science and Medicine
Anna Akasoy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0073


Scholarship in the history of texts on science and medicine written in Arabic and other languages of the Muslim world gives the impression of a much more fragmented field than many others. This is largely owing to the nature of the objects of investigation, which are often connected to one another only by the fact that they fit into the very general category of “science.” Furthermore, the history of this field can be approached from a variety of perspectives. While some of the most important scholarship has been done in the form of editions and the philological study of text transmission, often across languages and cultures, other scholars have tried to contextualize developments in science and medicine within historical institutional, social, intellectual, and political frameworks. Likewise, the size of the Islamic world and the fact that Islamic history stretches from late antiquity until the present day are reflected in the diversity of objects in the history of science and the possibilities of studying them. Much of the scholarship remains highly specialized and is not easily accessible as it involves not only a training in the relevant languages and histories, but also in the scientific fields themselves. As the collections of articles listed show, many historians are working on more than one scientific discipline, especially in cases where there are links as, for example, between astrology and astronomy or astrology and medicine. While organizers of conferences and editors of collected volumes often make an effort to present general questions that apply to several scientific disciplines, because of the nature of the subject and the state of research, unified approaches have barely developed. However, as in all history of science, two trends deserve to be distinguished. One of them approaches historical works on science in terms of their achievements from a modern point of view, identifying continuities and “progress,” whereas the other one tries to understand historical scientific traditions more within the contexts of their own time. These debates are often politically loaded and connected to more general notions of the “progressive” character of civilizations. In the history of sciences, this often takes the shape of debates about what the West “owes” the Muslim world and who was the first to discover a certain phenomenon. Furthermore, the rise of nationalism in the Islamic world has led to claims of certain developments for individual heritages. As in the history of philosophy, another major controversy concerns the role of religion. This is obvious in the terminology—should we speak, for example, of “Arabic” or “Islamic” science and medicine?—as well as in different views regarding a possible positive or negative impact of religion on scientific developments.

General Overviews

Since much of Islamic science and medicine derives from the ancient tradition, introductions to sciences in antiquity can provide a useful first orientation, especially where there are no introductions to the medieval and/or Islamic tradition. A number of encyclopedias offer introductions to the individual branches of theoretical and practical sciences in the Islamic world. While Sezgin 1967–1984, Sezgin 2000 and Ullmann 1972 are important specialized reference works and some of the articles presented by Rashed 1996 require previous knowledge, the volumes of Nasr 1976 and Turner 1997 and the encyclopedias are useful particularly for newcomers.

  • Glick, Thomas F., Steven J. Livesey, and Faith Wallis, eds. Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.

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    Contains a large number of entries on Islamic and Western traditions and authors.

  • Grant, Edward, ed. A Sourcebook in Medieval Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

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    Almost all the passages that illustrate 116 topics stem from Latin sources, many of which were either informed by Arabic texts or share the same classical heritage.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study. London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Co. Ltd., 1976.

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    A richly illustrated and very accessible general overview.

  • Neugebauer, Otto E. The Exact Sciences in Antiquity. 2d ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993.

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    An introduction to astronomy and mathematics in Babylon, Egypt, and Greece.

  • Rashed, Roshdi, ed., in collaboration with Régis Morelon. Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science. 3 vols. London: Routledge, 1996.

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    With thirty contributions by leading experts, this is the most comprehensive introduction, with articles on specific disciplines or topics and historical developments, the latter mainly concerning the transmission of Arabic science and medicine into the West.

  • Selin, Helaine, ed. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. 2 vols. 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2008.

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    Contains a number of overview articles on various disciplines of science in the Islamic world, as well as entries on individual authors.

  • Sezgin, Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums. Vols. 1–9 Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1967–1984.

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    To date 12 volumes. The most detailed overview of Arabic learned literature. Relevant for science and medicine are volumes 3 (medicine, zoology), 4 (alchemy, botany, agriculture), 5 (mathematics), 6 (astronomy), 7 (astrology, meteorology), and 10–12 (mathematical geography [Frankfurt: Institut für Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften, 2000.]).

  • Turner, Howard R. Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

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    Accessible introduction to general issues as well as specific fields (cosmology, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, medicine, natural sciences, alchemy, and optics).

  • Ullmann, Manfred. Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1972.

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    A detailed overview of natural and occult sciences.

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