Science in Al-Andalus
Written by Paul Lunde
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale
The Medieval Christians of Spain had a legend that Roderick,
the last king of the Visigoths, was responsible for
unleashing the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula
because, in defiance of his plighted word, he unlocked the
gates of an enchanted palace he had sworn not to tamper
with. As far as the West was concerned, the Arab invasion
did unlock an enchanted palace. Following the collapse
of the Roman Empire, Vandals, Huns and Visigoths had
pillaged and burned their way through the Iberian Peninsula,
establishing ephemeral kingdoms, which lasted only as long
as loot poured in, and were then destroyed in their turn.
Then, without warning, in the year 711, came the Arabs -- to
settle, fall in love with the land and create the first
civilization Europe had known since the Roman legions gave
up the unequal fight against the barbarian hordes.
Spain first prospered under the rule of the Umayyads, who
established a dynasty there after they had lost the
caliphate in the East to the Abbasids. At first, the culture
of the Umayyad court at Córdoba was wholly derivative.
Fashions, both in literature and dress, were imitiative of
those current in the Abbasids’ newly founded capital of
Baghdad. Scholars from the more sophisticated lands to the
east were always assured of a warm reception at the court of
Córdoba, where their colleagues would listen avidly for news
of what was being discussed in the capital, what people were
wearing, what songs were being sung, and -- above all --
what books were being read.
Islamic culture was pre-eminently a culture of the book. The
introduction of paper from China in 751 gave an impetus to
learning and an excitement about ideas which the world had
never before known. Books became more available than they
had been even in Rome, and incomparably cheaper than they
were in the Latin West, where they continued to be written
on expensive parchment. In the 12th century, a man sold 120
acres of land in order to buy a single Book of Hours. In the
ninth century, the library of the monastery of St. Gall was
the largest in Europe, boasting 36 volumes. At the same
time, that of Córdoba contained 500,000. The cultural lag
between East and West in the Middle Ages can be attributed
partly to the fact that the Arabs had paper, while the Latin
West did not.
It took much more than paper to create an intellectual and
scientific culture like that of Islamic Spain, of course.
Islam, with its tolerance and encouragement of both secular
and religious learning, created the necessary climate for
the exchange of ideas. The court of Córdoba, like that of
Baghdad, was open to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, and
one prominent bishop complained that young Christian men
were devoting themselves to the study of Arabic, rather than
Latin -- a reflection of the fact that Arabic, in a
surprisingly short time, had become the international
language of science, as English has today.
Islamic culture in Spain began to flourish in earnest during
the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman II of Córdoba, as Arabic spread
increasingly among his non-Muslim subjects, especially in
the cities, leading to a great flowering of intellectual
activity of all kinds.
In a courtly society, the tastes and predilections of the
ruler set the tone for society at large, and ‘Abd al-Rahman
II, passionately interested in both the religious and the
secular sciences, was determined to show the world that his
court was in no way inferior to the court of the caliphs at
Baghdad. To this end, therefore, he actively recruited
scholars by offering handsome inducements to overcome their
initial reluctance to live in what many in the lands of the
East considered the provinces. As a result, many scholars,
poets, philosophers, historians and musicians migrated to
Al-Andalus, and established the basis of the intellectual
tradition and educational system, which made Spain so
outstanding for the next 400 years.
Another result was that an infrastructure of public and
private libraries, mosques, hospitals and research
institutions rapidly grew up and famous scholars in the
East, hearing of these amenities, flocked to the West. They
in turn attracted students of their own; in the Islamic
world it was not at all unusual for a student to travel
thousands of miles to study at the feet of a famous
One of the earliest of these scholars was ‘Abbas ibn Firnas,
who died in the year 888 and who, had he lived in the
Florence of the Medici, would have been a “Renaissance man.”
He came to Córdoba to teach music, then a branch of
mathematical theory, but—not a man to limit himself to a
single field of study -- soon became interested in the
mechanics of flight. He constructed a pair of wings, made
out of feathers in a wooden frame, and attempted to fly --
anticipating Leonardo da Vinci by some 600 years.
Luckily, ‘Abbas survived, and, undiscouraged, turned his
mind to the construction of a planetarium in which the
planets actually revolved -- it would be extremely
interesting to know the details of the gearing mechanism. It
also simulated such celestial phenomena as thunder and
lightning and was, of course, a wild success. Next ‘Abbas
turned to the mathematical problems involved in the
regularity of the facets of certain crystals and evolved a
formula for manufacturing artificial crystals.
It must be remembered that a knowledge of the achievements
of men like ‘Abbas has come to us purely by chance. It has
been estimated that today there are 250,000 Arabic
manuscripts in western and eastern libraries, including
private collections. Yet in the 10th century, private
libraries existed which contained as many as 500,000 books.
Literally millions of books must have perished, and with
them the achievements of a great many scholars and
scientists whose books, had they survived, might have
changed the course of history. As it is, even now, only a
tiny proportion of existing Arabic scientific texts has been
studied, and it will take years to form a more exact idea of
the contributions of Muslim scientists to the history of
One of the fields most assiduously cultivated in Spain was
natural science. Although Andalusian scholars did not make
contributions as fundamental as those made by their
colleagues in the East, those that they did make had more
effect on the later development of science and technology,
for it was through Spain and the scholars of Al-Andalus that
these ideas reached the West.
No school of translators comparable to the House of Wisdom
of al-Ma’mun existed in Spain, and Andalusian scholars seem
not to have interested themselves in the natural sciences
until the translations of the House of Wisdom reached them.
Interest in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine was always
lively, however, because of their obvious utility --
mathematics for commercial purposes, computation of the
rather complicated Islamic laws of inheritance, and as a
basis for measuring distances. Astronomy was useful for
determining the times of prayer and adjusting the calendar,
and the study of medicine needed no apology. The
introduction of the new Aristotelian ideas, however, even in
Arab dress, aroused a certain amount of suspicion in the
conservative West, and it was some time before public
opinion would accept that Aristotelian logic did not
conflict with the revelation of Islam.
Part of the suspicion with which certain of the ideas
emanating from the scholars of the Abbasid court were viewed
was due to an inadequate distinction between sciences and
pseudo-sciences. This was a distinction which the Muslims
made at a much earlier date than western scholars, who, even
during the Renaissance, tended to confound astronomy with
astrology, chemistry with alchemy. Ibn Hazm, a leading
Andalusian scholar of the 11th century and staunchly
conservative, was very outspoken on this point. People who
advocated the efficacy of talismans, magic, alchemy, and
astrology he calls shameless liars. This rational approach
did much to make Islam preeminent in the natural sciences.
The study of mathematics and astronomy went hand in hand.
Al-Khwarizmi’s famous book entitled The Calculation of
Integration and Equation reached Al-Andalus at an early
date, and became the foundation of much later speculation.
In it, Al-Khwarizmi dealt with equations, algebraic
multiplication and division, measurement of surfaces and
other questions. Al-Khwarizmi was the first to introduce the
use of what he called “Indian” and we call “Arabic”
numerals. The exact method of transmission of these
numerals—and the place-value idea which they embodied—is not
known, but the symbols used to represent the numbers had
slightly different forms in eastern and western Islam, and
the forms of our numerals are derived from those used in Al-Andalus.
The work of al-Khwarizmi, which now only survives in a
12th-century Latin translation made in Spain, together with
a translation of Euclid’s Elements, became the two
foundations of subsequent mathematical developments in Al-Andalus.
The first original mathematician and astronomer of Al-Andalus
was the 10th century’s Maslama al-Majriti. He had been
preceded by competent scientists—men like Ibn Abi ‘Ubaida of
Valencia, who in the ninth century was a leading astronomer,
and the emigré from Baghdad, Ibn Taimiyyah, who was
both a well-known physician and an astronomer—but al-Majriti
was in a class by himself. He wrote a number of works on
mathematics and astronomy, studied and elaborated the Arabic
translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest and enlarged and
corrected the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi himself.
He compiled conversion tables, in which the dates of the
Persian calendar were related to hijri dates, so that
for the first time the events of Persia’s past could be
dated with precision.
Al-Zarqali, known to the Latin West as Arzachel, was another
leading mathematician and astronomer who flourished in
Córdoba in the 11th century. He combined theoretical
knowledge with technical skills, and excelled at the
construction of precision instruments for astronomical use.
He built a waterclock capable of determining the hours of
the day and night and indicating the days of the lunar
month. He contributed to the compilation of the famous
Toledan Tables, a highly accurate compilation of
astronomical data. His Book of Tables, written in the
form of an almanac (almanac is an Arabic word meaning
“climate,” originally indicating the stations of the moon)
contains tables which allow one to find on what day the
Coptic, Roman, lunar and Persian months begin; others give
the position of the various planets at any given time; still
others allow prediction of solar and lunar eclipses. He also
compiled valuable tables of latitude and longitude; many of
his works were translated, both into Spanish and into Latin.
Still another luminary was al-Bitruji (the Latin scholars of
the Middle Ages called him Alpetragius), who developed a new
theory of stellar movement and wrote the Book of Form in
which it is detailed.
The influence of these astronom- ical works was immense.
Today, for example, the constellations still bear the names
given them by Muslim astronomers—Acrab (from ‘aqrab,
“scorpion”), Altair (from al-ta’ir, “the flyer”),
Deneb (from dhanb, “tail”), Pherkard (from farqad,
“calf”)—and words such as zenith, nadir and
azimuth, all still in use today, recall the works of the
Muslim scholars of Al-Andalus.
But the Muslim science par excellence was the study
of medicine. Interest in medicine goes back to the very
earliest times. The Prophet himself stated that there was a
remedy for every illness, and was aware that some diseases
The great contribution of the Arabs was to put the study of
medicine on a scientific footing and eliminate superstition
and harmful folk-practices. Medicine was considered a highly
technical calling, and one which required long study and
training. Elaborate codes were formulated to regulate the
professional conduct of doctors. It was not enough to have a
mastery of one’s subject in order to practice medicine.
Certain moral qualities were mandatory. Ibn Hazm said that a
doctor should be kind, understanding, friendly, good, able
to endure insults and adverse criticism; he must keep his
hair short, and his fingernails as well; he must wear clean,
white clothes and behave with dignity.
Before doctors could practice, they had to pass an
examination, and if they passed they had to take the
Hippocratic oath, which, if neglected, could lead to
Hospitals were similarly organized. The large one built in
Córdoba was provided with running water and baths, and had
different sections for the treatment of various diseases,
each of which was headed by a specialist. Hospitals were
required to be open 24 hours a day to handle emergency
cases, and could not turn any patient away.
Muslim physicians made many important additions to the body
of medical knowledge which they inherited from the Greeks.
Ibn al-Nafis, for example, discovered the lesser circulation
of the blood hundreds of years before Harvey, and ideas of
quarantine sprang from an empirical notion of contagion.
Another example is Ibn Juljul, who was born in Córdoba in
943, became a leading physician by the age of 24 (he began
his studies of medicine at 14) and compiled a commentary on
the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides and a special
treatise on drugs found in Al-Andalus. In his Categories
of Physicians, composed at the request of one of the
Umayyad princes, he also presents a history of the medical
profession from the time of Aesculapius to his own day.
During the 10th century, Al-Andalus produced a large number
of excellent physicians. Several went to Baghdad, where they
studied Greek medical works under the famous translators
Thabit ibn Qurra and Thabit ibn Sinan. On their return, they
were lodged in the government palace complex at Madinat
al-Zahra. One of these men, Ahmad ibn Harran, was placed in
charge of a dispensary which provided free medical care and
food to poor patients.
Ibn Shuhaid, also known as a popular doctor, wrote a
fundamental work on the use of drugs. He -- like many of his
contemporaries -- recommended drugs only if the patient did
not respond to dietary treatment, and said that if they must
be used, simple drugs should be employed in all cases but
the most serious.
Al-Zahrawi, who died in 1013, was the most famous surgeon of
the Middle Ages. He was court physician of al-Hakam II, and
his great work, the Tasrif, was translated into Latin
by Gerard of Cremona and became a leading medical text in
European universities in the later Middle Ages. The section
on surgery contains a number of illustrations of surgical
instruments of elegant, functional design and great
precision. It describes lithotrites, amputations, ophthalmic
and dental surgery and the treatment of wounds and
Ibn Zuhr, known as Avenzoar, who died in 1162, was born in
Seville and earned a great reputation throughout North
Africa and Spain. He described abscesses and mediastinal
tumors for the first time, and made original experiments in
therapeutics. One of his works, the Taysir, was
translated into Latin in 1280 and became a standard work.
An outgrowth of the interest in medicine was the study of
botany. The most famous Andalusian botanist was Ibn Baitar,
who wrote a famous book called Collection of Simple Drugs
and Food. It is an alphabetically arranged compendium of
medicinal plants of all sorts, most of which were native to
Spain and North Africa, which he had spent a lifetime
gathering. Where possible, he gives the Berber, Arabic, and
sometimes Romance names of the plant, so that for linguists
his work is of special interest. In each article, he gives
information about the preparation of the drug and its
administration, purpose and dosage.
The last of the great Andalusian physicians was Ibn al-Khatib,
who was also a noted historian, poet, and statesman. Among
his other works, he wrote an important work on the theory of
contagion: “The fact of infection becomes clear to the
investigator who notices how he who establishes contact with
the afflicted gets the disease, whereas he who is not in
contact remains safe, and how transmitting is effected
through garments, vessels, and earrings.”
Ibn al-Khatib was the last representative of the Andalusian
medical tradition. Soon after his death, the energies of the
Muslims of Al-Andalus were wholly absorbed in the long,
costly struggle against the Christian reconquista.
Another field that interested the scholars of Al-Andalus was
geography, and many of the finest Muslim works in this field
were produced there. Economic and political considerations
played some part in the development of this field of study,
but it was above all their all-consuming curiosity about the
world and its inhabitants that motivated the scholars who
devoted themselves to the description of the earth and its
inhabitants. The first steps had been taken in the East,
when “books of routes,” as they were called, were compiled
for the use of the postmasters of the early Abbasid caliphs.
Soon, reports on faraway lands, their commercial products
and major physical features were compiled for the
information of the caliph and his ministers. Advances in
astronomy and mathematics made the plotting of this
information on maps feasible, and soon cartography became an
important discipline in its own right.
Al-Khwarizmi, who did so much to advance the science of
mathematics, was also one of the earliest scientific
descriptive geographers. Basing his work on information made
available through the Arabic translation of Ptolemy,
al-Khwarizmi wrote a book called The Form of the Earth,
which included maps of the heavens and of the earth. In Al-Andalus,
this work was carried forward by Ibn Muhammad al-Razi, who
died in 936, and who wrote a basic geography of Al-Andalus
for administrative purposes. Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Warraq, a
contemporary of al-Razi, wrote a similar work describing the
topography of North Africa. The wide-ranging commercial
relations of Al-Andalus allowed the collection, from
returning merchants, of a great deal of detailed information
about regions as far north as the Baltic. Ibrahim ibn Ya‘qub,
for example, who traveled widely in Europe and the Balkans
in the late ninth century -- he must have been a brave man
indeed -- left itineraries of his travels.
Two men who wrote in the 11th century collected much of the
information assembled by their predecessors and put it into
convenient form. One of them, al-Bakri, is particularly
interesting. Born in Saltes in 1014, al-Bakri was the son of
the governor of the province of Huelva and Saltes. Al-Bakri
himself was an important minister at the court in Seville
and undertook several diplomatic missions. An accomplished
scholar as well as litérateur, he wrote works on
history, botany and geography as well as poetry and literary
essays. One of his two important geographical works is
devoted to the geography of the Arabian Peninsula, with
particular attention to the elucidation of its place names.
It is arranged alphabetically, and lists the names of
villages, towns, wadis and monuments which he culled from
the hadith and histories. His other major work has
not survived in its entirety, but it was an encyclopedic
treatment of the entire world.
Al-Bakri arranged his material by country -- preceding each
entry by a short historical introduction -- and describes
the people, customs, climate, geographical features and the
major cities, with anecdotes about them. He says of the
inhabitants of Galicia, for example: “They are treacherous,
dirty and bathe once or twice a year, even then with cold
water; they never wash their clothes until they are worn out
because they claim that the dirt accumulated as the result
of their sweat softens their body.”
Perhaps the most famous geographer of the time was al-Idrisi,
“the Strabo of the Arabs.” Born in 1100 and educated in
Córdoba, al-Idrisi traveled widely, visiting Spain, North
Africa and Anatolia, until he eventually settled in Sicily.
There he was employed by the Norman king Roger ii to write a
systematic geography of the world, which is still extant,
and is usually known as The Book of Roger.
In it, al-Idrisi describes the world systematically,
following the Greek division of it into seven “climes,” each
divided into 10 sections. Each of the climes is mapped—and
the maps are highly accurate for the time in which they were
compiled. He gives the distances between major cities and
describes the customs, people, products and climate of the
entire known world. He even records the voyage of a Moroccan
navigator who was blown off course in the Atlantic, sailed
for 30 days, and returned to tell of a fertile land to the
west inhabited by naked savages.
The information contained in The Book of Roger was
engraved on a silver planisphere, which was one of the
wonders of the age.
Al-Andalus also produced the authors of two of the most
interesting travel books ever written. Each exists in good
English translation. The first is by Ibn Jubair, secretary
to the governor of Granada who, in 1183, made the Hajj, and
wrote a book about his journey, called simply Travels.
The book is in the form of a diary, and gives a detailed
account of the eastern Mediterranean world at the height of
the Crusades. It is written in clear, elegant style, and is
filled with the perceptive, intelligent comments of a
tolerant -- and often witty -- man.
The most famous of all the Andalusian travelers was Ibn
Battuta -- the greatest tourist of his age, and perhaps of
any. He went to North Africa, Syria, Makkah, Medina and
Iraq. He went to Yemen, sailed down the Nile, the Red Sea,
Asia Minor, and the Black Sea. He went to the Crimea and to
Constantinople. He went to Afghanistan, India and China. He
died in Granada at the age of 73.
It is impossible to do justice to all the scholars of Al-Andalus
who devoted themselves to the study of history and
linguistic sciences. These were the prime “social sciences”
cultivated by the Arabs, and both were brought to a high
level of art in Al-Andalus. For example, Ibn al-Khatib,
whose theory of contagious diseases we have touched on
already, was the author of the finest history of Granada
that has come down to us.
Ibn al-Khatib was born in 1313, near Granada, and followed
the traditional educational curriculum of his time -- he
studied grammar, poetry, natural sciences and Islamic law,
as well, of course, as the Qur’an. His father, an important
official, was killed by the Christians in 1340. The ruler of
Granada invited the son to occupy the post of secretary in
the department of correspondence. He soon became the
confidant of the ruler and gained a position of great power.
Despite his busy political career, Ibn al-Khatib found time
to write more than 50 books on travel, medicine, poetry,
music, history, politics and theology.
The achievements of Ibn al-Khatib were rivaled only by those
of his near contemporary Ibn Khaldun, the first historian to
seek to develop and explicate the general laws which govern
the rise and decline of civilizations. His huge,
seven-volume history is entitled The Book of Examples and
Collection from Early and Later Information Concerning the
Days of Arabs, Non-Arabs and Berbers. The first volume,
entitled Introduction, gives a profound and detailed
analysis of Islamic society and indeed of human society in
general, for he constantly refers to other cultures for
comparative purposes. He gives a sophisticated analysis of
how human society evolved from nomadism to urban centers,
and how and why these urban centers decay and finally
succumb to less developed invaders. Many of the profoundly
disturbing questions raised by Ibn Khaldun have still not
received the attention they should from all thinking people.
Certainly, anyone interested in the problems of the rise and
fall of civilizations, the decay of cities, or the complex
relationship between technologically advanced societies and
traditional ones should read Ibn Khaldun’s Introduction.
Another great area of Andalusian intellectual activity was
philosophy, but it is impossible to do more than glance at
this difficult and specialized study. From the ninth
century, Andalusian scholars, like those in Baghdad, had to
deal with the theological problems posed by the introduction
of Greek philosophy into a context of Islam. How could
reason be reconciled with revelation? This was the central
Ibn Hazm was one of the first to deal with this problem. He
supported certain Aristotelian concepts with enthusiasm and
rejected others. For example, he wrote a large and detailed
commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analects, that
abstruse work on logic. Interestingly, Ibn Hazm appears to
have had no trouble relating logic to Islam -- in fact, he
gives illustrative examples of how it can be used in solving
legal problems, drawn from the body of Islamic law. Nothing
better illustrates the ability of Islam to assimilate
foreign ideas and acclimatize them than Ibn Hazm’s words in
the introduction to his work: “Let it be known that he who
reads this book of ours will find that the usefulness of
this kind of work is not limited to one single discipline
but includes the Qur’an, hadith and legal decisions
concerning what is permissible and what is not, and what is
obligatory and what is lawful.”
Ibn Hazm considered logic a useful tool, and philosophy to
be in harmony, or at least not in conflict, with revelation.
He has been described as “one of the giants of the
intellectual history of Islam,” but it is difficult to form
a considered judgment of a man who wrote more than 400
books, most of which have perished or still remain in
Ibn Bajjah, whom western scholastic theologians called
Avempace, was another great Andalusian philosopher. But it
was Averroës -- Ibn Rushd -- who earned the greatest
reputation. He was an ardent Aristotelian, and his works had
a lasting effect, in their Latin translation, on the
development of European philosophy.
Islamic technological innovations also played their part in
the legacy that Al-Andalus left to Medieval Europe. Paper
has been mentioned, but there were others of great
importance -- the windmill, new techniques of working metal,
making ceramics, building, weaving and agriculture. The
people of Al-Andalus had a passion for gardens, combining
their love of beauty with their interest in medicinal
plants. Two important treatises on agriculture -- one of
which was partially translated into Romance in the Middle
Ages, were written in Al-Andalus. Ibn al-‘Awwam, the author
of one of these treatises, lists 584 species of plants and
gives precise instructions regarding their cultivation and
use. He writes, for example, of how to graft trees, make
hybrids, stop blights and insect pests, and how to make
floral essences and perfumes.
This area of technological achievement has not yet been
examined in detail, but it had as profound an influence on
Medieval European material culture as the Muslim
commentators on Aristotle had on Medieval European
intellectuals. For these were the arts of civilization, the
arts that make life a pleasure rather than a burden, and
without which philosophical speculation is an arid exercise.
Paul Lunde, an independent scholar who divides his
time between Seville and Cambridge, England, researches and
writes about the Middle East. His most recent book is Islam:
Culture, Faith and History (2001, Dorling Kindersley).
Michael Grimsdale, one of Britain’s foremost
illustrators, paints portraits, animals, sports and travel
themes in a variety of media. Widely collected and
exhibited, his paintings have also appeared in advertising,
books and magazines.