From Ibn Sina to Tusi: The Scientific Tradition in Medieval Islam

From the ninth century onwards, scholars in Muslim lands were engaged in all of the disciplines of science. A treasury of Greek, Indian, Persian and Babylonian philosophic and scientific thought became available through translations into Arabic, and philosopher-scientists, physicians, mathematicians and astronomers - a community of scholars that included Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as well as Muslims - enriched this intellectual legacy with their own contributions.

Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), also known in the West as Avicenna, is the most influential of the philosopher-scientists of Islam. His Qanun fi’l-tibb (‘The Canon of Medicine’) is the most famous single book in the history of medicine in both East and West. It is a systematic encyclopaedia, and few aspects of traditional Greek and Arabic medicine are left untouched in its five books, which together amount to about a million words in length. Occupied during the day with his duties at court as both physician and administrator, Ibn Sina spent almost every night with his students composing this and other works and carrying out philosophical and scientific discussions. The earliest-known extant manuscript of any part of this text is a copy of the fifth volume, devoted to compound drugs and pharmacopoeia, which is dated 444/1052.

The Qanun served as the medical textbook of the Islamic world and was first translated into Latin in the 12th century. This text became the medical authority for several centuries in Renaissance and early modern Europe. Between 1500 and 1674, some sixty editions of the Canon were published. A handsomely printed edition of the Canon published in Venice in 1608 is in the IIS collection.

Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039 CE), also known in Europe by the Latin names Alhacen or Alhazen, is one of the most illustrious figures in the history of science in mediaeval Islam. Ibn al-Haytham spent many years of his life in Cairo, and was one of the most accomplished scientists at that time. His most significant contributions were in the fields of optics, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, and he composed no less than 44 treatises on these and other subjects. Many of these treatises were produced from a modest room in the university-mosque of al-Azharinfo-icon. Ibn al-Haytham’s greatest and most celebrated work is the Kitab al-Manazir (‘The Book of Optics’), a comprehensive text on optics and vision which had a strong impact and lasting influence upon European scientific thought. Indeed, it is largely on the basis of this work that George Sarton describes him as “the greatest Muslim physicist and one of the greatest students of optics of all times.” The first Latin edition, published in Basle in 1572 under the title Opticae Thesaurus, is exhibited.

Another outstanding scholar of the 11th century was the Christian physician Ibn Butlan, and his literary production is distinguished by its originality. Arranged in a series of forty tables, the Taqwim al-sihha (‘Regimen on Health’) is a synopsis of hygiene and macrobiotics. This text provides a comprehensive overview of the foods, drinks, activities and environments that would ensure good health. It was translated into Latin in the 13th century under the title Tacuinum Sanitatis and lavishly illustrated manuscripts of this text were made in northern Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Nasir al-Dininfo-icon Tusi was one of the major intellectual figures of the 13th century, and his extensive oeuvre, comprising over 100 works, includes texts on astronomy, mathematics, physics, medicine, philosophy, and theology. After completing his formal education, Tusi found patrons at the Ismaili courts in Persia beginning sometime in the 1220s, and played an active part in the intellectual life of the Nizari Ismaili community at Alamutinfo-icon. For about the next twenty-five years, Tusi stayed in Quhistan and at the Ismaili fortress of Alamut, using its rich library to write some of his most important scientific and philosophic works. One of his works, entitled al-Tadhkirah fi ‘ilminfo-icon al-hay’a (‘Memoir on the Science of Astronomy’), had an enormous influence on the subsequent history of astronomy, both in and beyond the borders of Islam; the large number of commentaries written on the Tadhkirainfo-icon are compelling evidence of this. One such commentary is the Sharh al-Tadhkirah by the prominent 16th century astronomer, ‘Abd al-‘Ali Birjandi; a manuscript of this text, dated 1029/1620, is exhibited.

Title page of volume 5 of Ibn Sina’s Qanun
Title page from the Latin edition of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine
Half-title page from the 1608 Latin edition of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine
Opening page from the 1572 Latin edition of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics
Table from Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-Sihha
Page from the Sharh al-tadhkirah of al-Birjandi
Page from the Sharh al-tadhkirah of al-Birjandi