SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

The Scientific Tradition in Classical Islam

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Full Year

From the Iberian Peninsula to India, the emergence of Islam gave rise to an efflorescence of intellectual activity that saw dramatic developments across every field of scientific inquiry.

Inspired by the Qur’ānic revelation, and informed by the Hellenic, Persian and Indian intellectual traditions, the Islamic scientific enterprise observed, measured and theorised on the objects of mathematics, the heavens and the terrestrial world in exciting and innovative ways. Organising these fields of inquiry under the three broad categories:

  • mathematics
  • astronomy
  • life sciences

The module will give a broad overview of one of the most original and inventive scientific traditions in world history. As a text-based module, this module will present to students, for translation and analysis, passages from the primary Arabic sources that represent the key scientific developments and innovations in the Islamic world, including, but certainly not restricted to, such luminaries as al-Khwārizmī and Ibn al-Haytham in the study of mathematics; al-Bīrūnī and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī in the field of astronomy; and Abū Bakr al-Rāzī and Ibn Sīnā in the theory and practice of medicine.

This broad survey will explore these fields from within the epistemological framework of the intellectuals who advanced them, and extend its inquiry into rational fields routinely marginalised by the history of science such as astrology, alchemy and astral magic. It will question prejudices, still persistent in the academy and the general public, that, rather than being rigorous and innovative, Islamic intellectual culture was hostile to scientific inquiry.

The module can be taken as an open option.



Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • Understand the role that the natural sciences play within the context of classical Islamic intellectual thought
  • Discern the historical development and significance of key fields of scientific inquiry
  • Appreciate the significant contribution made by the exact sciences to central aspects of Islamic religious practice such as prayer and zakāt
  • Analyse and contextualise Arabic scientific texts
  • Appreciate the vital participation of Christians and Jews in the scientific enterprise within the Islamic world;
  • Critically examine the prevailing narratives on the history of science in the Classical Islamic period


The module is taught over 20 weeks in one lecture and one seminar each week (2 hours in total)

Scope and syllabus

  • Scientific Method: Logic, Empiricism and Induction
  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Optics & Mechanics
  • Islamic Critique of Ptolemy
  • Observational Astronomy
  • The Astrolabe
  • Practical Astronomy: Prayer Times and the Qibla
  • Medical theory
  • Medical Practice
  • Vision & Ophthalmology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology and Anatomy
  • Embryology
  • Soul, Body and Mental Health: Prophetic and Galenic Medicine
  • Zoology & Botany
  • Astrology & Geomancy
  • Alchemy
  • Astral Magic

Method of assessment

1 x Essay (3000 words) to be submitted on day 1, week 1, term 2 (50%)

1 x Essay (3000 words) to be submitted on day 1, week 1, term 3 (50%)

Suggested reading

  • Adamson, Peter, and Peter Pormann. Philosophy and Medicine in the Formative Period of Islam. London: Warburg Institute, 2018.
  • Fancy, Nahyan A. G. Science and Religion in Mamluk Egypt: Ibn Al-Nafis, Pulmonary Transit and Bodily Resurrection (London: Routledge, 2013).
  • Kennedy, E. S., Astronomy and Astrology in the Medieval Islamic World, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998).
  • King, David A.. Islamic Astronomy and Geography (Farnham: Ashgate Variorum, 2012).
  • Meyerhof, Max. Studies in Medieval Arabic Medicine: Theory and Practice, ed. by Penelope Johnstone (London : Variorum Reprints, 1984).
  • Perho, Irmeli. The Prophet's Medicine: a Creation of the Muslim Traditionalist Scholars (Helsinki: Finnish Oriental Society, 1995).
  • Pormann, Peter E. and Emilie Savage-Smith. Medieval Islamic Medicine, The New Edinburgh Islamic Surveys (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).
  • Saliba, George. A History of Arabic Astronomy : Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, (New York : New York University Press, 1994).
  • Stearns, Justin. Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
  • Ullman, Manfred, Islamic medicine [trans. by Jean Watt], Islamic Surveys 11, (Edinburgh: University Press, 1978).

Additional Reading

  • Burnett, Charles, Jan P.Hogendijk, Kim Plofker and Michio Yano. Studies in the History of the Exact Sciences in Honour of David Pingree Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science: Texts and Studies, 54, (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
  • Rahman, Shahid, Tony Street and Hassan Tahiri (eds.). The Unity of Science in the Arabic Tradition: Science, Logic, Epistemology and their Interactions, Logic, epistemology and the unity of science vol. 11 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008).
  • Gutas, Dimitri. Greek thought, Arabic culture : the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in Baghdad and early `Abbāsid society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries) (London ; New York : Routledge, 1998)
  • Rosenthal, Franz. Science and Medicine in Islam: A Collection of Essays (Aldershot, Britain: Variorum, 1990).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules