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Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī -- Medieval Islamic Scientist, quite a read... (wikipedia.org)
55 points by DaniFong on Sept 15, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 50 comments

The history of science and medicine in the Islamic world is very interesting. I don't remember any particularly good secondary sources offhand, but reading about the House of Wisdom in Baghdad is probably a good starting point.

Islam greatly accelerated scientific development in the region. Muslims traveling to Mecca brought local discoveries with them, which were shared and quickly spread throughout as they returned. Also, the emphasis on reading the Quran in its original Arabic, rather than translations, ensured that the travelers had a language in common. Not to take away from several real geniuses, but it didn't hurt to have the region so well-networked. This rapid spread of knowledge gave the intellectual centers in the region a wealth of resources to draw from.

The region had Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī, and Avicenna as contemporaries, and then Omar Khayyam soon after. Persia in that era was like Florence in the fifteenth century. Something in the water? Genetic fluke?

Probably not...

I was going to make the same comparison. Both had a culture that encouraged scientific inquiry (within certain constraints), some fantastic libraries, rich local patrons that were willing to support research, and social and geographic circumstances that meant new ideas could spread relatively quickly.

Both environments seem like great examples of a general formula for encouraging a renaissance: create an environment that is attractive to geniuses and take care of anything that could distract them from bouncing ideas off each other. That sounds like good example of the sort of thing you can learn by studying history.

This wikipedia page seems like a good link rich start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Golden_Age

Counter opinion from a secular Turkish physicist:


He thinks Islam-science scholars are selective in their representation of medieval Islamic science, and overemphasis their similarities with us.

Very interesting, thanks for posting this.

I'm quite fond of that drawing in the article on phases of the moon. Theres just something about it that appeals to me, I can't put my finger on it though.

It is a real shame even some "modern day scientists" don't share his particular views on scientific method.



It makes me wonder how can he did very well as a scientist, a physicist, an anthropologist, a comparative sociologist, astronomer, a chemist, a critic of alchemy and astrology, an encyclopedist and historian, a geographer and traveller, a geodesist and geologist, a mathematician, a pharmacist and psychologist, an Islamic philosopher and a theologian.

Today, even to become a decent mathematician is not an easy job!

In the past, many notable thinkers worked in several fields at once. Pascal worked in math, philosophy, and theology; Descartes in math, philosophy, and the scientific method; Newton in physics, math, and theology. Leonardo da Vinci, of course, in engineering, art, mathematics, and music. Aristotle in medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. Narrow specialization is a fairly recent, and rather sad phenomenon.

true. However today any given field can be covered to a far greater depth than one person can be familiar with as well. 500 or 600 years ago, science was just smaller.

Half a millenium ago, I could probably know everything about the cutting edge of physics, astronomy, math, chemistry and optics in my head at once. 500 years ago, calculus had yet to be invented, fire was still thought to be "somehow" composed of phlogistons, and scientists were jsut coming to grips with the idea that the earth circled the sun.

Even 200 years ago, the knowledge encompassed by science was tiny compared to what we know today.

back in the golden age people had true thirst for knowledge ithout any greed for materialistic gains.

He's a brilliant mind, no doubt about that. But those who ventured into science, basically up until 150 years ago, were usually royalty or similar, with incomprehensible wealth, and obedient (and often violently oppressed) subjects.

If you never, in your entire life, have to worry a second if you can feed yourself and your family and keep a roof over your head, you're probably slightly more keen to see what a life of sitting down and wondering might lead to.

But those who ventured into science, basically up until 150 years ago, were usually royalty or similar, with incomprehensible wealth, and obedient (and often violently oppressed) subjects.

As a matter of fact, that was not the case in the Islamic empire - the government had encouraged independent research and learning and funded it quite extensively, which is the biggest reason it was such a scientific boom period. It's quite astonishing how far they've fallen, because at the peak of the European medieval times, the Islamic Empire had been encouraging this sort of scientific research and study like crazy. Perhaps most famous of all are the scientific libraries of Baghdad which once held volumes of literature and research pertaining to medicine, literature, physics, chemistry, and biology; and were made available (mostly) to all.

Invasions and wars in the region, along with the decline & fall of the Islamic Empire brought an end to that golden age of science and knowledge which is really sad because in that short period of time a lot of knowledge was discovered and contributed, lending to the future discoveries by European scientists in Calculus, Chemistry, Medicine, and more.

The destruction of Baghdad - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Baghdad_(1258) - by the Mongols certainly didn't help. That said, how do you respond to the charge that the Islamic Empire was merely borrowing the cultural and scientific achievements of the peoples whom they conquered? This guy, Avicenna, al-Khwārizmī, were all Persian. I can't think of any famous Arab scholars from the period (not an expert though - let me know if there are any). It wasn't _Islam_ that was funding this research and learning, it was the remnants of the Persian empire.

Islam is a religion - religions don't fund anything :) But I assume you meant the Islamic Empire itself, so in that case:

The Mongol invasion was the beginning of the end, to use a cliche. The Islamic Empire was indeed "borrowing" the talents of the people they conquered, but (the majority of) the accomplishments only took place after the conquest by the Islamic empire. More importantly than who did the thinking (it was basically a mixture of different cultures and races, the majority of which were not native Arabs) is the fact that that sort of scientific expeditioning was not discouraged and that the scientists were given as close to free reign as possible.

Contrasted with the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church's aversion to scientific discovers (Galileo anyone?) you can see that the Islamic Empire played the role of encouraging godfather quite well. Obviously it's not the government nor the religion that makes brilliant people, rather it just sets the stage for the accomplishments to take place.

It's a common misconception that the Islamic Empire == Arabian Empire, since the empire dictated that anyone to enter the folds of Islam would be considered the same "class" of citizen regardless of race or culture (and history can attest to the enactment of these beliefs) - it was the non-muslims that were considered to be second-tier citizens with respect to certain freedoms. Keeping that in mind, Persian or Arab or Kurd doesn't really matter.....

But anyway, here are just a couple of famous Arab-Muslim scholars: Ibn al-nafis, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, Al-Kindi, Ibn Al-Haythan, Averroes/Ibn Rushd, Ibn Yunus, Ibn Al-baitar, al-idrisi, hunnayn bin ishaq, jabbir bin hayyan.......

Full list is here, you can click through to see the ethnicity of these scholars: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Muslim_scientists

<i> I can't think of any famous Arab scholars from the period (not an expert though - let me know if there are any) </i>

Take a look at the creator of cryptanalyis:


He was an arab philosopher, scientist, astrologer, astronomer, cosmologist, chemist, logician, mathematician, musician, physician ...

No. Pragmatic needs have always shaped science. It is just that only recently craftsmen started to write. So just the written accounts of the gentleman-scientist survived.

A real renaissance man, avant la lettre.

You could say that he was a hacker ;)

This notion of course goes against the mainstream interpretation of the hacker persona (the geeky, socially recluse male that is more familiar with computers than he is with his own body). But if you peruse the articles here at Hacker News, it encompasses a very diverse range of subjects (anything from health, math, science, business, charisma, etc.) that are not doubt, interesting to hackers.

I would go a step further and say that what hackers today have in common with Bīrūnī is that the diverse subjects he was most interested in were somehow overlapping with one another.

"You could say that he was a hacker ;)"

You could, but that would sound really narcissistic.

"You could say that he was like me" would be narcissistic.

Membership of a category does not imply the greatness of other members of that category.

Germans might be proud of Goethe, but only a misguided German would take that to imply his or her own greatness.

An inverse stereotype. Poor stereotypes then, common or inverse... always wrong. ;)

I suspect the upvotes on this post answer this genuinely-asked question, but.. is it considered okay to post links to random interesting Wikipedia articles on HN? There are a lot of good ones.

To be honest, I'd rather have links to random interesting Wikipedia articles - knowing that there's a high probability that they've been selected by people with similar interests to me, but that I might not have found them on my own - than links to random blog posts about tech stuff that probably won't even matter half a year from now.

Good question. If the scoring system works as intended, they will either lead to enough interesting discussion to merit upvoting (as with this one) or fade away.

Personally, I'm happy to see more science history stuff on the main page, rather than just tech/programming and startup/business stuff. (I was a history student, though, and I'm particularly interested in the history of science and medicine.)

Go the extra mile, though! There are much, much better sources for everything than Wikipedia.

My personal interpretation of Hacker News is it's news that's news to hackers...

No surprise. Arabs back in those days have been known to have an excellent memory. At a very young age, Arab kids were able to memorize hundreds if not nearly a thousand of mid sized poems. This is probably why he was able to accumulate a deep knowledge in so many fields. Muslims have inherited this from Arabs. I have several friends who have memorized the entire Koran to the point where you open a page, start to read and they take it from there.

Arabs also were very well traveled individuals due to their commerce. They went from place to place, spending time with different communities and keeping notes. This is why they had a vast knowledge.

Arabs loved knowledge. They were great scholars. One of the teachings of the prophet of Islam was that Muslims are recommended to travel all the way to China to acquire knowledge. Back then traveling to China was probably like asking someone to bike from San Diego to Canada going through the mountains and desert.

This guy was a Persian. They are a different ethnic group with a different language and history.

At one point in history Persia was ruled by the Samanids who practiced Islam. If you said Islam in those days, you said Arab.

Although he may be Persian, you can most definitely be sure that he was deeply influenced by the Arabic tradition and culture.

Persian and Arabs share a whole lot of similarities. I lived with a Persian family for nearly 6 months so I have experienced it. On the other hand I lived 12 years across the street from a Arab family and I went to school with a few Arabs as well. I know Arabs, Persian, Assyrian..

Yeah, just don't tell any Persians that they're similar to Arabs; unless you wan them to feel insulted that is. Suppose you're from the USA, how would you feel if someone says you're similar to Mexicans?

Funny, that's the same analogy a Persian made to me when explaining the difference between Persians and Arabs - that they're as different as the US and Mexico.

Please don't lump muslims into one huge group that have "inherited" something from Arabs. It's very inaccurate.


Saying Muslims did not inherit a big portion of their tradition and culture from Arabs is like saying Africans did not inherit tradition and culture from colonials.

Now, I am both African and Muslim since birth. If you look at my username it says Rokhaya which is 100% Arabic and Kebe which is a common last name in West Africa.

Out of the 9 main languages in my country you will find plenty Arabic words in each one of them, yet you will not find as much of one language in another.

Secondly we are thought to memorize everything in academia and that we are able to do mostly because before going to school we spent our early days memorizing the Koran. Not understanding, not even being able to read in some cases, but memorizing the parchments.

Can you please explain further your statement and give some examples, and I will be able to go even further.

Muslims are very diverse, and of course there has been a strong arabic influence on the cultures of places that follow the muslim customs. Your statement was this:

"This is probably why he was able to accumulate a deep knowledge in so many fields. Muslims have inherited this from Arabs."

There are more than a billion muslims in the world. They span from Indonesia to East Africa to the Western Coast of Africa through to the the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Accumulating deep knowledge in a field is not something that was inherited from the Arabs. It is something that comes from the local culture and the local traditions. Some muslim societies value deep knowledge, some do not. Islamic societies have a common bond, but they are still VERY different.

You are over-generalising, and I am pointing out that the role of religon on the many different cultures has not been estabished.

You are correct and I totally agree, I ll be more careful in the future.

You can tell the difference between reddit and hacker news just by reading the comments when the subject is related to "Islam".

HN would be a lot better if people didn't high-five each other so much over how great this community is and how much everyone else sucks.

Agreed. Coincidentally, that's the sort of thing I used to see on Reddit shortly before it turned into some monstrous Digg/Youtube hybrid.

Danielle, things have changed in recent times. There have only been 9 ever Nobel laureates who are Muslim.


this is from a pool of 1.4 Billion Muslims. On the other hand 151 Jews have been awarded Nobel prizes from a pool of 12 million. http://www.science.co.il/Nobel.asp


Do you think that Islam over time has affected intellectual output, or that Jews have an advantage because of the religion? What do you think?

Because to become a nobel laureate, you have to go through a very special selection process that is strongly biased towards western cultures. Imagine some kid right now in the middle of chad is born who is as clever as Einstein. What do you think the odds are of that guy making it all the way to a nobel prize?

Compare that to a person born into a culture where intellectual ability is encouraged and paid for by the community and network, and where he is going to be actively sought out to go into research laboratories and so on.

Things have not changed. What has changed is that the balance of the world has moved over to one group of people, and those that are within the group wonder why nobody else seems to be showing up for the party.

I've travelled the world, from China through Africa, over Europe and the U.S, and the difference and the opportunities available are not just large, they are almost insurmountable.

The ability is there in all of us, but the opportunity is often not.

You can't count technological advance by Nobel prizes: they only started being relevant a century ago, and even then they're a poor proxy, and often decided by politics.

With regards to religion and science, I don't think you can consider the major religions or cultures by themselves as having much of an effect. It's all over the map... It varies with time, adminstration, fashion, the existence of certain schools. In the fifteenth century Catholics were far ahead in science, in the 11th, Muslims, during the 8th and 9th, the Chinese, at the beginning of the century, especially during the 1920's, Germany, then it was completely squashed by the Nazi's, then Hungarian Jews had a great run, spurring an American scientific dynasty of many ethnicities, and now it's fairly diffuse.

There is one major character to Jewish populations that seems to help them in science. Wherever they go, they seem to keep their culture intact. Since they're quite reverent towards education, it's traditionally meant that when the going got tough, the Jews were still studying.

There is one major character to Jewish populations that seems to help them in science. ... they're quite reverent towards education

What about Ashkenazi-Jewish IQ?


seven studies of Jews in Britain yield a median IQ of 110. ... In Canada too, there is an IQ hierarchy: Jews (109), ... These results are remarkably consistent over time, place, and situation ...

in How to explain high Jewish achievement: The role of intelligence and values, an article published in Personality and Individual Differences, by Lynn and Satoshi Kanazawa (PDF), we showed that only IQ had predictive value when pitted against values theories.

There are a few discrepancies. I'm not aware of studies done in Israel, for example, although for some reason the authors of the Bell Curve were very willing to color in those lines. As far as I know you can't really separate the IQ gap with the fact that you have an immigrant population. For example, the initial tests of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco showed an IQ of 103 (adjusted for the Flynn effect). Later tests of second and third generation Chinese in America highlighted an IQ of around 98. In other words, there was a 5 point swing as people got settled. If there's a culture where people hadn't gotten settled, (and haven't really been given the chance) it's the Jews. But I expect the differences in attitudes toward academics and effort more than supersede and natural advantage that might exist.

Cite: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2007/12/17/07121...

I'm not aware of [IQ] studies done in Israel

They are not hard to find.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IQ_and_Global_Inequality finds an average British-relative IQ of 95 for Israel, from several studies.

Appendix 1 of the 2002 book "IQ and the Wealth of Nations" cites two IQ studies of Israel:

Around 1975, norms for the American Lorge-Thorndike Test were collected for 180 10- to 12-year-olds by Miron (1977). The mean IQ was 100. In order to adjust for the 11-year interval between the two standardizations, this needs to be reduced to 98. In relation to a British IQ of 100, this needs to be reduced by one further point to 97.

Around 1989, data for the Standard Progressive Matrices for 1,740 9- to 15-year-olds were collected by Kaniel and Fisherman (1991). In relation to the British 1979 standardization sample, their IQ was 92. To adjust for the 10-year interval between the two years of data collection, this needs to be reduced to 90. The average of the results gives an IQ of 94 for Israel.

DaniFong wrote:

although for some reason the authors of the Bell Curve were very willing to color in those lines.

There is no mention of Israel in The Bell Curve (other than a single instance indirectly in a summation of a competing theory from John Ogbu who notes that, in Israel, Sephardic jews have lower attainment than Ashkenazic jews). What do you mean by "color in those lines"?

Here is Rushton summarizing Lynn's 2006 explanation of the Israel anomaly:


Another anomaly: the average IQ of Israel is only about 95—substantially higher than the median IQ of 85 found elsewhere in the region, but much lower than the average IQ of Jews outside of Israel, estimated at between 108 and 115.

Lynn breaks the Israeli IQ into three components: 40 percent Ashkenazim (European Jewish) with a mean IQ of 103; 40 percent Sephardim (Oriental Jewish) with a mean IQ of 91; and 20 percent Arab with a mean IQ of 86, which is virtually the same as that of Arabs elsewhere. Lynn suggests these differences could have arisen from selective migration (more intelligent Jews emigrated to Britain and the USA), intermarriage with different IQ populations (those in Europe versus those in North Africa), selective survival through persecution (European Jews were the most persecuted), and the inclusion of ethnic non-Jews among the Ashkenazim in Israel as a result of the immigration of people from the former Soviet Bloc countries who posed as Jews.

showed that only IQ had predictive value when pitted against values theories.

How you control for values? If I value taking peoples money by force because I feel like it my intelligence will negate that values effect on my life outcome?

How you control for values?

Here is the full-text (free of charge) PDF of the 2007 Lynn/Kanazawa paper:


The cultural values of the respondents are measured by their responses to a question on the values parents would most like in their children. The survey gives 13 values and asks respondents to identify the one that they would most like their children to have, and also the three they would most like their children to have.

These were the values surveyed:

  Sex role
Table 1 gives the percentages of the respondents endorsing each of the 13 values they would most like their children to have, for the five religious categories. ... There are only two values in which Jews are significantly different from others. These are honesty, which Jews desire in their children less than others, and judgment, which Jews desire in their children more than others. ...

Table 2 gives similar results for values being one of the three most important that the respondents would most like their children to have. ... There are eight values in which Jews are significantly different from others. Jews attach less importance to cleanliness, honesty, manners and obedience, but they attach more importance to considerateness, interest in how and why things happen, judgment and responsibility. ...

the results do not provide any evidence for the theory that Jews attach more importance to success or to studiousness than non-Jews. In fact Jews attach less importance to success and to studiousness than non-Jews in the results set out in both Tables 1 and 2, although the differences between Jews and non-Jewish are not statistically significant. ...

Jews do attach more importance to four values than non-Jews. These are considerateness, interest in how and why things happen, judgment, and responsibility, but it is not easy to see how these would contribute to the success of Jews in virtually all walks of life.

The cultural values of the respondents are measured by their responses to a question on the values parents would most like in their children.

This is not controlling for values taken as a given, as it is worded as most like. E.g., if my son excels in soccer there would be no desire on my part for increased aptitude in sports.

I am trying to imagine what a conversation between him and Leonardo da Vinci would be like.

also wondering how he got the funds to dedicate his life to science. was he a heir? or he was sponsored by kings and sultans?

Sponsored by the Empire. See my other comment for the long version.

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