Alhazen’s Method of Empiricism and its Contributions to Advancing Science

by Elizabeth Anne Rathburn

Throughout human history civilizations experience periods of great intellectual growth: a golden age where scholarship greatly encourages the function and expansion of a civilization. The Muslim Caliphate, known for its great scientific advancements, was a particular civilization made multiple contributions to the world’s human knowledge and education. As Muhammad Saud once expressed, “Islam’s greatest contribution to human history is its sound and healthy concept of God, and a sound and healthy vision of life and society” (1). During the Muslim period of enlightenment, many great thinkers used the resources of their progressive culture to attribute findings in natural science and technology. One such man, known as Alhazen will make such remarkable advancements in the area of the natural sciences. He will later be recognized as one of the greatest scientists known in Islamic history. Alhazen’s empirical method revolutionized the scientific thinking/way to seek knowledge of his time and went on to influence the advancements of later science including seventeenth century Christian Europe.

The Muslim scholar Abu Ali al Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, (ca. 965-1040 CE) better known in Europe as Alhazen or Alhacen (the latin form of al Hasan) was born in the southern Iraq city of Basra. One might think that Alhazen was always a man of science but his early years led him towards another path. His father was a civil servant and Alhazen became well educated (Gorini 53). After completing his civil service education Alhazen was appointed chief minister of the caliphate of Basra. As a part of his role he was required to immerse himself in theological readings, and endless religious debates (Morgan 98).

Having the position of chief minister was a very prestigious role in the Muslim caliphate. After some time Alhazen began to question the arguments of theology he encountered, and wondered “how could something as vast and complicated as the divine be known with any certainty by the mortal mind” (Morgan 98). This was a forward thinking question Alhazen had posed to himself, and he knew, “that there was only a single truth and that the differences of opinions was the result of the different ways adopted to seek it” (Saud 3). Until now, truth was based upon information deduced from what was already known and then theorized upon. Alhazen believed that no man could merely understand the complexities of God and life just by speculating about such ideas. He resigned from his position of power as chief minister and sought to find truth through science. Having a civil service education established Alhazen as an intellectual man, however it is, “apparent from the titles of his own writings that he was widely read in Greek mathematics and mathematical science” (Lindberg 61). Many men would not have given up power for the life of a scholar yet, “the only thing that motivates him is the hunger to know more, to understand the complexity of God’s universe, to find truth where ever it is, no matter the language or the conventional wisdom or the articles of faith” (Morgan 104). Alhazen’s thinking was forward and progressive for his time. It is a perfect example of the dynamic learning scholars and scientists of the Muslim culture were so enthused to pursue. His belief that the truth of God’s universe had its foundation in science and mathematics was dramatically contrary to the conventional and accepted theological teachings of the religious factions present in the caliphate. It was Alhazen who believed that “in rationalism will…the true mind of God be revealed” (Morgan 98). Alhazen became the man to venture away from the belief of undisputed theological truths.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, Greek literature was highly influential in Islamic life. The Abbasid Caliphate (from 750) opened its borders to a wide expanse of foreign culture and knowledge. The Islam culture, “adopted Greek concepts and methods of reasoning into the disciplines of theology and law” (Lindberg 67), which proved to be most influential. A result of these adoptions gave way to the rise of philosophy in Islamic culture, directly accompanied by the “reception of Aristotelian canon of rational sciences” (Lindberg 67). The Aristotelian teachings permeated into Islamic culture, influencing also the theological debates within the religious caliphate. Like many other scholars of his time, Alhazen began his search for truth by finding “solace in the thoughts of Aristotle” (Morgan 98). Over the years Alhazen becomes a well-versed man of science as he “expounded the theories…of Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy and was devoted on philosophy, physics, medicine, optics, astronomy, and mathematics” (Gorini 53). Alhazen’s life works were extensive, as many as two hundred works, many of which will eventually be lost, yet his seven volumes on optics will survive and be widely considered his most important intellectual contribution to a particular field of study (Morgan 103). Alhazen was entranced by the very complexity of light and visual perception. His seven volumes on optics as a complete work was entitled Kitab al-Manazir, translated into The Book of Optics. It is because of the extensive work Alhazen performed that he is considered to this day by many as “one of the most significant figures in the history of optics between antiquity and the 17th century” (Gorini 2003). His Kitab goes on to alter the thinking of many European scholars centuries after he has pioneered the field of study. Alhazen’s scientific advances contributed a vast supply of knowledge “in the history of both medicine and optics and [had] modified the idea that ancients had about light” (Gorini 53). Along with other significant findings, Alhazen disproved the ancient Greek notion of the visual perception of the human eye. Light was Alhazen’s primary interest and he sought to discover the truth whether it was contrary to the Greek theories like those of Ptolemy and Aristotle.

During Alhazen’s time Greek literature and influence was a primary source of knowledge. If it wasn’t for scholarly men, such as Alhazen, future scholars would have relied on this same scholastic form of education: the same ancient text translated from one language to another undisputed. Alhazen took a bold step in the opposite direction of founded knowledge by rejecting all known knowledge. He wished to seek the truth and further understand concepts himself. In his particular investigation into optics Alhazen turned to the early writings of Ptolemy and Aristotle. Until Alhazen delved into the matter of optics, an unsupported and metaphysical based idea of how the eye perceived images was commonly accepted.
The concept of visual perception, accepted by the Greeks, was known as the extramission theory. Many Greek scholars, including Ptolemy, disputed this particular theory. It was, “supposed that the eye sends out rays of light to view the objects.” Aristotle advanced this theory called the “Mediumistic Theory by which the eye receives rays rather than direct them outward. In particular…in the process of human vision the object being looked at somehow altered the medium between the object itself and the viewer’s eye” (Gorini 2003 53). Both theories proved to provide insufficient evidence and support and thus according to Alhazen’s belief the theories had to be rejected.

The Greek scholars made connections between the light and eye sensations but failed to actually explain how it connected to vision perception. Alhazen based his studies on Aristotle’s initial theory, yet instead of basing theory on speculation, he wished to validate his theory upon scientific outcome. In his Kitab Alhazen gives his observations about the nature of light on the human eye:
“We find that when the eye looks into exceedingly bright light, it suffers greatly because of them and is injured; for when an observer looks at the body of the sun, he cannot behold it well, since his eye experiences pain because of its light. Similarly, when he looks into a polished mirror, above which rises the light of the sun, and his eye is in the place to which the light is reflected by the mirror, he will again experience pain because of the reflected light reaching his eye from the mirror, and he will not be able to open his eye to observe that light” (Lindberg 62).

This writing supports Alhazen’s findings, leading to the intromission theory, that the eyes receive rays of light rather than emanating rays in order to visually perceive objects. Through extensive and carefully planned investigation, “Alhazen’s most effective refutation of the extramission theory was his own positive intromission theory” (Lindberg 67). Alhazen provided an answer to the question of vision that was founded in the physical proof of the natural science. Unlike his predecessors he realized more truth was yet to be discovered and, “held that visual perception is not a mere sensation but is primarily an inferential act of discernment and judgment (El-Bizri 344). Alhazen recognized that in order to understand optics, one must make greater connections between light, mathematics, and the anatomical properties of the human eye. The refutation of the extramission theory was one of Alhazen’s multiple contributions to the understanding of optics. Alhazen’s unique methods led to what Lindberg believed to be one of the principle merits of Alhazen’s theory of vision in which he, “successfully integrated the anatomical, physical, and mathematical approaches to sight” (67). No other man before Alhazen utilized many areas of study to define so thoroughly the concept of optics. His extensive scientific work proved to be important because it challenged the works of his Greek predecessors.

In all of his studies Alhazen restricted his knowledge to the physical limitations of the natural sciences. According to Saud, Alhazen recognized that, “in the works of Greeks…Physical knowledge is found to be mixed up with metaphysical speculations” and instead of accepting the knowledge of his Greek predecessors sought to advance it. He did this by substituting “free investigation for authoritarianism” (Saud 10). This relates back to Alhazen’s initial hunger to seek truth despite what knowledge society deemed to be absolute. Alhazen will one day be recognized as the man to, “shrine empirical method over faith and unsubstantial theory” (Morgan 2007). To look at one of his works it would be apparent that Alhazen developed a revolutionary way of investigating theoretical hypotheses of natural science. These developments paved the way for a new dynamic way of scholarly learning.

Alhazen brought Middle-Eastern scholarship out of the educational system of scholastic research clouded with metaphysical speculation, and into a sphere of dynamic experimental science. In order to pursue his own studies Alhazen developed a precise and controlled system of empiricism in which his conclusions were founded upon investigation and experience. Facts were not valid unless verified through personal experience and so “the core lessons of his writings is that science must be based upon empirical methods” (Morgan 103). According to Alhazen, this was the only way scientific knowledge could be validated. The Greeks did have an understanding of empiricism, but were prone to intellectual theorizing rather than gaining knowledge through research. It is important to understand that Alhazen, “did not rely upon authority in scientific conclusions but believed in direct study of Nature” (Saud 1990 7). Alhazen’s ‘against the grain’ method of learning could be viewed as only an attempt to end the quarrels he had once been immersed in as chief minister during theological disputes. These quarrels were only the result of the lack of progressive thinking necessary for a methodical system of dynamic learning. It was Alhazen who advanced this new concept in Muslim culture.

Alhazen acknowledged the lack of method and definition in the way his culture sought knowledge and ultimately succeeded in a remedy. Alhazen “was the pioneer of the modern scientific method…established experiments as the norm of proof in the field” (Gorini 2003 55). Today’s scientific method is directly reflective of Alhazen’s methods as written in his Kitab in which he outlines his empirical method:
We shall commence our investigations of the existing objects through induction and by searching for conditions of the visible objects and by distinguishing between the characteristics of individual objects. And out of the characteristics associated with sight we shall inductively select those which are permanent and immutable and those which are quite clear and not ambiguous during the process of seeing. Then we shall advance in investigation and syllogism gradually and in order, criticize the premises and secure conclusions against errors (Saud 33).
This passage can be divided into a series of steps Alhazen took to investigate a particular study. According to Saud, first was the formulation of a Hypothesis and its Verification, second the Observation of Particulars, third the Classification and Selection of relevant data, and lastly Gradual Induction (34). Alhazen’s method was so exact that if certain observations were not in cohesion with a hypothesis, that particular hypothesis was rejected. Gorini also supports the modern reflection of Alhazen’s method in which it, “consisted of a repeating cycle of observations, hypothesis, experimentation and the need for personal verification” (55). Alhazen can be attributed with some of the initial use of scientific words that are commonly used today as he, “accurately employs the terms experiment, experimentation, examiner, obersver, and find in his study of optics and visual perceptions” (Khaleefa 4). These terms could only be found in the writings of a dynamic scholar, for it is already justified that the Greeks had no ambition like the Islamic people to pursue scholarly research. In his Kitab, he writes:
Let an experimenter take a solid body, make a tiny hole in it, then hold it opposite the sun. He will find that light goes through the hole, moving along a straight line. If he tests the light as it extends through space, he will find it to be perfectly straight. It is therefore clear from all this that the light of the sun only extends along straight lines (Morgan 104).
The basic idea of light travelling in straight lines, so common to us now, was not accepted and had not been proven until Alhazen sought to prove it through his unique empirical method. Alhazen was a prolific writer, whose empirical and rationalized research went to cover multiple facets of the study of optics, and whose influence spread past the borders of the Muslim world, into the beginning of the European Scientific Revolution.

Within a culture, new eras of enlightenment can generally be believed to begin with the adoption and integration of foreign ideas. Just as the Muslim empire received teachings from the Greeks, Persians and other civilizations, so had the Christian European Empire began to receive Muslim influences. Omar supports the correlation of the European scientific revolution with Islamic influence in which, “the revival of scientific activity in Europe in the thirteenth century followed the translation into Latin of many Arabic works on optics, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine” (68). For hundreds of years while Islam enjoyed years of enlightenment and advances in scientific study, Europe sat in the dark ages. It was the works of Islamic scholars like Alhazen, whose Kitab al-Manazir was translated into Latin by the Polish scholar Witelio in 1270 (Gorini 54), which contributed greatly to the new thinking of Europe. The integration of new ideas took time. For many generations the European education system was based solely on the religious teachings of the Christian belief. However, one must also recognize that the scholastic teachings of Europe should not be seen in an entirely negative light. It was the scholastic learning of the European churches that not only preserved knowledge, but also served as the foundation for later dynamic learning. It can be believed then that “the first Christians of Europe cared little for secular knowledge” (Saud 6). It was in the beginning of the twelfth century that medieval Christians began to acquaint themselves with such works as Alhazen’s, practically three centuries after his death. These works however certainly, “dealt a blow to the medieval synthesis of knowledge, and helped the Western scholars to get a true conception of the physical science” (Saud 7). Europeans began to expand their thinking past the Christian foundation, and began to form new understandings. Many scholars through time have wrongly accredited the ideas of Muslim scholars to later European scholars between the thirteenth and seventeenth century. As this Western belief is no longer strongly believed, works and theories very similar and almost identical to those of the great thinker Alhazen are traceable in the works of later Western scientists (Saud 42).

Preserved in his writings Alhazen’s empirical method influenced the works of European methodologists such as Galileo, Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), and Johannes Kepler (c. 1571-1630) as well as many others. All of these men studied the works of Alhazen and it is believed by Selah Omar that, “all other Latin works before then [17th c.] repeated Alhazen’s experiments, expatiated his theories, or simply misunderstood much of his work” (69). However, while these men were not the innovators of such a useful scientific method, many European scientists used Alhazen’s influence to better scholarly research and education. It was Alhazen’s mathematical and optic theories that would, “lay the foundation…for Galileo and Copernicus to understand the true relationship of the earth to other heavenly bodies” (Morgan 97). Roger Bacon who was commonly believed by the English to establish empirical method, produced his own writings which “are largely commentaries on [Alhazen’s] writings”, and like Alhazen recognized that problems were still beyond the reach of human capabilities of the time (Khaleefa 3). It wasn’t until Johannes Kepler, a German Mathematician and Astronomer who was perhaps the first European to master Alhazen’s experimental approach to science as well as further the great Muslim’s studies (Omar 68).

Johannes Keper lived during the seventeenth century, the peak of the scientific revolution, where new European knowledge was fully intermixed with the lasting knowledge of its predecessors. Having been influenced by the works of Alhazen, Kepler pursued his own method of rigorous scientific empiricism and, “by insisting upon more rigor and consistency than the medieval perspectivists themselves had been able to achieve, he was able to perfect it” (Lindberg 208). Kepler’s primary achievement was his theory of retinal images. One of Alhazen’s experimental devices he created, the camera obscura, helped define the properties of light and led scholars such as Kepler to the initial concept of the camera. Kepler’s theory for retinal images, “was the natural outcome of comparing the eye to the camera obscura and applying to the eye the knowledge of image-formation acquired in solving the problem of the camera” (Lindberg 205). Kepler provided European education new ideas connected to those once established by Alhazen. At the peak of Europe’s scientific revolution Kepler was able to apply more rigor and make his own advances, “but did so without departing from the basic aims and criteria of visual theory established by Alhazen in the eleventh century” (Lindberg 207).

Through the scientific revolution, it was Alhazen’s new method of epistemology based upon empirical method that “gave sense-perception its proper role in the process of cognition, a role which has…been totally…subordinate to intuition on the Aristotelean theory of knowledge. This theory gave Greek its ‘axiomatic’ approach, so valuable for mathematics, but so stultifying for natural science” (Omar 69-70). From the beginning it was Alhazen who turned away from the idea of self-evident scientific law and turned knowledge rather into validated and probable theories in the realm of natural science.

Not only his theories, but also the knowledge of his work in optics, astronomy, and mathematics became the basis for education throughout history. Alhazen and other Islamic scientists advanced the knowledge of their time. Ancient works such as those of the Greeks were understood through the perception of centuries of Islamic influence and thought. Alhazen was a dedicated scientist whose consistency in precision made him one of the greatest innovators of his time. He came from a culture that held the general belief that knowledge revealed the whole of nature in all honesty. Therefore he refused to be content with the ideas associated with authoritarianism and only accepted the theories of his predecessors after personal verification through inductive methods. The entire lengthy work of Alhazen’s is the ultimate source for the application of his empirical method. His methods of empiricism will go on to be adapted to field of study outside of the ancient areas of knowledge. Western culture would sustain Alhazen’s experimental science through out generations, and it would to be adapted and applied to modern issues. Alhazen’s empirical method would remain to be one of the fundamental concepts in scientific research and education.



El-Bizri, Nadar. “Ibn al-Haytham , or Alhazen.” Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Ecyclopaedia. 1. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2006. Web. 24 Jan 2012. < Islamic Civilization – An Encyclopedia.pdf>.

Endress, Gerhard. “Aristotle and Aristotelianism.” Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopaedia. 1. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2006. Web. 24 Jan 2012. < Islamic Civilization – An Encyclopedia.pdf>.

Gorini, Rosanna. “Al-Haytham the Man of Experience First Steps in the Science of Vision.” Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine (JISHIM). Vol. 2. No. 4 (2003): pg. 53-55. Web. 21 Jan. 2012. < used/not used/JISHIM VOL.2 NO.4 PDF.pdf

Khaleefa, Omar. “Who is the Founder of Psychophysics on Experimental Psychology?.” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. 16.2 (1999): 1-26. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. 1st. ed. London: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.

Morgan, Michael Hamilton. Lost History The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2007.

Omar, Selah. “Ibn al-Haytham’s Theory of Knowledge and its Significance for Later Science.” Arab Studies Quarterly. 1.1 (1979): 67-82. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

Rashed, Roshidi. “Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen).” Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997. Web. 21 Jan 2012.

Saud, Muhammad. The Scientific Method of Ibn al-Haytham. First ed. Pakistan: Islamic Research Institute, 1990. Print.

Tbakhi, Abdelghani, and Samir S Amr. “Ibn Al-Haytham: Father of Modern Optics.” Arab and Muslim Physicians and Scholars. 27.6 (2007): 464-67. Web. 21 Jan. 2012.

The Academy of Jundishapur

by Jazmyne M. Sturgeon

The Academy of Jundishapur stood proud as a temple of learning in the Persian Empire. The Academy was founded by Khusru Anusharvan in the city of Jundi Shapur during the Sassanid Dynasty at around the mid 200’s A.D., although the exact date is unknown. Khusru encouraged the advancement of learning throughout Persia with the foundation of the Academy (Arberry 1953). The Academy of Jundishapur was a place of learning, a place where ideas gathered, smoldered, and blossomed; because of this, The Academy of Jundishapur impacted future developments of Islamic medicine and arts.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Academy is its impact on medical society. The Academy of Jundishapur is considered the most advanced center of higher education in 6th century Persia. Scholars from various backgrounds had gathered at Jundishapur to share manuscripts and exchange ideas; those scholars included Greeks, Jews, Christians, Syrians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Persians. It is interesting to note that even though Jundishapur collected knowledge from many different cultures, the Academy did not adapt cultural aspects, especially those that conflicted with Islam and the Quran (Stanton 1990). In the pharmaceutical world, names are most commonly Persian, as opposed to anatomical terms that are of Greek or Latin origin. This should not come as a surprise seeing that such an important school of medicine, the Academy of Jundishapur, is in the Middle East (Arberry 1953). Because of its location, the Academy of Jundishapur was able to combine Greek, Indian, and Iranian medical traditions in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, which laid the foundation for future developments in Islamic medicine (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975).

Ibn Bukhtishu was a famous doctor during the time of al-Mansur who headed the medical school until his death in AD 771. The Bakhtishu family carried the medical traditions of Jundishapur when they served several Abbasid caliphs as their personal physicians (The Golden Age of Persia). The Cambridge History of Iran expands:

The members of the Bukhtyishu family were directors of the Jundishapur hospital and produced many outstanding physicians. One of them, Jiris, was called to Baghdad by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, to cure his dyspepsia. Due to his success he becamse court physician of the caliphs, and after them the whole school was transferred to Baghdad marking the real beginnings of Islamic medicine. (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975)

The Abbasid Dynasty began its rule in AD 750. Under the rule of the Abbasid caliphs, the Muslim nation stretched from Asia to as far as the Atlantic Ocean at one point. The Muslim nation flourished and reached its peak; features included a stable, universal currency, multi-ethnic and multi-religious political systems, a strong legal system, and a trade route that stretched from Africa, to China, to Northern Europe (Jackson 2012). For the Bukhtishu family to serve as an Abbasid caliph’s personal physician is a high honor; and the education Bukhtishu’s received from Jundishapur gave them the ability to fulfill that role.

The Masuyas were a Christian family of Persian origin. The father was a genius who received his medical knowledge through experience at Jundishapur. He later moved to Baghdad where his three sons also became physicians. One of which, Yuhanna b. Masuya, was the first in Islamic civilization to perform animal dissection and write on ophthalmology, or the study of the eye (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975).

Sabur b. Sahl was another Persian physician of Jundishapur. He wrote one of the first books on antidotes called Aqrabadhin, which inspired many successors (The Golden Age of Persia 1975). Of course, the Academy of Jundishapur produced many fine students who made major impacts in Islamic society in the field of medicine and other studies.

Many scholars have agreed on the Academy of Jundishapur’s lasting impact on the hospital system. The Cambridge History of Iran states:

To a very large extent the credit for the whole hospital system must be given to Persia. The hospitals of the Mohammadan period were built very largely upon the ideals and traditions of the Sasanian hospital of Jundishapur.’ The well-known hospitals of ‘Adud al-Daula in Shiraz and Baghdad, as well as the later hospitals of Damascus and Cairo, were based upon the Jundishapur model. The first products of Islamic medicine were also from this important medical centre. (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975)

A.J. Arberry concurs in his work The Legacy of Persia. His assertion is that the greatest and longest lasting legacy that Persia contributed to Europe was their conception of hospitals. Arberry also claims that the modern hospital is a direct growth from Persian foundations, especially from Jundishapur (Arberry 1953). When it comes to medical and biological sciences, Jundishapur was a thriving center where medicine of many traditions have been preserved alongside Persian and Indian traditions, making the transition from the world of ancient science to the modern Islamic science flow naturally (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975). The Academy of Jundishapur was a thriving hub of medical knowledge. It took in vast amounts of information from a multitude of cultures and combined them into what was to become Islamic medicine. The medical center at Jundishapur, along with the medical knowledge that thrived there, had lasting impacts on European medicine.

Although medical studies were the Academy of Jundishapur’s cornerstone, it did have a range of other studies, including the arts. Persian weaving industry boomed in the city, and the native craftsmanship was celebrated in the West (Arberry 1953). Also, various types of fine silk were woven for export and personal use: the Sassanid weaves created in Jundishapur birthed a new type of decorative silk that would later influence medieval silk weaving in Syria, Egypt, Byzantium, and other places further west (Jackh 1952). Apart from weaving, The Academy of Jundishapur also toyed with astronomy:

In complete contrast to the impossibility of giving a clear and straight-forward account of early Abbasid astronomical theory, the materials on astronomical observations, although incomplete, are ample and precise… The earliest reported activity supplied a link with the Sasanian past. About AD 800, one Ahmad Nihavandi was making observations of the sun at Jundishapur, the garrison town and centre of medical studies established in Khuzstan by Shapur I. This is the only mention of the place in connection with astronomy, and subsequent reports for a long time thereafter are centered upon in Baghdad. (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975)

Cultures traveled from regions as far as Asia and the Atlantic Ocean to share their knowledge at The Academy of Jundishapur. The Academy served as a nesting ground for information to gather and flourish. Later, medical facilities based their hospitals on the Jundishapur model and used much of Jundishapur’s medical knowledge to increase their own. The Academy of Jundishapur produced many noteworthy students, some of which whose family went on to do great things. All of these things have contributed to making the Academy of Jundishapur Sassanid Persia’s center medicine and the arts.


Arberry, A. J. The Legacy of Persia. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953. Print.

Frye, R. N., ed. The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 4: The Period from The Arab Invasion to The Saljuqs. London: Cambridge UP, 1975. Print.

Frye, Richard Nelson. The Golden Age of Persia: The Arabs in the East. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. Print.

Jackh, Ernest. Background of the Middle East. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1952. Print.

Jackson, Steve N. “The Thin Tweed Line: The Caliphate and the Muslim Renaissance.” DHC 261: The University. Black Hall 151, Ellensburg, WA. Jan. 2012. Lecture.

Stanton, Charles Michael. Higher Learning in Islam: The Classical Period, A.D. 700-1300. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990. Print


by Kyle Perra

There is much to say of the many famed philosophical thinkers of previous generations who set the standards on knowledge in the world we know and cherish today. These celebrated persons, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilee, William Harvey, Thomas Aquinas and countless others have long been studied and their works analyzed by many thousands of people. These philosophical thinkers and scientists alike surely deserve their fame, which they have earned through strong critical thought and experimentation, however I am left uncertain on whether or not everyone within the long chains of philosophical practice have each had their fair share of credit, in which the big names I have mentioned I believe unfairly hold too much of. How it is possible that a person who began or influenced greatly the ingenious ideas of evolution, the concept of momentum, algebraic problem solving, the multiverse and many others could slip under the radar so severely is beyond my imagination. Moreover, the fact that I did not know of the man Ibn Sina who is credited to be “the most universal thinker and man of science in Islam,” by Olaf Pedersen in his book The First Universities, published in 1997, and Ibn Sina’s many contributions to everything I have mentioned thus far is completely embarrassing. Without this man Ibn Sina, who I can now hold in high regard, our world and the way that we can systematically understand it would have been dramatically affected. Furthermore, the scientific understanding of the human species and it’s biological make up would surely be severely lacking. Ibn Sina died almost one thousand years ago and he likely knew more regarding our existence as humans within his primitive world than many could possibly fathom today; the fact that he came to so many intellectual conclusions without the technology we take for granted today should attest to his genius.

Ibn Sina, often referred to as his Latinized name, Avicenna, lived during a time of great intellectual advancement known as the Islamic Golden Age. As proclaimed by Soheil Afnan in his book Avicenna: His Life and Works, published in 1958, during this time, many cultures such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam blended and worked together in order to form the foundation of many facts we know about our world and ourselves today. Avicenna’s father, who was appointed as a local governor in Kharmaithan, obviously was of some high standing. It was here in Kharmaithan that Avicenna and his younger brother were born. Shortly after, they moved to Bukhara, a known Buddhist center at the time due to Arab conquest, and thusly a place of large Islamic study. The origin of Avicenna’s father is not quite clear because so many cultures have claimed Avicenna to be of their own kind. It is notable though, that during Avicenna’s wanderings, he deliberately avoided Turkish areas and sought the company instead of Persian rulers. Also notable when considering what culture Avicenna might have been born into is his mother’s name, Setareh, a pure Persian word meaning star, suggesting her Persian descent.

Avicenna’s early years were met with long hours of studious tasks, as is mentioned by Farhang Zabeeh, in his book Avicenna’s Treatise on Logic, published in 1971. Avicenna’s father took the education of his sons very seriously and sent them both at early ages to initiate their education. As Avicenna mentions in his autobiography, which was depicted by his long time pupil Gorgani, “During a period of ten years I learned the Koran and the belles-lettres. I surprised everyone by my aptitude for learning the various sciences.” Unfortunately for Avicenna, his region in which he grew up was marked by religious unorthodox – an important thing to note as to possibly explain his difficult life, with no shortage of persecution. While his father belonged to the Ishmaeli section and often attempted to expand his beliefs onto his sons, Avicenna withheld. Avicenna notes that, “Often he (Avicenna’s father) discussed the Ishmaelian concept of the nature of the soul and the intelligence with my brother. I listened and thought, but was never convinced, and, although they tried to convert me to their religion, their efforts were useless.” This however did not discourage Avicenna’s father from continuing his stubborn son’s education and he “discussed geometry, philosophy and Indian arithmetic and it was he who sent me to a grocer to learn Indian numerals which I mastered quickly.” Around this time a man named Abu Abdullah-Natali, whom gathered some fame for his philosophy, came to Bukhara. Avicenna’s father immediately sought him out and encouraged him to stay at his home in hopes that he would instruct young Avicenna on philosophy. Avicenna quickly picked up on what Natali had to offer him. In his autobiography, Avicenna mentions that, “I made an original inquiry into the problem of genus (which refers to the types of different things) which surprised my teacher.” Natali, whom was nervous that Avicenna’s father might discontinue Avicenna’s education, quickly encouraged the father to not engage Avicenna in any other occupation. From this plea and on, Avicenna began his life as a great polymath who would affect the world over greatly.

Eventually Natali left Bukhara, and his young pupil Avicenna then began an energetic spree of learning across many subjects such as arithmetic, astronomy, medicine, logic, metaphysics and so many more, all on his own and on his own time. Avicenna had an obvious desire to learn, and over the rest of the entirety of his life he did so vigorously. It was due to this attitude that Avicenna was able to contribute on many important things we know today. The idea that space is larger than any human can fathom, even with the technology we obtain today, is firstly due to Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi’s famous concept of a multiverse. However, possibly even more important was the foundation Al-Razi worked on top of with his astronomical questions: the Aristotelian and Avicennian Geocentric Model of our world. The Geocentric Model, often referred to as the Ptolemaic System, “is the superseded theory, that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that all other objects orbit around it.” This idea served as the dominant cosmological system in several ancient cultures, such as Ancient Greece. When considering the Geocentric Model there were two observations made that led to the universal acceptance of the theory. Firstly, it was observed that the stars, the sun and other planets seemed to revolve around the earth each day. Furthermore, every star was on a ‘celestial’ sphere, which lined up when using the North and South Pole as an axis. Secondly, the Earth does not seem to move when observed from the Earth itself. Both observations thusly led to the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe. Al-Razi noted the Aristotelian and Avicennian model and took to the study on his own. When considering the concept, Al-Razi used his knowledge of atomism to state that there are “a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi ‘awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has.” To support his argument, he cites the Qur’anic verse, in which he was well knowledgeable on, “All praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds,” pointing closely to the term “Worlds.” Through his religious and celestial knowledge, Al-Razi rightfully predicted the Geocentric Model to be inaccurate and while he did prove Aristotle and Avicenna to be incorrect, it was through their observations that Al-Razi was able to claim the vastness of our universe and the possibility of multiple universes.

Avicenna’s yearning for knowledge didn’t end there and, in fact, he had much more to observe about the world he lived on. In one of Avicenna’s many books, The Book of Healing, Avicenna reflects on the concept of momentum in a way that many today might recognize as an early version of what Galileo Galilee and then, eventually, Isaac Newton had to say on the theory. While following closely with Aristotelian Dynamics, Avicenna was able to contribute to the theory of Impetus, which was developed by John Philoponus in the 6th century. Avicenna was credited with the development of a strikingly different theory than Philoponus however, in which he made a distinction between the inclination and force of a projectile, and concluded that motion was a result of an inclination ( mayl ) transferred to the projectile by the thrower, and that projectile motion in a vacuum would not cease. Furthermore, Avicenna also referred to mayl as being proportional to weight times velocity, which is obviously the basis for our concept of inertia today as well as Isaac Newton’s concept of momentum. The Avicennan-Buridan self-conserving impetus theory initiated one of the most important thought-experiments in the history of science, namely the so-called ‘tunnel-experiment’, so important because it brought oscillatory and pendulum motion within the pale of dynamical analysis and understanding in the science of motion for the very first time and thereby also established one of the important principles of classical mechanics. Without Avicenna it is unclear where the state of these theories, hugely important to our existence, might be today. It is possible that Isaac Newton without the Impetus Theory might have never bothered with the classical mechanics we know today. It is certain though that without Avicenna this subject would have required much more ground work and thusly would have taken famous thinkers such as Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton longer to develop.

Avicenna was largely known for his treatises on logic, in which he followed closely with Aristotelian views and beliefs. Being the polymath that he was, it was essential for Avicenna to debate what knowledge is, and what could make something knowable. In Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle divides the mind into three parts: sensation, imagination and intellection; moreover, when one perceives an object, his mind composites a sense-image. When he remembers the object he previously sensed, he is imagining its form (the image of the imagination is often translated as “phantasm”). When he extracts information from this phantasm, he is using his intellect. Through the ideas Aristotle and also with the help of later commentaries on Aristotle’s work, Avicenna was able to develop a strong theory for his own beliefs on epistemology. This epistemology of Avicenna’s is founded on the theory that the soul is independent of the body and also capable of abstraction. This theory is where Avicenna developed his so-called ‘flying man’ argument and thought experiment, which can be found in his writing Fi-Nafis/De Anima (Treatise on the Soul). The experiment questioned that if a person were created in a perfect state and condition, blind and also suspended mid-air causing this person to be incapable of understanding anything through their senses, would this person be able to confirm their own existence? Even in this state, the argument would be that the person could identify themselves through their thinking, thus confirming their existence; however, the experiment substantially confirms the importance of the soul. This theory inevitably develops the ideas of hylomorphism, in which both Avicenna and Aristotle were involved. It is often thought that Aquinas simply followed Aristotle with his doctrine on Intelligible Species. However, this is not the case. There were many doubts had about the Aristotelian corpus, in which Avicenna studied closely. Those who followed Aristotelian thought tried to resolve the problems of intellection and hylomorphism. This scientific experimentation done by Avicenna and a man by the name Averroes led to a result of denying Platonic forms and affirming hylomorphism; these scientific observations were directly drawn from for the development of Aquinas’ doctrine of Intelligible Species. Thusly so, without Avicenna, Aquinas’ heavily discussed doctrine of Intelligible Species either would have contained some of the inaccuracies of Aristotle from his original theories on hylomorphism or the doctrine would have not been constructible altogether.

Interestingly so, none of the above contributions in which I have spoken in depth on are of the fore front of Avicenna’s treatises and theories. In fact, the man Avicenna who is given little credit in our modern era for the many things he has accomplished and theorized would only and mainly be known for his huge contributions to medicine, which cannot be overrated. Avicenna is often referred to as the father of modern medicine and the father of aromatherapy for the creation of his ‘Kanon.’. In the four centuries that followed Avicenna’s life, his Canon would be the main treatise for reference in medieval medicine. “In his five books Avicenna gave a clear picture of general medicine, pharmacology, pathology, nutrition, and hygiene, all based on a synthesis of Hippocratic and Galenic observations and on Aristotle’s ideas on biology. With its clear clinical descriptions and precise therapeutic notes, the Canon gave the art of healing in the middle ages a solid foundation – more solid perhaps than the theories on which it was based. Its importance… can hardly be overrated, and to this day it is read with respect as the most superior work in this area that the past has ever produced.” The medical encyclopedia as previously mentioned was contained in five books, each broken apart to deal with separate but confusing issues. The first reintroduced the Galenic ideas of four temperaments, or humours, alongside some general anatomy and physiology. The second introduced clinical pharmacology, in which the original Galenic ideas of four humours was severely lacking of. Alongside this the second book introduced pharmaceutical sciences and the hugely important theory of inductive logic, which can be seen as critical for the scientific method. Book three contains the function and diseases of each organ head to toe, a diagram in which many of those who sought out medical careers took to heart. Book four contains information on diseases that might affect the entirety of a person’s body such as a fever. The last book contained an extensive list of compound drugs used to treat several diseases and was also among the first writings to suggest remedies for cancer and other tumors. Not greatly mentioned in the Kanon, but heavily practiced by Avicenna was what can be seen as some of the first successful surgeries, a practice which Avicenna encouraged – a severe contrast to physicians at his time.

Avicenna’s Canon, and namely his sections regarding anatomy directly influence the ideas of Ibn Al-Nafis whom was greatly involved in William Harvey’s later theorized systemic circulation – critical to medicine as it describes the process of the heart and of blood throughout the body. It is in Avicenna’s section on anatomy, pathology and physiology that historians find the first descriptions of pulmonary circulation. Al-Nafis, whom would write a commentary on the Canon’s anatomy section states that, “…the blood from the right chamber of the heart must arrive at the left chamber but there is no direct pathway between them. The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the vena arteriosa (pulmonary artery) to the lungs, spread through its substances, be mingled there with air, pass through the arteria venosa (pulmonary vein) to reach the left chamber of the heart and there form the vital spirit.” Al-Nafis took Avicenna’s foundation, as many philosophers and physicians did and are still doing today, and grew upon it, introducing their own ideas and observations that later lead to the theories of people we are more inclined to know of today. In this situation it is William Harvey whom used the foundation of Avicenna’s, and then Al-Nafis’, in order to directly involve his own theories in modern medicine today; and while the first discussions on pulmonary circulation will be credited Avicenna and Al-Nafis, it is Harvey who is today famous for his systemic circulation: a complete description of the properties of blood being pumped through the body by the heart. This science is well known today and is taught scholastically in our schools as matters of scientific fact. Thusly, without Avicenna our knowledge on how the different parts of our body receive nutrients and oxygen would had to have been the work of someone else, whom would have been severely late on the subject and also possibly severely lacking.

Some might say that it was Galen’s ideas with his four temperaments that truly influenced the ideas of medieval and then modern medicine and that Avicenna merely hopped onto the bandwagon. However I would argue that Galen’s methods were missing what is possibly the most important part of the entirety of the Canon of Medicine: clinical pharmacology. In Galen’s practice, if a person was ill then there was a systematic way of understanding what disease the person was ill of and what could possibly be the best way to treat them. Not a bad system to have in place. However it was when Galen was unable to treat a patient where I can personally see the main flaws of his practice. Simply, Galen had no means of trial and error, and everything that was stated about his four temperaments was expected to be followed in the same manor for every person under the classified disease regardless of previous treatments and their fatalities. In Avicenna’s clinical pharmacology, there were seven things to consider when treating a person.

  • “The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality.”
  • “It must be used on a simple, not a composite, disease.” 
  • “The drug must be tested with two contrary types of diseases, because sometimes a drug cures one disease by Its essential qualities and another by its accidental ones.”
  • “The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, there are some drugs whose heat is less than the coldness of certain diseases, so that they would have no effect on them.”
  • “The time of action must be observed, so that essence and accident are not confused.”
  • “The effect of the drug must be seen to occur constantly or in many cases, for if this did not happen, it was an accidental effect.” 

“The experimentation must be done with the human body, for testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man.”

There is very little evidence of people acknowledging the necessity of clinical pharmacology that is except for the great mind, Avicenna.

Avicenna’s careful practice of medicine helped him gain the favor of many high courts during his long life, without which it is likely that he would have never been able to accomplish the many works he created, including his all-important Canon. Without Avicenna, many things that we know today in modern medicine would be lost. More importantly though, Avicenna and the development of, not just the Kanon, but all of the theories in which I have mentioned, directly influenced the education system of his time and the many centuries to come. His philosophical ideas and clinical observations have led to a history of both scholastic and dynamic learning. Scholastic in such a way that his Canon was a must-know for anyone whom knew anything about medicine – a huge piece in what people believed should be studied at the time in order to be a truly educated being. Dynamic in such a way that while not all of his theories are recognized as facts today, these same theories challenged the knowledge of likely thousands of educated persons and built the foundation for which much of what we recognize as fact today is built on. Without Avicenna, I believe there would have been a huge delay in the mass education of people, thus possibly leading to a downfall in intellectual thought all together. Luckily for us, the man Ibn Sina did in fact live and did all of what I have mentioned for the human kind. He lives on today through his many ideas, which are still very relevant within our society and also through the many institutions based on Unani medicine in which Avicenna’s ideas directly influenced. These same institutions of which there are hundreds dedicated to the advancement of the four temperaments are still very prominent today throughout the world and especially in the world’s eastern half.

The Madrassa of Al-Qarawiyyin

by Kyle Perra

Education surely has been, and hopefully forever will be, a main concern for the human race. Since even before the beginnings of what we could call civilizations, people have sought out knowledge in hopes to better understand themselves and the world in which we live. Being that education is as important as it is, there has always been much debate over what the best teaching method may be. While everyone seems to have their own ideas and interpretations of this method, it would be most intelligent to turn to history instead for that answer. I believe that I have found that answer in the world’s oldest continually operating university. The Madrassa (educational institution) of Al-Qarawiyyin, also known by its westernized name, Al Karaouine, was founded in 859 C.E. as a religious university which I believe attests to its lengthy duration. However, there are many that consider religious universities to be flawed in their pedagogy and, more recently, even dangerous for the rest of the world. Such universities and, more importantly for this essay, those which are tied in with the Islamic religion, have been under great speculation recently for the supposed teachings of dangerous and hateful ideas towards western society. It will be the point of my essay to educate naysayers of religious teaching on the Madrassa Model as a whole, in hopes that their better understanding of the subject will lead them away from stereotypes. Moreover, I will explain how a student’s understanding and dedication to the sacred does absolutely nothing but further enable knowledge acquisition. Through these arguments I will also show that knowledge and the sacred are largely inseparable.

For well over twelve hundred years now, Al-Qarawiyyin has been in operation as both a place of worship and higher education. The mosque as a whole is of the typical madrassa style as it is greatly distinctive in its architecture, which has been changed a few times within its lengthy existence. The mosque itself also has an interesting beginning, which sheds light on some on the great benefits of being a part of the Islam society during this time period. The madrassa was founded in 859 C.E. as previously mentioned, in Fez, Morocco by a young princess, Fatima Al-Fihiri. The young princess migrated to Fez with her father, Mohammad Al-Fihiri, from a town named Qairawan (present day Tunisia). Mohammad Al-Fihiri was known as a successful businessman and, at the time of his death, passed along a great fortune to Fatima and her sister, Mariam. Both sisters were believed to have been well educated, as is typical in Muslim society, and decided the best way to spend their inheritance would be the building of a large mosque in their new hometown. They decided to name the mosque Al-Qairawaniyyin, which was slowly shortened to Al Qarawiyyin due to the fact that many people of their old city Qairawan now resided with them in Fez. Originally the mosque was built of only medium size when compared to its sister madrassas which were mainly on the eastern half of what was known as the Greater Middle East. From the mosque’s history, we are able to see that women played a large role in many factors of Muslim life and the fact that the two sisters were even able to be educated attests to the greater amount of equality within Muslim society. Also interesting, when considering the history of Al-Qarawiyyin, is the devotion that people had towards education. These two sisters could have spent that money for their own personal gain, but chose to better their society’s educational prospects instead. Fatima and Mariam were also not alone in their contributions, as various sultans did not delay in providing the mosque with subsidies, gifts and sometimes with treasures, especially books.

After its completion, Al-Qarawiyyin quickly developed into a place of religious instruction and political debate, gradually extending its curriculum to include the natural sciences as well. Among the subjects taught, alongside the Qur’an and Fiqh, were courses on grammar, rhetoric, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography and even music. The great variety of topics that were able to be deeply explored quickly drew in scholars from the entirety of the Muslim world, which was quite huge during this period. Eventually the number of applicants became so overwhelming that the university had to introduce a much more rigorous selection system than it previously had which included many things, but primarily required a completion of learning the entire Quran. This rigorous system did not go to waste, as Al-Qarawiyyin quickly attained prestigious fame for producing a number of high profile scholars and pioneer scholars: Abu Abullah Al-Sati, Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Ibn Rashid Al-Sabti, Ibn Al-Haj Al-Fasi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, Ibn Maimun (Maimonids), and Al-Idrissi. Sources also list a number of peers such as Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Al-Khatib, Alpetragius, Al-Bitruji, Ibn Harazim, and Ibn Wazzan, all said to have all taught in Al-Qarawiyyin.

A university with such a high number of scholars who would inevitably shake the foundation of the world over with their treatises, experiments and conclusions surely had a great pedagogy and there were many factors to the madrassa model that would inevitably demand its fame for teaching. The madrassa model was also very distinct at the time of its creation for not just being heavily involved with spirituality and the sacred, but also for having almost its entire curriculum based on the teachings of such. This is where the madrassas gain most of their negative speculation, however I believe that this is where the madrassas also gain most of their benefits.

There are many strengths, alongside with having your education based on religious devotion, a few of which I will be addressing in this paper. First and foremost, the enthusiasm and determination in which Muslim students place upon their education is completely outstanding when compared to students in an educational system without religious devotion. This is because of many things, but primarily because of what the entirety of the Muslim religion is all about: a person’s submission to god. A submission to god requires many things within the Muslim religion, one of them being a devotion to the acquisition of knowledge. Before a Muslim student can even begin their path towards higher education, that same student must first go through the basic and elementary teachings of the Quran. The Quran will eventually become the students guide book to life not only in a moral sense, but also in an educational one when considering many upper division classes use the Quran as their textbook. It is only after the student has mastered the Quran and its verses that this student may then begin their application process to one of the many mosques that involve themselves higher education. When a student is put in a classroom and is asked to participate in the enhancement of their knowledge it is surely beneficial to have sufficient reasoning. This is exactly where institutions without religious devotion severely lack behind the madrassa model, for it is the initial focus of the student that will lead to their better acquisition of knowledge. This is why parents are always so greatly connected to the educational system, for without religious devotion it becomes the parent’s job to encourage their children to sit in a classroom all day when they could be involving themselves in the simple pleasures of childhood. When you are able to connect education to the purpose of someone’s existence, it surely makes a great impact on that person’s thinking. Children within Muslim society quickly learn of the necessity of their devotion to God and when it states in a person’s guidebook to life, like the Quran is for these Muslim children, that a person must educate themselves, they gain an initial enthusiasm which will push them to surpass those without it. This kind of determination is key to the success of the madrassa model and can also be shown within many factors of it. For example, a Muslim child reads the Quran and follows the society in which he or she was born into. This same child eventually succeeds into higher education and performs their devotion to God. Now that this person has followed through with their education, they many now go into one or many of the several working positions of the Muslim society. For the purpose of this example, let’s say this person decides to become a teacher. Now we have the initial factor – children who believe they are doing God’s work by receiving education, and we have a secondary factor – the teacher who believes in the same submission to God. Both of these factors can only be benefited by their respective enthusiasm and determination, thusly leading to just one of the many great strengths of the madrassa system.

Now that we have both students and teachers essentially working with the enthusiasm one might work with when considering the entirety of one’s purpose, the madrassa model can really start to pick up pace. This initial enthusiasm to submit one’s self to god, which as I have shown eventually leads to the enthusiasm in everything a Muslim person might do, only benefits virtually every factor of Muslim education. The required completion and understanding of the Quran in its self can also be shown as a benefit to the Madrassa Model. It is widely known today that a person’s reading is directly relevant to that same person’s intelligence. It is through this and the idea of cognitive development that the madrassas of Al-Qarawiyyin’s time period were able to gain the interest of Professor Glenn Hardaker of the University of Huddersfield. Professor Hardaker took note of how, “The level of memorization that students can achieve and the importance of orality in transmitting the sacred text underpin the teaching. For example, a typical student of al-Qarawiyyin is able to memorise a page of text in approximately five minutes.” This is an incredibly remarkable task that was likely only possible during the period in which Al-Qarawiyyin was first constructed by the methods of the madrassa model. Professor Hardaker went on to explain that, “Our observations found that Islamic pedagogy shares many similarities with the cognitive perspective to learning theory… Chomsky (1962) claimed that higher learning could only be achieved through a combination of conditioning and the internal mental state of the learner, which, he argued, should also be analyzed and understood. This view is extended by research into cognitive learning styles that also identifies the increasing importance of cultural sensitivity (Evans and Cools, 2009). The notion of ‘conditioning’ and ‘cultural sensitivity’ can also be seen in the context of the educational environment of al-Qarawiyyin, where pedagogic strategies for influencing the internal mental state of the learner are adopted.” Alongside this, the separation from the modern environment in Fez, Morocco completely compliments these ideas of ‘conditioning’ and the ‘internal mental state of the learner’ both physically and spiritually. It is physically supported through Al-Qarawiyyin’s lasting architecture, which for example does not allow automobile access. It is supported spiritually through how “classes are scheduled around the five daily prayers, and the call to prayer (adhan) sets the rhythm of the day.” This type of approach on education also reflects the importance of the cognitive learning theory. Professor Hardaker shows this by mentioning how, “al- Qarawiyyin supports the belief of knowledge and the sacred through the daily recitation of the Qur’an from sunset or maghrib prayer. For some the education of the day is reinforced by the continual recitation of the Qur’an… The cognitive perspective adopted by many educationalists has similar constructs of importance and for some an acceptance of spiritual belief playing an important part in the cognitive learning process. The concept of self-efficacy, a learner’s belief that they can positively take action to manage a situation, was central to the development of the theory. In our experience at al- Qarawiyyin we felt that the institution’s pedagogical model provides a unique insight into such an application, in particular, through memorization and the potential for the embodiment of knowledge.” Al-Qarawiyyin’s unique construct and the entirety of the madrassa model surely thusly can be shown to greatly improve a student’s perception, attention, memory, language and thinking; all a part of cognitive psychology.

Perhaps one of the greatest parts about the madrassa model’s ability to develop a student’s cognitive skills is that the development of those skills were likely started at a very early age. Furthermore, this cognitive ability would have already been at least slightly developed by the time the student went into higher education as the recitation of the Quran is required for the madrassas that dealt with higher education. Considering this, it can be assumed that when a Muslim student was deemed ready for higher education, that same student had the determination of his life goal carrying him and his cognitive ability was at least slightly matured. This brings us to the next strength of the madrassa model, which is simply the madrassa’s basic format: the Halaqat al-‘Ilm (Halaqa for short).

The Halaqa was and still is today possibly the most distinctive part of the madrassa model. Halaqa, which can literally be defined as ‘a gathering of people seated in a circle,’ or ‘a gathering of students around a teacher,’ was essential to the means of a Muslim education. The ‘study circle’ as it is sometimes referred to, has many strengths behind it and was possibly one of the greatest reasons as to why Muslims dominated education during the time of Al-Qarawiyyin’s initial construction. Part of this is because of the close connection between the students and their teacher. Firstly, the environment is obviously extremely informal, allowing both the students and the teachers to feel more at ease. This informal environment was essential to the pedagogy of Muslim education, as much of what was taught was taught through debate. Allowing both the teachers and students to be more at ease would insure that these debates not be quiet by any means and, “Although the teachers were in charge of the Halaqas, the students were allowed – in fact, encouraged – to challenge and correct the teacher, often in heated exchange.” Knowing that a person wouldn’t be discouraged then for their comments or questions surely led to a strong teacher-student connection. This brings us to the second strength of these Halaqas – these teachers were likely greatly respected by their students. Especially at a young age, the teacher becomes an instant role model for their students, whether they like it or not. Everything that teacher therefore does will reflect directly upon to the students. Considering this, I cannot think of a stronger bond than that of a teacher and student, other than those of family. When you add that type of bond to the enthusiasm in which both persons are reacting, something truly special must have been created. Such relationships were a standard for the madrassa model and when such a relationship is used educationally, the possibilities surely must be endless. Students would automatically be more at ease, which in turn relaxes the teacher. With the teacher relaxed, discussions go more smoothly. When students are more at ease they are more likely to speak their mind, resulting in more advanced and complete discussions. When these same students speak their mind, their vocational skills mature and the cycle continues. All of this complimented by the fact that both teacher and student believe they are acting upon God’s will, and such an act is the purpose of their life – the submission to God.

Such a system continued itself into our own present day, giving us with the longest continually operating educational institution of the world. But could anyone be surprised that such a solid pedagogy became what it is today, for I surely am not. However there are still those naysayers who don’t believe such a system should be acknowledged for its accomplishments and there are still those who believe that it’s nothing but dangerous to teach opinions of how to live as absolute fact. I might agree with the latter, but not with the Muslim religion. Furthermore, I would point out of any of the Ten Commandments can be found in multiple places of the Quran. Therefore, if these Muslim schools have no place teaching religious items as absolute fact then neither do the Christian ones of the western world. Also, to those who would mention that knowledge and the sacred should simply be separate of each other, I would say that their separation is clearly impossible. Although there are those who have completely de-sacrilized knowledge after being formed as such by modernization, “the root and essence of knowledge continues to be inseparable from the sacred for the very substance of knowledge is the knowledge of that reality which is the Supreme Substance, the Sacred as such, compared to which all levels of existence and all forms of the manifold are but accidents.” Considering that intelligence is the tool of man towards knowledge, and that intelligence can also and is also used every day to try to define the Absolute, I must inevitably find them inseparable. Regardless of this idea, I believe it must be allowed, for not only Al-Qarawiyyin but by all religious universities, that such universities exercise their own pedagogy. For that of Al-Qarawiyyin and the rest of the madrassa model, I believe the system by which they teach their students must be recognized firstly by its unprecedented success. Furthermore, the religious aspect of the madrassa model must be recognized solely by its ability to inspire not just students but the entirety of that educational system.

Al-Khwarizmi: Arabic Numerals and Geometric Justification to Algorithms

by Jordan Vidmore

In today’s western schooling system students take for granted the rules of algebra when they are taught at a young age how to solve simple equations. When presented with the equation 3x-5=7, students immediately solve it by getting rid of the negatives and then dividing to get 4. It wasn’t always like this though. It took the works of a persian mathematician named Muḥammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi to make this possible. Without Al-Khwarizmi’s works, math would not be the coherent process it is today.

Al-Khwarizmi did not invent the idea of algebra. “Finding solutions to equations is a pursuit that dates back to the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.” (Tanton, 2005) Clay tables from the Babylonians (1700 BCE) show the existence of crude algebra in the form of a few quadratic equations worked out in full. However they lacked a general method to work out new ones. These tablets were used by finding a worked out equation on them similar to the equation they are currently faced with. Then they adjust the worked out equation’s values to fit the current situation. This method had major setbacks and was extremely limited as to which equations it could solve. (Tanton, 2005)

Early Greek mathematics improved algebra by using the method of false position. This method was taught in the Rhind Papyrus, a mathematical text of theirs, which contained the problem “A quantity; its fourth is added to it. It becomes fifteen. What is the quantity?” (Chace 1979)The reader was asked to solve this problem by false position. One would guess a solution to the problem, and then adjust to get the answer. For example, if one guessed 5 as the solution, they would get 25. They would then subtract 15, the answer from the original problem, from 25 to get 10 and divide 10 by 5 to get 2. This 2 would then be subtracted from the 5 to get 3, which is the answer. This method always worked for linear equations but could not be developed into a viable formula to work on quadratic equations successfully. (Tanton, 2005)

Under the teachings of Pythagoras, followers gave geometric proofs to the distributive property and created the difference of two squares formula. This new formula made it possible to invent a quadratic equation and then find the solution to that equation. Even with this formula, though complex or large equations were far to difficult to solve because the Greeks lacked symbols for math and were forced to write out their equations. An equation such as 23x+x=82 in modern notation would be written as: “A number, its twenty-third is added to it. It becomes eighty-two. What is the quantity?” As the numbers get larger and the equation bigger, the complexity to solve it increases exponentially. It wasn’t until later that symbols started to appear, and were use by Diophantus of Alexandria; but these were only used as shorthand and not actually used to solve the equations. These symbols existed only as a way of writing the problem; this is, until a brilliant Persian mathematician discovered how to use them to solve equations.

Born in CE 780, Al-Khwarizmi – full name Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi – would grow up to be a great mathematician and be considered one of the “eight great brains of ancient world scientists.” (Graham 2009) Not much is know about his early life other than he grew up when Arab science and culture were beginning to flourish and transferring into the golden age of Islamic science. As an adult, Al-Khwarizmi spent most of his life in Baghdad where he had access to avast amounts of mathematical manuscripts as he studied in the House of Wisdom. One of his tasks here was to translate the works of ancient societies to make it available to Arabic scholars. With the knowledge of ancient mathematics, Al-Khwarizmi wrote two books titled al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fihisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala and Al-jam’ w’al-tarfriq ib hisab al-hind. Know as the “father of modern algebra,” the word algorithm is actually a corruption of Al-Khwarizmi name. (Britannica 2011) He died in CE 850 but left behind these two texts which contain knowledge that has shaped modern algebra into what it is today.

Al-Khwarizmi’s text, Addition and Subtraction in India Arithmetic, introduced the Indian numerical system to the western world. In this book he explains the advantages of using the decimal-place system, such as in Indian numerals, over the current Egyptian technique based on finger counting. Al-Khwarizmi firmly believed that the Hindu method of arithmetic, based of fixed values, was more useful then the tradition form. (Healey 2006) This book actually didn’t contain any significant new knowledge that wasn’t already available in the Hindu language but his translation into Arabic, and Fibonacci’s subsequent translation into latin 300 years later, made the text available to many educated scholars and the numerals to be know as “Arabic numerals”. (Healey 2006) In this text, Al-Khwarizmi uses a symbol for zero which he calls “sifr”, and explains it as a placeholder but not as a number. The significance of which, for example, was to make 23 appear different than 203 when written.

This text created a basis for Al-Khwarizmi’s subsequent texts on algebra which would be based off of this system of numerals. These texts would not work with the old finger counting method and therefore caused Al-Khwarizmi to have to use the Arabic numerals based off of the Hindu ones. (Hutchinson’s 2011)

Al-Khwarizmi’s Calculation by Restoration and Compensation was designed as a teaching guide. “It aimed to offer an array of techniques and methods for solving very practical problems in matters of trade, inheritance, law, surveying, and architecture.” (Tanton 2005) This book begins with the basics and defines natural numbers and how to count them. It then moves on to the process of solving simple linear and quadratic equations. In this text, Al-Khwarizmi uses two simple methods, al-jabr (completion) and al-muqabala (balancing), which he says could reduce any linear or quadratic equation into one of six basic types. Al-jabr, or completion, is the process of removing any negative terms from an equation. An example of this would be changing 2x^2-6x=8 into 2x^2=6x+8. The word algebra comes from Al-Khwarizmi’s term al-jabr. The second, al-muqabala, or balancing, is the process of subtracting terms with the same power that appear on each side. 2x^2+3=x^2+8x would be simplified down to x^2+3=8x. The text goes on to explain the concept of completing the square and how this method could be used on all of the six basic equations. (Tanton 2005)

In part 2 of the text, Al-Khwarizmi explains the practical applications of al-jabr and al-muqabala. In this section he explains how the quadratic equations yield both a positive and a negative answer; but he also advises the reader to reject the negative answer as it has no real world value.

The final, and larges section of the book does not develop any new mathematical content, but instead focuses on the complicated Islamic rules for inheritance. All of the equations in this section are completely worked out and show how they can be used in different situations, such as inheritance land division. (Healey 2006)

When developing Calculation by Restoration and Compensation, Al-Khwarizmi attempted to be practical by including equations that would very likely be seen in relevant fields such as law, business, geography, engineering, and trade. (Healey 2006)

One of Al-Khwarizmi’s main concerns was to find the roots of quadratic equations. He accomplished this with the use of proofs based on geometric equations. Each of the six basic types of equations has its own geometrical proof. Consider the problem x^2+10x=39. Al-Khwarizmi writes:

“The manner of solving this type of equation is to take one half of the root [Coefficient]. Now the root in this problem is 10. Therefore, take 5 which multiplied by itself is 25, an amount which you add to 39 to give 64, having taken then the square root of this which is 8, subtract from it the half of the root 6, leaving 3”
From al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fihisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabal

Al-Khwarizmi also includes two geometric justifications for this equation.

“In our first, you start with a square of side x; adjoin to it two identical rectangles, each of length 5 and width x so as to form an L shape whose base and height are each x+5, and then superimpose on it a big square of side x+5. the area of the L shape is x^2+5x+5x, that is, x^2+10x which, by our original equation, must equal 39; the area of the big square, viz. (x+5)^2, is 25 more units than the area of the L shape and so much equal 39+25=64. Thus, (x+5)^2=64 and so, taking positive square roots, x+5=8, that is, x=3.”
Al-Khwarizmi through Maher 1998

The second:

“The small square of side x is centered in the middle of a big square, a gain of side x+5. Here, the area of the four corner squares is 4×2.5x.5=25 and the area of the cross shape is x^2+4(2.5x)=x^2+10x, so again the area of the big square is 64, whence x=3.”
Al-Khwarizmi through Maher 1998

These methods that Al-Khwarizmi used only gave positive solutions, which since the negative solutions didn’t have a practical use, he didn’t mind. Al-Khwarizmi’s work still had a large impact on the mathematical community.

Al-Khwarizmi’s work was most influential after Fibonacci translated it into Latin. Quickly thereafter his work became quite important to scholars and businessmen alike during the Middle Ages. (Healey 2006) The use of his Arabic numeral system was quickly adopted and became the standard. This had a huge impact on the education system by giving a ten-digit system to use rather then Roman numerals. There are two main impacts this had on the mathematical community in the university system. The first was that Arabic numerals are far easier to write, read, and work with than Roman numerals. A problem written as XXVx+XIV=CVII is much harder to work with than 25x+14=107. What makes the Roman numerals so difficult to work with is that they are not based off of ten, but rather a system of 5. The single digits change at 5; I,II,III,IV,V, the ten digits at 50; X,XX,XXX,XL,L, and so forth. The major problem with this, and its relation to math, is that formulas can not be made to work with all the values. The second main impact was that they made it possible for someone to solve the problem in symbol form.

Al-Khwarizmi’s work, Calculation by Restoration and Compensation, also had a large impact on the school system of the Middle Ages and beyond. Al-Khwarizmi may not have invented algebra, but he perfected it in this book. His perfection, and geometric proofs, of algebra is the foundation for many of todays upper level mathematics. All upper level math uses the idea of al-jabr and al-muqabala to simplify problems into a manageable and familiar equation.

As the university system spread, they adopted Al-Khwarizmi’s Arabic numerals and ideas of algebra as a foundation to their math. This led to the end of using the false position method and the practice of finger counting and being replaced by Al-Khwarizmi’s methods. If it wasn’t for Al-Khwarizmi, math would not be the coherent process it is today.


“Al-, Muhammad Ibn-Musa Khwarizmi (C. 780-C 850).” Hutchinson’s Biography Database (2011): 1. MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.

Brezina, Corona. Al-Khwarizmi : The Inventor Of Algebra. Rosen Central, 2006.

Chace, Arnold Buffum. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus: Free Translation and Commentary with Selected Photographs, Transcriptions, Transliterations, and Literal Translations. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1979. Print.

Graham, Amy. Astonishing Ancient World Scientists : Eight Great Brains. Books, 2009.

Healey, Christina. “Al-Khwarizmi.” Al-Khwarizmi (2006): 1. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 18 Jan. 2012

“Khwarizmi, Al-” Britannica Biographies (2011): 1. MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.

Maher, Philip. From Al-Jabr to Algebra. Vol. 27. Print.

Tanton, James Stuart. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. New York: Facts on File, 2005. Print.