Gotthard Strohmaier, of Berlin Free University, discussing the causes for the decline of thought in the medieval Arabic world, and referring to my book The Secret of the West (2007), in the collective book directed by Juergen Renn The Globalization of Knowledge in History (shortcut).
(Gotthard Strohmaier: "From Khwarazm to Cordoba: The Propagation of Non-Religious Knowledge in the Islamic Empire", chapter 13 in Juergen Renn (dir), The Globalization of Knowledge in History, Max Planck Research Library for the History and Development of Knowledge, Berlin, 20 July 2012.

Safety copy of internet version: Sep 2014. Source. Pdf version.
Theory of Science


Preface to the Zij (astronomical book) of Ulugh Beyg
produced in Samarkand ca.1440. From the Art and History
Collection at Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Washington DC.

13.5 The Role of the Courts

Well into the Modern Age there was no foundation of institutions in Islam comparable to the Ancient School of Alexandria or our universities (Makdisi 1981, 75). The setting for the cultivation of worldly sciences was the courts, which had flourished and multiplied over the course of feudal fragmentation. A good comparison is the proliferation of small states in eighteenth-century Germany and the Weimar minister of state and poet Goethe, although as a leading natural scientist of his time he was able to maintain connections to a university, the one in Jena. Of course, this created a precarious situation in Islam, where much depended on the person of the monarch and the constraints placed upon him by the masses and their orthodox spokesmen. This was the case in Cordoba, for instance, where the philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126–1198 CE), known in the West as Averroës, was banned; he went on to become an influential commentator of Aristotle in Latin scholasticism, an achievement denied him by the subsequent generations of Muslim thinkers.

The spontaneous assemblies at the court of scholars with various areas of interest can be designated as academies in the contemporary sense. The biography of Ibn Sīnā contains a vivid depiction of the circumstances in Isfahan under the auspices of Alāʾ al-Dawla, who was decried as a libertine by the orthodox.7 Particularly favorable conditions existed under the reign of the Maʾmūnids in Khwarazm, who ruled as the Khwarazm Shahs from 995 until 1017 (Bosworth 1978b, 1066). The manifold relationships between the individual scholars can be inferred from the manuscripts, which bear mutual dedications. It would be a rewarding task to compile lists of who dedicated what to whom. Even though not all texts have survived, in many cases we have the bibliographic notations documenting these interrelationships. At the same time, these dedicated manuscripts are an indication of the oral exchange that can be presumed, but which is reported only in exceptional cases. Worthy of particular mention is the role of the vizier and patron Abū l-Ḥusayn Aḥmad al-Suhaylī, to whom an especially great number of manuscripts were dedicated by grateful scholars. Ibn Sīnā committed to him a treatise on the subject of why the Earth stands still at the center of the cosmos (Grubler et al. 1974, 149, n° 44). It may be presumed that this very issue had been challenged in preceding debates. However, these concerned only the possibility of rotation at a stationary position, not an anticipation of the Copernican Revolution. In Ghazna, Afghanistan, al-Bīrūnī dedicated an Introduction to Astrology to an otherwise unknown woman by the name of Rayḥāna, who came from Khwarazm like himself (al-Bīrūnī and Wright 1934).

A choice example of such a disputatious exchange is the correspondence between al Bīrūnī and Ibn Sīnā about questions of Aristotelian natural philosophy, which they conducted until Ibn Sīnā came to Khwarazm on his flight from Bukhara. It is remarkable in terms of their worldview, as al Bīrūnī adheres to the creationism of the Koran, while Ibn Sīnā advocates a neo-Platonic Aristotelian theory of the world's eternity.8 This was connected with the question as to whether the heavenly spheres are also subject to changes, which al Bīrūnī holds to be possible, pointing out that in the mountains, too, such changes cannot be observed in real time with the naked eye. The correspondence also includes a purely historical discussion of the role of the Christian professor John Philoponus, who had taught in Alexandria five hundred years before.9 This demonstrates the continuing vibrancy of the heritage of the School of Alexandria.

As intellectual centers, the courts in the East as in the Spanish West presented successful competition to the caliphate capital of Baghdad, and thus it was not unusual for experts to leave the capital to seek accommodation elsewhere, as for example, the Christian scientist and translator from Syriac into Arabic Abū l-Khayr al-Ḥasan ibn Suwār ibn Bābā ibn al-Khammār, who accepted the call of the Khwarazm Shah Abū l-ʿAbbās Ma'mūn II (Kraemer 1986, 123–130). From Gorgan on the Caspian Sea came the physician Abū Sahl ʿĪsā ibn Yaḥyā al-Masīḥī, also a Christian, as the name reveals. He wrote a handbook of medicine for the above-mentioned vizier al-Suhaylī (Ullmann 1970, 151; Karmi 1978, 271–273).

The role of the courts, even in the late nineteenth century, can be inferred from the example of Bukhara, where the scholar—and intimate of the Emir—Aḥmad Makhdūm Dōnīsh (1827–1897) was able to predict a lunar eclipse, while the clerical teachers at the madrasah Miri Arab denounced this as the work of the devil, or so it was depicted in the perhaps slightly exaggerated satire of the Memoirs of Sadriddin Ayni, the founder of the modern Tajik literary language (Ayni 1953). Moreover, these teachers were experts on Aristotelian logic, which they cultivated in a fatuous and tedious manner (Strohmaier 1983). This was one of the many examples for the general decline of intellectual life in the Muslim world (10).


1 An Arab military leader by order of al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf, governor of the Umayyads in Iraq, see (Bosworth 1982, 541–542).
2 Cf. (Nutton 1986).
3 Cf. (Endreß 2004, 2).
4 So, certainly justifiably (Gutas 1998, 180).
5 See (al-Bīrūnī and Sachau 1925, 12, 16–18, 256.21; Strohmaier 2002b, n°s 55 and 62).
6 See (al-Bīrūnī and Karimov 1973, n° 237; Strohmaier 2002b, n° 85); cf. (Strohmaier 1978).
7 See (Grubler et al. 1974, 64f.; Strohmaier 2006, 37–39).
8 See (Naṣr and Muḥaqqiq 1972, 12.7–13.1, 19.9–20.3, 51.13–52.10, 53.16–54.8; Strohmaier 2002b, n°s 6 and 7).
9 Cf. (Sambursky 1965, 571–597).
10 About the probable causes, cf. (Strohmaier 2002b; Cosandey 2007, 321–370).


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Created: 19 Oct 2004 – Last modified: 19 Oct 2014