Arab Science - A Journey of Innovation Qatar Foundation

Arab-Muslim contributions to Eastern and Western science

Mongol ruler Ghazan Khan accepts Islam in the 13th century

Genghis Khan, world conqueror

Zheng He, 15th century Muslim admiral of the Chinese Emperor's fleet


Influence of Arab-Muslim science on Asian science

Even as the rich contributions of Arab-Muslim science to Europe are only now being rediscovered, so has their influence on the development of Asian science been obscured. But the Arab and Muslim influence was there, and as in the West, travelled East through multiple points of transfer.

The earliest was in the 8th century, as the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates extended their influence across Persia and deep into Central Asia and southeast into India. Thousands of Arabs chose to settle in such far-flung places as Bukhara, Samarkand, and cities in Afghanistan. Their descendants remain in those places even today, some of them still speaking forms of Arabic as their first tongue. The scholarly centres that arose in those cities conducted their work both in Persian and Arabic, and a scholar who wanted to make his or her mark would have needed to learn both. What is especially important is that the contact of the Far Eastern intellectual centres with the Western Arab-Muslim centres such as Baghdad, Damascus, and later Cairo was not one-way - ideas flowed in both directions, enriching mutual productivity.

The same happened in northern India, although the more substantial Arab-Muslim intellectual influence was conveyed after the 10th century by successive waves of Turkic Central Asian invaders, concluding in overwhelming invasions by the Mongols, the Timurids, and finally the Mughals - Babur, the first Mughal ruler, being a direct descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur.

But there is more to this story. What is also forgotten is that the otherwise traumatic conquest by the Mongols not only shocked the Arab world to its core. Gradually, as the Mongol superstate assimilated its conquered lands and their cultural identities, it became a unique conveyor belt of ideas, not only carrying Chinese ideas west, but Arab, Persian, and other Islamic thinking east. This perhaps reached its height during the reign of Kublai Khan, who ruled his massive empire from Beijing. He was instrumental in bringing Western ideas, both Muslim and Christian, into the heart of China.

In fact, the early Mongols were both Buddhists and Nestorian Christians, the latter being descended from the same group that had fled Byzantine persecution in the 6th century and headed south and east. Nestorians like Hunayn Ibn Ishaq had helped the 8th and 9th century Baghdad House of Wisdom translate key Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Syriac documents into Arabic. Similarly, four centuries later their descendants had become close advisors of the Mongol elite.

In the succeeding decades of the 13th century, the Western descendants of Genghis Khan would gradually convert to Islam and contribute to the enrichment of great Central Asian cities like Samarkand. In the Far East, however, the Chinese Mongols would see to it that the Nestorian Christians rose to their greatest level of influence in China. That would endure until the overthrow of the Mongols in the 14th century and the rise of the Ming dynasty. Succeeding generations would see continuing effort to erase the Mongol identity of China.

And even as they enabled the temporary Christianisation of China's elite, the Mongol rulers in Beijing would also bring in the dazzling intellectual breakthroughs of the Arab and other Muslim thinkers, in fields such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.

Yet for some reason, these transfers did not have the same catalytic effect - there was no identifiable modern Chinese Renaissance or Scientific Revolution as happened in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. Why, is a matter of speculation. It may have been due to growing Chinese cultural rejection of the Mongol period. It may have been because of the renewed isolation of China from Western influence that would last into the 19th century. Or it might have been the result of Chinese instability, which meant that the patronage necessary to promote the sciences was no longer there.

But the Arab-Muslim influence was not superficial. As late as the 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He, himself a Muslim, is said to have seriously considered sending forth a voyage of exploration and colonisation across the Pacific towards the Americas, even before the European colonisation across the Atlantic.

Ironically, the early 1600s was the last time Europe, the Ottoman Empire, China and India were on roughly the same technological, military and economic level. China and Turkey were thinking about joining the colonial race. The 17th century Turks decided not to sail west, in view of their huge political and military commitments in Eurasia. The Chinese also decided not to, but for more benign reasons according to some accounts. The Chinese Emperor reportedly told his military advisors that he did not wish to impose the ways of the Chinese on the distant Americans.

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