1. Beginnings and Beyond. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History


11 Dec 2014

History of Science

Ahmad Dallal

Ahmad Dallal speaks about the rational sciences in the early Islamic period is this lecture, which is the first of four given at Yale University in 2008 as part of the Dwight H. Terry Lectureship.  The lectures were later published as a book:  Ahmad Dallal (2010) Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History, Terry Lecture Series. New Haven, CT / London: Yale University Press.

Dallal opens by discussing one of the practical issues that confronted Muslims, both as religious practitioners and scientists:  what to do about mosques that were built early in the Islamic period, before the mathematical determination of the qibla (the direction of prayer) was known.  He notes that the discussions went on over a long time and a large space, a kind of debate that he presents as one of Islam’s characteristic features.

With this setting, he moves into a discussion of the translation movement, discussing how it included not only Greek, but Indian and Persian scientific knowledge.  These multiple sources, he argues, encouraged critical perspectives, as the knowledge systems were reflected upon and considered.  The translation movement received support from various social classes, which resulted in the emergence of a scientific culture.  He mentions the work of Sonje Brentjes, who demonstrated that the exact sciences were a part of the educational systems that have been discussed by Makdisi and others.

He points out that as disciplines sprang up, they were contrasted with other disciplines, which led to still more sciences.  This was also informed by practical use of the knowledge.  Experimentation and development of ideas much like a craft was highly valued.

Scientists created their own communities, with shared codes of practice and research agendas.  This flies in the face of prior research, which has typically presented scientific developments as “happy guesses” or isolated incidents.

The lecture ends at about minute 66, and is followed by six questions, most of which Dallal indicates he will be addressing in future lectures.

The additional lectures are:  Science and Philosophy”, “Science and Religion”, and “In the Shadow of Modernity”.  They were given 19-28 February 2008.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science:  There is relatively little here on actual science, but what is presented is accepted by contemporary scientists.

History:  The historical material here is presented quite fully, with references to multiple view-points that Dallal wishes to engage, both to agree and disagree with.  In this sense, although there may be differing views among contemporary historians, he is honestly representing all the alternative perspectives.

About Ahmad Dallal

Ahmad Dallal is currently (2018) the Dean of the Georgetown University in Qatar.He grew up in Lebanon, and after working for a time as an engineer, he decided to advance his studies in Islamic intellectual history.  Dallal has published extensively on the history of science in the Muslim world, and taught at a variety of institutions in both the United States and the Middle East.  His newest book, due out in June 2018, discusses eighteenth century intellectual history of the Muslim Middle East, pushing back against the “decline thesis” of Muslim intellectual production.

Dallal holds a PhD from Columbia University, New York (1990), and a B.E. in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut (1980).

He maintains a social media presence on Twitter.

Select Bibliography

“Ahmad Dallal”, Twitter, <https://twitter.com/guqdean>, accessed 30 April 2018.

“Ahmad Dallal”, World Economic Forum, <https://www.weforum.org/people/ahmad-dallal>, accessed 30 April 2018.

“Islamic Thought Expert To Become Georgetown University in Qatar’s New Dean” (2017) Georgetown University, <https://www.georgetown.edu/news/ahmad-dallal-new-GU-Q-dean>, accessed 30 April 2018.

Bassam Haddad and Ahmed Zuhairy, “Intellectual Journey: On Islamic Studies – A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Ahmad Dallal” (2014) Jadaliyya, <http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/32770/Intellectual-Journey-On-Islamic-Studies-A-STATUS%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B6%D8%B9-Conversation-with-Ahmad-Dallal>, accessed 30 April 2018.