2. Science and Philosophy. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History


11 Dec 2014

History of Science, Astronomy

Ahmad Dallal

Ahmad Dallal addresses the development of disciplinary divisions within pre-modern astronomy is this lecture, which is the second 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.

In this lecture, Dallal argues that the period of the eleventh through the sixteenth century is a time during which Muslim mathematical astronomy doesn’t just remark on problems with Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology, but separates itself from trying to engage with the natural world in favor of development of mathematical modeling of planetary motion (among other things).  He focuses on three eleventh-century scholars, Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad al-Bīrūnī (d. 1052), Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), and Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham (d. ca. 1040), who each represent different perspectives of this, and contrasts them with a sixteenth-century scholar, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Khafrī (d. after 1525), who he says is the culmination of this trend.

Of the three 11th century scholars, Dallal notes, Ibn Haytham gave a perception of a crisis within the discipline of theoretical astronomy, which no serious astronomer could afford to ignore.  Dallal suggests that Ibn al-Haytham’s work ended up having a great affect on later astronomers in part because he articulated a program of research and provided astronomers with problems to solve.  He contrasts this with a work by Bīrūnī, framed as “Questions and Answers” with Ibn Sīnā in which Ibn Sīnā presents an Aristotelian synthesis.

In the course of setting the scene for his discussion, Dallal also describes the various sorts additions to Aristotelian constructions that needed to be made to adjust from perfect spheres/circles of the geocentric model to the (heliocentric) observed reality.

Although he frames his discussion in terms of “eastern” and “western” Islamic regions, because of the limits of time in the lecture he is not able to address the western regions fully.  Those interested in North Africa and al-Andulus may want to look in his book, referenced above.

The additional lectures are:  Beginnings and Beyond”, “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 with references to multiple view-points that Dallal wishes to engage.  Dallal contrasts his views with those of George Saliba on a few narrow points, articulating Saliba’s position fairly.

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.