Science & Islam


27 Mar 2013

History of Science, Astronomy

Jim al-Khalili

George Saliba

This 2009 documentary with Jim al-Khalili as the host spans three one-hour episodes:  The Language of Science, The Empire of Reason, and The Power of Doubt.  Al-Khalili, a physics professor at the University of Surrey (UK), follows the study of science in the Islamic world from the 8th century onward, tracing it through the “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad to Copernicus’s developing of a heliocentric model of planetary motion based on observations and ideas he culled from Arabic-language sources.

Premodern Muslim scholars mentioned in the episodes are:  Muḥammad ibn Mūsà al-Khwarizmi, el-Aqlidusi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Washiyya, al-Bayruni (Biruni), Ibn al-Haytham, al-Battani, Nasr al-Dīn al-Tusi, Ibn al-Shattar.

Places and topics discussed in the episodes are:  Baghdad, Iraq; Tehran, Iran; Rayy, Iran; Cairo, Egypt; al-Manṣūr and the House of Wisdom; ʿAbd al-Malik; history of Islamic medicine; hospitals and development of pharmacies; translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics before the Rosetta Stone; the ʿAbbāsid caliphate; Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; Madinat az-Zahar in Spain; calculations to measure the circumference of the Earth; Fez, Morocco; development of chemistry through perfumes; measuring the level of the Nile River; development of optics; estimation of the thickness of the Earth’s atmosphere; the “Tusi couple”; sundials; Copernicus and the revision of Ptolemaic conception of planetary motion; tables of astronomical observations; the castle of al-Amut and the Ismaʿilis; Hulegu Khan and the Mongol conquests; Venice and printing the Qurʾān in 16th century; stem cell research in Tehran.

Ak-Khalili is joined by three other scholar in each of the episodes:  Dr. Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Dr. George Saliba (Columbia University), and Dr. Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge).  In addition, various other scholars join them to facilitate research in particular places:  Dr. Peter Pormann (University of Warwick), Dr. Okasha El Daly (Foundation for Science, Technology & Civilization), Dr. Ian Stewart (University of Warwick), Dr. Luisa Pigatto (Italian National Institute of Astrophysics), Dr. Vera Costantini (Universita Ca’Foscari Venezia), Dr. Angela Nuovo (Università Degli Studi Di Udine).

These episodes are widely available on the internet individually, and are frequently presented in smaller clips as well.


This is a well researched and carefully presented documentary in every way.

About Jim al-Khalili

Born September 20, 1962 in Baghdad, Iraq, Jim Al Khalili is a renowned theoretical physicist, writer, lecturer, and broadcaster. Growing up with a devout Christian mother and a slightly agnostic Muslim father, Al-Khalili now describes himself as a “cuddly atheist.” He immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1979, and completed both a bachelors of science and a Ph.D. in nuclear reaction theory at the University of Surrey. Khalili remained at the University of Surrey, and as of 2015 is still a professor of physics there. In addition, he holds a chair in Public Engagement in Science Department.

Khalili conducts research into quantum physics and quantum biology, but is most well known for his accessibly written, popular science books and his regular appearances as a TV presenter for science documentaries. Khalili is also a radio broadcaster for BBC4, presenting ‘The Life Scientific’ weekly. His list of accomplishments and awards are long, though most notably he was the youngest person to ever receive the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize for science communication in 2008 and also received the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal in 2011. Khalili also became President of the British Humanist Association in 2013.

As of 2015, Khalili operates an active Twitter page and a personal website. In addition, he periodically writes for The Guardian newspaper; however, his most recent post there was in December 2014. Khalili’s personal website is host to his blog and a collection of his various science communication efforts.

Selected Bibliography:

Al-Khalili, Jim. Jim Al-Khalili’s Website. N.p., n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Al-Khalili, Jim. Twitter. Twitter, n.d.

“Jim Al-Khalili.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Biography in Context. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Peck, Tom. “Jim Al-Khalili: ‘I’m a Cuddly Atheist. I Don’t Need to Tell My Mum Her Faith Is Stupid’” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Dec. 2012. Accessed 1 June 2015.

President of the British Humanist Association.” British Humanist Association. British Humanist Association, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE.” Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE. The Royal Society, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

About George Saliba

George Saliba received a Bachelors of Science in mathematics in 1963 and a Masters of Arts in 1965 from the American University of Beirut. He went on to pursue a Masters of Science degree and a doctorate in Islamic Sciences from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978, Saliba started his teaching career at Columbia University in New York as a professor of Arabic and Islamic Sciences. He has received many awards, most notably the History of Science Prize in 1993 and the History of Astronomy Prize in 1996. Saliba was a Distinguished Senior Scholar at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress (2005-2006) and at the Carnegie Scholars Program (2009-2010).

Saliba’s studies are described on his website as “the development of scientific ideas from late antiquity till early modern times, with a special focus on the various planetary theories that were developed within the Islamic civilization and the impact of such theories on early European astronomy.” His website provides a link to his most recent research in addition to a listing of his publications. A portion of his public lectures may also be found online at the 1001 Inventions website.

George Saliba does not appear to operate any social media pages as of 2015.  He served as an advisor for the Science and Islam Video Portal project.

Selected Bibliography:

George Saliba.” MESAAS. Columbia, n.d. Accessed 21 May 2015.

George Saliba.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Accessed 21 May 2015.

Professor George Saliba Lectures | 1001 Inventions.” Professor George Saliba Lectures | 1001 Inventions. 1001 Inventions, n.d. Accessed 21 May 2015.

Saliba, George. “Saliba’s Page.” Saliba’s Page. Columbia, n.d. Accessed 21 May 2015.