Comprehensivism in the Islamic Golden Age

08 July 2021 in Resource Center.

Comprehensivism is the practice of integrating as many of Humanity’s sources of learning as possible to better comprehend the world and how it works. The Islamic Golden Age, roughly between the 8th and 14th centuries CE, forged a culture infused with comprehensivist epistemic virtues and these significantly shaped what historian Richard Bulliet calls Islamo-Christian Civilization and the development of Renaissance comprehensivists like Leonardo and modern science.

How did the Islamic world establish their comprehensivist foundation for knowledge? In this resource we will explore some of what has been learned of the cultural traditions that came together during the Islamic Golden Age to provide a historical background for today’s comprehensivism movement. We will offer a comprehensivist interpretation of three exquisite hour long BBC documentaries on “Science and Islam” with the award-winning physicist Jim Al-Khalili as host:

  1. “The Language of Science”:
  2. “The Empire of Reason”:
  3. “The Power of Doubt”:

We will also consider Patricia Fara’s epic 2009 book “Science: A Four Thousand Year History”, Dimitri Gutas’s 1998 book “Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʿAbbāsid Society”, and other resources.

The Origins of Islamic Comprehensivism in The Translation Movement

Comprehensivism is a newly coined term based on Buckminster Fuller’s writing and speaking about “comprehensivity” in the 1960s. We have abstracted his idea into comprehensivism, the practice of understanding the world and its peoples through both extensive and intensive explorations with the aim of forming a more and more complete and integrated comprehension of our worlds.

Comprehensivism encompasses at least six epistemic virtues, six values for good learning (for more information on this theory of learning, examine these resources: The Value of Multiple Working Hypotheses, The Inductive Attitude: A Moral Basis for Science and Comprehensivism, Mistake Mystique in Learning and in Life, and Redressing The Crises of Ignorance):

  1. Learning that aspires to broadly engage the knowing of other traditions of inquiry and action (breadth)
  2. Learning that aspires to thoroughly comprehend each topic of interest (depth)
  3. Learning that aspires to circumscribe the whole of Human knowing, the whole world and all its peoples (wholeness)
  4. Learning that aspires to both infer its hypotheses and to assess them from the evidence in all Humanity’s experience (empiricism)
  5. Learning that aspires to organize a complex of multiple working hypotheses structured by a fabric of discriminating questions to form a highly refined system of interpreted exemplars and principles (refined ignorance)
  6. Learning that recognizes the inherent gaps that exist in all finite human knowing and aspires to further minimize these gaps in our understandings (mistake mystique)

The Islamic world may have valued the first four of these epistemic virtues and may have formed a rudimentary appreciation for all six, but I do not know enough to be sure. Our objective here is to scope the Islamic precursor to comprehensivism.

Consider this list of great and acknowledged polymaths who lived in the Islamic Empire during its golden age and who we might see as practitioners of an incipient comprehensivism: Theophilus of Edessa (Christian, 695–785), Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (c. 721–c. 816), al-Jāḥiẓ (776–c. 869), Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780–c. 850), Ziryab (c. 789–c. 857), Al-Kindī (c. 801–873), Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809–873), Ibn Qutaybah (c. 828–889), Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī (854–925), Ibn Waḥshiyyah (d. c. 930), Al-Farabi (c. 872–c. 950), Al-Zahrawi (936–1013), Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–c. 1040), Al-Biruni (973–c. 1050), Ibn Hazm (994–1064), Ibn Sīnā (c. 980–1037), Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), Al Ghazali (c. 1058–1111), Ibn Rushd (1126–1198), Maimonides (Jewish, 1135–1138), Ismail al-Jazari (1136–1206), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274), Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), Ibn al-Shatir (1304–1375), Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), Matrakçı Nasuh (1480–c. 1564), and many others.

What was the historical context that fostered the development of so many comprehensivist explorers during the Islamic Golden Age?

The Islamic conquests began in 622 and by 750 encompassed the African regions once controlled by the Roman empire and most of Iberia (Spain and Portugal), all of the Levant, much of Eastern Turkey and the Caucasus (the region between the Black and Caspian seas) continuing through Iran, Afghanistan, and much of Pakistan. In 750 a civil war changed the ruling elites from the Umayyads to the ʿAbbāsids who in 762 created the city of Baghdad as its capital.

Like most successful emperors from Caesar to Napoleon, [the Islamic rulers known as Caliphs] understood that political power and scientific know-how go hand in hand. There were many reasons for this. Some were practical: medical knowledge could save lives, military technology could win wars, mathematics could help deal with the increasing complexities of the finances of state, and Islam as a religion also played a pivotal role. The Prophet himself had told believers to seek knowledge wherever they could find it even if they had to go as far as China. And many Muslims, I’m sure, felt that to study and better understand God’s creation was in itself a religious duty.

— Jim Al-Khalili, “The Language of Science” Episode 1 in “Science and Islam” (2009)

That is, the cultural values for learning ran deep in Islamic society from its foundation. In addition, we know that for the first few centuries of Islamic rule, most citizens were not Muslims, they were pagan, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc., and had their own traditional languages, so the Islamic rulers needed a way to manage the affairs of state across a huge empire where historically business and government were conducted in many local languages. Starting in 697, Caliph Abd al-Malik started establishing Arabic as the administrative language of the state.

By the early 800s the ruling elite of the Islamic Empire were pouring money into a truly ambitious project which was global in scale and which was to have a profound impact on science. It was to scour the libraries of the world for scientific and philosophical manuscripts in any language, Greek, Syriac, Persian, and Sanskrit, bring them to the Empire and translate them into Arabic. This became known as the translation movement.

— Jim Al-Khalili, “The Language of Science” Episode 1 in “Science and Islam” (2009)

According to Dimitri Gutas,

The translation movement, which began with the accession of the ʿAbbāsids to power and took place primarily in Baghdad, represents an astounding achievement which … can hardly be grasped and accounted for otherwise than as a social phenomenon … [it] lasted, first of all, well over two centuries … Second, it was supported by the entire elite of ʿAbbāsid society: caliphs and princes, civil servants and military leaders, merchants and bankers, and scholars and scientists… Finally, it was eventually conducted with rigorous scholarly methodology and strict philological exactitude”

— Dimitri Gutas, The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʿAbbāsid Society, 1998, p. 2

The translation movement had precedents. There were many multilingual scholars pursuing various traditions of inquiry and action including theology, astrology, mathematics, alchemy, medicine, hermeticism, and other sciences. The Islamic innovation was to actively translate these other traditions into Arabic and create a common language for science and scholarship as Al-Khalili reports:

Scholars from different lands who previously had no way of communicating, now, had a common language. And it was a language that was specially developed to be precise and unambiguous which made it ideal for scientific and technical terms.

— Jim Al-Khalili, “The Language of Science” Episode 1 in “Science and Islam” (2009)

Al-Khalili is exaggerating there: scholars could travel and there is evidence of a correspondence tradition. But his point is valid: Arabic would become not just the language of the Prophet, but also the language for business, government, and scholarship throughout a huge geographical area. By translating works from many cultures into Arabic and storing them in Baghdad and other centers of learning, the translation movement embraced a comprehensive approach to learning.

Dimiti Gutas identifies a source for this ʿAbbāsid interest in knowledge from all over: there was a view “widespread in the first ʿAbbāsid century [in] the belief that Zoroaster himself was the author of all existing sciences and that he wrote them in all the languages of the world.” Zoroaster was the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism which was the state religion in Persia (Iran) for more than 1200 years. The Sasanian empire ruled Persia from 224 until the Arab conquest of 651. They actively translated knowledge from around the world to collect the dispersed knowledge of Zoraster. This value was incorporated into the translation movement.

Patricia Fara further explains,

Schools were closely attached to mosques and concentrated on revealed subjects. Gradually two new types of institution emerged— observatories and hospitals— which were also associated with mosques, but included a wider range of subjects in the syllabus. They included large libraries, because Islamic teachers placed great emphasis on studying texts, especially after a new cheap material was introduced— paper, which soon supplanted papyrus and vellum. Bringing together old knowledge with new discoveries, these educational centres were spread throughout the Islamic empire and stimulated research into the natural world.”

— Patricia Fara, “Science: A Four Thousand Year History” (2009), p. 58

The Translation Movement and the culture of comprehensivist exploration it fostered probably influenced the first universities of Europe starting in the eleventh century and the Latin translations of the 12th century which led to the kind of comprehensive learning of Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114 – 1187), Roger Bacon (c. 1219/20 – c. 1292), Albertus Magnus (c. 1200 – 1280), and which is on display in Dante’s epic poem, the Comedìa (1320).

Dimiri Gutas puts the translation movement in its historical context:

[T]he Graeco-Arabic translation movement of Baghdad constitutes a truly epoch-making stage, by any standard, in the course of human history. It is equal in significance to, and belongs to the same narrative as, I would claim, that of Pericles’ Athens, the Italian Renaissance, or the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it deserves so to be recognized and embedded in our historical consciousness.

— Dimitri Gutas, The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʿAbbāsid Society, 1998, p.8

Did the translation movement constitute a form of comprehensivism?

How many of the six epistemic virtues of comprehensivism did Islamic society come to value?

Science in the Islamic Golden Age

If we interpret science broadly as all that is known (which matches the meaning of its Latin root scientia), we discover that the Islamic Golden Age was a heyday for science. One of the Islamic world’s greatest scientists was Abu ‘Alī al-Husayn ibn Sīnā (c. 9801037, his name is frequently Latinized as Avicenna) who published The Book of Healing in 1027.

[O]ne of the greatest Arabic treatises is called The Book of Healing… it aims to cure the reader’s disease of ignorance…. [I]t sums up and organizes all the knowledge that a wise person needs to seek spiritual fulfilment…. [It] was compiled in the early eleventh century and belongs to an important tradition of classifying knowledge in massive encyclopaedias. Rather than being an arid scientific text, The Book of Healing is a poetic philosophical meditation that aims for comprehensiveness—it includes not only detailed explanations of Islamic Aristotelianism, but also an elaborate cosmology of angelic intelligences.

— Patricia Fara, “Science: A Fourt Thousand Year History” (2009), pp. 56-7

This is strong support for our idea that comprehensivism was a value of the Islamic scientific community. Fara gives more evidence, “Ibn Sīnā’s writing was valued by his contemporaries not for its novelty but for its thoroughness and systematic organization.” We now have some of the backstory for those who wondered about the name Avicenna in Canto IV of Dante’s Inferno and the influences of the Christian theologian Thomas Acquinas.

Abu ‘Alī al-Husayn ibn Sīnā (c. 980—1037)

Wikipedia shows how Ibn Sīnā’s work contributed to the approach of modern science including the practice of experimentation:

In the “Al-Burhan” (‘On Demonstration’) section of [The Book of Healing], [Ibn Sīnā] discusses the philosophy of science and describes an early scientific method of inquiry. He discusses Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and significantly diverges from it on several points. [Ibn Sīnā] explains the issue of a proper methodology for scientific inquiry and the question of “How does one acquire the first principles of a science?” He asks how a scientist would arrive at “the initial axioms or hypotheses of a deductive science without inferring them from some more basic premises?” He explains that the ideal situation is when one grasps that a “relation holds between the terms, which would allow for absolute, universal certainty.” [Ibn Sīnā] then adds two further methods for arriving at the first principles: the ancient Aristotelian method of induction …, and the method of examination and experimentation (tajriba). [Ibn Sīnā] criticizes Aristotelian induction, arguing that “it does not lead to the absolute, universal, and certain premises that it purports to provide.” In its place, he develops a “method of experimentation as a means for scientific inquiry.”

— Wikipedia article on The Book of Healing, accessed 4 July 2021

While Ibn Sīnā wrote about the philosophy of science, his contemporary the path-breaking Islamic scientist Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham (c.965-c.1040, his name is frequently Latinized as Alhazen) practiced and demonstrated a new way of doing scientific research.

[Ibn al-Haytham] led this movement to turn mathematics from a language of abstract forms into a truly practical science…. What al-Haytham and his contemporaries argued for was the possibility … of a single science which would be both mathematical and philosophical which would link together a physics, a science of change, with a mathematics, a science of quantity.

— Jim Al-Khalili, “The Empire of Reason” Episode 2 in “Science and Islam” (2009)

Between 1011 and 1021, Ibn al-Haytham published “Kitāb al-Manāẓir” or the Book of Optics. This revolutionary text aspired to replace a millennium of received wisdom on the nature of light and vision which Aristotle, Euclid, and the common sense of the times accepted. Al-Haytham needed an extraordinary method to penetrate the truths of these misconceived phenomena and to then convince himself and others that his new ideas were sound.

Al-Haytham’s solution was to significantly expand upon the practice of systematically testing both his assumptions and his hypotheses. In addition, he explained his incisively discriminating experiments so meticulously that others could easily replicate them. The systematic testing of assumptions and hypotheses and the repeatability of experiments are vitally important epistemic virtues for modern science.

Ibn al-Haytham did not proscribe his new methods, instead he merely used them to prove new principles in optics that were contrary to the received wisdom of his time. This history decisively proves as false the Eurocentric claims that Roger Bacon (c. 1220–c. 1292), or more commonly, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) developed the methods of systematic testing and repeatability of experiments. They both popularized ideas that Ibn al-Haytham used in his practice of science. Francis Bacon’s influential Novum Organum of 1620 should be heralded not as the father of modern science but as popularizing important epistemic virtues of science that Islamic scientists had developed some 600 years earlier during the Islamic Golden Age.

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham (c.965-c.1040)

Ibn al-Haytham was also responsible for initiating the line of research that led to the new model of our solar system developed by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. In the early 1000s, Ibn al-Haytham wrote the path-breaking work “Al-Shukūk ‛alā Batlamyūs” (Doubts on Ptolemy). He argued for the epistemic virtue that data and theory should agree. He pointed out that Ptolemy’s model of the solar system did not, in fact, put the Earth at the center, it wasn’t really geocentric, and it wasn’t matching recent observations.

Islamic astronomers worked diligently to fix the issues that Ibn al-Haytham pointed out with Ptolemy’s model. By the time of Copernicus, one group had succeeded but at the price of even more complexity. Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was developed with awareness of many of these Islamic explorations into the mechanics of the solar system. Copernicus’ contribution was important for later European developments, but it stood on the shoulders of Islamic science. A fact that, since the Enlightenment, has frequently been omitted from our histories.

The foundational epistemic virtues of comprehensivism are breadth and depth. Ibn Sīnā’s encylopedic The Book of Healing exemplifies the breadth of Islamic science. Ibn al-Haytham’s meticulous study of optics and the centuries long research project he initiated to resolve some doubts about Ptolemy exemplifies the depth of Islamic science.

Were at least some of the epistemic virtues of comprehensivism in evidence in the science of the Islamic Golden Age?

Is the Islamic Golden Age the most prominent historical example of a culture infused with the values of comprehensivism?

The Historical Roots of Comprehensivism

Was there comprehensivism before the Islamic Golden Age? What was the early history of comprehensivism?

If we interpret science broadly to mean all knowing, then comprehensivism is another approach to science. So we can look to the history of science for the roots of comprehensivism. In Patricia Fara’s 2009 book “Science: A Four Thousand Year History”, she finds traces of the history of science in the Rig Veda, the Bible, and in early writings from Mesopotamia. She also cites the pre-historical astronomical evidence of Stonehenge and ancient Latin American structures that are also attuned to the stars. We know that science predates history and Fara starts her story at the ethereal boundary between pre-history and the first preserved writing on science.

This way of thinking leads us to realize that comprehensivism is not an idea forged by me nor by Buckminster Fuller, Ibn Sīnā, Aristotle, or even Zoroaster. Comprehensivism is an age-old approach to learning and knowing. How old will require someone with more historical perspicacity than me to determine. But it is at least as old as the Islamic Golden Age. It may be as old as Aristotle. It may be much, much older than that. Consider this: if the principle of gravity broadly applies to every mass in the Universe with a deep, precise inverse second power mathematical relationship, perhaps the values of breadth and depth in comprehensivism explain the way every particle of mass learns about its world. Then comprehensivism might be as old as the Universe itself.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 14 July 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 2h 12m video from the 14 July 2021 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

1 comment

CJ Fearnley

I found additional support for my claims about Francis Bacon: On page 85 in Judith Grabiner’s award-winning paper “Descartes and Problem-Solving” published in Mathematics Magazine, Vol. 68, No. 2 (April 1995), pp. 83-97 which is available at, she writes “the seventeenth-century philosopher of science Francis Bacon, whose method to empirically discover natural laws was one of systematic induction and testing [citing Novum Organum, 1620].”

On page 132 of Patricia Fara’s 2009 book “Science: A Four Thousand Year History”, she writes, “Bacon favoured an inductive, bottom-up approach—inferring explanations from observations untainted by theoretical preconceptions.”

I am uncertain of the history of repeatability. I find evidence for its importance in the reports of Ibn al-Haytham’s work that I have seen. Kevin Kelly cites Robert Boyle with advocating for the epistemic virtue of Necessary repeatability in 1665 in his 02006 Long Now talk “The Next 100 Years of Science: Long-term Trends in the Scientific Method”. But I have been unable to identify his source for that assertion.

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