The Social Structure of Islamicate Science

Peter Barker


The view that Islamicate science went into decline while European science was getting started is still commonly held among historians of science and almost universal in general history and popular presentations. Different versions of the decline thesis make it start in the 11th century with the work of Ibn al-Haytham and al-Ghazālī; in the 13th century with the sack of Baghdad, or at latest with the beginning of the “Scientific Revolution” in Europe. However, it is now increasingly apparent that Islamicate science was healthy well into the period of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. There are many reasons for the continued attraction of the decline theses. In addition to the inaccessibility of sources, these include mistaking the nature of credentialing in Islamicate science, and mistaking the nature of the sources in which original science was appearing. In this paper, I will sketch a more appropriate social structure for understanding Islamicate science by describing the institutional structures for training scientists and awarding credentials, and the practices of recording and transmitting research in writing. Taking the Safavid scholar Bahāʾal-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī (1547–1621) as an example, I will suggest that these structures supported an active research community well into the early modern period, further undermining the decline thesis.


science; Islam; ijāzah; astronomy; Persia; decline thesis

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