This paper addresses the concept of science in the encyclopedia  Ajayeb al-Makhluqat by Muhammad Tusi in the 12th century. It examines the criteria chosen by the author to determine the boundaries between science and ignorance. Having old predetermined assumptions and prejudice in mind are the main reasons for ambiguity and confusion in the concept of science in the book.

The decline of the Iranian civilization in the Mongol and Timurid era was rooted in ignoring science and rising social and political unrest. Anti-intellectual and anti-reason discussions proposed by Qazali and other scholars in Nizamiye schools in the Saljuq reign developed ignorance and khurafa (superstitions) in Iran. The decline of science followed by the Mongol invasion destroyed the social and economic infrastructures.

Ajayeb al-Makhluqat by Muhammad ibn Mahmud Tusi was written in Persian in 1161-1178. Like Tohfat al-Qarayeb by Haseb Tabari and Ajayeb al-Makhluqat by Qazvini, the subject of this encyclopedia is to introduce extraordinary creatures. Ajayeb al-Makhluqat is a multi-knowledge encyclopedia about many branches of medieval science like medicine, astronomy, botany, zoology and geography.

Regarding ration and virtue as the peculiarities of human beings (p. 372), Tousi devotes a chapter to “the value of ration” (p. 376). He also addresses the significance of knowledge in all parts of his book (pp. 8, 9, 10, 13, 16, 532). However, he has disputed with philosophers on the basis of his religious thought. He states his aim to introduce people who cannot travel a lot with extraordinary things of through his book: “I named my book Ajayeb al-Makhluqat and Qarayeb al-Mojoudat to introduce people with God’s creatures and their peculiarities” (p. 485).

Many chapters of the book are devoted to extraordinary creatures like ghosts with “human faces and lion hands”, “a king with a long neck on Qaf (a legendary mountain) (p. 33).  

Considering geography, various cities are listed and natural peculiarities of each region are described (pp. 137, 281, 291). 

Astronomy is one of the fundamental sciences followed in Ajayeb al-Makhlughat through religious thoughts (p. 459). Whether the medicine was considered a science or not is one of the main discussions in the medieval era. Many scholars believed that healing is based on God’s wills and drugs are useless (pp. 452, 455, 489).


Ajāib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāib al-mawjūdāt  4 

The influence of Greek scientific viewpoints on the Iranian medieval scholars and astronomers is inevitable. Greek thoughts provided the Iranian scholars with a huge amount of knowledge which were accepted without examining whether they were fundamentally scientific or not. 

Aristotelian thinking did not study the world and its nature via inductive reasoning and so general concepts were accepted without examining the details.   

The relationship between natural and human sciences and religion was one of the basic arguments in the Medieval Times which was not resolved. Akhbari scholars had religious understandings about the world and its geographical characteristics which were not examined critically. In addition, rational arguments were not encouraged.

Rasoul Jafarian 

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Khurafa (Superstition) in the Medieval Islamic Sources” examines the concept of superstition (Khurafa) in the medieval Islamic civilization. Kheraf  or “the absurdity of the mind” is something  false but melodious to people’s mind (Ibn Manzur, 1987, V. 9, p. 66).

This article addresses the concepts of science in relationship to concepts of wisdom and khurafa in medieval Islamic sources to determine the exact boundaries between superstition and science.

Kheraf  means “corruption of mind because of exaggeration”. The subject of the story is Khurafa who is from Bani Ozra or Johaina. After going among jinns, he tells a lot of stories about them. These tales have been known as “tales of Khurafa”. These tales are not in accordance to realities so that the word Khuraf and Khurafa mean fiction and lying but interesting (Ibn Manzur, 1889, v 9, p. 66). In the Arabic language, the word khurafa refers to nonsense speech (Adnani Qarifi, 1991, v. 4, p. 350). Asmar or historical and love stories and delusions are other meanings behind the concept of khurafa.

This article explores the position of khurafa in the epistemic system of medieval time besides science, wisdom and, knowledge. To detect the boundaries between “khurafa and science” can determine the scope of wisdom in the Islamic civilization. This article explores the position of khurafa in the epistemic system of medieval time besides science, wisdom and, knowledge.

 Regarding the concept of khurafa in 10th to 13th centuries, the paper reviews the process of rationalism developed in this era to determine the boundaries between science and superstition in astronomy, history, geography, medicine and alchemy.

Regarding the collective wisdom of different societies, khurafa has different meanings and references. For example, Abu Rayhan indicates to some superstitious viewpoints in the Indian traditions which are considered rational in the Indian collective wisdom. This is true about rationalists (kheradgera) and narrative based scholars (naql-gera) who regard the viewpoints of each other as superstition. Referring to some examples this paper examines whether there is a common belief about the concept and instances of superstition among different nations (p. 144).

Science in mind and reality is a pure problem whose nature is gradually influenced by social and human issues. Astronomy and mathematics are two exact fields of science. However, astronomy, for example, is affected by philosophical traditional and human issues. Being intertwined with unscientific problems like prophesying and determining lucky (sa’d) and unlucky (nahs) days has reduced its purity. To give another example, physics and chemistry are two main exact fields of science. But when chemistry is integrated with Alchemy i.e. a combination of chemistry and philosophy of life, it would degenerate.

Methodological confusions in empirical and religious sciences and application of philosophical methods in experimental sciences are challenging problems in medieval time. This situation was common in Greece, Alexandria and India and Islamic world. Unlike Muslim and Indian scholars, Greek thinkers had determined some boundaries between different fields of science and so they somehow managed to resolve these methodological confusions. Even though Muslims distinguished empirical and philosophical sciences, their methodological confusions led to unreliable results. Even now, sciences have challenging methodological problems.  

To examine the concept of superstition, the following sources are reviewed:

Historical sources: Bal’ami (2001, V.1, 370), Ibn Miskawayh (2006, v.1, p.75), Mojmel al-Tawarikh (2010, p.38), Beihaqi (V.1, p.341), Ibn Asir (2006, V.1 p. 66), Yaqut Hamawi (2001, V.1, pp. 459-460; V.2, p. 436-437). Narrating three tales about the death of Moses, Bal’ami specifies them as khurafa (Bal’ami, V. 1, p. 370). Ibn Miskawayh regards the Iranian myths and epics about kings as khurafa (Ibn Miskawayh, 2006, V. 1, 75). The anonymous author of Mojmal al-Tavarikh also specifies some accounts about the Iranian kings as khurafa (Mojmal al-Tavarikh, p. 38). Bayhaqi one of the great medieval historians criticizes the previous historical works because of regarding the superstitious accounts as historical sources (Beihaqi, 2004, V. 3, p. 1099)

 Astronomy in sources: Tabarsi (1996, p.295), Musa Ibn Meimun (2006, p. 614), Al-Mata’ wa al-Mo’anesa (pp. 163-164). Khurafa seems to be more common in issues about magic and astronomy. The inaccessibility of astronomy, its magnitude and impacts on earth led to extraordinary beliefs among Muslims. Tabarsi in A’lam al-Vara has criticized the Shia Ismai’li Muslims for applying astronomical issues to prove their Imam doctrine (Tabarsi, 1996, p. 295).

Hadith sources: Al-Masa’el Al-Jarudia (p.35), Asqalani (2006, v.2, p. 438), Alam al-Hoda, (1985, p. 85, 156, 160), Revelation of Sufism: Ibn Kasir, (v. 13, p. 298).

The author concludes that superstitious viewpoints have their impacts on all fields of science including religion, geography, history and zoology.  Many viewpoints considered as principles of science in medieval time have changed into examples of superstition in modern time (p.146). 


Rasoul Jafarian 

 jafaryan book


Adnani Qarifi, Ali (1991). Rabi’ al-Abrar wa Nosus al-Akhbar, Qum: Al-Sharif al-Razi.

Alam al-Hoda, Mortaza ibn Dai’e (1985). Tabserat al-Avam fi Ma’refat Maqamat-e al-Anam, ed. by Abbas Eqbal, Tehran: Asatir.

Asqalani, Abi al-Fazl Ahmad ibn Ali (2006). Al-Esaba fi Tamiz al-Sahaba, Cairo.

Bal’ami, Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Muhammad (2001). Tarikhnama-ya Tabari, ed. Muhammad Roshan, Tehra: Sorush.

Beihaqi, Muhammad ibn Hossein (2004). Tarikh-e Beihaqi, ed. Khalil Khatib Rahbar, Tehran: Mahtab.

Ibn Asir, Ali ibn Muhammad (1970). Al-Kamel fel Tarikh, ed. Abdolvahab Al-Najar, Cairo: Al-Monira.

 Ibn Kasir, Isma’il ibn Omar (1968). Al-Bedaya va al-Nahaya, ed. Muhammad Fahim Abu Abih, Al-Riaz: Al-Nasr al-Hadisa.

Ibn Manzur, Muhammad ibn Mokram (1987). Lisan al-Arab, Bulaq: Al-Matba’ al-Kubra al-Mobria.

Ibn Meimun, Musa ibn Meimun (2006). Dalala al-Ha’erin, Maktabat al-Seqafat al-Diniya.

Ibn Miskawayh, Ahmad ibn Muhammad (2006). Tajarib al-Omam wa Ta’aqib al-Hemam, tr. by Ali Naqi Monzavi, Tehran: Tus.

Tabarsi, Fazl ibn Hassan (1996). A’lam al-Vara bea’lam al-Hoda, Qum: Ale al-Beit Leahya al-Toras.

Yaqut Hamawi, Yaqut ibn Abdollah (2001). Mo’jam al-Boldan, Tehran: Bastanshenasi.

….. (2010). Mojmal al-Tavarikh va al-Qesas, ed. by Iraj Afshar & Mahmoud Omidsalar, Tehran: Talaya.

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The Abbasid era is one of the basic phases of the Iranian medieval history. The Abbasid caliphs developed an advanced and civilized state by drawing on the Umayyad, the Sassanid and the Byzantine states.  “The Great Caliphs, The Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire” by Amira K. Bennison[1] is one of the remarkable works about the golden age of economic and cultural achievement in the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258).

This book consists of an introduction and 6 chapters: 1. A Stormy Sea: The Politics of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate”, 2. From Baghdad to Cordoba: The Cities of Classical Islam, 3. Princes and Beggars: Life and Society in the ‘Abbasid Age, 4. The Lifeblood of Empire: Trade and Traders in the ‘Abbasid Age, 5. “Baghdad’s Golden Age: Islam’s Scientific Renaissance and 6. The ‘Abbasid Legacy. As the titles of chapters show, the content of book is fundamentally social history. Based on wide range of sources, it offers a new understanding of the civilization of the Abbasid Empire. After reviewing the political circumstances, it goes through the Islamic society to focus on economy, science, laws and conventions alongside realities of social life.

The first chapter, “A Stormy Sea: The Politics of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate” outlines political history from the earliest days of Islam up to the time of the Crusades. It is really the Abbasid caliphate from 750 to around 900 that forms the core of this lively and entertaining work.

The second chapter “From Baghdad to Cordoba: The Cities of Classical Islam” emphasizes the vitality and variety of urban centers. It is one of the strengths of this book that the author gives full weight to achievements of the western areas of the Muslim world, the Maghreb and al-Andalus: Cordoba, as well as Baghdad, gets its fair share of attention.

In next three chapters “Princes and Beggars: Life and Society in the ‘Abbasid Age”, “The Lifeblood of Empire: Trade and Traders in the ‘Abbasid Age”, and “Baghdad’s ‘Golden Age: Islam’s Scientific Renaissance” Bennison moves on to inhabitants and they are all here, from rulers and their courts, their poets and their eunuchs to the beggars and prostitutes of the meaner streets and the peasants and nomads of the countryside, so often forgotten in general accounts of the Muslim world. Muhammad himself was a merchant and merchants always had a higher social status in the Muslim sphere than was the case in Christendom, and Bennison describes the wealth and ramifications of merchants’ activity.

Amira Bennison shows well how central urban life was to the Abbasid Empire – from Iberia to India, with Baghdad at its heart – and with it all that cities can offer: conversation, books, schools, performance, poetry and sumptuous goods. There was a great awareness among scholars and rulers that from Baghdad could be harnessed the powers of east and west, the sciences of Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near East and Asia. To do so was to allow a public sphere to develop, one which did not threaten the ultimate truth of Islam and its caliphs-protectors, but which allowed the traditions of the empire’s people to converge and cross-fertilize. Patronage for projects of translation meant that classical science was disseminated and thus preserved – often by Syriac Christians and Jews – and that medicine and astronomy, mathematics and metallurgy benefited from frequent mutual encounters. The grandeur of the empire also meant that projects of poor relief, the building of mosques and palaces, provision of water supplies and public hygiene were conceived to beautify and make more tolerable life in the vast cities.[2]

In the final chapter “The ‘Abbasid Legacy”, Bennison turns to intellectual life and here she stresses the vast variety of cultural practices, from the study of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, which form the foundations of Islamic law, the Sharia, to the movement to translate works of Greek science and medicine (though not of history or poetry) into Arabic.

Bennison has a lively and engaging style and a way of using short extracts from original Arabic sources to bring particular features – the ruler’s audience or the market supervisor’s policing duties – to life.[3] She proposes a hypotheses that far from seeing themselves as purging the ‘occidental culture of the ancient world with a ‘pure’ and oriental’ Islamic doctrine, the Abbasids perceived themselves to be as much within the tradition of Mediterranean and Near Eastern empire as any of their predecessors.[4]

Hence, one of the critical themes she follows is the connection between the Islamic and European civilization. She concludes that “the Renaissance was a European phenomenon, but such a rebirth of classical knowledge depended in part on its preservation and elaboration by Arabic-speakers in Islamic lands. For European intellectuals of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries this was not really a contentious point: many scholars and scientists of the Arabo-Islamic world were household names in university circles, and Arabic was one of the languages all MA students at Oxford had to study in the seventeenth century. It is only in modern times that we have forgotten this connection. However, in reality, we are all part of the story of human civilization which began in the Middle East in the sixth millennium BCE and all those who insist upon the irreconcilable division between the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ would do well to step down from their soapboxes to read a little history” (Bennison, 2009, 214).

 Maryam Kamali

 Bennison, Amira, K. (2009). The Great Caliphs, the Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire, Yale University Press: IB.Tauris.

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