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Ilm – Science and Imagination in the Islamic World

Ilm – Science and Imagination in the Islamic World

The Arabic word ‘Ilm is often translated as “knowledge”. It is one of the most frequently occurring words in the Quran and the Hadith (recorded traditions of Prophet Muhammad), signalling the importance accorded to knowledge, both spiritual and worldly. Knowledge is considered so primary that its pursuit is not only encouraged but deemed obligatory for Muslims. The full meaning of ‘ilm is complex and multi-dimensional. It encompasses both rational and emotional aspects of knowing, including perception, observation, insight, deduction, experience, intuition, and inspiration. Hence, science and imagination represent twin thrusts in the Islamic enterprise of knowledge.

Historically, there is no unique term for “science” in Arabic. Instead, the object of study is appended to ‘ilm to name the different sciences. For example, the “knowledge of human beings” (‘ilm al-insān) refers to anthropology, and “knowledge of life” (‘ilm al-hayāh) refers to biology.

Similarly, ‘ilm can also be applied to artistic techniques, which suggests that division between art and science is arbitrary. Thus, imagination is required in scientific endeavours and systematic knowledge can be produced in the artistic domain. The works of art on display here illustrate the role of knowledge as a fundamental motivator and objective for cultural production in the Islamic world.

Star-shaped tile with two figures

Folio from De Materia Medica (The Medicinal Properties of Plants) translated into Persian
Deccan India, September 1595 CE

This folio is a Persian translation of a 1st-century AD text by the Greek physician, Dioscorides, detailing the properties and preparation of medicinal plants. The first Arabic translation of the original Greek text was completed in the 9th century in Baghdad, after which the work spread throughout the Islamic world, laying the foundation for the study of botany and pharmacology among Muslim scholars and scientists.

Folio from De Materia Medica

Star-shaped tile with two figures
Iran, Kashan, 1230

One of the significant contributions of potters from the Islamic world is lustre painting. This technique involved the application of metallic glazes on already fired surfaces. The objects would then be fired a second time to produce a shiny metallic veneer over the existing glaze.