Natural Philosophy in the Islamic World 1500-1800

My project is to investigate the hitherto unexplored tradition of natural philosophy in the Islamic world in the period from 1500 to 1800. In recent years, the argument has been made that in Islamic civilization philosophy was never adopted into the curricula of the madrasas, and that especially the tradition of natural philosophy consequently petered out in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By contrast, in Western Europe philosophy and especially natural philosophy continued to be studied in universities. This difference in turn is supposed to help explain why there was never a scientific revolution in the Islamic world. But the fact is that there was a keen interest in natural philosophy in Islamic lands in the early modern period, and that the discipline formed a regular part of the curricula of Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal madrasas. Thousands of manuscript folios on natural philosophy from this period remain unedited and unstudied.

Given the absence of previous scholarship on this early-modern Islamic tradition of natural philosophy, a good deal of basic groundwork will need to done. It will have to be shown that there was a lively tradition of natural philosophy in madrasas in the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires. Main authors, texts, issues, and controversies will have to be identified. But the aim of my research will eventually be to explore a number of further issues, particularly: What was the understanding of “natural philosophy”? How did it relate to other disciplines such as astronomy or medicine? How were the issues of natural philosophy discussed? Did explicitly religious or scriptural considerations feature in natural philosophical discussions? To what extent were the contributors to this tradition aware of scientific developments in Western Europe?


Khaled El-Rouayheb is Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard University. He conducts research on Arabic-Islamic intellectual history, especially in the period from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth. His publications include Before Homosexuality in the Arabic-Islamic World, 1500-1800 (2005), Relational Syllogisms and the History of Arabic Logic, 900-1900 (2010), and Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb (2015).

While in Cambridge Khaled will be participating in seminars and lectures at the Faculty of Divinity. He will be the main speaker at their Religious Studies seminar on Tuesday 17 November at 2.30pm in the Lightfoot Room, Muhammad b. Yusuf al-Sanusi (d.1490): Logic, Theology and the Condemnation of “Imitation”.  For further information please click here.

Lectures and Seminars

Tuesday 17 November, 2.30pm in the Lightfoot Room, Faculty of Divinity
Muhammad b. Yusuf al-Sanusi (d.1490): Logic, Theology and the Condemnation of “Imitation,”’

Thursday 28 April, 5pm in the Runcie Room, Faculty of Divinity
A Discourse on Method: Dialectics (‘ilm al-munazara) in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century

Wednesday 4 May, 5pm in the Runcie Room, Facilty of Divinity
The Rise of “Deep Reading” in Ottoman Scholarly Culture.


Tel: +44 1223 766886