Respect for intellectual property in Islamic civilization

annafisDr. Ragheb Elsergany

SCIENTIFIC honesty is a new principle that was not known before Islam, as in the absence of religion and morals no one would hesitate to attribute various discoveries to himself with the purpose of profit and fame.

Scientific honesty requires respect for intellectual and scientific property and attribution of efforts and discoveries to their makers. However, Muslim scholars have suffered so much from stealing their research and discoveries, and attributing them to western scholars who were born tens or hundreds of years later.

Theft of Ibn Al-Nafis’ work

Ibn Al-Nafis

Ibn Al-Nafis

Everybody now knows about the heinous theft that occurred to our great scholar Ibn Al-Nafis, the discoverer of the pulmonary circulation, who recorded his discovery carefully in his book Sharh Tashrih Al-Qanun (illustration of the anatomy of law).

However, this fact has been hidden for centuries and was attributed to English physician William Harvey[1], who studied the circulation of blood more than three centuries after the death of Ibn Al-Nafis. People believed this illusion until Egyptian doctor Muhyi-al-din Al-Tatawi uncovered the truth.

Willian Harvey

Willian Harvey

In 954 AH / 1547 AD, Italian doctor Albago translated into Latin sections from Ibn Al-Nafis’ book Sharh Tashrih Al-Qanun. This doctor stayed for nearly thirty years in Al-Ruha province and mastered the Arabic language to translate from it into Latin. The section on circulation of blood in lung was one of the translated sections. However, this translation was lost, and it was agreed that a Spanish scholar called Servetus, who had nothing to do with medicine and studied at the University of Paris, was briefed on Albago’s translation of Ibn Al-Nafis’ book. As he was charged in his faith, Servetus was expelled from the university and was displaced until he was burnt to death along with many of his books in 1065 AH / 1553 AD. However, some of his books remained unhurt, among which was Albago’s translation of Ibn Al-Nafis’ book on the circulation of blood. Researchers believed that the Spanish scholar and Harvey after him discovered the circulation of blood. This belief remained until 1343 AH / 1924 AD when Egyptian physician Dr Muhyi-al-Din Al-Tatawi corrected that illusion and returned the right to owner. Al-Tatawi found a copy of the manuscript of Ibn Al-Nafis’ book in the library of Berlin. He prepared a doctorate on it, and he was interested in one aspect of that great book, which is the subject of blood circulation. He got his PhD in 1343 AH / 1924 AD.

His teachers and supervisors were stunned at the thesis. They hardly believed him. Due to their ignorance of the Arabic language, they sent a copy of the thesis to German orientalist Dr. Meyerhof[2], who was then residing in Cairo. They asked for his opinion about Al-Tatawi’s argument. The result was that Meyerhof supported Al-Tantaw. In a research on Ibn Al-Nafis, Meyerhof said: “What amazed me is that some basic sentences of Servetus were similar, but rather identical, to those of Ibn Al-Nafis, which were translated literally. This means that Servetus, who was a liberal cleric not a doctor, mentioned the pulmonary circulation in the same way as Ibn Al-Nafis, who lived more than a century and a half.” Then, Meyerhof informed George Sarton[3] of the fact he uncovered, and the latter published this fact in the last part of his famous book (History of science)[4]!!

Sharh Tashrih Al-Qanun

Sharh Tashrih Al-Qanun

Aldo Mieli[5] had a look at the two versions and said: “Ibn Al-Nafis” description of the pulmonary circulation is identical to that of Servetus. Therefore, the discovery of the pulmonary circulation should be attributed to Ibn Al-Nafis, not to Servetus or Harvey.”[6]

Examples of well-known plagiarism
Such plagiarism and the practice of scientific dishonesty against Muslim scholars are not little. Let’s enumerate the following facts:

– Sociology was attributed to the Jewish French Durkheim[7], while Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun was the one who discovered and founded this science – as will be explained.

– The laws of motion were attributed to Isaac Newton, while the two Muslim scholars Ibn Sina and Hibatullah ibn Malka[8] discovered these laws – as will be explained later.

– In Roger Bacon’s[9] book known as (Cepus Majus) we found a whole chapter, namely chapter five, which was nothing but a literal translation of Ibn Al-Haytham’s book Al-Manazir. In his book, Bacon has never mentioned the original author of the article.

All this happened to Muslims, but Muslims had a different approach, namely scientific honesty and attribution of effort and credit to their makers. This approach made none of them claim a scientific discovery of other scientists from other civilizations. Rather, their books were filled with names of scientists who they quoted, such as Hippocrates[10], Galen[11], Socrates, Aristotle and others. Muslims appreciated and esteemed those scientists clearly and did not forget any of them even if their contribution to the book was little.

For instance, the sons of Musa ibn Shakir said in their book “Ma’rifat Misahat Al-Ashkal Al-Basitah wa Al-Kurriyah” (learning the space of simple and spherical shapes): “Everything that we described in our book is our work except for the difference between circumference and diameter, which is the work of Archimedes[12], and putting two amounts between another two amounts to come across one proportion, which is the theorem of Menelaus[13].”[14]

You can also see what the famous Muslim physician Abu Bakr Al-Razi said in his book Al-Hawi, one of the greatest books in the history of medicine, as he said:

“I have collected in this book sentences and signs of the industry of medicine, which I drawn from the books of Hippocrates, Galen, Ormasus, and other ancient physicians, in addition to modern ones, such as Paul, Aaron, Hunayn ibn Ishaq[15], Yahya ibn Masawayh[16], and others.”[17]

Moreover, the Islamic library included translated books of foreign scientists. These books were attributed to their authors, and Muslim scholars often commented on them without interfering in the text in order to preserve the author’s idea without distortion. For instance, Muslim scholar Al-Farabi[18] commented on Aristotle’s book “Metaphysics”.

This honorable scientific honesty was really one of the greatest virtues of Muslim scholars and one of the most important foundations by which Muslims changed the way of thinking of earlier scholars, especially as people of modern nations did not know the history of their ancestors. Therefore, it was very easy to steal their research but for the profound moral dimension of Muslim scholars.

[1] William Harvey: (1578-1657), an English physician known in West as the discoverer of the circulation of blood and the function of the heart as a pump.

[2] Max Meyerhof: (1291-1364 AH / 1874-1945 AD), a German orientalist, ophthalmologist and one of the most prominent western orientalists. He studied Arabic and visited Egypt in 1903 and stayed there. He died in Cairo. He was interested in the history of medicine and pharmacology in the Islamic civilization.

[3] George Sarton: (1884-1956), one of the most prominent historians. He is of Belgian origin. He was specialized in physics and mathematics. He gave lectures at US universities and at the American University in Beirut. His most famous book is “Tarikh Al-Ilm” (History of science).

[4] See: Muhammad Al-Sadiq Afifi: Tatawur Al-Fikr Al-Ilmi ind Al-Muslimin (development of scientific thought of Muslims), p 208, and Ali Abdallah Al-Daffa: Ruwad Ilm Al-Tib fi Al-Hadarah Al-Islamiyah (pioneers of medicine in Islamic civilization), p 451.

[5] Aldo Mieli: (1879-1950), an Italian orientalist and the author of the book entitled “Al-Ilm ind Al-Arab wa Atharuh fi Tatwur Al-Ilm Al-Alami” (Science of Arabs and its role in development of global science).

[6] See Ali Abdalla Al-Daffa’s “Ruwad Ilm Al-Tib fi Al-Hadarah Al-Islamiyah“, p451.

[7] Durkheim: (1858-1917AD), French sociologist and professor at Bordeaux and Paris. He is known in the west as the founder of sociology.

[8] Hibatullah ibn Malka: Abu Al-Barakat Hibatullah ibn Ali ibn Malka Al-Baladi (died in 560AH / 1165AD), known as Awhad Al-Zaman (sole man of the time), physician from Baghdad. He was Jewish and converted to Islam in his late age. He served Al-Mustanjid-billah Al-Abbasi and enjoyed high status. See: Ibn Abu Usaybi’ah: Uyun Al-Anba 2/313-316, and Al-Zirikli: Al-A’lam 8/74.

[9] Roger Bacon: (1214-1292), English philosopher and scientist, a prominent figure in developing science in Middle Ages, known in the west as the founder of experimental science. He was one of the first researches in optics.

[10] Hippocrates: (460BC-355BC). He is referred to as the father of medicine, one of the most famous scientists in history, learnt medicine from his father and mastered it, to whom the idea of Hippocratic Oath is attributed.

[11] Galen: (130-200 AD), ancient Greek physician, one of the most famous physicians in history, and one of senior founders of medicine, especially anatomy.

[12] Archimedes: (287BC-212BC), a Greek physicist and mathematician, one of the greatest mathematicians in the ancient times, the father of geometry.

[13] Menelaus: Greek mathematician who lived in the first Gregorian century, a prominent figure in geometry. He had writings on spherical shapes and Astrolabe. See: Haji Khalifah: Kashf Al-Zunun 1/142.

[14] Sons of Musa ibn Shakir: Book of “Ma’rifat Misahat Al-Ashkal“, edited by Nusayr-al-Din Al-Tusi, p25.

[15] Hunayn ibn Ishaq: Abu Zayd Hunayn ibn Ishaq Al-Ubadi (194-260 AH / 810-873 AD), physician, historian, translator from Al-Hirah in Iraq. He mastered Greek, Syriac, and Farsi. He contacted Caliph Al-Ma’mun and the latter appointed him as head of the translation divan. See: Ibn Al-Nadim, Al-Fihrist, p 409, and Ibn Abu Usaybi’ah: Uyun Al-Anba 2/128/137.

[16] Yahia ibn Masawayh (Yuhanna): Abu Zakariya Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, physician of Syriac origin, but grew up among Arabs. He served Al-Rashid, Al-Ma’mun and Al-Mutawakil, as he medicated them and their patients. He died in Samarra in 243 AH / 857 AD. See: Ibn Al-Nadim, Al-Fihrist, p 411, and Ibn Abu Usaybi’ah: Uyun Al-Anba 2/109-122.

[17] Ibn Abu Usaybi’ah: Uyun Al-Anba fi Tabaqat Al-Atiba 1/70.

[18] Al-Farabi: Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan Al-Farabi (260-339 AH / 874-950 AD), famous Turkish doctor, a senior Muslim philosopher. He was born in Farab and died in Damascus. See: Ibn Khillikan: Wafiyyat Al-A’yan 5/153-156.

Ibn Al-Nafis

Ibn Al-Nafis


One thought on “Respect for intellectual property in Islamic civilization


    The position of Syariah Law towards intellectual property(IP) and innovations protection is positive on the basis driven by Maslahah al-Ammah(public interest-centric).

    This is to solve the “Syariah Dilemna” of the Ummah in resolving various socio-economic imperatives which are focuses of the United Nations and COP 21,etc.

    IP from a theoretical platform could be forged to provide realised solutions for a Better Business Ummah (BBU) within the Maqasid Al-Syariah lawnomics design.

    Pioneer Advocate in “Big Compliance” for a Better Business World (Lawnomics Framework)
    He can be reached at:

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