Muslim Contributions to Western Civilisation

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By Shaykh Rehan Ahmed Raza Al-Azhari

In modern times, the contribution of Muslim civilization and culture to the development of Science has hardly received the measure of recognition it deserves, despite the pioneering and courageous works of such scholars as Sarton[1], Briffault[2] and Le Bon[3]. Draper’s A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe and the joint publication of the late T.W. Arnold and Alfred Guillaume also deserve credible mention.

The aim of this discourse is to draw attention to the unique aspects, whose presence is a strong argument in support of the fact that Muslims have had the capability of establishing a civilization that is superior and perfected, in comparison to the present time.  It also serves to remind the younger generation of the Muslim Ummah, the need to establish such an exalted civilization as it was founded by our ancestors. The need to raise this reminder is currently most appropriate due to the Muslim Ummah stepping into a new era with great enthusiasm and fervor, and it possesses the liability to build a better and superior future.

The Muslim Ummah still retains the habits, disposition and talents of their ancestors.  Thus when Muslims hear of their stories of excellence, eminence and respectability, they are motivated into constructive work.

It was not possible to elaborate on the tremendous achievements accomplished by the Muslims in the past in such a short article, therefore I will choose certain fields and give details on the achievements of various Muslim Scholars in their respective fields.

We will be discussing the fields of Mathematics, Physics & Technology, Astronomy, Chemistry and Medicine.

Mathematics

The achievements of Muslims in the field of mathematics are extremely remarkable.  A regular study of this science, like all other sciences, was begun during the reign of the second Abbasi Caliph, al-Mansur in the second half of the eighth century. During this period the work in mathematics was exclusively done by Muslims.[4]

The Muslims used numerals including zero for counting in contrast with writing the amounts in words, or counting with the letters of the Alphabet.  Thus they made arithmetic simple and applicable to the problems of everyday life in connection with commerce and trade and the division of estates and inheritance.  The zero has great importance in arithmetic.  Without zero it is not possible to indicate the figures like tens, hundreds, etc.  If zero is not used it becomes necessary to use a table (named abacus) with columns of units, tens, hundreds, etc., to keep each figure in its place.[5] The West learnt the use of numerals from the Arabs, and, therefore, called them the ‘Arabic numerals’.[6] It was only in the 12th century that after learning from the Muslims, the Western scholars were able to produce some literature on the numeral system, without columns, and completed by zero.

It was Leonardo of Pisa who, after travelling in Muslim lands and studying the Arabic system of numerals, published a work which is mostly responsible for the introduction of that system in Europe.  This system was named algorithm (algorism) which has been derived by the Latin writers from the patronymic al-Khwarizmi who was a distinguished Muslim mathematician, astronomer and geographer of the ninth century.   Till the end of the 18th century the science of numbers was called by the Latin writers as algorism whereas in Spanish it was termed as Guorismo.  The English poet Chaucer named zero asa augrim.  Al-Khwarizmi  named his book dealing with this subject as Kitab al-Jabr Wa’l-Muqabalah (the book of resitution and comparison).  His influence on the mathematical thought has been more than that of any other medieval writer.  He wrote an encyclopaedic work dealing with arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  In one of his books he discusses the question of the origin of numerals.[7]

From this we realise how much the Western world is indebted to the Muslims.  If the Muslims had not transferred the light of knowledge to the Europeans then they would have remained in the darkness of ignorance and would have failed to flourish over the past few centuries.

In his book, Leonardo of Pisa, enumerates the six cases of quadratic equations just as al-Khwarizmi does.  He comments that the Arab method is superior to the method of Pythagorus. [8]

Al-Fadl Ibn Hatim al-Nairizi (Latin Anaritius) who flourished under al-Mu’tadid (d. 922) wrote commentaries on Ptolemy and Euclid, which were translated into Latin.  He used the tangent as a genuine trigonometric element.[9]

Abu Ja’far Al-Khazin (d. 961) wrote a commentary on the Tenth Book of Euclid.  Other mathematical and astronomical writings are also ascribed to him.  He solved, by means of conic sections, the cubic equation, called Al-Mahani’s equation which al-Mahani himself could not solve.[10]

The Mathematician Abu Sa’id Ahmad al-Sijzi (951-1024) made a special study of the intersection of the conic sections and circles.  He replaced the old kinematical trisection of an angle by a purely geometric solution (intersection of a circle and an equilateral hyperbola)[11] .  Al-Saghani (d. 990) also made a study of the trisection of the angle.[12]

The list of mathematicians and their achievements is endless, I will briefly mention some of the names of the scholars who contributed to this field, their names are as follows:  Abu’l Wafa Muhammad al-Buzjani(d. 997 or 998), who was an astronomer and one of the greatest Muslim mathematicians. Abu Mahmu Hamid Al-Khujandi (d. 1000), Abu Nasr Mansur Ibn Ali the teacher of al-Biruni, Maslamah Ibn Ahmad, Ibn Yunus (d. 1009), the Persian mathmatician Kushyar Ibn Labban, Abu Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (d. 1045) who was a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, geographer and traveller who made great contribution to mathematics. He was one of the greatest scientists of all time.  He gave a very clear account of Arabic numerals and a method for the trisection of the angle.  He also solved many problems (later called Al-Birunic problems) which cannot be solved with the ruler or compass alone.[13]

Physics and Technology

The Muslim scientists studied deeply the fundamental questions of physics.  For instance, Ibn Sina made a profound study of such phenomena as force, motion, light, heat, vacuum, etc.  A great progress was made in theoretical and applied mechanics.  Useful work was done in the field of mechanics of the wheel, axle, lever, pulley, inclined plane, windmill, water wheel, toothed wheel etc.  The physicist and astronomer al-Khazini wrote a book on mechanics, hydrostatics and physics, named Kitab Mizan al-Hikmah (Book of Balance of Wisdom), which is the most remarkable medieval work on these subjects.

Muhammad Ibn Ali Ibn Rustam al-Khurasani was a famous constructor of clocks and therefore, he was called al-Sa’ati (the clockmaker).  Between 1146 and 1169, he constructed a clock placed in the Bab Jairun (often called Bab al-Sa’ah, the door of the clock).  AL-Sa’ati remained in charge of his clock until his death in 1184-85.[14]

Al-Sa’ati’s son Ridwan repaired and improved the clock, and also wrote a book to describe its construction and use.  This book is an important source of the study of the early Muslim clocks.   Ridwan was a mechanician, physician and poet, and had knowledge of literature and music.

The Muslim scientists took keen interest in the determination of the specific gravity of various substances.  Sand Ibn Ali, a scientist of the ninth century made an investigation, on specific gravity.  Al-Biruni determined the specific gravity of 18 precious stones and metals.  Ibn Sina and al-Razi also done research on this subject.

Al-Biruni made also made reference to a certain type of well which is obtained by boring the earth to that level of water which is submitted to the hydrostatic pressure in which case due to the pressure; water is driven upward as in the natural springs.  He correctly explains the action of such wells by the principle of communicating vessels.[15]

Furthermore, it is the development of the Muslims that fashioned the techniques of bathing.  They constructed the hot-steam called Hammam (from the Arabic root Hamm meaning to heat).  When the European Crusaders came to the East and experienced the comforts of these baths, they introduced them into their own places of residence.

One of the greatest works produced in this field was of Ibn al-Haitham  Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) - one of the leading classics which influenced scientific thought for more than six centuries.  The Latin and Hebrew writers such as Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Witelo and Levi Ben Gerson based their works on this great book.[16]

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi wrote a book on optics entitled Al-Mabahith fi In’ikas al-Shu’a’at wa In’itafiha (Research of the reflection and refraction of rays), contains a proof of the equality of the angles of incidence and reflection.[17]

Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, (d. 1311) who was one of the greatest scientists of all times presented his views on Optics in his astronomical works.  In one of his such works entitled ‘Nihayat al-Idrak fi Dirayat al-Aflak’ (Highest understanding of the knowledge of the spheres), he discusses questions of geometrical optics, the nature of vision, and finally, the rainbow.  He was the first to give a satisfactory account of the passage of a ray of light through transparent sphere (drop of water).  He discovered that the rainbow is formed when the rays are refracted twice and reflected once in the humid atmosphere.[18]

Another important physicist and mathematician of the 14th century, was Kamal al-Din Abu’l-Hasan al-Farisi.  He wrote a book entitled ‘Tanqih al-Manazir’ (Correction of Optics) which is an elaborate and original commentary on Ibn al-Haitham’s Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics).  It covers not only physical and physiological optics, but also meteorology, perspective and many other subjects.  It includes remarks on aerial perspective, colour effects, etc.

Some other prominent figures in this field are as follows: Abu l’Isa Isma’il Ibn Razzaz, Qasar Ibn Abi’l-Qasim, Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Ibn Yunus etc.

Chemistry

Chemistry deals with the composition and properties of substances and the changes of composition they undergo. It has been divided into the Inorganic and Organic.

Many Muslim scientists contributed in this filed.  One of the most outstanding Muslim scientists in this field was Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Latinized as Geber), a great Muslim Chemist of the 8th century.  Hayyan was the one who modified the Aristotelean doctrine of four elements, and presented the so-called sulphur-mercury theory of metals.  According to this theory metals differ essentially because of different proportions of sulphur and mercury in them.  He also formulated the theory of geologic formation of metals.  Unlike his Greek predecessors, he did not merely speculate, but performed experiments to reach certain conclusions. He recognized and stated the importance of experimentation in Chemistry.  He combined the theoretical knowledge of the Greeks and practical knowledge of the craftsmen, and himself made noteworthy advance both in the theory and practice of Chemistry.

Jabir gave a scientific description of two principle operations of Chemistry.  One of them is calculations which are employed in the extraction of metals from their ores.  The other is reduction which is employed in numerous chemical treatments.  He improved upon methods of evaporation, melting, distillation, sublimation and crystallization.  These are the fundamental methods employed for the purification of chemical substances, enabling the chemist to study their properties and uses, and to prepare them.  The process of distillation is particularly applied for taking an extract of plant material.  Jabir is the author of a large number of books on Chemistry and a book on the astrolabe.  About one hundred chemical works ascribed to him are extant.  His fame chiefly rests on his chemical books preserved in Arabic.[19]

A Persian pharmacologist Abu Mansur Muwaffaq Ibn Ali al-Harawi who flourished in Heart in the 10th century, was apparently the first to think of compiling a treatise on Materia Medica in Pesian.  He travelled extensively in Persia and India to obtain necessary information.  He wrote, between 968 and 977, a book titled Kitab al-Abniyah’an Haqa’iq al-Adwiyah.  It contains Greek, Syriac, Arabian, Persian, and Indian knowledge.  It deals with 585 remedies (of which 466 are derived from plants, 75 from minerals, and 44 from animals).  He classified them into four groups according to their action, and gave the outline of a general pharmacological theory.

Abu Mansur distinguished between sodium carbonate (Natrum) and potassium carbonate.  He had some knowledge of arsenious oxide, cupric oxide, silic acid, antimony and so on.  He knew the toxicological effects of copper and lead compounds, the depilatory virtue of quicklime, the composition of plaster of paris and its surgical use.[20]

The Muslim chemists applied their chemical knowledge to a large number of industrial arts.  Only three such arts are mentioned here, which enable the readers to estimate the extent of their knowledge of Applied Chemistry.

Paper

Paper was invented by the Chinese who prepared it from the cocoon of the silk-worm.  Some specimens of Chinese, paper extant date back to the 2nd century.  The first manufacture of paper outside China occurred in Samarqand (757).  When Samarqand was captured by Muslims the manufacture of paper spread over the whole Muslim world including the Maghrib.  By the end of the 12th century there were four hundred paper mills in Fas alone.  In Spain the main centre of the manufacture of paper was Shatiba which remained a Muslim city until 1239.  Cordova was the centre of the business of paper in Spain.

The manufacture of writing paper in Spain is one of the most beneficial contribution of Muslims in Europe.  Without paper, the scale on which popular education in Europe developed would have been impossible in Europe due to the lack of silk production there.  The Muslim method of producing paper from cotton could only be useful for the Europeans.  After Spain the art of paper making was established in Italy (1268-76).  France owed its first paper mills in Muslim Spain.  From these countries the industry spread throughout Europe.  Books bound in the West towards the end of the 16th century are found with end-papers brought from the East, but it was not until about a century later that the European binders began to make them themselves.[21]

Tiles

The Industry of tile-making which involves a large number of complex technical and chemical processes was highly developed by Muslims.  Abd Allah Ibn Ali Kashani in the 13th century wrote a book on precious stones and perfumes.  In his book he explains the manufacture of Faience, the ingredients (as clay, borax, feldspar, cobalt, lapis Lazuli, lead, tin etc.), their mixtures the kiln processes and implements, the method of glazing and decorating.

Ceramic

The early history of Muslim ceramics has not been recorded so far. Many interesting specimens have been discovered in recent years, which throw much light on the development of this industry in the Muslim world.  The centres of this industry were situated in Persia, Syria, Egypt and Valencia from where various types spread rapidly through the Islamic Caliphate.

Under Muslim influence the potters in these centre’s revived old technical processes, developed new ones and began to experiment with decorative and ornamental schemes.  The Muslim potters readily absorbed progressive ideas, but at the same time, maintained great originality.  Two types of pottery were in common use:  enameled and lustred. Muslims, from an early period, were expert masters in enameled pottery (the glazed earthenware). They made great progress in lustered pottery.  In this, the design is painted in a metallic gleam, which varies in different specimens from a bright copper-red to a greenish-yellow tint, and in some cases throws off brilliant iridescent reflections.[22]

Medicine

The history of Islamic medicine is remarkable.  Centuries before the advent of Islam the Arabs had their own system of medicine in the form of herbs and shrubs which was based on Chaldean medicine and on their own experience.  Their first physician was Luqman and the second Khuzaim.  Gradually, Greek medicine attracted their attention. Harith Ibn Kaldah was the first to introduce Greek medicine to the Arabs.  After that some books began to be written on the subject.  Tiazauq composed a few treatises on pharmacology, and Khalid Ibn Yazid Ibn Mu’awiyah got some Greek and Egyptian books translated into Arabic.  This was the condition during the rule of Banu Umayyah.  But science of medicine flourished during the reign of the Abbasis.[23]

According to Dr. Robert Briffault, an eminent Western scholar, the allopathic system of medicine is the outcome of Arabian Medicine.  He remarks:

“The Pharmacopoeia created by the Arabs is virtually that which but for the recent synthetic and organotherapic preparations, is in the use at the present day; our common drugs, such as nux vomica, Senna, rhubarb, aconite, gentian, myrrh, calomel, and the structure of our prescription, belong to Arabic Medicine”

He also discloses that the medical schools of Montpellier, Padua and Pisa were founded on the pattern of that of Cordova under the Jew doctors trained in Arab schools, and the Qanun of Ibn Sina and the surgery of Abu’l’Qasim al-Zahrawi remained the text books of medical science throughout Europe until the 17th century.[24]

The Arabs had a fair knowledge of anatomy as it is obvious from the names of the internal and external organs of the human and animal bodies, found in the literature of the pre-Islamic Arabia.  When they became acquainted with the Greek anatomical descriptions, they made investigations on them, pointed out many errors in the work of their predecessors, and made many fresh discoveries in this field.  In order to verify the Greek anatomical ideas prevailing at that time Yuhanna Ibn Masawaih made dissection of the apes which were supplied to him by the order of of the Abbasi Caliph Mu’tasim Billah.  After this verification he composed his work on anatomy.  The works of Muslim physicians and surgeons, like Tashrih al-Mansuri by Mansur Ibn Muhammad contain illustrations of human organs, which were not found in the Greek works.  These illustrations also throw light on the Muslim practical knowledge of anatomy. [25]

The contributions of Muslims in the field of bacteriology are quite revolutionary.  According to Browne, Muslims were fully aware of the theory of germs.  Ibn Sina was the first to state that bodily secretion is contaminated by foul foreign earthly bodies before getting the infection.  Ibn Khatimah of the 14th century stated that man is surrounded by minute bodies which enter the human body and cause disease.  [26]

Al-Razi was the first physician to differentiate between smallpox and measles. His Greek, Indian predecessors were unable to differentiate between these two diseases.  Abu’l’Hasan al-Tabari was the first to regard tuberculosis as an infiltration, and stated that it affects not only the lungs but also the other organs.  The Bright’s disease, the discovery of which is ascribed to Dr. Richard of the 18th century, was in fact discovered by Najib al-Din al-Samarqandi centuries before him.[27]

From the time of Banu Umayyah rule the Muslims developed the institution of hospitals.  During the reign of the Abbasi Caliph Harun al-Rashid, a hospital was built in Baghdad, which was the first in the history of this city.  Many new hospitals were established shortly afterwards.  Some of them had their own gardens in which the medicinal plants were cultivated.  The large hospitals had medical schools attached to them.  Beside such hospitals there was a large number of travelling in the Muslim world.[28] The Muslim hospitals served as models for the hospitals established in different parts of Europe, particularly in Italy and France.  The establishment of hospitals throughout Europe in the 14th century was partly due to the influence of the crusades.

An important physician and surgeon of the 11th century was Abu’l-Qasim al-Zahrawi.  He was born at al-Zahra in the suburb of Cordova (Spain), the centre of the Western Muslim Empire.   He wrote a book entitled Al-Tasrif, which is an encyclopedic work comprising all branches of medicine and surgery.  Roger Bacon, John Tchanning and other scholars remarked that al-Zahrawi’s work helped in laying the foundation of surgery in Europe.  For centuries the Western scholars made references to this work in their books.  It has influenced Muslim scholars also, and it is still being referred to and taught at the centre’s of Arabian Medicine in the East.[29]

Other great personalities who flourished in this field are as follows: Ibn Sina, Arib Ibn Sa’id al-Katib, Abu Ja’far Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Abi Khalid etc.

This was a brief introduction to the Muslim contribution to Western Civilization.  For further study, one should study the book of George Sarton: Introduction to the History of Science.  George Sarton divided his work into fifty year periods, naming each chapter after the most eminent scientist of the period in question.  For the years from the middle of the eighth century to the twelfth century, each of seventy fifty periods carries the name of a Muslim scientist.  Within these chapters Sarton lists one hundred important Muslim scientists and their principal works.

Now I will quote a few Western authorities though whom one will realize the greatness of the Muslim civilization which existed.

Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher, wrote (Pakistan Quarterly, Vol. 4, No.3):

”The supremacy of the East was not only military.  Science, philosophy, poetry, and the arts, all flourished in the Muhammadan world at a time when Europe was sunk in barbarism.  Europeans, with unpardonable insularity, call this period ‘dark ages’: but it was only in Europe that it was dark- indeed only in the Christian Europe, for Spain, which was Muhammadan, had a brilliant culture.

Robert Briffault, the renowned historian, acknowledges in his book The Making of Humanity:

“It is highly probable that but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have assumed that character which enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution.  For although there is not a single aspect of human growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it clear that momentous  as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the paramount distinctive force of the modern world and the supreme course of its victory-natural sciences and the scientific spirit…  What we call sciences arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of inquiry; of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of Mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks.  That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs”

T. Arnold says in his book ‘The Legacy of Islam’

“Cordova in the 10th century under the Muslim rule was the most civilized city in Europe, the wonder and admiration of the world.  Travelers from the north heard with something like fear of the city which contained 70 libraries with hundreds of thousands of volumes, and 900 public baths, yet whenever the ruler of Leon Navarre of Barcelona needed a surgeon, and architect, a dressmaker, or a musician, it was Cordova that they applied.

I have presented only a few specimens of the glorious Islamic Civilization.  I hope that those making a historical study of Islamic Civilization shall take it to completion in great detail and full elucidation.  In this way, it may appear before the young generation in its proper attractive form and with perfect grace and beauty.

My message is that the nation which remains ignorant and unaware of its history, in spite of having a glorious past, has no present either.  The nation that remains elevated from its unique characteristics and excellences, has no future, since every nation and civilization has a national relationship with its past and it is its fundamental characteristics that bring civilization back to existence.

 


[1] Introduction to the History of Science, 3 Vols.

[2] The Making of Humanity

[3] Civilisation de Arabes

[4] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 521

[5] Arnold and Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam, Oxford 1974, p. 385

[6] Arnold and Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam, Oxford 1974, p. 384

[7] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 553

[8] Arnold and Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam, Oxford 1974, p. 384

[9] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 598-599

[10] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 664

[11] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 665

[12] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 666

[13] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 707

[14] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1951, Vol. 1, p. 632

[15] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1951, Vol. 1, p. 707

[16] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1951, Vol. 1, p. 721

[17] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1951, Vol. 2, p. 1009

[18] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1951, Vol. 1, p. 1018

[19] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1950, Vol. 1, p. 532

[20]Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1950, Vol. 1, p.  678

[21] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1950, Vol. 3, p. 321

[22] Arnold and Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam, Oxford 1974, p. 125

[23] Edward G. Browne, Arabian Medicine, Lahore 1954, p. 368

[24] Briffault, Robert, The Making of Humanity, Islamic foundation Lahore, 1980, p. 201

[25] Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science Washington, 1950, Vol. 3, p. 729

[26] Landau, Rom, Islam and the Arabs, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd, London, 1958,p. 178

[27] Edward G. Browne, Arabian Medicine, Lahore 1954, p. 4

[28] Arnold and Guillaume, The Legacy of Islam, Oxford 1949, p. 221

[29] Edward G. Browne, Arabian Medicine, Lahore 1954, p. 343