In this present era, Islam is viewed as anything but a source of inspiration and enlightenment. This is despite the fact that a crucial part of Islam is to seek and attain knowledge. The Quran repeatedly invites man to observe, ponder and use his intellect to understand his surroundings:
“Do they not look at the camels, how they are created? And the heaven, how it is raised? And the mountains, how they are rooted (and fixed firm)? And the earth, how it is outspread?” (Al-Ghashiyah 88:17-20)
In addition, Prophet Muhammad (sa) placed importance on knowledge: “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” and “Verily, the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the Prophets.” (Abu Dawood and Tirmidhi)
Islamic civilization under the Abbasid dynasty experienced a Golden Age, spanning mid-eighth century to the mid-thirteenth century. The Muslim Empire encompassed present-day Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, Spain, and parts of Turkey. The caliphate’s capital was in Baghdad, which drew people from all parts of the empire. Hence, the culture unified Arab, Persian, Egyptian and European traditions. This resulted in an era of astonishing intellectual and cultural achievements by Muslim scholars, scientists, craftsmen and traders.
The Quran and the Sunnah inspired Muslims to excel in various fields, such as mathematical sciences, medicine, geography, chemistry, philosophy, art and architecture.
In the initial stage of the Abbasid era, Muslim scholars collected the Greek scientific manuscripts and translated them into Arabic. The flexibility of the Arabic language and the richness of its terminology facilitated the translation process. All of this was carried out at the Bayt-Al-Hikmah (the house of wisdom) – a huge library and research center based in Baghdad. It became an invaluable source of information and a place, where the early scholars of Islam assembled, analyzed and extensively supplemented the Greek works.
Muslim Contributions to Mathematical Sciences and Medicine
Early Muslim scholars agreed with Aristotle that the basis of all science was mathematics. The Quran also contained several complex laws of inheritance, which could be solved through mathematical equations. So mathematics was initially focused on. Traditionally, mathematical sciences included mathematics itself, geometry, astronomy and physics.
One of the greatest Islamic mathematicians was Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi. He is the founder of modern algebra. In fact, the word ‘algebra’ is derived from his famous book “Hisab Al-Jabr waAl-Muqablah” (“The Calculation of Integration and Equation”). Until the sixteenth century, this became a standard text in most European universities. Al-Khwarizmi also developed the sine, cosine and trignometrical tables, which were later translated in the west. Moreover, he helped explain the Arabic numerals and the concept of zero – a number of fundamental significance to mathematics. Furthermore, he developed the decimal system, hence the numerical sequence of numbers.
Another great mathematician was Thabit Bin Qura, who developed algebra further. Abu Kamil, who also worked on algebra, was called ’the Egyptian calculator.’ Ghiyath Al-din al Kashani worked on theory of numbers and techniques of computations.
According to a North African historian, geometry was a greatly encouraged study, as it “enlightens the intelligence of the man, who cultivates it and gives him the habit of thinking exactly.” The three brothers Banu Musa, who lived in the ninth century, were probably the first outstanding Muslim geometers. Abul Wafa, also a very accomplished mathematician, wrote a book, which explained, how algebra could be used to solve geometrical problems.
Astronomy is highly valued in Islam, particularly for accurately predicting prayer times and the Islamic lunar calendar. Islamic astronomers studied eclipses, the rotation of the planets, the circumference of the Earth, the mean orbit of the Sun and the length of seasons. Abu Abdullah Al-Battani is considered to be one of the greatest Islamic astronomers. One of his discoveries was the precise estimate of the solar year, and it was very close to the modern estimates.
Muslims were also the first in establishing an astronomical observatory as a scientific institution. This was the Maragha observatory in modern-day Iran, established by Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi. Maragha contained a library of 400,000 books and as a school of astronomy. The observatory was used as a model for the later European observatories. Al-Tusi was a Persian astronomer, who was held in high esteem, especially for discovering and explaining the difference between trigonometry and astronomy. Muslims also invented numerous astronomical instruments, the most famous being the astrolabe.
One of the most eminent physicists was Abu Al-Fath Abd Al-Rahman Al-Kahzini. He studied mechanics and hydrostats, and wrote several books on physics and astronomy. Another esteemed physicist was Abu Al-Hassan al Haitham, who made significant contributions to optics and the scientific method.
Muslims have shown an avid interest in the field of medicine since the time of the Prophet (sa), who said that there existed a cure for every disease. A major medical achievement in Islam was the establishment of a hospital for lepers in Damascus. This was the first of its kind, and it was a huge accomplishment, since lepers in Europe were condemned and burnt by royal decree. Also, many advanced hospitals and clinics were built in the Muslim Empire during the ninth century, which included also pharmacies, libraries, lecture rooms for medical students and separate wards for men and women.
One of the greatest Muslim physicians was Ibn Sina (Avicenna). He was called the ‘prince of physicians’ in the West. He wrote 246 books on many subjects. His most famous book was titled “Al-Qanun fi Al-Tibb” (“The Canon of Medicine”), the chief medical guide throughout Europe until the seventeenth century. Dr. William Osler, the author of “The Evolution of Modern Science,” stated: “The Qanun has remained a medical Bible for a longer period than any other work.” Ibn Sina discovered many drugs and identified several diseases such as diabetes, mellitus, and meningitis. He also recognized the contagious nature of tuberculosis and made notable contributions to anatomy, gynecology, child health and the interaction between health and psychology.
Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi, known as Rhazes, was the most prolific Muslim doctor, whose accomplishments were probably second only to Ibn Sina. He wrote more than 200 books on such subjects as pharmacy and chemistry. His major contribution was a 20-volume encyclopedia, titled “Al-Hawi” (“the Continence”). He headed the first Royal Hospital at Ray, Iran, and discovered treatments for kidney and bladder stones. He was the first to use opium for anesthesia and the first to introduce alcohol for medical purposes. Moreover, he conducted research on small pox, measles, hereditary diseases and eye diseases.
Another exceptional Islamic physician was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, who headed the famous school of translation in Baghdad and wrote the first systematic textbook on ophthalmology. Yuhannah Ibn Masawayh was another great physician, who authored books on fevers, headaches, nutrition and sterility in women. Abul Qasim Al-Zahrawi, a renowned surgeon, attracted patients and students from all over the Muslim Empire as well as Europe. Known as Albucasis in the West, he wrote a medical encyclopedia on surgical knowledge and illustrated 200 surgical instruments. This encyclopedia was used as a standard reference book in universities in Europe for about five centuries. He performed many delicate operations and was the first to use silk thread for stitching wounds.
It is usually a foregone conclusion that medicine was developed by Western minds. However, Harvard’s George Sentors says that modern science is entirely an Islamic development. A lot of European physicians, such as Johann Weger, were taught the medical studies of Ibn Sina and ar-Razi. In this way, Muslim scholars contributed to every scientific field and were widely used as sources in the early Western schools of learning. As Dr. Ahmed stated in a live dialogue on Islam Online: “The contributions of Muslims scientists in the pre-renaissance era accelerated the renaissance by at least 100 years in Europe.”
The accomplishments of all the above mentioned Muslim scholars were many. However, it was not only their contributions that made them so successful. It was their source of inspiration, the Quran and the Sunnah, combined with firm belief in their faith that laid the foundations for modern awakening.
For all the aspiring scholars out there, this quotation by Khawarizmi can be truly inspirational: “That fondness for science… that affability and condescension, which God shows to the learned, that promptitude, with which He protects and supports them in the elucidation of obscurities and in the removal of difficulties, has encouraged me to compose a short work on calculating by Al-Jabr [algebra] and Al-Muqabala, confining it to what is easiest and most useful in arithmetic.”
Contributions of the early Muslims were so vivid, abundant and diverse that this article has barely been able to give them the credit they so richly deserve. Contributions of Muslims to the fields of geography, chemistry, philosophy, art and architecture will be discussed in the successive article.