Glimpses of Scientific Achievements in Islamic History

The staggering contribution of Muslim and non-Muslim citizens to science and technology, as mentioned in this section, are meant only to serve as examples and should be understood as merely representative of the glorious services rendered by them to the overall development of universal science and technology. Although much of the earlier scientific knowledge of Muslims came from the Indians, Persians, Chinese and the Greeks, they rapidly extended this knowledge and established their own disciplines thereafter.

Before Islam, Arabs had a rudimentary knowledge of history and geography. Their history was limited to the annals of the local tribes and territories.

From the early days of Islam, the Muslims of all regions in general, and those of Arabian Peninsular in particular, traveled extensively through plains, hills, rivers, oceans, forests and deserts in connections with Jihad, Hajj and trade. In the course of their life, they collected information on social, political, historical, geographical, economical, agricultural and other conditions of the land they visited or settled in.

As a consequence of the collection of such information, and the drive by the Islamic State for study and research, sciences such as history and geography became rich. During those days, the travel was tedious and hazardous because there were no mechanical means of transportation, only animals, and no regular roads existed, yet the citizens traveled extensively through all kinds of terrain.

So far as the physical or experimental sciences are concerned, the pre-Islamic Arabs had some knowledge of them. With their keen sense of observation, they gathered information on animals like horses, camels and sheep and on the indigenous plants of their vast deserts. Some medical use of these plants was also known to them. The names mentioned in the pre-Islamic Arabic literature of various internal and external organs of the human and animal bodies suggest that their knowledge of anatomy was quite fair. The Arabs had some knowledge of astronomy and meteorology as well. They had some information on the fixed stars, the movements of the planets and the patterns of weather. A number of arts and crafts such as horse breeding and camel rearing were also in existence among them.

In order to make the foreign scientific works easily understandable, it was necessary to undertake the selective translations of these scientific works into Arabic. Arabic, being a flexible and rich language, easily provided sufficient terminology for the new sciences. The objective was not just to translate but also rather to build upon what was translated. A number of academies were established in many places in the Muslim world to carry out the work of translation. During the rule of the ‘Abbasi Khulafa’, particularly al-Mansur (754 – 775 CE) and al-Ma‘mun (813 – 833 CE), extensive activity was shown in the preparation and translation of scientific works. One such example is the establishment of Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) in 832 CE in Baghdad, which acted as the central repository of translated work in Arabic.

Significant work was accomplished by the end of the 10th century CE. The translators belonged to different ethnic and religious groups. For instance, Nawbakht was of Persian origin. Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari was an Arab. Hunayn ibn Ishaq was a Nestorian Christian from Hirah.

The Muslim scientists accepted the scientific conclusions of others subject to their experimental verification and made new observations and experiments that lead to new discoveries. Muslim scientists used the practical approach to scientific problems with the abstract thought.

Muslim scientists recognized the physical or qualitative and the mathematical or quantitative aspects of science. They made qualitative as well as quantitative studies of numerous scientific problems. For instance, Ibn Khurdad-bih determined the latitudes and longitudes of various places in the Muslim world. Al-Biruni ascertained the specific gravity of a number of substances.

The experiments in chemistry, physics and medicine were performed in the laboratories and those in pathology and surgery in the hospitals. Observatories were set up at various places in the Muslim world, such as Damascus, Baghdad, and Nishapur to perform astronomical observations.

Arrangements for the dissection of the corpses were made for the practical teaching of anatomy. The Khaleefah al-Mu‘tasim (833 – 842 CE) supplied a physician with apes for this purpose. Practical demonstrations of surgical operations for the students were given in the hospitals.

Literacy had reached the highest standard among the Muslim people during the 11th and 12th century CE. The scientific spirit of that age is indicated by the optical work of Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi, a scholar of fiqh and judge of Cairo, which dealt with fifty optical problems.

In Islamic State, scientists not only made original contributions to science but also applied their scientific discoveries in technological innovation. They observed the stars, and prepared star maps for navigational purposes. Ibn Yunus made use of pendulum for the measurement of time. Ibn Sina used air thermometers to measure air temperature. Paper, compass, gun, gunpowder, inorganic acids and alkaline bases are some of the most important examples of scientific and technological developments of Muslim scientists, which brought about an unprecedented revolution in human civilization.

Muslim scientists made algebra a permanent branch of mathematics. The word ‘algebra’ is derived from its original Arabic root jabr. Muslim scientists also evolved plane and spherical trigonometry, and applied it to astronomy. They also separated astrology from astronomy, because a belief in the influence of stars on the fate of human beings is heresy in Islam. Astronomy was thus developed to the stage of a pure science after its purification from superstitious beliefs.

The numerous Arabic words and scientific terms currently being used in European languages are living monuments of Muslim contributions to modern science. In addition, the large number of books in the libraries of Asia and Europe, the museums of many countries, and the mosques and palaces built centuries ago also bear an eloquent testimony to this important phenomenon of world history.

Some examples of words derived from Arabic are: cipher and chiffre (in English and French respectively), derived from the Arabic word sifr(meaning empty or nil), describing a number written at the right of another numeral to increase its value ten times; the word alkali in chemical terminology used for that particular substance which gives a salt when combined with an acid, is a modified form of the Arabic word al-qali; the French word escadre and the English word squadron for a section of armed forces, have been derived from the Arabic word ‘askariyyah used in the same sense; and the word admiral is derived from amir al-rahl and there are many others.

In the process of translation, the names of a large number of Muslim scholars have also altered, deceiving readers into thinking that they are the names of non-Muslim Europeans. Some such names are: Abu al-Qasim alZahrawi is known as Albucasis, Muhammad ibn Jabir ibn Sinan al-Battani is known as Albetinius and Abu ‘Ali ibn Sina is known as Avicenna.

It is quite obvious that the spirit of inquiry created in the Muslims and the scientific method of investigation that they formulated resulted in the evolution of modern science.