Great inventions from the Islamic world

 

Science and inventions from the Islamic world

 

”Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600”

A VERY late Eid Moubarak and early Happy Islamic New Year for every Muslim reader all around the world. In this post of mine, I would like to briefly introduce readers on how Islamic science was pioneering in and oftentimes served as the original creator of numerous scientific fields and parented tons of today’s scientific researches as well. 

I would also like to introduce you to some inventions you may have never imagined that they have Arabic/Islamic origins.

Please check out my latest post on my Morocco blog where I discuss most of the most important symbols, amulets, talismans, which exist in the Islamic world in different ways and forms. symbols in Islam and in Morocco.

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When it comes to the state of the Islamic world today, unfortunately, it’s not sciences or inventions that come to our mind. However, Islamic countries weren’t as secular and anti-modernists as they may seem these days.  

Back in the day, a little bit after Islam as a religion was born and the Arabic conquests were underway, the then-new Islamic world had the firm goal in mind to create an Islamic empire that’s not only the strongest in terms of religion, armies but also the most defining in terms of culture and science fields. The Islamic world has therefore gone ahead and actively started to harbor knowledge, most notably collecting all works of Aristotle who has had always been counted as one of the greatest thinkers of all time.  It was the works of his which were used as a basis for their further studies and inventions.

Islamic science as the precursor of modern European science

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For about 4-500 years from roughly the beginning of Middle Ages until the dawn of the New Age the Arabic language was synonymous with learning and science for over five hundred years, a Golden Age that can count among its credits the precursors to modern universities, algebra, the names of the stars, and even the notion of science as an empirical inquiry. Arabic sciences were so significant that between the 10th and 13th century Europeans, especially those in Spain, were translating Arabic works into Hebrew and Latin as fast as possible. The result was a rebirth of learning that ultimately transformed Western civilization through the Renaissance.

The Golden Age of  Islamic sciences

The Golden Age of  Islamic sciences was especially between the 10th and 11th centuries when three great thinkers strode the East: Abu Ali al- Hasan ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen; Abu Rayham Muhammad al-Biruni; and Abu Ali al-Hussein Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna. Al-Haytham, born in Iraq in 965, experimented with light and vision, laying the foundation for modern optics and for the notion that science should be based on the experiment as well as on philosophical arguments. al-Haytham “ranks with Archimedes, Kepler, and Newton as a great mathematical scientist.

Muslim Inventions related to astronomy

Astronomy is the study of the universe and its contents outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Astronomers examine the positions, motions, and properties of celestial objects. Astrology attempts to study how those positions, motions, and properties affect people and events on Earth. Astronomy became a major discipline within Islamic science. Astronomers devoted effort both towards understanding the nature of the cosmos and to practical purposes. The best astronomical minds of the Muslim world tackled the job of producing tables or diagrams by which the qibla, or sacred directions, could be found from any point in the Islamic world. Qibla has always been essential in order to properly determine the right position to pray ( facing Meccah).

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An ancient book featuring observations on Moon phases

The key inventions of Muslim astronomers

  1. Distinguishing Natural Philosophy from Astronomy
  2. Differentiating between Astrology and Astronomy
  3. Translation of ancient Greek, Persian and Sanskrit Text
  4. Respect and thirst for Knowledge from all corners of the globe
  5. The amalgamation of existing Knowledge
  6. Development and several measurement devices and Astrolabes
  7. Construction of the first observatories
  8. Establishing Heliocentricity
  9. Establishing Spherical Geometry and improvement of mathematical astronomy
  10. Establishing methods for estimation of Moonsighting

“And it is He who ordained the stars for you that you may be guided thereby in the darkness of the land and the sea.” <Qur’an-An’am-97> 

As you can see the Holy Quran clearly urges believers to study and therefore rely on the stars,  to learn how to define the position with their help for better navigation. 

The building of the First Observatories

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ancient Turkish painting featuring a group of astronomers studying the stars and making calculations

It was Muslim astronomers who first created the observatories, institutions which were specifically designed and equipped to study the stars and their positions. Two of the biggest observatories of their time that are still present today were made by Muslims (Samarkand Observatory and Istanbul Observatory).

Defining the solar year

In ninth-century Baghdad, the Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Mamun set up an institute, the House of Wisdom, to translate manuscripts. Among the first works rendered into Arabic was the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy’s Great Work, which described a universe in which the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars revolved around Earth; Al-Magest, as the work was known to Arabic scholars, became the basis for cosmology for the next five hundred years. One of the most famous and notable Muslim astronomers is called Al Battani and he has lots of fantastic inventions.  Al –Battani  (858-959) calculated the length of the sidereal year to be 365d 5h 48m 24s. This calculation was used in Europe for the next 600 years.

The Ottoman astronomers made astronomical tables that were considered at least as accurate as those of fellow 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe of Denmark, whose observations of the planets served as the basis for Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion

Astronomy on many levels worked alongside astrology, which is studying all the ways the movement and current position of the stars the sun and the moon can predicting events affecting human life. Astrology has been actively used even by the great philosophical and military minds of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire to determine events or the best times to proceed with an action. Millions of people deeply rely on astrology also today. 

The perfecting of the astrolabe, sextant, the water-clock, and trigonometry

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a fantastic looking astrolabe used by Muslim astronomers. It was a remarkable invention for so many reasons, emphasizing on the fact that it’s the machine that was able to do complex tasks and calculations at the same time.

 

Al-Zarqali (1028–1087) developed the best accurate astrolabe, used for centuries afterward.

While the ancient astrolabe, was invented around 200 and 150 BC, today’s further perfected astrolabe technology was invented in the medieval Islamic world. Muslim astronomers introduced angular scales to the design, adding circles indicating azimuths on the horizon. The first Mural Sextant, a device that primarily serves to define one’s location according to the stars, and the Moon is a machine that connects with the astrolabe was constructed in Ray, Iran, by Abu-Mahmud al-Khujandi in 994.

He constructed the water clock in Toledo, discovered that the Sun’s apogee moves slowly relative to the fixed stars, and obtained a good estimate of its motion for its rate of change. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) another great astronomical mind was given the chance to consult with Chinese astronomical scientists to learn and improve their methods of studying the planets, stars and their movements  He also happened to found trigonometry as a separate field, which helped him compile the most accurate astronomical tables available up to that time.

Ulugh Beyg was a fifteenth-century Timurid Sultan and also a mathematician and astronomer. He built an observatory in 1428 and produced the first original star map since Ptolemy, which corrected the position of many stars and included many new ones.

 

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Astrolabe was actually the first complex analog calculator, that measures the altitude of stars and planets above the horizon, capable of working out several different kinds of problems in spherical astronomy. The astrolabe is also invented by Arabic scientists. 

 

Islamic astrology

Astrology was considered a branch of astronomy, and serious scientists such as Abu Macshar al-Balkhi (787–886), al-Biruni, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) all wrote astrological treatises. The number of medieval theologians, jurists, and philosophers who wrote anti-astrology tracts, however, indicates that it was controversial and not universally accepted as a scientific or ethical practice.

 

Alchemy, Chemistry,  and Natural sciences in the Islamic World

The word and ancient science Al Khemia serve as the origin of both modern chemistry and alchemy, which were the root of modern sciences and the age of Renaissance. Let’s say a few words on each science and on the notable people who greatly helped today’s modern science to be created.

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Natural sciences played a great role in Islamic science in the Middle Ages. This is a botanical book that contains detailed descriptions of all the various plants and their characteristics.

Alchemy, already well-established before the rise of Islam, stemmed from the belief that substances comprised mixtures of the four Aristotelian elements (fire, earth, air, and water) in different proportions. Alchemists regarded gold as the noblest metal and held that other metals formed a series down to the basest, such as lead. They believed, too, that a fifth element, the elixir, could transform the base metal into gold. Jabir ibn Hayyan (8th–9th centuries) wrote on alchemy, based on his own experiments. He described laboratory techniques and experimental methods that would continue in use when alchemy had transformed into chemistry. Ibn Hayyan identified many substances, including sulphuric and nitric acids. He described processes such as sublimation, reduction, and distillation. He made use of equipment such as the alembic and the retort stand.

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the method of the distillery was founded and perfected by Muslim scientist Ibn Hayyan

Muslim scientists have also managed to find, explore, and study numerous chemical elements. The first more detailed periodic tables and descriptions on the characteristics of chemicals, metals, and other elements were first presented by Muslim scientists. 

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Ibn Hayyan was one of the most notable scientists of all time, his work is considered groundbreaking in terms of natural sciences

Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān c. 721 – c. 815), is the supposed author of an enormous number and variety of works in Arabic often called the Jabirian corpus. The scope of the corpus is vast and diverse covering a wide range of topics, including alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, magic, mysticism, and philosophy. 

The following inventions are connected with the works of Ibn Hayyan: 

  • The inventing of the alembic
  • The finding of chemical elements such as cinnabar, hydrochloric acid, sulfur, mercury, and their theory.
  • Pinhole camera
  • optic chiasma – see more under Optical sciences
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The Jabirian Corpus is one of the most important work in the world concerning alchemist and renaissance scientific experimentations and inventions

Popularly known as the father of chemistry, Jabir’s works contain the oldest known systematic classification of chemical substances, and the oldest known instructions for deriving an inorganic compound (sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride) from organic substances (such as plants, blood, and hair) by chemical means.

 

Explorations, Geography, and cartography

 

A surviving fragment of the first World Map of Piri Reis (1513)
 

The spread of Islam ( and the Islamic conquests) across Western Asia, Southern Europe, and North Africa from the 700s encouraged an unprecedented growth in trade and travel by land and sea as far away as Southeast Asia, China, much of Africa, Scandinavia, and even Iceland. Muslim geographers worked to compile increasingly accurate maps of the known world, starting from many existing but fragmentary sources.

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi (850–934), founder of the Balkhī school of cartography in Baghdad, wrote an atlas called Figures of the Regions (Suwar al-Aqalim). Al-Biruni (973–1048) measured the radius of the earth using a new method. It involved observing the height of a mountain at Nandana (now in Pakistan).  Al-Idrisi (1100–1166) drew a map of the world for Roger, the Norman King of Sicily (ruled 1105-1154). He also wrote the Tabula Rogeriana (Book of Roger), a geographic study of the peoples, climates, resources, and industries of the whole of the world known at that time.

The Ottoman admiral Piri Reis (c. 1470–1553) also made a map of the New World and West Africa in 1513. He made use of maps from Greece, Portugal, Muslim sources, and perhaps one made by Christopher Columbus. He represented a part of a major tradition of Ottoman cartography.

Modern copy of al-Idrisi‘s 1154 Tabula Rogeriana, upside-down, north at the top

The biggest Muslim travelers and explorers

Ibn Battuta or Abu Abdulla Muhammad from Tangiers Morocco is often referred as the biggest world explorer of the Middle Ages. Early 1300s Ibn Battuta was known as the greatest Muslim explorer in history.  Fourteenth Century scholar from Tangier, Morocco, spent 30 years connecting the Muslim kingdoms in Africa, Arabia, India, and China by visiting the great Islamic learning centers of his time. he visited 44 countries in over 30 years. An unparalleled traveler in his time and easily surpassing that of his contemporary Marco Polo, he crossed Egypt, Abyssinia, Africa, Spain, Southern Russia, Indo-China, China, and many many more. He also performed the Hajj four times! Morocco’s sultan ordered him to compile a travelogue after returning to the country for good in 1354. Dictating his stories to a writer named Ibn Juzayy, together they compiled a book entitled ‘A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling’, or better known as the Rihla, meaning “travels”. His book forever stands as one of the most eye-opening accounts of the Islamic world in the 14th century.

Abu Al Hasan Al Masudi and his world map

Known as “The Herodotus of the Arabs”, Al-Masudi was a famous historian and geographer who combined history and scientific geography in his work of world history, ‘The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems’ (Also known as مروج الذهب ومعادن الجوهر‎‎, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin al-jawhar in Arabic)Born in Baghdad, he spent the majority of his life traveling to East Africa, the Middle East, Persia, Russia, India, and China, compiling his work. 

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this  world map drawn by Abu Al Hasan Al Masudi has counted as revolutionary for a long time

 

Medicinal and scientific studies

Islamic society paid careful attention to medicine, following a hadith enjoining the preservation of good health. Its physicians inherited knowledge and traditional medical beliefs from the civilizations of classical Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia, and India. These included the writings of Hippocrates and the theories of Galen al-Razi (c. 854–925/935) identified smallpox and measles and recognized fever as a part of the body’s defenses.

 

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the first in-depth scientific research in the world regarding the characteristics of the eye.
 

Al-Zahrawi (936–1013) was a surgeon whose most important surviving work is referred to as al-Tasrif (Medical Knowledge). It is a 30-volume set mainly discussing medical symptoms, treatments, and pharmacology. The last volume, on surgery, describes surgical instruments, supplies, and pioneering procedures. Avicenna (c. 980–1037) wrote the major medical textbook, The Canon of Medicine.  Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288) wrote an influential book on medicine; it largely replaced Avicenna’s Canon in the Islamic world. He wrote commentaries on Galen and on Avicenna’s works. One of these commentaries, discovered in 1924, described the circulation of blood through the lungs. 

The first optical studies and studies about the characteristics of eyesight and the reflection of the light. 

The first proper optical studies using the magnifying glass and describe the proper nature of the rays of light were performed by Muslim scientists. In the eleventh century, Ibn al-Haytham has released one scientifically outstanding book, the first of its kind:  The Book of Optics. In his book, he states that vision occurs by way of light rays forming a cone with its vertex at the center of the eye. He suggested that light was reflected from different surfaces in different directions, thus causing objects to look different. He argued further that the mathematics of reflection and refraction needed to be consistent with the anatomy of the eye. He was also an early proponent of the scientific method, the concept that a hypothesis must be proved by experiments based on confirmable procedures or mathematical evidence, five centuries before Renaissance scientists.

Metabolism and studying of bodily functions

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Ibn Sina was a physician and philosopher born near Bukhara, also now in Uzbekistan, in 981-1037 [3]. He wrote al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, or The Canons of Medicinea million-word medical encyclopedia, a seminal volume that was the first to recognize the contagious nature of tuberculosis, to identify meningitis, and to describe all the minute parts of the eye. By the 12th century, the Canons had been translated into Latin, and European medicine relied on this text until well into the 1700s. 

The first clinical trials

It was Muslim scientists from the Middle ages who have first founded the notion of clinical trials, that covers the empirical experimenting of medical treatment methods on several patients.

Physics

Ibn Bajjah (Avempace, c. 1085–1138) proposed that for every force there is a reaction force. While he did not specify that these forces be equal, this was still an early version of Newton’s third law of motion.

Mathematics 

A page from al-Khwarizmi’s Algebra
 

Islamic mathematicians gathered, organized, and clarified the mathematics they inherited from ancient Egypt, Greece, India, Mesopotamia, and Persia, and went on to make innovations of their own. Islamic mathematics covered algebra, geometry, and arithmetic.

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drawing representing early definitions of geometry/algebra

Back in the day, Algebra was mainly used for recreation: it had few practical applications at that time. Geometry was studied at different levels. Some texts contain practical geometrical rules for surveying and for measuring figures. Theoretical geometry was a necessary prerequisite for understanding astronomy and optics, and it required years of concentrated work. Early in the Abbasid caliphate (founded 750), soon after the foundation of Baghdad in 762, some mathematical knowledge was assimilated by al-Mansur’s group of scientists from the pre-Islamic Persian tradition in astronomy.

By the second half of the ninth century, Islamic mathematicians were already making contributions to the most sophisticated parts of Greek geometry. Islamic mathematics reached its apogee in the Eastern part of the Islamic world between the tenth and twelfth centuries. Most medieval Islamic mathematicians wrote in Arabic, others in Persian.

 

Other notable inventions by Muslims

The first mechanical devices

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Machinery that works with automation

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drawing of a paper mill working with automated mechanical movement

Further inventions from all across the Islamic world include coffee, the first modern standing army, defining chemical elements, and their nature with reactions. The Ottoman empire had the first standing infantry force equipped with firearms.  Also, the Islamic world has created the first schools with dormitories for sciences (Medersa), the first mental institute, and introduced the importance of personal hygiene applied through public baths to Europe.

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Thanks to the Quran actively promoting the notion of jihad and conquests Islamic armies have presented with tons of inventions and novelties in terms of warfare.

Other Outstanding inventions from the Muslim world:

  • Damascus steel
  • Papermill
  • Hard soap
  • The invention of Kerosene
  • The invention of the windpump
  • The invention and use of syringe

Check out this wonderful page called 1001 Inventions to learn even more about all the amazing inventions that can be thanked for Muslim scientists, all across the Muslim empire and which lay the groundwork for modern science to born in Europe later on.