ISLAMIC CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCEBy: Aminuddin Ahmad
The Islamic empire in the early 6th. centuries were the inheritors of the scientific tradition of late antiquity. They preserved it, elaborated it, and finally, passed it to Europe (Science p3). At this early date, the Islamic dynasty of the Umayyads envinced an interest in science. It was the century that were, for Europeans, the Dark Ages, were, for Muslim scholars, centuries of philosophical and scientific discovery and development. The Arabs at the time not only assimilated the ancient wisdom of Persia, and the classical heritage of Greece, but adapted their own distinctive needs and ways of thinking (Hitti 363).
The Islamic ability to reconcile monotheism and science proofs to be a first time in human thought that theology, philosophy, and science were finally harmonized in a unified whole. Thus their contribution was "one of the first magnitude, considering its effect upon scientific and philosophic thought and upon the theology of later times" (Hitti 580). One of the reason for such development of science is probably due to God's commandment to explore the laws of nature. The idea is to admire all creations for its complexity - to cherish the creator for the ingenuity. Possibly holding to this believe, Islam's contributions to science had covered many roots of thought including mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. This paper will examine these roots of natural science, and unearth the contributions of the Islamic thinkers.
Islam's redound to encourage into thinking was accessed by two other ancient cultures - the Persian and the Indians. They became part of the Islamic heritage in the field of mathematics (Hitti 373). About the year 600 A.H.-during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad - an Indian Muslim mathematician developed the symbol "cipher" or zero and the system of placed notation. This invention, first mentioned in a Syriac text written in 662 AD, revolutionized the study of mathematics and made possible the great achievements of Muslim mathematicians (Science p4).
Mathematical vocabulary such as "algebra" and "algorithm" are actually borrowings from Arabic words, that were later translated into Latin. It was a Muslim mathematician who formulated the trigonometric function explicitly. The word "sine" was actually the direct translation of the arabic word "jayb". An English mathematician Robert of Chester, who flourished in the middle of the twelfth century, was the first to use sinus equivalent to this Arabic jayb in its trigonometrical acception (Hitti 573). Al-Khwarizmi composed the oldest book on mathematics, known only in translation. He presented more than 800 examples of the calculation of integration and equation, later anticipated by Neo-Babylonians (Hitti 379)."As in trigonometry so in Algebra Muslims must be considered as the founders of this science whose very name reflects its origin... al-Khwarizmi... firmly established this branch of mathematics" (qtd. King 214). They introduced it with the Arabic numerals into Europe and taught Westerners the most convenient convention of arithmetic concept. "The zero and Arabic numerals lie behind the science of calculation as we know it today" (Hitti 573-574).
In the first half of the ninth century, exponent numerals including the zero is used in preference to letters by al- Khwarizmi. In the second half of the ninth century, the Muslims of Spain developed numerals slightly different in shape, huruf al-ghubar (letters of dust), originally used in conjunction with a type of sand abacus. Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, who was taught by a Muslim master published a work which remain a landmark in the introduction of the Arabic numerals (Hitti 573-574).
Early in the ninth century, mathematical calculations stimulates the crave for answers to the celestial motion. This curiosity introduces a new field of thought, called astronomy. One most important application of astronomy is the timekeeping for the time of the five daily prayers. These are defined according to the position of the sun moving from east to west. The earliest known tables for such purpose are dated from the tenth century (King 46-48). As necessary to accurate timekeeping as tables are the instruments used by the Muslims:
The magnificent sundial that ibn al-Shatir constructed in the year 1371/72 to adorn the main minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The sundial displays the time of day relative to sunrise, midday, and sunset and relative to the afternoon prayer. There are also special curves for times relative to daybreak and nightfall. Thus the sundial effectively measures time with respect to each of the five daily prayers (King 547).
An individual by the name of Ibn al-Sarraj devised a series of astrolables, quadrants, trigonometric grids and other instruments which are innovative to the extreme. "I consider Ibn al-Sarraj's astrolable, which is universal from five different aspects, to be the most sophisticated astrolable from the Near East and Europe..." (King 544).
Al-Khwarizmi, the genius mathematician, at the time applied his findings to the new field from which he composed the oldest planetary tables, or the zij (King 39, Hitti 379). His work serves as a reference text and were rendered into Latin in the twelfth century by Gerard of Cremona (Hitti 571). Among the first regular astronomical observatory tower constructed was in Jundaysabur, south west of Persia, under the direction of Sind ibn-'Ali, and Yahaya ibn-abi-Mansur. Being the Caliph's astronomer, not only that they construct a systematic chart of celestial movements, but also verified the fundamental elements of the Almangest (Hitti 373-375). The astronomers of al-Mamun, the Abbasid Caliph, made many original observations. One of the most outstanding is the measurement of the meridian near Mosul. It was found to be 111,814 meters, and measured a degree of latitude at about 36x north to be 2877 feet (qtd. King 214-215). "The object is to determine the size of the earth and its circumference on the assumption that the earth was round" (Hitti 375).
In Spain, astronomical studies were cultivated after the middle of the tenth century. They reproduced the Aristotelian system, as distinguished from the Ptolemaic, the representation of celestial movements. Abu-al-Qasim Maslamah al-Majriti (of Madrid), the earliest Spanish Muslim astronomer edited and corrected the zij (planetary tables of al-Khwarizmi), the first tables composed by a Muslim. Among al-Majriti titles were al- hisab or the mathematician, for he was considered the leader in mathematical knowledge. About fourteen years later, the zij that of al-Battani, was rendered into Latin by Plato of Tivoli. Copernicus later quotes al-Battani in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium . Al-Zarqali (known as Arzachel in Latin West) the foremost astronomical observer of his age, deviced the safihah, a type of astrolabe, that prove the motion of solar apogee with reference to the stars (Hitti 570-71). Al-Bitruji, known as Alpetragius developed a new theory of stellar movement and wrote The book of Form in which it was detailed (Science p22 c3).
Arab astronomers left the sky immortal traces of their findings. Not only are most of the star-names in European languages are of Arabic origin (The Worlds Almanac and fact Book p199 c2), but a number of technical term such as "azimuth" (al- sumut), "nadir" (nazir), "zenith" (al-samt) are of Arabic etymology. This testifies the rich legacy of Islam to Christian Europe (Hitti 573).
The first of the Arabians, the rival indeed of Galen, was the Persian Ibn Sina, or better known as Avicenna. He was given the title 'the Prince of Medicine'. His most celebrated work is Al-Qanun Fil-Tibb or "the Canon of Medicine." He is one of the greatest names in the history of medicine. He could repeat the Quraan by heart when he was ten years old, and by twelve he had disputed in law and logic. He found that medicine was an easy subject, not hard and thorny (Osler 98). "When I found a difficulty," he says, "I reffered to my notes and prayed to the creator" (qtd. Osler 98). His book was long and lengthy, testifying many aspects of medicine. He classifies efficient causes and symptoms of diseases. He said that diseases are caused by the imbalance of the four elementary qualities of hot, wet cold and dry in the body. Those caused by the faulty composition or conformation of bodily parts, and those caused by trauma. The cause of disease is categorize as either connected by the environment, regimen, and psychology. Among them are the traditional scheme of "non naturals" from air, food and drink, repletion and inanition, to the passions of the soul. His book also discuss concerns for the conservation of health: separate sections on pediatric, adult, and geriatric regimen. Avicenna provides twenty one fen on ailments distinctive to each major organs of the body-arranged from head to toe. (Siraisi 21-22).
The "Black Death", in the middle of the fourteenth century ravaged Europe while the Christians stood helpless. Ibn-al- Khatib, a physician of Granada composed a treaties in defence of the contagion theory and said:
To those who say, "How can we admit the possibility of infection while the religious law denies it?" we reply that the existence of contagion is established by experience, investigation, the evidence on the senses and trustworthy reports. These facts constitute a sound argument. The fact of contagion becomes clear to the investigator who notices how he who establishes contact with afflicted gets the disease, whereas he who is not in contact remains safe, and how transmission through garments, vessels and earrings (qtd. Hitti 576).
The circulation of blood and the idea of quarantine came from an empirical indication of contagion. It was discovered by Ibn al- Nafis. Ibn Juljul of Cordoba in 943 became a leading physician at the age of 24, compiled a book of special treaties on drugs found in al-Andalus, the Iberian Peninsula (science p23). Ibn-Masawayh wrote the oldest systematic treaties on opthamology. The book, titled al-Ashr Maqalat fi al-'Ayn (the ten treaties of the eye) was the earliest existing text book of opthmathology. In the curative use of drugs, some amazing advances were made by the Muslims. They have established the first apothecary shops, and founded the earliest school of pharmacy (Hitti 364).
The Prince of Medicine, Avicenna, is himself a philosopher (Arabic falsafah). Philosophy at the time is defined as the knowledge of the true cause of things as they really are (Hitti 369). He is the first of the Arabic language who created a philosophical system which is really complete and whole (Khan 5). "It is noteworthy that Avicenna to his independent intellectual attainments was without undue modesty" (Fakhry 149). From his initial study of logic, he turned to the study of physics, and metaphysics entirely on his own. He became the mentor of many senior physician at the age of sixteen. By the age of eighteen, he had mastered logic, physics and mathematics, so there was nothing left for him to learn except to concentrate on metaphysics. His major philosophical treaties is Kitab al-Shifa or the Book of Healing , known in Latin by the title Sufficienta. It is an encyclopedia of Islamic-Greek learning in the eleventh century, ranging from logic to mathematics (Fakhry 149-150).
Another greatest patron of Philosophy and science in the history of Islam is Caliph Al-Mamun. Son of Caliph Harun al- Rashid, he encouraged on holding disputes in court on logical, legal, and grammar (Rahman 182). He express with liberal mindedness, great openness and equanimity (Fakhry 23). He established in Baghdad his famous Bayt al-Hikmah (house of wisdom) (Rahman 4), a combination library and academy which in many respect is an important educational institution (Hitti 310). This library contains books on all subjects-literature, specifically Islamic sciences, natural sciences, logic, philosophy, an many other subjects of thoughts (Rahman 182-183).
The greatest figure in the history of Islamic philosophy and reaction to Neo Platonism is Imam al-Ghazali - a jurist, theologian, philosopher and mystic. He said that the "Fiqh" is the daily bread of believing soul, while the doctrine is only as valuable as a medicine for the sick (De Boer 39). He also said that he is being seized by the desire for the truth. He resolved to search for a "certain knowledge" upon which the object known in manner is not open to doubt at all. So if the truth were to be challenged by a miracle-maker, it would withstand its claim - solid (Fakhry 244-245). Fundamentally, al-Ghazali affirmed an agnosticism about the ultimate and absolute nature of God. This need for religious certainty impelled al-Ghazali to mysticism, and led him back to the discovery of the Quraanic conception of God. This revealed nature of God is constituted by the Divine Names and Attributes (Rahman 95).
The first genuine philosopher to write in Arabic was al- Kindi (Fakhry 9). He is the first peripatetic in Islam. He is related in many ways to Mutazilite Dialecticians and the Neo- Pythagorean Natural-Philosophers (DeBoer 97). He was a man of extraordinary erudition which communicated observations as a geographer, a historian of civilization and a physician (De Boer 99). Kindi is more than a philosopher. He was a chemist, an optician and a music theorist (Hitti 370). "He was in no respect a creative genius" (De Boer 99). The influence of al-Kindi as author and teacher is mainly through his Mathematics, Geography and Medicine (De Boer 105).
The intellectual history of the Arabs which the development of philosophy and science in the Near East virtually begins with the rise of Islam. Islam not only provide the Arabs with bold world-view, but thrust them the cultural stage of the ancient world and set before them their scientific and cultural treasures. The first generation of Muslim scholars dedicated themselves wholly to the fixing of a canon based primarily on the Quran. This is because of the overwhelming sacredness of the Quraan and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (Fakhry 1-3). To the Muslim scholars whose work is shown, the Quraan is the source of all knowledge - the revelation of God (Science 32).
Many hints was given in the Quran as a prove of the All Knowing. God says: "Verily God Knows The secrets of the Heavens And earth:and God sees well all That ye do" (Quran 65:18). Some of the hints that were mentioned are: "Do not the unbeliever see that the heavens and earth Were joined together (as one Unit of Creation), before We clove them asunder? We made from water Every living thing. Will they not believe?" (Quran 21:30). God phrase " Do not They Think...", in certain parts of the Quran after illuminating natural phenomena unthought of by man. Such hints enhanced man's curiosity and probably fueled their quest for knowledge. As the roots of knowledge has been established, the branches and leaves then flourished onto todays advance technology. Such roots must never be forgotten as without solid foundation, no pillars can be built and lived on.
Business Week 22 Jul. 1985, page 90-91 De Boer, D. T. J.History of Philosophy in Islam ,1933. Translation by Edward R. Jones. London: Luzac & Company Ltd, 1970. Fakhry, Majid. A history of Islamic Philosophy .New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1970. Hitti, K.Phillip. History of the Arabs.New York: St. Martins Press, 1970 Khan, M.S. The Philosophy of Avicenna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, First Edition 1969. King, A. David. Islamic Mathematical Astronomy .London: Varioum Reprints, 1986. Osler, Sir William. The Evolution of Modern Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921. Quran. Translation by A. Yusuf Ali. Maryland: Amana Corp, 1983 Rahman, Fazlur. ISLAM. Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, Second edition 1979 Science : The Islamic Legacy: Worlds fair issue, 1987 Sirasi, G. Nancy. AVICENNA in Renaissance Italy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987. The World Almanac and Book of Facts. New York, 1988
About The Article and The AuthorThis is a research paper written for the Department of Linguistic, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for the Linguistic course 118. I find that this paper is important since our source and root of knowledge and technology was never given enough credit.
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Written by: Aminuddin Ahmad 3028 N.Maryland Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53211.
(International student from Malaysia, a muslim country in South East Asia.)
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