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Arab Contributions to the Sciences

posted on: Nov 9, 2016

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

Today, in almost every aspect of our daily lives, we are indebted in many ways to the Arab contributions to the sciences. The vast contributions, scholarly achievements and innovations of the Arab/Muslim era to world civilization encompassed much of the previous knowledge of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East such as Mesopotamia, Syria, the Greeks, and that of India, China and Persia. Arab and Muslim scholars would come to nourish that which existed, comment on it and then add and create fields within science that eventually would be transferred to Europe and to the rest of the world.

The common factor in all of this scientific research activity was the Arabic language, which became the universal language of science. Then during the 12th and 13th centuries these Arabic studies began to be translated into Latin. Western scholars such as Adelard of Bath, Daniel of Morley, Gerard of Cremona, Johannes Campanus, Michael Scott, Philip of Tripoli, Robert of Chester, Stephenson of Saragossa and William of Lunis were responsible for translating many of the Arab works. These were, in later centuries, to form the foundation of our modern civilization.

There was hardly a single aspect of scientific knowledge in the Middle Ages that did not have an Arab connection. And the fields were vast. The study of the heavens by Arab and Muslim medieval astronomers led to great advancements in this field. Basing their assumption on an ancient Middle Eastern hypothesis that the earth was round, astronomers calculated the circumference of the earth to be 32,844 km (20,400 mi) and its diameter 10,465 km (6,500 mi) – almost coinciding with our modern measurement. This at a time when Europeans believed that ships sailing too far into the ocean would fall off the edge of the flat earth into the sea of darkness.

Arab scientists, working in search of a formula, which would convert baser metal into gold, evolved alchemy into what later became known as chemistry. Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan, known as Geber in the West, was the most famous scientist in early chemical research and was labelled as the ‘Father of Chemistry’. Ibn Hayyan was one of chemistry’s greatest geniuses famous for writing more than 100 monumental treatises, of which 22 deal with chemistry and alchemy.

Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan

He introduced experimental investigation into alchemy (from the Arabic al-kimiya’), creating the momentum for modern chemistry. Ibn Hayyan did much work with metals and salts and is credited with the invention of the alembic and the discovery of antimony, aqua regia, corrosive sublimate, sodium hydroxide; and hydrochloric, citric, tartaric, nitric and sulphuric acids.

Between the 8th and 16th centuries Arab/Islamic mechanics and engineering technology flourished in the Muslim world. In their works, the 9th century Banu Musa (three sons of Musa ibn Shakir) described a hundred technical constructions, revealed originality and far transcended all which had been previously written on the subject.

The 13th century Badi’ al-Zaman ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari in one of his books Al Jami’ Bain al-‘Ilm wal ‘Amal al-Nafi fi Sina at al-Hiyal (A Compendium on the Theory and Practice of Mechanical Arts), an unsurpassed work on Arab mechanical engineering and the climax of ideas on medieval machines and their construction, gives a true insight into Arab mechanical technology.

Even more than mechanics and engineering, breakthroughs in mathematics were one of the main Arab contributions to Western civilization. The Arabs developed the concept of irrational numbers, founded analytical geometry and established algebra and trigonometry as exact sciences. Their development of computational mathematics surpassed all the achievements of the past. Without the simplicity and flexibility of the Arabic numerals and the decimal system, along with the concept of the zero, Western science would have been almost impossible.

It was under the patronage of Arab caliphs that hospitals as we know them today were first established in the 8th century. From that era, they continued to improve upon the healing arts of the ancient world. They added true hospitals with codified administration and wards, establishing these in ideal locations throughout the Islamic world. Added to these institutions were medical schools, medical libraries, apothecary shops, and pharmacies.

One of the two giants in Arab medicine is Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Zakariya al-Razi (865-925), a medical encyclopedist, who was a great authority on infections. Known in medieval Europe as Rhazes, he was a prolific author who wrote more than 100 books on medicine, astronomy, logic, philosophy and the physical sciences. Considered as one of the outstanding authorities in medical history, al-Razi has been described as the ‘unchallenged chief physician of the Muslims’, ‘the greatest clinician of the Middle Ages’, and as ‘the Arab Galen’.

Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Zakariya al-Razi (865-925)

Among his many other volumes of medical surveys, perhaps the most famous are the Al-Tibb al-Mansuri and Kitab al-Hawi fil Tibb – a huge medical encyclopedia, translated into Latin and published in Sicily in 1279 under the title Continens. It summed up all the medical knowledge gleaned from all sources up to the 10th century and was used as a medical source text in Europe until the sixteenth century.

The famous scientist-philosopher, Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn bin ‘Allah ibn Sina (980-1037), known in Europe as Avicenna, had an encyclopedic mind and a photographic memory and was the greatest writer of medicine in the Middle Ages. His encyclopedic work, which had a great influence in both East and West, was Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) – a work of one million words which summarizes Arabic, Greek, Hindu and Persian medicine until his time.

Translated into Latin in the 12th century by Gerard of Cremona under the name The Canon of Medicine of Avicenna, it became one of the most authoritative medical works in the Middle Ages and was used in all the medical schools in Europe. His work is considered to be the final codification of all Greco-Arab medicine.

Some 30 editions of his Canon were published in Latin and formed, in the 15th century, one half of the medical curricula in the European universities. The book was required reading for medical students throughout Europe until the 17th century and was used as a major reference medical work in the Muslim world until the 19th century.

The Arab impact in sciences on the West came in a large part by the way of Spain, Sicily and the Crusades. During the Crusades, from the 12th and 13th centuries, the Europeans carried back to their continent many Arab/Muslim new innovations. Examples are the systematic hospitalization methods, castle architecture, the sundial and the art of distillation.
The early institutes of higher learning in Europe owed their existence to the Arabs.

One of the first universities to open its doors in Europe reputed to have been founded by a Greek, a Latin and a Muslim, was in Salerno, Italy. Later, to enable Western scholars to learn from the Arabs, Frederick II of Sicily, who was familiar with Arab sciences and enthralled with Arab learning, wanted to pass their knowledge on to enlighten his subjects.

In 1224, Frederick II established the University of Naples that soon eclipsed the older Salerno school. In these early European institutions, purely secular subjects such as astronomy, mathematics and medicine were studied for the first time since the classical age in Europe.

The influence of Arab medicine encompassed in the early 13th century, the establishment of one of Europe’s leading medical schools, at Montpellier, in southern France which remained one of Europe’s best for centuries. Established along the lines of Arab medical schools, its curriculum included initially 16 medical books, 13 of which used in teaching were of Arab-Islamic instruction.

Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn bin ‘Allah ibn Sina (980-1037)

Those teaching were Arab scholars who taught Arab medicine, some even translators of original Arabic medical texts. Earlier, a medical school had opened its doors in Paris in 1110, while still others were established in Bologna in 1113 and in Oxford during the 12th century. Later another in Padua was founded in 1222. The curricula of these universities were dominated almost entirely by Arab medicine.

In the field of discoveries, the Arabs were the first, for instance, to make known with a scientific explanation how rainbows are formed. Further, they brought to light, and then passed on to the world a great many products. From among these: alcohol, aqua regia, camel hair clothing, corrosive sublimate, rich furs, fine glassware, glass mirrors, gunpowder and bombs, lacquers, new types of dyes, nitric acid, potash, red precipitate, sal ammonia, silver nitrate, sulphuric acid, stained glass windows and lattice woodwork which became the metal grills of the West.

The Arabs also brought the art of producing paper from the Chinese to Sicily and Spain, then to Italy and France, causing a great increase in book production, hence, encouraging learning. Paper was a Chinese invention before the birth of Christ, but the Arabs expanded its use and introduced paper making to almost all the known countries of the world at that time. They utilized new materials such as flax, rags and vegetable fibres, and introduced new methods for its manufacture.

In Europe, Toledo became the center of paper manufacturing during the Moorish age and from there, spread to the Christian kingdoms of Spain, then to other European countries. In the same fashion, after being introduced into Sicily, the art of paper manufacturing spread to the all parts of the Italian Peninsula. The introduction of paper into Europe made possible the production of books in large quantities. Before that time, the parchment used in the making of books was so expensive that only cathedrals and monasteries could afford to possess libraries. As a result, knowledge expanded and the base was set for the European Renaissance.

The vast contributions to the West included the Arabic numerals that we still use today. Pope Sylvester II, who studied at the Qarawiyin University in Fez, Morocco, is believed to be one of the scholars that was responsible for introducing these numerals into Europe. After centuries of rejection, they were finally accepted by Europe and that continent left the Dark Ages behind.

The translation of the mathematical works of al-Khwarizmi, Jabir ibn Aflah of Seville (1100 – 1160), a mathematician, known in the West as Geber; Maslama al-Majriti (d 1000), whose name is taken from the Arabic name for Madrid (Majrit) and who was a great mathematician and astrologist; and other historians and scientists in the 12th and 13th centuries, was instrumental in putting Europe on the road to progress.

For denominational reasons, and as a result of the repercussion of the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades where the West needed to insist on its superiority over the East, Europeans scholars, for hundreds of years, kept silent about the West’s indebtedness to the Arabs.

It was only in the 19th century that some Western scholars acquired sufficient objectivity to admit openly that much of European learning was based on the knowledge that the Arabs had brought to the still developing continent.
One of the first modern historians to be convinced of the importance and impact of the Arabs and Arabic for the study of world history was George Sarton (1884-1956), a Harvard Orientalist who is considered the father of the history of science. His, An Introduction to the History of Science, was one of the first works to give Arab culture its due in regards to world civilization.

Also, the significant Arab advancements in the fields of agriculture, food, music, architecture, physical sciences, philosophy, technology and other fields of knowledge were passed on to the West.

As Sarton explains: “Investigation, accumulation of positive knowledge, minute methods of science and prolonged observation were alien to Greek temperament. The Arabs introduced these to Europe. European science owes its existence to the Arabs”.