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Arab Discoveries That Would Shape Modern-Day Society

posted on: May 12, 2021

By: Wael Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer

When you look at the news coverage about the Greater Arab World, it’s hard to believe that at one point in history, this region was the epicenter of science, knowledge, and enlightenment. Ancient Arab cities rose above all as a symbol of modernness, tolerance, and humanity’s eagerness for societal progress. Civilizations in the west and the far east gathered in these knowledge-filled safe-havens, to learn from the most qualified scholars and scientists. At that time, the stabilized Arab world flourished with inventiveness and discoveries that would shape modern-day society.

Here is a list of Arab discoveries to brag about:

1. Toothbrush
Arabs were the pioneers of oral hygiene.  

The miswak, or chew stick, used for centuries as a natural toothbrush, has been an essential practice throughout the Arab and Islamic world and is considered a sacred act. The miswak originates from the Salvadora persica tree (known as arak in Arabic). This plant is native to the Middle East, and Africa around desert floodplains and riverbanks.
Prophet Mohammed popularized miswak and recommended using it before prayer and after eating; before sleeping and after waking up. The World Health Organization recognizes miswak for its fibrous branches and oral hygiene use. 

Read more about the health benefits of miswak

2. Flying Machine and Parachute 
Arabs were the first to reach for the stars. 

Abbas ibn Firnas Statue in Baghdad, Iraq

When you think of aeronautical, the Wright brothers or Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying-machine might come to mind. Nevertheless, Abbas ibn Firnas was the first to not just design but attempted to fly. Ibn Firnas was born in Ronda, Andalusia to Berber parents and lived in Cordoba most of his life. Although not technically Arab, he did contribute profoundly to the Arabic language and poetry. Additionally, the polymathic Ibn Firnas was a chemist, physician, musician, and a brilliant inventor.

His engineering skills were ahead of its time. In the 9th century, Ibn Firnas dared to jump off a mosque tower using only a canvas as a parachute, resulting in rapid descent to a rough landing and several broken bones. Still, this event is widely recognized as the first use of a parachute. Years later, in another aviation effort, he designed a glider made of wood and silk and launched himself off Cordoba’s hills resulting in a momentarily sustained flight using air currents. Surviving a rigid landing, Ibn Firnas became the first man to fly with a heavier-than-air-machine.

3. Coffee
Ahh, how would our mornings be without a dose of caffeine, groggy amirite?

The majority will agree that the original coffee plants were native to Ethiopia’s western regions. However, it was in Yemen that these plants were cultivated and developed into the beans and beverage that we know today. Dating over 500 years in the Arabian peninsula’s southern tip is remote Sufi Monastries, arguably the coffee industry’s birthplace. 15th-century Sufi monks first learned that they could roast the raw, green seed of the botanical plant Coffea Arabica, blacken it with heat, and brew a stimulating beverage. What did they do with all that vital energy? They stayed up all night studying the word of God.

Guess, modern-day college students aren’t the only ones drinking coffee and pulling all-nighters at the library. Speaking of college, that’s another Arab originality. 

Learn why Yemeni coffee is the best in the world

4. University

al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University located in Fez, Morocco

In the year 859, a young princess named Fatima al-Firhi founded the world’s first-ever degree-granting university. Located in Fez, Morocco, the university is still operating almost 1,200 years later. Fatima and her sister Miriam also founded an adjacent mosque. The complex then became known as the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University. Fatima built a long-lasting legacy and impacted on not only in the MENA region but the entire world. Most importantly, she laid the groundwork for so many women to follow her education path and strive for leadership roles. 

Learn the history of this influential institution

5. Surgery  

al-Zahrawi surgical encyclopedia

Doctor Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, described as the father of surgical procedures, was an Arab-Andalusian physician, surgeon and chemist and is considered the most outstanding surgeon of the middle ages. In the year 1,000, the celebrated doctor published an illustrated encyclopedia of surgery of about 1,500 pages. These encyclopedias utilized throughout medieval Europe as a medical reference for the subsequent five centuries. al-Zahrawi also introduced over 200 surgical instruments, including different kinds of scalpels, retractors, curettes, pincers, and specula’s, to name a few. 

What Arab inventions inspired the West?

6. Optics

Numerous significant advances in the way we perceive the world came from Arab scholars. Around the year 1,000, Hasan Ibn al-Haytham referred to as “the father of modern optics” was an Arab mathematician, astronomer and physicist of the Golden Age. He made notable contributions to the principle of optics and visual perception. Ibn al-Haythem was the first to explain that vision occurs when light reflects an object and then passes to one’s eyes. Additionally, he was the first to demonstrate that vision occurs in the brain, rather than in the eyes. His most outstanding and famous work, the seven-volume book of optics (Kitab al-Manathir) hugely influenced thinking across disciplines from the theory of visual perception to the nature of perspective in medieval art for over 600 years. 

7. Camera
Take a Selfie in honour of Ibn al-Haytham

Ibn Haytham Camera Obscura illustration

In his book of optics, Ibn al-Haythem established the principles and notion of a camera. He believed that vision is caused by light reflecting off objects and entering our eyes. After extensive analysis and experiments, he understood the relationship between focal points and pinholes, which led him to build the first camera obscura (dark chamber). Camera obscura or pinhole camera is darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side, which then projects the image onto the wall opposite the hole. With this experiment, Ibn al-Haythem revolutionized the way scholars understood the concept of vision, which set the course for our modern-day cameras.

Arabs always had the spark and ambition for discoveries and innovation, and our rich history proves it. It’s time to retrace our abandoned footsteps and bring back enlightenment to the 21st century.

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