How Islam kick started science


Today, mention of the word Islam can, to some, conjure up images of terrorists flying planes full of people into buildings, all in the name, they say, of God.

In an equally sad vein, the word Baghdad brings to mind Saddam Hussein. Both images are as unrepresentative as they are understandable, a sad reflection on the ease with which a handful of fanatics can hijack not just a plane but an entire cultural heritage and its associated religion. 

For those of us in mathematics, the sadness is even greater. For the culture that these fanatics claim to represent when they set about trying to destroy the modern world of science and technology was, in fact, the cradle in which that tradition was nurtured.

For all present-day mathematicians and scientists are children of Islam. Following the advent of Islam in the seventh century, Islamic forces attacked and conquered all of North Africa, most of the Middle East, and even parts of Western Europe. 

The capital of this empire, Baghdad, was established on the Tigris River. Its location made it a natural crossroads, the place where East and West could meet. Baghdad quickly became a major cultural centre. With the emergence of a new dynasty, the Abbasids, in the 8th century, the Islamic Empire started to settle down politically, and conditions emerged in which mathematics and science could be pursued. 

Early in the 9th century, the Abbasid caliphs adopted a deliberate approach to the cultural and intellectual growth of the empire. They established the House of Wisdom, an academy of science, and gathered manuscripts in Greek and Sanskrit, and scholars who could understand them.

Important Greek and Indian mathematical books were translated and studied, leading to a new era of scientific creativity that was to last until the 14th century. One of the first Greek texts translated was Euclid's classic geometry text Elements. 

This had a huge impact; Arabic mathematicians then adopted a very Greek approach, formulating theorems precisely and proving them formally in Euclid's style. Like Greek mathematics, which was defined more by the common language in which it was written and carried out than the nationality of the practitioners, Arabic mathematics was determined largely by the common use of Arabic by scholars of many nationalities, spread throughout the Islamic Empire. 

One of the earliest and most distinguished of the Arabic mathematicians was the 9th century scholar Abu Ja'far Mohammed ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, an astronomer to the caliph at Baghdad. His full name can be translated as "Father of Ja'far, Mohammed, son of Moses, native of the town of Al-Khwarizmi".

Al-Khwarizmi wrote several enormously influential books. One, in particular, describes how to write numbers and compute with them using the place-value decimal system we use today, which had been developed in India some time before 600 AD.

This book would, when translated into Latin 300 years later, prove a major source for Europeans who wanted to learn the new system. Today, we know it as the Hindu-Arabic system. It is taught to schoolchildren worldwide. 

Many translations of the book began with the phrase " dixit Algorismi " ("so says Al-Khwarizmi"), a practice that led to the adoption in medieval times of the term "algorism" to refer to the process of computing with the Hindu-Arabic numerals.

"Algorithm" is an obvious derivation. Another of Al- Khwarizmi's manuscripts was called Kitab al jabr w'al-muqabala , which translates roughly as "restoration and compensation".

The book is essentially an algebra text. It opens with a discussion of quadratic equations, then goes on to some practical geometry, followed by simple linear equations, and ends with a long section on how to apply mathematics to solve inheritance problems. The Englishman Robert of Chester translated the algebra book from Arabic into Latin in 1145. Such was the influence of this work that the Arabic phrase al jabr in the book's title gave rise to our modern word "algebra". After Al-Khwarizmi, algebra became an important part of Arabic mathematics.

Arabic mathematicians learned to manipulate polynomials, to solve certain algebraic equations and more. For modern readers, used to thinking of algebra as the manipulation of symbols, it is important to realise that the Arabic mathematicians did not use symbols. Everything was done in words. It was largely through translations of the Arabic texts into Latin that western Europe, freshly emerged from the Dark Ages, kick-started its mathematics in the 10th and subsequent centuries, paving the way for the scientific revolution in the 17th century and thence to the scientific and technological world we now take for granted. 

Without the dedication of the Islamic scholars of the 9th to the 14th century, it is not clear that Western Europe would have become the world leader in science and technology. And it is also unlikely that the United States would have inherited that leadership role.

I suspect that Osama bin Laden, as an educated man from a wealthy family, is fully aware of the crucial role played by Islam in the development of the West's scientific tradition. I doubt the same is true for his supporters in the streets of Iraq and Pakistan.

Ignorance, we used to say, is bliss. Maybe that was once the case, although I doubt it. The clear message of September 11 and the events that have unfolded since then, is that ignorance is dangerous, leaving gullible individuals open to manipulation by evil men. It is also deeply sad, particularly for mathematicians and scientists.


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  18 Comments   Comment

  1. Nasir from Canada

    Salam,

    It is true that Islam had many contributions to the arts and sciences in the past. However, what Islam needs now is an educational revolution, or its own renaiisance so to speak. The ignorance shown by many Muslims, especially in underdeveloped areas of the world is somewhat astounding. While we may not agree on the treatmant of some Islamic states from certain Western democracies (which I am a proud part of - being a Canadian), the treatment of Muslims from other fellow Muslims is just as disconcerning to me.

    I think Iraq is a perfect example. While I have never visited the country and could not even fathom what their people have gone through, via previous wars, the government of Saddam Hussein, etc., it shocks me to know that the freedom fighters in the current United States invasion use tactics, such as suicide to kill not only the American troops but their fellow brothers and sisters. Simply because a person has decided to join the Iraqi police or help in government administration, should not be a reason to slaughter them. These people have been through terrible times in the last 15 years and would like to establish a foundagtion for their country and their family. The "so-called" Muslims fighting against the United Sates should not persecute them for it and then try to justify their actions from a religious standpoint. The bottom line is committing suicide is haram and killing fellow Muslims should be intolerable.

    Although I do not have an answer as to where the educational planning begins, I do think that "governments" of Islamic countries have to play a big role. These dictatorships and monarchies have to stop with what is best for upper class population and begin planning for the mass population in general. But perhaps they like it like that because it keeps them and their families in power, and eliminates the potential of revolutionaries.

  2. Kasifa Khalid from India

    We are learning about how islam has contributed to science and people have ignored it. This site has helped me understand islam in a better fashion and i feel that being a muslim is of great pride to me.

  3. saqib from Pakistan

    i like this site truly.i simply want to say that Holy Prophet(PBUH)'s life is complete model and code of life not only for muslims but for all mankind.Holy Quran is his reflection.similarly qurans teaching s r for whole world.it address the men with arabic word(ya ayyuhannas).it shows that it is for all.human beings will observe the claims of Quran in their times.no one can stultify its teachings.The things that Holy Prophet(PBUH) had fortold,are occuring in the world.all things will happen according to the sayings of mohammad.and the doomy day is drawing nearer.half of its syptoms has occured. Thank u.

  4. Akbar Khan from Canada

    Observer: That's an easy answer. Muslims do not produce superb mathematicians or astronomers ANYMORE, but they indeed used to, but not anymore because of a number of factors: Mongol invasion and burning of libraries in Baghdad; the Spanish Inquisition by European Crusaders who forced their war waging version of Christianity upon peace loving Jews, Muslims, and Christians who previously co-existed together in Andalusia; then there's the colonization of Muslim countries by the French, British, and Portuguese, and Italians, whether it be a country such as Syria, Mesopotamia (now known as Iraq), or whether it be Algeria, Mali, India, etc. etc....what else I can tell you is that the numerical number system which is being used by the world today, is based on the Arabic number system. And the original concept of these numbers in fact is traced back to India, where more than just the zero (0) was invented. Read the works of ibn al-Arabi, ibn Rushd, al-Jazari who was a mechanical engineer 1000 years ago, how he invented water clocks, washing machines, different kinds of water pumping systems....or read about ibn al-Awwam, who lives in Andalusia in the 12th century, from the city of Seville, and studied soil chemistry and soil erosion...how the manure of pigeons, a natural fertilizer was used extensively in Iran! What you fail to recognize is that what you are taught in your American and British textbooks, is not accurate and does not trace back the original ones who deserve credit for many discoveries in the fields of technologuy, and engineering, and mathematics and sciences. What I have listed above is just the cream of the crop. More about arab physicians such as ibn al-Naphis who explained the principles of pulmonary circulation 350 ears before Sir William Harvey was even BORN.

    Muslims have a much richer history than you may believe, in fact I think you should recognize that if not for Muslims of hte past, you wouldn't be such a smartass.

  5. Observer from USA

    Interesting article, but it begs the question: Why hasn't Islam produced superb mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists since the 11th century? Many of the respondents play the blame game (yup, it's always the fault of the USA and/or the Jews. Some folks never tire of being the victim.). My guess is that around that time, Islamic society closed its doors to other cultures. Science depends on creative sparks between people, innovation, inquiry, critical analysis, experimentation, and questioning EVERYTHING. Those attributes don't seem to be rewarded very highly in much of the Islamic world today, which seems to prefer obedience and isolation from others.

  6. Charles Jacks from USA

    One lesson to be learned by the present state of science in the west compared to it's past in Islamic lands is that it evidently wasn't resilient to the destructive influences Islamic society suffered under. This may be due to a concentration in a few points of failure instead of it being ubiquitous to the population. The blossoming of science within the west corresponds with the implementation of universal education. What was once high (as in advanced) school is now high-school. Failure to get a high-school education in the west relegates a person to jobs like janitor, factory worker, day laborer. While a high-school education doesn't get one much farther. Higher than high-school is needed now.

    The blossoming of science also corresponds to the blossoming of commerce. These feed upon themselves, with science giving a business an edge, and the extra profit financing the research and development.

    Other, impetus to the western development of science were the state sponsored "grand projects" like going to the moon. Interestingly, a private firm just won the X-Prize. Such challenges can also have surprising results so don't cry about no government sponsoring a grand project. Bin Laden could probably do much more for the creation of a Kalafate by sponsoring an X-Prize (in self organizing systems) than in buying arms.

  7. farooq

    COULD YOU ALSO HIGHLIGHT THE REMARKABLE ACHIEVEMENTS AND EFFORTS PUT FORWARD BY ONE OF THE GREATEST SCHOLAR, A SCIENTIST AND GREAT MATHEMATICIAN OF 20TH CENTURY ALLAMA INAYATULLAH KHAN AL MASHRIQI FROM HIS BOOK TAZKIRAH.

    JAZAKALLAH

  8. Ousmane Alfulani from Senegal

    The question that we are faced is not that Muslim scholar took Europe out of the dark ages, but why they could not lift the Islamic Ummah out of Feudal state during the enlightment of Europe? Let us not hide the truth, the ottoman empire was a tyranical racist and slavery driven empire. The emirs and beys were corrupt and 'evil'. Killing their own brother just for the sake od power, with the Ulemas giving out fatwas to lewgalize that practice. Africans and arabs did not cry when the ottoman were defeated.

    Another point is that those who flew those planes into buildings were not ignorants (they were educated youth from decent families). We need to answer the quintescential question: if they were islamists why would they go a bar the night before their martyrdom operation, instead of tahajjud? Please stop calling those who did this as militant of Islam, they are just ex-communist using islamic appeal the same way that bolchevics used 'the idealism of just state' for their revolution.

    I cannot stress enough that it is not worth dwelling in the past, if it is not for learning from it and avoiding the monumental mistake of exploitation, greed and colonial entreprise.

    The down fall of the western civilization that our apologetic scholars who love this country more than their own, who are here for good no matter the injustice, harassment and 'arabs- profiling' that they faced, is near!

    WE are at the last stage of imperialism, so the fall will be felt real hard.

  9. Akbar Ahmed from Pakistan

    The impact of Arabs on Mathematics has been well depicted by the writer of the article.

    About the planes flying into the buildings: Who flew the planes, and who did the job: the present story is a matter which is not believed by billions of people the world over. Whether Osama did it or who else.

    It would be good if the writer would care to consider conspiracry theories, and also read a book written by a French author.

    I believe there is a very good site: whatreallyhapened.com and it is suggested that interested persons may visit the site.

    If Mr. Bush and his friends have been saying one thing, it does not necessarily mean that it is the Gospel Truth.

    It is rather tragic, but the true story may emerge for the next generation.

    best regards

    Akbar

  10. Brother Islam from Amerikkka

    I just finished my third reading of 'Golden Age Of The Moors', and only a complete fool will deny that African MUSLIMS(MOORS) are the orignators of the so-called European renaisance.The African MUSLIMS also improved upon and cleansed "greco/roman" learning which was lost to the whiteman during "MID-EVIL" Europe.

  11. Patty M from USA

    How sadly true it is that this is what is happening. My husband is a refugee from a country torn apart by war. The population is 99% muslim, but yet they are at war with each other. He has told me many times how leaders begin wars and then send their families out to the countries they talk bad about like Australia, the U.S. and Europe. Then they leave the poor, ignorant, and uneducated to kill each other for nothing. It's funny how little attention this issue has gotten in the media. Bin Laden himself has fled and is hidding instead of fighting like the leader he claims to be. What a coward. The leaders never fight, they just instigate the ignorant and send them like cattle to be slaughtered. It's too bad these fighters will still be judged on the Day of Judgment and ignorance will not be an excuse.

  12. Munthasir from India

    Salaam, well it is also deeply sad that the author didnt write article criticizing ungrateful action of west in general and states in particular to crush the civilisation which has been the stepping stone of their invention and their scientific development.

    This is the latest trend among non believers, give you few bones and ask you to condemn one among us, criticize the part fo islam,they dont agree with. Bros, In islam there is nothign like i believe in this part of it and i dont believe this.

    It wasnt written against osama, it was against resistance.Let allah save us from the evil thoughts of tagoot.

    ..

    Wassalam

  13. kamrul from us

    you made a great point in explaining the acheivements of men. your account was clear and precise and remarkably un-biased.

  14. Adam K. from USA

    The question is: Why were the Muslims so advanced back then???

    The answer is: They were following Islam by the book, QUORAN that is!!!

    You might ask: So, what's the relationship???

    I'd say: Read the QUORAN, and you'll understand what I mean 🙂

  15. Dr_Edriss from US

    salam alaikom dear writer

    the science doesn't belong to anybody! we say as muslims, the science belong to Allah. He create it and allow us to use it. the science and technology can be just accumulated in some countries or empires, this is the case for USA now! no one have the right to claim the science and technology as their properties :).

    muslim scientists always existed like any scientists who believe to something other than Islam.

    the last one who accumulated the science and technology always write the history with bias, some even believe that the history is just a bias of those who accumulate more science in their time.

    the ignorants always existe too 🙂 and everywhere. if you get caught in discussion with ignorants from America, they will claim that science and technology belong to them! but you should not be complexed by the ignorants and write a whole article to answear them :).

    that's my opinion (:^)) and your decision as a writer come from your own experience and opinion. that's why I may not see correctly what is the importance of this article. the people of Makkah aware of it's topography.

    the muslim scientists in the middle centuries, were in every field and you can not count them all. this is a reality like 9/11 was reality.

  16. IMRAN from PAKISTAN

    DEAR KEITH,

    Much appriciated for the remembrance of our past..U may be a well learned Methmatician or Scientist,but are "ignorant" by means of "whats and why" happening around Us. Evil"POWERS" want to imply their evil rules upon this world, and invate countries for the name of "PEACE KEEPING".Although they are the great risk for humanity and this beautifull world.Have muslims done everything like this...when they Kick-Started science.Whome they invaded? Why dont u sort your problems out before u come away from your homes and invade someone, saying "WE ARE HERE TO SAVE AND RELIEFE THE PEOPLE".Are u aware of the economic problems Amrica is facing?"MIGHT IS RIGHT",thats what so called "SUPER" POWERS doing.Why dont they leave us alone with our own problems to live by?They will not... simply because they are anxcious to have hold and want to run this beautiful world according to their rules and regulations.Although it will not happen as long as there are "ignorant individuals"(IN YOUR WORDS)are here.Is defending someonen"s freedom is IGNORANCE?

    For"Intellectuals" like U "IGNORANCE IS STILL A BLISS"

    because you want week people to listen to you instead of listening to them.What kind of AWARENESS is it ?? that every body is well aware of what and why is happening all this,and for all that every body is silent...they are electing and supporting same EVILS. So its their IGNORANCE.We muslims cannot allow evils to impose themselves upon us..never in Past nor Now .. or in Future.Our history proves this as well.

  17. Asif Zaidi from USA

    The article rightly points out the legacy of Islam/Muslims to science. But that is all it is now - legacy.

    We Muslims have not contributed anything to these fields so much so that majority of Muslims will not even know that logarithms and algebra are Arabic words.

    The root cause of our problem is that we do not want to learn and simply want the benefits of hard-work. And that will simply not happen.

    Asif

  18. MrsEener from USA

    You just don't get it, and the Islamic extremists do.

    How do you think the Arabs got a hold of those "Important Greek and Indian mathematical books" that they translated? Between the 9th and the 14th centuries when you say dedicated Islamic scholars were preserving and advancing mathematics and science, the Arabs were in the midst of conquering by the sword much of the world, spreading out from the Arabian peninsula to most of the Middle East, much of Asia, Africa and Europe.

    After the Islamic Empire stopped expanding, that's when "their contributions" to science and mathematics and civilization also end. The Islamic extremists know the sword was always the key to their success.