Contributions of Islamic Civilization to the Modern World

Category: Featured, Life & Society Topics: Islam And Science, Muslim Civilizations Channel: Science Views: 156392

Few of us realize that the present day powerful and prosperous Europe passed through a long historic period called the Dark Ages. It lasted for more than a thousand years of stagnation and backwardness extending from the 5th century after Christ until Renaissance in the 18th Century.

It was during this period that the Islamic civilization started with the advent of Islam in 610 AC . This period of Islamic history lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. The 7th to 15th century of this period is called the Golden era of History. Muslim scientists, and other intellectuals ushered in this era with accomplishments that were truly astounding with developments in all possible areas including modern medicine, chemistry and algebra.

And in fact it is Islamic civilization that led Europe out of dark ages into the era of Enlightenment and gave rise to its Renaissance. So far unacknowledged, this missing link is now being told in a multifaceted exhibition called "1001 Inventions" initiated in 2008 in the United Kingdom in partnership with the Foundation of Science, Technology and Civilization, a British-based non-profit organization. This exhibition has been shown in many locations around the world.

Prevailing Amnesia

Unfortunately most Western historians ignore or downplay this historic Islamic period. On the contrary, the current media promotes and general public holds the view that Muslims have nothing to give except terrorism. The colleges and universities here teach that the greatness of the West has its intellectual roots in Greece and Rome, and that after a thousand-year sleep in the Dark Ages, Europe miraculously reawakened to its Greco-Roman heritage. And it was this re-discovery which led them to Enlightenment and Renaissance, and the subsequent scientific and industrial revolutions.
If there is any mention of the Muslim world, it is only as a footnote that they merely saved the heritage of Greek philosophers to pass it on to the West.

However, it is gratifying to know that in this post 9/11 climate of prejudice and negative stereotyping of Islam and Muslims, there are a quite few courageous writers to tell the true story of Muslim accomplishments.
Among these is Michael Morgan of the National Geographic who wrote "Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists." He named his book Lost History because this period of history is as if it is lost and not acknowledged by the Western historians.
However, Morgan was astonished that it is not only Westerners but also Muslims, including the American Muslims who do not know this part of history. Many Muslims wrote and thanked him for his effort.

Some Significant Muslim Achievements

In this article, we will go over some of the significant achievements of prominent Muslims of this Golden era that we should all know and be proud of.


The fact is that Europeans learnt the very basics of hygiene and cleanliness from Muslims. Because of the cold weather bathing was a rarity even among the royalty in Europe and the stench of European cities was unbearable. Cleanliness is incumbent on Muslims, and the five daily obligatory prayers cannot be said without washing and being clean.

And an Andalusian, Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Nafi introduced underarm deodorants and improved detergents for washing clothes.

Wheal and Water Pump

The Persian wheal and water pump are both Muslim inventions. Water drawn flowing through canals for irrigation and other uses was introduced in Al-Andalus, the present day Spain, by Muslims. As well as the hamams, bathrooms with hot and cold running water for washing and taking baths.

Food Antiquate

A talented Musician, Ibn Nafi turned out to be quite a social dynamo. He reformed the Andalusian cuisine and suggested covering of tables with washable clothes. And chose an order for food to be served - first the soup and sauces, next the meats and last the deserts. This multi-course serving became the standard not only in Islamic Spain but in the entire West. He even replaced the ostentatious gold and silver goblets with crystal glasses. Thus teaching Europeans how to live with style and elegance.


Aside from such essential trivia, as you know learning and pursuing education are an integral part of Islam.

Complying with the revelations of Qur'an, which started with the word Iqra - read or recite, the Prophet sallil Allahu alayhe wa Sallam made it compulsory for Muslims to get educated. Thus alongside masajid, Muslims established madrassas to teach children and grown-ups alike. And learning and teaching became so widespread among Muslims that they became its torch-bearers for the rest of world.

Great centers of learning were founded in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba. These academia later on served as models for the European universities.

Baghdad was founded by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur in 762 and in 790 it became a center of learning under Caliph Harun al-Rashid. He invited persons from different countries with various backgrounds for dialog and learning from each other. His son, al-Mamun founded bayt al-Hikma or House of Wisdom which was devoted to translating philosophical and scientific works from the Greek and other languages and served as public library.

It needs to be pointed out that bayt al-Hikma did not only serve to keep the Greek originals from extinction, as is generally acknowledged, but also as the meeting place for scholarly dialogue, interactions, and discourses. Many original publications in a variety of areas came out from Bayt al-Hikma. And it continued to serve as such until sacked by Mongols in 1258.

Throughout the Golden era Arabic became the language of science, and advancement. For example, Maimonides the great Jewish scholar, a student of the famous Andalusian al-Rushd, wrote his most significant work in the Arabic language.

The first and one of the greatest universities was Al-Zaytuna in Tunis, Tunisia, and many Muslim scholars graduated from it. It was the earliest university in the world built around 703. The Islamic party Al-Nahda is currently engaged in reviving its world status.

Then in 859 Princess Fatima al-Firhi, daughter of a wealthy businessman founded the first degree university in Fez, Morocco, and her sister Miriam founded the adjacent mosque. The complex became known as the al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university.

Another great intellectual center, the Al-Azhar was founded in 970 in Cairo. It started as a mosque and became the largest academe in the Islamic world. It is named after Fatima, the daughter of Prophet sallil Allahu alayhe wa Sallam. She was also called as al-Zahra -the luminous. So Al-Azhar means the illuminated one, a deserving name for this great institution.


Another priority of Muslims was establishing hospitals to take care of the sick and needy. These hospitals were several centuries in advance of the Europeans. Europeans took their cue from these institutions and their teaching methods as standard for students in medical schools. Even adopted practices such as taking students on ward rounds in hospitals attached to schools. These Muslim hospitals provided free treatment and care to anyone in need, a quality that is sorely missing in the United States. The policy was based on the Muslim tradition of caring for the sick and needy.


In pharmacology also Muslim physicians made their lasting contributions. They not only discovered many herbal medicines but also perfected techniques of chemical extractions that are employed today. The first official pharmacy was established in Baghdad by Haurn al-Rashid and by the times of al-Mamum it employed highly qualified pharmacists who were licensed and inspected by the state.


There were many illustrious Muslim physicians. The foremost among these are such famous personalities as Al-Razi and Abu Ali Sina. The Europeans knew them by their Latinized names Razes and Avicenna respectively.
Both wrote masterpieces that were considered authority in medical universities in Europe until the 18th century. Muhammad Al-Razi's al-Judari wal Hasba, on smallpox, measles and chickenpox represented the first accurate clinical study of infectious diseases. His other book, called al-Hawi or the Comprehensive Book, included all that was known in medicine along with accounts of his own experiments and observations.

Abu Ali Sina is called the prince of physicians, since he authored the most influential medical text book called al-Qanun fi al-Tib or the Canon of Medicine that summed up all existing medical knowledge. In it, he introduced the contagious nature of infectious diseases, the use of quarantine to curb spread of infections, neuropsychiatric conditions such as epilepsy, stroke and dementia, and complications of diabetes.

He suggested that all new medicines should be tested for their efficacy on animals and humans in clinical trials to determine any harmful side effects before they are widely used, as the US Food and Drug Administration does now. The French honor Al-Razi and Abu Ali Sina by commemorating them at the University of Paris.

It was around 1,000 AC that Qasim al-Zahrawi published his renowned 1,500 page illustrated encyclopedia of surgery. It was used as a reference in Europe for the next 500 years. He is credited for developing new treatment methods ranging from dentistry to childbirth. Among his inventions was use of the dissolving cat gut to stich wounds. He also performed the first caesarian operation. He surgical tools such as scalpels, bone saws, and forceps are still used in hospitals.

Modern Sciences

Qur'an constantly tells us to observe and reflect. Following this injunction, Muslims laid down the foundations of modern sciences - based on experimentation rather than mere speculation. For example, Aristotle who is much admired in the West wrongly concluded that women have fewer ribs than men. He came up with this conclusion from his methodology of deduction in noting that women have shorter statures than men - instead of actual observation.


Only a hundred after the Prophet (s), Jabir ibn Hayyan initiated the science of chemistry. He invented most of the chemical processes which are still used in science laboratories such as purification of substances, oxidization, sublimation, liquefaction and crystallization. He also introduced improved laboratory equipment such as water baths, furnaces, and systems for filtration and distillation.


It was al-Mamun who built first modern astronomical observatories in Baghdad and Palmyra (Syria) in 829. The Muslim astronomers discovered many stars as shown by their Arabic names such as Algol, Aldebaran and others. Other observatories were built by Muslim pioneers as well as the relevant instruments such as the quadrant and astrolabe used in astronomy and ocean navigation.


A great mathematician Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi joined the Bayt al-Hikma in the early 9th century, and is known as the most influential mathematician of all times. His book Hisab al-Jabar wal Muqabala, Calculation of Integration and Equation changed mathematics forever. Algebra takes its name from the title of the book. It became a standard text in Europe for 400 years. He also invented algorithm, a branch of mathematics that derives its name from his home town of Khwarizm.

He wrote several mathematical works that were soon adopted throughout the Muslim world. For a long time European were using the cumbersome Roman numbering system. They learnt their current numbering called Arabic numerals from Muslims. The most astounding of his findings is Sifr or Zero which is not a number but the lack of it. It helped solve many problems in mathematics.

At a meeting of her executives arranged just after 9/11, Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett Packard rightly informed them that IT technology would not have been possible without these contributions. Among others, Morgan quoted above also reminds us of this, and other Muslim achievements.


Yet another Muslim genius, al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham founded the science of vision and optics and wrote Kitab al-Manazir, or Book of Optics. Against speculations of Euclid and Ptolemy that light was emitted from the eye, he concluded that light came from the objects that were capable of producing illumination, and distinguished primary from secondary emissions.

He did countless experiments to support a number of his theories on refraction and the nature of shadows. He did the first study of camera obscura to explain how the eye sees images upright due to connection between the optic nerve and brain. He discovered the principle of inertia centuries before Newton.


Among other Muslim inventions is crankshaft, invented by Al-Razzaz al-Jazari to convert rotary to linear motion, which enabled lifting of heavy objects easily. It led to a variety of other inventions that range from bicycles to internal combustion engines. He also invented first mechanical clocks driven by water and weights, as well as water pump to lift water. Among his 50 inventions is the combination lock.


Muslims during this period even tried aviation. In 852 Armen Firman jumped off a tower in Cordoba with attachment of wings and landed by parachute. Abbas ibn Firnas constructed the first glider and launched himself from a mountain. The idea was pursued by Jawahari and Hadari Ahmed Shalabi.

For an account of numerous other achievements, please visit the exhibition called "1001 Inventions" mentioned above, which works with world's leading academics. Among the literature associated with it is a National Geographic publication entitled "1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization" edited by Salim Al-Hassani.

Reasons of Current Muslim Stagnation

With all of these illustrious personalities and their admirable pioneering, the question is what is the cause of Muslim stagnation at present.

Most to blame are authoritarian regimes that are unfortunately backed by the Western powers. Their only concern of these regimes is security and the intelligence services spying on their own people. These countries where nominal democracies exist, the corrupt elite loot the public treasury.

There is meager spending on education and negligible on research. For example, oil rich monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar whose economies are comparable to Western nations spend only 0.2% of their GDP on science, less than a tenth of the 2.3% of the average of developed nations.

Under these circumstances, the educated and others who can, leave for the advanced West for a better livelihood and provision of work facilities, causing brain drain.


Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D. is a writer and author. This article resulted from his Friday Khutba at the Muslim Community Center in Tucson, and is part of his upcoming book on Family in Islamic Civilization due in October 2015.

  Category: Featured, Life & Society
  Topics: Islam And Science, Muslim Civilizations  Channel: Science
Views: 156392

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Older Comments:
SUZANA said:
well written article ma shaa Allah. Please notice following typos: Fatima al-Firhi should be Fatima al-Fihri Haurn al-Rashid is Harun al-Rashid al-Mamum is al-Mamun

Dear Sir,

Assalamu Alaikum. I was little hurt not reading non-arab muslims' contribution to Islamic world. I just have to mention only one example that is "0". without it please do calculation. Thank you.



L.V. FROM U.S.A. said:
The 7th to 15th century of this period is called the Golden era of History.

According to whom? This is the first time I have ever heard it. This time period was actually known for its dearth of scientific advancement. The periods before and after saw much more scientific development.