Discovering Medieval Muslim Scientists

A Muslim scientist working in his studio writing, reading and exploring (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

President Barak Obama visited Cairo, Egypt, in 2009. In his June 4, 2009 speech, President Obama said, "It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed."

A few years ago, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard and a presidential candidate, described the Muslim civilization in similar words:

 "It was driven more than anything by the invention. Its architects designed buildings that defy gravity. Its mathematicians created algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body and found new cures for diseases. Its astronomers looked into heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration."

Yet, in contrast to the above statements, Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani, a 19th-century influential pan-Islamist, aptly questions the fading of science and technology among Muslims: "It is permissible … to ask oneself why Arab [Muslim] civilization, after having thrown such a live light on the world, suddenly became extinguished; why this torch has not been relit since; and why the Arab [Muslim] world remains buried in profound darkness."

While Afghani asked a valid question more than a century ago, it is still pertinent and the subject of many scholarly books and articles. Why did Muslims' dominance, virtually in all fields of knowledge, suddenly ended up in decline for almost ten centuries? What happened to the "Golden Age" of Islam? Why, except a few nations, out of a total of 57 Muslim majority nations, the rest are all backward, unstable, and mostly poor? They have severely lagged in science, technology, and general modern development. These are all excellent questions, but there are few answers that scholars agree upon almost unanimously.

One of the factors that contributed to the decline was self-inflicted. Like Ghazali, some Muslim theologians were fearful of the emphasis on sciences lest they replace religious studies. To remedy this problem, the Nizamia school banned the teaching of sciences from the schools and replaced them with religious subjects. 

Another cause for the decline of Muslim civilization is that during the 16th and 17th centuries, most of the Muslim world was colonized by Europeans. Throughout the 200 years of colonialism, the scientific progress Muslims had made (during 7th-16 century) was completely eradicated from the pages of science's history, creating a false impression that all scientific progress was made since the renaissance. Amid the dark forces of colonialism, Muslims became weak and were subject to exploitation by the strong Western colonial powers. Even after gaining independence, most of these Muslim nations have been forced to stay subservient to their former colonial masters. Following independence, these nations discovered rich natural resources but didn't have the expertise to mine and use them for their development. Their weakness has made them convenient prey to the natural resource-hungry Western powers. With one scheme or another, they mercilessly wage wars against them and rob them out of their natural resources. Sometimes they compel them to sell precious commodities for next to nothing. In one of his books, no wonder Henry Kissinger rightly stated that the West was built on cheap Middle East oil. Had it not been for the Middle Eastern oil, it is doubtful that the Western nations, or for that matter any nation, could have made much progress using coal and steam engines.

In modern times, nations are not supposed to attack other countries out of whim. They have to manufacture an excuse, some false flag, before invading the targeted nations. The most common method is to demonize the intended nations and create a coalition of Western nations, legitimizing attacking any country they wish to. Usually, the invasion is vailed with a catchy phrase: "for humanitarian reasons," to name one. What a brilliant strategy? Yes, it may be smart, but it is inhumane. The powerful nations rob the Muslim countries out of their natural resources. They also brand them with demeaning labels so they can perpetuate their dominance over them

Furthermore, the decline of Islamic civilization has made Muslims the subject of attacks and ridicule. Never before has the Muslim Ummah, who once was at the forefront of science, technology, and innovation, been held in lower esteem than the present time. The commonly held perspective would have us believe that it was the event of 9/11 that destroyed the Muslim image. Sadly, that tragic incident was a major contributing factor in painting all the Muslims with a broad brush as violent terrorists. Long before that, there were forces in action to defame Islam and the Muslim world. Orientalists like Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and many before and after them have openly attacked Muslims by referring to them as uncultured barbarians and violent people. How ironic! The Muslims introduced science, culture, and civilization to Europeans who, during the Dark Ages, lived like barbarians. These scholars are either ignorant of history or deliberately hide the fact that the Islamic empire, for more than 1,000 years, remained the most advanced and civilized nation in the world. These opposing views are prevalent all over the West, not only among non-Muslims but also ignorant Muslims. Unfortunately, the Muslims lack a platform to refute these allegations. The late Professor Edward Said, a Christian, wrote the only remarkable repudiation of these false accusations. Until very recently, the world only knew about European scientists' work that began with the renaissance.  

Something had to be done to remedy this injustice and inform the world about the medieval Muslim scholars' contributions to science and technology. In pursuit of this objective, in the year 2001, Institute for Medieval and Post Medieval Studies (IMPMS) was established in collaboration with the Association of Muslim Social Scientists of North America. The dual objectives of IMPMS are, on the one hand, to inform the world about the contributions of medieval Muslim scholars to humanity's knowledge. And on the other hand, to motivate the Muslim youth to follow their forefathers' footsteps and study science and technology.                                                                                                                                                 

Since its inception, IMPMS has endeavored to inform the public about Muslim scholars' contributions to world civilization in various ways. It has conducted seminars, taught classes, published books and articles, and has held essay writing contests.

During 2001–2019 IMPMS held several major conferences inviting national speakers to address large audiences about Muslims' contributions to the world civilization, the rise and fall of the Muslim civilization, and how can Muslims restore their intellectual tradition of the medieval years. Some of the internationally known speakers included professor Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman from Mallasy University and IIIT, Professor Sulayman S. Nyang from Howard University, Dr. Mumtaz Ahmed, Dr. Muktadar Khan, Professor Dilnavaz Siddique, Professor Ali Mazrui, Professor Ilai Alon from Tel Aviv University, Professor Robert Hunt of SMU, Professor Nazeer Ahmed of the University of California, Dr. Carol Bargeron from Texas State University, Professor John Esposito from Georgetown University, Dr. Ibrahim Syed, Dr. Lodi of Texas Tech University, Mr. Saeed Khan of Wayne State University, Kevin Krisciunas from Texas A&M University, Joseph Bender from Pennsylvania, Michael Hamilton Morgan (Author of Lost History), and Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy from Pakistan.  

Between 2007-2009, Edward Thomas, an IMPMS board member, taught a continuing education course entitled "Great Thinkers of Islamic World" at Southern Methodist University. 

During the past two decades, IMPMS board members Dr. Basheer Ahmed, Ambassador Ahsani, Professor Yushau Sodiq, Mr. Edward Thomas, and Mr. Mohsin Shaheed presented papers at national and regional medieval conferences. In 2003, at the 38th conference of the International Congress of Medieval Studies (ICMS), for the very first time, in the 55 years history of ICMS, IMPMS presented a paper on Muslim contribution to the world civilization. Never before, in the entire history of ICMS, any Muslim had been invited to present a paper on the golden age of the Muslim era.            

In its ceaseless efforts, IMPMS continued writing and presenting papers to various seminars and conferences, chief among them, Texas Medieval Association annual conference (TEMA) at Southern Methodist University, Baylor University, and the University of Houston. 

In November 2010, Basheer Ahmed and Edward Thomas gave Texas A&M University presentations as members of a panel on "Contributions on History of Science from Islamic Civilization."

At the International Meeting on Renaissance at St. Louis University in the year 2012, Dr. Basheer Ahmed presented a paper on the influence of Ibn Rushd's philosophy on the West.

Additionally, Dr. Basheer Ahmed, President of IMPMS, has edited two books titled "Muslim Contributions to World Civilization" published by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists and IIIT; "The Islamic Intellectual Heritage and its Impact on the West" published by the Institute of Medieval and Post Medieval Studies.   

Another significant development in the history of IMPMS is its collaboration with Discover STEM. In 2018, it joined Discover STEM. Their affiliate has afforded us another avenue to inform and motivate the Muslim youth to become scientists. Discover STEM, the first and only institution of its kind in the entire world, was founded by the Mirza brothers in 2016. Its CEO, Faizan Mirza, sits on the IMPMS board and has added another valuable dimension to our institution. In the past two years, we have held two joint seminars attended by hundreds of students, educators, physicians, and many other professionals with his cooperation. 

The second seminar, which was held at the University of Texas at Dallas, narrowly escaped the "Shelter in Place" orders – by about three weeks! It was held on February 29, 2020, attended by close to 700 participants, including students, professors, physicians, scientists, and members of many more professions. At the time, of course, much was not known about Covide-19. Otherwise, we would not have risked the health of the participants, including our own, by holding the seminar. Nobody had the virus to the best of our knowledge, and no one contracted it from the workshop. 

Some highlights of the program included an exhibition of the portraits of 25 medieval Muslim scientists, speakers of high renown such as senior program scientist at NASA, Dr. Hashima Hassan; Colonel Richard Graham, the first SR-71 pilot; Dr. Basheer Ahmed, founder and president of IMPMS; and Faizan Mirza, CEO of Discover STEM. The program ended with the presentation of certificates of the patent to students of Discover STEM – some 60 of them, ranging in age from 10 to 18 years old. 

Thus, collaboration with Discover STEM has afforded IMPMS a unique opportunity to further motivate these talented students by introducing them to the Golden Age's Muslim scholars. It is hoped that by learning about the accomplishments of the medieval Muslim scholars who were at the forefront of science and technology of their era, these young students will follow their forefathers' footsteps and become leaders of those fields once again.

 In a unique method of acquainting the Muslim youth with this concept, IMPMS recently held an essay writing contest among Muslim middle and high school students. The contestants were given the names of 6 scholars of the medieval era consisting of Jabir Al Hayyan, Ibn Sina, Al Zahrawi, and Ibn Al Haytham. The contestants were free to select anyone from the list to write about. 

As exhibited in the direct quotations from the essays below, the results were exactly what IMPMS intended to accomplish. We wanted them to discover that, once, Muslim scholars were the world leaders in their respective fields of knowledge. They found, innovated, invented, and laid the foundation for further development in science and technology. Had it not been for their tireless work, the world would not have experienced the progress it has. 

It only fits to start the review of the essays with the youngest contestant, the ten-year-old Maryam (last names are not given to protect the contestants' identity). She wrote her article on Jabir Al Hayyan, who is known in the West as Gerber. "The word gibberish is derived from this name because sometimes, he would write in code so that only his students would know what h had written. To others, these writings looked like gibberish!"

Hayyan was born in Tus, Khurasan, a present-day Iran province, but spent most of his life in Kufa, Iraq. Through his writings, Hayyan introduced chemistry to the world and is often known as the father of chemistry. He and his students created over 3000 works altogether. Among other things, Hayyan invented clothes dyeing and leather tanning. He also discovered sulfuric nitric and nitro muriatic acids. Alembic was another discovery of his which used to distill medicine and alcohol. A host of chemical processes such as distillation, crystallization, purification, sublimation, liquefaction, oxidation, evaporation, amalgamation, and filtration greatly impact our society, were also created by Hayyan. His work today serves as a foundation of modern chemistry.

Maryam ends her paper in the following way: "Jabir Al Hayyan has inspired me through the amount of work and research he has done. It is challenging to produce over 3,000 pieces of work even with help! I think he has impacted the modern world immensely. For example, we would not have enough clean water, modern medicines, or any chemical processes that we use today if it were not for Hayyan. I would like to learn to distill different things so I can make my perfumes."

The next article, written by Nuha, is about Ibn Sina. Right from the start, Nuha writes about "Quarantine." Literally speaking, it means 40 days of isolation, and Ibn Sina first prescribed it to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Nuha adds: "One has to be amazed by such intellect at a time when there were hardly any tools and support available at hand … Ibn Sina was able to discover the existence of the virus and then prescribe a solution. More amazing is the fact we, in the year 2020, are relying on learnings and teachings of this great 10th-century philosopher to control the epidemic."

Ibn Sina was born on August 22, 980 A.D. in Balkh, Afghanistan, and died at the young age of 56 years on June 22, 1037. Nuha summarizes Sina's work as follows:                                                                             

"Among his many achievements is the methodology of conducting research – the idea of clinical trials which is so widely used today by hospitals and pharmaceutical companies was first implemented by him. He introduced the need for different phases during the trials and conclusively know whether or not a treatment of medicine is safe and effective for human use. Ibn Sina acknowledged the limitations of the time and reiterated that no organism on earth was worthless. We just lacked knowledge on its existence and the role they play in the eco-system. He introduced me to the pre-modern era of pain management and control, wound healing, and treatment through surgery. No wonder he is aptly called the father of early modern medicine."

Nuha further continues, "Ibn Sian was also known as Avicenna in the Western world and is recognized as one of the most significant philosophers in the Islamic tradition and arguably the most influential medical personality of all times. He wrote many books, including Canons of Medicine."

Our young writer is deeply inspired by the selfless work of Ibn Sina to help his fellowmen and adds: "he inspires me to want to do good and be committed to whatever cause, not for my own sake, but for the betterment of the entire community – and I firmly believe that Allah will guide and clear the path when I reach that stage of commitment,"

Nuha ends her article with the following words of wisdom:

"While we would have loved Ibn Sina to be walking among us during these testing times for a quick resolution of this hardship, I am hopeful that we will get through this, through the many well-intended medical professionals walking in the path shown by Ibn Sina. We have overcome the "Black Death" through the implementation of Ibn Sina's concepts, and we will overcome Covid-19. We cannot thank Ibn Sina enough for his innovations which helped mankind during his time, have so much relevance today, and for sure will have his fingerprint in helping people till the dawn[end] of human civilization."

One of the most famous Muslim scholars, Al Zahrawi, was a research and essay for the 14 years old Noor. In an impressive six pages article, he gives a brief account of his life and discoveries.

Abu Al-Qasim Khalaf Ibn Al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi (936 – 1013 A.D.), also known in the West as Abulcasis, was an Al-Andalusian physician, surgeon, and chemist. He was a God-fearing, humble and pious Muslim, and is considered to be the most outstanding surgeon of the Middle Ages, and has been described as the father of surgery. His most significant contribution to history is Kitab At-Tasrif, a 30 volume encyclopedia of medical practice, of which the most crucial part comprised three books on surgery: on cauterization, on the incision, perforation, venesection, wounds, and bone-setting. The surgery chapter of Al Zahrawi's work was later translated into Latin, attaining popularity and becoming the standard textbook in Europe for the next five hundred years. Al Zahrawi's developing contributions to surgical procedures and instruments greatly impacted the East and West well into modern times, where some of his discoveries are still applied in medicine to this day. He discovered the use of catgut for internal stitches, and his surgical are still used today. He was the first physician to identify the hereditary nature of hemophilia and the first to discover the root of paralysis. He also developed devices for C-section and cataract surgeries. In total, 200 surgical instruments such as scalpels, curettes, retractors, spoons, sounds, hooks, rods, and forceps extract a dead fetus and specula. He has also performed surgical treatments of head injuries, skull fractures, spinal injuries, hydrocephalus, subdural effusions, and headaches. 

Following the extensive review of Al-Zahrawi's work, Lais adds: "The perseverance, dedication, and passion of Al-Zahrawi expressed was incredible. He taught me that every second wasted is like a breath wasted. Suppose the purpose of life is not to help humanity after following Allah and the Prophet's commands. What is the purpose of living? Al-Zahrawi followed Allah's commands and studied the Sunnah to create his invention. He did not do it for fame or money, and he did it for the sake of Allah. I have always aspired to become a doctor when I grow up, Insha Allah. As I was researching Al-Zahrawi, I have learned that in no way can one be successful without implementing the Quran and Sunnah in your life." Noor won first place in the essay contest, and it is well-deserved.

For whatever reason, the subject of seven out of the ten winners was none other than Ibn Al-Haytham. It is not that the rest of the 27 contestants did not write about other Muslim scholars. They did. What is puzzling is why the four judges rated 70 percent of the winners among those who wrote on Ibn Al-Haytham? That is a good topic for another research paper, and now let us review the work of 7 writers on a scholar who has impacted life for 1000 years and will continue to do so in ways that we have taken for granted.

We will begin with the essay written by the 14 years old contestant and third place winner, Faizan. He writes: "Ibn Al Haytham (965-1040 A.D.) flourished in Egypt near Tigris and Euphrates' delta. He was known as the 'first true scientist.' He was an expert in mathematics and science…One of the main reasons he did inspire me was because he never lost hope, even when people did not believe in him. He inspired me also because he changed the world. He proved how we see by using camera obscura."

The 15 years old, Fardis, another essay contestant, quotes Ibn Al-Haytham, the true father of the scientific method:

If learning the truth is the scientist's goal, then he must make himself the enemy of all that he reads." He published the first known book in the complex world of light and optics, which took him a decade to write. In this book called Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), he shattered a1500 years old previously held theory of emission that was grounded and supported by Greek thinkers such as Euclid and Ptolemy, who believed that sight worked with energy transferring from the human eye to an object (similar to how a modern flashlight works) – thanks to Ibn Al-Haytham's scientific experiments, we know that it is not true. His seminal work had not only inspired the scientists of his era, but it was also an inspiration to scientists after him, including famous personalities like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Da Vinci.

Fardis further adds that Ibn Al-Haytham, who is known as Alhazen in the Western world, was the first to identify different parts of human eyes, including the cornea, named them, and described their functions in detail.

Just like the other essayists, Fardis was inspired by Ibn Al-Haytham, and he states: "Ibn Al-Haytham's life and discoveries are an inspiration to all of us to study science, technology, engineering, and math and pursue careers in science. In a world where science is crucial to our wellbeing, harnessing the potential of young people and building their scientific capacity is an indisputable necessity."

Another essay contestant who also wrote about Ibn Al-Haytham is the 12 years old Yusuf. Like the other writers, he too was motivated by this great scientist. "Ibn Al-Haytham is an inspiration for young children like me because of his knowledge and love for science and math as these two are my favorite subjects. Also, he made significant discoveries about light and how vision works, which led to many discoveries, such as spectacles. I wear one as well as all my friends wear one, and without his early discoveries, we would not have had spectacles and have a hard time seeing."

Hiba, another 12 years old essayist, writes that Ibn Al-Haytham's invention of the pinhole camera that centuries later helped Johann Zahn to invent the camera, which has totally altered the way we remember things. It was this invention of Ibn Al-Haytham that inspired Hiba to write her essay about him. In her own beautiful words, she continues: "I have always aspired to be one of those resplendent objects this silent cosmos is breeding in large or should I say relatively small numbers. I have always been fascinated by watching sunrise, sunsets, waters, flowers, gazing at the skies, bees, trees, mountains, and the list goes on from a very young age. I would often capture these images, moments through the camera. Even years later, when I happen to look back at these images, it gives me a moment of immense enjoyment, and I can capture those feeling and moments all over again."

One more 14 years old, Mariam's subject of the essay was also Ibn Al-Haytham. She shares the story of confinement of this scholar of the Golden Age of Muslims. As an accomplished scientist, Ibn Al-Haytham, sends a proposal to Caliph Al-Hakim, suggesting that he help them regulate the flow of water down the Nile. Al-Hakim agreed and gave him a team of trained engineers to work with. As the plan was further developed, Ibn Al-Haytham realized it was unattainable and would never come to fruition. Al-Hakim was disappointed upon hearing this, and Al-Haytham was worried about the stories of this man's cruel and inhumane ruling. Many believe he pretended to go crazy to avoid the Fatimaed Caliph's unjust punishment. As a result, he was put under protective custody in his own home until Al-Hakim's death in 1021. Forced to stay home under house arrest for ten long years, he spent this alone time genuinely delving into the world of science and immersing himself in research and experiments. It was during this time that he made some of the most critical optical discoveries in history."

It was this work under duress of Ibn Al-Haytham that has impressed Mariam the most as she describes it: "Ibn Al-Haytham is an inspiration for me because he did the best with what he had and followed his passion. Although he was locked at home with no access to materials and other people, he was able to solve one of the body's most confusing parts with the few items he had at home. Other scientists had access to multitudes of materials and assistants, but it was just him, a hole in his wall, and some mirrors. This is inspiring because it shows that you don't need fancy equipment and technology to explore and experiment. You just have to have dedication and patience."

Mariam concludes her article by stating that "he could impact people for thousands of years to come. He is an inspiration to me and should be to everyone in the world."

Yet, another 15 years old, Zainab, wrote her essay on Ibn Al-Haytham, as well. Following is how she describes her feelings about this amazing scholar: "One lesson that I have learned from Al-Haytham is that, to strive for something means to be consistent with it, even if life tells you otherwise. As a photographer, knowing the history behind the man that started it all, and knowing that he was a Muslim scientist has made me love the art of capturing images even more. Living in America, most of the time, we never get any insight into the Muslim innovators, and as a student, I am very passionate about science and have never felt so connected and interested in learning more about the history of innovators like Al-Haytham. He has inspired me to look deeper into the history of Muslim scientists, as in the Western world, we do not get much appreciation for them. Al-Haytham once said, "The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writing of the scientists and…puts his trust in them…but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them," and using this mentality, his ideas influenced and changed the face of science and mathematics."

It is an inspiration to learn how the 12 years old Yusuf was inspired by Al-Haytham. After accounting for his scientific method, Yusuf writes:

"It inspired me and makes me proud that Ibn Al-Haytham, a Muslim, came up with this idea and every child starting from elementary years is being taught about the scientific method in the science classes. And last year as a 6th grader, my first unit test was about the scientific method." Yusuf goes on to say, "Ibn Al-Haytham also inspires me because he helped prevent humanity from centuries of misunderstanding. Because of him, I have glasses to read the Quran and memorize it. I learned that every person sees upside down in my school, but our brain tells us it is not. I never truly understood it, but it helped me understand it better when I found how Al-Haytham demonstrated it. He lived for 72 years and made tremendous contributions to human civilization. He died in 1040 A.D. in Cairo, Egypt, and has left his legacy to be continued by the future generations, which I hope to follow in his footsteps in the world of science."

Zainab, a 15 years old essayist, believes "Ibn Al-Haytham's innovations and research has led others to new pearls of wisdom. He paved the path for future scientists such as Johannes Kepler, Roger Bacon, and even Leonardo Da Vinci. From Haytham's findings, scientists began expanding onto his research, uncovering more information about light, optics, and vision."

She concludes her essay using beautiful poetic words: "I aspire to grow up determined to show the world my potential. I want to pursue my dreams, chasing after them like dandelion seeds soaring through the winds. No matter the stumbles and falls and failures that threaten to steer me away from my path, I hope to run after my dreams until they come true ceaselessly. Haytham's story stirred determination in my heart. Anyone has the God-given ability to accomplish whatever they desire. Life is a cycle of trial and error. Just how Haytham encountered many trials and errors in his quest for knowledge, so do we in modern-day society. However, we must hold onto determination and let it guide us down the path to knowledge."

It is hard to top Zainab's beautiful description of her inspiration. Her feelings and those of other contestants firmly indicate that IMPMS, by holding the essay contest, has touched a nerve in Muslim youth's young minds. We hope to continue stimulating their minds and enable them to reach their optimal potential.                                                                                               

With that goal in mind, we have launched another essay contest for 2020 with one major difference. While the last essay contest was about the Medieval Muslim scientists, this time, we have included several top contemporary Muslim scientists, including the three Muslim Nobel laureates. The contestants' age bracket has been changed as well -- limited to 15 to 18 years old.

While the last essay contests were limited to the United States students, the current competition is open to students of all nations. By opening the essay contest globally, it's hoped that we will get various perspectives and motivate more students to participate.

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