Have you ever noticed that all the books on science and technology somehow only seem to be filled with discoveries and inventions from the likes of Aristotle, Archimedes, Da Vinci and Thomas Edison... but what about all the Muslims? Where are all our discoveries?
A period of a thousand years exists between these thinkers and when great Muslim men and women expressed their religiosity through contributions made to society and the sciences. So what were these contributions? And how many of these are used today?
Masters of Ophthalmology:
All the modern terms that your optician uses like conjunctiva, cornea, uvea and retina all come from Muslim eye surgeons of the 10th to the 13th century. They were conducting operations on diseases of the lids like trachoma, glaucoma or as they called it ‘the headache of the pupil’. The greatest contribution they made to ophthalmology was developing a treatment for cataracts. Also known as al-ma’ nazul’ayn Ma’, which meant “the descending water onto the eye” (the water accumulating in the lens making it cloudy).
Al-Mawsili in the 10th century Iraq designed a hollow needle and inserted it through the limbus to remove the cataract by suction. This very same procedure is carried out today. From his study and practice he wrote a book called The Book of Choices in the Treatment of Eye Diseases. Not a very good name for a book but hey, the man was a genius when it came to diseases of the eye, as the book discusses 48 different diseases! The manuscript of this book can be found in the Escorial Library in Madrid, Spain.
The Muslim Surgeon named Abu Al Qasim Al-Zahrawi (10th century) known as Abulcasis in the West is truly the father of surgery. He devised over 200 instruments; his scalpels, bone saws, forceps and fine scissors amongst others are still used in their original form today! He is the author of Kitab Al-Tasrif (method of medicine), a 30 volume encyclopaedia on medical practices which was his greatest contribution to medicine. This book includes symptoms and treatments of 100’s of diseases, descriptions of particular aspects of pharmacology and diet, and the last volume is famous and influential for its surgical practices.
Everyday Inventions & Discoveries
come from the Arabic “saqq”. It is a written vow to honour payment for merchandise when its destination is reached. The cheque was created due to the possible dangers of transporting coins as legal tender.
In promoting the concept of the saqq or cheque, Muslims made the financing of commerce and intercontinental trade possible. In the 9th century it was possible to cash a cheque in China and then withdraw it in Baghdad. Can you say Kerching!
Before pens came into existence, there were other writing instruments like Qalams or reed pens, which were used by the Arabs in the art of calligraphy. But the problem was the same, the ink always existed outside of the pen and it constantly had to make use of an ink-holder. An Arab called Qadi abu Hanifah al-Nu’man ibn Muhammed, who was a close companion of the Egyptian Sultan al-Mu’izz, in 953 CE, wrote a book called ‘The Book of Audiences and Concurrence’ in which he recollects how Al-Mu’izz ordered the commissioning of the fountain pen:
“We wish to construct a pen which can be used for writing without having recourse to an ink-holder and whose ink will be contained inside it. A person can fill it with ink and write whatever he likes and the writer can put it in his sleeve and it will not stain nor leak. The ink will flow only when there is an intention to write.” The companion asked: “Is this possible?” And the Sultan replied: “It is possible if God so wills.”
Sure enough a few days later, the craftsman brought a pen which wrote when it was filled with ink, never leaked when turned upside down and did not require the use of an ink pot as it held its own. Unlike today’s fountain pens that leak all over the place, this writer sincerely agrees with the Sultans sentiments.
Yep, you read that right, Muslims “invented” coffee. The first evidence found of coffee-drinking appears in Sufi shrines in Yemen where they would drink this beverage to be able to stay awake late into the night performing dhikr (something we can all relate to). Coffee spread quickly. In one century, it had reached Africa and the whole of the Middle East, arrived in Europe through Italy and then spread to the rest of Europe. In the 1600’s, Sultan Murad IV decided to ban coffee! Some say it was because once, whilst patrolling his city in disguise, the Sultan heard the coffee drinkers having a deep and thoughtful conversation about the (sad) state of the area he ruled. Other stories say that coffeehouses had become meeting places for leisure and discussions instead of masjids, hence why all coffeehouses were closed down and coffee was banned. Whatever the reasons, somehow this bitter yet addictive drink is now found in every household!
In Islam, we are encouraged to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. Some of the very first Muslim schools were in fact mosques which served as both a place of prayer and learning. They taught all manner of subjects including sciences alongside religious studies which was a completely novel idea in comparison to the rest of the world. The oldest university in the world is the Al-Qaraouine University in Fez, Morocco which was established in 841 CE. It may interest all those parents who think girls shouldn’t go to university that the Al-Qaraouine University was established by a pious young Muslim woman called Fatima al-Fahra. She was the daughter of a successful businessman who spent her entire inheritance on building the university and as a result she spared no expense. Upon commencing the project, she fasted regularly until the building was complete. On opening its doors the university was flooded with applications from not only the local people but from international students all the way from Iraq. Unlike today’s universities, the students did not have to pay fees. In fact financial support was part of the package, which was made possible by endowments from the royal families (at least they were once good for something!). Its education included all subjects, but in particular the natural sciences. Einstein boldly claims: “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Military was something that the earlier Muslims understood really well. One of the most influential books on military technology was 'The Book of Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices' by the Syrian scholar Hasan al-Rammah, written sometime in the 12th Century. It included the schematics of the first rocket (a model of which is exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, USA today), cannons and grenades. Although the Chinese knew about gunpowder, they only used it in fireworks as they could not get the proportions right for use in war nor were they able to purify the potassium nitrate. Hasan al-Rammah's book was the first to explain the purification process of potassium nitrate and the recipe for gunpowder. The Muslim Armies in 1249 used gunpowder in war resulting in decisive victories against the invading crusaders. In fact the invaders were so terrified of the devices that a French Crusader Army disbanded and retreated, leaving their King to be imprisoned. An example of such a cannon made from Hasam al-Rammah's book is on display at Fort Nelson Museum in London which was a gift given to Queen Victoria by Sultan Abdul Aziz.
Have you ever seen one of those environmentally friendly windmills? All across, you see an entire field generating energy from the winds themselves; ever wondered where such a contraption came from? In order to fuel any great society a constant supply of renewable energy is required; over a thousand years ago this energy was harnessed. In the towns, water-driven mills processed wheat but in the drier parts of Arabia, where water was scarce, they had to come up with an alternative.
The one thing that is plentiful in the desert is the wind! It blows in the same direction all year round. So in 634 a Persian Caliph named Umar was approached by a Persian engineer claiming to be able to make a mill operated solely by the wind. Intrigued, the Caliph immediately ordered him to construct one. The first few windmills were constructed in the Persian province of Sistan and al-Masudi which was later described by one geographer as the 'country of wind and sand'. Early mills had 6 to 12 sails covered with fabric. From this invention many new trades were born and it wasn’t long before these caught the eye of the crusaders who then introduced them to Europe in the 12th Century.
Ibn Al-Haytham and the Pinhole Camera
I know this doesn’t sound like the most exciting invention ever but bear with me a little. This man, Ibn (Son of) Al-Haytham is known as the father of modern optics, and not for bad reason either! Back in the 5th century, it was believed that our eyes EMITTED light rays (superman style) and this theory was upheld all through famous Greek and Roman thinkers until the 11th century when our man, Ibn Al-Haytham, proved scientifically that we are not emitting rays but rather visible light enters our eyes and hence we can see. His greatest and irrefutable proof was the pinhole camera, the principle is simple. Light rays enter a small hole and an inverted image is formed on a film at the back. The pinhole camera is still used today, the images produced are softer and they have a nearly infinite depth of field, check them out, they’re quite amazing!
So you see, our amazing modern world isn’t all about Aristotle and Plato, no, our world was largely shaped by people who were not scared to tackle deep-rooted ideas or taken-for-granted theories. With their faith in Allah and the Quran by their side, they were able to make major breakthroughs and inventions in all aspects of human life. Our brothers and sisters opened the path for us, so what are we waiting for? Don’t be scared to challenge everything and anything. Don’t be scared to let your imagination run wild, draw, create, invent, test, prove!
Our beloved religion encourages us to do all this. Our Lord’s very first word to the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was “IQRA” which means “Read!” thus showing the importance of knowledge.
Also, the prophet (pbuh) said: "He who treads a path in search of knowledge, Allah will direct him to tread a path from the paths of Paradise. The Angels lower their wings for the student of knowledge in approval of what he does. All in the heavens and earth and (even) the fish in the depth of the water seek forgiveness for the scholar, and the superiority of the scholar over the worshipper is like the superiority of the full moon at night over the rest of the stars. Verily, the scholars are the heirs to the Prophets; verily the Prophets did not leave dinars or dirhams. All they left behind was knowledge, so whoever takes it has indeed acquired a huge fortune." [Al-Musnad]
How Islamic inventions changed the world
Inventions from Medieval Islam
1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World Second Edition by Salim TS Al-Hassani, 2007