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Islam and Science

Islam & Science

How Islam laid the foundation for the growth of Modern Science

Little is it known that Islam laid the very foundation for modern science as we know it. The Qur’an which we Muslims take to be the very Word of God incessantly calls upon its readers to meditate on the marvels of creation and to explore the laws of nature.

We will show you (O mankind) Our signs in the universe and in yourselves until you are convinced that the revelation is the truth

(Expounded:53)

That’s not all, it challenges man to discover the secrets of the universe as much as he can, even to the extent of highlighting phenomena then unthought of by man:

Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and earth Were joined together (as one Unit of Creation), before We clove them asunder? We made from water Every living thing. Will they not believe?

(The Prophets:30)

The Reasoning Revolution

Thus Islam from its very onset recognized the validity of reason, not only in knowing God, but also the world around us. No other faith put before its followers such a fresh revolutionary idea, that to know God, we need to use reason and reflect on His Signs around us in order to realize His Existence and to acknowledge His Presence. Such hints in their Holy Book were not taken lightly by its readers, for it enhanced their curiosity and fueled their thirst for new knowledge. It was the stepping stone to what we call science today; it laid the foundation for the pillars we know as the sciences to be built on. This is what prompted Hartwig Hirschfeld to remark:

We must not be surprised to find the Qur’an the fountain-head of the sciences. Every subject connected with heaven or earth, human life, commerce and various trades is occasionally touched upon, and this gave rise to the production of numerous monographs forming commentaries on parts of the Holy Book. In this way the Qur’an was responsible for great discussions, and to it was indirectly due the marvelous development of all branches of science in the Muslim world

That’s not all, God’s Prophet made the pursuit of knowledge mandatory on every Muslim man and woman when he declared:

Seeking knowledge is a duty on every Muslim

(Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

And pronounced that those who sought knowledge traveled in the way of God:

If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, God will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. The angels will lower their wings in great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge

(Abu Dawood)

The Prophet Exemplar

Though a religious figure, the Prophet himself did not shy away from deducing facts based on scientific observation, like when he stated: “I was about to prohibit sexual intercourse with lactating women, but I observed the Byzantines  and Persians, and saw them do it, and their children suffered no harm” (Muwatta).

The example set by their Prophet himself no doubt contributed to the evolution of a scientific mindset among his followers. Let’s hear what Professor Huston Smith had to say about it in his Religions of Man:

 The heavenly bodies holding their swift silent course in the vault of heaven, the incredible order of the universe, the rain that falls to relieve the parched earth, palms bending with golden fruit, ships that glide across the seas laden with goodness for man-can these be the handiwork of gods of stone? What fools to cry for signs when creation harbours nothing else! In an age of creduility, Muhammad taught respect for the world’s incontrovertible order which was to awaken Muslim science before Christian.

Islam did not ask men to leave the realm of reality. Rather, it invited them to contemplate and meditate on the world around them and on workings of the universe and its laws, fully knowing that man will, by this means, realize the truth of God’s existence. And the deeper he probed, the more he was likely to believe in the Wonderful God behind it all. Thus from its very inception, Islam, Unlike the church fathers of old, did not look at science as something Satanic.

Science for Good

Rather, scientific discoveries and inventions that benefit man were seen as nothing but the unfolding flow of knowledge that God chose to give man from time to time depending on the need. This is what inspiration that figures so prominently in scientific exploration is all about. It is a blessing of God which we ought to use for our good. It is precisely the reason why God are created people with different sets of skills and different kinds of intelligences, some linguistic, some mathematical, some spatial, all of which are vital for the progress of human society over the ages.

Have you not pondered how as man progresses his every need to advance is already provided in nature. Take for instance petroleum, a worthless substance if not for modern science’s discovery of it as a source of fuel to power our vehicles and give us plastic. Then take water which gives us hydro-electricity to meet our domestic energy requirements like lighting our homes at night and mineral deposits to meet our fertilizer requirements to grow bounteous harvest of crops and even simple sand to give us silicon chips for an eco-friendly paperless world. Yes this world is so blessed with resources that one can only wonder who put it all there for us to make use of it. It’s as if it were all waiting to happen. like the spore of the hyssop mould, the penicillin notatum that settled in Alexander Fleming’s dish of Staphylococci and gave rise to an entire spectrum of antibiotics to fight disease.

Thus Islam looked upon science not as an instrument of the devil as the Church did until recently but as a tool to learn about God’s creation and further the progress of man within it. As you know the Church in the Middle Ages thrived on maxims like “Ignorance is the mother of devotion” with pontiffs like Pope Gregory burning libraries and driving scientists underground with threats of burning at the stake. This is not hard to believe when one remembers how as recently as 1633 so accomplished a scientist like  Galileo was compelled to abjure the ‘detestable heresy’ that the earth moved round the sun on pain of death. This reactionary worldview did not even stop with the Reformation, for was it not the founder of Protestantism Martin Luther who himself decried medical treatment for women by crying out in all the misogynistic zeal he could muster “If they become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth–that is why they are there”.

Islamdom never cultivated such an attitude because it simply couldn’t. Its faith would simply not allow it to. Rather it actively encouraged scientific findings that could benefit man, with the full backing of the religious authority. It allowed men and women of science to freely pursue their dreams, to reflect upon matters of scientific interest with open minds without being stifled by religious authority as in the West.

Scientific Progress Under Islam

Islam which did not have a priesthood or religious hierarchy with vested interests as the West did, thus broke down the barriers of conditioned thinking that had stunted man’s intellectual progress throughout the ages and eventually paved the way for the spectacular scientific feats of our times. The Muslim Arabs introduced objective experiments to the world centuries before Roger Bacon formulated his much hyped scientific method the West so proudly boasts of today.

This is why Robert Briffault observed in his Making of Humanity:

   “It is highly probable that for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed the character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution. For although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the paramount distinctive force of the modern world and the supreme source of its victory- natural science and scientific spirit”.

The only part of Europe that could rival the Middle East in scientific studies was Spain, and that too was a Muslim country at the time going by the name of Al Andalus. In fact Islamic civilization in Spain was the most developed civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages and remained so until Ferdinand and Isabella drove Boabdil and his Muslim subjects out of Iberia in the fifteenth century. But for all that time, for over seven hundred years from 711 to 1492 Spain shone like a light to the rest of Europe.

Christendom could not contribute to science in any real meaningful way due to the power of its religious establishment which saw every new scientific discovery as an affront to God and punished it as heresy, even things that did not have anything to do with religion like holding that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Yes, Christians in both east and West, Rome and Byzantine remained steeped in ignorance for over a thousand years, which is why the modern West calls those times of the Middle Ages The Dark Ages. They emerged from this long, dark night of ignorance only when they saw the light of learning that emerged from Muslim centres of knowledge in Spain, Turkey and the Middle East.

As the Marquis of Dufferin observed: “It is to Mussulman science, Mussulman art and to Mussulman literature that Europe has been in a great measure indebted for its extrication from the darkness of the Middle Ages”. Yes, even today, the entire world accepts that the end of the Dark Ages in Europe came in 1453 when Christian Constantinople fell to the Muslim Turks. That single event ushered in the modern age. Ask any historian, he’ll tell you!

The Golden age of Science

Much of these discoveries and inventions took place during what may well be called the Golden Age of Islamic Science from the 8th to the 13th centuries, that is until the Fall of Baghdad to the Mongol hordes in 1258. However even afterwards the Arab scientific spirit was not altogether lost and showed now and again, only to be taken up by other non-Arab Muslim peoples like the Turks.

In fact it were the Muslims who pioneered university education to further the cause of science. It was a Muslim woman living in the 9th century, princess Fatima who founded the first degree-granting university in Fez, Morocco. That was in 859 AC. Her sister Miriam founded a mosque next to it and together the complex became the famous Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University which exists to this day. What this shows is that science and religion went hand in hand in the Islamic world and that even young women contributed to it. The idea of awarding degrees spread from Fez to Andalusía in Islamic Spain, and eventually to the Universities of Bologna in Italy and Oxford in England so that you never hear of a university nowadays that does not confer a degree. Spanish Islamic universities in Cordoba, Granada and Seville, not only had Muslim students, but also brilliant Christian and Jewish students learning science from Muslim savants.

These early Muslims opened their minds to knowledge from all parts of the then known world. They looked both east and west to glean whatever gems of scientific wisdom they could find, gathering knowledge from as far as Greece, Persia and India which had hitherto remained separate and distant to synthesize into a composite whole as they did with medicine. Caliph Mamun, the son of the celebrated Harun Al Rashid of Arabian Nights fame set up the Bayt Al Hikmah or House of Wisdom, the greatest collection of accumulated knowledge in the world then, which among other things translated ancient Greek works into Arabic such as those of Aristotle, Ptolemy and Euclid, thus preserving them to this day.

By this means the Arabs kept up the torch of science that had been extinguished in Europe during the Dark Ages. That’s not all. These scholars did not keep such knowledge to themselves but freely transmitted it. By this means ancient Greek knowledge which was then little regarded in Europe even in Greece itself was preserved and embellished upon with fresh inputs from the Arabs before being passed on to Europe, spurring the Renaissance.

Indeed the use of paper in the West, which revolutionized the spread of knowledge in the Age of Enlightenment, and which still benefits us by way of books, magazines and newspapers was influenced by the Muslims who transmitted the knowledge of paper-making from the Far East to the West. That was when they captured some Chinese prisoners versed in the then secret art of making paper in the Battle of Tallas in 751. Soon the paper mills of Baghdad got started eventually reaching the West 1293 when Europe’s first paper mill was set up in Bologna. Ask yourself What use would Gutenberg’s printing press been in disseminating knowledge and making the western world as we know it today if not for the paper upon which it was printed. Imagine Gutenberg printing his Bibles on parchment!

Arab Contribution to Science

It was the early Muslims, and especially the Arabs, who more than any other nation made the greatest contribution to science, spanning disciplines as diverse as astronomy, botany, chemistry, mathematics, physics, optics, surgery and zoology.

It was, after all, the Muslims who introduced Arabic numerals to Europe, making mathematical calculations so much easier. This decimal system included the zero which in fact takes its English name and its name for the symbol cipher from the Arabic sifr. It was only after 1500 AC that the Arabic numerals with its concept of Zero became widespread in Europe, making math so much easier. Try figuring out a simple calculation like XXVI percent of CCXV without using zero and you’ll know why. Even variables like x to express an unknown quantity were first formulated by them.

It were the Muslims who invented advanced instruments like the astrolabe, sextant and quadrant which were useful not only in astronomy, but also helped in oceanic navigation, which in turn led to Western Europe’s much talked of Age of Exploration. It were the Muslims who established the modern medical system with advanced hospitals, clinical studies and diagnostics, devised advanced surgical instruments and anaesthetics and evolved the ancient art of alchemy into the science of chemistry with processes like distillation and laid the foundation for our plastics and rubber, soaps and perfumes among a thousand other things that make modern living such a convenience. It were they who laid the ground for modern technological developments like the camera which has its roots in a rudimentary pinhole camera in a dark room in 10th century Cairo.

In Islam, seeking medical treatment for one’s ailments was not a sin but rather a duty.  God’s Benevolence after all is manifested in His Creation and to make the best use of created things is to recognize His Mercy to mankind. Islam tells us that there is a cure for every disease. It is up to man to make the best use of creation to realize this. As the Prophet said

There is no disease that God has sent down save that He has also sent down its cure

(Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet did not stop at that. He prescribed Black Seed as a panacea for all ills. “There is healing in black seed for all diseases except death” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). He also recommended the water of truffles for eye diseases: “Truffles” he said “are a kind of manna (sent down by God to the Children of Israel during their wanderings in Moses time) and their juice is a medicine for the eyes” (Tirmidhi). True to the Prophet’s words, black seed or Nigella Sativa has been shown to have curative properties including immunity boosting and anti-carcinogenic properties while truffles, a fleshy fungus that grows under the soil have now been shown to cure many eye diseases such as trachoma, an infectious disease that can cause damage to cornea cells.

Contribution to Medicine

The early followers of the Prophet in keeping with his dictum, developed medicine to a very high standard and in this they were considerably influenced by the Greek medical tradition of the likes of Galen and Hippocrates, so much so that an important branch of medicine incorporating herbal medicines came to be called Yunaani after the Arabic name for Greece Yunaan. However the Arabs did not merely borrow, but improved upon the Greek system by incorporating medical remedies from Persia and India into this system.

That’s not all, they made their own independent contributions which by far had the biggest impact including in Europe. This was particularly so in the fine art of surgery where they showed exceptional skill. Every Muslim was required to undergo a basic surgery in the form of circumcision, but they did not confine it to this ritual alone, but expanded it to other applications. As early as the tenth century, the renowned Arab physician Al Zahrawi known to the West as Abulcasis from his first name Abul Qasim, introduced the use of modern surgical instruments such as scalpels, bone saws, forceps, and fine scissors for eye surgery and dissolving catgut to stitch wounds at a time when sutures had to removed physically by a second surgery which was quite discomforting to the patient. Mindful of the pain that could be caused to his patients during surgical procedures he came up with a variety of anaesthetics including inhalational anaesthetics and the anaesthetic sponge. He also invented capsules by encasing powder drugs in catgut parcels and getting patients to swallow them. His comprehensive encyclopedia on surgery, the Kitab al-Tasrif or Concession which showed 200 surgical tools was translated and widely used as a reference work in Europe until about 1500 AC.

Then there was his Persian contemporary Ibn Sina known to the West as Avicenna whose work written in Arabic, Qanun Fit Tibb or Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin, the lingua franca and academic language of Europe and remained as a standard textbook in European universities well up to the 17th century, describing among other things contagious diseases, experimental medicine, clinical trials and a comprehensive pharmacology covering over seven hundred drugs. Al Razi better known in the West as Rhazes also made an immense contribution to medicine through his celebrated work Al-Hawi known in Latin as Continens. It was by far the most comprehensive encyclopedia on medicine ever written and covered among other things gynecology, obstetrics and ophthalmology. The treatment of the eye also received due attention with men like Ammar ibn Ali of Mosul who about the year 1000 wrote a breakthrough book on ophthalmology, describing among other things cataract surgery and his invention of a hollow metallic syringe with which he successfully extracted cataracts through suction.

It was not only men, but also women who practiced medicine. Women were especially needed for treating female patients and to serve as gynaecologists and obstreticians. Even in the Prophet’s time there was a lady surgeon of sorts, Umm Attiyyah who used to circumcise girls and a nurse Rufaydah who took care of the wounded following the Battle of the Trench fought in the Prophet’s day. The tradition continued to Ottoman times when we hear of a lady doctor Meryem Kadin who in the early part of the 19th century successfully cured prince Abdul Mecid, the heir to the Ottoman and was rewarded with a monthly salary by the Palace.

The first hospital proper with wards and advanced medical treatment also had its origins in the Muslim world. That was when the Tulun Hospital was set up Cairo in 872. It was also the first public hospital, giving free medical care to all those who needed it and  accessible by anyone irrespective of age, sex or creed . It was also the first hospital to care for the mentally ill. Before long hospitals sprang up in many parts of the Islamic World, some of them specialized in treating particular diseases. The largest such hospital throughout the Middle Ages was built in Cairo in 1285 by Sultan Qalaun al-Mansur. It could accommodate thousands of patients and had separate wards for male and female patients, as well as for different kinds of ailments with the staff comprising of physicians, surgeons, pharmacists and attendants of both sexes.  All this while the Europeans of the day still had to resort to handy medicine men and charlatans of various kinds for want of medical treatment.

Even inoculation, the process of introducing weakened germs into the body to stimulate antibody production, was a Muslim introduction. Lady Mary Montagu, the wife of the English Ambassador to Istanbul noticed it being practiced by the Ottoman Turks who used to obtain cowpox microbes from cattle to inoculate their children against small pox when she lived there for a couple of years from 1716-1718. She introduced it to England around 1724. That was well before Edward came up with the idea after infecting little James with cowpox taken from the milkmaid Sarah in 1796. So again it were the Muslims who really played the pioneering role in this preventive medicine that has saved countless lives.

Contribution to Chemistry

Another major area where Muslims made a very meaningful contribution was in alchemy, itself from the Arabic word al-kimiya and its successor chemistry.

Although primarily concerned with transmuting baser metals to gold, Arabian alchemists led by the the Iraqi scientist Jabir ibn Hayyan transformed this ancient discipline into what we call chemistry around the eighth century. Jabir, better known to the West as Geber, has been rightly called ‘the father of chemistry’ since he introduced many of the basic chemical processes we use to day including distillation, evaporation, crystallisation, sublimation, purification, filtration and oxidisation. He even invented the alembic still for the making of alcoholic spirits, which by the way gets its name of alcohol from the Arabic al-kuhl and discovered corrosive acids including sulphuric and nitric acid much used in industry today, all this at a time when the world knew of no more powerful acid than the acetic found in vinegar.

That’s not all, among other things he discovered new metals like antimony, bismuth and mercury and some essential elements such as sulphur. He also invented luminescent ink that could be read at night and fireproof paper. And to think he preceded men like Antoine Lavoisier to whom Europeans are fond of attributing the foundations of chemistry by almost a thousand years.

There were many others who contributed to this field, among them Al Razi who lived in Baghdad in the 10th century described how kerosene could be produced from the distillation of petroleum He also wrote about naffatah or kerosene lamps used for lighting in his Kitab al-Asrar or Book of Secrets and also wrote a recipe for the world’s first true soap. The Arabs were soon mixing oil such as olive oil with a salt-like substance called al-kali – the roots of the modern word alkali – to make soap, which they boiled, left to harden and used in their hammams or public baths.The Arabs also pioneered the extraction of essential oils from flowers like rosewater, done by men like Al Kindi who lived in Iraq in the 9th century. The perfume industry today has its origins in Al Kindi’s laboratory in Iraq.

Contribution to Optics

Yet another important discipline to which Muslim scientists contributed was in optics. The tenth century Arab Physicist Al Haytham known to the West as Alhazen is in fact known as the ‘Father of modern optics’ His Kitab Al Manazir was translated into Latin as Opticae Thesaurus and passed on to Europe to stimulate the growth of the science there.

Al Haytham showed that humans see objects by light entering the eye, debunking Ptolemy’s long held theory that light was emitted from the eye itself. It was also his observations that led to the invention of the modern camera. He noticed how light came through holes in window shutters and concluded that it travelled in a straight line and that when the rays were reflected off a bright subject they passed through the small hole but did not scatter and instead crossed and formed as an upside-down image on the surface, so that the smaller the hole was, the clearer the picture.

Using this principle Al Haytham went on to devise the world’s first pinhole camera, the Camera Obscura, a light-proof box with a small hole in one side where the light from a scene passed through this point to project an inverted image on the opposite side of the box. He called it the qamara, which in Arabic means ‘dark room’. This needless to say laid the very foundations for the camera as we know it today. So next time you click away inside this mosque, you’ll know where its roots ultimately lie.

Contribution to Mathematics

The contribution Muslim peoples like the Arabs and Persians made to mathematics in inestimable. They introduced Arabic numerals into Europe and taught Western scholars how simple it was to do arithmetic using the zero, which was further popularized by men like Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, who was taught by a Muslim master named Sidi Omar in Bougie in Algeria and published a work which spoke of the merits of Arabic numerals that led to its introduction and widespread adoption in Europe. The use of x to denote an unknown number was also introduced by the Arabs who used the Arabic sheen meaning ‘a thing’ to solve their mathematical equations.

Algebra that gave a whole new dimension to mathematics with numerous applications having far-reaching consequences was also invented by Muslim mathematicians. The very word itself comes from the title of the 9th century Persian mathematician Al Khwarizmi’s treatise Kitab Al Jabr Wa’l Mugabala (The Book of Reasoning and Balancing). In fact it was Khwarizmi’s work translated into Latin that brought the study of mathematics as a discipline to Europe via Spain. Khwarizmi also contributed to trigonometry by formulating tables for sine and cosine and coming up with tangent tables. He also invented the quadrant, known by the Arabs of old as Rubul Mujayyab which helped in astronomical observations and made oceanic navigation all that more easier.

That’s not all. He also founded the algorithm which is basically a set of instructions to be followed to achieve a predictable end-state. In fact the principle takes its name after him- algorithm from al-khwarizmi. This laid the foundations for more complex mathematical breakthroughs including the computer. Every computer program, after all, is simply a series of instructions, varying in complexity, and listed in a specific order to perform a specific task. Just imagine a world without computers today? Next time you use your laptop, remember the man who ultimately made it possible.

Another area where Muslims played an important role was in Geometry, which figured prominently in their centres of learning since geometrical designs were seen as an acceptable art form for adorning mosques given the prohibition on animate art in Islam. Other aspects of Islamic architecture developed as a result of mathematical skills of the Arabs were soon influencing Christendom. Take for instance the minarets of Islamdom, those high towers to call the faithful to prayer which went on to become the spires you see in old Christian churches and palaces. If you were ever to set your eyes on the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina you will notice how closely the minarets resemble the spires in the Neuschwansteinberg Castle built by King Ludwig of Bavaria. Likewise the bulbous, onion shaped domes such as you see in the Kremlin actually have their origins in our mosques. Muslim mathematicians also greatly contributed to Trigonometry which has since helped modern man to solve complex problems in cartography and navigation.

Contribution to Astronomy

And who can ever forget the Muslim contribution to that stellar science astronomy. In fact, astronomy like medicine has a religious basis in Islam. Both sun and moon play an important role in the daily life of a Muslim. The sun determines the times for prayer and fasting while the moon determines the beginning and end of the months of the Islamic lunar calendar that tells us when to start our fasts and when to stop. Wherever they be, devout Muslims must find the precise direction of the Qiblah, the temple in Mecca before offering their prayers facing it. It was astronomy that helped Muslims all over the world fulfill their religious obligations.

A little more than a hundred years after Islam had established itself, around 796, Al Fazari devised the astrolabe, a multi-purpose astronomical gadget that could tell time, show the position of the stars and help find the direction of the Qiblah. In fact there was even a female maker of astrolabes, Al Ijliyah and was employed at the court of the Syrian ruler Sayf al-Dawlah in the tenth century. Astrolobes were in the olden days like the pocket watches of astronomers. It solved problems relating to the position of the celestial bodies like sun and stars, helped determine the exact time of a celestial event like sunrise or sunset and even tell the time during day or night. The idea was further improved by Al Battani known to the West as Albetagnius who developed a celestial globe to record celestial data and gave details of how to plot the co-ordinates of over a thousand stars. That was way back in the tenth century.

In fact, centuries before Europeans took it for fact that the earth was a sphere, Muslim astronomers were already confident of it, like Ibn Hazm and his peers who lived in the 9th century who argued very logically that since the sun was always vertical to a particular spot on earth, it had to be spherical. That’s not all, they even went on to calculate the Earth’s circumference, and guess what, it turned out to be 40,253 km while today we know it to be precisely 40,068 km through the equator, less than 200 km off the mark. When about 300 years later Cartographer Al-Idrisi took a silver globe of his own making, the first of its kind, to the court of King Roger of Sicily, the idea spread westward and could have even influenced Galileo, who knows? Even then poor Galileo had to recant his belief that the earth revolved round the sun. Had he not, he would have been burnt alike at the stake for heresy by the Church of his day.

Muslims were also the first to develop ‘observation tubes’ the forerunner of the telescope. Although they didn’t have magnifying lenses they helped the observer focus on the sky by eliminating light interference. The earliest such tube was mentioned by Al-Battani way back in the tenth century and it were probably these that when introduced to Europe influenced the development of the telescope as we know it.

Muslims also pioneered the building of observatories for studying the heavenly bodies. Over a thousand years ago, in 828, the Abbasid Caliph Al Ma’mun founded an astronomical observatory in Baghdad leading to the establishment of similar but larger observatories in the Middle East. These preceded the first European observatories by several centuries. The first observatory in Christian Europe was built only in 1558 in Kassel, Germany.

They also compiled impressive works like when in the mid-10th century Al-Sufi wrote the Book of Fixed Stars, a stellar compendium illustrated with descriptions of the stars, their positions, magnitudes and colour. He was also the first to notice the Andromeda Galaxy. To this day the nightly heavens bear testimony to the contributions of the Arabian stargazers with well over a hundred stars scattered across our known universe bearing Arabic names. Like Fomalhaut the brightest star in the constellation Pisces from the Arabic fam-al-hut ‘mouth of the fish’ or Izar in the constellation Andromeda from Arabic Al Izar ‘the veil or covering’, or Pherkad in Ursa Minor from Arabic Al Farqad ‘the calf’. Some of these names are not very obvious like Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra from Nasr Al Waqi ‘the falling vulture’ or Altair from the Arabic al-tayr meaning ‘bird. Other well known stars of Arabic origin include Algol, Betelgeuse, Deneb and Rigel to name just a few.

That’s not all, many common technical terms used in astronomy today are of Arabic origin, like nadir which is from Arabic nazir, a point on the celestial sphere directly below the observer and diametrically opposite the zenith, the point of culmination or peak which itself is from Arabic samt. Azimuth likewise comes from the Arabic as-sumut. Arab astronomers also compiled almanacs which itself is an Arabic term.

Contribution to Geography

Geography was another area in which the early Muslims excelled. In fact geography has a very close relationship to our faith. Each and every Muslim is supposed to have at least a minimal knowledge of geography to determine the direction of the Qiblah to face when praying. Thus those to its east had to face west and those to its west had to face east. Undertaking the journey to Mecca for the Islamic pilgrimage known as Hajj which every Muslim had to perform at least once in their lifetime required a better grasp of geography as did the Islamic requirement for the believers to spread their faith, prompting missionaries to reach out to all corners of the then known world. As millions traveled from the furthest reaches of the world to Mecca in fulfillment of this obligation, one can only imagine how it could have contributed to the development of not only geographical knowledge of the various countries they passed, but also of its peoples, lands, languages, customs and even novel ideas that would have been gathered on the way.

This Muslim interest in geography led in turn to cartography or map making In the 12th century, Al-Idrisi produced the Tabula Rogeriana, the most detailed world map of the time. It laid the foundation for better maps eventually leading to the great explorations that marked Europe’s Age of Discovery. Little wonder European explorers like Magellan and Vasco De Gama had Muslim navigators on board their ships.

The compass, without which oceanic navigation could not have been possible was also a Muslim introduction. Baylak Al Qibjaki in his Book of Treasure for Merchants described the use of a rudimentary compass as an iron needle charged with a magnetic stone placed in a bowl of water during a sea voyage from Tripoli to Alexandria as far back as 1242.

Contribution to Technology

The Muslims of old also made great strides in technology including aeronautics. The first real attempt at manned flight was in fact made by a Muslim. That was way back in 875 AC or so when Andalusian Abbas ibn Firnas devised a flying machine, a winged apparatus resembling a bird and took off from a hill in the outskirts of Cordoba. He was able to fly upwards for about ten minutes before making landfall and who knows it was his designs that would have inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to design such machines centuries later. And to think he lived a thousand years before the Wright Brothers started their work at Kitty Hawk.

Yes, believe it or not, it were the Muslims who first pioneered manned rocket flight. That was in 1633 when the Turkish rocketeer Hasan Celebi blasted off in a skyrocket by attaching seven rockets to a larger rocket powered by gunpowder paste. He flew 300 metres over the Bosphorus before safely descending in what is thought to be the world’s parachute, a sort of hang glider that opened out several wings as he came down. Before launching off he had joked that he was taking the Sultan’s Greetings to Jesus whom Muslims believe to be in the heavens. That was three hundred years before Von Braun devised his V2 that devastated London and subsequent Saturn V that took us to outer space. His kinsman, Hazarfen Ahmet Celebi, invented the world’s first glider using eagle feathers stitched onto his wings. He succeeded in crossing the Bosphorus by gliding from the top of the Galata Tower on the European side to the Anatolian side in 1638. That’s not all. Ottoman engineer Ibrahim Efendi invented a submarine called the Tahtel in 1720 which is said to have resembled an alligator.

Al Jazari who lived in the 12th century invented the crank shaft allowing the conversion of rotary motion to linear motion, which enabled lifting heavy objects with much ease. This far-reaching mechanical invention soon spread across the then known world and formed the very basis of automatics we know today from the simple bicycle to the immensely complex internal combustion engine seen in automobiles today. His magnum opus, the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices is a veritable treasure trove of mechanical inventions including valves and pistons, mechanical clocks and surprisingly the first-ever programmable robot. Little wonder he is called ‘The father of robotics’. And who can ever forget the far-famed Banu Moosa brothers who in 850 wrote their own Book of Ingenious Devices, in which they described their inventions such as the valve, automatic control, fail-safe system, feedback controller, clamshell grab, gas mask and   hurricane lamp. They even described mechanisms for fountains like navel valves, worm gearing and water and wind turbines and even made fountains that could change shape from shield to lily.

The Islamic world also knew of windmills which were used for grinding grain tapping the only energy source the desert offered at the time –the wind – through six or twelve sails covered in fabric. Tradition holds it was the idea of a Persian who lived in the times of Caliph Umar.  That was in the 7th century long before Europe adopted them five hundred years later when the Crusaders introduced them to Europe after seeing them in operation in Islamic countries.

The Arabs also applied gunpowder and fireworks which they had borrowed from the Chinese to military applications. True it were the Chinese who discovered gunpowder, but they did not use it in explosions, confining it only to fireworks as they had not come up with the right proportion to give it a bang and had not purified its main ingredient potassium nitrate well enough. The Syrian military scientist Hassan Al Rammah in his Book of Ingenious War Devices written in 1295 gave recipes for making exploding gunpowder which was very close to its modern composition.

This laid the foundation for cannons which were used as far back as 1453 in the siege of Constantinople by the Ottomans. Muslims also used rockets and torpedoes against the Crusaders who were awed by its efficacy in battle. Al Rammah for instance described the torpedo as a cleverly modified rocket designed to skim on the surface of the seawater to deliver naphta and explosives to enemy ships. The first firearms loaded with gunpowder, a sort of hand cannon that would later evolve into the gun as we know it today,  was also a Muslim invention. It was used by the Egyptian Mamluks as far back as 1260  to fight off the Mongol hordes at the Battle of Ain Jalut.

Science with Nature, not against it

Thus you will see that Muslims made a very significant contribution to science, especially in the Middle Ages. In fact, much of the inventions we take for granted today have as their underlying basis the principles enunciated by Muslim scholars during those times. However the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols and the rise of Western colonialism took its toll on Muslim scholarship and before long, the centre of science shifted to the West.

The West that had thus far rejected science altogether under the rigid purview of the church, suddenly took an about-turn, not really a U but rather a V turn, a totally opposite path, following the French Revolution. They dethroned the church and in its place enthroned science as the New God, so to say. Modern science was now looked upon as the new religion as the West sought to harness its full potential to exploit nature and benefit man. Thus science became a law unto itself, its full force being unleashed to conquer nature and subdue her, the very nature that had in the first place given it birth.

But just as the glutton enjoys his food but doesn’t respect it, and just as the lecher enjoys his whore, but does not respect her, the new man in the West wanted to enjoy nature without respecting her. He ravished her and raped her and sliced her open to feast off her lifeblood. And so today we have monstrosities of science like cloning and gene splicing that seek to change nature as we know it. Thus modern science as we know it today has in a sense been hijacked by Satan serving as his tool to create mischief on earth through vehicles such as evolutionary theory with its battlecry of survival of the fittest.

Not just that. Western man now placed so much trust in the new god of science that he denied himself other means of knowledge other than through empirical observation. This needless to say, had its flaws, for it was now only matter that mattered. It limited man’s knowledge as it could not explain many things such as the very act of creation itself, or the prophecies the prophets of old made or the miracles Jesus performed and even such phenomena as the poltergeist some growing up girls experience to this day. Worst of all, this perverted science prevented man from acquiring a better understanding of the ultimate reality behind it all. Just because science cannot explain certain things. It doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. To think so would be arrogance of the highest order.

But all is not lost. Though science is a bad master, it is a good servant so long as it is employed in consonance with the God-given nature it was born out of. it is this sort of science that Islam seeks to foster and has in fact been nurturing for ages past – a science that is at peace with nature and at peace with God.