Innovations in Islamic Sciences
|Figure 1. Diagram by al-Biruni showing eclipses of the moon. Islamic Science, An Illustraed Study, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 1976. |
In the words of Scott:
"The portentous development of Arabic intellectual activity presents one of the most interesting and instructive examples of progress in the history of the human mind."
Draper outlines some of the Muslim achievements:
"In the experimental sciences, they (the Muslims) originated chemistry; they discovered some of its most important reagents: sulphuric acid, nitric acid, alcohol. They applied that science in the practice of medicine, being the first to publish pharmacopœias or dispensatories, and to include in them mineral preparations. In mechanics, they had determined the laws of falling bodies, had ideas, by no means indistinct, of the nature of gravity; they were familiar with the theory of the mechanical powers. In hydrostatics they constructed the first tables of the specific gravities of bodies, and wrote treatises on the flotation and sinking of bodies in water. In optics, they corrected the Greek misconception, that a ray proceeds from the eye, and touches the object seen, introducing the hypothesis that the ray passes from the object to the eye. They understood the phenomena of the reflection and refraction of light. Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) made the great discovery of the curvilinear path of a ray of light through the atmosphere, and proved that we see the sun and moon before they have risen, and after they have set."
Muslim scholars were people of great accomplishments. Al-Kindî, for instance addressed a wide variety of subjects. The wide and varied knowledge of al-Kindî is only matched by his considerable output. The first list of his works that has come to us is by Ibn al-Nadim, who tells of two hundred and forty-two works. Ibn al-Nadim divides them according to their subject matter into philosophy, logic, arithmetic, spherics, astronomy, geometry, cosmology, medicine, psychology, meteorology. Flugel, on the other hand, has collected and classified the names of two hundred and sixty-five works. More or less the same number of works is confirmed by other biographers such as Ibn al-Qifti and Ibn Abi Usaybiya (see entries on these two scholars in articles on Syrian cities in Muslimheritage.com). "Like so many thinkers in that confident heyday of the Moslem mind," Durant says, "he (Al-Kindî) was an omnivorous polymath, studying everything, writing 265 treatises about everything—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, meteorology, geography, physics, politics, music, medicine, philosophy." He also struggled to reduce health, medicine, and music to mathematical relations, and studied the tides, sought the laws that determine the speed of a falling body, and investigated the phenomena of light in a book on Optics which influenced Roger Bacon. Neither did he omit to write on tides, optics, and the determination of specific gravities. He wrote an introduction to arithmetic, eight manuscripts on the theory of numbers, and two measuring proportions and time. Ibn al-Nadim lists in fact ten titles on arithmetic and twenty-two on geometry. Al-Kindî was also the first to develop spherical geometry, which he made use of in his astronomical works. He also wrote on spherics, the construction of an azimuth on a sphere, and how to level a sphere. Al-Kindî also lent his particular interest to the laws that govern the fall of a body. He did not ignore subjects of geology, geography, and climatology; and went still further in his research, undertaking studies with a technological aim as well: the making of clocks; astronomical instruments, and even objects such as swords. Al-Kindî's treatises dealing with ethics and political philosophy include on Morals, On facilitating the paths to the Virtues, On the Warding off of Griefs, On the Government of the Common People, and An Account of the Intellect. (Most works have survived in Latin rather than in their original Arabic form).The same that has been said of al-Kindî can be said of countless figures of Islamic sciences.
|Figure 2. An artistic impression of Al-Kindi (Image from www.muslimheritage.com).|
Attempting to describe Muslim science and the achievements of Muslim scientists in detail is, indeed, an endeavour of encyclopedic dimensions, much beyond this work. This encyclopedia is yet to be written. The site Muslimheritage.com has already brought to light much, concerning Muslim science and civilisation, but much more needs to be done. In relation to the role of this site, much information relating to Muslim scholars can be found on this site, and it is needless in the following to repeat what has already been said on that site, and so full recommendation is made for its use to complement the information that will be provided here on Muslim sciences.
However, before looking at the sciences, it is important to raise some important points relating to the overall nature of Islamic science.
First and foremost, Muslim science is not a reproduction, or copy, or plagiarism of Greek science as it is very often accused of being. Any person can open Greek scientific works and compare them with their Muslim counterparts and then realise how this constant assertion that Muslim science is a reproduction of Greek science is groundless. Furthermore, any reader can find that Muslim scholars spent their energies refuting the errors of their Greek predecessors.
Al-Bîrûnî countered the claims of Ptolemy and Hipparchus in their claims in the Determination of the Motion of the Sun's Apogee and Ascensism. It was believed that the annual distance between the sun and the earth to be firm and, that therefore, their positions were firm. The researches conducted by the Muslim scholars showed that it moved further east.
The findings of the Muslim astronomers such as Khalid al-Marwazi, 'Ali- b. 'Isa al-Harrani, Sind bin 'Ali- Musa, Abu al-Wafa, al-Battani, al-Khujandi were verified by al-Bîrûnî repeatedly at Khwarizm and Jurjania. On the issue of the distance of the Sun from the Earth, Al-Bîrûnî had his doubts about Ptolemy's view that the distance of the sun from the earth is 286 times the latter's circumference. His argument was that Ptolemy based his claim on total eclipses but disregarded annular eclipses which implied larger distances. Incidentally, al-Bîrûnî was unable to observe a total eclipse, and therefore, he could not verify the findings of Ptolemy, a fact which he frankly admits, i.e. that the measurements of the moon's distance from the earth was possible, but he found the sun could not be measured by the instruments of that age and its distance remained an object for conjecture.
With regard to pharmacy, we always read that all Muslim pharmacy did was to copy the Greeks, Dioscorides in particular. Yet on more neutral study Levey writes:
"Early Arabic pharmacology is still known among many millions of people in Africa, Asia, and Europe, whether in home remedies or as a part of a systematized branch of a widely accepted kind of medical practice. Even if it were only for this fact, its study would he well worth carrying forward. In order to achieve a better understanding of the reason for this acceptance of Arabic medicine and to give it in turn a historical background with a wider perspective, it is not sufficient to discuss only such figures as Dioscorides, Theophrastus, and the writings of other men and cultures on medicine, chemistry, botany, and pharmacology, all of whose works came just before that of the Arabs."
"The inheritance by the Arabs of these scientific treatises, by themselves, is insufficient to provide an adequate explanation of the vast superiority of Arabic pharmacology over its well known antecedents with which it was in contact. This latter fact is true not only in regard to the quantity and quality of drugs but also in improved application, the much wider geographic origin of drugs, their descriptions in a more highly diversified literature especially developed for pharmacology, and in more elaborate botanical identification."
One major element that marked Islamic science was the development of instruments of diverse sorts and for a wide variety of uses, and that such practice was generalised. Hence, Scott notes how in all the schools were globes, both terrestrial and celestial, of wood and metal, planispheres, and astrolabes. The construction of these latter instruments, the precursors of the sextant, as perfected by the Muslims, was very complicated and demanded the exercise of the highest degree of scientific ingenuity. They were used for the measurement of angles, and for ascertaining the hour either of the day or night. Some had as many as five tables, were engraved on both sides, and were provided at the bottom with eleven different projections for as many horizons. On them were represented the movement of the celestial sphere, the signs of the zodiac, and the position of the principal stars and constellations interchangeable plates, calculated for different latitudes, that facilitated observations wherever made.
|Figure 3. An artistic impression of Al-Zahrawi (Image from www.muslimheritage.com).|
Muslims also developed a considerable variety of instruments in every other science. In medicine, for instance, more precisely in surgery, the Cordovan surgeon, Al-Zahrawi designed and built what constitute the antecedents of our modern surgical instruments. Amongst the countless instruments he devised is one, which he describes, and which he calls the deceiving instrument, al-mikhda', probably used for transfixing abscesses on nervous patients. It is like a broad spoon made of two plates, with a hidden scalpel between, "so the knife is masked like a bird's tongue, moving in and out." The obvious snag, Lewis adds anecdotally, is that you could not use it very often or the word would soon get around: "If you see Abu'l-Qasim (Al-Zahrawi) coming at you with something that looks like a spoon, run for your life."
Muslims developed scientific instruments for practical purposes, of course, but also to obtain precise measurements and results, and for this same purpose they also promoted a major element of scientific progress: experimentation. According to Draper, Muslim merit in science consists in that
"… they cultivated it after the manner of the Alexandrian Greeks, not after the manner of the European Greeks. They perceived that it can never be advanced by mere speculation; its only sure progress is by the practical interrogation of Nature. The essential characteristics of their method are experiment and observation. Geometry and the mathematical sciences they looked upon as instruments of reasoning. In their numerous writings on mechanics, hydrostatics, optics, it is interesting to remark that the solution of a problem is always obtained by performing an experiment, or by an instrumental observation. It was this that made them the originators of chemistry, that led them to the invention of all kinds of apparatus for distillation, sublimation, fusion, filtration, etc.; that in astronomy caused them to appeal to divided instruments, as quadrants and astrolabes; in chemistry, to employ the balance, the theory of which they were perfectly familiar with; to construct tables of specific gravities and astronomical tables, as those of Baghdad, Spain, Samarkand; that produced their great improvements in geometry, trigonometry, the invention of algebra… Such were the results of their preference of the inductive method of Aristotle, their declining the reveries of Plato."
A good instance of this Muslim contribution to modern science is found with regard to the study of the planets, for instance. In the beginning al-Bîrûnî agreed with al-Battani that the sun's apogee moved one degree in sixty-six years. But after his own observations and while writing the Qanun he modified and improved his calculations. Al-Bîrûnî was nearer the modern figures of 52.2 every year and one degree in 72 years.
Another point of crucial importance that needs outlining, is that just as Islamic science dominated the Middle Ages, so did its language, Arabic. The leading role of Arabic in the rise of modern sciences is well outlined by Sabra:
|Figure 4. An artistic impression of Al-Biruni (Image from www.muslimheritage.com).|
"The first is the predominance of Arabic as the language of scientific expression and communication. It was through the vehicle of Arabic that a non-Arab scholar in eleventh-century Nishapur or fifteenth-century Samarkand had access to the results arrived at in ninth or tenth-century Baghdad, and an astronomer working in fourteenth-century Damascus became acquainted with writings produced in eleventh-century Cairo, twelfth-century Spain, or thirteenth-century Maragheh (Maragha)."
"… while some scientific treatises began to be composed in languages other than Arabic (mostly Persian but sometimes also Turkish) from the eleventh century onward, Arabic remained the language mostly preferred by Arabs and non-Arabs writing on scientific matters."
Such was the role of Arabic, that Vincent Barwood attributes the greatest geographical discoveries of the modern times to such a language:
"Arabic had been the scientific language of most of humankind from the 8th to the 12th century. It is probably for this reason that Columbus, in his own words, considered Arabic to be "the mother of all languages," and why, on his first voyage to the New World, he took with him Luis de Torres, an Arabic-speaking Spaniard, as his interpreter."
by: FSTC Limited, Mon 22 January, 2007