How Islam Influenced Science

During the Middle Ages the Islamic World had a very significant impact upon Europe, which in turn cleared the way for the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. In the Medieval age, Islam and Muslims influenced Europe in a number of different ways. One of the most important of these subjects was Science.

Ever since Islam was born, Muslims had made immense leaps forward in the area of Science. Cities like Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba were the centers of civilization. These cities were flourishing and Muslim scientists made tremendous progress in applied as well as theoretical Science and Technology. In Europe, however, the situation was much different. Europe was in the Dark Ages. It had no infrastructure or central government. To the Muslims, Europe was backward, unorganized, carried no strategic importance and was essentially irrelevant. This considering the time period was in fact true. Nevertheless the Catholic Church (which at the time was the strongest institution in Europe) successfully convinced Christian Europe that the Muslims were infidels. This caused Europeans to think that Muslims were culturally inferior to Europe and thus Europe was unable to benefit from the new scientific discoveries being made in the Islamic lands before the 1100’s. By doing this Europe kept itself in the Dark Ages while from China to Spain Islamic Civilization prospered. During the Crusades there was limited contact between Muslims and Christians and not much was transferred. As A. Lewis explains, “The Crusaders were men of action, not men of learning”. The real exchange of ideas which led to the Scientific revolution and to the renaissance occurred in Muslim Spain.

Cordoba was the capital of Muslim Spain. It soon became the center for all light and learning for the entire Europe. Scholars and students from various parts of the world and Europe came to Cordoba to study. The contrast in intellectual activity is demonstrated best by one example: ‘In the ninth century, the library of the monastery of St. Gall was the largest in Europe. It boasted 36 volumes. At the same time, that of Cordoba contained over 500,000!’.

The idea of the college was a concept which was borrowed from Muslims. The first colleges appeared in the Muslim world in the late 600’s and early 700’s. In Europe, some of the earliest colleges are those under the University of Paris and Oxford they were founded around the thirteenth century. These early European colleges were also funded by trusts similar to the Islamic ones and legal historians have traced them back to the Islamic system. The internal organization of these European colleges was strikingly similar to the Islamic ones, for example the idea of Graduate (Sahib) and undergraduate (mutafaqqih) is derived directly from Islamic terms.

In the field of Mathematics the number Zero (0) and the decimal system was introduced to Europe, which became the basis for the Scientific revolution. The Arabic numerals were also transferred to Europe, this made mathematical tasks much easier, problems that took days to solve could now be solved in minutes. The works of Al-Khwarizmi (Alghorismus) were translated into Latin. Alghorismus, from whom the mathematical term algorism was derived, wrote Sindhind, a compilation of astronomical tables. He, more importantly, laid the ground work for algebra and found methods to deal with complex mathematical problems, such as square roots and complex fractions. He conducted numerous experiments, measured the height of the earth’s atmosphere and discovered the principle of the magnifying lens. Many of his books were translated into European languages. Trigonometric work by Alkirmani of Toledo was translated into Latin (from which we get the sine and cosine functions) along with the Greek knowledge of Geometry by Euclid. Along with mathematics, masses of other knowledge in the field of physical science was transferred.

Islamic contributions to Science were now rapidly being translated and transferred from Spain to the rest of Europe. Ibnul Hairham’s works on Optics, (in which he deals with 50 Optical questions put to Muslim Scholars by the Franks), was translated widely. The Muslims discovered the Principle of Pendulum, which was used to measure time. Many of the principles of Isaac Newton were derived from former Islamic scientific contributions. In the field of Chemistry numerous Islamic works were translated into Latin. One of the fields of study in this area was alchemy. The Muslims by exploring various elements, developed a good understanding of the constitution of matter. Jabir ibn-Hayyan (Geber) was the leading chemist in the Muslim world, some scholars link the introduction of the ‘scientific method’ back to him. A great number of terms used in Chemistry such as alchohol, alembic, alkali and elixir are of Islamic origin.

Medicine was a key science explored by Muslims. Al-Rhazes is one of the most famous Doctors and writers of Islamic History. Every major city had an hospital, the hospital at Cairo had over 8000 beds, with separate wards for fevers, ophthalmic, dysentery and surgical cases. He discovered the origin of smallpox and showed that one could only acquire it once in one’s life, thus showing the existence of the immune system and how it worked. Muslim doctors were also aware of the contagious qualities of diseases. Hundreds of medical works were translated into Latin.

All of this knowledge transferred from the Muslims to the Europeans was the vital raw material for the Scientific Revolution. Muslims not only passed on Greek classical works but also introduced new scientific theories, without which the European Renaissance could not have occurred. Thus even though many of the Islamic contributions go unacknowledged, they played an integral role in the European transformation.

From The Islamic Herald, March 1995.

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