By Faridat Ariya
The pursuit of knowledge is stressed both in the Quran and Hadiths but why is it that so many of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are unaware of the rich history of Muslim contributions to science and philosophy?
Abu Hurairah narrated the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) said that “Whoever takes a path upon which to obtain knowledge, Allah makes the path to Paradise easy for him.”
The Islamic Golden Age stretched from the 8th to the 14th century, and saw great advancements in science, particularly in the study of astronomy.
The Toledan Tables were astronomical charts that were used to predict the movement of the Sun, Moon, and planets. The charts take their name from Toledo, a city in Muslim Spain, and were partly based on the research in the 9th century by Al-Zarqali (1029 CE). They were also later translated into Latin so the knowledge became accessible in Europe.
Ulugh Beg (1394-1449 CE) calculated the length of a year at 365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes, and 8 seconds which is only 62 seconds longer than the figure we use today.
Before the telescope, there was the astrolabe and it was considered the most important astronomical device. Although the device had existed before their time, the need for Muslims to know prayer times and the direction to Mecca led to significant improvements to the astrolabe.
Places of Knowledge
The Maragha Observatory in Northern Persia (now Iran) was once considered ‘the most advanced scientific institution in the Eurasian world’. It hosted scholars of mathematics, philosophy, poets, etc.
The University of al-Qarawiyyin was built in 859 CE Fes, Morocco, and is considered by the Guinness World Records the oldest operating, degree-granting university in the world. The university was founded by Fatima al-Fihri (800-880 CE) because she wanted a centre for advanced learning. Not only did she create a spiritual and educational hub for scholars, but al-Fihri also paved the way for modern universities all around the world.
The University of Sankore, Timbuktu was built in 989 CE. It was a school for medicine, surgery, mathematics, philosophy and is the oldest operating institution of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the most celebrated professors and last Chancellor of Sankore University was Ahmed Baba born in 1556 CE.
Nineteenth-century Muslim scientists informed a great amount of what we know today about the eye and vision.
Al-Kindi (801-873 CE), philosopher, polymath, mathematician, physician, and musician was the first to lay down the foundations of modern-day optics. However, the mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039 CE) confirmed that light travels in a straight line. His discovery led to the camera obscura, and then to the modern-day camera that we all use today.
Medicine thrived in the Islamic Golden Age. They had pharmacies, hospitals that offered free medical care, and medical schools with rigorous medical training.
Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037 CE) was a Persian polymath and is considered the “Prince of Physicians”. He wrote The Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi al- Tibb) in 1025. The Canon of Medicine influenced the foundations of the modern-day medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy. Gray’s Anatomy was first published in 1858 and continues to be the most popular Western medical encyclopedia.
Muslims also contributed to modern-day surgery techniques. Spanish Muslim surgeon, Al-Zahrawi (936-1013 CE) is considered the “father of modern surgery”. Al-Zahrawi invented a number of surgical instruments which include a knife with a hidden blade, drills, and the lithotripter which was used to crush hard deposits in the body.
He also wrote a 30 chapter medical book which included illustrations of his surgical instruments and instructions on how to use them.
Muslim civilization was so advanced that doctors could even perform surgeries in the golden age. Al-Mawsili (996-1020 CE) was an Iraqi ophthalmologist who invented a hollow needle for sucking cataracts out of a patient’s eyes.
Muslim philosophers of the Islamic Golden Age reinterpreted previous philosophies through a new Islamic lens in an effort to unite reason with faith.
Ibn Sina makes another appearance but this time for his theory of emanation. Ibn Sina argued that a Necessary Being (God) existed and through this being emanated the rest of existence. However, Ibn Sina’s explanation for the existence of God was not widely accepted in the Muslim world and was contested by others such as Al-Ghazali (1058-1111).
Ghazali claimed that concepts such as God’s existence being necessary were contradictory to the Quran and that Muslim philosophers of his day were being influenced by ancient Greek philosophy to deny God’s creation of the universe. Ibn Sina and other Muslim philosophers argued that the universe flows necessarily out of God and therefore the universe does not have a beginning. Through his 10th century book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Ghazali wrote that the universe must have a beginning, and since nothing begins to exist without a cause, there must be a Creator of the universe that transcends everything.
Overall, the Islamic Golden Age gave the world an array of scientific and philosophical ideas that have lived on to this day. This is by no means an exhaustive list as there are plenty more scholars and scientific knowledge that originate from Islamic civilization. However it is important that we acknowledge the origins of what we take for granted, but for Muslims in particular, it is important that we take pride in our religious heritage and its contributions to the modern world.
Faridat Ariya is a second year English Literature student at the University of Surrey