en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 27, Number 3May/June 1976

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The World of Islam

Its Science and Technology

Written by John Sabini
Photographed by Peter Keen

Islam came into a world that was already highly civilized, a world in which Babylonian, Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Achaemenian and Sasanian achievements in mathematics, astronomy, medicine and engineering were already great.

The Arabs, however, were quick to grasp the value of this learning. Had not a hadith of the Prophet advised, "Seek learning, even as far as China"? The early caliphs ordered the translation into Arabic of Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit and Persian treatises and manuals. Their successors later welcomed ideas and techniques from India, China and, after the Crusades, from Europe. Islam posed no conflict between learning and religion.

Muslim thinkers, however, did not simply follow the ideas of their intellectual forebears. They also transformed them to conform with the Koran and to integrate them into the Islamic world view: that all knowledge is sacred, and that all learning leads ultimately to the knowledge of God. In the view of Islam, therefore, science could not be divorced from theology, philosophy and literature on the one hand, or from technology and society on the other.

In the West, Islam's contribution to learning is often seen as merely the bridge by which the learning of the ancient world crossed into medieval and Renaissance Europe. And certainly it served in that capacity as well. The long-lost works of Aristotle and other classical writers first reached the West in translations from the Arabic. European scholars enrolled in the Islamic university of Cordoba to study the sciences in Arabic. The Muslim physicians Avicenna and ar-Razi were the final authorities for European medicine for more than 500 years (See Aramco World, Jan.-Feb., 1969).

Islamic scholars and scientists—most of them polymaths—made original contributions too, particularly in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. In mathematics they brought India's number system to new heights, developed algebra—al-jabr in Arabic—and trigonometry into independent disciplines and combined Euclidean geometry with Indian ideas to create a synthesis that profoundly influenced Islamic architecture and design.

They also combined the ancient traditions concerning astronomy—with its Siamese twin astrology—into a new synthesis, and by observation and mathematical calculation extended and corrected the celestial data of their predecessors. In western Iran they built the world's first observatory, along with others in India, Iraq and Ottoman Turkey, and although the observations were made by the naked eye—the telescope was still unknown—they made important contributions to astronomical knowledge. Muslim astronomers also excelled in other forms of observational and recording instruments: star maps and celestial globes—which recorded astronomical data on plain and spherical surfaces respectively—and the quadrants and astrolabes used by Islamic navigators. The astrolabe, called "a mathematical jewel," is a form of computer, a celestial sphere stereographically projected on a plane, which simulates the apparent rotation of the stars about the pole, often with additional plates for different latitudes and a sighting device. With it observers could determine the time of day or night, conduct elementary surveying and teach astronomy.

Islamic scientists, drawing on the discoveries and theories of prior civilizations, also developed medical knowledge until it was the most advanced in its day. The Islamic medical establishment offered a variety of treatments, including diet, drugs and surgery, a varied range of materia medica, an extensive literature on anatomy, diseases and treatments, and great teaching hospitals, which became the models for those in the West. Islamic physicians saw botany and zoology as branches of medicine, explored animal anatomy and were familiar with the circulation of the blood, the setting of broken bones and the Caesarean section.

Islamic scientists did not ignore alchemy either. Seeing the transmutation of base metals into gold as symbolizing the perfectibility of the soul, they conducted experiments which led to important chemical discoveries, such as the production of alum, niter, soda and iron sulphates, and the determination of the specific weights of precious stones and metals.

Because of the requirements of the Pilgrimage—and the need to determine the exact relationship of Mecca to every other spot on the globe where Muslims prayed—Muslims were especially active in geographic research, a field which was stimulated and expanded by the astonishing mobility of its nomads and pilgrims, its itinerant craftsmen and scholars, its mobile armies, its merchants and sailors roaming the seas from western Europe to China. As a result, they mapped the Islamic world—in the 12th century the Muslim scholar al-Idrisi produced a famous map of the known world; wrote itineraries and composed travel books such as al-Biruni's masterful nth-century description of India.

The technology of Islam—never separated from the pure sciences in the Muslim world—was another field of achievement, particularly with respect to water, a major preoccupation of people in arid or semiarid lands. Muslim technicians preserved and extended the vast network of ancient wells, dams, underground canals, waterwheels and water distribution systems and developed the Nilometer in Cairo, a columnar device for measuring the annual flooding of the Nile, as an aid to predicting harvests. The Muslims also worked on windmills, and invented cooling devices—some based on running water, others on the transport of snow and ice from nearby mountains—and some cities on the Arabian Gulf developed an ingenious form of air-conditioning consisting of pierced towers placed to catch the prevailing wind.

In some Muslim courts technology was devoted to such delightful, if not strictly utilitarian, devices as metallic trees full of singing birds, robots which served cooling drinks to guests and water clocks with drummers and trumpeters playing to mark the hours. But even this element of playfulness was adapted to more serious works, such as a phlebotomy device in which two robot-scribes record the amount of blood drawn from a patient.

By the time of the Festival, of course, the Western world had long outstripped the world that was its first teacher. Students from Islamic countries today come to European and American universities to study medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry and other sciences. But to Hossein Nasr, author of the book Islamic Science and the man behind the Festival exhibition on science, "Science and Technology in Islam," the Islamic attitude toward the physical world and its relationship to the spiritual is still important. Deploring "the tragedy of the divorce between the applications of modern science and beauty," he thinks that a knowledge of Islamic science can be "a major step in the re-discovery of the harmonious relation between man and the cosmos..." This, the basis of Islamic science and technology, he believes "must be brought back to the center of the stage of life for men in both East and West in the future, which in this, as in many ways, they share in common."

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the May/June 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1976 images.