Illustration by Ziauddin
Illustration by Ziauddin

The 21st century is the century of innovation, the century of advancements. Every new day brings with it another innovative idea, leading to another technological development.

However, unfortunately, majority of these modern advancement and plans seem to originate from the Western world. These countries are glowing with the light of knowledge, literacy and research. On the other hand, Muslim states in the Middle East and Asia are struggling in the darkness of illiteracy and backwardness. In this contrasting situation, an alarming perspective is gaining popularity. Muslims are seen as an illiterate, ignorant and uninformed nation, who has remained regressive for centuries.

However, the reality is different. Like all other nations, Muslims also experienced a golden age. This era extended from the eight century to the 14th century, when Muslim scientists were far ahead than the rest of the world in the field of technology and medicine, geography and astronomy. At that time, Europe was in the dark ages. Brutality, barbarism and ignorance were dominant there.

Just like how we migrate to Europe and other Western countries for studies now, Europeans visited Arabia for this purpose. Many of today’s practices and development that later took place in the West owe their origin to this golden age and Muslim scientists.

Let us recall some of the inventions and developments that were the result of the research and studies conducted by Muslims. This will make us realise our lofty heritage and inspire us to rise from our slumber to pursue knowledge and progress.

Coffee

Coffee, something that is now so commonly used in Europe was actually widely used in the Islamic Empire.

While historians believe that the coffee bean originated in Africa, most likely Ethiopia, it was brewed after it spread to Yemen. According to the renowned historian of the Ottoman Empire Cemal Kafadar, the Sufis consumed coffee to stay away to worship through the night. There it was known as ‘qahwah’, from the Arabic word ‘qaha’, meaning to have no hunger.

As the usage of this drink spread to other parts of the world, the name evolved to finally become coffee. So whenever you drink a cup of coffee again, be pleased that it is a product of the Islamic world.

Flying machine

An artwork depicting Abbas ibn Firnas on his flying machine
An artwork depicting Abbas ibn Firnas on his flying machine

Today we are taught that the Wright Brothers invented the flying machine or aeroplane. Even if you browse the internet, the first answer to this question would point to Wright Brothers. However, it is stated that in the year 875, nearly 1100 years before the Wright Brothers’ invention and nearly 500 years before Leonardo da Vinci design of flying machine’s frame, creative engineer and inventor Abbas ibn Firnas designed a flying machine.

It had a frame of bamboo covered with lightweight silk cloth and feather of eagles and the wings of the flying machine could be controlled during flight. He jumped from a large cliff and achieved a flight for 10 minutes! So in reality, he was the one to first invent a flying machine.

Algebra

Who doesn’t know this term? Algebra is the same mathematical concept that troubles children and exhausts their minds. The famous variable ‘X’ has actually made mathematics a nightmare for students. But please do not blame the Muslim scientist, famously known as Al-Khwarizmi, who is considered the father of algebra, if you don’t like doing algebra sums.

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a ninth century Muslim mathematician and astronomer, and the word ‘algebra’ is derived from the title of his book, Kitab fi Hisab al-Jabr wa al-Muqabala. He also introduced the concept of raising a number to a power and the concept of the algorithm in mathematics, which is why some have called him the “grandfather of computer science”.

Furthermore, decimal fractions were first used by Abul Hasan al Uqlidisi in the 10th century. So the next time you study a mathematical concept, know that many of them are the result of the research by Muslim scientists!

Hospitals

Ahmad ibn Tulun hospital
Ahmad ibn Tulun hospital

Have you heard the name of ‘Ahmad ibn Tulun hospital’? Well, it was perhaps the first known proper hospital in the world, with wards and teaching centres.

It was established in Cairo, Egypt, between 872 and 874, where patients were treated and given medicines free of charge. This gave birth to the concept of having organised medical centres, the kind that we have today, to provide free medical treatment.

Hydrochloric and nitric acid

Those of you who are studying chemistry must be familiar with different acids. But have you ever pondered who actually discovered them?

Well, it is claimed that in the ninth century, Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815) discovered them. Known as Geber in the west, he is considered the father of Arab chemistry and one of the founders of modern pharmacy. Besides the invention of many now-basic chemical laboratory equipment, he is also credited with the discovery many chemical substances and processes.

Do tell this amazing fact to your chemistry teacher and I am pretty sure he will be impressed with your knowledge.

Food chains

Muslim scientists made discoveries in a wide field of science. In biology, food chains are often taught to portray the energy transfer between organisms. It is declared that food chains were identified by a Muslim scientist, Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani, widely known by his nickname Al-jahiz.

He was a scholar, writer, zoologist and theologian, a perfect example of how Arab scientists sought truth in the natural world. Among his most famous works is the pioneering Kitab al-ayawn (The Book of Animals) which features modern ideas about food chains and evolution, biology. One millennium later, Charles Darwin would present similar information and be celebrated as the leader and pioneer of the evolutionary movement.

Sugar mill

Sugar is of much significance today, especially as sugary foods are very sought-after by everyone. Do you know how raw sugar is extracted from sugar cane?

Well, this process is done in a sugar mill, which is claimed to have first appeared in the medieval Islamic world. They were first driven by watermills, and then windmills.

When the Muslim army conquered northern India in about 750AD, the troops brought back sugar cane to the rest of the Islamic empire. It was then that Muslim engineers invented new sugar cane presses to get more juice out of the sugar cane.

Clocks

An illustration of al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (known in Latin as Alhazen)
An illustration of al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (known in Latin as Alhazen)

Though it is said that Christiaan Huygens invented the clock in the 16th century, historians claim that by the 13th century, Ismail al-Jazari, had numerous clocks of all shapes and sizes.

Ibn al Haytham also invented the Binkam Water Clock, an invention that provided hours and minutes, which no other clock demonstrated at the time. This shows that the idea of clocks had already found a place in the research of Muslim scientists before it was shaped into reality by Christiaan Huygens.

Camera

Whenever you next take a photograph, give credit to Ibn Haytham for inventing the camera obscura, the earliest avatar of the modern digital camera.

Born in 965 CE, Ibn al-Haytham is considered by many to be the world’s first scientist. In his Book of Optics, written in Cairo between 1012 and 1021, Ibn al-Haytham used the term “Al-Bayt al-Muthlim”, translated into English as “dark room”. He was the first scientist to successfully project an image onto a screen using a camera obscura and also the first scientist in history to develop a working camera.

His ideas and workings regarding this device played an undeniable role in the invention of first photographic camera by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in 1816.

Snell’s Law

Those of you who have studied light in physics should be familiar with this law. However, it is unfortunate that this law is not given the name of Ibn-Sahl’s law, as it is declared that this law was first accurately described by the Persian scientist, ibn Sahl in 984. Similarly, Newton’s Laws of Motion are also said to be mentioned in the works of Muslim scholars such as Alhazen.

These are just some of the inventions and ideas that found their base in Islam’s Golden Age. Unfortunately, many other inventions and theories made by scientists in the previous centuries were on the basis of the work by Muslim scientists. However, much of this work was lost due to the burning of Arab libraries by foreign attacks on Muslim Empire. We never know how many more gadgets we use are based on the research work of Muslim scholars.

The purpose of this article is that dear readers, we, Muslims are not a backward or inferior nation. When we worked hard, we had overtaken the world in the fields of knowledge, science and literature. We can do this again. All we need is to study the history of our ancestors, be proud of them, get motivated by them and follow their golden principles. May we again witness the ascent of Muslim nation in our lives. Ameen!

Published in Dawn, Young World, August 6th, 2022

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