Arab Science - A Journey of Innovation Qatar Foundation

Arab-Muslim contributions to Eastern and Western science

The European knight in armour was really an Arab invention, introduced to the Europeans at the Battle of Tours in 732; both cultural styles changed considerably over the following centuries.

Arab leader Saladin meets Crusader Richard the Lionheart; the Crusades transferred Arab ideas to Europe

The 10th century Umayyad Court in Cordoba was Europe's most sophisticated capital

Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin translation of Arab-Muslim alchemical tracts helped awaken Europe from Dark Age slumber

Arab concepts of the modern, humane hospital eventually reached mediaeval Europe as in the 15th century Opesdale di Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, Italy

Influence of Arab-Muslim science on Western science

In the West, even as 8th century Dark Age Europe began to coalesce around a newborn fear of Arab and Muslim religious and military power, Europe was drawn to the superior technology, social institutions, and cultural expressions of the Arab-Muslim world.

The first recorded transfer of Arab technology to the Europeans was at the Battle of Tours in 732, where Europeans were first introduced to Arab armoured knights on horseback, metal stirrups, and a fully-developed cavalry. The Europeans under Charles Martel won that encounter through cunning and good luck, and they were quick to steal the armour and stirrups off the dead Arabs. Within five years, Charles had created Europe's first cavalry force, and the armoured knight on horseback, introduced by the Arabs, would become a fixture of European warfare, literature, and mythology for another 500 years.

Even while such a committed Islamophobe as Charlemagne was fighting to push the Umayyads and Arabs south of the Pyrenees in Spain, he was entranced with the power and style of Caliph Harun Al Rashid in Baghdad, and struck up a long-distance correspondence. Charlemagne's interest was selfish - he wanted to rule as nobly as Harun did, over a state as rich and powerful as Harun had. But that would be out of the question for any European for another 700 years. Charlemagne even tried to arrange several summit meetings with Harun, which never occurred, in part because Harun was very busy and saw little benefit in meeting the ruler of a poor and backward region that had little to offer other than brave warriors. But the two leaders exchanged gifts, and a high level tradition of cross-cultural communication was begun.

Even the Byzantine Empire, which suffered 800 years of losing battles with the Arabs and Turks, took note of the intellectual developments to its south, and there was a continuing exchange of ideas.

But it was not until the late 900s that the full power of the centuries of Arab-Muslim invention would begin to filter north in a bigger way.

Al Andalus was a major transfer point, because even before the fall of the Umayyads, it was a place of great cultural mingling. An increasing stream of mediaeval European visitors would travel south to gawk at the Umayyad streetlamps, cities, libraries, hospitals, palaces and gardens that had been created under Arab-Muslim rule.

While the European religious ambivalence or distrust was always present, the attraction to a more sophisticated culture was just as powerful.

One of the first influential Europeans to be drawn to the intellectual power of the Arabs was a French Christian monk, Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II in 999. Not only was he the first Frenchman to lead the Roman Church, he was the first Christian patriarch who was deeply influenced by and sympathetic to the cultural and intellectual advances made by Arabs and Muslims.

When Gerbert was a young monk, he studied under the direction of Atto, Bishop of Vich, north of Barcelona. Bishop Atto was part of a diplomatic delegation sent to Cordoba. While there Atto met with Umayyad ruler Al Hakim ll. Atto had become infatuated with the Islamic society in Cordoba and returned to Barcelona with great respect for the neighbour civilisation.

Gerbert insisted that Bishop Atto tell him about the Andalusian leaders who were more interested in ideas than military strength. Gerbert was fascinated by the stories of the Mozarab Christian bishops and judges who were culturally Arabic, and were as well-versed in mathematics and science as the academicians of the Islamic universities. This sparked Gerbert's veneration for the Arabs and his passion for mathematics and astronomy. When Gerbert became Pope Sylvester, he immediately introduced Arabic numerals into the Church, replacing the unwieldy Roman numerals. He also adopted the Cordoban style of liberal arts education, which would later greatly influence European and North American educational styles. He also introduced Arab astronomy to the Church, as well as other Arab intellectual advances.

Though it would take centuries for these papal decisions to reach deep into European culture (which until the 1200s remained largely feudal and rural) they provided the basis for future intellectual reform and innovation, culminating in the Renaissance. And more importantly, they gave the green light to a new European tradition of welcoming Arab and Muslim science and technology that would last 500 years.

One early ambassador of Arab-Muslim science was Constantine the African, a Tunisian who travelled to Europe's first medical school at Salerno, Italy, in 1077 and translated key Arabic medical texts into Latin.

The real flood of Arab and Muslim knowledge northward would not come for another 50 years, when the relentless work of a group of Catholic and Jewish translators working in Spain would begin to bring the works of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Al Khwarizmi, Al Razi, Ibn Sina, Al Zahrawi, Ibn Al Haytham, Al Jazari, and many others into Latin.

Although by 1150 the European languages had already begun to differentiate into the Romance and Germanic tongues that we know today, Latin was the language of the Church and of scholarship. The Church remained the most important patron and repository of European scientific and scholarly thinking until the Renaissance and the Reformation.

By no coincidence, nearly all the Christian translators were Catholic monks of various orders, while most of the Jewish translators were also religious scholars.

Three pre-eminent Catholic translators of Arab manuscripts included Gerard of Cremona (an Italian), and two Englishmen, Robert of Chester and Adelard of Bath. These three accounted for an astonishing share of translated documents.

In many ways, they were replicating the same process of translation of knowledge that the great translators like Hunayn Ibn Ishaq had done at the House of Wisdom 350 years earlier in Baghdad. But the European process would be somewhat slower and more decentralised, simply because there was no single institution like the House of Wisdom or a single leader like the caliph to patronise these activities.

Instead, there were many smaller courts and centres, in Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Leon, Seville, Segovia, and Toledo. They were usually headed by a king who strongly encouraged scholarship. More often than not, the kings were Catholic who, though partisan on the subject of faith, were eager to assimilate the advanced thinking of the Arabs and Muslims.

The actual process of translation was often quite haphazard. Some of the monks had to learn Arabic even as they were doing the actual translation. Often they would take an Arab word for which they could not find a counterpart in Latin, and would create a Latinised but phonetically Arab term, like 'arithmetic' or 'algebra'. Sometimes the Catholics would use trilingual Jewish scholars, who would translate the Arabic into vernacular Spanish, and then recite them aloud in Spanish so the monks could then render them into Latin.

The monks also sought to Latinise the unfamiliar names of the Arabs and Muslims, so Ibn Sina became Avicenna, Ibn Al Haytham became Alhazen, Ibn Rushd became Averroes, Al Zahrawi became Albucasis, Jabir became Geber, and so on.

Robert of Chester is best remembered for his translations of Al Khwarizmi, including the Liber Algebrae et Almucabla, or the Compendius Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, and the masterwork on the algorithm, Algoritmi del numero Indorum, or Al Khwarizimi on the Hindu Art of Reckoning. Robert did most of his work at Segovia in Spain, under the patronage of the Catholic ruler Ferdinand I.

Gerard of Cremona emigrated from Italy to Toledo for the express purpose of translating Arab knowledge into Latin. He is credited with more than 70 key translations from mathematics, medicine, and other disciplines including Ptolemy's Almagest, Euclid's Geometry, and key works by Al Kindi, Al Khwarizmi, the Banu Musa, Al Zarqali, and many others. His translations included Al Khwarizmi's On Algebra and Almucabala, Al Kindi's On Optics, Al Farghani's On Elements of Astronomy on the Celestial Motions, Al Farabi's On the Classification of the Sciences, the chemical and medical works of Al Razi, the mathematical and astronomical works of Thabit Ibn Qurra and Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, and Ibn Al Haytham (including the Book of Optics).

Other important translators included Plato of Tivoli, Hermann of Carinthia, Rudolf of Bruges, Michael Scot, and Philip of Tripoli, and in Spain, Dominicus Gondisalvi, and Hugh of Santalla. Some of the great Spanish Jewish translators included Petrus Alphonsi, Abraham ben Ezra, John of Seville, and Savasorda.

Though the first flood of translation was to come in the 12th century, this does not mean it ended then. In fact, it would continue into the 18th century, both with re-translations of old works and original translation of newly discovered works by Arabs and other Muslims that continued to flow north until the 1700s.

For example, the great Arab physician Al Nafis worked in Cairo at the Al Mansuri Hospital in the early 1200s. There he made the earthshaking discovery that, contrary to what Galen had taught, blood did not circulate from one side of the heart to the other through tiny passages, but instead travelled from the right chamber to the lungs, where it mixed with oxygen and then travelled to the left chamber.

His work was apparently unknown to Europeans until 1547 when Andrea Alpago of Belluno, Italy, made the first known translation. The English court physician William Harvey, who studied at the University of Padua some decades after the appearance of this translation, then articulated the first European understanding of blood's circulation through the body, for which Western history credits him as the discoverer. Although it is possible that his discovery was coincidental and had nothing to do with Al Nafis' work, it also seems possible that Harvey was exposed to the Arab ideas in one form or another while in Italy.

Translation of key Arab documents in itself was not enough to spur the phenomenal explosion of European knowledge that would come after 1400. Quite often, the translated Arab documents conveyed practices and procedures (particularly in medicine) that could not be put to use in Europe until centuries later. That is because the intellectual, economic and social climate and infrastructure simply did not yet exist in Europe to take advantage of the new ideas.

An example of the northward and westward flow of knowledge was the great Persian Muslim astronomer and mathematician Nasir Al Din Al Tusi (1201 - 1274), who invented his mathematical theorem, the Tusi Couple, an ingenious formula that resolves linear motion into the sum of two circular motions. His formula was designed to correct the errors in Ptolemy's earth-centred system, but it would have much more use for future astronomers. He was translated into Byzantine Greek towards the beginning of the 14th century, only to be used later by Copernicus and others in Renaissance Europe.

Arab-Muslim thinkers translated into Latin during the 12th century include Al Battani, Al Razi and Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd/Averroes, Thabit ibn Qurra, Al Farabi, Al Farghani, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, and his nephew Hubaysh Ibn al Hasan, Al Kindi, Abu Al Qasim (including the Al Tasrif), and Al Fazari's Great Sindhind based on the works of 7th century Indian genius Brahmagupta who also inspired Al Khwarizmi. Add to that the works of astronomer Al Majriti, astronomer Al Bitruji (including On the Motions of the Heavens), Al Majusi's medical encyclopaedia The Complete Book of the Medical Art, the works of Musa Bin Maymun (Maimonides), and the chemical works of Jabir/Geber. In the early 1200s, one Mark of Toledo translated the Qur'an and assorted medical texts.

Although bits and pieces of Arab mathematical genius had been coming north since the middle 1100s, Fibonacci of Italy is credited with presenting the first complete European account of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in 1202. The revisions to Ptolemy's model made by Al Battani and Ibn Rushd are believed to have had later influence on the Copernican sun-centred model. Most impressively, Al Kindi's 9th century law of terrestrial gravity is believed to have influenced Robert Hooke's 17th century law of celestial gravity, which inspired Newton's 17th century law of gravitation.

European translations of the 11th, 12th, and 13th century algebraic and geometrical works of Ibn Al Haytham, Omar Khayym, and Al Tusi were later influential in the development of modern non-Euclidean geometry. Edward Pococke brought Ibn Tufail into Latin, while Simon Ockley brought his work into English, which some sources say helped encourage the coming European scientific revolution.

Mediaeval European chemistry owes its origins as much as anyone to the Arab father of chemistry, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, or Geber. His chemical and alchemical works were translated into Latin around the 12th century and became standard texts for European alchemists. These include the Kitab al-Kimya (titled Book of the Composition of Alchemy in Europe), translated by Robert of Chester in 1144, and the Kitab al-Sab'een, translated by Gerard of Cremona sometime before 1187.

Marcelin Berthelot translated some of Jabir's books under the mysterious titles Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern Mercury. Several Arabic terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, found their way into various European languages and thus became part of the Western scientific vocabulary.

In the medical field, hospitals began as bimaristans in the Islamic world and later spread to Europe during the Crusades, when returning Crusaders brought back some of the modern concepts they had seen in the East. Les Quinze-vingt, Paris's first hospital, was founded by Louis IX after his return from the Crusades in the mid 1200s. Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine remained a standard medical textbook in Europe until the early modern period, and during the 15th and 16th centuries the Canon was published more than 35 times. Through the Canon, Europeans were first introduced to the contagious nature of infectious diseases, quarantine, experimental medicine, and clinical trials. Ibn Sina's Book of Healing became another popular textbook in Europe. Al Razi's Comprehensive Book of Medicine, with its introduction of measles and smallpox, was also influential in Europe.

One of the most powerful cases of cross-cultural scientific transmission came in the budding fields of physics and optics, led by the visionary Ibn Al Haytham. He became known to the mediaeval Europeans as Alhazen, and he was as influential in European optics as was Al Khwarizmi in higher mathematics. Ibn al-Haytham's Book of Optics, written in 1021, initiated a revolution in optics and visual perception, and introduced the earliest and most detailed articulation of the modern experimental scientific method. The Book of Optics is considered by some to be as important as Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. In Latin, it influenced the later works of Europeans like Roger Bacon, Leonardo Da Vinci, Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.

The Book of Optics would help enable the development of many key optical technologies, like eyeglasses, cameras, telescopes and microscopes. In Christian theological debate, John Wycliffe, one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, referred to Ibn Al Haytham in discussing the seven deadly sins as distortions in mirrors analysed by the Cairo thinker. In literature, The Book of Optics is mentioned in Guillaume de Lorris' Roman de la Rose and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In art, some scholars now argue that the Book of Optics laid the foundations for the linear perspective technique and the use of optical aids in Renaissance art, as in the Hockney-Falco thesis.

According to experts, the theories of motion in Islamic physics developed by Ibn Sina and others helped shape Jean Buridan's theory of impetus, the ancestor of the inertia and momentum concepts, and the work of Galileo on classical mechanics.

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