Islamic Inventions ( Islam flourished during
so called ' Dark Ages'! )
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
IF YOU are
reading this article over your customary Saturday morning coffee - spooning
through the thick frothy milk to reach the restorative dark stuff beneath - then
you may be surprised to learn you owe this civilised daily ritual to a herd of
Many people have read the story of Marco d'Aviano, a 17th-century monk from the
Capuchin order, whose brown robes gave us the name for the cappuccinos now
quaffed on every street corner. The coffee itself, though, is all down to an
Arab herdsman called Khalid, who lived far earlier (in the ninth century). He
noticed that his goats seemed to have a new lease of life after they had grazed
on a particular wild coffee berry, which grew in his native Ethiopia. Khalid -
possibly feeling a little tired after tending to his wandering goats - decided
to try the berries for himself by boiling them. The resulting liquid was al-qahwa.
As the drink traversed through the centuries on the coat tails of trade and
travel, the first European coffee house opened in Venice in 1645.
The account of Khalid's discovery is just one of a glittering treasury of untold
tales from a golden age of discovery and innovation, which took place in the
Islamic world between the seventh and 17th centuries.
It is this hidden history that a new exhibition aims to unveil. Entitled 1,001
Inventions, the exhibition opens at Glasgow Science Centre later this month and
charts the innovations of exceptional scholars, and ordinary people, from the
Islamic world who discovered and developed many items that are taken for granted
The exhibits are divided into seven zones: home, hospital, market, school, town,
universe and world. Professor Salim Al-Hassani, chairman of the Foundation for
Science Technology and Civilisation, creators of 1,001 Inventions, said there is
a widespread misconception that science and technology withered during the "Dark
"The 1,001 Inventions exhibition aims, through a process of education and
learning, to challenge this myth and celebrate the fact that Muslim civilisation
was flourishing and contributed to the advancement of our society today," he
A stellar vein of such contribution was in the field of astronomy. From
astronomical instruments to observatories, Muslim scholars brought a
breathtaking amount to the science of the stars and laid the foundation for the
renaissance astronomy of the west. Copernicus, for example, reportedly used the
astronomical treatise of Muslim astronomer Al-Battani, whose body of work
included star catalogues and planetary tables. Al-Battani also popularised
trigonometry. He lived in the ninth century and, from that time onwards, Muslim
stargazers undertook a wealth of work. In the tenth century, the Persian
astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi cast his eyes upwards to the awning of stars
overhead and was the first to record a galaxy outwith our own. Gazing at the
Andromeda galaxy he called it a "little cloud" - an apt description of the
slightly wispy appearance of our galactic neighbour. The Muslim world, ahead of
its time, also had knowledge of the Earth.
Twelfth century geographer Al-Idrisi, a European Muslim, produced an atlas
comprising 70 maps. The atlas, known as the Book of Roger, showed the Earth as
being round. The idea that the Earth was spherical was common among Muslim
scholars. Dr Robert Massey, of the Royal Astronomical Society, regularly talks
on the topic of Islamic astronomy. He said: "The Muslim world provided a bridge
between antiquity and the renaissance.
"The progress made in places like the great observatory in Samarkand, in
modern-day Uzbekistan, laid the foundations for the science we take for granted
today. And being challenged on how science and faith can co-exist and interact
is one of the most stimulating things I've done - it makes you aware of
misconceptions that exist across communities."
Many stars have Arabic names - from Aldeberan (one of the brightest stars in the
night sky), to the stars of the Summer Triangle (Altair, Deneb and Vega). Stars
aside, the lexicon of science is peppered with Arabic words, each with a story
to tell about its Islamic heritage.
The Arabic word for chemistry is alkimia: the word became alchemy in the west
but its original meaning was chemistry. Jabir ibn Hayyan, who lived in Persia in
the eighth century, is widely regarded as the founder of chemistry. He invented
many of the basic processes and equipment still used by chemists today such as
distillation (a way of separating chemical substances). Jabir worked tirelessly
in his laboratory, reportedly saying: "The first essential in chemistry is that
you should perform practical work and conduct experiments".
This may seem a simple sentiment to today's scientists but, more than 1,200
years ago, it was on the cutting edge. Jabir's rigorous approach to
experimentation led to the discovery of powerful acids, which are now key to the
chemical industry. Scottish astrophysicist Andrew Conway, who runs scientific
consultancy Counting Thoughts, has an Iranian mother, who is also a scientist.
Conway grew up in Scotland but is well versed in a heritage that has remained
hidden to many of us.
He said: "There is so much that we take for granted that has come from the
Muslim world. For example, we write with Roman letters but use Arabic numerals
so the influence extends to something as basic as 1,2,3." Conway said
acknowledging the contribution of the Muslim world was not about rewriting
history but was more about finding a long-missing piece of the jigsaw. "It's
like uncovering some unread chapters of the world's most interesting book," he
by From Oman @