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Golden days of Islam paved the way

Jim Al-Khalili
March 27, 2008



WATCHING the daily news of hardship, misery and violence across the Arab world and central Asia, it is not surprising that many in the West view the culture of these countries as backward and their religion as at best conservative and often as violent and extremist.

I am on a mission to dismiss a crude and inaccurate historical hegemony and present the positive face of Islam. It has never been more timely or more resonant to explore the extent to which Western cultural and scientific thought is indebted to the work, a thousand years ago, of Arab and Muslim thinkers. What is remarkable, for instance, is that for more than 700 years the international language of science was Arabic.

We read in most accounts of the history of science that the contribution of the ancient Greeks would not be matched until the European Renaissance and the arrival of the likes of Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th century. The 1000 years sandwiched between the two is dismissed as the Dark Ages. But the scientists and philosophers whom the ninth-century Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Abu Ja'far Abdullah al-Ma'mun, brought together, and whom he entrusted with his dreams of scholarship and wisdom, sparked a period of scientific achievement that was just as important as the Greeks or Renaissance.

Of course, some Islamic scholars are well known in the West. The Persian philosopher Avicenna - born in 980 - is famous as the greatest physician of the Middle Ages. His Canon Of Medicine was to remain the standard medical text in the Islamic world and across Europe until the 17th century, a period of more than 600 years. But Avicenna was also undoubtedly the greatest philosopher of Islam and one of the most important of all time.

But Avicenna was not the greatest scientist in Islam. For he did not have the encyclopedic mind or make the breadth of impact across so many fields as a less famous Persian who seems to have lived in his shadow: Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. Not only did Biruni make significant breakthroughs as a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, but he also left his mark as a theologian, encyclopedist, linguist, historian, geographer, pharmacist and physician. He is also considered to be the father of geology and anthropology. The only other figure in history whose legacy rivals the scope of his scholarship would be Leonardo da Vinci. And yet Biruni is hardly known in the Western world.

Many of the achievements of Arabic science often come as a surprise. For instance, while no one can doubt the genius of Copernicus and his heliocentric model of the solar system in heralding the age of modern astronomy, he relied on work carried out by Arab astronomers many centuries earlier. Many of his diagrams and calculations were taken from manuscripts of the 14th-century Syrian astronomer Ibn al-Shatir. Why is he never mentioned in our textbooks? Likewise, we are taught that English physician William Harvey was the first to correctly describe blood circulation in 1616. He was not. The first to give the correct description was the 13th-century Andalucian physician Ibn al-Nafees.


We are told Newton is the undisputed father of modern optics. School science books abound with his famous experiments. But Newton stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier. For without doubt one of the greatest of the Abbasid scientists was the Iraqi Ibn al-Haytham (born in 965), who is regarded as the world's first physicist and as the father of the modern scientific method - long before Renaissance scholars such as Bacon and Descartes.

But what surprises many even more is that a ninth-century Iraqi zoologist by the name of al-Jahith developed a rudimentary theory of natural selection 1000 years before Darwin. In his Book Of Animals, Jahith speculates on how environmental factors could affect the characteristics of species, forcing them to adapt and then pass on those new traits to future generations.

The brand of Islam between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the 11th century was one that promoted a spirit of free thinking, tolerance and rationalism. The comfortable compatibility between science and religion in medieval Baghdad contrasts starkly with the contradictions and conflict between rational science and many religious faiths in the world today.

Guardian News & Media

Jim Al-Khalili is a professor of physics at the University of Surrey.

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