Muslim scientists and scholars have contributed immensely to human knowledge especially in the period between 8th and 14th century CE. However, their contributions have been largely ignored, forgotten or have gone un-acknowledged. Here you can read about some of the most talented Muslim scholars in history whose contributions have left lasting marks in the annals of science, astronomy, medicine, surgery, engineering and philosophy.
Jabir Ibn Hayain (Died 803 C.E.)
Jabir Ibn Haiyan, the alchemist Geber of the Middle Ages, is generally known as the father of chemistry. Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan, sometimes called al-Harrani and al-Sufi, was the son of the druggist (Attar). The precise date of his birth is the subject of some discussion, but it is established that he practised medicine and alchemy in Kufa around 776 C.E. He is reported to have studied under Imam Ja'far Sadiq and the Ummayed prince Khalid Ibn Yazid. In his early days, he practised medicine and was under the patronage of the Barmaki Vizir during the Abbssid Caliphate of Haroon al-Rashid. He shared some of the effects of the downfall of the Barmakis and was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he died in 803 C.E.
Jabir's major contribution was in the field of chemistry. He introduced experimental investigation into alchemy, which rapidly changed its character into modern chemistry. On the ruins of his well-known laboratory remained after centuries, but his fame rests on over 100 monumental treatises, of which 22 relate to chemistry and alchemy. His contribution of fundamental importance to chemistry includes perfection of scientific techniques such as crystalization, distillation, calcination, sublimation and evaporation and development of several instruments for the same. The fact of early development of chemistry as a distinct branch of science by the Arabs, instead of the earlier vague ideas, is well-established and the very name chemistry is derived from the Arabic word al-Kimya, which was studied and developed extensively by the Muslim scientists.
Perhaps Jabir's major practical achievement was the discovery of mineral and others acids, which he prepared for the first time in his alembic (Anbique). Apart from several contributions of basic nature to alchemy, involving largely the preparation of new compounds and development of chemical methods, he also developed a number of applied chemical processes, thus becoming a pioneer in the field of applied science. His achievements in this field include preparation of various metals, development of steel, dyeing of cloth and tanning of leather, varnishing of water-proof cloth, use of manganese dioxide in glass-making, prevention of rusting, letterring in gold, identification of paints, greases, etc. During the course of these practical endeavours, he also developed aqua regia to dissolve gold. The alembic is his great invention, which made easy and systematic the process of distillation. Jabir laid great stress on experimentation and accuracy in his work.
Based on their properties, he has described three distinct types of substances. First, spirits i.e. those which vaporise on heating, like camphor, arsenic and ammonium chloride; secondly, metals, for example, gold, silver, lead, copper, iron, and thirdly, the category of compounds which can be converted into powders. He thus paved the way for such later classification as metals, non-metals and volatile substances.
Although known as an alchemist, he did not seem to have seriously pursued the preparation of noble metals as an alchemist; instead he devoted his effort to the development of basic chemical methods and study of mechanisms of chemical reactions in themselves and thus helped evolve chemistry as a science from the legends of alchemy. He emphasised that, in chemical reactions, definite quantities of various substances are involved and thus can be said to have paved the way for the law of constant proportions.
A large number of books are included in his corpus. Apart from chemistry, he also contributed to other sciences such as medicine and astronomy. His books on chemistry, including his Kitab-al-Kimya, and Kitab al-Sab'een were translated into Latin and various European languages. These translations were popular in Europe for several centuries and have influenced the evolution of modern chemistry. Several technical terms devised by Jabir, such as alkali, are today found in various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary. Only a few of his books have been edited and published, while several others preserved in Arabic have yet to be annotated and published.
Doubts have been expressed as to whether all the voluminous work included in the corpus is his own contribution or it contains later commentaries/additions by his followers. According to Sarton, the true worth of his work would only be known when all his books have been edited and published. His religious views and philosophical concepts embodied in the corpus have been criticised but, apart from the question of their authenticity, it is to be emphasised that the major contribution of Jabir lies in the field of chemistry and not in religion. His various breakthroughs e.g., preparation of acids for the first time, notably nitric, hydrochloric, citric and tartaric acids, and emphasis on systematic experimentation are outstanding and it is on the basis of such work that he can justly be regarded as the father of modern chemistry. In the words of Max Mayerhaff, the development of chemistry in Europe can be traced directly to Jabir Ibn Haiyan.
AL-FARGHANI (C. 860 C.E.)
Abu'l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani, born in Farghana, Transoxiana, was one of the most distinguished astronomers in the service of al-Mamun and his successors. He wrote "Elements of Astronomy" (Kitab fi al-Harakat al-Samawiya wa Jawami Ilm al-Nujum i.e. the book on celestial motion and thorough science of the stars), which was translated into Latin in the 12th century and exerted great influence upon European astronomy before Regiomontanus. He accepted Ptolemy's theory and value of the precession, but thought that it affected not only the stars but also the planets. He determined the diameter of the earth to be 6,500 miles, and found the greatest distances and also the diameters of the planets.
Al-Farghani's activities extended to engineering. According to Ibn Tughri Birdi, he supervised the construction of the Great Nilometer at al-Fustat (old Cairo). It was completed in 861, the year in which the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who ordered the construction, died. But engineering was not al-Farghani's forte, as transpires from the following story narrated by Ibn Abi Usaybi'a.
Al-Mutawakkil had entrusted the two sons of Musa ibn Shakir, Muhammad and Ahmad, with supervising the digging of a canal named al-Ja'fari. They delegated the work to Al-Farghani, thus deliberately ignoring a better engineer, Sind ibn Ali, whom, out of professional jealousy, they had caused to be sent to Baghdad, away from al-Mutawakkil's court in Samarra. The canal was to run through the new city, al-Ja'fariyya, which al-Mutawakkil had built near Samarra on the Tigris and named after himself. Al-Farghani committed a grave error, making the beginning of the canal deeper than the rest, so that not enough water would run through the length of the canal except when the Tigris was high. News of this angered the Caliph, and the two brothers were saved from severe punishment only by the gracious willingness of Sind ibn Ali to vouch for the correctness of al-Farghani's calculations, thus risking his own welfare and possibly his life. As had been correctly predicted by astrologers, however, al-Mutawakkil was murdered shortly before the error became apparent. The explanation given for Al-Farghani's mistake is that being a theoretician rather than a practical engineer, he never successfully completed a construction.
The Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, written in 987, ascribes only two works to Al-Farghani: (1) "The Book of Chapters, a summary of the Almagest" (Kitab al-Fusul, Ikhtiyar al-Majisti) and (2) "Book on the Construction of Sun-dials" (Kitab 'Amal al-Rukhamat).
The Jawami, or 'The Elements' as we shall call it, was Al- Farghani's best-known and most influential work. Abd al-Aziz al-Qabisi (d. 967) wrote a commentary on it, which is preserved in the Istanbul manuscript, Aya Sofya 4832, fols. 97v-114v. Two Latin translations followed in the 12th century. Jacob Anatoli produced a Hebrew translation of the book that served as a basis for a third Latin version, appearing in 1590, whereas Jacob Golius published a new Latin text together with the Arabic original in 1669. The influence of 'The Elements' on mediaeval Europe is clearly vindicated by the presence of innumerable Latin manuscripts in European libraries.
References to it by medieval writers are many, and there is no doubt that it was greatly responsible for spreading knowledge of Ptolemaic astronomy, at least until this role was taken over by Sacrobosco's Sphere. But even then, 'The Elements' of Al-Farghani continued to be used, and Sacrobosco's Sphere was evidently indebted to it. It was from 'The Elements' (in Gherard's translation) that Dante derived the astronomical knowledge displayed in the 'Vita nuova' and in the 'Convivio'.
IBN SINA (980-1037 C.E.)
Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina was born in 980 C.E. at Afshana near Bukhara. The young Bu Ali received his early education in Bukhara, and by the age of ten had become well versed in the study of the Qur'an and various sciences. He started studying philosophy by reading various Greek, Muslim and other books on this subject and learnt logic and some other subjects from Abu Abdallah Natili, a famous philosopher of the time. While still young, he attained such a degree of expertise in medicine that his renown spread far and wide. At the age of 17, he was fortunate in curing Nooh Ibn Mansoor, the King of Bukhhara, of an illness in which all the well-known physicians had given up hope. On his recovery, the King wished to reward him, but the young physician only desired permission to use his uniquely stocked library.
On his father's death, Bu Ali left Bukhara and travelled to Jurjan where Khawarizm Shah welcomed him. There, he met his famous contemporary Abu Raihan al-Biruni. Later he moved to Ray and then to Hamadan, where he wrote his famous book Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb. Here he treated Shams al-Daulah, the King of Hamadan, for severe colic. From Hamadan, he moved to Isphahan, where he completed many of his monumental writings. Nevertheless, he continued travelling and the excessive mental exertion as well as political turmoil spoilt his health. Finally, he returned to Hamadan where he died in 1037 C.E.
He was the most famous physician, philosopher, encyclopaedist, mathematician and astronomer of his time. His major contribution to medical science was his famous book al-Qanun, known as the "Canon" in the West. The Qanun fi al-Tibb is an immense encyclo- paedia of medicine extending over a million words. It surveyed the entire medical knowledge available from ancient and Muslim sources. Due to its systematic approach, "formal perfection as well as its intrinsic value, the Qanun superseded Razi's Hawi, Ali Ibn Abbas's Maliki, and even the works of Galen, and remained supreme for six centuries". In addition to bringing together the then available knowledge, the book is rich with the author's original eontribution. His important original contribution includes such advances as recognition of the contagious nature of phthisis and tuberculosis; distribution of diseases by water and soil, and interaction between psychology and health. In addition to describing pharmacological methods, the book described 760 drugs and became the most authentic materia medica of the era. He was also the first to describe meningitis and made rich contributions to anatomy, gynaecology and child health.
His philosophical encyclopaedia Kitab al-Shifa was a monu- mental work, embodying a vast field of knowledge from philosophy to science. He classified the entire field as follows: theoretical knowledge: physics, mathematics and metaphysics; and practical knowledge: ethics, economics and politics. His philosophy synthesises Aristotelian tradition, Neoplatonic influences and Muslim theology.
Ibn Sina also contributed to mathematics, physics, music and other fields. He explained the "casting out of nines" and its applica- tion to the verification of squares and cubes. He made several astronomical observations, and devised a contrivance similar to the vernier, to increase the precision of instrumental readings. In physics, his contribution comprised the study of different forms of energy, heat, light and mechanical, and such concepts as force, vacuum and infinity. He made the important observation that if the perception of light is due to the emission of some sort of particles by the luminous source, the speed of light must be finite. He propounded an interconnection between time and motion, and also made investigations on specific gravity and used an air thermo- meter.
In the field of music, his contribution was an improvement over Farabi's work and was far ahead of knowledge prevailing else- where on the subject. Doubling with the fourth and fifth was a 'great' step towards the harmonic system and doubling with the third seems to have also been allowed. Ibn Sina observed that in the series of consonances represented by (n + 1)/n, the ear is unable to distinguish them when n = 45. In the field of chemistry, he did not believe in the possibility of chemical transmutation because, in his opinion, the metals differed in a fundamental sense. These views were radically opposed to those prevailing at the time. His treatise on minerals was one of the "main" sources of geology of the Christian encyclopaedists of the thirteenth century. Besides Shifa his well-known treatises in philosophy are al-Najat and Isharat.
OMAR AL-KHAYYAM (1044-1123 C.E.)
Ghiyath al-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam was born at Nishapur, the provincial capital of Khurasan around 1044 C.E. (c. 1038 to 1048). Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, physician and poet, he is commonly known as Omar Khayyam. Khayyam means the tent-maker, and although generally considered as Persian, it has also been suggested that he could have belonged to the Khayyami tribe of Arab origin who might have settled in Persia. Little is known about his early life, except for the fact that he was educated at Nishapur and lived there and at Samarqand for most of his life. He was a contemporary of Nidham al-Mulk Tusi. Contrary to the available opportunities, he did not like to be employed at the King's court and led a calm life devoted to search for knowledge. He travelled to the great centres of learn- ing, Samarqand, Bukhara, Balkh and Isphahan in order to study further and exchange views with the scholars there. While at Samarqand he was patronised by a dignatory, Abu Tahir. He died at Nishapur in 1123-24.
Algebra would seem to rank first among the fields to which he contributed. He made an attempt to classify most algebraic equations, including the third degree equations and, in fact, offered solutions for a number of them. This includes geometric solutions of cubic equations and partial geometric solutions of most other equations. His book Maqalat fi al-Jabr wa al-Muqabila is a master- piece on algebra and has great importance in the development of algebra. His remarkable classification of equations is based on the complexity of the equations, as the higher the degree of an equation, the more terms, or combinations of terms, it will contain. Thus, Khayyam recognizes 13 different forms of cubic equatlon. His method of solving equations is largely geometrical and depends upon an ingenious selection of proper conics. He also developed the binomial expansion when the exponent is a positive integer. In fact, he has been considered to be the first to find the binomial theorem and determine binomial coefficients. In geometry, he studied generalities of Euclid and contributed to the theory of parallel lines.
The Saljuq Sultan, Malikshah Jalal al-Din, called him to the new observatory at Ray around 1074 and assigned him the task of determining a correct solar calendar. This had become necessary in view of the revenue collections and other administrative matters that were to be performed at different times of the year. Khayyam introduced a calendar that was remarkably accurate, and was named as Al-Tarikh-al-Jalali. It had an error of one day in 3770 years and was thus even superior to the Georgian calendar (error of 1 day in 3330 years).
His contributions to other fields of science include a study of generalities of Euclid, development of methods for the accurate determination of specific gravity, etc. In metaphysics, he wrote three books Risala Dar Wujud and the recently discovered Nauruz- namah. He was also a renowned astronomer and a physician.
Apart from being a scientist, Khayyam was also a well-known poet. In this capacity, he has become more popularly known in the Western world since 1839, when Edward Fitzgerald published an English translation of his Rubaiyat (quatrains). This has since become one of the most popular classics of world literature. It should be appreciated that it is practically impossible to exactly translate any literary work into another language, what to talk of poetry, especially when it involves mystical and philosophical messages of deep complexity. Despite this, the popularity of the translation of Rubaiyat would indicate the wealth of his rich thought.
Khayyam wrote a large number of books and monographs in the above areas. Out of these, 10 books and thirty monographs have been identified. Of these, four concern mathematics, three physics, three metaphysics, one algebra and one geometry.
His influence on the development of mathematics in general and analytical geometry, in particular, has been immense. His work remained ahead of others for centuries till the times of Descartes, who applied the same geometrical approach in solving cubics. His fame as a mathematician has been partially eclipsed by his popularity as a poet; nonetheless his contribution as a philosopher and scientist has been of significant value in furthering the frontiers of human knowledge.
ABU HAMID AL-GHAZALI (1058-1128 C.E.)
Abu Hamid Ibn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Tusi al-Shafi'i al-Ghazali was born in 1058 C.E. in Khorasan, Iran. His father died while he was still very young but he had the opportunity of getting education in the prevalent curriculum at Nishapur and Baghdad. Soon he acquired a high standard of scholarship in religion and philosophy and was honoured by his appointment as a Professor at the Nizamiyah University of Baghdad, which was recognised as one of the most reputed institutions of learning in the golden era of Muslim history.
After a few years, however, he gave up his academic pursuits and worldly interests and became a wandering ascetic. This was a process (period) of mystical transformation. Later, he resumed his teaching duties, but again left these. An era of solitary life, devoted to contemplation and writing then ensued, which led to the authorship of a number of everlasting books. He died in 1128 C.E. at Baghdad.
Ghazali's major contribution lies in religion, philosophy and sufism. A number of Muslim philosophers had been following and developing several viewpoints of Greek philosophy, including the Neoplatonic philosophy, and this was leading to conflict with several Islamic teachings. On the other hand, the movement of sufism was assuming such excessive proportions as to avoid observance of obligatory prayers and duties of Islam. Based on his unquestionable scholarship and personal mystical experience, Ghazali sought to rectify these trends, both in philosophy and sufism.
In philosophy, Ghazali upheld the approach of mathematics and exact sciences as essentially correct. However, he adopted the techniques of Aristotelian logic and the Neoplatonic procedures and employed these very tools to lay bare the flaws and lacunae of the then prevalent Neoplatonic philosophy and to diminish the negative influences of Aristotelianism and excessive rationalism. In contrast to some of the Muslim philosophers, e.g., Farabi, he portrayed the inability of reason to comprehend the absolute and the infinite. Reason could not transcend the finite and was limited to the observation of the relative. Also, several Muslim philosophers had held that the universe was finite in space but infinite in time. Ghazali argued that an infinite time was related to an infinite space. With his clarity of thought and force of argument, he was able to create a balance between religion and reason, and identified their respective spheres as being the infinite and the finite, respectively.
In religion, particularly mysticism, he cleansed the approach of sufism of its excesses and reestablished the authority of the orthodox religion. Yet, he stressed the importance of genuine sufism, which he maintained was the path to attain the absolute truth.
He was a prolific writer. His immortal books include Tuhafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ihya al-'Ulum al-Islamia (The Rivival of the Religious Sciences), "The Beginning of Guidance and his Autobiography", "Deliverance from Error". Some of his works were translated into European languages in the Middle Ages. He also wrote a summary of astronomy.
Ghazali's influence was deep and everlasting. He is one of the greatest theologians of Islam. His theological doctrines penetrated Europe, influenced Jewish and Christian Scholasticism and several of his arguments seem to have been adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas in order to similarly reestablish the authority of orthodox Christian religion in the West. So forceful was his argument in the favour of religion that he was accused of damaging the cause of philosophy and, in the Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd (Averros) wrote a rejoinder to his Tuhafut.
IBN KHALDUN (1332-1395 C.E.)
Abd al-Rahman Ibn Mohammad is generally known as Ibn Khaldun after a remote ancestor. His parents, originally Yemenite Arabs, had settled in Spain, but after the fall of Seville, had migrated to Tunisia. He was born in Tunisia in 1332 C.E., where he received his early education and where, still in his teens, he entered the service of the Egyptian ruler Sultan Barquq. His thirst for advanced knowledge and a better academic setting soon made him leave this service and migrate to Fez. This was followed by a long period of unrest marked by contemporary political rivalries affecting his career. This turbulent period also included a three year refuge in a small village Qalat Ibn Salama in Algeria, which provided him with the opportunity to write Muqaddimah, the first volume of his world history that won him an immortal place among historians, sociologists and philosophers. The uncertainty of his career still continued, with Egypt becoming his final abode where he spent his last 24 years. Here he lived a life of fame and respect, marked by his appointment as the Chief Malakite Judge and lecturing at the Al-Azhar University, but envy caused his removal from his high judicial office as many as five times.
Ibn Khaldun's chief contribution lies in philosophy of history and sociology. He sought to write a world history preambled by a first volume aimed at an analysis of historical events. This volume, commonly known as Muqaddimah or 'Prolegomena', was based on Ibn Khaldun's unique approach and original contribution and became a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology. The chief concern of this monumental work was to identify psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. In this context, he analysed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group-feelings, al-'Asabiyya, give rise to the ascent of a new civilisation and political power and how, later on, its diffusion into a more general civilization invites the advent of a still new 'Asabiyya in its pristine form. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of rise and fall in human civilization, and analysed factors contributing to it. His contribution to history is marked by the fact that, unlike most earlier writers interpreting history largely in a political context, he emphasised environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing the apparent events. This revolutionised the science of history and also laid the foundation of Umraniyat (Sociology).
Apart from the Muqaddimah that became an important independent book even during the lifetime of the author, the other volumes of his world history Kitab al-I'bar deal with the history of Arabs, contemporary Muslim rulers, contemporary European rulers, ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc., Islamic History, Egyptian history and North-African history, especially that of Berbers and tribes living in the adjoining areas. The last volume deals largely with the events of his own life and is known as Al-Tasrif. This was also written in a scientific manner and initiated a new analytical tradition in the art of writing autobiography. A book on mathematics written by him is not extant.
Ibn Khaldun's influence on the subject of history, philosophy of history, sociology, political science and education has remained paramount ever since his life. His books have been translated into many languages, both in the East and the West, and have inspired subsequent development of these sciences. For instance, Prof. Gum Ploughs and Kolosio consider Muqaddimah as superior in scholarship to Machiavelli's The Prince written a century later, as the forrner bases the diagnosis more on cultural, sociological, economic and psychological factors.
Ibn Battuta (1304-1377? C.E.)
When it comes to globetrotting, even Marco Polo takes a back seat to this fourteenth-century voyageur.
Starting out on a simple Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), in 1325 when he was 21 years old, Ibn Battuta wound up touring almost the entire Muslim world, from West Africa and Spain to China and the Maldives. He ventured over land and sea for 22 years, traveling to 44 modern countries, and covering 75,000 miles. Battuta recorded his travels in the Rihla, and was an early and extensive contributor to the field of geography.
Strangely enough, Ibn Battuta's exploits were lost to the Western world for 300 years. Not until the nineteenth century, when his Rihla (Travels') was discovered in Algeria, did his extraordinary roamings come to light. In contrast, Marco Polo dictated an account of his journeys to a contemporary while they shared a prison cell in 1296, and copies had circulated all over Europe by the fifteenth century. Had Ibn Battuta's work received the same attention, his name would rank alongside Marco Polo's as a synonym for world travel.
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