Islamic Influence on European Science

By Zakaria Virk, Toronto

According to traditional western writers, all science and civilization is derived from Greek heritage i.e. 6th centry BC to 2nd century AD. This heritage was lost during the Dark Ages i.e. 5-15th century AD, recovered during the European Renaissance -15-16th centuries, and revived for our modern world.

In order to explain how the heritage was lost for 1500 years, and recovered, it was Muslims who found it, recovered it, preserved it, and added to it from 8th to 15th century. Had the Muslims not preserved this Greek learning, it would have been lost forever. The mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography, mechanics of 16th century bears no resemblance to that left behind by the Greeks.
It was the Islamic civilization, not Greek that invented paper, printing, irrigation, windmills, farming techniques, the compass, industrial production, glass making, cotton production, trade mechanism, system of numerals 1-10, paper money and the cheque. Gardens, flowers, art of living, urban design, personal hygiene, are all products of Muslim thinkers.
Western scholars gained this knowledge after Sicily, Islamic Spain were conquered, and their contact with Muslims during the 11th and 12th centuries. European scholars started translating Arabic books during the 12th century. Thus all Arabic scientific knowledge was transferred into Latin during the next three centuries.

This fact has been acknowledged by many notable historians and scholars. John Glub says: the indebtedness of Western Christendom to Arabic civilization was systematically played down, if not completely denied. A tradition was built up by censorship and propaganda, that Muslim imperialists had been mere barbarians that the rebirth of learning in the west was derived directly from Greek and Roman sources alone, without any Arab intervention”. A short history of the Arab people, London, 1969, p 289
The Greeks and the Roman had no universities in the sense in which the word has been used in the past seven or eight centuries. Universities are the product of Islamic lands of the middle ages.
It is stated that Roger Bacon of England was the first person to draw a diagram for a flying machine, and thought of human flight. Leonardo da Vinci had prepared prototypes of flying machines. The truth is Islamic Spain’s engineer, inventor and aviator Abbas ibn Firnas (d.887) was the first person in history to make a flying machine in Cordoba. He made a glider (or used vulture feathers as wings) with which he flew off a hill in Cordoba and was air-born for few minutes. Upon landing he suffered injuries, because he did not have a tail on the glider, the way birds use their tail upon landing.
It is said in the West that glass mirrors were made in Venice in the 13th century-1291. The fact is that glass mirrors were made in Islamic Spain in the 11th century. People of Venice gained the technical knowledge for glass making from Syria.
It is said that first mechanical clock was made in Milan, Italy which was weight driven. According to Will Durant, first clock was made by Ibn Firnas in Cordoba in 9th century. Clocks were made during the time of Caliph Haroon al-Rashid, who had sent a clock as a gift to King Charlemagne of France. Europeans gain knowledge of clock making from the Latin translations of Arabic books.
It is said Galileo was the first person to have invented pendulum. The truth is that 10th century Egyptian astronomer Ibn Yunus had invented pendulum in Cairo in the 10th century. In his book he had described oscillatory motion. Muslim clock makers used pendulum in their clocks in the 15th century.
Iraqi scientist Yaqoob al-Kindi invented a discipline of medicine called posology which dealt with the dosages of the drugs. Dosages for the drugs were a guessing game in the ancient world. He formulated an easy to use table that pharmacists could refer to when filling out a prescription to when filling out prescriptions.
Al-Kindi (d.866) started frequency analysis in deciphering ancient Greek writings. Therefore he was father of modern cryptology. Yaqoob al-Kindi (d.873) in his most important work on medicine, translated into Latin as De Gradibus demonstrated the application of mathematics and quantification to medicine, Kindi invented a discipline of medicine called posology, which dealt with the dosages of the drugs. Dosages for the drugs were a guessing game in the ancient world. He formulated easy to use table that pharmacists could refer to when filling out prescriptions. By documenting amounts with a mathematical formula that anyone could follow, al-Kindi revolutionized medicine. Drugs could now be formulated according to set amounts with the result that all patients would receive standardized dosages.
Cover page for Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics

Ibn al-Haitham did extensive investigations on light, lenses and camera obscura. In fact he invented the pin-hole camera. It is said that Newton was the first person to have stated that white light consists of various colours. The fact is that this discovery was made by ibn al-Haitham and Kamaluddin Farsi, who prepared an edited version of Kitab al-Manazir, Tanqih al-Manazir. In Newton’s personal library a copy of Kitab al-Manazir in Latin translation was found.

Ibn Sena discussed how to deal with a fracture to the metacarpal bone in the thumb, which modern books describe as “Bennett’s fracture”, named after the man who supposedly discovered it in 1882, nearly 900 after Ibn Sena. (House of Wisdom, page 179, by Jim al-Khalili, NY 2011)
Zakariyya al-Razi introduced controlled experiment and clinical observation in medicine. He carried out the earliest known example of a clinical trial employing a control group . Razi began by selecting two sets of patients, all of whom are showing early symptoms of meningitis . He then treated one group with bloodletting, but not the second. He writes that ‘by doing this, I wished to reach a conclusion (on the effectiveness of bloodletting) and indeed all those of the second group contracted meningitis’. (Jim al–Khalili, The House of Wisdom, , London, 2011 p. 147) He was laying the foundation of what in allopathic medicine will be called controlled studies, which is the favoured way of investigating any therapy in this day and age. Zakaria Vir’s book “111 Muslim Scientist’.
Trigonometry was a theoretical science with Greeks, but Muslims made practical use of this branch of mathematics. Al-Batani in fact invented basic functions such as sine, cosine and tangent. Arabic root for sine is Jaib. Similarly it is said that decimal fractions was first used by Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin in 1589. The fact is decimal fractions were used by al-Kashi in his book Miftah al-Hisab (Key to Mathematics). It is also said that X & Y symbols were first used by French mathematician Vieta in 1591. Algebra was invented by Muslims who used these symbols in finding solutions of cubic equations.

It is said logarithm tables were invented by John Napier in 1614, but this is a Muslim invention.

Omar Khayyam made a significant contribution in mathematics called Binomial coefficients, but in Europe it is called Pascal’s triangle.
Persian astronomer Nasiruddin Tusi developed a mathematical device called Tusi Couple. Zauj-Tusi was used by Nicolaus Copernicus in his reformulation of mathematical astronomy. Al-Urdi theorem was developed by Muay al-din al-Urdi in 1250. The same theorem was found in Copernicus master piece on astronomy.

Al-Battani computed his own zij in 10th century, translated into Latin and Spanish in 12th and 13th centuries. Seven hundred years after it was written, Copernicus will refer to this zij a total of 23 times in his work On the Revolution of heavenly spheres.

Syrian astronomer Allauddin ibn Shatir prepared a model of moon and mercury, which was later found in Copernicus book.
Jabir ibn Aflah was Islamic Spain renowned mathematician. He used trigonometry in solving some very complicated problems. Astonishingly same solutions were found in Johann Mueller book in 1464. This intellectual theft was discovered by Italian mathematician G. Cardano (d1576). After reading Jabin ibn Aflah’s book Islah al-Majisti (Corrections to Majisti), Copernicus criticised Ptolemy’s system of Universe and presented a new model in which sun was in the centre.

Islamic Spain’s foremost surgeon abul Qasim Zahrawi described in his book Kitab al-Tasrif modern clinical techniques I.e for treating a dislocated shoulder (now called Kocher’s method) and simplifying difficult labours (now called Walcher position).

Nasirurddin Tusi developed a special geometrical construction in connection with Euclid’s fifth postulate, which was used by England’s John Wallis (d.1703) in his researches. Subsequently this technique was used by Saccheri (d.1733), but both of them did not give credit to Tusi.
Baghdad’s 9th century mathematician Sabit ibn Qura (d.901) devised a formula to find the amicable numbers. Seven hundred years later Franc’s Pierre Fermat (d.1665) used a similar formula to find second pair of amicable numbers, but did not bother to give credit to Sabit ibn Qurra.
Badi u Zaman al-Jazari (d.1206) invented combination lock, it appeared in England in 17th century. Al-Jazari’s inventions later appeared in Europe, including conical valve, patented in England in 1784. In his monumental book ‘A book of Ingenious devices’ on mechanical devices he mentioned valves and piston. He is considered father of robotics. He invented more than 50 automatic devices. He invented crankshaft which is essential to so many machines. In his water pump to raise water he used pistons, paddles and camshaft, crank connecting rod system, forcing water up through pipes and out to city streets. Crank connecting rod is used in bicycles also.
The Elephant Clock was one of the most famous inventions of Al-Jazari.
Syrian doctor Allauddin ibn Nafis described function of pulmonary circulation of blood in 13th century, 300 years later Michael Servetus (d.1553)and then William Harvey were credited with this discovery.
Persian chemist Zakariya al-Razi stated that characteristics of sulphur, salt and mercury are found in almost everything. The same discovery was made by Paracelsus in Europe.

Ibn al-Haitham stated that when light passed through a medium, it takes the easiest and fastest path to travel. In Europe it was called Fermat’s principle of least time.

German astronomer Regiomontanus wrote a book on Trigonometry- De Triangulus, 4th part of this book is stolen from Jabir ibn Aflah’s (d.1150) book.

I quote the following from Wikipedia: “Much of the material on spherical trigonometry in Regiomontanus’ On Triangles (c.1463) was taken directly and without credit from Jābir’s work, as noted in the 16th century by Gerolamo Cardano.[3] The trigonometry that Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543) outlined in the first part of his epochal work De revolutionibus was also apparently inspired by Jābir.

A Muslim scholar from Tunisian who converted to Christianity and took the name of Constantine the African (d.1087) introduced Arabic sciences into Europe. He translated many Arabic books into Latin, and put his name as their author. He outstripped many in plagiarism.
The tides on the Earth are mostly generated by the Moon’s gravitational pull from one side of the Earth to the other, the tidal forces. According to Phillip K. Hitti this was first described by Abu Mashar Balkhi, however the credit is given to Kepler.

Spain’s astronomer Abu Bakr Ibn Bajja (df.1138) discovered law of motion: speed of a moving object is equal to moving force. He also postulated that the force that keeps the planets in their orbits is the same that makes an apple to fall to the ground. Galileo after studying Ibn Baja’s theories rejected Aristotle’s view that speed of a body is proportional to its weight.
It is stated in Wikipedia: “in Islamic physics, Ibn Bajjah’s law of motion was equivalent to the principle that uniform motion implies absence of action by a force. This principle would later form the basis of modern mechanics and have a subsequent influence on the classical mechanics of physicists such as Galileo Galilei. Ibn Bajjah’s definition of velocity was also equivalent to Galileo’s definition of velocity:[8]……….Velocity = Motive Power – Material Resistance

I would like to finish this article by giving a quote from a book :” Razi’s physics consisted, as far as its principles were concerned, of fundamental ideas which, given the different level of scientific knowledge, were similar to surprising extent to those of Newton’s system” ( Arabic Versions of Greek Texts, and in Medieval Scienes by S. Pines, EJ Brill, Leiden, 1986, p 197)

Jim Khalili, The House of Wisdom, New York, 2011
Michael Morgan, Lost History, National Geographic, Washington, 2007
Howard Turner, Science in Medieval Islam, University of Texas, 1995
John Freely, Light from the East, New York, 2011

Urdu books

111 Muslim scientists, 42 medieval and 62 contemporary. 2013 Lahore

Zakaria Virk, Muslim Contribution to Sciences, Kitabi Duniya, Delhi, 2011, 553 pages
Zakaria Virk, 111 Muslim Scientists, Niazamana Publications, Lahore, 2013, 663 pages

2 replies

  1. Islamic Invention?
    The Independent has an article about the “Islamic inventions that changed the world”. It’s a highly misleading article- and science exhibit at the science museum in Manchester. In fact, the more I learned the more it began to appear that this is little more than an attempt to rewrite history- a piece of pure propaganda. I’m no expert of many of the subjects discussed but even cursory research turns up fairly obvious reference to supposed Islamic inventions long before the religion of Islam was even invented.

    Please do read on.

    1. First up is coffee, and the Independent quotes the mythical story of a Yemenite who saw some particularly perky goats. They do mention in passing that coffee beans were first exported from Ethiopia to Yemen- so that would make it an African invention, not an Islamic one. Ethiopian tribesmen used to chew the bean to help keep them alert on hunting trips. There’s no clear evidence that it was Muslims who first thought to use the beans in a drink.

    2. Next up we hear how an Arab invented photography. According to the Independent, the term “camera obscura” comes from the Arabic for dark room. Which is odd because the term originates from Latin. It’s also misleading that they say the ancient Greeks thought that our eyes emitted light- Aristotle believed the opposite. Alhazan (as he is generally known) did invent the pinhole camera, a concept understood by the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle made the first reference to a camera obscura in 330BC.

    3. The Independent goes on to tell us that chess is another Islamic invention- after noting that the game itself actually originated in India. The earliest reference to the game- originally known as chaturanga- comes from 500BC while the oldest discovered chess pieces dated from 3000BC. There is another school of thought which traces the development of chess from China. So, not an Islamic invention either.

    4. Next up we have Islamic claims on flight. The first attempts resulted in crashes, loosely termed here as the invention of a parachute. They were working parachutes in China by the twelfth century. The paper then goes on to credit Abbas ibn Firnas with making a reasonably successful glider flight in 875AD. There are Chinese accounts of manned kites and gliders dating back as far as 500BC.

    5. Soap developed, apparently, because of the Muslim requirements of washing and bathing. While the Independent does, again, mention that this was not an Islamic invention but a development, there are other accounts of soap making. The ancient Celts for example made soap, and soap was adopted by the Romans for washing by 2AD. It’s also claimed that shampoo was introduced to England by a Muslim in 1759. Funny that the Celts had used soap particularly for their hair long before this date.

    6. Distillation- “invented” in 800AD by Jabir ibn Hayyan. Well, not quite. Aristotle mentioned the process (he died in 322BC) and Pliny the Elder (died 79AD) recorded an early still, the apparatus used to perform distillation. Furthermore by the 3rd century AD, Maria the Jewess, as she was known, had apparently developed a forerunner of the modern alcohol still. And Egyptians were using distillation in the 3rd century to produce alcohol. What Jabir did was to invent an alembic still – not discover the process of distillation.

    7. While the invention of the crankshaft is claimed for al-Jazari by 1206AD there is no solid evidence that he did actually invent it, rather than just describe it. In fact such a device had been used by the Chinese and was first mentioned in 530AD, a water powered flour sifting device- the first machine capable of translating rotary into back and forth movement. Piston technology was, incidentally, used by Hero of Alexandria in the first century AD. Al-Jazari is also, rather bizarrely, credited as the “father of robotics”- most likely because he created some automatic machines- a feat that Hero had also been capable of. The latter did, in fact, create automated puppet theatres and water-powered mechanical birds which even chirped! Long before the 12th or 13th century. Water clocks were also not a new invention of al-Jazari- these can be traced back to the Egyptians and the Greeks. As for his invention of the combination lock, this is generally attributed to the Chinese.

    8. Quilting – Again, no mention is made of it as an Arabian invention but it does say that “it certainly came west via the Crusades”. So, we have Christian knights to thank, not Islam. And according to this site dedicated to the history of quilting, the skill actually developed from around 3400BC.

    9. The pointed or gothic arch- a design which can be traced back to the Assyrians in 722BC. Then there’s the rose window, also attributed to “Muslim genius”- but which is actually traced back to the Roman oculus. Also the dome design is attributed to Muslims, but the design is also of Roman origin, the most famous example being the Pantheon. Finally there’s the ribbed vault- yet again one which began with the Romans and which was developed by Romanesque/Norman architecture, used for the first time in St. Etienne, France.

    10. Surgical Instruments – While the 10th century doctor al-Zahrawi’s contribution to medical knowledge cannot be overlooked, there are more impressive examples of early medicine- namely the Indian Sushruta from 500BC, known as the “father of surgery”. The Indian schools of medicine passed their knowledge west to the Persians. The Independent asserts that it was al-Zahrawi who discovered that catgut dissolves internally but it took until Joseph Lister in the nineteenth century for the technique to be developed to perfection- and the Egyptians were using animal sinew to stitch wounds as far back as 4000BC. As for the Muslim invention of anaesthetics, these date back to prehistory.

    11. The windmill became commonplace in Persia or perhaps Afghanistan, probably sometime around 600AD. As such they were in use before the beginning of Islam in 622AD. Yet again, not an Islamic or Muslim invention, but a Persian one. There is also some evidence of ancient Babylonians using windmills in 2000BC.

    12. Inoculation – Inoculating against smallpox was first witnessed by an Englishwoman in the Ottoman Empire, but the origins of the technique go back much further- beginning in either India or China in 200BC. The importance of Jenner’s work was that he used relatively safe cowpox to vaccinate against the much more lethal smallpox- hence vaccination was invented by Jenner. Contrary to the Independent’s statement, it was smallpox which was used for these inoculations.

    13. The fountain pen – While it true that there is a reference to a fountain pen dating from the tenth century, there is no actual evidence of its existence nor of the veracity of the claim. The earliest surviving examples of fountain pens date from the 17th century.

    14. Numbers- There are quite a few claims laid down here. The first printed record of the Hindu-Arabic number system was not an original work at all, but a translation of an Indian book, the Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written in 628AD. al-Khwarizmi and al-Kindi are essentially responsible for popularising the Indian method. Algebra is named after a book by al-Khwarizmi but its roots go back to the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, then to the Greeks and the Indians. Fibonacci did bring the Arabic system of numerals to Europe, but this system is itself based on an Indian, Hindu, system; a fact Fibonacci himself referred to. As for trigonometry, it was a branch of mathematics which goes back for 4000 years, though important work was done by Omar Khayyam, whose religious beliefs differed considerably from Islam- he was obliged to take the pilgrimage to Mecca to prove he was a follower of the religion.
    I’m no mathematician so forgive any technical errors I may make here. The Independent- and the Science Museum, Manchester- assert that algorithms came from the Muslim world. An algorithm is simply a procedure for accomplishing a task. The first algorithms were used by the ancient Babylonians and were also used by Euclid and Eratosthenes. While the Muslim mathematician al-Kindi did record the first known instance of frequency analysis (the study of the frequency of letters in an encrypted message), cryptology itself can be traced back to the time of Julius Caesar and the early Christians.

    15. Food, specifically the three course meal. While the Independent would have us believe that this was an Islamic innovation dating from the 9th century, it actually can be traced back to the Romans- the Roman cena was a three course meal that usually began with a starter of salad, a main meat dish and then a dessert of fruit, nuts, and perhaps some wine. This was a tradition which was enjoyed by the Romans in Britain too. I can find no reference whatsoever to an Islamic invention of crystal glass (perhaps the author is using the incorrect term). Lead crystal glass was invented by an Englishman, George Ravenscroft, in 1676.

    16. Carpets- Again, NOT an Islamic invention. Carpets can be traced back to Mongolia or Turkestan between the 4th and 2nd millennium BC. The earliest surviving example of a pile carpet has been dated back to the 5th century BC. Carpet production in Spain also pre-dated the Moorish occupation.

    17. Cheques – It’s quite true that a Muslim businessman could use cheques in the 9th century, but the actual development of the cheque pre-dates Islam; they go as far back as the 1st century AD, originating in Persia.

    18. A spherical earth. Apparently by the 9th century most Muslim scholars held that the earth was a sphere, a position that they were not the first to expound by far. The idea comes, of course, from the ancient Greek scholars. Aristotle provided evidence for the theory in 4BC. In calculating the size of the Earth, Eratosthenes managed to get within 800km of the actual figure- in 250BC. It is a myth that people widely believed the earth to be flat before the age of exploration- by the 1st century AD Pliny stated that just about everyone was in agreement that the earth was round. As for the assertion that it took another 500 years for Galileo to reach the same conclusion that too is a myth- Galileo’s battle with the church concerned the movement of the earth, not whether or not it was flat.

    19. Gunpowder. This is a strange one- the author admits that while the Chinese invented saltpetre gunpowder, it was the Muslims who “worked out that it could be purified using potassium nitrate for military use”. What’s odd about this is that saltpetre is potassium nitrate- they may perhaps have been able to produce a more purified form of saltpetre. Gunpowder was developed in China around the 7th century AD and it was brought west either along the Silk Road or by the Mongols. In any case, the Chinese were using militrary rockets in the 11th century-long before any other such recorded use. On the contrary it was only in the 15th century that Muslim forces seem to have used their own rockets, a development probably brought to them by the Mongols who used Chinese technological expertise. As for the notion of an Islamic torpedo- there is a reference to it, but there is no proof that it was ever actually developed.

    20. Gardens – Apparently it was the Arabs who developed the garden as a place of beauty and meditation. Only if you ignore the evidence of ornamental gardens in ancient Egypt. And while the Persians did develop such gardens, it can be traced back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (long before Islam)- and the Greeks also had their own gardens, dating back as far as 350BC. There was also a strong Roman tradition of gardening- a tradition which was continued, but hardly invented, in Byzantium and by the Moors in Spain.

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