CNN: Muslim inventions that shaped the modern world

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Modern surgery has benefited from Muslim surgeon Al Zahwari’s inventions. Around the year 1,000, he reportedly performed the first caesarean operation and created the first pair of forceps.

Olivia Sterns, CNN

London (CNN): Think of the origins of that staple of modern life, the cup of coffee, and Italy often springs to mind.

But in fact, Yemen is where the ubiquitous brew has its true origins.

Along with the first university, and even the toothbrush, it is among surprising Muslim inventions that have shaped the world we live in today.

The origins of these fundamental ideas and objects — the basis of everything from the bicycle to musical scales — are the focus of “1001 Inventions,” a book celebrating “the forgotten” history of 1,000 years of Muslim heritage.

“There’s a hole in our knowledge, we leap frog from the Renaissance to the Greeks,” professor Salim al-Hassani, Chairman of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, and editor of the book told CNN.

“1001 Inventions” is now an exhibition at London’s Science Museum. Hassani hopes the exhibition will highlight the contributions of non-Western cultures — like the Muslim empire that once covered Spain and Portugal, Southern Italy and stretched as far as parts of China — to present day civilization.

Here Hassani shares his top 10 outstanding Muslim inventions:

1. Surgery

Around the year 1,000, the celebrated doctor Al Zahrawi published a 1,500 page illustrated encyclopedia of surgery that was used in Europe as a medical reference for the next 500 years. Among his many inventions, Zahrawi discovered the use of dissolving cat gut to stitch wounds — beforehand a second surgery had to be performed to remove sutures. He also reportedly performed the first caesarean operation and created the first pair of forceps.

2. Coffee

Now the Western world’s drink du jour, coffee was first brewed in Yemen around the 9th century. In its earliest days, coffee helped Sufis stay up during late nights of devotion. Later brought to Cairo by a group of students, the coffee buzz soon caught on around the empire. By the 13th century it reached Turkey, but not until the 16th century did the beans start boiling in Europe, brought to Italy by a Venetian trader.

3. Flying machine

“Abbas ibn Firnas was the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly,” said Hassani. In the 9th century he designed a winged apparatus, roughly resembling a bird costume. In his most famous trial near Cordoba in Spain, Firnas flew upward for a few moments, before falling to the ground and partially breaking his back. His designs would undoubtedly have been an inspiration for famed Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci’s hundreds of years later, said Hassani.

4. University

In 859 a young princess named Fatima al-Firhi founded the first degree-granting university in Fez, Morocco. Her sister Miriam founded an adjacent mosque and together the complex became the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University. Still operating almost 1,200 years later, Hassani says he hopes the center will remind people that learning is at the core of the Islamic tradition and that the story of the al-Firhi sisters will inspire young Muslim women around the world today.

5. Algebra

The word algebra comes from the title of a Persian mathematician’s famous 9th century treatise “Kitab al-Jabr Wa l-Mugabala” which translates roughly as “The Book of Reasoning and Balancing.” Built on the roots of Greek and Hindu systems, the new algebraic order was a unifying system for rational numbers, irrational numbers and geometrical magnitudes. The same mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi, was also the first to introduce the concept of raising a number to a power.

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