Biography - Muslim Scholars and Scientists

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Approximately 1, years before the British naturalist published his theory of evolution, a scientist working in Baghdad was thinking along similar lines. In the Book of Animals, abu Uthman al-Jahith , an intellectual of East African descent, was the first to speculate on the influence of the environment on species.

Scientists and Scholars

He wrote: "Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring. There is no doubt that it qualifies as a theory of natural selection - even though the Book of Animals appears to have been based to a large extent on folklore rather than on zoological fact.

Science: Islam's forgotten geniuses

Despite the strong feelings Darwin provokes among many Muslims - many Islamic scholars see the Koran as creationist, and so at odds with evolution - it seems astounding that al-Jahith's quote has been largely ignored. In fact, although popular accounts of the history of science typically show no major advances taking place between the Romans and the Renaissance, al-Jahith's work was part of an astonishing flowering of invention and innovation that took place in the Muslim world, and in Iraq in particular, in the Middle Ages.

This world view, based on a mixture of theology and rational thinking, produced wonderful advances in philosophy, astronomy, medicine and mathematics, in particular the emergence of algebra and trigonometry. Although the Muslim world is often now seen as ill-equipped for scientific discovery, we can look back to Baghdad and see the origins of the modern scientific method, the world's first physicist and the world's first chemist; advances in surgery and anatomy, the birth of geology and anthropology; not to mention remarkable feats of engineering.

For years, the international language of science was Arabic; and Baghdad, the capital of the mighty Abbasid Empire, was the centre of the intellectual world.

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The story starts around , when the caliph of Baghdad, al-Ma'mun, is said to have had a vivid and life-changing dream. In it, he met the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who instructed him to "seek knowledge and enlightenment". This was the starting point for a lifelong obsession with science and philosophy. Al-Ma'mun created the famous House of Wisdom, a library, translation house and scientific academy unmatched since the glory days of Alexandria.

The caliph would then recruit some of the greatest names in Arabic science, such as the mathematician al-Khwarizmi and the philosopher al-Kindi.


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Although many of these thinkers were not Arabs themselves, they conducted their science and wrote their books in Arabic. The most famous of all was Avicenna or ibn Sina, to give him his correct name. Born in Persia in , he was a child prodigy who grew up to become one of the world's greatest philosophers and physicians. His great work, the Canon of Medicine, was to remain the standard medical text both in the Islamic and Christian worlds until well into the 17th century.

He is credited with the discovery and explanation of contagious diseases and the first correct description of the anatomy of the human eye. As a philosopher, Avicenna is referred to as the Aristotle of Islam; as a physician, he is its Galen. Indeed, it would not be inappropriate to refer to Aristotle and Galen as the Avicennas of the Greeks.

List of scientists in medieval Islamic world

My favourite of all the Abbasid scientists, however, is another Persian scholar by the name of al-Biruni. Here was a polymath with a free-ranging and formidable intellect: not only did he make significant breakthroughs as a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, but he also left his mark as a theologian, encyclopaedist, linguist, historian, geographer, pharmacist and physician.

Famously, having developed the mathematics of trigonometry, he was able to measure the circumference of the Earth to within a few miles. The only other figure in history whose legacy rivals the scope of al-Biruni's scholarship would be Leonardo da Vinci. So what went wrong? What brought to an end this golden age of Abassid and Arabic science? The standard answer is that the ending came suddenly, in , when the Mongols ransacked Baghdad.

During the occupation, a large number of the books in the House of Wisdom were destroyed. But Baghdad was by this time far from the only centre of scholarship in the Arabic speaking world - and wonderful advances continued to be made in Cairo and Cordoba right up to the European Renaissance in the 15th century.

There is also an argument that the decline was due to a change in attitude of the Islamic world towards science. But few will mention how these European scientists were indebted to their predecessors: Arabic scholars who made advances in science and technology while Europe was in a cultural decline during the Dark Ages 5th — 15th century.

Al-Haitham is considered one of the founders of modern optics. Ptolemy and Aristotle theorised that light either shone from the eye to illuminate objects or that light emanated from objects themselves.

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Setting the Record Straight, Islamic Science

But al-Haitham suggested that light travels to the eye in rays from different points on an object. Ironically, his plans to build a dam were carried out hundreds of years later, on the same site he initially proposed, when human engineering abilities had caught up with his vision. Khayyam calculated the length of a solar year to 10 decimal places and was only out by a fraction of a second when compared to our modern day calculations. He used this to compose a calendar considered more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that came along years later.

His driving force was to obtain the ability to locate Mecca from any given geographical point — aiding in Muslim rituals such as burial and prayer, which require participants to face the holy city. Al-Zahrawi is considered one of the fathers of modern surgery. It was his idea to use animal intestines for internal suturing, a material that produces no immune response and dissolves naturally, removing the need for further surgery, and this is still used in some counties today.

He is also known for the invention of many surgical instruments, including forceps to assist in vaginal births. Al-Din al-Tusi authoured the Treasury of Astronomy , a frighteningly accurate table of planetary movements that reformed the existing planetary model of Roman astronomer Ptolemy by describing a uniform circular motion of all planets in their orbits. This work led to the later discovery, by one of his students, that planets actually have an elliptical orbit. Copernicus later drew heavily on the work of al-Din al-Tusi and his students, but without acknowledgment, says Masood.

The gradual chipping away of the Ptolemaic system paved the way for the revolutionary idea that the Earth actually orbited the Sun. Ibn-Sina made important contributions to the disciplines of physics, optics, philosophy and medicine. He wrote The Canon of Medicine , a text used to teach student doctors in Europe until the s. He identified that the nerve cells are responsible for transmitting pain signals and his detailed observations of disease vectors, including soil, air, touch and sex, influenced the future direction of the medical profession.

Science in a Golden Age - Optics: The True Nature of Light

He was the first person to identify the only substance that can dissolve gold — aqua regis royal water — a volatile mix of hydrochloric and nitric acid. Can you imagine trying to multiply or divide two numbers on paper if they were written in Roman numerals? They developed a system of peer review before publication. A century later, at the start of the Golden Age, the first scientists adopted a similar method.