Modern popular culture gives the impression that the development of science was possible only thanks to the work of European and Western scientists. However, the colossal contribution of scholars of the Islamic world, which was made even before the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, is completely and unjustly ignored.
A popular myth is that religion – especially Islam, is opposed to science and impedes its development, and scientific progress is associated with ridding humanity of religious illusions. This article cites historical facts that convincingly show the groundlessness of this myth. Hereinafter, a brief description of the basic facts and ideas are presented that shows a strong link between Islam and modern science.
Contribution of Muslim Scholars
European scientists relied on the work of their predecessors – the Muslim scientists, and developed them. For example, the Arabic numerals for writing numbers became known to Europeans only in the tenth century, and before that, Roman ones were used. The peculiarity of the Arabic numerals is their incredible convenience for quick calculations. How fast would science evolve if scientists continued to use uncomfortable Roman numerals for calculations? This is a big question. Could, in principle, be made discoveries in astronomy, physics before the advent of a convenient system of calculations, that is, before the tenth century? Arabs also invented the decimal point.
Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, or simply Al-Khwarizmi, was the name of the scientist who introduced convenient numbers into Arabian science. In some sources, he is called al-Majusi, that is, the “magician” – probably he came from a kind of Zoroastrian priests who later converted to Islam. The idea of writing numbers in the “Arabic” comes from Indian science (in Arabic language numbers are called “hindsa” that means Indian number system), but it was thanks to the work of Al-Khwarizmi that this system began to be used throughout the Caliphate, which at that time occupied the territory from India to the western part of Spain. And from the Islamic caliphate, the concept was introduced to the Christian Europe.
On behalf of Al-Khwarizmi, we all know the well-known word “algorithm”, which denotes a sequence of actions to complete a task, on which modern computer science is based. Many scientists consider it an achievement if they name any formula. However, an even greater achievement is if your name has become a household name and is written with a small letter. How did Al-Khwarizmi become involved in algorithms? In his book Kitab al-jabr wa-l-mukabala, the scientist gives general sequences of actions – that is, algorithms – for solving equations. From the word “al-jabr” in the title of this book comes modern “algebra”. Algebra as a branch of science is engaged in the derivation of general laws for numbers – formulas. A specific number in algebra is not important, so you can replace it with a letter and get a formula. On formulas, such as E = mc ^ 2, the building of modern science is built. Was scientific progress possible without the prior development of algebra? But that treatise on algebra, from which this section of mathematics takes its name, was written only in the ninth century, and is written by an Islamic scholar.
Another Muslim scholar, Al-Khaysam, wrote a fundamental work on optics in seven volumes. Here the laws of the rectilinear propagation of light, its reflection and refraction were formulated. But the most interesting thing in the treatise is that Al-Khaysam checked all his positions experimentally, and described the experiments in detail in the book so that other scientists could repeat them. Already in the eleventh century, he performed experiments with a pinhole camera and mirrors. Thus, through the works of this scientist, natural philosophy began to turn into natural science. In the twelfth century, the treatise came to Europe and had a great influence on the development of optics.
Muslim chemists (most notably Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan) invented the process of distillation, and the first attempts were made to classify chemical elements based on experimental observations, rather than philosophy, as in antiquity. (The word chemistry is derived from the Arabic word “Kimia”. Additionally, we see Arabic influence in words elixir (al-iksar), alcohol (al-kohl), and alembic (al-inbiq).)
In the Islamic world, astronomy developed. The circumference of the globe was determined, the inclination of the Earth was calculated, that is, the Earth was not considered flat. But most importantly, accurate tables of astronomical observations were compiled, thanks to which the error of the ancient Greek Ptolemaic model became apparent. According to Ptolemy, the planets and the sun were supposed to revolve around the earth. Al-Khaysam wrote a treatise “Doubts in Ptolemy” challenging all the astronomers of that time. Under the guidance of another astronomer, Al-Tusi, a giant observatory was built with the money of the Mongolian khan, where a large number of scientists worked to calculate the correct model of the solar system instead of the Ptolemaic one. The work of these scientists was introduced in Europe by Copernicus – in his treatise he refers to the ideas and tables of astronomers of the Arab world. Thus, the work of Copernicus is not an accidental revolution, but the culmination of the previous five hundred years of the development of Islamic astronomy.
Could Copernicus come to his conclusions without the data of astronomers who worked before him?
Thus, European science is a continuation and development of previous Islamic science. Islam at that time not only improved, but also contributed to the development of science.
Importance of Education in Islam
The statement of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is: “Get knowledge, even if you have to go on foot to China for this!”, And this is a matter of natural scientific knowledge. In the Qur’an itself there are many verses that call to admire the world and study it, because this is the work of the Almighty. This means that in this world everything – from stars to the device of the human body – is reasonable, not accidental and subject to the systematic rules that Allah established. And we can study these rules, since we ourselves are endowed with reason. The idea of intelligent design was fundamental to the development of science!
If we consider not the philosophical, but the practical side of the issue, then Islam demanded the calculation of the exact time and direction of prayer, and this led to the development of spherical geometry and astronomy. Mosques became the center of not only spiritual, but also scientific life: free open lectures on philosophy, astronomy, and other sciences were held there. On the walls of mosques, the following inscriptions have been preserved: “I am the center of knowledge, so come here”, “organize knowledge, transfer, protect and store it.” The first universities, such as Al-Azhar in the tenth century, began to develop at mosques. Many foreigners came as students and teachers, students received a scholarship.
Such a development of sciences in the Islamic world in the 9th-12th century owes much to the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, which were interested in and patronized all sciences. They said about Baghdad that “there is no one more learned than their scientists.” A global translation project was launched, which was to collect all scientific books from the most remote corners of the Muslim empire and translate them into Arabic. According to legends, the translator’s salary was 500 gold dinars, which by our standards is about 24 thousand dollars. And if someone brought a book that was not yet in the library of the “House of Wisdom”, then Caliph Al-Mamun paid the weight of this book in gold. Even Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered. Arabic was introduced as a universal language, but at the same time, knowledge of all cultures and peoples was collected and synthesized. Islam was also the state religion, but at the same time there was religious freedom: it was possible to profess Christianity, Judaism, and so on. Scientists of different nationalities of the entire caliphate gathered in Baghdad and communicated among themselves in Arabic.
This was possible thanks to the military and political rule of the Arabs at that time. The state was strong enough and was able to provide a good life and the development of sciences. But in the thirteenth century, the caliphate was attacked from the east by the Mongols, who destroyed the “house of wisdom” and drowned all the books stored in it in the river. And from the west, the caliphate surrendered under the pressure of the Crusades. The Crusaders and the Inquisitors wanted to eliminate all the strongholds of Muslim culture, for example, in 1499, about ten thousand Arabic texts were burnt on a square in Grenada. The golden age of development of the Arab sciences thus ended, and the center of political, and therefore scientific influence gradually moved to the West, first to Spain, and then to Great Britain, due to its advantageous position on the sea. That is why Newton’s work was published in English, and not in Arabic.
Why was the contribution of Arab scholars so unjustly forgotten, and Islam is presented in the eyes of the townsfolk only #religion of obscurantism and barbarism?
In many ways, the reasons for not crediting Muslim scholars for original works are political. Winners write history, and the winners benefit from the idea of their own superiority and backwardness of other nations. At first, religion was promoted as a reason for “superiority,” which is “better” than that of other nations, and when it lost its former influence, science took its place. In such a coordinate system, the idea that a defeated people – which is by definition worse – could have a developed science, is unacceptable.
One way or another, in the Arab caliphate, a religion such as Islam contributed to the development of science. The scientific achievements of other nations that were not Muslims were not rejected as “infidels,” but, on the contrary, were translated into Arabic and carefully studied. However, in Europe, religion was used as an excuse to destroy the culture of “Gentiles”. In the ninth-century Arab caliphate, the theocratic monarchy developed science and set about creating the largest library in the Arabic language. What happened at this time in Europe? The difference is not in religion or form of government, but in approaches.
Translated from Russian