The Forgotten Gems

Since the advent of Islam, Muslims not only ruled the world but also came up with bajillions of inventions. Through various scientific experiments, which contributed to a plethora of disciplines ranging from the field of medicine to their vast knowledge about astronomy, they introduced the world with numerous hidden powers of the Universe. Furthermore, they also contributed in various other fields of science i.e. chemistry, biology, mathematics, geography and many more. Even today their remarkable work is considered as worth as its weight in gold.

  1. Al Zahrawi, Father of Surgery.

Do you know that many modern surgical instruments are of the same design as those devised in the 10th century by a Muslim surgeon, popularly known as al-Zahrawi? Abu al Qasim Khalaf ibn al Abbas al-Zahrawi was born in 936 CE in El-Zahra, six miles northwest of Córdoba, Andalusia and spent most of his life there. In Andalusia, he got his education and dedicated his life to teaching, practicing medicine and surgery until his death in 1013 CE.

Al Zahrawi is considered the greatest medieval surgeon to have emerged from the Islamic World, some have even gone as far as terming him “The Father of Surgery”. And that, too, with good reason, as his scalpels, bone saws, forceps, fine scissors for eye surgery and many of the two hundred instruments he devised are recognizable to a modern surgeon. It was Al Zahrawi who discovered that catgut used for internal stitches dissolves away naturally and that it can also be used to make medicine capsules. His encyclopedia of surgery was used as standard reference work in the subject in universities all over Europe for over five hundred years. He was the first physician to describe an ectopic pregnancy, and the first physician to identify the hereditary nature of hemophilia. Thus, Al Zahrawi laid the foundations on which modern-day surgery stands. His works have been translated into numerous languages and reprinted for more than eight centuries.

2. Fatima al-Firhi, Oldest University

The name Fatima Al-Fihri crowns the annals of history with the distinction of having established the world’s very first university. Yes, it was a Muslim woman who pioneered a model of higher learning coupled with the issuance of degrees of various levels. Born in Tunisia, her family soon moved to Fez, Morocco. Fez, at that time, was a bustling metropolis of the Muslim West, and held the promise in people’s imaginations of fortune and felicity.

After the deaths of Fatima’s husband, father, and brother in short succession, Fatima and her only other sibling, Mariam, received a sizable inheritance which assured their financial independence. Having received a good education, the sisters in turn hastened to dedicate all their wealth to benefiting their community. Thus, in 859CE Fatima founded the Qarawiyyin Mosque and University, the largest in North Africa at that time. It soon became an important center of education and one of the first Islamic and most prestigious universities in the world. It is credited with producing many distinguished Muslim thinkers including Muhammad al-Fasi, the jurist, and Leo Africanus, the famous author and traveler.

The University of Al-Qarawiyyin was highly regarded back then as one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world. Today, the Guinness Book of World Records has recognized it to be the oldest continuously operating institution of higher learning in the world.

The life of Fatima Al- Fihri sheds some light on the role and contribution of Muslim women to Islamic civilization. It is this role which will hopefully denounce the narrow-mindedness of the western mind. She has shown us that even in the early centuries the women who were shrouded with the veil were just as willful and intelligent as those of today.

3. Abbas ibn Firnas, Wise man of Al-Andalus.

What if I told you that several attempts at flying were made a thousand years before the Wright brothers, who are credited with the invention of a flying machine? Yes, it was a Muslim poet, astronomer, musician, and engineer named Abbas ibn Firnas who constructed the first flying machine in 852 A.D. Abbas Ibn Firnas was born in Izn-Rand Onda, Al-Andalus, modern day Ronda, Spain. He lived in the Emirate of Cordoba which was one of the major centers of learning in the Muslim world. He was a polymath: an inventor, engineer, aviator, physician, Arabic poet, and Andalusian musician.

Men have dreamed of flying ever since they learned to walk. Ibn Firnas studied birds, falling seeds, leaves, feathers, and bats., He devoted more than 20 years to build what seems to have been the first glider, with wings sewn of silk, wood, and actual feathers. In 852 CE, he jumped from the minaret of the Grand Mosque in Cordoba using a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts. He hoped to glide like a bird but failed. However, the cloak slowed his fall, creating what is thought to be the first parachute, and leaving him with only minor injuries.

The lust of flying was all over him; he didn’t give up. In 875 CE, aged 70, he constructed a pair of wings out of silk and wood and sewed actual feathers together. From the hills of Jabal Al-Arus, he jumped off a cliff. Accounts say that he jumped off the hillside into the wind and remained airborne for 10 minutes, sailing over the fertile irrigated plain outside Cordoba. When he attempted to land, he realized the major flaw with his design. Having spent all his energy on the mechanics of flying, he neglected the principals of landing and thus, unable to control his speed, Ibn Firnas hit the ground hard.

Ibn Firnas survived, and spent the rest of his life reflecting on the incident. Finally, it struck him, a bird uses its tail and wings in unison to slow its speed and stall just above the ground before touching down. Ibn Firnas realized that he forgot to design a tail!

Illustrations of his flying device are not unlike the design for a glider that Leonardo da Vinci drew nearly 700 years later. Ironically, Da Vinci is given credit for being the first modern thinker to seriously address the means of flight. Whether Da Vinci saw the drawings or read about the flight of Abbas ibn Firnas will never be known. “The wise man of Al-Andalus” was honored by naming a crater on the moon after him.

4. Al Khwarizmi, Father of Algebra.

Algebra is frequently referred to as the gatekeeper subject. Although a nightmare for us, the students, algebra is widely utilized by professionals ranging from electricians, architects to computer scientists and engineers. Robert Moses, master builder of the 20th century, claims it to be no less important than civil rights. And guess what? This extremely vital tool was invented by a Muslim mathematician, Al Khwarizmi.

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was born in 780CE to a Persian family in Khwarezm in Greater Khorasan, modern day’s Uzbekistan. He then moved to Baghdad, the center of scientific studies and trade at that time, and worked as a scholar at the House of Wisdom established by Caliph al-Ma’m?n. He studied science and mathematics, which included translations of Greek and Sanskrit scientific manuscripts. He also took interest in astronomy and geography.

The system of numbering in use all around the world is probably Indian in origin but the style of the numerals is Arabian, that first appears in print in the work of the Al Khwarizmi. Algebra was named after al-Khwarizmi’s book, Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah (The Compendious book on Calculation), much of whose contents are still in use. The linear and quadratic equations we solve every other day, none first presented their solutions other than Al Khwarizmi. His work was imported to Europe 300 years later by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci. Furthermore, Al-Khwarizmi developed the concept of algorithm in mathematics.

Today, Al-Khwarizmi’s algebra is regarded as the foundation and cornerstone of science. He is among the few mathematicians whose work is still valid 1200 years later. To al-Khwarizmi we owe the word “algebra,” from the title of his greatest mathematical work, Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah.

5. Ibn Al Haithem, Father of Modern Optics.

The ancient Greeks thought our eyes emitted rays, like a laser, which enabled us to see. The first person to realize that light enters the eye, rather than leaving it, was the 10th-century Muslim mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Ibn al-Haithem. Born in 965 CE, in Basra, (present day Iraq) he was a pioneering scientific thinker who made important contributions to the understanding of vision, optics, and light. Ibn al-Haithem was born during a creative period known as the golden age of Muslim civilization that saw many fascinating advances in science, technology, and medicine. Students had access to highly trained scholars who could teach a variety of subjects, including law, literature, medicine, mathematics, geography, history and art. Debates and discourses were popular and took place in Arabic.

Different views about how the process of vision could be explained had been in circulation for centuries mainly among classical Greek thinkers. Some said rays came out of the eyes, while others thought something entered the eyes to represent an object. But Ibn al-Haithem undertook a systematic critique of these ideas about vision to demonstrate by both reason and experiment that light was a crucial, and independent, part of the visual process. He thus concluded that vision would only take place when a light ray issued from a luminous source or was reflected from such a source before it entered the eye. His brilliant breakthrough, however, came at a time of the darkest episode of his life.

Ibn al-Haithem was invited by the ruler of Egypt to demonstrate his claim that he could regulate the Nile. However, after personally reconnoitering near the southern border of Egypt, Ibn al-Haithem confessed his inability to engineer such a project. Conflicting stories proceed from this point onward; some claim he feigned madness while others say he was imprisoned. But nonetheless, Ibn al-Haithem was confined to his home until the death of the ruler. During his confinement, he invented the first pin-hole camera after noticing the way light came through a hole in the window shutters. The smaller the hole, the better the picture, he worked out, and set up the first Camera Obscura. He is also credited with being the first man to shift physics from a philosophical activity to an experimental one.

He sought experimental proof of his theories and ideas. He is known to have said:

If learning the truth is the scientist’s goal… then he must make himself the enemy of all that he reads.” By this he meant it was essential to conduct experiments to test what is written rather than blindly accepting it as true. Today, this technique in known as the modern scientific method.

Through his Book of Optics and its Latin translation, his ideas influenced European scholars including those of the European Renaissance such as Isaac Newton. Al-Hassan Ibn al-Haithem died in 1040 CE. in Cairo. Today, many consider him a pivotal figure in the history of optics and the “Father of modern Optics”. It is not a stretch to say that without his research, the modern world of science that we know today could not exist.

6. Al Jazari, The Mechanical Genius

If you are interested in automobiles, you must be aware of the word “crank-shaft”. The crank-shaft is a device which translates rotary into linear motion and is central to much of the machinery in the modern world, with the most popular example being the internal combustion engine found in our modern-day vehicles. This is one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind, and its inventor was none other than the Arab Muslim scholar, Al Jazari.

Badi Az-Zaman Abu Izz Ismail ibn ar-Razaz al-Jazari was a polymath: a scholar, inventor, mechanical engineer, artisan, artist, and mathematician who lived during the Islamic Golden Age. He was born in 1136 CE in the city of Jazirat ibn Umar. We don’t know much about his life, other than the details he provides in his own books. He followed in the footsteps of his father and held the post of chief engineer at the king’s palace.

Al-Jazari was an artisan and was predominantly interested in the functional aspect of things which makes him more of an engineer than an inventor. He was a brilliant mechanical engineer, and built dozens of ingenious contraptions. His contraptions were always elaborate and ornate. He designed more than 50 different types of devices including clocks, fountains, hand washing devices, musical devices, machines for raising water etc. His most famous book, titled “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” was written in 1206 CE. In it, he designed and described over 100 mechanical devices, of which a great many were meant for entertainment value rather than to serve any practical purpose. For instance, he designed trick vessels which appeared to have water in them but when someone tried to drink out of them they were empty.

His books are an invaluable collection of knowledge about early Muslim engineering. They were unique and successful because unlike other authors, he had minutely described each detail of his machines and the instructions were so well organized that many future craftsmen could enjoy the benefits of his skill. One of the most valuable things that he created was a water system for supplying water to various parts of the city. Hydropower operated it, by taking water from the lake and turning a scoop wheel with a system of gears to transport water up the water channel and into mosques and hospitals.

Some of his contraptions seem so modern that it is hard to believe they were built eight centuries ago. One of these was an automated waitress that served drinks. The drink was stored in a reservoir tank, from where it poured into a bucket, then into a cup, after which an automatic door would open and an automaton waitress would appear holding the drink. Similarly, he built a hand washing device to perform ablution that utilized a modern flushing mechanism with a lever which would flush the water down when it was pulled. Other devices include a musical robot band that would float on water and play instruments to amuse guests, and several different types of clocks.

Al-Jazari’s greatest treatise has always aroused great interest from historians of technology and historians of art. Indeed, alongside his accomplishments as an inventor and engineer, al-Jazari was also an accomplished artist. The surviving manuscripts of his book provide detailed instructions for all his inventions and illustrate them using miniature paintings, a medieval style of Islamic art, to make it possible for a reader to reconstruct his inventions.

Al-Jazari did not only assimilate the techniques of his non-Arab and Arab predecessors, he was also creative. He added several mechanical and hydraulic devices. The impact of these inventions can be seen in the later designing of steam engines and internal combustion engines, paving the way for automatic control and other modern machinery. Due to his fundamental mechanical inventions, al-Jazari has been described as the “father of modern day engineering”, and due to his invention of an early programmable humanoid robot, he has been hailed as the “father of robotics”.

These were just a few of the numerous geniuses of the Islamic world. Unfortunately, many of their contributions have been overlooked since their death. Although they never cared about fame or wealth, the unawareness of today’s world is unsettling. Many of the books that were translated by Europeans changed the names of these scientists to more European sounding ones, especially during the European Renaissance. To make our lives more comfortable, the legendary Muslim scientists played the utmost role, thus it is our responsibility to increase awareness regarding our golden heritage.

By Saad Ahmad Khan

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