Islamic Contributions to Scholarship

School students the world over regularly experience all the pain and pleasures of learning algebra. What few students realise, however, is how much they have to thank medieval Islamic scholars for the development of the ideas they are learning. The word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic al-jabr, which means roughly ‘restoration’ or ‘rejoining’. It was developed by ninth century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in his most impressively entitled The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. Al-Khwārizmī also gave his name to the world ‘algorithm’, referring to the method he developed of solving mathematical problems by systematic application of particular abstract rules – the very rules that students learn to this day in elementary algebra courses.  Students also have medieval Islamic scholars to thank for the numerals they use in calculations (1,2,3, etc), which were originally developed in India and then passed on to the West by Islamic mathematicians. Although modern students might perhaps feel less than grateful for this contribution, anyone who has ever attempted to do arithmetic using Roman numerals (the preferred method in the west before the adoption of Arabic numerals) will understand how much of an advance they represent.

The contributions of Medieval Islamic scholars to human knowledge extend well beyond algebra, encompassing a wide range of fields such as mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. The modern scientific discipline of chemistry evolved from medieval alchemy, and the English word ‘alchemy’ derives from the Arabic al-kīmīā. Such a word borrowing is due in large part to the influence of such scholars as Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (‘the Persian Socrates’) and Jabir ibn Hayyan, both of whom purified a wide range of chemical substances, and whose works describe in detail various chemical apparatuses, some of which are still in use to this day. In the field of astronomy, Syrian astronomer and mathematician Al-Battani calculated the length of the solar year to within an accuracy of two minutes, his work later being influential to Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Copernicus in the development of heliocentrism. The tenth century Basran scientist and philosopher Hasan Ibn al-Haytham was so profoundly influential that he has been called ‘the second Ptolemy’. He wrote numerous influential works on optics, astronomy, and geometry, and was an early proponent of what we would now describe as the ‘scientific method’, including the use of empirical observations and mathematical models to understand natural laws. Ibn Sina, like many contemporary Islamic thinkers, made contributions to many fields, but is perhaps most well known for his monumental medical encyclopaedia The Canon of Medicine, which was used as a medical text throughout the Islamic world and in Europe until as late as the seventeenth century. Islamic scholars also made important advances in the field of geography, such as the notable work of twelfth century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. He produced a fascinating work called ‘the Book of Roger’ (after the Norman patron who commissioned the work), which discussed in detail the physical geography and social and political customs of all lands and peoples of the known word, from Western Europe across to East Asia. Al-Idrisi produced a world map which remained one of the most accurate in existence for centuries, until the voyages of discovery of the fifteenth century.

Most of the developments discussed above, and many others besides, took place during a period often referred to as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, which lasted from roughly the eight through to the thirteenth centuries. Understanding why the Islamic world flourished during this period, and how influential their contributions were to prove to Europe, requires some knowledge of the historical context in which these developments occurred. To appreciate this story, we must journey all the way back to the fifth century AD, in the dying days of the Roman Empire. As the western portion of the empire progressively decayed and collapsed under the combined assault of barbarian attacks and internal unrest, economic and cultural life became increasingly disrupted. The gradual collapse of central administration meant that the famed Roman roads, so vital for connecting together disparate regions of the Empire, fell into disrepair. Local townships and petty lords took over the provision of security at a local level, hampering commerce and cultural exchange between regions. With the economic and political decline came a reduction in the degree of urbanisation, falling literacy levels, sharply decreased manuscript production, and an overall reduction in the resources available and interest in the pursuit of science of philosophy.Such a comparable decline, however, did not occur in the eastern regions of the Empire, and it was these relatively wealthy regions, still preserving much of the learning of the ancient world, which came under Islamic rule beginning in the seventh century. The period of relative order, prosperity, and unity that the Islamic world from Persia to Spain experienced in the following centuries helped to foster the bourgeoning of Islamic science, philosophy, and culture. Islamic achievements of this period therefore far outstripped anything taking place in contemporary Europe, which by comparison was economically backward and hopelessly fragmented into numerous feudal principalities.

Beginning around the eleventh century, increased economic and cultural exchanges between Western Europe and the Islamic world (largely taking place through Spain and Sicily), led to a transferal of many texts, ideas, and technologies to the West. Of particular interest to Europeans were the Arabic translations of many classical Greek writers, relatively few of which had been preserved when knowledge of Greek had been lost in the west in the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. As more of these texts were translated into Latin (the universal language of scholarship in the west), many of these texts became available to European scholars for the first time in centuries. Particularly important as the so-called ‘rediscovery’ of the works of Aristotle, which although preserved in the East had largely been lost to the West, and the translation of which into Latin resulted in a wide range of philosophical and theological upheavals, notably influencing the work of leading medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

Today, many scholars believe that the contributions of medieval Islamic science, philosophy, and mathematics to Western Europe, as well as its important role in preserving ancient Greek texts, helped to foster first the Renaissance and later the rise of modern scientific thinking in early modern Europe. In particular, the rediscovery and reimagining of many works of literature and philosophy of classical Greece and Rome that characterised the period would likely have not been possible had these works not been preserved in the Islamic world. It is unfortunate that today, with the central nexus of scientific and philosophical work now having shifted elsewhere, so few remember the vital contributions of the Islamic world at a time when Western Europe, by comparison, produced very little of scientific or philosophical value.