Five Muslim inventions that shaped our world

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Mirza Usama Bashir Ahmad, Student, Jamia Ahmadiyya UK

From carpets, optics and coffee to degree-awarding universities and hospitals, Islamic inventors have changed and molded the modern-day world as we know it. Talented and hardworking Muslim scholars, who were also students of the sciences, the likes of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Al-Jazari, Al-Zahrawi and Abbas ibn Firnas, discovered things that we still hold onto now.

With the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, such major advances in science and technology took place, the likes of which had not been seen since the times of the ancient Greeks. With the vast Islamic Empire covering an area larger in expanse than that of the Roman Empire at its peak, the young prince Al-Mamun pushed an immense amount of focus and resources toward scientific and technological advances. The effects of this would not only be seen in the world of science, but also would have a direct impact on all sectors of life.

It is important to note that Muslim scientists, researchers and inventors of the Islamic Golden Age were inspired and motivated by their religion, Islam.

Allah, in the Holy Quran instructs Muslims to “think” and “ponder” over the “creation of the heavens and earth”. Allah talks about the “alternation of the night and day” and how He causes plants to grow and flourish. The Quran covers topics across biology, geology, embryology, astronomy and many more sciences. At the same time, it communicates to its readers to ponder and reflect. Couple these Quranic teachings with the instructions of the Prophet of Islam, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, of pursuing knowledge and education, and you have the great age of discovery and science that the Muslims created between 786 and 1258.

The contribution of Muslims is vast, therefore I will only highlight five Muslim inventions that we still enjoy and use today.

1. Algebra

Algebra, a concept in mathematics that is the main component of any technological or engineering feat, unbeknownst to many, is in fact a contribution of Islam’s Golden Age. This invaluable contribution to the study of mathematics was made by renowned Persian scientist, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi who is regarded as the cornerstone of the sciences.

Al-Khwarizmi set out the basics of algebraic equations in his book Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala, which went on to be translated by a British Arabist into what is known as The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. After his book was translated, he became known as algoritmi, from which the word algorithm also derives.

The purpose of these equations was to make life easier, especially when one had to make calculations decreed by Islam such as the Zakat or inheritance division. The absence of calculators and computers that we have in the 21st Century meant that effective, accurate and swift mathematical equations needed to be developed to assist in complex or lengthy calculations. By introducing this concept into the world, he allowed mathematics to become broader in scope. Algebra has aided in building almost everything in the 21st Century, from towering skyscrapers to long bridges. (www.aljazeera.com/programmes/science-in-a-golden-age/2015/10/al-khwarizmi-father-algebra-151019144853758.html)

2. Degree-granting universities

Today, there is an eclectic spectrum of professions prevalent, from archaeologists and researchers to doctors and engineers. A crucial requirement to be certified and able to practice within a respected field is a university degree. What many do not know is that degree-granting universities are a product of Islam’s Golden Age and not only that, but the first university to be formally established was by a Muslim princess by the name of Fatima Al-Fihri.

Even before this institution was established, mosques doubled up as learning centres where the Quran, fiqh (jurisprudence) and ahadith were being taught. Whilst institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge are known as being extremely old, dating back to the 13th Century, there are yet older institutions from the early Islamic era which have survived the test of time such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo and also the very institution which was founded by Fatima Al-Fihri and is famously known as Al-Qarawiyin.

This institution came into existence when Fatima Al-Fihri and her sister, Mariam, received a vast inheritance upon the deaths of their father and brother. Both decided to start projects which would benefit the people of Fez, Morocco, due to their rising concern for the community. They felt obliged to ensure others could also attain the same high level of education they had been blessed with. First, Mariam built the monumental Al-Andalus Mosque in 859 AD, which was quickly followed by Fatima founding the Al-Qawariyin Mosque, boasting such a large complex that it was able to host a university within its walls.

Students were able to reside on at campus and had to pay no “tuition” fees; instead, they received free food and accommodation allowances. As the demand for places in the university grew, a selection process was established which tested candidates on their knowledge of Arabic, the Quran and general sciences. The studies themselves were not limited to religion but expanded over the years to fields such as medicine and astronomy, with a keen focus on the natural sciences. Fatima Al-Fihri passed away in 880 AD, but her institution has continued to operate and her contribution to this world paved the way in later years for further institutions to open across the globe. (https://aboutislam.net/family-life/culture/worlds-first-university-founded-muslim-woman/)

3. Hospitals

The earliest hospital, as we view them, was built in 805 in Baghdad by Harun Al-Rashid. These hospitals evolved in their scope and nature. The establishment of the Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital in Egypt was special as well, as it was one of the first fully functional hospitals and one which became a template for the hospitals we see nowadays. A key concept which came about with the establishment of the Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital was free healthcare – a concept which was and is prevalent in Islamic tradition institutionalised with the advent of this hospital.

Such hospitals served a magnitude of purposes, namely, treatment centres, recovery wards and even retirement homes. Many more similar medical centres opened across the vast Islamic Empire and became known as “Bimaristan” or “Maristan”, deriving from the Persian word for “ill” and “place”.

The question which many people think of is where the idea of a hospital actually come from. Well, it is said that it was the result of physicians at the time wanting to advance in medical knowledge and having the ability to apply it in a more practical manner. Such a place would treat those suffering with various ailments but also give them more insight into a field that was greatly limited at the time.

These institutions boasted grand lecture halls where medical students were able to learn from the experienced doctors of the time. They may not have been to the standard you see nowadays, but these were the very places that became the inspiration for the medical centres you see dotted across the globe. (How Early Islamic Science Advanced Medicine, National Geographic History, November/December 2016,The Islamic Roots of the Modern Hospital, AramcoWorld, March/April 2017)

4. Coffee

1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily. It is now a staple and key part of the daily routine for many. The coffee industry is worth some $100 billion, yet the origins of this staple drink are not known to many. The origins of this drink in fact trace back to the early years of the Islamic Era. (www.businessinsider.com/facts-about-the-coffee-industry-2011-11?r=US&IR=T)

The story is that a Muslim Ethiopian by the name of Khalid (also referred as Kaldi) noticed one day, whilst tending to his goats, that they became livelier after eating a certain berry. He boiled the berries and this produced the first coffee. From the highlands of Ethiopia and Yemen, this berry produced a drink which first began to be used by Sufis who would use it to stay awake all night in order to pray. In fact, coffee is referred to as “the nectar of Sufism”. Sufis used it for years to come and this spread to the wider Muslim society. As time went on, the tradition of roasting beans and putting them in hot water to produce a bitter drink, which could double as an energy boost, developed and became known as coffee.

The Arabic qahwa became the Turkish kahve and then the Italian caffe and then the English coffee. After the drink began to be consumed popularly, specialised coffeehouses began to open around the cities of the Muslim Empire, such as in Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad. The drink only came to be known in the Western world after an Ottoman merchant brought the drink to London in the 17th Century. From there, coffee spread to Venice, Italy in 1645 and Germany in 1683 after the retreat of the Turks from Austria. In fact, coffee became so influential that it became a big cause of concern, such that attempts to ban coffee were made with threats of the death penalty under the reign of Murad IV (1623-40).

When the drink first made its way to Europe, it was met with suspicion as it was a “Muslim” drink. Reportedly in 1600, Pope Clement VIII enjoyed a cup of coffee so much that he decreed it wrong to permit Muslims to monopolise it and subsequently declared that it should therefore be baptised. (www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22190802)

5. The Camera

While the camera was not directly an invention of the Muslim Golden Age, the optics and function behind the camera were developed by a Muslim scientist who went by the name of Ibn al-Haytham. Without his research in the field of optics, the modern-day camera would have been impossible to develop.

Ibn al-Haytham is seen as one of the greatest scientists of all time, spending most of his working life in the imperial city of Cairo. His research in optics only came about after he was put under house arrest by the Fatimid ruler, Al-Hakim. Taking advantage of this unjust decision he put his research to work and sought to see how light works. The core emphasis of his research was to see how the pinhole camera worked.

He is seen as the first scientist to discover that when a small hole is made into the side of a lightproof box, rays of light from the outside are projected through that pinhole into the box and onto the back wall of it. He discovered that the smaller the pinhole (aperture) was, the sharper the quality of the image, which ultimately gave the ability to produce very clear images. His research was compiled in the well-known book Kitab Al-Manazir, known as The Book of Optics in English.

This discovery of al-Haytham led to the invention of the modern-day camera and without his research into how light works, the mechanisms behind a camera would not exist. So, the next time you take a picture to upload onto social platforms like Twitter or Instagram, just remember that a Muslim scientist from more than 1,000 years ago is in part to thank for those likes you’re soon going to be piling up. (www.elsevier.com/connect/how-an-ancient-muslim-scientist-cast-his-light-into-the-21st-century, Encyclopaedia Britannica)

These inventions are but a handful of hundreds if not thousands that Muslim inventors and scholars contributed towards. A great number of the everyday items we use are products of such inventors and scholars, and whilst the days of the cities of the vast Islamic Empire being the learning centres of the world may be long gone, their legacy still lives on and, God-willing, will see a new dawn.

1 COMMENT

  1. Jazakallaho ahsanal jaza for this article. It feels great to read something which is not covid-19 related! What I enjoyed about this article is that you have shed light on the origins of many things that we use in our daily life such as coffee or camera and what is very important to highlight is the fact that the first university was opened by a Muslim lady which reinforces the jmportance that Islam gives to education for both men and women.

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