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Tag: Abbasids


Chemistry II

 Some of the breakthroughs in chemistry under the Abbasids:

1.                   Distillation equipment (such as alembic apparatus, stills and retorts) allowed for alcohol (ethanol) to be distilled for the first time (which was used for perfume and sterilization, rather than drinking). Rosewater was also made through distillation.

2.                   Kerosene was was distilled from petroleum by al-Razi in ninth century Baghdad. He described the process in Kitab al-Asrar, The Book of Secrets. Kerosene was used in lamps. Other petrol products were known and used. The streets of Baghdad were paved with tar in the eighth century. And Arab scientists first distilled crude oil to create what we know as petrol.

3.                   Other processes developed and refined, included crystallization, filtration, and steam distillation.

4.                   Strong acids were created for the first time, including nitric, hydrochloric, and sulphuric acid (the ancients had only had vinegar).

5.                   Other elements were discovered, such as arsenic and antimony, and chemical elements were clearly divided into categories and studied.

6.                   Soap was manufactured for the first time; and even glue was made from cheese… a secret recipe described in ibn Hayyan’s (Gerber) The Book of the Hidden Pearl.

7.                   Cosmetics were also developed, including those by the fabulous-sounding ‘Ziryab’ ‘The Blackbird’, a former Persian slave, who is credited with inventing toothpaste. The idea caught on like wildfire. He went on to open a beauty parlour in Andaucian Spain and supposedly pioneered underarm deodorants and the chemical removal of unwanted body hair for women.

8.                   Other inventions were far less whimsical and were snapped up by the military… including potassium nitrate (saltpetre) which enabled a complete recipe for gunpowder (tenth century). Gunpowder had been made and discussed for a long time, but the first book dedicated to it was written in the thirteenth century by Hasan al-Rammah, entitled The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices.





A huge number of Classical texts no longer exist in their original Greek or Latin, and were brought to the Renaissance through the Arabic. The Abbasids drew from Greek and Roman classics, as well as the classical Persian, Turkic and Indian sources. In this way, information on subjects such as Zero, came to the Arabs (from the Indian subcontinent). Such breakthroughs led to a snowballing effect, with problems of mathematics, physics and so on that were uncrackable before, being solved for the first time.

The House of Wisdom was at first essentially a translation house and giant library. Then gradually it turned into a think-tank, which built on the foundations of earlier cultures, and welcomed Christians and Jews as well as Muslims to study.



The Starting Point

The point where I want to begin the story is the moment at which paper — that most magical aids to the spread of learning — was acquired by the Arabs. The second of the two great Islamic Caliphates, the Abbasids, ruled from 750 AD (after overthrowing the Umayyads), with their capital at Baghdad — having moved from the Umayyad capital of Damascus. Baghdad in the ninth century, a city of 800,000 souls, second city in the world to only Constantinople. It was ruled by the Abbasid Caliph Harun ar-Rachid.

The mixture of people in the city, from so many cultures – Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and Central Asia – created a blend of cultures as it had never really been known before. And they could all communicate through Arabic, the lingua franca of Islam, all equal under this new faith.

Harun, who’s known more for his Alf Layla wa Layla, ‘1001 Nights’, set about accumulating books in huge a private library. He loved poetry, music, learning. Whenever he heard of learned people, he invited them to his court. The idea of wisdom being rewarded spread, and scholars made their way from the corners of the growing Islamic world to Baghdad.

In March 809 Harun ar-Rachid was succeeded by his son Al-Amin, (but he was killed four years later, in 813, after going against the order of succession left by his father). His half-brother, al-Ma’mun, became Caliph, and it’s with him that our story really begins…

Like his father, Ma’mun was fascinated by learning, and was eager to know how the world and the universe worked. He built up the library founded by his father, and brought together scholars from every corner of the world, from known every religion, speaking every language. He dispatched messengers to bring to Baghdad every book, document, and sensible man in existence… and bring it back to his centre of learning, which became known as Bayt al Hikma… The House of Wisdom.



The Arab Contribution

In the sciences, the Arabs took Classical work and breakthroughs and refined them, as well as developing their own fields of study from scratch. Their contribution was profound, and is often sidelined or completely forgotten in the Occident. And very often it was centuries ahead of its time. For example: The Arabs under the Abbasids and others constructed the first hospitals and lending libraries, gave the first academic degrees, and treated mental patients with music (more than a millennia before our idea of music therapy); they invented the fountain pen (because a tenth century Sultan wanted a pen that would write when he was ready), the camera obscura, water clocks, hydraulics, decryption of codes, and soap. 

They wrote about the concept of evolution, environmentalism, classification (mineral, animal, vegetable), scientific method and peer review… and refined all sorts of other things that are so key to our world, like paper as we have seen, the ‘Indian numbers’, and the massive mathematical breakthrough of ZERO.

They made contributions in almost all the sciences: mathematics, botany, chemistry, psychology, philosophy, engineering, physics, agriculture, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine and zoology.