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Tag: Arab history

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Astronomy

Unlike Chemistry and the life sciences, the Arab quest for the physical sciences came about partly through a need for accurate information… information that related to the Islamic faith. It was necessary to know when to begin and end Ramadan, and when to pray, and in which direction (to Mecca).

Mosques often had their own astronomer, a muqqawit, to determine the time for prayer. They had their own observatories as well. Calendars of prayer times and Ramadan dates, Eid etc were vital, and were created through a knowledge of astronomy. They also had elaborate astronomical charts and instruments for determining the most fortuitous moment to begin a battle or to set out on a journey. All this knowledge in turn fuelled breakthroughs in mathematics, geometry, and geography.

The Abbasids based their research principally on the works of Ptolemy and the work of the seventh century Indian mathematician-astronomer Brahmagupta. The key breakthrough of the Arabs in astronomy was in correcting longstanding errors in the Ptolemaic system. A number of the great Arab polymaths turned their hands to the field, seemingly effortlessly. 


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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.



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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.



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April 24, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

All Change

The kind of miracles often performed by Indian Godmen rely on a knowledge of chemicals, physics, and the environment, a kind of layer of information which many of us take for granted. Just as I am fascinated by the illusions conjured by these Godmen, I am also deeply interested in the science that makes them possible. Or, rather, I’m preoccupied by the history of that science, and how it came about.

Over the next few days, I’m going to write some notes — nothing too heavy — on how the science we all rely on every day (the very same that the Godmen rely on too) came to us all through Arab society, predominantly from the Abbasid era. I have touched on this before in my blog, by have long wanted to devote a little more time to it, so excuse me while I indulge myself…



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March 4, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

In the Detail

As far as I am concerned, the joy of studying history is not in the great, broad strokes that shape the grand things in life… the kind of history that teachers rant on about at school. Rather, it’s about the little things, the details, that go on to gather weight and speed, like the proverbial snowball running down a mountainside. Our world has been fashioned by detail, and by consequences of one detail effecting another. Let me give you an example, one which I think of every day. In the years after the Prophet’s death, the fledgling faith of Islam spread East and West like a wild-fire. By the middle of the eighth century, the Arabs had reached the gates of China, ruled by the mighty T’ang Dynasty. In 751 AD, the battle lines were drawn, and the Chinese and Arabs warred, for the right to control Central Asia. The Chinese force was by far the superior but, on the day, the Arabs won. The success seems to have surprised the victor as much as it did the vanquished. The outcome was that the Arabs took prisoners and gained technology and knowledge from the conquered side. Among the prisoners taken, were some artisans who were skilled in the secret knowledge of making paper. The know-how was one of the greatest technological mysteries at the time. The Arab conquerers ordered the Chinese prisoners to construct them a paper-mill first at Samarkand and, later, one at Baghdad. They kept the knowledge of this almost magical technology a secret from Europe, for centuries longer. The result was that not only the holy Qur’an could be copied easily and passed on along the pilgrimage routes, but so could scientific and other knowledge, developed in the House of Wisdom at Baghdad, and other learning centres throughout the Islamic world. The knowledge of paper-making was, of course, coupled with the rise in literacy, fuelled by a need to read and copy the Qur’an. And it was all made possible by a secret knowledge won at a battle in Central Asia 1250 years ago.



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