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Inventions II


1.             Windmills were first described by Persian geographer Estakhri in the ninth century. They were used to grind corn and draw up water and looked different from European ones. The technology is thought to have arrived in Europe through Islamic Spain.

2.             The first hydro-powered water supply system was developed by al-Jaziri in Damascus – driven by gears and hydro-power – to supply water to the city’s mosques and hospitals. Fès had a similar system which worked until relatively recently. Hydro-power was used to power paper mills and all sorts of other devices.

3.             Water wheels called Norias were developed for feeding water into aqueducts. The newly-invented crankshaft was added, and the technology was constantly refined.

4.             As well as crankshafts, Arab engineers devised flywheels, chain pumps, gearing systems, suction pumps, and automata.

5.             The greatest engineer of the era was without doubt al-Jazari, whose breakthroughs in the twelfth century can still be found around us today. His masterwork was the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. He developed the first automatic gates, run on hydro-power, water clocks, and machines which looked like people and would serve cold drinks. He invented the flush mechanism found in most of our toilets, and even a musical robot band.



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.





Theories of evolution were widespread across the Islamic world by the 12th century. One of the pioneers of this thinking was Al-Jahiz, who was working in ninth century Baghdad. He wrote about the idea of the environment on an animal, and the animal’s chances of survival based on the environment; as well as writing on what he called ‘the struggle for existence’, a forerunner of Darwin’s ‘natural selection’.

Al-Jahiz also described the idea of food chains were first described, and the concept of nature versus nurture.




Western society tends to believe that the scientific and cultural bedrock upon which it sits was a product of the Classical world, most notably of the Romans and the Greeks. At our schools, teachers rant on about Latin etymology, and about Euclid, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle. But in our obsession for those empires, we blinker ourselves to the full picture, of how the two Classical civilizations arrived at our doors. The knowledge of the Romans and the Greeks passed through a matrix, a system that honed them and gave them shape, like a swordsmith giving edge to a blade.

The general idea that’s been commonly believed is that the fall of the Roman Empire (in 476 AD), was followed by centuries of darkness, until the blinding light of the European Renaissance. And during that era of darkness, there was no important scholarship, no learning, no breakthroughs in their desert of darkness.

It was almost a thousand years when nothing really happened at all.

But then the Renaissance, the rebirth of learning, was constructed solely on the classical cultures.

Nothing could be farther from the truth…


March 11, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Arab and Islamic Titles

The Arab and Islamic worlds hold titles very dear, and it’s a subject that’s almost always misunderstood in the West. The first thing to know is that in Islam all men are equal. There are, therefore, technically no provisions for absolute rulers, such as kings, although a number of Arab countries now have monarchs on along Occidental lines (such as Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain). The highest title has traditionally been ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’, the Commander of the Faithful, that is the one selected for leading the prayer and acting as spiritual figurehead. This is sometimes truncated to Amir, or Emir. Other honorific titles indicate that a person is of the Prophet’s family, a lineage that is held in extremely high regard within the Islamic world. Depending on the country, the title given to the Prophet’s descendants alters. In Afghanistan for example where our family is from, descendants are known as Sayed (also spelt Sayyid). Note that ‘Sayed’ and Seyeda’ are used by people whose ancestry is passed on through the paternal line. Where it is through the mother, the title ‘Mirza’ is used. Elsewhere Sayeds are permitted to use other titles such as Sharif (noble) . There are yet more titles local to a particular region, such as ‘Nawab’ (‘deputy’), a form of Muslim Maharajah, found in south Asia, and Nizam (‘administrator of the realm’). The last name ‘Shah’ as used by Muslims in Central Asia denotes a direct lineage to the prophet, and is used in place of a family name which, in our family’s case is ‘al-Hashemi’.

March 10, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Arab and Islamic Names

This is a subject which catches people out in the West, and one that just about everyone with an interest in the East would do well to spend a moment thinking about. The first thing to remember is that Arab society has traditionally been tribal. You come from a clan and a tribe and a community, before you do a country. Rather like names of old told you a lot in the West, they continue to do so in the East. From a name you can often tell a great deal about the person’s background, his family, tribe and so forth. The first thing to look at is the first name. These names are so important in the Arab world, rather as they used to be in the West. My name, Tahir, is more than a name — it’s part of my identity. It was actually chosen for me at birth through the Abjad alphanumerical system, so that it protects me, the user, through my life. In the same way, names are given not because they sound nice, but because they are linked to values and ideals. For instance, ‘Tahir’, means ‘pure’, a value especially important to my parents, who hoped I’d be pure. Many Arab names are more complex. There are a great number for instance formed with ‘Abdul’, such as Abdul Latif, Abdul Malik, Abdul Razak, and so on. These names are linked to the names of God, and are formed from ‘Abdul’ which means ‘servant’, or ‘slave’, and the quality itself. So Abdul Aziz, is the ‘Servant of the Almighty’. So it is actually incorrect to call person simply ‘Abdul’, as you are calling him ‘Servant’. Then you come to the second part of a name. There may be the word ‘Ibn’, shortened in some countries to ‘Bin’. This is simply a link which means, ‘the son of.’ It’s followed by the father’s name, and sometimes by Ibn again and then the grandfather’s name. In the same way, you can have ‘Abu’, which means ‘the father of,’ which is followed by the name of the person’s son. There may also be the name of the family, such as Qureshi, which is actually the name of the clan or tribe, as family names are not used in the East as they are in the West. Remember that the whole business of family names has altered greatly in the West, and were never so concrete or meaningless as they are now.

March 9, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Favour Network

Living in the Arab world, or blustering through, you find yourself faced with a system that can be disconcerting or even bewildering: the business of favours. It’s a subject that is sometimes hard for Western society to grasp, because it’s a system that’s perfectly balanced, with pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting. I can’t tell you how often we receive unsolicited gifts. Someone will send a platter of pastries or candy for the kids… and we’ll be very pleased, naturally, and thankful. But then, often, you get a request a few days later. That same person asks if they could make use of a contact of yours, or borrow something. I’m not trying to make this system sound dodgy or bad in any way. Because it isn’t, really. But you have to watch out. For example, if someone sends over a huge bouquet of flowers for no reason at all, send a platter of pastries over to them, of about the same monetary cost. This instantly negates their action and prevents them from asking the favour, and chances are they won’t try it again. It’s far, far better to be owed a favour. So, it does make sense to do a favour, and never ask if back. I promise you that it’s chalked up somewhere, in your friendship with that person, and he won’t forget. I promise you, too, that he’s desperate for you ask it, so he can clear the debt and move on.

March 5, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Five Facts of England

The British Royal Family is of Arabian extraction, through the line of the 14th century Castilian king, Pedro the Cruel.
King John of England supposedly offered to convert to Islam, and hand his fealty over to the Moors, if they would help him. The Moorish king refused.
Morris dancing is derived from the term ‘Moorish dancing’, and came to Europe and hence to England, from North Africa during the centuries of Andalucian Spain.
Shakespeare used stories found in Arabic, which were very current in his time. And Chaucer’s ‘Pear Tree Tale’ is found in the Persian of the Sufi mystic Jalaludin Rumi.
The earliest version of the classic English folktale, Dick Whittington and his Cat, is attributed to Persia.