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Tag: Islamic science



Modern chemistry may owe more to Islamic science than just about any other area. Its very name of course is derived from al-kemia, the word for alchemy.

Although alchemy was very important, and had come to the Arabs from both India and the Roman Empire, we now understand increasingly how many Arab scientists refuted the belief in transmuting base metals into gold.

Arab breakthroughs in chemistry are plentiful, and were aided by new scientific practice, as we have seen. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the various that were championed under the Abbasids.



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.




During the Abbasids’ Golden Age, the first true hospitals were created, including free public ones in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region. The main difference from the ‘sleep temples’ and asylums of the Classical era was that these hospitals were designed to treat and heal, rather than merely to isolate the infected and the sick. The idea was something of a revolution within itself, and later spread to Europe, along with pharmacology, taken back West by the Crusaders.

         These hospitals featured competency tests for doctors and surgeons, grading for purity and strength of pharmaceuticals, and separate wards for people with similar contagious diseases, as well as the first real autopsies. Patients from different religions were treated, and the surgical staff were Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. There were female doctors and nurses for the first time as well.

         The rise in cheap paper and literacy meant that everything could be written down and passed to other cities along the pilgrimage routes, for others to master. Great books were amassed from all the new knowledge. These eventually found their way into Europe and were translated into Latin… although only the Latin-speaking elite could understand them. They included pioneering works like the 30-volume medical encyclopaedia, the ‘Kitab al-Tasrif’, (The Book of Concessions), written by al-Zahrawi, and published in the year 1000 AD. It was used for centuries in both East and West.

And Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (c. 1020 AD), is still regarded as one of the most important medical textbooks of all time. It was used at the University of Montpellier’s medical department as late as 1650 AD, and was even used across until even later China.

         Dozens of Renaissance and later medical breakthroughs had already been accurately described by the Arab polymaths. Blood circulation, for instance, usually credited to the 17th century English physician, had been published by Ibn al-Nafis  in the 13th century.



Scientific Method

Scientific Method includes the use of controlled experimentation, and the idea of quantifying results, to distinguish between competing scientific theories. What’s interesting is that this scientific method took off in a big way and was used across the board, and is still used by all scientists today.

         The first ‘modern’ medical experiment is known to have been carried out by al-Razi in the tenth century, when he was working out where to build his hospital in Baghdad. He hung pieces of meat all over the city and observed where the meat decomposed least quickly. It was there that he built the hospital.




Just like the Classical world before and the so called Renaissance Men after, the golden age of Islam was championed by polymaths, whose works rival those of Aristotle, Da Vinci or Newton.

The Arab polymaths arrived in the Renaissance under their Latinised names. For example,

1.    Ibn Sina was Avicenna

2.    Ibn Bajjah was Avempace

3.    Ibn Hayyan was Geber

4.    Ibn Rushd was Averroes

5.    Al-Kindi was Alkindus

6.    Ibn al-Haytham was Alhazen

They were so important because they used breakthroughs in one area to push forward knowledge and understanding in another. Indeed, ‘Polymathy’ is a method that has almost been lost in the West, and is only now being rediscovered – so called ‘interdisciplinary’ study. (e.g. Stanford University’s new Bio-X Program, which brings together biologists, computer scientists, medical scientists and engineers, who learn from each other’s fields). The scientists and Polymaths from the golden age worked on areas of science which are familiar to us all, and are still being studied in schools and universities today, with the same scientific method.



Correcting Misconceptions

The Arab polymaths corrected a great deal of Classcial misconceptions, e.g. the Greek idea that light is emitted from the eye. The 10th century physicist al-Haytham (Latinised to Alhazen) correctly stated that light bounces off an object in straight lines before striking the eye. He developed for first camera obscura – which centuries later enabled photography. Alhazen first devised the ‘method of proof’ too, stating that theories had to be verified in practice, a key element from modern science practice, which was missing from the classical world. Abbasid scientists also introduced what we would call peer review and academic citations, unknown before their time.




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 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.