By Fatima S. Nanavati
Today, in the 21st century, society progresses with the use of many historical innovations. These innovations, be it in technology, medicine, mathematics, or theory, are utilized to help society develop and evolve. However, many essential innovations are left with ambiguous origins because of a vast gap in history. This gap does not account for the advancements in the Fatimid and Abbasid dynasties. The Fatimid dynasty was an empire in North Africa and the Middle East from 909 to 1171 CE. The Abbasid dynasty was a dynasty of caliphs, with a capital in Baghdad from 750 to 1258 CE. For this reason, this historical paper will investigate the question:
How are essential 21st century innovations vested in early Muslim hisory and the Abbasid and Fatimid dynasties?
By analyzing historical information, compiled of both primary and secondary sources, these innovations and their innovators will be identified. This paper will classify these findings into three key areas of knowledge: Mathematics, Natural Science, and Human Science. The importance of these innovations will be assessed to prove their criticalness in the 21st century.
These innovations were proven essential because of modern society’s dependence on their foundations and advancements. Without the Fatimid and Abbasid innovators, the 21st century would seize to be a flourishing knowledge society. A great deal of ignorance in society is identified, because of the evident gap in history, which causes the origins of these innovations to be forgotten and their pioneers unrecognized.
Life in the 21st century has in many ways become an indulgence of ignorance. Society evidently thrives and progresses with the use of many inventions, creations, and innovations. However, the existence of ignorance occurs because society is exceedingly oblivious to the magnificent inventors, creators, and innovators who made our present progress possible. It is true that many know who invented the light bulb and discovered gravity, however this scope of knowledge is limited and does not go beyond a mere surface analysis. Without this in-depth analysis, society is left to walk on this path of ignorance, straying towards a world full of misconceptions and false judgments. Today in the 21st century, to know the true origins of everyday innovations is more than a mere gain of dormant information; it is an investment towards expanding horizons, bridging the information divide of societies, cultures, traditions and most of all ignorance.
Exceptional development in mathematics, arts, political science, science and creation took ground in the Abbasid and Fatimid dynasties. These innovations systematically encouraged global intelligentsia and revolutionized society during their period. It was then succored and evolved over time to have a lasting effect in the 21st century. After investigating heroes and their dynasties from this gap in history, the essentiality of their innovations to modern society is evident.
The mathematical area of knowledge is at times thought to be an ultimate pillar of stability because it provides “definite answers” to “concrete questions”. These answers and questions are found in every aspect of 21st century life. Whether it is the number of letters in a word, the amount of sugar in a cup of tea, the speed of a jet ski, or the size of the earth, math is an evident element in society. However, much mathematical progress and development would not exist without the innovations from the Abbasid Dynasty. Unfortunately, acknowledgement of mathematicians from this particular era is not currently included in every educational system around the world. By analyzing the contributions of Khwarizmi and Kindi to the mathematical spectrum of knowledge, the importance of their work in the 21st century will be exposed.
Mohammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was born in 780 CE and travelled to Baghdad at a very early age with his parents (Hitti, 2002). At this time, Baghdad was being ruled by caliph Al-Ma’mun of the Abbasid Dynasty. In this era, people were encouraged to pursue education at all costs. Khwarizmi was a mathematician, astronomer and geographer, who was respected by the royal family and given a high status in society. Hitti, a historian and archaeologist, said “Khwarizmi was perhaps one of the greatest mathematicians, for his founding of several branches and concepts of mathematics. His influence upon mathematical thought was superior to any other medieval thinker and writer”. Khwarizmi developed analytical solutions for linear and quadratic equations; he is the man who established Algebra. The word Algebra comes from Khwarizmi’s famous book Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah (Hitti, 2002). One of the core elements of elementary, secondary, and post secondary mathematics is algebra. Students know that Pythagoras was responsible for the Pythagorean theorem, but few are aware that Khwarizmi, a Muslim, was the founder of Algebra. Credit is often given to other mathematicians, such as Diophantus, but Khwarizmi is yet to be openly recognized. This misinformation is only one of the side effects that the global ignorance of unknown origins brings.
Khwarizmi explained the use of zero, which was a numeral developed by India’s Arya-Bhatta in 501 CE (Encl. Britannica, 317171). Khwarizmi developed the decimal system using that zero and a new set of numerals to make it more functional and useful in mathematical operations. Khwarizmi then developed various arithmetic procedures, which included operations of fractions, real numbers and imaginary numbers. These were later translated into Latin and other European languages, which are widely used by modern scientists and mathematicians (Hitti, 2002). The Latin translation of this treatise was known as Algoritmi de Numero Indorum which meant “Al- Khwarizmi: Concerning the Indian Art of Reckoning” (Encl. Britannica, 317171). The word algorithm is derived in Latin from the name Khwarizmi and is even today taught in schools worldwide. Further, Khwarizmi systematically developed trigonometric tables containing sine functions, later evolving to tangent functions advanced by the Abbasid mathematician Maslama (Brezina, 2006). Grandz, a philosopher and historian said, “Khwarizmi perfected the geometric representation of conic sections and developed the calculus of two errors, which led him to the concept of differentiation”. Khwarizmi measured the volume and circumference of the earth, making a significant contribution to science. He later wrote a book for future learning and development of this science (Brezina, 2006).
The 21st century knowledge-society operates on the fundamentals of science and mathematics. From elementary students to academic elites, the use of functions, and algebra are essential elements of evolution. Technology has grown on the foundation of algebra. Computers are hardwired to use logarithms and functions for their most complex programs and systems. Khwarizmi was justifiably known as the Father of Algebra and it would be amusing to imagine mathematics without the existence of algebra.
Another mathematical pioneer was Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, who was born in Kufa, Bhagdad in 800 CE during the Abbasid period of Haron Al-Rashid (Adamson, 2007). Al-Kindi was known in the Western world as Alkindus. He was a master in alchemy, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, geography, music and pharmacology. His ideas were revered in Europe due to the Gerard of Cremona, who translated his works into Latin. In a position of honour, Al-Kindi was inducted into the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hilkmah) at a very young age (Adamson, 2007).
Much of Kindi’s works were based on logical concepts, but he often used mathematics to prove his beliefs. His most astonishing use of mathematics was to compose music (Travaglia, 1999, Adamson, 2007, Lindberg, 1971). There was little known about the mathematical aspects of music during the Abbasid dynasty, so Kindi became the pioneer of musical concepts such as harmony and pitch (Lindberg, 1971). He explained how when a sound is produced, it generates waves of vibrations in the air that strike the eardrum and how a degree of harmony depended upon the frequency of its notes (Lindberg, 1971). The 21st century boasts one of the largest music industries and records would not sell without adequate soundtracks. A song is made appealing because of its pitch, harmonies, and tone quality. The compositions of Beethoven, Michael Jackson, and even Michael Bublé, would not be possible without the mathematical concepts of music that Kindi unveiled.
Although Kindi is practically unknown in the Western world, he has a respectable place in the Islamic world. Kindi was a bridge between Greek and Islamic philosophers. Although books on logic have been written and taught in the west, none of those books have mentioned that Kindi initiated “Inductive Reasoning” in logic. Medical journals have yet to acknowledged that Kindi began the system of dispensing medicines in accurate and universally acceptable dosage units like milligrams. Kindi’s name is not mentioned in modern society and his innovations are given false origins or none at all.
The natural sciences have constantly been under investigation as humans attempt to find the truth behind the natural universe and the laws of natural origin. Astronomy, chemistry, biology, and earth sciences have been evolving as new discoveries are made. With these discoveries, technological and social advancements are made for the progression of society. Many of these discoveries were made very early in Muslim history and later during the reign of the Fatimid and Abbasid dynasties, but are given only a sliver of recognition. Without the discoveries of Haiyan, Battani, and Yunus, the 21st century understanding of the world would not be the same.
Jabir Ibn Haiyan was an alchemist of the middle ages and was later known as the Father of Chemistry. In 770 CE he began studying under the instruction of Jaffar al-Sadiq, whom the Nizari Ismaili Shias regard as the fifth Imam. With much encouragement from Imam Jaffar al-Sadiq, Haiyan perused his interest in chemistry and discovered new minerals and acids, with which he began his own experimental investigations. His experiments led to his own development of steel and the creation of a completely new forging industry. Other chemicals that he developed were used to dye cloths in various colours. This small innovation was greatly appreciated, as vegetable colouring was all that was known to the world. (Encl. Britannica Online, 2010-08-04). Haiyan also created a process for tanning leather, as well as using chemical substances to alter the firmness of it (Holmyard, 1962). The 21st century’s catwalk on the runway would lack much creativity and sophistication that was brought to modern day fashion by Haiyan. Today’s multibillion-dollar leather industry clustered with shoes, furniture, tapestry, clothes, and accessories would be constrained in its versatility.
Although it had existed since 3000 BCE, it was only around 800 CE that glass could be created in a variety of colours. Stained and coloured glass was created by the addition of chemicals discovered by Haiyan (Holmyard, 1962). Other major discoveries made by Haiyan included, the prevention of rust in metals, converting gold to liquid by aqua regia and then using the liquid gold for calligraphy and painting (Encl. Britannica, 9043128). Many architectural masterpieces are noticed and remembered solely because of these intricate and breathtaking elements. St. Peter’s Cathedral would not receive a second glance without its multicoloured murals and vibrant window stains, in the same way the Taj Mahal would cease to be the seventh wonder of the world without its liquid-gold calligraphy.
Haiyan had over 100 treatises of which 22 chronicles were focussed specifically on chemistry and alchemy. Two of these chronicles were his Kitab-al-Kimya and Kitab al-Sab’een. These were later translated into Latin and numerous other European languages. They remained as the prime subject books in teaching chemistry to later geniuses like Marie Curie and Enrico Fermi (Britannica, 9043128). Many technical terms, which were formulated by Haiyan, are used as a critical part of today’s scientific knowledge-society. One such term is ‘alkali’ or al-aaly in Arabic, a word that appears and reappears in modern science when analyzing bases, metals, and soluble bases (Holmyard, 1962). In 776 CE, Haiyan crystallized Chemistry as a major branch of science and connected its various aspects together, unlike the vague and ambiguous cluster of information present before. With respect to their properties, Haiyan described and identified three distinctive types of substances. The first was known as spirits, which were substances that vaporised when heated, like camphor, arsenic and ammonium chloride. The second was metals such as gold, silver, lead, copper, and iron. And third was a category of compounds, which could be converted into powders. Haiyan thus laid the foundations for the later classification as metals, non-metals and volatile substances (Haque, 2004). The formation of the Periodic Table’s element classification was due to Haiyan’s relentless pursuit of chemistry. Many people today are unaware of who or how this valuable table was created. The Periodic Table is used as guideline for an umpteen amount of scientific research and yet, its origin is forgotten and ignored.
Continuing the pursuit of natural scientific knowledge was Abu Abdullah Al-Battani, who was born in 868 CE during the Abbasid period in Harran and later moved to Syria where most of his progress occurred. He was a remarkable astronomer and was skilled in making astronomical instruments. He made extraordinarily accurate astronomical observations using his designed tables to calculate the movements of not only the earth, but also 5 planets around the sun (Hartner, 1990). His remarkable calculation of the solar calendar year showed, 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes and 24 seconds, which is very close to the latest estimates which is 365 days, 5 hours 48 minutes 45 seconds using the most complex of mathematical and astronomical instruments (Hartner, 1990). Noel Swerdlow, a professor of history, astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, said, “Battani established that longitude of sun’s apogee had increased by 16°, 47′ since Ptolemy which implied an important finding of the solar apsides and of a slow variation in the equation of time ”.
With remarkable accuracy, Battani found the axial tilt or obliquity of the ecliptic season periods and details of the orbit of the sun. Very often these observations were critical to Ptolemy and showed the difference in the apparent angular diameter of the sun and the specificity of annul eclipse. Al-Battani corrected many Ptolemy observations made about the orbits of planets and moons. He put forth a new theory of his own for the visibility of the new moon. In 1749, an astronomer by the name of Dunthorne, used Al-Battani’s observations of lunar and solar eclipses to determine the secular acceleration of the moon (Encl. of Islam, 56092). Battani’s findings have helped to understand the orbiting motion of planets. He raised the importance of understanding the solar system and the universe beyond the bounds of Earth. Bannati proved that the solar system holds many answers, as to how the world works, and his train of thought is one reason scientists continue to study the solar system today in the 21st century.
Another astronomer who contributed greatly to the study of natural sciences was Ibn Yunus al-Sadafi. He was born in Egypt in 950, a few years before the Fatimid Caliphate was established in Egypt with Cairo as its capital. When the dynasty was established he worked as an astronomer for twenty-six years, first for the Imam al-Aziz and then for Imam al-Hakim. The Fatimids supported his scientific work and supplied him many with tools for his research (King, 1972). He was an astrologer and famous for his astronomical tables. Much importance was given by Islam to Lunar cycles to determine the times of prayer. In the Muslim lunar calendar the new months were determined by real visibility of the lunar crescent and not by the length of the lunar month.
Yunus’s accuracy of the calculation was astounding. In his astronomical handbook Al-Zij Al-Hakimi Al-Kabir, which he decicated to Imam al-Hakim, 40 conjunctions of planets are accurately projected along with 30 lunar eclipses. There were later used by Simon Newcomb, a Canadian astronomer, in his lunar theory. Simon through various modern experiments confirmed using modern knowledge of the positions of the planets that Yunus was correct in his description of distance to one third of a degree (Newcomb, 1903). Using Yunus’s calculations, in the 21st century, scientists are able to predict the precise date and time of sunrises, sunsets, lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, high tides, and low tides for countless years to come (King, 1972). Battani and Yunus were greatly responsible for compilation of the modern calendar, something that is used worldwide in the 21st century.
The study of human sciences is dedicated to investigating human activities, human life, and human behaviour. With advancements and discoveries in human sciences, society is able to learn more about the human race and how it able to adapt and survive in modern society. However, much of the survival would not be the same without innovations by Ibn Sina and Numan in the Fatimid Dynasty that made life more efficient for humans. Advancements in medicine, the human body, and human understanding, allow for human progression in the 21st century.
One of the largest and earliest contributors to the human sciences was Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina called by the Latin name Avicenna. He was born in 980 CE in Afshana near Bukhara in a family which gave its allegiance to the Fatimid Imams. (Encl. Columbia, 2008). Ibn Sina was very bright and gifted, as at the age of 10 he had mastered and memorized the Qur’an. He also mastered physics, mathematics, logic, and metaphysics by the age of 15 and when he was 16, he began his medical practice (William, 1907). His deep thinking and research compelled him to write the famous “Canon of Medicine” at the age of 21. This book became the most authoritative text in medical schools in Europe and in Asia for centuries (Encl. Columbia, 2008). The Canon has one million words and is divided into volumes, chapters, and topics. There are five main divisions or volumes: the first one deals with general principles, the second one deals with simple drugs, the third one deals with diseases of specific bodily organs, the fourth one deals with diseases of local bodily origins, and the fifth volume deals with compound medicines (Encl. Columbia, 2008). The level of detail is mind boggling as the Canon distinguishes mediastinitis (inflammation of the tissues in the mid-chest) from pleurisy (inflammation of the pleura, the lining of the pleural cavity surrounding the lungs). It identifies the contagious character of tuberculosis, as well as how to cure and prevent it. It states the scientific diagnosis of ankylostomiasis (hook worm) and verifies it as an intestinal worm. The Canon points out the significance of dietetics or scientific study of the preparation of food, how climate and environment affect health and the use of oral anaesthetics surgically. In his teachings, Ibn Sina showed how to detect cancer and advised surgeons to treat cancer in its initial stages to make certain that all the diseased tissue was removed (William, 1907). The Canon recommends 760 drugs with directions on their application and effectiveness.
The Canon was published in Rome in 1593 in Arabic before it was translated by Gerard of Cremona into Latin in the 12th century. Fifteen Latin editions, one Hebrew and one English edition were made. The Canon spear headed medical literature from the 12th century to the 17th century all over the world. In the words of Dr. William Osler, the Canon has remained “a medical bible for a longer time than any other work”.
In addition to the medical “Canon,” Ibn Sina wrote numerous commentaries on Aristotle’s works. Some works of Aristotle he agreed, others he challenged and critiqued giving logical explanations in his books. He also wrote two great encyclopaedias, “Al Schefa”, or healing and “Al Nadja” or deliverance. Remarkably, at the age of 25, Ibn Sina explained in his book Danish-naama-i-Alai that logic should be divided into nine parts. Philosophy is a general name for scientific knowledge, which contains speculative and practical philosophy. Speculative philosophy is divided into a lower science physics, middle science mathematics and upper science metaphysics, including theology. Practical philosophy he says, must be divided into ethics of a man as an individual; economics of him as a member of domestic society; and lastly politics considering him to be a member of civil society. These philosophical divisions were then explained in his books in depth and even today are very important for students (William, 1907). A very famous quote of Ibn Sina is, “intellectus in formis agit universalitatem”, that is, “the universality of our ideas is the result of the activity of the mind itself” (Encl. Columbia, 2008).
In spite of such glorious works, Ibn Sina is rarely remembered in the west today and his fundamental contributions to medicine, philosophy, psychology, and most of all a fundamental reawakening goes simply unrecognized. At times his Canon is recognized, but under his Latin modernized name Avicenna. With this misleading name, seldom recognize his true Muslim origin and credit his work accurately.
Another pioneer of the human sciences was Al-Qadi al-Numan. He was born in 974 CE in North Africa and began his work as an Ismaili jurist for the Fatimids under the reign of the first caliph, Imam al-Mahdi Billah. He quickly rose to the position of the chief judge (Qadi) of the Fatimid state. He wrote a vast number of books on history, jurisprudence (fiqh) and the legal interpretation of Islamic scriptures (ta’wil) (Daftari, 1999). The most important of Numan’s work was ‘The Pillars of Islam’, which took him almost thirty years to write (Daftari, 1999). It was a remarkable legal document of Fatimid jurisprudence, which was used as the legal code of conduct for the Fatimid state and even today it is a primary source of law (sharia) for the Bohra community of the Shia faith in the Indian sub-continent. He also wrote Ikhtilaf usul al-Madhahib (Differences Among the Schools of Law) and the Kitab al-majalis wa’l-musayarat (The Book of Sessions and Excursions) (Daftari, 1999). Numan’s writings became the foundation for what is known today as the judicial system. They were the successful pillars for the legal system in the Faitmid Dynasty, and have shaped the 21st century judiciary. However, this foundation set by Numan continues to go on unrecognized by society, regardless of the modern dependence on the structure of laws and disciplines he set forth.
There once was a civilization, which was one of the greatest this earth has ever seen. The civilization, whose driving factor was education, invention and research in all areas of knowledge. With great focus on advancements in Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Human Sciences, this civilization flourished. The doctors and researchers of the period established health science, on which medical systems have evolved today. They diagnosed and cured diseases and passed the knowledge to this period from where life saving medical progress evolved. The astronomers of this civilization looked up into the skies and came out with answers to astronomy that are used to plan outer-space programs of today. As new computers are made to speed up cotemporary work, it is the mathematics of this civilization that made it possible to design the computer chip using those calculations. These people and their nations were not afraid of working on ideas, however absurd they appeared at that moment. If they had not worked on those ideas, the 21st century would not be a thriving knowledge society. This civilization was the foundation on which modernity of 21st century managed to establish itself. This was the Muslim Civilization of the Fatimids and the Abassids, which has been conveniently forgotten, maybe in the rush of time or because of overwhelming stereotypical beliefs.
The inventors, creators, and innovators who are responsible for much of the progress in the 21st century are not recognized. There is a gap in historical textbooks in the western world, allowing this valuable knowledge of origin to escape. Many 21st century innovations are in fact, vested in the Fatimid and Abassid Dynasties, without societal acknowledgment. By understanding and identifying these origins, the knowledge of society would be able to develop and expand upon the innovations of the Fatimids and Abbasids and earlier Muslims. Today the modern society is indebted to this civilization, which initiated a search for knowledge.
Date article posted on Simerg: May 11, 2011
Copyright: Fatima S. Nanavati
About the writer: Fatima Nanavati is an 18-year-old girl from Toronto, Canada, aspiring to be an International Lawyer. Fatima is currently completing her senior year of high school and will be graduating with an International Baccalaureate Diploma in June. She will be pursuing her undergraduate degree at New York University and plans to earn an honorary double major in International Relations and Political Science, as well as a minor in Global Liberal Studies. She will be studying in Paris, France, for her freshman year of university beginning in the Fall of 2011. Apart from academics, Fatima enjoys activities such as field hockey, videography, debate, visual arts and dance. As a proud philanthropist Fatima has travelled to India, Guatemala, and Morocco in order to pursue her charitable works. She has recently returned from the FOCUS Bike4Life Challenge that took place in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Fatima will be continuing her works with high hopes of reaching all of her goals and aspirations.
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What about contribution of Muslims in 20th century science?
Your submission on the topic would be appreciated!
Excellent, magnificent article. God bless you.
omg! Fatima Nanavati you are brilliant! I just loved the long introduction which brings and prepares the reader for your list of “thinkers and scientists.” Bravo and well done. Wish you the very very best in life and we know that you will contribute to society in a big way, inshallah.
Pervis, I am thrilled to know that you enjoyed the write-up! My goal was to choose a unique topic that was still close to home as I am very passionate about my own cultural history. Thank you very much!