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Muslim Contribution to Science and Culture (1)
Science and Religion
M.A.R Khan

Modern research has established the fact that the human race built up its civilisation some six thousand years ago on the banks of the Shattal-Arab and the Nile; whence it spread gradually through various channels all over the world. Knowledge gathered from patient observations, experience and accidental discoveries was disseminated through Khaldia, Babel, Egypt, India and Phoenicia and ultimately reaching Ionia and Greece, found there a most congenial atmosphere to develop and systematise for six or seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Greek enterprise in colonisation brought the fruits of Hellenic research within the reach of various communities bordering on the Levant. But centralisation imperceptibly led to deterioration and decay, and Greece lost her initiation in the cultivation of ats, science and literature. Alexandria and Syracuse upheld, however, for a time the traditions of Greece, but succumbed eventually to the iron discipline of Rome, Rome, which while it ensured order and administration, failed to encourage originality and scientific investigation.

On the downfall of Rome by the Barbarians chaos and intellectual stagnation once more held sway over the civilized world. The masterpieces of Greek science and culture lay buried in tottering libraries or museums and might possibly have disappeared altogether from the face of the earth but for the miracle of Arab rise to power and its subsequent patronage of learning.

Islam not only bound the nomadic tribes of Arabia in a common bond of brotherhood, it gave them a book, the Qur’ān which taught them how to lead a life of purity and righteousness. The beauty of its language and the grandeur of its inculcations inspired the desert people to share the blessings of their faith and Shari'at with the rest of mankind.

We are not concerned here with the territorial conquests of the early votaries of Islam. These will be referred to in a cursory manner merely to trace the transmission of Muslim culture and learning to distant countries and nations.

After the subjugation of practically the whole of Arabia during the life-time of the Prophet, and the conquest of Syria, Iraq, Persia and Egypt in the days of the four orthodox Caliphs, the Umayyad regime (661 A.D. to 750 A.D.) brought the whole of North Africa (with extensions into the Iberian Peninsula), Central Asia right up to the borders of China proper, modern Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Sind and parts of the Punjab under Muslim sway. Most of these acquisitions occurred during the time of Abdul-Malik and his son Walid, under the generalship of Maslamah, Musa ibni Nusair, Muhammad bin Qasim al-Thaqafi, and Qutaibah Ibni Muslim. Had the Umayyads refrained from petty tribal jealousies and, above all, followed in the footsteps of the orthodox Caliphs as did Omar II, they would probably have made further conquests and certainly continued much longer in power. As it was, they made bitter enemies amongst both the Arabs and the Persians and were finally crushed by Abu Al-Abbas As-Saffah, the champion of the Abbasid cause, in 750, and practically the entire Islamic world (with the exception of Andalusia) passed under the sovereighty of Bani Abbaas.

The third Caliph Uthman had already put together the various sūrahs revealed to the Prophet and ensured the unalterability of the text and pronunciation of the Qur’ān.

The basic principles of Arabic grammar were framed by the great exponent of Islamic learning, Ali Ibni Abi Talib. During the Umayyad regime Hajjaj Ibni Yusuf introduced at Basrah the use of dots to discriminate between letters of different sounds but similar form and of diacritical marks to serve as vowels. Arabic thus systematized and endowed with natural flexibility was ready to assimilate the ideas and expressions of the most fully developed languages of the time, Greek, Sasanid and Sanskrit.

As pointed out by At-Tha`alibi (d. 1038 A.D.) in "Lata'if Al-Ma`arif", the real`opener' of the Abbasid regime was Abu Ja`far Al-Mansur (754 A.D to 775 A.D.), the `mid-comer' was Abdullah Al-Ma'mun (813 A.D. to -833 A.D.) and the `closer' was al-Wathiq (842 A.D. to 847 A.D.), though the dynasty continued till the thirty-seventh and last representative, Al-Musta`sim who perished in the sack of Baghdad by Hulagu in 1258 A.D. It is not the much for its conquests and military glory that the Abbasid Caliphate is famous, as for its achievements in peaceful pursuits such as commerce, arts, science and architecture, though the struggle with Byzantium continued intermittently and, on one occasion at least, brought the victorious Abbasid armies to the very gates of Constantinople, humiliating the Empress Irene (782 A.D.) ("Tabari", Vol. 3 Pg. 504) and later enforcing a tax on the person of her successor Nicephorus 1 (806 A.D.) ("Tabari", Vol. Pgs. 696, 709-10)

Cultivation of Medicine, Mathematics and Astronomy in the Abbasid Regime

It was Al-Mansur who built Baghdad near the site of old Ctesiphon on the plan submitted by the Persian philosoper Nau Bakht and the astronomer Masha`allah, a convert to Islam from Judaism. Within fifty years of its planning it rose to be the most important city in the world, rivalling Constantinople itself in the grandeur of its royal mansions, number of public buildings, extent of population and volume of trade and commerce. The glowing accounts of its wealth and splendour preserved for us in the pages of "Al-Aghani" by AbulFaraj Isphani (897 A.D. to 967 A.D.) and "Al-Fihrist" by Ibni Abi-Ya`qub Al-Nadim Al-Warrq (d. 995 A.D.) surpass the feeble attempts of the compilers of "Alif Lailah" to portray the brilliance of the court of Harun-Ur-Rashid.

Al-Mansur's illness led to the invitation of the famous Nestorian physician Jurijis Ibni Bakhti Yashu of the medical academy of Jundi Shapur to the Abbasid court ("Fihrist", Pg. 296) an event fraught with most far-reaching effects on the future development of the science and art of medicine. The treatment was successful and the Bakhti Yashu` family flourished for generations in Baghdad as court physicians ("Qifti", Pgs. 134-5) awakening a keen interest in their royal masters to promote the study of the master pieces of Hippocrates (436 B.C.) and Galen (200 A.D.).

The advent of an Indian mathematician and astronomer to the court of Al-Mansur in 773 A.D. with a copy of Siddhanta (Sindhind, a Sanskrit treatise on astronomy) induced that early patron of learning to get the work translated into Arabic. Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al-Fazari performed the task with the help of competent assistants, and within a few years Iraq gave birth to a number of astronomers who not only mastered all the available knowledge of astronomy but made original contributions to it from time to time, right down to the end of fourteenth century. Desert life under crystal-clear skies had impressed on the Arab mind from time immemorial the majesty of the heavens, shining with countless stars whose configurations they came to know by heart and whose diurnal rotation they utilized to serve as their time-piece. Some of the most eloquent passages in the Qur`an refer to the grandeur of the stellar world, the regularity of solar and lunar movements among the constellations, the repetition of the phases of the moon and the dazzling brilliance of the restless planets. No wonder that the Arabs and later converts to Islam from other nationalities took so enthusiastically to astronomy and left on it their permanent mark. We shall have occasion to deal with this matter in detail subsequently.

The same Indian mathematician introduced to the Arabs Hindu numerals, their efficient notation and the inestimable importance of Zero (Arabic Sifr). They adopted the methods of Hindu arithmetic unhesitatingly and popularized them all over the world so much that Western Europe until quite recently tacitly believed the Arabs themselves to be the originators of these numerals and their notation.

Among the treasures won from Byzantine cities were Greek manuscripts on geometry, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. Even as early as at the close of the eight century A.D. we find Abu Yahya Ibn Al-Batriq translating for Al-Mansur the major works of Galen and Hippocrates. Several other works like the "Elements" of Euclid and the Almagest (Arabic Al-Majisti) of Ptolemy are stated by Ya`qubi ("Buldan", Vol. 1 Pgs. 150-51) to have been translated into Arabic at about this time, but evidently they had to be revised by abler translators under the patronage of Harun-Ur-Rashid and his son Al-Ma`mun. For lack of adequate knowledge of Greek these early versions had to be rendered first into Syriac by Syrian scholars and retranslated from that language into Arabic. Syrian Christians, therefore, played an important part in this intellectual drama. Yuhanna Ibni Masawayh (d. 857 A.D.), a pupil of Jibril Ibni Bakhti Yashu and teacher of Hunayn Ibni Ishaq, for instance, translated a number of Greek manuscripts into Arabic.

Iranian astronomy was also assimilated by the Arabs at the time of Harun, the translations being done by Al-Fad1 Ibni Nawbakht (d. 815 A.D.) who was his chief librarian. But Persia seems to have exerted more influence on Arab literature and fine arts than on science and philosophy. Ibni al-Muqaffa (d. 757 A.D.), a Zoroastrian convert to Islam, translated "Kalilah wa Dimnah" ("Fihrist" Pg. 118) from Pehlawi, being itself a translation from its original in Sansikrit. He also wrote a book on ethics and behavior ( "Tahzib-ul-Ikhlaq") based on Indo- Persian sources. From Arabic "Kalilah wa Dimnah"  was, in course of time, translated into practically all the languages of the civilized world and exerted a deep influence on the literature and imagination of a number of modern nations. For example La Fontaine's acknowledged it as a source of his famous Fables. The original Sanskrit work in its complete form is stated to be lost.

After Harun-Ur-Rashid's death when Al-Manum succeded to the Abbasid throne (having defeated his elder brother Al-Amin with the support of Tahir Ibni Al-Husain of Khurasan and his Persian mercenaries) he rebuilt Baghdad and founded his unique Dar-ul-Hikmah where a galaxy of expert translators and original investigators enriched the Arabic language with the choicest products of Hellenic science and philosophy. Foremost among his staff of translators was the Nestorian Hunain Ibni Ishaq (809-73 A.D.), mainly occupied with the translation of Greek works on medicine and philosophy. The scale of remuneration paid to translators in this age of literary supremacy may be gauged from the fact that Hunain and his collaborators when they were in the service of Ibni Shakir received a salary of about 250/- per mensem, and when Hunain was appointed superintendent of Al-Ma`mun's literary academy he received in gold the weight of the books he translated ("Ibni Abi Usabiyyah", Vol. 1, Pg. 187). Al-Mutawakkil also extended his patronage to Hunain and made him his private physician and personal friend.

Al-Ma`mun's zeal for scientific research resulted in the measurement of a degree of terrestrial latitude from astronomical observations conducted on the plain of Sinjar north of the Euphrates and again in the neighbourhood of Palmyra. Dr. George Sarton and Philip al-Khouri Hitti state that the length came out as 56.67 miles, which is really too small. From data supplied in Al-Khazini's "Mizan-ul-Hikmah". I obtain this length as roughly equal to 69 miles (assuming the dhira' to be equal to 1,627 feet nearly, from the footnote to the Arabic text and translation of Al-Birunis's "Kitab-al Tafhim" by R.Ramsay Wright, Luzac, 1934, page 120), which is extremely close to the actual figure. I am not aware of any later Muslim attempts after Al-Ma`mun's time to repeat the geodetic survey and am inclined to conclude that Al-Khazin's figures based evidently on Al-Biruni's measurements but with a correct estimation of the length of the dhira'. The matter, however, requires further and more careful investigation.

In Al-Mutawakkil's time (847-61 A.D.) the Sabian mathematician Thabit Ibni Qurrah (836-901 A.D.) and his disciples translated the principal Greek works on geometry and astronomy including the classical treatises of Apollonius of Perga (262 B.C.) and Archimedes (212.B.C.). Latterly Thabit won the personal friendship of Al-Mu'taded who ruled from 892-902 A.D. After Thabit his sons Ibrahim and Sinan, his grandsons Thabit and Ibrahim and great-grandson, Abu al-Faraj (on the authority of Ibn-abi-Usaybi`ah and Qifti) continued the work of translation and compilation, enriching mathematics and astronomy with their original discoveries and observations. Sinan was the first to embrace Islam and died in 943 A.D. His son Ibrahim was born in 908 or 909  A.D.and died at the early age of 37 or 38; but left an immortal name in the annals of mathematics through his quadrature of the parabola, the simplest ever made before the introduction of the integral calculus (G. Sarton's "Introduction to the History of Science", Vol. 1, Pg. 624).

In the foremost rank of mathematicians of all times stands Muhammad Ibni Musa Al-Khwarizmi (780-850 A.D.). He composed the oldest works on arithmetic and algebra, now unfortunately lost in the original Arabic. They were the principal source of mathematical knowledge for centuries to come both in the East and the West. The work on arithmetic first introduced the Hindu numerals to Europe, as the very name algorism signifies, and the work on algebra (Hisab Al-Jabr wal-Muqabalah) not only gave the name to this important branch of mathematics in the European world, but contained in addition to the usual analytical solutions of linear and quadratic equations (without of course, the conception of imaginary quantities) graphical solutions of typical quadratic equations. It was revised by Abu Kamil Shuja Ibni Aslam in the first half of the tenth century. Al-Khwarizmi's "Zij" (consisting of astronomical tables) was also very popular and remained a standard until revised by Maslamah Al-Majriti (of Madrid) in the second half of the tenth century. These tables included values of trigonometrical sine and tangent functions also, as was the fashion among early writers before trigonometry became a definite subject by itself. He prepared also a map of the earth in collaboration with a number of scientists of Al-Mamun's time for his book "Surat-al-Ard".

The greatest of Sabian astronomers and one of the most original investigators in Islam, Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibni Jabir Al-Battani (between 877 A.D. and 918 A.D.) was a Muslim scientist well known to the Latin world as Albategnius. On comparing his own observations with those of Ptolemy he discovered the motion of the sun's apogee and the arrived at a more correct value for precession of the Equinones (54.5" per annum) and initiated the use of sines in trigonometrical calculations. It was from a perusal of his dissertation on the apparent motion of the fixed stars that Hevilius discovered the secular variation of the moon.

Before him Abu Al Abbas Muhammad Ibni Kathir Al-Farghani, (Latin Alfraganus, 840 A.D.) adorned the Dar-ul-Hikmah of Al-Ma'mun and took part in the measurements for the degree of terrestrial latitude. His book "Harakat al-Samawiyah wa Jawami illm unl-Nujum", in which he follows Ptolemy but substitutes more accurate figures based on local observations, enjoyed (in its Latin version known as the "Scientia Stellarum") great popularity among European scientists of the Middle Ages. Most of Dante's astronomical data were derived from this book. Al-Farghani built also a nilometer in Fustat for Al-Mutawakkil( Ibni Usaibiyyah, Vol. 1, Pg. 207). Abu Ma'shar (Latin Albumasar) though better known to Europe as an astrologer was the first to explain the tides as influenced by the moon (a fact unfortunately ingored by Kepler as savouring of astrology).

The Arabs were keen students of medicine. Harun-Ur-Rashid was the first caliph to endow a public hospital in Baghdad. The tradition was continued by his successors. Al-Muqtadir appointed Sinan Ibni Thabit Ibni Qurrah to conduct a regular examination of medical practitioners in Baghdad in 931 A.D. and over 800 candidates were thus awarded certificates to practise in their profession. Sinan further instituted travelling hospitals and inspected prisons, administering appropriate treatment to ailing prisoners. As a result of this activity no less than 34 hospitals were founded in the Muslim world in the course of a few years.



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