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Influence of Islam and Arabic language in the development of Science and Technology

Friday, September 25, 2009 03:29:31 PM, Dr. Md. Kalimuddin Ahmad

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Different cultures in different period of time have made remarkable contributions to science and technology. The scientific knowledge which originated in India, China and Hellenistic world (Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia) was sought after by different Arab scholars and then translated, refined, synthesized and augmented at different centers of learning starting in Persia and moving to Baghdad, Cairo and finally to Toledo and Cordoba in Spain. The Islam and Arabic language unified an empire that reached its zenith in single century after 622 AD.


In this article, I elaborate and analyze the role played by the Islamic religion in the renaissance of Arabic civilization. The Arabic, the language of Quran and the language of the people, made a great impact on learning of science. I discuss the impact of Arabic language in the rise of Islamic science and culture.


And lastly, the factors of decline and future of Islamic technology are also discussed.



We have come across various civilizations in different period of time in human history which have left everlasting impact on society. No society has ever lacked basic curiosity but on contrary has contributed to the all round development of mankind. The cultures and religions, no doubt, have influenced the developments and added to the world’s stock of scientific knowledge.


Islamic whirlwind of faith after 622 AD blew the word of Prophet Mohammad (SAW) across North Africa to Spain and most parts of Asia. It brought about a great political, cultural and intellectual upheaval in these lands. The contributions of the scholars of Islamic countries are most significant in science and medicine. In this article, I analyze the factors which played important role in the growth of science, highlight the contributions of some eminent scholars, discuss the causes of down fall of Arab science and its future prospects.


Quran and Science

The verses of Quran dealing with the nature of heavenly bodies, celestial organizations, the water cycles and the sea, the earth’s atmosphere, the origins of life, human reproduction, the animal and vegetable kingdom etc. are dispersed through out the book. The Quran and the sayings of prophet (called Hadith) would have been certainly the motivating factors behind the development and creation of science during the period. I quote here few verses from the holy Quran: Chapter 27, verse 61, Chapter 25, verse 53.


The Quranic description of certain stages in the development of embryo corresponds exactly to what we know today. The following news appeared in various news papers in 1984 under the headings: “Ancient holy book 1300 years ahead of its time” the Citizen, Ottawa (Canada), Nov. 22, 1984 and “Koran scores over modern science”, the Times of India (New Delhi), Dec. 10, 1984.


A university of Toronto embryologist has made several trips to Saudi Arabia to help explain some of the verses from the Koran relating to human embryo development. Dr Keith Moore’s findings, corroborated by test tube baby pioneer Dr. Robert Edwards, reveal the verses contain an accurate description of the stage by stage development of the human embryo, something which was proposed by western experts only in 1940 and most of which has been proved only in the past decade and a  half”[15].


The prophet of Islam inspired love and passion for learning among Muslims and called the mankind to develop its faculties and intellect. He was particularly concerned for arousing general interest in medicine and drugs as is clear from his sayings in this regard:


“There is no ailment created by God for which He has not created a treatment” (Bukahri (a), vol. iv, p. 7).


“There is medicine for every ailment, when it is taken for any ailment; it cures by the order of God” (Muslim, vol. ii, p. 225).


These sayings encourage both the physicians and the patients; trigger a ray of hope and zeal for research in medicine in order to bring diseases under control.


Factors contributed to the growth of Arab sciences

Let us consider the state of knowledge on the eve of Islam in the countries that were about to be transformed into the Muslim world. The works of Hellenistic period which lasted from 323 BC until the advent of Islam could have been transmitted to Arab scholars.


Hellenistic science incorporated the works of Greek scientists of the classical period, while making considerable advances in theory and practice. It embraced almost the entire corpus of scientific knowledge available because Greek science had itself embodied the results obtained by Babylonian, Egyptian and Indian scientists [1].


Hellenistic mathematics had a number of great exponents, including Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Diophantos and Ptolemy. Euclid’s Elements was the foundation of systematic geometry and remained the cornerstone for the teaching of the subject until recent times. Ptolemy’s Mathematical Treatise (al-Majisti in Arabic and Almagest in Latin) is the most complex account of geocentric system, which places the earth at the centre of universe.


The Arab scholars inherited the Hellenistic Sciences and they would have been certainly benefited out of this treasure. The teachings of Prophet and passion and egalitarianism of Islam further rejuvenated them and infact it became a positive force in all the developments in the Arab world. The vast region came under one government thus paved the way for the cultural unity of Muslim countries. Islam abolished the barriers which had isolated the countries from each other, so that the whole area had one religion and one literary and scientific language. The Islamic religion and the Arabic language were the two unifying forces of the Islamic state. Arabic, the language of Quran, was held in respect by all Muslims. But the real miracle of Islamic civilization was that the Arabic became the language of all the people who lived between Baghdad and Cordoba. It became both the language of daily life and the language of science and literature, replacing completely Coptic, Aramaic, Greek and Latin [1]. Thus the people of ancient civilizations of the Near East and the Mediterranean spoke and wrote one common language for the first time in history.


Caliph al-Mansur ( 754-775) built a Bait al-Hikma (House of wisdom) at Baghdad which contained a large library for the manuscripts that had been collected from the various sources; an observatory which became a meeting place of Indian, Babylonian and Hellenistic scientists; and a university where scientific researches continued apace [8]. It was an intellectual center of the Arab world and within its walls lived some of the greatest scientists of the period.


The subsequent Caliphs, notably Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and al-Mamun (809-833) also promoted the science in Baghdad. The patronage of scientists and engineers was always the deliberate policy of State. In all the Academies, Libraries, Madrasas, Hospitals and Observatories, financial means were provided to enable scientists to devote all their time to study and research. They were paid salaries and granted pensions. The economic prosperity of state helped the scientific growth in these regions. The strategic geographical position of Arab countries between the east and the west, whereby they control important land and sea routes also enabled them to dominate international trade. The trade was one of the largest sources of national income.


Thus teachings of Islam together with the state policy of Caliphs, international trade and Arabic language were the factors played important role in the growth of one of the greatest civilizations on earth.


Some eminent Arab Scholars and their Contributions

Al-Khwarizmi (780-850)

His major scientific work was in the fields of algebra, arithmetic, astronomy and geography. He wrote a number of books, of which the two most influential are Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabla (calculation by restoration and reduction), the Arabic text still in existence, and Algorithmi de numero indorum (calculation with Indian numerals), the original Arabic version no longer exists – we know it only in Latin translation. The first book, later called Algebra, was the starting point for Arab word in algebra. It is a subtle blend of a variety of mathematical traditions including the Babylonian, Indian and Greek. The second book, known as Arithmetic, served to introduce the decimal positional number system which was developed in India a few hundred years earlier [8]. Thus al-Khwarizmi whose name reduced the word ‘algorithm’ (a corruption of his name) must be credited for laying the foundation of Algebra.


Omar Khayyam (1048-1126)

Omar Khayyam, famous as the poet Omar Khayyam, has made considerable progress in the field of Mathematics. He classified equations of the third degree into 25 categories and then attempted to solve them, giving numerical solutions for equations of the fist and second degree, and geometrical solution (by means of conic section) for those of the third degree.


Al-Haytham (965-1039)

Al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen, wrote more than 200 books on mathematics, physics, astronomy and medicine, and commentaries on Aristotle and Galen. His major work “Kitab al-Manazir” (book on optics) was translated into Latin and exercised a profound influence in the Middle Ages, inspiring the studies of Roger Bacon and Johann Kepler. In this and other works he studied mirror and lenses, and the nature of light. He established that rays of light start from the object and travel towards the eye, not the reverse as the Greeks had believed.


Ibn Sina (980-1037)

He is known as Avicenna in Europe and regarded as the most able of the Arab philosopher-scientists. He was reputed to have mastered all the sciences by the age of eighteen [8]. He was a man of enormous energy who in spite of pre-occupations with state affairs managed to produce about 200 books, some dictated on horse back as he rode with his ruler to battle. His best known work is the ‘Canon of Medicine’ translated into Latin and other European languages, and used for centuries as a prime text in Arab and European universities.


The medical opinion given by Ibn Sina about the treatment of cancer is rather astonishing in the light of present day medical knowledge regarding cancer. Ibn sina wrote in the 11th century that all the tissues and blood vessels of the affected part and its adjoining areas must be removed. He also remarked that even after the removal of tissues, complete cure can not be guaranteed [2].


Al-Razi (841-926)

Al-Razi, known in Latin as Rhazes was the greatest clinical physician of the Arab world. He was also a good surgeon.


Al-Razi wrote a treatise on fracture and a monograph on surgery. It was also al-Razi who, for the first time, described the suturing of wounds by using silk thread and alcohol. For the details of the contributions of al-Razi, al-Zahrawi (936-1013), known as abulcasis in west, and Ibn Zuhr (1091-1162), known as Avenzoar, see [2].


Causes of Decline and Future Prospect

As a result of political disintegration of the state and deterioration of national economy many individual states and independent emirates came up. The scientific temper and the quest for knowledge that characterized the Muslims earlier started receding. The first signs of fall from global dominance were discernible around the year 1500 AD. It was only a few years earlier that Columbus (1492) discovered America and Vasco da Gamma (1498) landed at Calicut. These geographical discoveries spelt the replacement of Muslims by European powers as the master of high sea.
While Islamic religion was the main impulse behind the renaissance of science in Arab world, it was the rise of clerical faction in post sixteenth century which froze this same science and withered its progress. The tragedy of the demolition of the last observatory in Islam, established in Constantinopole by Taqi al-Dinn, in 1580, exemplified this victory of the clerical faction over science.  It is therefore clear that one of the major reasons for the down fall of Muslims is their withdrawal from the realm of science and technology.

However, the experience of the so called small giants (S. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia) in the last three decades had shown that it is not difficult to transform a third world country into an advanced industrial one in a short time and with reasonable funding. The Arab world is rich in natural and human resources, which is fortunate because the future of science and technology depends upon the successful utilization of a combination of these two ingredients. Therefore, there should be an economic cooperation and integration among them on the regional basis. They must evolve a master plan for scientific and applied research with specific goals, realistic implementation and continuous evaluation. The research infrastructure should be built to help researchers to attain the specific goals.


The creation of an Arab Common Market (ACM) which can utilize the oil revenues and the surplus capital would make it possible for the Arab world to meet most of its individual requirements through domestic production.


Dr. Md. Kalimuddin Ahmad is Associate Professor
Department of Mathematics Aligarh Muslim University

and DAAD Fellow (Germany) 96-98.

This article appeared in “Dialog der Kulturen” (Dialog of the Cultures),

the proceedings of a workshop on “Influence of culture and religion on Science’, held in TU Kaiserslautern, Germany, October 2002, pages 24-31.

The workshop was organized after 9/11 attack on WTC and Dr. Ahmad was invited to speak under the category “European educated Muslims”.




[1] Ahmad Y. al-Hassan, Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology – An illustrated history, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.  

[2] Hakeem Altaf  Ahmad Azmi, Contribution of Muslim physicians to the development of surgery  during the middle ages, Studies in History of Medicine and Science, vol. viii, nos. 1-2 (1984), pages 49-59.

[3] S. M. Razaullah Ansari amd Zia Fatimi, An Essay – Review on Science and Technology in Medieval India, Studies in History of Medicine and Science, vol. viii, nos. 1-2 (1984), pages 67-87.

[4] E. T. Bell, The development of Mathematics, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, London,  1945.

[5] Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, The Quran and Science, North American Trust Publication, 1978. (Original French title: La Bible, Le Coran et la Science.)

[6] Howard Eves, An Introduction to the History of Mathematics, Rinehart and Company, Inc., New York, 1953.

[7] Saiyid Hamid, Acquiescence Unperturbed and Unconcern, AMU Network, 2002.

[8] G. G. Joseph, The Crest of the Peacock, Non European Roots of Mathematics, Penguin Books, 1994.

[9] Abdul Majid Nusayr, Interface of European Science with western Arab Asia – History and problems, Studies in History of Medicine and Science, vol. xiv, nos. 1-2,  New series (1995/96), pages 117-135.

[10] George Sarton, Introduction to the history of Science, Williams & Williams Co., New York, 1975.

[11] John Stillwell, Mathematics and its History, Springer Verlag, New York, 1989.

[12] A. Rahman (ed.), India’s Interaction with China, Central and West Asia, Publications in  PHISPC Series, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[13] S. Zillurrahman, Arab medicine during the ages, Studies in History of Medicine and Science, vol. xiv, nos. 1-2, New series (1995/96), pages 1-39.

[14] The Citizen, Ottawa (Canada), Nov. 22, 1984.

[15] The Times of India (New Delhi), Dec. 10, 1984.

[16] National Geographic Magazine, (Peoples of the Middle East), July 1972.

[17] National Geographic Magazine, (The Historic Mediterranean), Dec. 1982.







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