Monthly Archives: October 2011

Islamic Science Rediscovered

About five hundred years before Western natural philosophers — scientists, in modern day parlance — accurately measured the circumference of the earth, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni calculated it to an accuracy of 1% 1. No one in the West had yet heard of this (the Internet not yet having been invented) and therefore, when European scientists measured this value themselves, they gained initial credit, even though they had essentially reinvented the wheel.

This pattern of Western achievement overshadowing work that had been accomplished in the Middle East centuries earlier has continued far into the modern age. When we speak of the scientific revolution, we almost always associate it with the European era that began in the 17th century. The goal of the recent Islamic Science Rediscovered exhibit in The Tech Museum of San Jose was to explore the true roots of the scientific revolution.

Personally, it was the first time I’d been to The Tech (although that’s a misnomer — the exhibit is housed in a side building) and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. The exhibit was extremely well-organized and clarified, with posters, boards, hands-on replicas and videos. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t quite enough; even while I lingered at some exhibits, examined every single station and took copious notes, I spent only an hour and a half inside. Admittedly, that could’ve just been my enthusiasm. I wished there were notes or indications of further resources, however. I’m curious now to find out what happened to prevent the West from rediscovering the work of these scholars — what the social, political and historical circumstance of those times were.

Better resources than this blog exist to chronicle the lives and discoveries of these Arabic scientists and pioneers, but the exhibition has given me an excellent location from which to begin looking up more of their work. What I have here are hastily taken notes that I’m expanding upon a little.

This period between the 9th and 13th centuries yielded quite a few important innovations. The first windmills turning millstones, the first universal astrolabes, the first combination lock and some of the precursors to today’s surgical instruments were all invented in this golden age. Crucially, some of the first translations of Greek philosophical works began in 813; without these translations, Europe would have emerged from the Dark Ages far later.

There were several important figures who contributed to Islamic science in this period, and I have enough notes to trace an outline of each of their contributions. In other cases, since my notes are old and a bit disarranged now, I have only the ways in which certain fields progressed without any particular names attached to them.

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni

al-Biruni was one of the first scientists mentioned in the exhibit, and he caught my eye immediately — it felt as though I was reading about the life and times of a Middle Eastern counterpart of Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps the analogy is a little generous, but al-Biruni certainly made some large contributions to the body of Middle Eastern science in his times. He worked in the fields of mathematics (algebra and geometry amongst others), physics (hydrostatics), astronomy (the astrolabe, for instance), religion (texts on Islam), sociology (a history of the culture and practices in India), and language (he translated several works from Sanksrit to Arabic). Most of this information was taken from here, but I hope to find out more about him in the future.

Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi

Medical instruments of the Golden Age of Islamic science are comparable to modern instruments; one excellent exhibit had replicas of the instruments invented during the period, comparing them side by side with today’s implements. The similarities are startling. I wish I could’ve posted pictures, but I don’t think photography was allowed.

Even more impressive, to me, was the fact that this time period yielded the one of the first uses of catgut as a suture material (I believe Galen used it in the first century); some surgical tools like forceps, which are still used today; and the first use of anesthetic in surgery. The man responsible for much of this was al-Zahrawi, who was known as the foremost physician of the world in the medieval era, as well as the father of modern surgery 2. I find it particularly interesting that he also paid attention to pregnancies — there is some record of the first cesarean being conducted in this time period, although I haven’t yet looked into the sources for that.

Something else that fascinated me was the advent of the first medicine complex, a place for both the sick and the elderly. Apparently, the Arab world pioneered some of the world’s most comprehensive, egalitarian hospitals, which treated the rich and poor, the Muslim and the non-Muslim alike. It isn’t just impressive — it’s inspirational.

al-Khwarizimi

There have, of course, been more than a handful of Arabic scholars who worked in the field of mathematics, but it’s pertinent to note that the world “algorithmic” seems to have evolved from the — well, first or last, I’ve not much idea how the naming system operates — of Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizimi. He wrote the first book on algorithmic theory, as well as the Indo-Islamic numeric system. He was the first to use the “0”, now indispensable to both mathematics and the digital world, in his calculations.

Islamic mathematics appears to have been an amalgamation of Greek principles and the Indian mathematical system at the time. As a side note, I think it would be fascinating to note how the academic exchanges between Islamic and Hindu/Indian scholars at the time were constructed. How would they have access to their work? How did invasions, political circumstances and vast differences in philosophy/religion influence those interactions?

al-Jazari

Excellent engineering was another hallmark of the Islamic Golden Age of scientific achievement. For instance, one of the interactive exhibits (really well organized) included a parallel system of water scoops is operated efficiently by a single turning wheel. It might not seem flashy, particularly, but it was precisely the kind of system that would’ve been necessary for communities living near large bodies of water.

Flashy, however, was still in vogue. Some of the most aesthetically appealing feats of engineering was one built by Abu al-Iz Ibn Ismail ibn al-Razaz al-Jazari, an Islamic scholar and inventor of no mean ability. His main contributions were some fundamental nuts and bolts of engineering, like the cam shaft, the crankshaft and the segmental gear. These were all either invented by him or put to wider use. It doesn’t seem like much now, not in the days of the Large Hadron Collider, but they were essential building blocks for basic utilities in the same way that algebra is a basic building block for complicated statistical analysis.

But I digress: take a look at one of al-Jazari’s most famous inventions:

All in all, Islamic Science Rediscovered was well worth the $21 ticket. I was afraid that the exhibit would be politicized, and apparently the opening did attract the wrong kind of attention from misguided people, but the emphasis was more on rediscovering the importance of science in that golden period, rather than overtly trying to change cultural prejudices. The exhibition opened within a few days of 9/11, and although that might sound like an uncomfortable time to be challenging perceptions, I think that’s exactly what the community needs. Like it or not, the Islamic world has come under attack for being too anti-West, too conservative, too illogical.

But the truth of the matter is that, like any other great civilization of pre-modern times that deserves the name, the Islamic world interacted scientifically, logically, and openly with other societies. And I refuse to believe that the tradition of science has ended in this community simply because some fanatics decided to distort their entire body of religious knowledge. Abdus Salam and Ahmed Zewail were both Islamic scholars who won the Nobel in physics and chemistry respectively.

I don’t know what the demographics of the exhibit were like, but I admit the museum-goers I saw were mostly those of South Asian origin. I’d like to know how well the exhibit actually achieved its aim of spreading the knowledge of this lost scientific revolution, and what the people attending thought of it all.

If it inspires anyone at all to reevaluate their attitudes towards Islam or the Middle East, I’ll count that as a victory. Then again, what’s the appropriate sphere of influence between science and religion, and should there be one? But that’s a discussion for another day — and in fact is the subject of a panel discussion I’m hoping to attend at The Tech in a couple weeks. Stay tuned.

Footnotes:
1. Biography of Al-Biruni: http://www.gap-system.org/~history/Biographies/Al-Biruni.html

2. ANZ Journal of Surgery: http://bit.ly/opmKyO