Islam and Science - Muslim Achievements Print E-mail
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The Muslims of today are struggling to lift themselves out of the weak, divided and arguably backward position which they occupy in the eyes of the world. The fact that they are in that position can be attributed to several factors (not all of which are their own fault) including their lack of scientific progress. If one is to search for the pinnacle of scientific achievement today it is unlikely that such a search will begin in a Muslim country. That is sad enough but perhaps the greater tragedy lies in the fact that few realise that it was not always so. Given the condition of most Muslim countries today one would be forgiven for thinking that this was a people who had never had any interest in matters of science, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Contrast the rotten Muslim societies of today with the splendour of cities such as Cordoba when it was a Muslim capital. “Under the Ummayads in the ninth and tenth centuries it grew to become the most civilized city in Europe and was clean, well-paved, well-lit and abundantly supplied with running water at a time when all other European cities were dirty, dark and rank with disease.” At a time when London and Paris were relatively backward and insignificant small towns, Cordoba was so advanced in learning that the library of its ruler contained 400,000 volumes, more than all the libraries of Europe. This harking back to past glories may appear futile were it not for the fact that it exemplifies a society where Islam and scientific progress were synonymous with one another.


In our quest to explore the extent of Islamic scientific achievement we are helped in no small part by the abundance of various clues in our very language. We are familiar with the phrase “Arabic numerals” but perhaps less aware that words such as algorithm, alchemy, algebra and even alcohol have an Islamic heritage. It is when we consider this heritage further that we begin to discover the great role that Muslim scientists have played in laying the foundations of the modern scientific societies. Take for example, the arena of mathematics. We find here that the word algorithm is derived from the name of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a 9th century geographer, philosopher and mathematician whose Book of Summary in the Process of Calculation for Compulsion and Equation (Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l –Muqabalah) provided us with our “algebra”. This was a compilation of rules for arithmetical solutions of linear and quadratic equations, for elementary geometry and for inheritance problems concerning the distribution of money according to proportions. Furthermore, it is said that the Latin translation of al-Khwarizmi’s book on arithmetics was responsible more than any other single text for spreading the Indian system of numeration both in the Islamic world and in the west.

Although he was the most pre-eminent in the field of mathematics, al-Khwarizmi was not the only Muslim to excel in that arena. Al-Battani was an astronomer and mathematician who successfully refined existing values for the length of the year, and of the seasons. He improved Ptolemy’s astronomical calculations by replacing geometrical methods with trigonometry.

Ibn Al-Haytham was a mathematician and physicist who made the first significant contribution to optical theory since the time of Ptolemy. In his treatise on optics he published theories on refraction, reflection, binocular vision, focussing with lenses, and the apparent increase in the size of planetary bodies near the Earth’s horizon. He was the first to give an accurate account of vision. In fact, the word “cornea” is derived from his al-qurniyah. He was, of course, also another example of a Muslim scientist whose expertise was not limited to one field.

Perhaps the most famous example of that was Omar Al-Khayyam (1028-1123). Although he is best known in the West as a poet, in particular for his Rubayyat he was actually a scientist and astronomer whose expertise extended to mathematics, history, medicine and philosophy. As an astronomer he was commissioned with others to build an observatory in Isfahan. In the field of mathematics not only did he discover a general method of extracting roots of arbitrary high degree but his Algebra contains the first complete treatment of the solution of cubic equations.

Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni Muhammad Ibn Ahmed (al-Biruni), 973-1048, was another such genius whose expertise covered astronomy, mathematics, physics, medicines and history. In his works on astronomy, for example, he discussed the theory of the Earth’s rotation on its axis 600 years before Galileo, and made accurate calculations of longitude and latitude.

Arguably the greatest philosopher-scientist of Islam was Abu Ali al-Husain Ibn Sina (Ibn Sina), 980-1037, or Avicenna as he is known in the West. His influence on Europe was immense particularly in the field of medicine. His al-Qanun fi’t-Tibb (Canon of Medicine) is one of the most famous books in the history of medicine and was taught in Western universities for several centuries. Its Latin translation was one of the most frequently printed texts of the Renaissance and it is such facts which give a surprising insight into the little-mentioned role of Muslims in that period of European revival.

Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (al-Razi), 865-925, was an alchemist and philosopher and was known as the greatest clinical physician of Islam. His authority in medicine has been second only to that of Ibn Sina, and his great work The Treatise on Smallpox and Measles was read in medical circles in the West until the modern period.

The 11th century figure of Abu al-Qassim al-Zahrawi (Albucasis in Latin) was responsible for shaping European surgical procedures until the Renaissance. His Al-Tasrif included the earliest known descriptions of haemophilia and its final chapter is regarded as the first illustrated independent work on surgery. Furthermore, it was considered to be the leading textbook on surgery for 500 years in Europe. A recent BBC documentary entitled An Islamic History of Europe contained an interview with Dr Carlos Pera, the chief surgeon of Cordoba Hospital, who reminded the audience that Albucasis designed instruments such as the forceps used to remove a foetus which had died in the womb, and his design was essentially the same as that used today.

Ibn al-Nafis (1210-1298) is the final figure whose contributions we shall highlight. He was the first to describe the pulmonary circulation of the blood. He contradicted Galen’s view that the blood passes directly from the right to the left side of the heart by finding that the wall between the right and left ventricles of the heart is solid and without pores. He correctly stated that the blood must pass from the right ventricle to the left ventricle by way of the lungs. His findings had been claimed by Europeans such as Michael Servetus and William Harvey several centuries after his death and it was only in the 20th century that his work was finally brought to light.

The above review of Muslim scientific achievements serves to illustrate the rich scientific heritage that Muslims possess. Furthermore it is a heritage whose significance is not limited to Muslims but impacted greatly upon the West and therefore on later western science. Imagine how different our modern western societies would be without that impact. The notion of Islamic scientific achievement may be a contradiction in terms to some people but we would be less surprised if we knew what Islam has to say on scientific matters. Clearly if the holy book of the Muslims, the Quran, contained within it verses with obvious scientific references then the development of a spirit of scientific enquiry among Muslims was always going to be inevitable.