Museum of History of Science

Museum of history of science

Museum of University

Science in Muslim societies already lags far behind the scientific achievements of the West, but what adds a fair amount of contemporary angst is that Islamic civilization was once the unrivaled center of science and philosophy. What’s more, Islam’s “golden age” flourished while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.

The bio-medical sciences of the Arabic-Islamic world underwent remarkable development during the 8th to 13th centuries C.E., a flowering of knowledge and intellect that later spread throughout Europe and greatly influenced both medical practice and education. The scientific glory of the Arabic nation originated on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century C.E., where the preaching of the prophet Mohammed united the Arab tribes and inaugurated the Muslim religion.

The spread of Islam stimulated the development of a wide range of science and technology founded upon a legacy from the ancient world. The achievements of the Islamic-Arabic Golden Age were based on previous initiatives taken by the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

This exhibition in MHS, Oxford brings together a number of objects of Islamic origin that provide insight into some of the achievements of Islamic science.

Qur’an, II, 256

The Quran is clear: “The scholar’s ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs”, while the Prophet promoted medical research preaching that “For every disease, Allah has given a cure.

The Qur’an calls upon Muslims to look around them and study the physical world, so that they might appreciate the majesty of Allah’s creation:

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the benefit of mankind; in the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth — (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.” (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:164)

And the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told Muslims to “seek knowledge, even if it be in China.” (Meaning ‘seek knowledge wherever it may be found.’)

Throughout Islamic history, that is exactly what Muslims have done. Particularly in the 7th-13th centuries C.E., the Islamic world was in the midst of its “Golden Age,” paving the way for the growth of modern sciences. Rather than stifling science, the religion of Islam encouraged its study. Scientific inquiry was widespread, and some of the greatest scholars and scientists of the world made wondrous discoveries and inventions. Muslims led the world in the study of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, geography, chemistry, botany, and physics. They transmitted their studies to the West, where their work was built upon and further disseminated.

For Muslims the Qur’an establishes God’s Law and reveals the true nature of reality. It is said to contain all knowledge and thus the acquisition of knowledge is seen as a religious act. Muslim scholars did not separate areas of learning such as medicine, mathematics and literature; instead, each was regarded as a single part of a unified whole truth.

Whipple Museum of History of Science,University of Cambridge
Astronomy and Mathematics enjoyed a privileged status in the hierarchy of Islamic sciences providing insight into the divinely inspired nature of the universe as well as solutions to everyday practical problems.

Astrolabe, 18th century

Astrolabe, 18th century

Celestial Globe

Muslim astronomers established large observatories and developed instruments such as the astrolabe to a high degree of accuracy and sophistication. Astronomical data was essential to establish the Muslim calendar, based on lunar cycles, and the dates of religious festivals.

English: Christian_and_Muslim_playing_ouds

English: Christian_and_Muslim_playing_ouds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Astrolobe with geared Calendar

The central quest of Muslim scientists was aimed at spiritual perfection as described by the Qur’an. In this sense Islamic science was an attempt to comprehend all the orders of reality in the material and spiritual worlds as part of a divine unity.

Arabic script. Eghra, Read. The first Quoranic...

Arabic script. Eghra, Read. The first Quoranic word, in order of arrival. (Letter Qaf eight times, letter ‘Alif sixteen times.)

The application of Muslim scholars to the translation of ancient texts, especially those of the ancient Greeks, combined with further developments provided a rich cultural legacy which was transmitted into medieval Europe via Moorish Spain.


Mathematicians of Islam

Mathematicians of Islam

Key figures in the creation of scripts suitable for the Qur’an and for secular use were widely celebrated.

The 10th-century vizier Ibn Muqla, who provided a geometric codification of cursive scripts, was revered as ‘a prophet in the field of handwriting; it was poured upon his hand, even as it was revealed to the bees to make their honey cells hexagonal.’

‘Al-Mizan’ is the Arabic word for balance – both the familiar measuring instrument and the metaphorical pursuit of justice and harmony in all human endeavours.

The greatest scientific advances from the Muslim world

From the elephant clock to the camera obscura, here are six amazing inventions from between the 9th and 15th centuries

There is no such thing as Islamic science – for science is the most universal of human activities. But the means to facilitating scientific advances have always been dictated by culture, political will and economic wealth. What is only now becoming clear (to many in the west) is that during the dark ages of medieval Europe, incredible scientific advances were made in the Muslim world. Geniuses in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Cordoba took on the scholarly works of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, India and China, developing what we would call “modern” science. New disciplines emerged – algebra, trigonometry and chemistry as well as major advances in medicine, astronomy, engineering and agriculture. Arabic texts replaced Greek as the fonts of wisdom, helping to shape the scientific revolution of the Renaissance. What the medieval scientists of the Muslim world articulated so brilliantly is that science is universal, the common language of the human race. The 1001 Inventions exhibition at London’s Science Museum tells some of the stories of this forgotten age. Here are my top six exhibits . . .

1 The elephant clock 

The Elephant Clock by Al-Jazari

This centrepiece of the exhibition is a three-metre high replica of an early 13th-century water clock and one of the engineering marvels of the medieval world. It was built by al-Jazari, and gives physical form to the concept of multiculturalism. It features an Indian elephant, Chinese dragons, a Greek water mechanism, an Egyptian phoenix, and wooden robots in traditional Arabian attire. The timing mechanism is based on a water-filled bucket hidden inside the elephant.

2 The camera obscura

The camera obscura

The greatest scientist of the medieval world was a 10th century Arab by the name of Ibn al-Haytham. Among his many contributions to optics was the first correct explanation of how vision works. He used the Chinese invention of the camera obscura (or pinhole camera) to show how light travels in straight lines from the object to form an inverted image on the retina.

3.  Al-Idrisi’s world map

Al-Idrisi’s world map

This three-metre reproduction of the famous 12th-century map by the Andalusian cartographer, Al-Idrisi (1100-1166), was produced in Sicily and is regarded as the most elaborate and complete description of the world made in medieval times. It was used extensively by travellers for several centuries and contained detailed descriptions of the Christian north as well as the Islamic world, Africa and the Far East.

4. The Banu Musa brothers’ “ingenious devices”


These three brothers were celebrated mathematicians and engineers in ninth-century Baghdad. Their Book of Ingenious Devices, published in 850, was a large illustrated work on mechanical devices that included automata, puzzles and magic tricks as well as what we would today refer to as “executive toys”.

5. Al-Zahrawi’s surgical instruments

Al-Zahrawi’s surgical instruments

This array of weird and wonderful devices shows the sort of instruments being used by the 10th-century surgeon al-Zahrawi, who practised in Cordoba. His work was hugely influential in Europe and many of his instruments are still in use today. Among his best-known inventions were the syringe, the forceps, the surgical hook and needle, the bone saw and the lithotomy scalpel.

6 Ibn Firnas’ flying contraption

Ibn Firnas’ flying contraption

Abbas Ibn Firnas was a legendary ninth-century inventor and the Da Vinci of the Islamic world. He is honoured on Arabic postage stamps and has a crater on the moon named after him. He made his famous attempt at controlled flight when, aged 65, he built a rudimentary hang glider and launched himself from the side of a mountain. Some accounts claim he remained airborne for several minutes before landing badly and hurting his back.

The above paragraph of the article is by ‘Jim Al-Khalili’ an author and broadcaster.
He is professor of physics and of the public engagement in science at the University of Surrey.

This exhibition explores the connections between the sciences and arts in Muslim societies.

A Shanepedia Compilation

A Shanepedia Compilation

Along with thanks and compliments to the sources for the shared data

© 2006 Museum of History of Science. “Al-Mizan Web site”

Creative Commons Copyright © Shanepedia 2012


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