When asked about history’s most influential scientists, many people talk of Einstein, Darwin, Galileo or Newton. But few will mention how these European scientists were indebted to their predecessors: Arabic scholars (and Arabic scientists) who made advances in science and technology while Europe was in a cultural decline during the Dark Ages (5th – 15th century).
The passing of the science baton is often overlooked due to the conflict of the Crusades and “it’s possible, too, that many scholars in the Renaissance later played down or even disguised their connection to the Middle East for both political and religious reasons,” says Ehsan Masood, who wrote the book Science and Islam.
10. HASSAN IBN AL-HAITHAM, MATHEMATICIAN Basra, Iraq (965 – 1040)
Al-Haitham is considered one of the founders of modern optics. Ptolemy and Aristotle theorised that light either shone from the eye to illuminate objects or that light emanated from objects themselves. But al-Haitham suggested that light travels to the eye in rays from different points on an object.
However, al-Haitham’s stellar career ended abruptly after he foolishly promised the ruler of Cairo that he could stop the Nile from flooding by building a dam at Aswan. He couldn’t, feigning insanity to avoid persecution. Ironically, his plans to build a dam were carried out hundreds of years later, on the same site he initially proposed, when human engineering abilities had caught up with his vision.
9. OMAR KHAYYAAM, MATHEMATICIAN Neyshapur, Iran (1048 – 1131)
Khayyam calculated the length of a solar year to 10 decimal places and was only out by a fraction of a second when compared to our modern day calculations. He used this to compose a calendar considered more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that came along 500 years later.
His passion for science and interpersonal skills could classify him as one of the world’s first great science communicators – he is said to have convinced a Sufi theologist that the world turns on an axis.
8. AL-BATTANI, MATHEMATICIAN Harran, Turkey (858 – 929)
Although first conceptualised in Ancient Greece, al-Battani further developed trigonometry as an independent branch of mathematics, developing relationships such as tanø=sinø/cosø. His driving force was to obtain the ability to locate Mecca from any given geographical point – aiding in Muslim rituals such as burial and prayer, which require participants to face the holy city.
7. AL-RAZI, MEDICAL RESEARCHER Rey, near Tehran, Iran (865 – 920)
Al-Razi identified the fever as part of the body’s defence, and was the first to describe the symptoms and pathology of smallpox and measles.
He also challenged the accepted medical theory on ‘bleeding’ – a widely practiced healing technique. Demonstrating a well-planned experimental methodology, patients with meningitis were divided randomly into a treatment group where ‘bleeding’ was applied and a control group where it was not. Despite his efforts, the ‘bled’ group displayed a greater recovery.
6. AL-ZAHRAWI, SURGEON El-Zahra, near Cordoba, Spain (936 – 1013)
Al-Zahrawi is considered one of the fathers of modern surgery. It was his idea to use animal intestines for internal suturing, a material that produces no immune response and dissolves naturally, removing the need for further surgery, and this is still used in some counties today.
He is also known for the invention of many surgical instruments, including forceps to assist in vaginal births.
5. NASIR AL-DIN AL-TUSI, ASTRONOMER AND MATHEMATICIAN Baghdad, Iraq (1201 – 1274)
Al-Din al-Tusi authoured the Treasury of Astronomy, a frighteningly accurate table of planetary movements that reformed the existing planetary model of Roman astronomer Ptolemy by describing a uniform circular motion of all planets in their orbits. This work led to the later discovery, by one of his students, that planets actually have an elliptical orbit.
Copernicus later drew heavily on the work of al-Din al-Tusi and his students, but without acknowledgment, says Masood. The gradual chipping away of the Ptolemaic system paved the way for the revolutionary idea that the Earth actually orbited the Sun.
4. IBN-SINA, MEDICAL RESEARCHER Bukhara, Uzbekistan (980 – 1037)
Ibn-Sina made important contributions to the disciplines of physics, optics, philosophy and medicine. He wrote The Canon of Medicine, a text used to teach student doctors in Europe until the 1600s. He identified that the nerve cells are responsible for transmitting pain signals and his detailed observations of disease vectors, including soil, air, touch and sex, influenced the future direction of the medical profession.
3. IBN AL-NAFIS, SURGEON Damascus, Syria (1213 – 1288)
Often called the ‘father of circulatory physiology’, ibn al-Nafis identified pulmonary transit – that is, that blood enters the heart at the right atrium, exits via the right ventricle, arrives at the lungs where it is re-oxygenated, then passes back through the heart’s left atrium and is redirected back to the body.
Prior to this, it was thought that blood simply seeped through holes between the heart’s chambers and did not pass through the lungs.
2. JABIR IBN-HAYYAN, ALCHEMIST Tous, Iran (721 – 815)
Jabir was an alchemist (from ‘al-kimya’) who, in his quest to make gold from other metals, discovered strong acids such as sulfuric, hydrochloric and nitric acids. He was the first person to identify the only substance that can dissolve gold – aqua regis (royal water) – a volatile mix of hydrochloric and nitric acid.
To control the monster he had created, Jabir produced Alkalis (‘al-Qaly’) that neutralised their acidic counterparts. It is disputed whether Jabir was the first to use or describe distillation, but he was definitely the first to perform it in the lab using an alembic (from ‘al-inbiq’) the old-fashioned and iconic flasks.
1. AL-KHWARIZMI, MATHEMATICIAN Persia (780 – 850)
Can you imagine trying to multiply or divide two numbers on paper if they were written in Roman numerals? It’s thanks to al-Khwarizmi you don’t have to. He produced a comprehensive guide to the numbering system, developed from the Brahmi system in India, using only 10 digits (0-9, the so-called ‘Arabic numerals’).
Al-Khwarizmi also used the word algebra (‘al-jabr’) to describe the mathematical operations he introduced, such as balancing equations, which helped in several day-to-day problems. “The intriguing thing is that algebra developed out of a need to solve a religious problem – Islam’s complicated system of divying up inheritance,” says Masood.
After the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, scholars of Islam wanted a way to verify his sayings. They developed a system of peer review before publication. A century later, at the start of the Golden Age, the first scientists adopted a similar method. It’s still used today in all sciences.
Related reading: Nine scientists named Kavli Prize winners
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