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Islam and Science ( 16 Jan 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Moment Of Science: Islam And Modern Science

By Shahbaz Khan

 Jan 9, 2017

Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei — check in any American science classroom, and it’s guaranteed that students will know at least two of those names. And why wouldn’t they? All three have made enormous contributions to modern science. All three have theorized concepts and ideas we still apply to understand the world around us. All three are white men.

It’s easy to think that the majority, if not the entirety, of modern scientific canon is the result of the research and publications of white men. When all we learn about are the lives and legacies of white men, we’re implicitly taught that all significant figures in history are white men. Combine that with a general dismissal of other cultures as backwards and alien, and you have a solid foundation for white nationalism and white supremacy.

With the election of Donald Trump, white-nationalist thought is only going to grow. The only way to combat it is through education — to recognize the major components of our culture that came not from white men, but from peoples of all races, genders, ethnicities, and religions.

Yet for Islam, students curious about the influence of the culture will find themselves intellectually starved even at the collegiate level.

“The fact that we don’t have a real expert in, say, the studies of Islamic history of sciences, is a painful gap in our resources on campus,” said Joel Walker, an associate professor in the UW Department of History. “Islamic intellectual history is taught as part of general courses of Islamic civilization, but we often don’t have the depth of expertise that you have in the Western tradition.”

Primer: Baghdad

While this article focuses primarily on Islamic society’s contributions to science, it is important to note that those contributions would not have been as prevalent without the work done by other cultures, as has always been the case with science. The 10 Arabic numerals, which replaced the seven Roman numerals in mathematics, were themselves derived from Indian numerals. This cross-cultural communication achieved its peak during the Islamic Golden Age (mid-seventh to mid-13th century) in the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate: Baghdad.

According to Walker, a significant amount of Islam’s contributions to the sciences came not from native Arab speakers, but from immigrants from various religious and ethnic backgrounds whose second language was Arabic. Many of the innovators and advancements discussed in this article can trace their origins back to Abbasid-era Baghdad.

“The setting in cosmopolitan Baghdad was crucial,” Walker said. “Baghdad was an enormously wealthy capitol, and the patronage by caliphs encouraged and facilitated the scientific achievements of the era ... The confluence of cultural tradition in Baghdad was a really essential element.”

Part 1: Al-Khwarizmi And The Rebirth Of Algebra

Around 820 C.E., a Persian man known as Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi published “Al-Kitab al-Mukhta?ar Fi Hisab al-Gabr wa’l-Muqabala,” or “The Compendious Book on Calculation and Balancing.” The book dealt mostly with quadratic equations, containing numerous methods to solve six basic equations. While the book ignored negative numbers, modern mathematical historians attribute al-Khwarizmi’s book as providing the launchpad for modern algebra.

Al-Khwarizmi himself was a polymath, someone with a diverse set of knowledge and skills. Born in Khwarizm (located in what is now western Uzbekistan), al-Khwarizmi moved to Baghdad at some point in the ninth century, where he would spend the majority of his life and career. In addition to “Al-Kitab al-Mukhta?ar Fi Hisab al-Gabr wa’l-Muqabala,” al-Khwarizmi also published “Kitab Hisab al-Adad al-Hindi” (“On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals”) in 825, which is credited as popularizing what would eventually become the Arabic numerals.

In addition to mathematics, al-Khwarizmi made contributions to geography, cartography, and astronomy. Al-Khwarizmi’s 830 C.E. text, “Zij al-Sindh” (“Astronomical Tables of Sindhind”), is considered by many to be the first major Islamic contribution to astronomy, based on the work of Hindu astronomers from India.

Part 2: Al-Sufi And The Secret Origin Of Astronomy

Stars such as Altair, Deneb, and Betelgeuse derive their names from romanizations of their original Arabic names, as do many astronomical terms. Since the founding of Islam, Muslims have always meticulously observed the night sky. Unlike the solar-based Gregorian calendar, the Islamic calendar is lunar-based. All major Islamic holidays and events are determined by the phases of the Moon and its orbit around the Earth, resulting in the Islamic year being 354 days instead of the Gregorian calendar’s 365-day year.

Around 964 C.E., Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi published “Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib,” or “Book of the Fixed Stars.” Based off of the work of Ptolemy, al-Sufi’s book collected, critiqued, and corrected information about the 48 established constellations. This included drawings of how the constellations appeared in the night sky, how they appeared outside the celestial sphere, and charts listing the names, locations, colors, and magnitudes of the individual stars in each constellation.

Al-Sufi’s book provided the foundation for the work of the Islamic world in astronomy, being translated into multiple languages and spread across the Islamic world before eventually reaching Europe. Al-Sufi’s calculations of the ecliptic (the path of the Sun across the celestial sphere from Earth’s perspective) from “The Book of Fixed Stars” led Islamic astronomers to question the geocentric view of the universe. Their work eventually was used by Copernicus to create his heliocentric model of the universe in the 16th century.

Al-Sufi’s book never received an English translation, but as of 2012, James Cook University professor Ihsan Hafez had begun work on preparing one. A version of the manuscript is preserved in the Library of Congress.

Part 3: Ibn Al-Haytham And The Insights Of Optics

Perhaps the most visionary of the scientists discussed in this article, Ibn al-Haytham was an Arab-Muslim scientist from the 10th century based in the Fatimid Caliphate [CQ] in Cairo [CQ5]. Considered by many to be among the first theoretical physicists, Ibn al-Haytham predated the scientists of the European Renaissance in applying the scientific method by about 200 years. A mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer, al-Haytham’s most lasting legacy is “Kitab al-Manazir,” or “Book of Optics,” a seven-volume treatise on vision published from 1011-1021.

Al-Haytham disagreed with the most commonly held theory of vision, which said eyesight was an emission-based phenomenon — that is, radiation emitted from the eyes allowed human beings to perceive color, depth, size, and shape. Conducting a series of optical experiments with mirrors, lenses, refraction, and reflection, al-Haytham instead came to a conclusion much closer to our current understanding of vision. Al-Haytham proposed that objects emit light from all directions on the surface into the eye, with light from the perpendicular direction dominating the others to clarify the image.

To further strengthen his argument, al-Haytham examined the anatomy of the eye, breaking its structure down to three humours: the front most aqueous humour (behind the cornea), the central crystalline humour (the lens), and the rearmost vitreous humour (inside the large chamber of the eye). In al-Haytham’s model, the crystalline humour played the most significant role in vision, receiving the image of the object and transmitting it to the optic nerve.

Al-Haytham’s model was imperfect. The notion that light could only be perceived as perpendicular could not completely explain why the images produced in vision were not blurry. However, al-Haytham’s book did provide the most comprehensive theory of vision for its time, and soon supplanted Ptolemy’s emission-based “Optics” as the accepted optical model of sight. Latin and Italian translations of “Book of Optics” would prove extremely influential to optical sciences during the European Renaissance.

Part 4: Today

Most people believe that Islamic cultures’ contributions to science ended after the Islamic Golden Age. Since most Islamic countries are notoriously fundamentalist, it’s an easy presumption to have. However, Islam is not a monolith. With the globalization of over 1.6 billion Muslims, Islamic culture has spread beyond the Middle East to join the various tapestries of countries across the Earth, including our own.

Today, Muslim students worldwide seek out science degrees and pursue STEM-based careers. And why wouldn’t that be the case? Muslim students are humans. For as long as there has been self-awareness, there has been an innate desire to understand the world around us. Science is just another avenue available to us — available to everyone.