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Islam and Science ( 29 Jun 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islamic Science: ibn Sina, al-Biruni, al-Tusi, ibn Hayyan and al-Razi Inspire Me

By Carlos Escapa

December 16, 2019

The more I read about the scientists of the Islamic Golden Age, the more I feel inspired by their legacy. Their prodigious intellectual output is increasingly relevant in today's world. I want to dedicate a few minutes of our very busy XXI century to acknowledge and pay homage to luminaries at the root of a very long arc of history that started with algebra and algorithms, and has taken us to Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.

Firstly, let me set the space-time context. The Islamic Golden Age refers to the time between the VIII and the XIII centuries when Islamic caliphates reigned from Cordoba in Spain to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. It was a time of prosperity where scientists were rock stars, headhunted throughout the empire, revered by their fellow citizens and paid handsomely for their knowledge and their research.

The respect that Islam’s political and religious rulers had for scientists was rooted on practical requirements. The caliphates were wealthy, advanced societies with a complex system of trade, taxes and public sector spending; they needed good mathematicians (they didn't call them accountants or data scientists yet). The political rulers relied on astrological advice for major decisions, which astronomers were happy to provide. Calendars, also produced by astronomers, were essential to plan religious practices, particularly determining the start of Ramadan. And as the empire grew in size, geographers were needed to determine how to accurately face Mecca during prayers.

Forward-thinking caliphs-built think tanks in major cities across their empire. The most famous of them was al-Mahmun's House of Wisdom in Baghdad, which concentrated the best minds of West and Central Asia speaking all languages and practicing all religions. At the House of Wisdom, scientific documents were brought from all corners of the caliphate, translated to Arabic, and disseminated throughout the empire. These centres of scholarship had very large libraries, often numbering tens of thousands of documents.

There are many Islamic scientists that we should recognise, and who deserve to be better known in the world today. Three of them are Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, Abu ibn Ahmad al-Kindi, and Hassan ibn al-Haytham. They were an elite within an elite of intellectual titans, each of whom contributed to science at least as much as European scientists like Galileo, Newton or Einstein.

Al-Khwarizmi was the father of algebra. Born in Persia, in present-day Uzbekistan, he moved to Baghdad and became the librarian of the House of Wisdom. Multilingual and extremely gifted, Al-Khwarizmi had the incredible ability to synthesise mathematical knowledge from Greek, Babylonian and Hindu texts into a single treatise. Today, it is taught to children all over the world, and is known as Arithmetic and Algebra. So powerful was his influence felt in Europe that the latinised version of his name, algorithm, became known as a method or process to obtain a result with mathematical operations. Today algorithms are used to train Machine Learning models.

Al-Kindi was a contemporary of al-Khwarizmi and a colleague at the House of Wisdom. In addition to being one of the best-known philosophers in Islam, his gargantuan output of hundreds of papers and treatises range across all fields of science, including geometry, meteorology, zoology, pharmacology and even cryptology and music. He is credited with introducing Indian numerals to the Islamic world and thereafter to Europe. Al-Kindi made the first known use of statistical inference, which is used today to obtain predictions from Machine Learning models.

Al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen, was born and raised in Basra, and later lived in Cairo. His output is thought to have exceeded 200 papers, some of them hugely influential bodies of work that were used in European universities until the XIX century. He created the field of optics, was a renowned mathematician, and an amazing geometrist. A true revolutionary, al-Haytham had the intellectual audacity to challenge hundreds of years of tradition and change the way that knowledge is acquired. What we know today as the scientific method is al-Haytham’s method: observation of phenomena, collection of data, formulation of hypotheses with mathematical models, experimentation and reproducibility, and relentless review. For scientists, al-Haytham is a role model not only for his inquisitiveness and precision, but also for having the self-awareness and humility to accept that the pursuit of scientific knowledge requires both iron discipline and healthy scepticism, and is often hampered by human frailty and bias.

Many works of these Islamic scientists were available in al-Andalus. The translation from Arabic to Latin was started after Toledo was reconquered in 1085. Arabic-speaking Christians in Spain known as Mozarabs played a major role, and welcomed scholars from all over Europe like Gerard of Cremona (Italy) and Robert of Ketton (England). The translations eventually found their way to Roger Bacon, Descartes, Kepler, Copernicus and countless other scientists of the Renaissance, fuelling the rise of modern science across Europe in all fields of knowledge. In mathematics, Islamic scholars inspired hundreds of Europeans to pursue the development of linear algebra, differential calculus and statistics. These are the fundamental mathematics of Machine Learning.

There were many other giants of Islamic Science, such as ibn Sina, al-Biruni, al-Tusi, ibn Hayyan and al-Razi. There are too many to mention. I will close this essay by letting al-Haytham speak to us directly from 1000 years ago, his thoughts more relevant than ever to data scientists in the age of Artificial Intelligence:

“The truthseeker submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of human beings whose nature is fraught with imperfection and deficiency. The duty of the truthseeker is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or bias.”

Ibn Al-Haytham, Doubts about Ptolemy, ca 1025

Originao Headline: The Legacy of Islamic Science

Source: The Linkedin


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