By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam
23 April 2014
The Qur’an’s Exhortation for Invention:
The very first Qur’anic verse revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a universal command to read, augment knowledge and bring out a scientific revolution for the common good of humankind: “Read in the name of your Lord who created man from a clinging substance.” (96:1-2)
The holy Qur’an, in this very first verse, set great value upon the pursuit of knowledge, intellectual temperament and human endeavour to invent advanced technologies: “And He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth - all from Him. Indeed, in that are signs for those who reflect” (45:13). By giving paramount importance to all creations and inventions of the universe and exhorting people to reflect on their shapes and structures, this Qur’anic injunction clearly aims at imbibing a creative intellect and inventive scientific temperament in the human minds: “Observe what is in the heavens and in the earth. Do you not see? Do you not think? Do you not contemplate? Will they not regard the camels, how they are created? And the heavens, how it is raised? And the hills, how they are set up? And the earth, how it is spread?” (88:17-20)
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Himself Was an Inventor
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), being himself a great inventor, exhorted his Ummah to develop creative skills and devote them to the service of humanity. He was the first to use and popularise the toothbrush 1400 years ago. Using a twig from the Miswaak tree, he cleaned his teeth and freshened up his breath. This Prophetic invention was emulated by almost all his companions who later introduced it to other communities of the world. Substances similar to Miswaak are used in modern toothpaste.
Imbued in the Qur'anic and Prophetic inclinations towards scientific invention, Muslims, right in the early era of Islam, had excelled in different branches of secular and modern sciences, most notably mathematics, algebra, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, geometry, geology, optics, arithmetic, geography, mineralogy, philosophy and architecture. While they dynamically emerged as the pioneers of some of these sciences, they were immensely skilled in the field of medicine with prime focus on surgery, pharmacy and nursing.
Muslim Inventors in the Early Islamic Periods
Following in the same footsteps, Muslim scientists in the early Islamic periods introduced many pioneering intellectual works and scientific inventions to the world. After the advent of Islam in Egypt, a great number of scientific books were translated from Greek, Coptic, Persian and other ancient languages into Arabic by the translators appointed by Prince Khalid. The Muslim Caliph Umar Bin Abdul Aziz (c. 682-720) appointed Ibn Abjar, a physician professor from Alexandria who embraced Islam, as the chief medical officer in the department of health. The caliph Harun al-Rashid established a research centre and a scientific laboratory named “Bait-ul-Hikmat” in which classical works on numerous scientific subjects were rendered into Arabic by Muslim experts of different foreign languages. Indian Islamic scholar of repute Maulana Shibli Nomani has mentioned that Harun al-Rashid invited a renowned Indian physician, Manka al-Hindi, to Baghdad, who translated many Sanskrit books on medicine into Arabic and Persian.
Muslim Inventors in the Middle Ages
Later in the middle ages, Muslim scientists exerted rigorous efforts and produced highly sophisticated technologies that came as scientific bliss to the modern world. From coffee to cranks, items that the world communities today cannot live without are Muslim inventions. If we trace back to the history of human endeavour to scientific development, we will know that the basis of everything from the bicycle to musical scales have come from the Muslim sciences that travelled from early Islamic Arabia to other nations particularly North Africa, Egypt, Spain, Portugal, Southern Italy and parts of the Central Asia.
In Spain, Muslim sciences reached higher culmination leading to an explosion of inventions that shaped the modern world. The Spanish Muslim inventor, Abbas Bin Firnas designed a flying machine in the 9th century hundreds of years before Leonardo da Vinci, the pioneer of Italian scientific inventions, drew plans of his own. In the very 9th century, Muslim inventors introduced advanced hospitals with wards and degree-granting universities in North Africa. In early Islamic Egypt just as today in some parts of South India, mosques were not only places of worship but also educational institutes where secular sciences were taught along with Islamic studies. At the end of the duration, if the teachers deemed a student qualified, they would confer upon him a certificate known as “Ijazah” or “Sanad”. This is how the Muslims introduced to the world the first degree-granting educational institutes starting a new educational trend which soon spread throughout the world.
Among the most eminent Muslim scientists whose inventions and scientific breakthroughs left an ultimate impact on our world were Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (872 – 950) also known as Alpharabius, the eminent Arab thinker, Al-Battani (858 – 929) also known as Albatenius, the mathematician and astronomer who improved existing values for the length of the year and of the seasons, Ibn Sina (980 – 1037) also known as Avicenna, the Persian philosopher and scientist known for his valuable contributions to Aristotelian philosophy and medicine, Ibn Batuta (1304 – 1369) the widely-travelled Arab scholar who wrote one of the most famous travelogues on history tattled “Rihlah”, Ibn Rushd (1126 – 1198) also known as Averroes, the Arab philosopher who produced a series of commentaries on most of Aristotle’s works as well as on Plato’s Republic, Muhammad Bin Musa Al-Khwarizmi (780 – 850) who introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra in European mathematics, Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131), the Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet, globally renowned for his scientific achievements and quatrains (“Rubaiyyat”), Thabit ibn Qurra (826 – 901) the Arab mathematician, physician and astronomer who was the first reformer of the Ptolemaic system and the founder of statics, Jabir Ibn Haiyan (722 – 804), the father of Arab chemistry known for his highly valuable works on alchemy and metallurgy, Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (801 – 873), also known as Alkindus, the Arab philosopher and scientist known as the first of the Muslim peripatetic philosophers, Ibn Al-Haytham (965 – 1040) also known as Alhazen, the Arab astronomer and mathematician who greatly contributed to the principles of optics and the use of scientific experiments, Ibn Al-Baitar (1197 – 1248), the Arab scientist, botanist and physician who systematically recorded the discoveries made by Islamic physicians in the Middle Ages.
Of them, some should be particularly appreciated and recalled to provide the new young Muslim scientists and inventors with inspiration and an ideological anchor for further work and achievements:
Abu Ali Ibn Sina
For the new Muslim generation of scientists, Abu Ali Ibn Sina (980-1038) or Avicenna should be the greatest source of inspiration. Today’s European medical scientists look up to him as one of the most accomplished medical experts of Islam. Historians of all times and places considered him an intellectual personage whose scholarly legacy will remain timeless. He was not only a great physician, but also one of the epoch-making pioneers of philosophy. The most lasting empirical contributions to sciences that he made encompass vast scientific fields such as psychology, geology, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and logic. He wrote about 450 works, revolving around different subjects, of which nearly 240 have survived. Today, Ibn Sina’s portrait hangs in the main hall of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris.
Ya'qub Ishaq al-Kindi
Al-Kindi was an Arab scientist and inventor of the 9th century, but his experiments and inventions in philosophy, cosmology, mathematics, optics, music, cryptology and medicine had a deep impact on later centuries. Al-Kindi will always be recalled for developing a vocabulary for philosophical thought in Arabic. He invented numerous methods to extract scents from flowers and essential oils. Thus, he found ways to invent a great number of enchanting perfumes. He also created many recipes which he mentioned in his work titled “Book of the Chemistry of Perfume”. One of his astonishing discoveries was that he found out what was in wine that made it intoxicating. Thus, he was the first scientist in the world to identify alcohol. With 270 publications on science, Al-Kindi was a man of manifold traits. He was a physician, pharmacist, ophthalmologist, physicist, mathematician, geographer, astronomer, chemist and a great philosopher.
Abu Walid Mohammad Ibn Rushd
Ibn Rushd was born to be remembered for his tremendous contributions in philosophy, law, medicine, astronomy, psychology, mechanics, physics and theology, particularly for his profound commentaries on Aristotle which shaped European thinking throughout the later Medieval and early Renaissance periods. At the young age of 25, Ibn Rushd conducted astronomical observations and discovered a previously unobserved star. He also gave one of the first descriptions on sunspots. In medicine, he rendered remarkable contributions and wrote a ground-breaking book “Kitab al-Kulyat fi al-Tibb” which became more famous in Latin as ‘Colliget’. In this book, Ibn Rushd dwelt on various aspects of medicine including the diagnoses, cure and prevention of several diseases and original observations of him. He wrote at least 67 original works including 28 works on philosophy, 20 on medicine, 8 on law, 5 on theology, and 4 on grammar. Averroes was deeply moved by the Islamic spirituality. He held that his faith in the omnipotence and oneness of God increased by carefully studying anatomy. Consequently, he developed a concrete religious faith within his heart and believed that one can enjoy true psychological happiness only by following the path to lead a blissful eternal life in the hereafter.
Muslim Inventors Today
While the early Muslims pioneered highly valuable scientific works and inventions, the modern Muslims have regrettably been declining in this field over the last 300 years. Today, news of scientific achievements from Muslim world is hard to come by. This deplorable state of affairs, however, should not make us overlook the value of the scientific inventions made by a few young and emerging scientists in the modern Muslim world. Hopefully, an appreciation of their precious works may help many other Muslim youths ignite their minds and drive inspiration from them to kindle a light instead of cursing the darkness.
I am deeply inspired by the New Age Islam’s exclusive report on the outstanding achievements of Muslim inventors in the recent International Exhibition of Inventions at Geneva. It was truly heartening to note that over half of Geneva’s inventors came from the Middle East, most of them being Muslims. More interestingly, even Saudi women who are mostly highlighted for being intellectually shackled and socially constrained in their country, came up with wonderful and captivating works in this grand event of scientific inventions. It was very gratifying to see a Saudi woman scientist; Ghaida Al-Sulami wins three gold medals at the Geneva International Exhibition for Inventors. The huge participation of young Muslim inventors from the Islamic countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia, marks a new beginning in the history of Muslim inventions and scientific development that must be welcomed with full gaiety.
Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is an Alim and Fazil (classical Islamic scholar) with a Sufi background. He has graduated from a leading Sufi Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur'anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.