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Still Blogging in Berkeley

Monday, July 9th, 2007...9:39 am

“Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new,…” said the Pope. “No problem,” says Doug’s Darkworld.

Does the Pope know that the pointed arch is a Muslim invention. Did you?


Recently I have heard people say that nothing good ever came out of the Islamic world. In fact educated people like the Pope have repeated this canard as if it were a statement of fact. What can I say, many white Christians of European ancestry think that white Christians pretty much invented everything that was worth inventing, and the brown people of the world copied them at best. Even if they don’t think this consciously, it is pretty much what they were taught in school and underlays their world view in a million subtle and not so subtle ways. This kind of thinking about Muslims is just another facet of that, I’ve heard the exact same applied to Asians, native Americans, whatever.

Well, for those who think this way because they were taught this and never really thought about it or looked it up, I have some interesting news for you. Turns out all sorts of things were invented in the Muslim World. In fact it’s simple to refute the Pope…

·         Mathematics: The words algebra and algorithm are of Arabic origin. That’s because the zero, the base ten number system, and algebra were invented in what is now Iraq. For all practical purposes modern practical mathematics was invented by Muslim scholars. The Romans and Greeks had geometry and arithmetic, but had no way of actually working with numbers. The modern scientific age is based on modern mathematics, to put it mildly, this one area of Muslim discovery whose importance cannot be underestimated, the renaissance could not have occurred with modern mathematics.

·         Architecture: The pointed arch, used in Cathedrals throughout Europe, is a Muslim invention. It is much stronger than the round Roman arch. Pretty much all the features of Medieval European castles were invented by Muslims, and copied by the Crusaders when they returned home to Europe. The window pane was a Muslim invention apparently.

·         Mechanics: Crank and the crankshaft. The crank and crankshaft are the second most important mechanical invention after the wheel and are used in virtually all modern factories, engines, machines, and automobiles. They were invented by al-Jazari, who also invented the combination lock among other things. The modern mechanical clock, the pendulum, the pendulum clock, and the wristwatch are Muslim inventions. As were the piston engine, the first true pump, and the steam turbine. The windmill was invented in ninth century Persia.

·         Chemistry: Modern chemistry got it’s start in the Muslim world, Jabir ibn Hayyan is considered the father of modern chemistry and is credited with transforming alchemy into chemistry. He also invented sulfuric acid, nitric acid, distilled alcohol and many of the basic chemistry processes that are still used today. Kerosene is also a Muslim invention.

·         Optics and physics: Ibn al-Haytham was the first person to realize that light enters the eyes, before then people thought that the eyes emitted rays which allowed people to see. He is called the father of modern optics, is credited with making physics an experimental science instead of a philosophical one, and invented the camera obscura and the pinhole camera. In other words, he invented the camera, photography followed centuries later with the invention of film. There is also evidence that the telescope was invented in the Islamic world.

·         Personal hygiene: Bar soap, shampoo, perfume. The carpet was a Muslim invention as well, and they proved to be a huge and popular improvement over the previous European floor covering…dirt with reeds laid on it.

·         Medicine: Much of modern medicine was invented in the Muslim world, including anaesthetics, antiseptics, the forceps, and the syringe. Muslim doctors were the first to realize the importance of sterilization before, during, and after surgery.

·         Military technology: The counterweight trebuchet, the most effective catapult ever invented, was possibly a Muslim invention. (People still build them to toss cars for fun.) Military rockets, guns, and grenades were invented by Muslims, Muslims were the first to realize that gunpowder could be used as a weapon, or at least the first to make widespread use of it as such. And indeed they are still pioneering military uses for it, as the effectiveness of IED technology shows.

·         Miscellaneous: Modern glass making from sand was invented in the Muslim world. Eyeglasses. The glass mirror. The sextant. The fountain pen. Three course meals. Homing pigeons. Sherbet.

·         Sanity: Coffee is an invention of the Islamic world, now where would we be without it? Slurp. I rest my case.

The golden age of Islamic science and invention contributed much to modern civilization, in fact it would be almost impossible to go a day without using many items that were invented by Muslims. (And if anyone decides to do so as a matter of principle, please avoid me because I think bar soap and shampoo were really good ideas.) Why did the Islamic golden age of science and discovery end? Historians still argue about it. Waves of invaders from the Crusaders, to the Mongols, to colonial Europeans, to the current Israeli and American meddling and occupations haven’t helped any. In any event the idea that Islam “never contributed anything new” is beyond downright ignorant. The Pope’s pointy hat was on too tight I guess.

More information and links about this topic can be found here and here.

(The above image of Well’s Cathedral is legally reproduced in accordance with the author’s permission: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Credit: Antoine)



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