How Islam invented a bright new world
CATE DEVINE (The Scottish
October 24 2007
We all know that thousands of familiar items were invented, discovered or
created by Scottish ingenuity. The television, Tarmac, penicillin, radar and,
more recently, Dolly the sheep are just some of them.
But how many of us realise that coffee, clocks, deodorant, the fountain pen,
libraries, sofas, surgical instruments, toothpaste, chemistry, herbal medicine,
town planning, vaccinations and even the crankshaft - among thousands of other
inventions - have a claim to originate in the Muslim world between the seventh
and seventeenth centuries?
Too many of us in the west are unaware of the enormous contribution Islamic
scholars have made to our cultural and social life. In an attempt to shed light
on this largely ignored "golden age" of scientific innovation, Salim al Hassani,
chairman of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation and emeritus
professor at Manchester University, has created an interactive exhibition called
1001 Inventions, which opened yesterday at the Glasgow Science Centre.
The Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Babylonians also have claims to incredible
creativity, but al Hassani's point is that the Islamic world's contribution is
often sidelined. "If it had not been for Muslim inventions, we would not have
had the Renaissance, nor present-day civilisation.
"Western history books tend to jump from Greek times to Newton and Einstein, so
there's a huge gap of knowledge that needs to be filled in the interests of
social and cultural cohesion, and even world peace."
This 1000-year gap is a fluke of history, not a conspiracy, he says. However, he
believes the time has come for recognition and acknowledgment. "Because we have
tended to see Islam as the enemy of the west, as an alien culture, society and
belief system, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own
The exhibition has a message for non-Muslims and Muslims alike. "In the
post-9/11 era there have been tensions in world relations," says al Hassani. "I
want non-Muslims to recognise their neighbours, but there is also a message here
for young Muslims in Britain: recognise the contribution of your ancestors.
These people expressed their religiosity through beneficial contributions to
society and humanity.
"Young Muslims should also learn that great inventors were men and women, Muslim
and non-Muslim, working in harmony together. This track record of co-operation
over the centuries, although deeply rooted within early Muslim society, seems to
have been forgotten. The 1001 Inventions project taps directly into that
tradition by seeking to develop a better understanding between peoples and
Professor Robert Hillenbrand, director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of
the Arab World, based at Edinburgh University, also believes the exhibition is
timely. "The Arab world is one of the big four global players today, along with
Russia, China and Japan," he says. "Scottish students are still choosing to
learn French, but who do you think is going to run the planet in 100 years'
time? Not the French."
Here, then, are 10 of the inventions for which we should thank the Muslim
the Greeks had written treatises on optics, it was the ninth-century polymath al
Kindi who first laid down the foundations of its modern study, discussing how
light rays came in a straight line and the influence of distance and angle on
This was built on by Ibn al Haitham in the tenth century, and his Book of Optics
is still quoted by professors 1000 years on. During his practical experiments he
used the term al Bayt al Muthlim, which was translated into Latin as "camera
obscura". His Book of Optics was translated into Latin by the medieval scholar
Gerard of Cremona, and this had a profound impact on the thirteenth-century big
thinkers such as Roger Bacon and Witelo, and even on the later works of Leonardo
1200 years ago, legend has it that coffee was discovered by Ethopian Arab
goatherds when they noticed their goats became more lively after eating certain
berries. These berries were boiled, and became known as al Qahawa. It was a
Turkish merchant, Pasqua Rosee, who first brought coffee to the UK in 1650.
the mechanical engineer al Jazari, working for the Urtuq kings of Diyarbakir in
Turkey, was commissioned to write a book on engineering. It described 50
mechanical devices, including the first water-powered astronomical clock, a
programmable humanoid robot and the crankshaft.
Toothbrushes and toothpaste
sixth century, the Prophet Muhammad is described as believing bad breath and
food bits in your teeth were unhygienic, and scrubbing his teeth with a twig of
miswak before each prayer. Although the Chinese can lay claim to a
sixteenth-century version of the toothbrush, miswak is still used today - and a
Swiss pharmaceutical company has since discovered that it has antibacterial
tenth-century medical encyclopaedia al Tasrif, the physician and surgeon al
Zahrawi included a chapter devoted to "cosmetology" and elaborated on perfume
and perfumed stocks, rolled and pressed in special moulds - like today's roll-on
the Greeks and Romans had houses of scrolls open to the public, they were not
lending libraries. Muslims began producing books in the eighth century because
they knew how to make paper and were encouraged to record all their experiments.
The Abbasid Caliph al Ma'mun paid translators the weight of each book in gold
that they translated from Greek into Arabic. This produced a vast stack of
books. Mosque libraries were called dar al-kutub, or the house of books.
scholars give the title of the father of chemistry to Jabir, or Gerber, ibn
Hayyan, born around 722, the son of a druggist from Iraq. His use of
experimental method in alchemy is seen as influential to this day.
as we know them today came other writing instruments, including the qalam or
reed pen. The most sought-after reeds came from the coastal lands of the Arabian
Gulf. Each style of script required a different reed, cut at a specific angle.
Calligraphers usually made their own inks and kept the recipes secret.
The language of Arabic calligraphy belongs to the family of ancient semitic
languages, the most famous of which are Kufic and Naskh. The Kufic script comes
from the city of Kufa, Iraq, where it was used by seventh- century scribes
translating the Koran. Calligraphy is still used today for writing the Koran.
medical encyclopaedia, the aforementioned al Zahrawi introduced a staggering
collection of more than 200 surgical tools. Their design was so precise that
they have had only a few changes in 1000 years, and it was these illustrations
that laid the foundations for surgery in Europe.
Post and mail
fourteenth-century India, couriers took messages to the Muslim sultan sitting in
Delhi. A man carrying a rod with copper bells on the top would sprint as fast as
he could for one-third of a mile, and on hearing the bells the next man would
get ready to take the mail. It took only five days for a message to get from the
eastern edge of India to the capital.