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Muslim Contribution to Civilization

Posted on August 21, 2008 by imydp

Muslim Contribution to Civilization


Conceptual Foundations and Historical Manifestations


By  Dr. Jamal Badawi


Muslim Intellectual — Canada





In his book, The Making of Humanity, Rob Briffault states:


It is highly probable that but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have risen at all. There is no single aspect of European growth in which decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable. What we call science arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of enquiry, new methods of investigation, methods of experimentation, observation, measurement, and the development of Mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs. (qtd. in Waheed 25-26)


Like many other authors, Briffault recognizes the immense contribution of Muslims to civilization and its influence on the European Renaissance. Unlike most other authors, however, Briffault realizes that this contribution was stimulated, motivated and guided by a “new spirit.” Insufficient attention; however, has been given to the source and roots of this “new spirit” that emerged suddenly and powerfully in the seventh century. Initially the Arabs were not known for having made any significant contribution to science and technology, nor was the sandy, mostly arid Arabia known as a center of learning and research.


What then could explain the extraordinary transformation of a people from that state into pioneers of progress and apostles of learning in diverse fields of knowledge? What happened in the seventh century that suddenly put this transformation into motion? There is no viable explanation except for the emergence of Islam and its monotheistic concept of Allah, the source of all bounties. This is what we will be examining in what follows.


Allah: The Source of All Bounties


We are born into this world owning nothing that we earned and we depart from it with no assets that we saved. Between our birth and physical death, we are all utterly dependent on Allah’s bounties. Allah is the only Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher of the Universe. As such, it is useful to begin with an exposition of Islam’s conception of God that may be summed up in the key term Tawheed; the cornerstone of Islam and the foundation of its ethics and approach to life as well as the basis of its systems and institutions. It is also the primary determinant of one’s relationship to the natural and social order. It may be helpful to begin with the explanation of the meaning of tawheed before examining its implications.


The Meaning of Tawheed


Tawheed is an Arabic term that has often been translated into English as “monotheism”; the belief in One God as opposed to dualism, polytheism or atheism. However, this definition does not fully capture the deeper meaning of Tawheed. As a theological term, it means the oneness, uniqueness and incomparability of God (Allah) to any of His creatures. Based on the Qur’an, Muslim scholars concluded that there are three crucial requirements of Tawheed:


To believe in the One and Only True God (Allah) as the Sole Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher of the universe

To believe that Allah alone is worthy of worship and of unshared divine authority

To believe in the unity of the essence and attributes of Allah which are all attributes of absolute perfection. This rules out any notion of “persons” within the Godhead.



The comprehensive meaning of the Unity of God implies other types of unity:


Unity of the basic divine message to mankind in various revelatory forms. The Qur’an makes it incumbent on its adherents to believe in, love and honor all the prophets and messengers of God as one brotherhood, and as links in the revelatory chain throughout human history. This chain was completed with the advent of the last messenger, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) who is presented in the Qur’an not only as the seal and last of all the prophets, but also as the only messenger whose mandate and mission embraces the entire world, and whose teachings completes and culminates all the earlier forms of revelation.

Unity of the human race, created by Allah and descendants of the same original parents. This depicts humanity as a large family characterized by unity in diversity. Conceptually, this should shape one’s attitudes towards other humans including non-Muslims.

Unity between all aspects of human life on earth as they all come under Allah’s jurisdiction. To compartmentalize life into religious and secular, spiritual and mundane is contrary to the essence of Tawheed.

Unity between the present life and the life to come; both come under the same divine jurisdiction. As such, individual and collective decision-making is guided by a time scale, which is not limited by one’s life span, the life of one or more generations, or even the life of all generations. Every action has consequences both in this life and in the life to come.

The Human as a Beneficiary of Allah’s Bounties


The bounties of God embrace all creation. Yet, the main beneficiary of these bounties is the human. What is the nature of the human and why is he here on earth?


Human Nature


{Such is He, the Knower of all things, hidden and open, the Exalted [in Power], the Merciful; He who has made everything which He has created most good. He began the creation of the human with clay. And made his progeny from a quintessence of the nature of fluid despised. Then He fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him something of His Spirit. And He gave you [the faculties of] hearing, sight and understanding [and feelings]. Little thanks do you give.} (As-Sajdah 32:6-9)


From this passage, the nature of the human, as a physical-intellectual-spiritual being, is indicated. ‘Clay’ represents the earthly aspect of the carnal elements of human nature. Urges and instincts


It is true that reason alone is insufficient to understand all the mysteries of creation. Nonetheless, reason is neither irrelevant  to the strengthening of a person’s faith, nor is it the antithesis of faith.


in themselves, act as mechanisms through which the physical survival and perpetuation of the human race are fulfilled. The human is also endowed with intellect and the power of reasoning. It is true that reason alone is insufficient to understand all the mysteries of creation. Nonetheless, reason is neither irrelevant to the strengthening of a person’s faith, nor is it the antithesis of faith. Indeed, the use of the power of intellect and reason is not only accepted, it is also encouraged.


{Do they not reflect in their own minds? Not but for just end, and for a term appointed, did Allah create the heavens and the earth, and all between them. Yet, are there truly many among people who deny the meeting with their Lord (and resurrection)!}(Ar-Rum 30:8]


{Do they see nothing in the government of heavens and the earth and all that Allah has created?}(Al-A`raf 7:185)


The physical component of human nature is shared by other living beings. Animals possess intelligence in varying degrees. However, only in the case of humans does the Qur’an say that Allah breathed into him something of His spirit. It is that ‘breath’ which endows the human with innate spiritual and moral qualities. It also establishes the unique position of the human as the crown of creation.


{We have honored the children of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favors above a great part of Our creation.} ( Al-Israa’ 17:70)


A significant symbol of this honor was God’s command to bow down to Adam:


{Behold! We said to the angels, bow down to Adam. They bowed down except lblis. He was one of the Jinn, and he broke the Command of his Lord…}(Al-Kahf 18:50]


This position of honor is closely related to the fulfillment of one’s role as God’s trustee and as a free agent. It is a heavy responsibility; one which requires making the right choices. Failing to make such a choice leads to the loss of that position of honor and distinction. The human may even descend to a position, which is less than that of animals. These are the ones who:


{Have hearts [minds] wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay more misguided; for they are heedless (of warning). }(Al-A`raf 7:179)


The ‘forbidden tree’ symbolizes the universal ethical experience of every human being. It eloquently and effectively sums up the concepts of freedom of choice, temptation, decision-making, erring, realization of error, repentance and forgiveness


The physical, intellectual and spiritual elements in human existence are not regarded as three different compartments. They are not necessarily irreconcilable either. The human is regarded as neither a fallen angel nor and ascending animal. Rather, the human is a responsible being with the potential of ascending to a position that is higher than that of the angels, or descending to a position that is lower than that of animals.


The ‘forbidden tree’ symbol izes the universal ethical experience of every human being. It eloquently and effectively sums up the concepts of freedom of choice, temptation, decision-making, erring, realization of error, repentance and forgiveness. It represents the main ethical challenges before humankind:


(a) Rising above the purely physical element and ruling over it instead of being ruled by it.


(b) Developing the spiritual and intellectual elements and bringing


them into harmony with the Divine will through conscious submission to God


(c) Realizing the consequences of obedience and disobedience to




(d) Striving to succeed in the ‘test’ of this earthly life, in order not to merely return to an even greater ‘garden’ after one’s physical death, but to enjoy the ultimate bliss of nearness to God and the company of the pure.


{All who obey Allah and the Messenger are in the company of those on whom is the Grace of Allah, of the Prophets, the sincere [Lovers of Truth], the martyrs and the righteous. Ah! What a beautiful fellowship.} ( An-Nisaa’ 4:69)


These challenges are related directly to one’s conception of the purpose of creation, which will be discussed next.


The Purpose of Creation


The Qur’an summarizes the purpose of creation of humanity in the following verse:


{I have only created Jinns and humankind that they may worship [serve] me.}(Adh-Dhariyat 51:56)


Worship of Allah is not mere formalism, nor is it restricted to the performance of certain rites or other devotional acts. Rites and devotional acts do have their place, however, the concept of ‘worship’ in Islam is much more comprehensive than the common meaning attached to the term. Any act is a potential act of worship if it meets two fundamental conditions – first, to be done with a ‘pure’ intention; second, to be done within the limits prescribed by God. Even customary and mundane activities, such as eating, sleeping and innocent recreation, may be regarded as acts of worship if they meet the above two conditions. An extension of this broad concept of worship is the absence in Islam of any artificial compartmentalization of the various aspects of human life, which is seen as an integrated and interrelated whole. It includes individual and collective pursuits; moral, social, economic, and political. Indeed, one of the main challenges of humanity is to relate and harmonize such activities under the boundaries of Divine guidance.


It is this challenge which qualifies the human race as the vicegerent of God on earth. It also makes this earthly life a test or trial.


{He [Allah] Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of your is best in deeds and He is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.}(Al-Mulk 67:2)


A person’s conception of human nature and his understanding and acceptance of the purpose of creation and the role of vicegerent determine how he sees his relationship to the natural and social order.


The World: Sharing Allah’s Bounties


The roots of this ‘new spirit’, meaning, the Islamic spirit was the rise of Islam and the new worldview it offered. A relevant element of this new spirit is that reason is neither irrelevant to the strengthening of a person’s faith, nor is it the antithesis of faith. Indeed, the use of power of intellect and reason is not only accepted, it is also urged in the Qur’an:


{Do they not reflect in their own minds? Not but for just end, and for a term appointed, did Allah create the heavens and the earth, and all between them… }(Ar-Rum 30:8)


{Do they see nothing in the domain of heavens and the earth and all that Allah has created? } (Al-A`raf 7:185)


The Qur’an states that God breathed His spirit into every human. It is that ‘breath’ which endows the human with innate spiritual and moral qualities. It also establishes the unique position of the human as the crown of creation.


{We have honored the children of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favors above a great part of Our creation.}(Al-Israa’ 17:70)


This position of honor is closely tied to the fulfillment of one’s role as God’s ‘trustee’ and as a free agent; to worship God in the broad meaning of worship which includes all useful and constructive endeavors on earth.


It is that challenge which qualifies the human race as the vicegerent of God on earth. It also makes earthly life a test or trial.


{He [Allah] Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deeds and He is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.}(Al- Mulk 67:2)


A person’s conception of human nature and his understanding and acceptance of the purpose of creation and the role of vicegerent determine how he sees his relationship to the natural and social order.


Resources and Trusteeship


As the human is created to be God’s trustee on earth, it follows that the resources made available to him in the universe are to be regarded as tools to fulfill the responsibilities of this trusteeship. The Qur’an made it clear that all things on earth are (made) subservient to human use (not abuse). It goes beyond that to remove any notion that may regard the exploration of the Universe outside the earth as an encroachment on God’s domain.


{And He has subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the heavens and on earth: behold, in that are signs indeed for those who reflect.}(Al-Jathiyah 45:13)


The Qur’an lays the foundation of understanding and harnessing God-given resources in numerous areas of economic pursuits.


Conditions of the Trust



As the human is Allah’s trustee on earth, it follows that his actions in the social order must be in accordance with the conditions of that trust. Tawheed upholds the exclusive sovereignty of God as the real owner of the universe and His sole rights to determine how His ‘property’ should be used. As such, the concept of property in Islam is qualified by the condition of ‘trust’ of the real owner.


The attributes of property in the Qur’an vary depending on the related level of abstraction. On one level, all property is attributed to God alone.


{To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and all that is therein, and it is He who has power over all things}(Al-Ma’idah 5:123)


Work is Worship


As all acts are potential acts of worship as explained earlier, it follows that work is not only a means of survival, but also a rewarded act of worship. Properly understood, this concept can be instrumental in motivating productivity as the time scale, the reward expected, and the Ultimate One to please by productive work are far beyond any finite concept or person. This may be illustrated by the instructions of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) that if the Day of Judgment begins while one is planting a tree, he should complete his task. One may wonder as to what is the point of planting something that cannot immediately benefit the planter, and why is it important to plant a tree whose ‘fruits’ may never be harvested? It is probably the inculcation of the attitude of working on the basis of a longer scale of time, consideration of future generations, and above all the anticipation of Divine reward. It is the same spirit that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also taught that if one plants a tree of which a human, and animal or bird eats, he will obtain a reward for all who benefit from it. Likewise, a person’s attitudes toward ecology are the prudent use of the infinite time scale and the most lofty objective to draw closer to God. This results in greater sensitivity to the needs of future generations. An example of this was the Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) critical reaction to a Companion who was using an excessive amount of water to perform ablution for Prayer. When the Companion responded, “Is there excess in the use of water?” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, “Yes, even if you’re (making ablution) from a running river.” (Ibn Hanbal)


Islam teaches one’s responsibility before Allah and the belief in resurrection and eternal life, whose nature depends upon the person’s actions while on earth. Tawheed also means belief in the absolute perfection of Divine Attributes, one of which is perfect knowledge, even of the most secret thoughts of the heart. The result of such belief is that self-policing becomes the primary motive in order to avoid ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’, more so than mere social controls which are incapable of policing everything. Properly implemented, a person’s sense of responsibility before God avoids the attitudes of ‘get away with whatever you can so long as you don’t get caught’, or even the attitude of taking advantage of legal or administrative gaps or flaws so as to maximize one’s utility at the expense of society. The sense of fairness in the social contract are greatly enhanced both by the infinite time scale and by the keen sense of Taqwa (piety and fear of Allah) realizing that nothing can be hidden from God, who will hold each person responsible for his deeds.


Qur’anic Inducements to Study and Explore


The following are a few examples from the Qur’an which clearly urge research, discovery, development and improvement of the quality of life.


{And in the earth are tracts (diverse though) neighboring and gardens of vines and fields sown with corn and palm trees growing out of single roots or otherwise: watered with the same water yet some of them We make more excellent than others to eat. Behold, verily in these things are signs for those who understand }(Ar-Ra`d 13:4)


{See you not that Allah sends down rain from the sky and leads it through springs in the earth? Then He causes to grow therewith produce of various colors: then it withers; you will see it grow yellow; then He makes it dry up and crumble away. Truly in this is a message of remembrance to persons of understanding. } (Az-Zumar 39:21)


{It is Allah Who has subjected the sea to you that ships may sail through it by His command that you may seek of His bounty and that you may be grateful. }( Al-Jathiyah 45:12]


{It is He who made the sea subject that you may eat thereof flesh that is fresh and tender and that you may extract there from ornaments to wear; and you see the ships therein that plough the waves that you may seek (thus) of the bounty of Allah and that you may be grateful.}(An-Nahl 16:14)


{And cattle He has created for you; from them you derive warmth and numerous benefits and of their (meat) you eat. And you have a sense of pride and beauty in them as you drive them home in the evening and as you lead them forth to pasture in the morning. And they carry their heavy loads to lands that you could not (otherwise) reach except with souls distressed: for your Lord is indeed Most Kind, Most Merciful. And (He has created) horses, mules and donkeys for you to ride and use for show; and He has created (other) things about which you have no knowledge.}(An-Nahl 16:5-8)


It should be noted that the above quotes deal with the fundamental resources: agriculture, water, fisheries and animal resources. In a sweeping statement, the Qur’an indicates that everything on earth, and even all that is in the heavens was created for the benefit of mankind.


{It is He who has created for you all things that are on earth; moreover His design comprehended the heavens for He gave order and perfection to the seven firmaments; and of all things he has perfected knowledge.}(Al-Baqarah 2:29]


{And He has subjected to you as from Him all that is in the heavens and on earth: behold in that are signs indeed for those who reflect.} (Al-Jathiyah 45:13)


The Qur’anic exhortations do not limit themselves to physical resources. They encourage the study and understanding of natural laws such as the alternation of day and night, forecasting rainfall, and astronomical phenomena.


{It is Allah Who alternates the night and the day: verily in these things is an instructive example for those who have vision}(An-Nur 24:44)


{Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed signs for persons of understanding. Those who celebrate the praises of Allah standing, sitting and lying down on their sides and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with thought): ‘Our Lord! Not for naught have you created (all) this! Glory to thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of Hell fire. } (Aal `Imran 3:190-191)


{See you not that Allah makes clouds move gently, then joins them together, then makes them into a heap? Then will you see rain issue forth from their midst. And He sends down from the sky mountain masses (of clouds) wherein is hail: He strikes therewith whom He pleases and He turns it away from whom He pleases. The vivid flash of His lightning well-nigh blinds the sight.} ( An-Nur 24:43)


{And a sign for them is the night: We withdraw there from the day and behold they are plunged in darkness; And the sun runs its course for a period determined for it: that is the decree of the Exalted in Might the All-knowing. And the moon We have measured for it mansions (to traverse) till it returns like the old (and withered) lower part of date-stalk. It is not permitted for the sun to catch up to the moon, nor can the night outstrip the day: each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to law).}(Ya-Sin 36:37-40)


The Role of Learning


The above Qur’anic exhortation necessitates a positive attitude toward learning and the acquisition of knowledge. This is also grounded in the Qur’an. The very first word of the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him ) was ‘read’:


{Proclaim! (or read) in the name of your Lord and Cherisher Who created. Created man out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood.}(Al-`Alaq 96:1-2)


The Qur’an also praises those who combine faith with knowledge:


{…Allah will raise up to (suitable) ranks (and degrees) those of you who believe and who have been granted knowledge: and Allah is well-acquainted with all you do.}(Al-Mujadilah 58:11)


Distinction and preference is given to those who are endowed with knowledge:


{Say: Are those equal who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endowed with understanding who receive admonition.} ( Az-Zumar 39:9)


Knowledge in itself is neither a threat to faith nor is it inconsistent with piety and fear of God. In fact, unbiased and correct knowledge leads to piety.


{Indeed those who are endowed with knowledge fear Allah}(Fatir 35:28)


Generally speaking, the Qur’an considers it a sin not to use senses and reason as legitimate means of searching for truth and admonishes those who make claims that are not based on knowledge, and those who blindly imitate their ancestors.


{For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb, those who understand not.}(Al-Anfal 8:22)


{Those who give partners to Allah will say: If Allah had wished we should not given partners to Him, nor would our fathers, nor should we have had any taboos. So did their ancestors argue falsely until they tasted of Our wrath. Say: Have you any (certain) knowledge? If so produce it before Us. You follow nothing but conjecture, you do nothing but lie. }( Al-An`am 6:148)


{Many are the Jinns and mankind We have made for Hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay more misguided; for they are heedless (of warning).}(Al-A`raf 7:179)


The attitude toward learning is reiterated in numerous sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him):


“Seeking knowledge is a mandatory duty on every Muslim.” (Ibn Majah)


“Whoever pursues a way in search for knowledge, Allah will make an easy way for him/her to paradise.” (Abu Dawud)


“The priority of a scholar over a worshipper (without understanding) is like the superiority of the moon over other stars.” (Abu Dawud)


“Scholars are the heirs of the prophets.” (Abu Dawud)


The Experimental Method One aspect of learning encouraged in the Qur’an is the experimental approach. A few examples may illustrate this. Explaining how God inspired the honey bees, the Qur’an states:


{Then eat of all the produce (of the earth) and find with skill the spacious paths of your Lord: there issues from within their bellies a drink of varying colors wherein is healing for people: verily in this is a sign for those who give thought.} ( An-Nahl 16:69)


The mention of healing connected with honey is an open invitation to examine its medicinal or healing properties. Similarly, in drawing our attention to study the properties of metals, we read:


{We sent aforetime our apostles with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the balance (of right and wrong) that people may stand forth in justice. and We sent down iron in which is (material for) mighty war, as well as many benefits for mankind, that Allah may test who will help His cause and help His messengers though they are unseen, for Allah is full of strength, exalted in Might (and able to enforce His will.} (Al-Hadid 57:25)


In a clear and amazing reference to the embryonic development of the human, we read:


{We did create the human from a quintessence (of clay); then We placed him as (a drop of) sperm in a place of rest firmly fixed; then We made the sperm into (something that) clings (or clot); then of that clot We made a (fetus) into (a chewed-like) lump; then We made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then We developed out of it another creature; so blessed be Allah the Best creator. } (Al-Mu’minun 23:12-14)


The above quotes from the Qur’an lay down the foundations of the experimental approach and the replacement of conjecture with truth that is based on firm knowledge and factors that are crucial and decisive in bringing about scientific development. This call stands in contrast to philosophical speculations and conjecture.


{Conjecture is not a substitute for truth.}( An-Najm 53:28)


It follows that the common notion that Roger Bacon was the father of experimental method is not accurate. Born in 1214 (CE) Bacon came nearly six centuries after the Qur’an clearly called for this approach to learning. According to Rob Briffault, Roger Bacon was one of the followers of Muslim science to Europe (qtd in Waheed 29)


According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:


“It is beyond all doubt that Roger Bacon was profoundly versed in Arabian learning and derived from it many of the germs of his philosophy.” (qtd. in Waheed 30)


So far, the discussion has focused on the conceptual roots of the Muslim contribution to civilization. Whether or not those conceptual roots were manifested historically, is the theme of the following section of this paper.


Historical Manifestations


It is obvious from the first part of this paper that the Qur’an and the Hadith are responsible for generating a new spirit of research, creativity and progress. In this part, an attempt is being made to show how that ‘new spirit’ manifested itself throughout history. The first section briefly reviews the emergence of Islamic civilization and its impact on Europe, while the second provides specific examples of contributions to science and civilization.


The Emergence of Islamic Civilization


Progress began in the later part of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth century (CE) under Umayyad rule. However, its golden age occurred under Abbassid rule (750-1258) and in Muslim Spain (718-1492). For at least five centuries, the Islamic civilization was the most prominent in the world. This is longer than the period in which European civilization has been prominent.


Schools and libraries constituted parts of mosque complexes. Endowments for colleges and bursaries for students were common. Scholars and researchers were respected and appreciated, regardless of their religious affiliations. An example of this attitude was manifest in the ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad in the 9th century under the patronage of the Caliph Al-Ma’moon. It served as a huge academic center, library and translation center. In the Western part of the Muslim world, the most important research center was in Toledo (Spain) where Muslim works were translated from Arabic into Latin; especially in the fields of Astronomy, Mathematics, Medicine, Chemistry, Botany and Philosophy. It is said that Pope Sylvester spent three years in Toledo studying Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry and other subjects under Muslim scientists (Bammate 17; Draper, History of the Intellectual Development of Europe 2: 49).


The Term ‘Dark Ages’



These advancements show that the common expression ‘The Dark Ages’ should in fact be qualified as the ‘European Dark Ages’; at least in the period that coincides with the emergence of the Islamic civilization. John Draper describes how science was suppressed and not tolerated in Europe and how physical and natural phenomena were attributed to the will of spirits. According to Draper, “A person who came down with a fever had to go to the nearest shrive of saint seeking a miraculous cure.” (Draper , History of the Intellectual Development of Europe 1: 386-387).. In contrast to this, Muslim scientists and physicians were busy developing ways to diagnose and treat diseases. As such, the unqualified term ‘The Dark Ages’ seems to be based on the subtle assumption that the history of Europe is the history of the world.


Restoration and Originality


Another common misconception is that Muslim scholars merely restored the Greek classics, which would have been lost without them. This notion belittles their original contributions, in addition to restoration. According to H.G. Wells, the Greeks did not know much about human history; their knowledge was ‘based on rudimentary speculations’ and they were very poor in experimental apparatus (Wells 18) . This assessment is shared by A.N. Whitehead who states that the Greeks were over-theoretical and that for them, science was an offshoot of philosophy (Whitehead 27). This assessment also applies to their heirs, the Romans.


However, it would be equally incorrect to say that there were no contributions to civilization by other nations. Science is a shared and cumulative undertaking. The above discussion indicates that the Greek and Roman contributions were not based upon experimentation which was the hallmark of Islamic civilization and which was a prerequisite to modern science. As such, the assumption that the European Renaissance was based on a newly-restored Greek and Roman heritage, is inaccurate. It seems to imply that there was a sudden ‘blank’ for several centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and the European Renaissance which restored their ancient heritage. It also conceals the inevitable fact that the Renaissance was based on the then established and flourishing Islamic civilization. For several centuries, the language of the Qur’an (Arabic) was the international vehicle for scientific research and advancement (as English is today). Europeans who wanted to study Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Astronomy or Medicine had to flock to Muslim universities, especially in Muslim Spain. Those Europeans who tried to popularize ‘Muslim science’ in Europe were accused of being ‘Mohammedans’; an accusation that was made against Roger Bacon for which he was imprisoned for fourteen years. (Waheed 30-31)


A historian of science, George Sarton in his massive work, An Introduction to The History of Science, indicates that Muslim science reached Europe before the 14th Century (the beginning of the Renaissance) as early as the 12th century, and that the establishment of universities in Europe was motivated in part by the large volume of information (learned from Muslims and the need for its systematic study). (Sarton 1: 350)


Frequently, Muslim discoveries were translated by Europeans who attributed such discoveries to themselves, or incorporated them into their works without due credit. For example, Kepler took the idea of atmospheric refraction from the earlier work of Ibn Al-Haytham. Isaac Newton derived the notion of gravity, not from a falling apple, but from the earlier work of Muhammad Ben Mousa who spoke about the force of attraction between the heavenly bodies (Waheed 27). It may be useful to provide a few specific examples of the contributions to human knowledge stimulated by Islamic teachings. This is the focus of the following section.


Specific Examples of Some Major Contributions


Let us now turn to some specific examples of Muslim contributions in some major disciplines




Astronomy was one of the earliest sciences that attracted the attention of Muslims, as early as the 3rd century (AH). Among their achievements is the discovery of the sun’s apogee (the points farthest from the earth in the orbit of the moon). They drew a catalogue of maps of visible stars and gave them Arabic names and corrected the sun and moon tables and fixed the length of the year. They were the first to use a pendulum to measure time and the first to build observatories. Ibn Younus (11th century) invented the sun dial, which, according to John Draper was the most valuable of all chronometric improvements. They predicted sun spots, eclipses, and the appearance of comets. Abul-Wafa discovered a major aspect of astronomy known as the 3rd Lunar inequality (irregularity of the moon’s highest latitudes) the same discovery that was attributed nearly 1000 years later to the Danish Astronomer, Tycho-Braho. Among the luminaries in this field are Al-Batani (Albategnius), who is considered by some astronomers as one of the most famous twentieth century astronomers in the world; Al-Bairouni, who was the link between the schools of Baghdad and India (10th -11th centuries); and Ulug Beg, who made a comprehensive survey of the state of this science nearly a century before Kepler. Some works of other luminaries in Muslim Spain, such as Ibn Khaldoun and Ibn Rushd were lost at the time of inquisition. (Bammate 19-22)




In a world that knew no stronger acid than concentrated vinegar, the 8th century Muslim chemist Jabir discovered Nitric acid and described the operations of distillation, sublimation, filtration, coagulation and crystallization. Abu Bakar Al-Razi (Rhases) of the 9th century was the first to describe the properties of Sulpheric acid. His contribution in his time is comparable, according to John Draper, to the contributions of Lavoisier and Priestley in the West, in their times. Abu-Musa Al-Kufi who lived in the late 8th century contributed greatly to chemistry to the extent that some of his works were translated into Latin and French; some as late as the 17th century. The orientation of Muslim chemists was on the applied side. They knew about the distillation of water, plasters, syrups, ointments and the tampering of steel. Many English terms in Chemistry originated from Arabic terms such as: camphor, alcohol, elixir, al-kali and syrup (Draper, History of the Intellectual Development of Europe 1: 26-27)




While the numerals are believed to have originated in India, Muslims popularized them. Muhammad Bin Ahmed of the 10th century invented the concept of zero (sifr or void from which the terms cipher and decipher were derived). This did not only replace the cumbersome Roman numerals, but it was also a revolution in Mathematics. It was not until about 300 years later that Europe began to understand this concept (13th century).


Algebra, or calculation by symbols came from the Arabic word Al-Jabr which literally means uniting the broken parts (or bones). Likewise, Algorithm comes from the name of the famous Muslim mathematician Muhammad Bin Musa Al-Khawarizmi of the 9th century, who was described by George Sarton (An Introduction to the History of Science) as, “One of the founders of analysis or algebra as distinct from geometry.” Al-Khawarizmi’s work was completed early in the 10th century by Abul-Wafa who also worked on quadratic equations.


The works of Muslims in Mathematics were translated into Latin and made available to the West through Robert of Chester, Adelard of Bath, and John of Seville. Had it not been for Muslim scholars, the famous works of Euclid would have been lost. Al-Tusi (13th century) had a major influence on the development of non-Euclidean Geometry.


In line with the Muslims scholars’ emphasis on the applied side, they were the first to develop trigonometry in its post-Greek form. They were also the first to use the Sine and Co-sine due to their interest in Astronomy. Moreover, they wrote on spherical trigonometry. Their works on Trigonometry of tangents were not known in Europe until five centuries later. According to George Sarton, “During the thirteenth century, trigonometrical progress was entirely due to Muslim efforts.” (Sarton 2: 12 ; Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 115-116)




Sarton described the famous Muslim physicist, Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen) of the 11th century as:


“The greatest Muslim Physicist and one of the greatest students of optics of all times.” His book Al-Manazir, “…exerted great influence upon Western science and showed great progress in experimental method.” (Sarton 1 : 721)


In fact, his works were the beginning of the science of optics long before Bacon and Kepler. The inventions of the microscope, the telescope, and cameras are indebted to him. Contrary to the mistaken Greek belief that vision occurs because of a ray of light, which proceeds from the eye to the object, he indicated that light emanates from the object to the eye. John Draper expressed his amazement that Ibn Al-Haythem wrote about this subject in the 11th century:


“We determined that the retina is the seat of vision and that impressions made by light upon it are conveyed along the optic nerve to the brain.” (Draper , History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, 2 :45-46)


For several centuries Ibn Al-Haytham’s work on optics was the main source of study in Europe. Another practical contribution of Muslim physicists was the invention of the compass. While the Greeks knew about the properties of magnets, and while the Chinese had discovered its directive properties, the Muslims were the first to apply this knowledge and use the compass for navigation.


Other contributions to physics include the investigation of hydrostatics (early in the 9th century) and improvements in the use of water wheels. Abdul-Rahman Al-Khosaini wrote Mizan-ul-Hikmah, which according to Sarton was:


“One of the main physical treatises of the middle ages. It contains tables of specific gravities of liquids and solids and various physical facts and theories.” (Sarton 2:26)




Muslim interest in health care is related to Islamic teachings. Ethically, the human body is a trust from God which should not be destroyed (for example, by committing suicide) or abused (for example, by drugs and intoxicants). Both preventative and remedial aspects of medicine are encompassed in Islamic teachings. It is reported that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him ) said: “Seek medication for Allah did not create a disease without creating a cure for it.” (Abu Dawud). Some early works in Muslim medicine go back to the 8th century (Ibn Al-Muqaffa’). Greater progress was achieved, however, in the 9th century. Of the luminaries of that century is Fakhr-al-Deen Al-Razi (Rhases), chief physician in Baghdad and the greatest physician of the ‘Middle Ages.’ He wrote what Draper called “an immense medical encyclopedia” which remained among the most important medical references in Europe for 600 years. His treatise on measles and smallpox was translated several times until the 18th century. According to Sarton, “Many contributions to gynecology, obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery can be traced back to him.” (Sarton 1: 609)


In the 10th century Areeb Ibn Saad was the first one to write systematically on Pediatrics. His works were translated into Latin and Hebrew. About the same time Al-Mardeeni, who lived in Egypt, excelled in the preparation of drugs. He compiled a dispensatory which was immensely popular in medieval Europe. For centuries it remained the standard work on the subject. (Sarton 1: 680, 699)


Ibn Sina (Avicenna) who lived in the 11th century wrote a five volume work called Canon (or Precepts) of Medicine dealing with physiology, hygiene, pathology, therapeutics and Materia Medica. For at least 600 years his writings were the supreme authority in the ‘Middle Ages’ and the basis of medical standards in Italian and French universities. In fact. some of his works were translated and reprinted in Latin and Hebrew as late as the 18th century.


In the early 11th century, Muslim physicians treated cataracts and hemorrhages and used cauterization. Among the famous surgeons was Abul Qasim who lived in Cordoba (Muslim Spain) in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Sarton considers him as one who “exerted a very deep influence upon the development of European surgery down to the Renaissance.” John Draper states that Abul Qasim’s surgical works were used in Europe until 1497. In the writings of Ibn Rushd we find illustrations of sections of brains and eyes, eye nerves and surgical instruments. They even administered anesthesia using an extract of the ‘darnel’ plant. Other contributions included works on Bronchotomy, dislocations and fractures and the treatment of skin diseases (Ibn Zuhr, Avenzoar), psychopathology and psychological treatment; and the demonstration of the circulatory system (Ibn Al-Nafees of the 13th century) nearly 300 years before William Harvey, to whom this discovery is attributed. (Sarton 2:1100)


Both mobile and permanent hospitals were known (Al Siba’i). In times of peace, mobile and permanent hospitals toured rural areas offering medical assistance. During the Seljuk rule, same mobile hospitals required forty camels to carry physicians, drugs, medical equipment, food and clothing First aid stations were established and in Ibn Tulun’s mosque in Cairo, a physician came every Friday to give medical care and prescribe drugs that were dispensed from the mosque’s pharmacy. It is believed that the first permanent hospital was built in the first half of the 8th century during the caliphate of Al- Waleed Ibn Abdul-Malik in the city that later came to be known as Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid caliphate. Hospitals had two wings, one for males and the other for females. Each department had a chief, and the hospital had a physician-in-chief. In addition, there were support staff like nurses and cleaning and food services. After physicians visited their patients, they met with their students in huge lecture halls to discuss their diagnosis. Food was served to patients on covered trays. Some hospitals had their own gardens to grow fresh vegetables and fruit for the hospital’s use.


It is interesting to note that the human and artistic touch was not absent in terms of layout, furniture and even entertainment for patients in the form of skits and story telling. At one time, a special trust was established in Tripoli, Syria to employ two persons whose job it was to pass by patients pretending to be talking to one another in a manner that is audible to the patient, saying, “Look at his sparkling eyes, the redness of his face and the improvement in his health!” This reflects the awareness of the psychological element in treatment.


These are indications that medical care, including hospitalization, was free and universally available to all, including strangers, travelers, and visitors. When the patient entered the hospital, he or she was examined; if there was no need for admission, the person was given medication and sent home. If admitted, the person was registered, asked to take a bath and given clean clothes. When the patient improved, he or she was moved to a convalescent hall. The sign of improvement was his ability to eat a chicken and a loaf of bread. At the time of discharge, a poor patient was given new clothes, and if necessary, some money to help until he is able to resume work. Those who preferred to be treated at home were allowed to do so, in which case, drugs were sent to them. If the person was poor, food also was sent to them. One assessment of the 12th century hospital of Baghdad is that: “It appears to have been built under conditions which, from the point of view of hygiene, were greatly superior to our present day establishments. They were enormous, and air and water circulated in them quite freely.” (Siba’i)




Like Astronomy, Geography was related to Muslim devotional acts such as Prayer and Pilgrimage. It was also related to the sense of duty to communicate the message of Islam to the world, thus, necessitating travel all over the world. Discovery of the Americas is thought to have been aided by Muslim contribution to Geography.


E. Renan, in his book Averroes and Averrosism, mentions a letter written by Columbus in October 1498 in which he admits that one of the sources which led him to assume the existence of the ‘New World’ was the work of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) of the 12th century. (qtd. In Bammate 46)


Inspired by the Qur’an, Muslim geographers knew that the earth was spherical.


{And the earth, moreover, hath He extended (to a wide expanse)} ( An-Nazi`at 79:30)


As Sarton put it: “Needless to say that all Arab geographers believed in the roundness of the earth.” (Sarton 2:44). While Europe was insisting that the earth was flat, Muslims were using globes to study geography. (Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science 109) Writing in the 12th century, the Muslim geographer, Al-Idrisi said: “The earth is round like a sphere and water adheres to it through a natural equilibrium which suffers no variations.” (Castorina 1)


Even before Al-Idrisi, the caliph Al-Ma’moon of the 9th century estimated the circumference of the earth to be 2,400 miles; a very close figure to one arrived at by the most modern means today. (Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science 109) It was also Al-Ma’moon who ordered the drawing of a large map of the world. The volume Al Mamalik Wal Masalik (Roads and Provinces) written in the 9th century was: “An important source of historical topography. It was translated into French in the late 19th century. Equal in importance was Al Yacoobi’s Kitab Al-Bildan which was full of topographic details.”


Several Muslim geographers also excelled in the 10th century, especially Al Mas’ oodi, whose works are best described as an encyclopedia arranged in geographical order. No wonder George Sarton considers him one of the greatest geographers of all time. (Sarton 1:622)


The prominence of Muslim geographers continued for several centuries. Important works included Abdul-Lateef’s (12th century), which produced one of the most important geographical works in the Middle Ages. Al-Yaqooti’s Mu’jam-ul-Bildan is considered by Sarton to be: “An immense compilation of geographical facts listed in alphabetical order.” (Sarton 2 :41) Even the subject of Mathematical Geography was addressed in the 13th century in the works of Abul-Hassan Al-Marakishi which contained, among other data, coordinates of 130 places. About Al-Marakishi, Sarton says: “No medieval writer has taken equal pains to explain the scientific method and instrument.” (Sarton 2:41-42)




Muslim scientists described many plants. At the end of the 12th century, Al-Awwam described 585 plants and explained the cultivation of several kinds of fruit. Some studied plants on their long journeys to pilgrimage like Abul-Abbass Al-Nabati.


On the practical side, they improved the methods of irrigation, used organic fertilizers and improved the breeds of cattle. Peaches, apricots, cotton, rice, bananas and sugar cane were introduced to the West by the Muslims. In Muslim Spain, artificial lakes to raise fish for food were commonplace. (Draper, History of Intellectual Development of Europe 2: 33; History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science 117)




Advancements were made in the manufacture of fabrics silk, cotton, wool, leather, glass, and steel. Chemistry was applied in making drugs and perfumes. Due to their interest in learning, a paper-making factory was established in Baghdad in 794. The term ‘Ream’ came from the Arabic ‘Rezma’ which means bundle (New Webster Dictionary, 1991 ed.)




Some historians narrate that at one time up to 850 Saracen (Latin for Arab) ships were docked in the port of Canton (China). Early writings on trade and commerce go back to the 10th century. According to Camille Castorina, some Saracen coins were found in Scandinavia. A golden Anglo-Saxon coin carried the name of King Offa Rex of Mercia on one side; and on the other side it carried the Muslim testimony of faith. A system of cheques (from the Arabic Sakk) and form letters of credit were also used. (Castorina 12-13; Hitti 316)




While many Muslim historians focused on the collection and presentation of facts and information, some used critical judgment, an approach that was later adopted in the West. Among the most famous historians are Al-Tabari (late 9th century) who wrote a brilliant universal chronicle; Al-Mas’oodi who wrote 20 large volumes on history which were lost, and whose work Morooj Al-Dhahab (Golden Pastures) was preserved, and Ibn Al-Altheer (13th century) who wrote a universal chronicle up to his time (1231 C.E). (Sarton 1:637-638, 642 and Sarton 2: 527.)


Art and Architecture


While Muslim heritage in this area is rather diverse due to the fusion of various cultures, which came under Muslim rule, there is some elements of unity in it based on Islamic teachings. A good part of this heritage was destroyed in 1258 by the Mongols. A touch of that remained in Spain especially in Al-Hambra and the Cordoba mosque. The influence of Muslim Architecture and Calligraphy was so great that one of the doors of the Cathedral at Puy is decorated with the Arabic inscription (ma sha’ Allah). In fact, an Islamic-style mosaic was found in a number of churches in Auverge (France). In the British museum, an Irish cross from the 9th century is decorated in the middle with the inscription bismillah or ‘In the name of Allah.’ (Bammate 57-59)


Other Disciplines


Equally important contributions were made in other areas such as political science and sociology. In the 10th century Al-Farabi wrote about the model city: “The perfectly organized state is one which assures its citizens perfect government and happiness after death.”


A more practical work was Al-Mawirdi’s, Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah (Book of the Rules of Power) written around the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 11th century.


The famous Muslim sociologist, Ibn Khaldoon (1332-1406), is regarded as one of the greatest sociologists of all times. He was the first one to write on the philosophy of History in a comprehensive and conceptual way. Long before modern Sociology, Ibn-Khaldoon studied: “The evolution of the human society and gave a rational explanation of the progress of history. In his Al-Moqaddima, one finds for the first time a reflection of history, diverse forms of civilization and social institutions, sciences and the arts they foster.”


Lost or Belittled Heritage


It is unfortunate that most of the rich and voluminous works of Muslim scholars were lost or ruined during the assaults on the Muslim world. The Mongols cast in the river Tigris, (in Baghdad) enough books to make a bridge over which they crossed. The ink from these destroyed books blackened the river for a long time.


During the crusades in Syria, nearly 3 million books were destroyed. When the Muslims were defeated in Grenada (Spain), 1 million books were burned by religious fanatics in just one day. Cardinal Zimones of Sicily (15th century) burned more than 80,000 Arabic volumes in the main square of his city of Franda.


No excuse, however, can be granted to some historians and writers who tried to deliberately hide Muslim contributions, and in some cases attributed them to European scientists who were born many centuries later. Among the more fair-minded Western writers is John Draper, who states:


“I have to deplore the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has contrived to put out of sight our scientific obligations to the Mohammedans. Surely they cannot be much hidden. Injustice founded on religious rancor and National deceit cannot be perpetuated forever.” (Draper, The Intellectual Development of Europe 2:42)




On the conceptual and applied levels, two conclusions seem to emerge from this analysis. Conceptually, Islam is a complete and comprehensive way of life founded on Divine guidance. It makes no distinction between the religious and material aspects of life. Its teaching focus is on the human, as he is a spiritual, intellectual and physical being. Islam does not assume an inherent conflict and disharmony between these three elements of human existence.


This broad approach to life is reflected in Islam’s attitude towards learning, science, and balanced human progress. The Qur’an constantly urges humankind to think, learn, observe, and explore the bounties created by God for human use in fulfillment of the human’s role of trusteeship on earth.


On the historical and practical level, we have seen how the flourishing civilization sparked by Islamic teaching dominated the world of science and learning for nearly 600 years and continued its significant contributions for many more decades. It acted as a bridge between the past and the present; preserving ancient learning, adding considerably to it, and paving the way for the European Renaissance. Without this crucial role, modern scientific and technological development would never have taken place as fast as it did.


This considerable Qur’an-inspired interest in learning was only matched by the attitude of tolerance; tolerance which recognized and encouraged, not only Muslim scholars, but others as well, regardless of their ethnic background or religious conviction. The world has never seen a similar shining example of tolerance, justice, progress, and cooperation for the benefit of all. Surely, human mistakes are to be found, and human deficiencies can be pointed at. This is to be expected in a world that is less than that of angels. Yet, the main question remains: What was the main inspiring force behind the lightening speed of the rise of the Islamic civilization, and its continued prominence for such a long period of time, in spite of internal problems and external invasions? The answer is: the Qur’an. One question remains unanswered, though: If this is the orientation of Islamic teachings, and if these teachings were possible to implement successfully for several centuries, why is it that Muslim civilization began to decline at the time when Europe was awakening from the ‘Dark Ages’? Why are Muslims today less advanced than others? Is that not an indication of weakness?


Most certainly it is. However, it is the weakness of Muslims, not of Islam; God’s straight path. While external problems and invasions may explain part of the reason, the internal weakness of Muslims and weakening commitment to their faith is perhaps the major cause.


An ideal civilization requires two elements:


Divine guidance, which gives it a firm foundation, and an incentive and a framework, which in turn gives progress a sense of direction and an ethical orientation.

Secondly, hard work, creativity and dynamism (not just wishful thinking or boasting about past glories).

A civilization devoid of Divine guidance may flourish due to hard work. Yet, the absence of the firm foundation of faith and ethics leads to aberrations and eventual fall. It may enable us to leap to the moon without helping us to avoid limping on earth.


Likewise, a civilization, which pays lip service to its basic precepts and fails to fulfill its duties, may fall as well, not because of the weakness of its principle, but because of the failure of its followers to adhere to those principles.


Should Muslims, joined by others, move forward towards this inexhaustible source of strength? Can history repeat itself and can a better world be built for the benefit of all? Maybe we can leap on earth as we did on the moon.






The Noble Qur’an, translated by Abdullah Y. Ali, Khalil Al-Rawaf, Washington, D.C., 1946.

Some Modifications were made when necessary for greater clarity.

Other References


Al-Barr, Muhammad A. (MD). Khalq Al-Insan Baynal Tibb Wal Qur’an (in Arabic). Third Edition. Jeddah: Al-Dar Al-Saudiah, 1981.

Bammate, Haider. Muslim Contribution To Civilization. Geneva: Islamic Center, 1962.

Bucaille, Maurice. The Bible, The Qur’an and Science. Indianapolis: American Trust Publication, 1978.

Castorina, Camille P. Saracen Economic Thought: A Prelude. Paper presented at the 6th Annual Conference of the History of Economics, May 1979 at the University of Illinois, Champaign, IL.

Draper, John. History of Intellectual Development of Europe. Rev. Ed.,. New York: Harper and Brothers , 1876.

Draper, John. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. London: Henry S. King & Co, 1875.

Hitti, Philip. History of the Arabs. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Moore, Keith. The Developing Embryo: Clinically Oriented Embryology. Third Edition, with Islamic Additions, Dar Al-Qiblah for the Islamic Literature with permission from W.B. Saunders Co., Jeddah, 1983

Al-Siba’I, Mustapha. Min Rawa’i’ Hadaratina (in Arabic). 2Vols. Beriut: Al-Maktab Al-Islami, 1977.

Sarton, George, An Introduction to the History of Science, The Williams & Wilkins Co, Baltimore, MD, 1950, Vol. I, II

Waheed, K.A. Islam and the Origins of Modern Science. Lahore : Islamic Publication Ltd, 1978.

Wells, H.G. Outline of History. New York: Garden City Books, 1956.



Dr. Jamal Badawi is a professor of management and religious studies, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

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