Many of the incredible and staggering achievements made in the modern world can also be attributed to discoveries made by renowned Muslim Scholars of the medieval age during the golden era of the Islamic civilization.
Suppose we can look back to an era rife with discovery. In that case, we can find that Muslim scholars around the globe have significantly made astounding contributions to philosophy, economics, medicine, education and various other fields of knowledge. Scientists and scholars continued their legacies towards understanding each specific area till the present day.
Among many other numerous scholars of Islamic History, here are 4 Muslim scholars who made remarkable inventions and discoveries that were etched in history for their significant impacts in human society today.
He was born into a family that was rich in knowledge in Afshana, a village in the outskirts of Bukhara, now Uzbekistan. His name is Abu ‘Ali Al-Husayn Ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina and is famously known in the West as Avicenna. He is a Polymath and known as the Father Of Early Modern Medicine.
Ibn Sina is attributed as one of the foundations of modern medicine, and this was indeed among his most outstanding contributions. Firas Al-Khateeb, the writer of the famous book, Lost Islamic History mentions that European Medical schools relied on Latin translations of it into the 17th century.
“The next time you visit your physician, whisper a prayer of thanks to Avicenna, because many of the foundations of modern medicine – empirical observation, objectivity and rationalism – surfaced through his towering genius a millennium ago”
(Larry Dossey, MD, the author of “Healing Words”)
Among his famous works is his Kitab Al-Qanun Fil-Tibb, also known as The Canon of Medicine. The Qanun is by far one of the most influential medical books in history. It has profoundly inspired physicians throughout the globe and as mentioned by Prof. Osman Bakar in his book Tawhid And Science, remained to be the final authority in Medical Science for eight centuries.
The Qanun is known as an encyclopaedic book which includes the discussion on the states of health and diseases in the human body, with the purpose of employing suitable means for preserving or restoring health. Firas Al-Khateeb added that Ibn Sina also distinctly mentions in his magnum opus the connection between mental and physical health, that wasn’t established then and is often credited to psychologists much later in the 19th century.
Ibn Sina’s Al Qanun surpassed the ancient Greek’s books of Hippocrates and Galen who, both, were monumental figures in the long history and tradition of medicine. Ibn Sina’s work remained a significant reference for many centuries in the West. It is also carefully preserved in both Arabic and Latin.
“Ibn Sina was a unique phenomenon, not only because of this (Kitab Al-Qanun) encyclopedic accomplishment in medicine but also because of the versatility of his genius"
(Abdul Nasser Kaadan, the Founder President of the International Society for History of Islamic Medicine)
Prof. Osman Bakar further elaborates that “Of all the practical sciences and arts cultivated by Muslims, none had been accorded a more noble and esteemed position than medicine. Many among both religious and medical authorities in Islam considered the art and practice of medicine as a religious vocation of the first order because it helps men and women to help others preserve and restore their health”, in which the - human well-being - is considered to be one of the higher objectives of the Shariah.
He is Abdur-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun, known as the father of modern social science and cultural history. Born in Tunisia, he later migrated several times to many places and finally settled down in Cairo of Egypt where he passed away.
His life began by learning the Quran and Islamic Jurisprudence followed by philosophy and the study of Islamic spirituality (tasawwuf). He was also well-equipped with linguistics. Due to his socioeconomic status, he had access to learn and experience knowledge from the best of scholars at that time.
Ibn Khaldun's life was significantly eventful from his time partaking in politics to secluding himself from it to focus on scholarly works. Historian and writer, Robert Irwin in his book Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, also mentions notable events such as the passing of his family in a wrecked ship while on their way to reunite with him in Egypt, being appointed as the chief judge of the Maliki Mazhab (school of legal thought) by Sultan Barquq, lecturing in the Al-Azhar University and encountering the infamous conqueror Timur while in Damascus.
Among his notable works was his book Al-Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History).
"The earliest attempt made by any historian to discover a pattern in the changes that occur in man's political and social organization"
(Rosenthal 1967 – Author of Political Thought in Medieval Islam)
It was mentioned that his main objective in writing his masterpiece was to understand the essence of civilization.
“The purpose of this first book of our work (which), is an independent science with its peculiar object, are human civilization and human organization. It has its peculiar problems which are explaining, in turn, the conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization."
(Ibn Khaldun 1406)
The Muqaddimah is an introductory book for his ambitious work on world history Kitab Al-ʻibar (The Book of lessons). It speaks profoundly about the ethnology and anthropology of human society. Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah is a conceptual piece of history of the world written by someone who lived in the 14th century. The Muqaddimah focuses on how society and culture flow integrates. Also, how civilization affects the formation of cities, government, politics, economy and science.
What became the highlight was Ibn Khaldun's work through a scientific approach to history. The Muqaddimah is indeed a product of Ibn Khaldun’s wisdom based on his eventful experiences and thorough research.
"Throughout history, many nations have suffered a physical defeat, but that has never marked the end of a nation. But when the nation has become the victim of a psychological defeat, then that marks the end of a nation."
(Ibn Khaldun – Al Muqaddimah)
She was the first woman who founded the world’s oldest university; Al Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco.
Fatima Al-Fihriyya was born into a wealthy family sometime in the early 9th century. She was known as ‘Ummul Banun’ (Mother of children) as she was often found with children under her care.
An article entitled The World’s Oldest University And Its Financing Experience: A Study On Al-Qarawiyyin University by Dr Md Nazmul Hoque and Dr Faruk Abdullah informs us that upon the passing of Fatima’s father and her husband, she inherited a substantial amount of wealth in which she made fair use of it.
Fatima invested her bereavement into building something that would benefit her and the people after her. Intending to contribute back to the people of Fez who once welcomed their family from the Tunisian city of Kairouan. Fatima then founded Al Qarawiyyin University in the year 859 C.E.
Fatima was known to be pious and well educated in the religious sciences. The article informs us how she also developed a love for other branches of knowledge such as science and architecture.
A joint work by Prof. Jeffrey T. Kenney and Prof. Ebrahim Moosa entitled Islam In The Modern World reveals to us that Al-Qarawiyyin “was a central institution that mirrored the power of its founders”. It explains further “Because deeds of endowments allowed the founders to specify the domains of instruction, the curriculum of the madrasas could vary”.
It was first established as a mosque and a religious institution, providing spiritual and Islamic education for the people at that time. The name ‘Al Qarawiyyin’ was named after the city in Tunisia (Kairouan), where Fatima Al-Fihri initially resided before she and her family migrated to Fez, Morocco.
Over the years, the Qarawiyyin expanded and was able to facilitate more knowledge seekers, both men and women. Al Qarawiyyin did not only provide Islamic religious education; instead, over the years, Al Qarawiyyin introduced different fields of knowledge in the university. Particularly the natural sciences such as; Medicine, arithmetics, astronomy and even history.
The Qarawiyyin University remained as the largest of its kind in Africa for a few centuries. This attracted scholars and students from all over the world. Renowned Muslim scholars such as the judge Abu Bakr Ibn Al-‘Arabi (1165-1240 C.E), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 C.E) and many more were said to have taught and studied from Al-Qarawiyyin.
Till today, Al Qarawiyyin is known as the oldest higher-learning institution – oldest university by UNESCO and Guinness World Records.
The Father of Modern Optics. Abu Ali al Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham Al Basri (Latinized as Alhacen or Alhazen), spent his life in his hometown Basra, Baghdad, and later passed away in the city of Cairo, Egypt.
In the 13th century, al-Haytham became prominent in Europe as the author of a monumental book on optics - the mathematical theory of vision.
Kitab Al-Manazir (Book of Optics) was among the notable works of this 11th-century scholar. Prof Abdelhamid I. Sabra mentioned in his article that, in al-Haytham’s Optics the scholar propounded “a new solution to the problem of vision, combining experimental investigations of the behaviour of light with inventive geometrical proofs and constant forays into the psychology of visual perception all systematically tied together to form a coherent alternative to the Euclidean and Ptolemaic theories of visual rays issuing from the eye.”
Camera obscura was founded by a Chinese philosopher in the 5th century BC. Many other scientists and philosophers (Aristotle & much later Da Vinci) discovered and proved again the behaviour of light, experimenting using a pinhole and light. But al-Haytham was the first to suggest that a screen was used so that the image projected from light could be reflected.
Bradley Steffens, the author of the book Ibn Haytham - The First Scientist, highlighted al-Haytham’s major achievements and legacies. “His greatest achievement was his methodology, his insistence on using what he called true demonstrations and what we call experiments to test hypotheses. This was a turning point in human history.”
It all began in Cairo when he was invited by the Fatimid Sultan of Egypt, al-Hakim. It was mentioned in another book of Bradley Steffens The Prisoner of al-Hakim, which he adapted from Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah’s (a well-known physician in Syria) writings. He mentioned that al Haytham was known to have said “If I would be given the chance, I would implement a solution to regulate the Nile flooding”. This reached sultan al-Hakim in Cairo in which he invited al Haytham there. Unfortunately, al-Haytham did not manage to do so, he was put into custody by al-Hakim instead.
On the brighter side, during his confinement, he completed his magnum opus Kitab Al-Manazir approximately from 1011-1021A.D.
In his seven-volume book of al-Manazir, Al Haytham mentioned that the eyes receive light reflected from objects, rather than emanating light themselves, contradicting contemporary beliefs, including those of Ptolemy and Euclid. This was indeed a contribution that led us to a better understanding of vision, optics and light.
Today wouldn't have been possible if it weren’t for these continued discoveries from scholars of the past. Other than the fact that the unearthings of these incredible inventions made by scholars shaped our modern life, the one essence that remained, was the connection between faith and science.
These legacies linked closely to studies of religion and its aspects. The discoveries about humans, medicines, education and new inventions do not only bring us closer to modernity and the lap of luxury in this modern world. Instead, it is also a discovery about the creation of ourselves and how we are capable of making the world a better place to live in with God’s will.
As Muslims, it is our duty to continue and harness this legacy of knowledge. The Quran tells us to think, reflect and ponder. We should expand, not just the knowledge of our faith through religious knowledge, but also be equipped with the knowledge of the other sciences.
And Allah knows best.
The Canon of Medicine (al-Qānūn fī l-ṭibb)
Tawhid and Science - Prof Osman Bakar
Lost Islamic History - Firas Alkhateeb
Ibn Khaldun-Life and times by Fromherz, Allen James
Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah. An Introduction to History. Translated from Arabic by Franz Rosenthal.
Islamic Economics - A Short History, Wilson Rodney
Angles and Measurement from Euclid to Kamal Al-Din Al-Farisi: D'Euclide à Kamal al-Din al-Farisi.
A history of natural philosophy: From the ancient world to the 19th century. - Grant Edward Cambridge.
Fatimah Al-Fihri Founder of the First World University - Fahira Fejzic Cengic
First Scientist: Ibn Al Haytham - Bradley Steffens
It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, Granta Books, 2002.