Muslim Contributions to modern culture and civilisation
By: By Moulana ( Dr ) Yunoos Osman & Dr Farouk Amod

Muslim Contributions to modern culture and civilisation

  By Moulana ( Dr ) Yunoos Osman & Dr Farouk Amod


Muslim scientists and scholars have contributed immensely to human knowledge especially in the period between the 8th and 17th century. However, their contributions have been largely ignored, forgotten or have gone un-acknowledged by the modern Western writers. In this series adapted from the book of same name you can read fascinating accounts of some of the most talented Muslim scholars in history whose contributions have left lasting marks in the annals of almost all modern sciences and disciplines.


The names of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein are popular. The chances are that if you try to remember which scientists you were taught about at school, these names will be on your list. But how many students will learn about scholars from non-western civilisations, such as Ibn al Haitham, a Muslim scholar of optics who first developed the laws of light reflection and invented the pinhole camera in the 11th century? Or Ibn Nafis, who first recorded observations on pulmonary blood circulation, a theory attributed to William Harvey 300 years later? How about Abbas ibn Firnas, who made the first recorded attempt of human flight in the 9th century, using adjustable wings covered with feathers, and how many would know of Zang He, the Chinese Muslim admiral who used refined technology to construct fleets of massive non-metal ship, five centuries ago.

Many are unaware of the extent to which our modern civilisation has been enriched by a series of past great civilisations, which include a largely unacknowledged and untaught Muslim heritage. This heritage has become part of European mainstream culture over the centuries and is manifest, for example, in our treasured architectural icons such as the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and in the horseshoe arches and gothic ribs of Al Hambra in Granada, Spain.

Even the way we speak shows the influence of languages from other cultures: many English words used in science, such as alchemy, algorithm, alkali, amalgam and zero, have their roots in the Arabic language and are a small demonstration of the cultural interconnectivity that has enriched western civilisation over many centuries. The history of astronomy also reveals conspicuous examples of Muslim influences, such as in the naming of stars. Betelgeuse, Rigel, Vega, Aldebaran and Fomalhaut are among the names that are directly Arabic in origin or are Arabic translations of Ptolemy’s Greek descriptions. Other terms, such as azimuth (al sumut), nadir (nazir), and zenith (al samt) are also derived from Arabic.

The discoveries described above were made during a period commonly misconstrued in history textbooks as the Dark Ages. In fact, in the Muslim world, the period from circa 600-1600 was a prolific era of creative enquiry into science, technology and engineering and a time of advancement in civilisation, which would later act as a catalyst for the Western Renaissance. Amongst European scholars who were profoundly influenced and inspired by Muslim scholars were Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Andreas Veselius and Galileo.

Many other advances were made by Muslim scientists in the biological sciences of anatomy, botany, evolution, physiology and zoology; the earth sciences of anthropology, cartography, geodesy, geography and geology; the psychological sciences of experimental psychology, psychiatry, psychophysics and psychotherapy; and the social sciences of demography, economics, sociology, history and historiography. We enumerate a few with their relevant scholars


 General Overview

The Muslim Renaissance is traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 13th century whilst some have extended it to the 16th century. During this period, engineers, scholars and traders in the Islamic world contributed to the  agriculture, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, sciences, and technology, both by preserving and building upon earlier traditions and by adding inventions and innovations of their own. Howard R. Turner writes: ‘Muslim artists and scientists, princes and labourers together created a unique culture that has directly and indirectly influenced societies on every continent.’

During this period the Muslim world became the unrivalled intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine and education when Mamun, the Abbasid ruler championed the cause of knowledge and established an Academy of Wisdom in Baghdad. Here, scholars gathered and translated the various manuscripts of knowledge into Arabic. Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and later, some in turn were translated into Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin. During this period the Muslim world was a cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Greek, Chinese, Indian, Persian and Egyptian civilizations. Muslim scholars corrected the errors of the ancients and built on it through their own discoveries and inventions. Rival Muslim dynasties such as the Fatimids of Egypt and the Umayyads of Spain (Andalus) were also major intellectual centres with cities such as Cairo and Córdoba rivaling Baghdad. Most of the new knowledge, discoveries and inventions from the Muslim world were passed on to Europe, which was still in the dark ages, as attested by Western scholars. The conduit for this was:  through the Christian Crusades, who wreaked havoc in the Muslim lands; through Muslim Spain (Andalus); and students from Europe who studied at Muslim universities. This acted as a catalyst and led to the Renaissance in Europe. Many European scholars such as Roger Bacon, Leonardo di Vinci, Michelangelo, Andreas Veselius, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, among others were profoundly influenced and inspired by Muslim scholars.


To be continued next month Insha Allah!

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