Overcoming Historical Amnesia: Muslim Contributions to Civilization

al-Qarawiyyin Source: Wikipedia
al-Qarawiyyin Source: Wikipedia

Published on Huffington Post (October 22nd, 2013)

In his recent article, Sam Harris, a popular critic of Islam, referred to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani education activist, as “the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in 1,000 years.” Hidden in this comment is the idea that Malala’s fellow Muslims are backward and that her religion, Islam, is not conducive to change or progress.

Conversely to the beliefs of Harris and others like him, Muslims have actually made enormous contributions to civilization, perhaps due to the heavy emphasis that Islam places on knowledge. People who forget or blatantly ignore major trends or events in world history can be said to suffer from “historical amnesia.” Though this mindset cannot be cured in one short blog post, I hope to dispel some of the stereotypes and misperceptions exacerbated by Harris and other anti-Islam activists by highlighting the contributions that Muslims have made to civilization over the years.

Contributions to education

Malala’s quest for universal education follows in Muslims’ long and proud history in the field of education. Two Muslim women, Fatima and Miriam al-Firhi, created the world’s first university, Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, in 859 AD. For several years, students were schooled here in a plethora of secular and religious subjects. At the end of their education, teachers evaluated students and awarded degrees based on satisfactory performances. The concept of awarding degrees would spread from Fez to Andalucía, Spain, and later to the Universities of Bologna in Italy and Oxford in England, among other places of learning.

Spanish Muslims of Andalucía were especially strong advocates of education and helped to dispel the gloom that had enveloped Europe during the Dark Ages. Between the 8th and 15th centuries, Andalucía was perhaps the world’s epicenter for education and knowledge. Spanish universities such as those in Cordoba, Granada, and Seville, had Christian and Jewish students who learned science from Muslims. Women were also encouraged to study in Muslim Spain. This educational environment that stressed tolerance would not reach the “Western world” until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Contributions to philosophy

One of the greatest Muslim contributions to civilization began in the 8th century when Muslim scholars inherited volumes of Greek philosophy. The wisdom in ancient Greece texts, which had been lost to Europeans, was translated from Latin to Arabic by Muslim scholars, thus creating one of the greatest transmissions of knowledge in world history. Muslims scholars would eventually bring the ideas of great ancient Greek minds such as Socrates, Aristotle and Plato into Europe, where their philosophy was translated into other European languages. This is why Muslims are the main threshold behind the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment, two movements that resurrected Greek philosophy and gave new life into a European continent that was bogged down with religious dogma and bloody internal conflicts.

Many Muslim scholars made acquiring knowledge their life goal. Perhaps the most notable of these scholars is Al-Ghazali, a Sufi Muslim who in the 11th and 12th centuries revolutionized early Islamic philosophy by helping develop Neoplatonism, which is often described as the “mystical” or “religious” interpretation of Greek philosophy. At the time of Al-Ghazali’s writing, Muslim philosophers had read about the ideas of ancient Greece, but these ideas were generally perceived to be in conflict with Islamic teachings. Al-Ghazali helped synthesize these elements by adopting the techniques of Aristotelian logic and the Neoplatonic ways to diminish the negative influences of excessive Islamic rationalism.

Ibn Khaldun is another one of the most important Muslim thinkers in history. Recognized as one of the greatest historians ever and the founder of sociological sciences in the 14th and 15th centuries, Khaldun created one of the earliest nonreligious philosophies in history in his work, the Muqaddimah. He also paved the way for our expectations of modern-day Presidents and Prime Ministers by creating a framework for evaluating “good rulers,” stating “the sovereign exists for the good of the people… The necessity of a Ruler arises from the fact that human beings have to live together and unless there is some one to maintain order, society would break to pieces.”

Contributions to health care

Medicine is another crucial contribution to civilization made by Muslims in addition to education and the university system. In 872 in Cairo, Egypt, the Ahmad ibn Tulun hospital was created and equipped with an elaborate institution and a range of functions. Like other Islamic hospitals that soon followed, Tulun was a secular institution open to men and women, adults and children, the rich and poor, as well as Muslims and non-Muslims. Tulun is also the earliest hospital to give care to the mentally ill.

One hundred years after the founding of Tulun, a surgeon named Al-Zahrawi, often called the “father of surgery,” wrote an illustrated encyclopedia that would ultimately be used as a guide to European surgeons for the next five hundred years. Al-Zarawhi’s surgical instruments, such as scalpels, bone saws, and forceps are still used by modern surgeons. Al-Zahrawi is also reportedly the first surgeon to perform a caesarean operation.

Another significant Muslim discovery came in the 13th century, when the Muslim medic Ibn Nafis described the pulmonary circulation almost three hundred years before William Harvey, the English physician who is believed by many Westerners to have “discovered” it. The technique of inoculation, or the introduction of an antigenic substance or vaccine into the body to induce immunity to a disease, is also said to have been designed by Muslims in Turkey and brought to Europe by the wife of England’s Turkish ambassador in 1724.

Protecting and cleansing the body has always been a priority for Muslims. Perhaps then it is no surprised that Muslim scientists combined vegetable oils with sodium hydroxide and aromatics such as thyme oil to create a recipe for soap, which is still used today. Shampoo was also introduced to England on the Brighton seafront in 1759 at Mahomed’s Indian Vapour Baths.

Contributions to science

There is also little doubt that the development of astronomy owes a great deal to the work of Muslim astronomers. As far back as the early 9th century, the Caliph Al-Ma’mum founded an astronomical observatory in Shammasiya in Baghdad and Qasiyun in Damascus. Five hundred years later, in 1420, Prince Ulugh Bey built a massive observatory in Samarqand, which was then followed in 1577 by another observatory built by Sultan Murad III in Istanbul.

The Ottomans had particularly well-organized astronomical institutions such as the post of chief-astronomer and time-keeping houses. Taqi al-Din, a 16th century Ottoman astronomer, created astronomical tables and observational instruments that helped measure the coordinates of stars and the distances between them.

Muslims have also made contributions in the field of chemistry by inventing many of the basic processes and apparatuses used by modern-day chemists. Working in the 8th and 9th centuries in Andalucía, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, the founder of modern chemistry, transformed alchemy into chemistry through distillation, or separating liquids through differences in their boiling points. In addition to developing the processes of crystallization, evaporation, and filtration, he also discovered sulphuric and nitric acid. The historian Erick John Holmyard stated that Hayyan’s work is as important, if not more, than that of Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier, two European chemists who are frequently attributed to creating modern chemistry.

Indeed our very modern and globalized world today would not be able to move so quickly if it were not for the genius of Ibn Firnas, a Muslim engineer of Andalucía who in the 9th century constructed a flying machine, thus becoming the world’s first aviator. In 852 he jumped from the minaret of the Grand Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, using a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts. Although he hoped to glide like an eagle, Ibn Firnas did not, though he is credited for creating the first parachute.

Muslims have also influenced the study of physics, a closely linked field to flying and aviation. Mohammad Abdus Salam, a Pakistani theoretical physicist, shared a 1979 Nobel Prize for his contribution to the field of theoretical physics, specifically in unifying electromagnetic and weak forces.

I have only scratched the surface of the contributions made by Muslims to the development of civilization. Children around the world should be taught about these contributions to dispel the misperception that Muslims are backward and stagnant. Muslims worldwide must also invest more in education, medicine, and other sciences in order to continue their tradition of being pioneers for knowledge.


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