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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
What contributions have Muslims made to world civilizations?

Muslims have made very substantial contributions to world civilizations. Muslim societies not only preserved the ancient teachings of the Greeks, but they expanded upon them, developing new ideas in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and social sciences. In Africa, Muslims preserved distinctive African cultural traditions in new Muslim urban societies, while in South Asia Muslim scholars adapted and developed Hindu number systems. These contributions of Muslims are not well known because what most people know about world history concentrates on the history of Western civilization from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the age of Western modernity. We may think that the “dark ages” in the West existed globally and therefore miss the rich heritage of Muslim societies' scientific, technological, and cultural achievements.

During the Middle Ages, knowledge from the ancient societies of Greece, Rome, China, India, and Persia was collected, preserved, and added to in the Muslim world. As Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula across western Asia and North Africa, the Arabic language became the lingua franca of the region. Muslim rulers established research centers and universities where scientific, technological, and philosophical developments abounded. The achievements of Muslim societies during the ninth through fifteenth centuries greatly enhanced the theoretical and material development of world civilizations.

Muslims learned the art of paper production from the Chinese when Islam spread into China. Thus, while the West was still writing manuscripts on animal skin parchment, which was difficult to use and store, Muslims were experiencing a growth of knowledge and learning through accelerated production of books. Elite members of society patronized scholars and sought to acquire books. Great libraries, public and private, were established across the Muslim world. The Fatimids in Egypt housed over a million books, and at least eighteen thousand represented the ancient sciences. Individuals also had large private libraries. Saladin's physician, Ibn al-Mathran, had ten thousand manuscripts, while an important Jewish surgeon in Cairo, Dunasch ben Tamin, owned over twenty thousand.

Mosques also contained libraries, and private collectors commonly donated their books to mosques. Scholars would frequently dictate their works at mosques, and the general public attended to listen to them. Further, manuscripts in mosque libraries, covering topics ranging from science and medicine to philosophy and religion, were available to the public. Booksellers often stationed themselves close to the mosque, selling books to collectors, citizens, students, and merchants alike. In Marrakech, for example, the Kutubya Mosque is so named because of the two-hundred-plus book vendors (kutubiya) that built booths around the mosque. The accessibility of books in Muslim societies contrasted greatly with the situation in Europe, where manuscripts were kept in monasteries and dealt with highly specialized theological subjects. Muslim societies gifted world civilizations with their libraries, which revolutionized the preservation of knowledge and education in the West.

Muslim contributions in the field of medicine are among the most important. In the ninth century, Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (864–930), one of the greatest Muslim physicians of the Middle Ages, and Ibn Sina (980–1037), one of the foremost philosophers of the period, both wrote medical encyclopedias that became key medical references in Europe for centuries. Al-Zahrawi (936–1013), known by the Latin name Albucasis, was renowned among European physicians for his treatise on eye, ear, and throat surgeries. He provided drawings of surgical tools and information on using sedatives, antiseptics, and sutures and performed the first cesarean operation.

By rooting medicine in science, Muslims made it a profession requiring extensive training and study, which helped to abolish harmful, superstitious, and very popular folk medicine. Doctors were required to take the Hippocratic oath after successfully completing a physician exam. Many hospitals were open twenty-four hours a day, and physicians were required to see every patient. In time, hospitals became centers of great learning in Muslim societies and were precursors to the research hospitals of today.

Muslim interest in medicine contributed to developments in botany and agriculture as Muslim botanists learned more about plants, irrigation techniques, fertilization, and crop rotation. Herbs and plants such as anise, caraway, spinach, cauliflower, asparagus, and artichokes were grown for medicinal purposes and eaten to improve overall health. In the Islamic civilization of al-Andalus, Spain, Ibn Awwam wrote an encyclopedia in the mid-twelfth century identifying and describing the use of 160 different plants, some unknown to Europe at the time, and improving on the classic European horticultural text by Palladius (c. 380) listing 76 different plants.

Muslim knowledge of agriculture had a significant impact on what is grown, purchased, and traded in the global economy today. Plants farmed in Muslim societies included coffee, bananas, cotton, hemp, tea, olives, watermelon, sugar cane, sesame, apricots, cherries, and peaches. Muslim botanists' and farmers' knowledge of beautiful, fragrant, and nutritious plants, fruits, and vegetables, and their farming techniques, were disseminated across Europe by Crusaders, travelers, and merchants and later transplanted to the Americas.

Botanical developments contributed to advances in both theoretical and applied chemistry in Muslim societies. For example, Muslims discovered how to make soap by mixing olive oil with plant ash, and Crusaders took this castile soap recipe back to Europe. In addition, vegetable and animal oils were used to light lamps, while flowers and herbs were chemically processed into cosmetics and perfumes.

The study of chemistry was cultivated in Muslim societies and imported to the West, where Europeans built on these concepts to develop the science of chemistry that is practiced worldwide today. In theoretical chemistry, essential chemical processes such as distillation, subliming, crystallizing, and the dissolving of substances were described in Arabic sources. The writings of Jabir Ibn Hayyan (c. 815), known as the father of Arab chemistry, were translated into Latin and became standard chemistry texts in Europe. His accomplishments include discovering aqua regia, a substance that dissolves gold and eases the extraction and purification processes. His classification of matter into spirits, metals, and stones forms the basis of naming chemicals today. Al-Razi, in addition to writing his medical encyclopedia, identified ethanol. The English word alcohol comes from the Arabic word for this substance.

Muslim scholars made major contributions to the field of mathematics. Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 780–850) is known as Algoritimi in the West and is the father of algebra. Rather than use Roman numerals, al-Khwarizmi used Hindi numerals and introduced the Indian idea of zero into mathematics. Because al-Khwarizmi used the number scale 0–9, it was possible to express any number combination. Muslims were also the first to use the decimal point to express fractions in solving complex problems. Mathematical texts written in Arabic were later translated into Latin, and by the fifteenth century, across Europe, Arabic numerals had replaced Roman numerals in common usage.

Mathematical advances also contributed to astronomical discoveries. Al-Farghani (c. 861), for example, created important calculations on the circumference of the earth. Christopher Columbus relied on these calculations but misunderstood al-Farghani's unit of measurement. This mistake led to the discovery of the Americas. Al-Battani (c. 929) created astronomical charts (tables of the movement of bodies in the sky) and created trigonometry. He used trigonometry to measure both solar and lunar time. In Cordoba, Spain, another Muslim astronomer, al-Zarqali (d. 1087), enhanced the astrolabe, an astronomical instrument used to predict the position of the planets and the sun, keep time, and determine the location of points. Muslims also discovered stars and constellations in the sky such as the Scorpion (al-aqrab) and the Goat (al-jadi). Other words in the English language such as zenith, nadir, and azimuth are derived from Arabic astronomical terms.

In the social sciences Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), a Tunisian Muslim, is increasingly regarded as the first modern historian and the father of sociology because of his examination of human life and institutions. Recognizing that events do not happen in a vacuum, Khaldun was the first to pay attention to socioeconomic contexts in writing history. In his famous work, Muqaddimah, he records information on climate, social structures, occupations, and education rather than just events such as the reigns of kings and wars. This work of universal history also considers the evolution of society, examining various societal structures and civilizational forms.

Muslims made very important contributions in philosophy. Muslims, like Jews and Christians, struggled to reconcile how Aristotle, Plato, and other Greek philosophers' concepts of reason and morality related to divine revelation and faith. From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, important philosophical works were translated and preserved in Arabic at the House of Wisdom, a library and translation institute in Baghdad and the major intellectual center of Islam's golden age. Had these works not been maintained, they might have been lost to world civilization. Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes, 1126–1198), a prominent Muslim philosopher, wrote important commentaries on Aristotle. Other Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West) and al-Ghazali (1058–1111) also wrote on the relationship of faith and reason, encouraging Christians to contribute to the debate. The great Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas was greatly influenced by Muslim thinkers, especially Ibn Sina. These philosophers made it possible to examine the natural world, draw conclusions about it, and try to understand the natural laws of the universe. Philosophical work cultivated in Muslim societies contributed greatly to the process of scientific thought.

Finally, the educational system in Europe was changed as merchants, students, scholars, Crusaders, and travelers transmitted important ideas from Muslim cultures to the West and medical, mathematical, astronomical, and philosophical achievements made their way into Western civilization. Texts were translated from Arabic into Latin, and new knowledge gleaned from Muslims contributed to the rebirth, or Renaissance, of Europe. As Europeans rediscovered classical Greek knowledge and discovered knowledge from Muslim societies for the first time, they developed ways to improve their lives and societies.

Today, it is interesting to note the many English words having Arabic origins. For foods and drinks we have alcohol (al-kohl), coffee (qahwa), artichoke(al-kharshuf), saffron(za'faran), lemon (limun), spinach (isbanakh), orange (naranj), sugar (sukkar), and tahini (tahin). In mathematics, algebra(al-jabr) means “the restoring of a missing part.” The word algorithm originates from the Latinization of the name al-Khwarizmi, the father of algebra. Many names of common household items such as sofa (suffah), jar (jarrah), and talc or talcum power (talq) come from Arabic loanwords, as do animal names such as giraffe (zarafa), gazelle (ghazal), and gerbil(jarbua). These and many other words used daily reflect Muslim influences in world civilizations.

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