Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lost history of Muslim scholars

By Raza Elahi
At a time when the relationship between Muslims and the West seems mainly defined by mistrust and misunderstanding, and Islam being dubbed as incompatible with modernity, it may not be wrong to remind the world that it were the Muslim scholars through various stages of Islamic civilization who had played a great role in shaping up modern society.

Islam’s invitation to explore and search made Muslims interested in astronomy, geography, mathematics, chemistry and medicines etc, and they had a firm knowledge of these subjects, centuries before the new world order of West. Scholars like Ibn Sina, Al-Haytham, Al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Rushd, Omar Khayyam and Ibn Batuta etc dazzled the world with their findings and literary works between 8th and 14th century.

In fact, the early advancements of Muslims in science and culture had laid the foundation of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment. MN Roy in his book Historical Role of Islam has pointed out that European Renaissance would not have been possible but for the Arabs who preserved Greek knowledge and passed it on to Europe.

In the Middle Ages, when Europe was engaged in superstitions and feudal chaos, Baghdad was the intellectual centre of the world. Muslim scholars studied the ancient civilisations from Greece and Rome and combined them with their creative ideas and thoughts. The works of Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras and others were translated into Arabic. In the libraries of 9th-centuries Baghdad, known as ‘House of Wisdom’, many of the great classical treatises were preserved as Arabic texts and reintroduced to Europe centuries later after the originals were lost. Besides Baghdad, Samarqand, Bukhara, Cairo, Istanbul and Damascus were the centres of learning which produced an army of scientists and thinkers.

Today, many people may not know that algebra and the Arabic numerals were introduced to the world by Muslim mathematicians, who made significant progress in number theory and also invented the symbol for zero. The word “cipher” comes from Arabic word sifr. It was Al-Khwarizmi (780-850 CE) who invented the algebra. The very name algebra is derived from his book Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabila, which was further developed by others, most notably by Omar Khayyam.

The man who first advised the treatment of cancer in its earliest stages by removing the diseased tissues was Ibn Sina. Born in 980 CE in Bukhara, he did an extensive study of human anatomy, infectious diseases and cancer etc. The Qanun was his most famous work, which introduced over 700 drugs and their applications. Another genius Ibn Al-Haytham’s (965-1040 CE) contributions to optics and other scientific methods were outstanding. He contradicted Ptolemy and Elucid’s theories of vision that objects are seen by rays of light emanating from the eyes. According to him, the rays originate in the object of vision and not in the eye. He also wrote about the attraction of masses some 600 years before Galileo and Issac Newton. Writer Michael H Morgan commented in his book Lost History, “Considering the earliness of his work and the limits of his time, Ibn Al-Haytham must be considered an equal of Einstein though largely lost to history.”

Generally, Copernicus is lauded as the father of modern astronomy, but his theory of the planets is identical to that of Ibn Al-Shatir, who preceded Copernicus by more than a century. Muslim astronomers, who correctly calculated the circumference of the globe in the tenth century, also invented astrolabe, quadrant, and other navigational devices and a world map. It is also taught that Robert Boyle originated the science of chemistry in 17th century. But Al Razi, Al-Kindi and Al-Biruni performed scientific experiments in chemistry some 700 years prior to Boyle. Similarly, Ibn Batuta’s (1304-1368) contribution to geography is as important as that of any other geographer. In his lifetime, he traveled around 75,000 miles, much more than Marco Polo.

Further, it was Arabs who first introduced crop rotation practice in Holland. From Holland, the practice went to England. The result was agriculture revolution in England. Robert Briffault has written in The Making of Humanity that manifold influences from Islamic civilization communicated its first glow to European life. Mark Graham has summed up well in How Islam Created the Modern World, when he says: “At the dawn of the Renaissance, Christian Europe was wearing Persian clothes, singing Arab songs, reading Spanish Muslim philosophy and eating off Mamluk Turkish brassware.”

Such is the varied history of Islamic civilizations, Muslims and their modern outlook. Knowledge, the main pillar of modernity, and Islam has always been together. The Qur'an and the Sunnah (Prophet Muhammad’s traditions) encourage Muslims to seek knowledge and be scholars. Prophet Mohammad has said that in seeking knowledge one might go even far as China. The word Ilm (knowledge) is mentioned in the Qur’an more than 700 times. There can be no better association between any religion and learning than this.
However, it is sad that Islam, who taught the world how to live well and think clearly, is being labeled as orthodox, and the inventions and discoveries done by Muslims are now part of the lost world.