Islamic Perspectives

Muslim contribution to Science - ii

The Forgotten Scientific legacy of the Muslim World
Continued from the previous issue
 
What is taught: Isaac Newton, during the 17th century, discovered that white light consists of various rays of coloured light.
What should be taught:This discovery was made in its entirety by Al-Haytham (11th century) and Kamal ad-Din (14th century). Newton did make original discoveries, but this was not one of them.
 
What is taught:The English scholar Roger Bacon (d. 1292) first mentioned glass lenses for improving vision. At nearly the same time, eyeglasses could be found in use both in  China and  Europe .
What should be taught: Ibn Firnas of Islamic Spain invented eyeglasses during the 9th century, and they were manufactured and sold throughout  Spain for over two centuries. Any mention of eyeglasses by Roger Bacon was simply a regurgitation of the work of al-Haytham (d. 1039), whose research Bacon frequently referred to.
 
What is taught: Gunpowder was developed in the Western world as a result of Roger Bacon’s work in 1242. The first usage of gunpowder in weapons was when the Chinese fired it from bamboo shoots in attempt to frighten Mongol conquerors. They produced it by adding sulfur and charcoal to saltpeter.
What should be Taught:The Chinese developed saltpeter for use in fireworks and knew of no tactical military use for gunpowder, nor did they invent its formula. Research by Reinuad and Fave have clearly shown that gunpowder was formulated initially by Muslim chemists. Further, these historians claim that the Muslims developed the first fire-arms. Notably, Muslim armies used grenades and other weapons in their defence of Algericus against the Franks during the 14th century. Jean Mathes indicates that the Muslim rulers had stock-piles of grenades, rifles, crude cannons, incendiary devices, sulfur bombs and pistols decades before such devices were used in  Europe . The first mention of a cannon was in an Arabic text around 1300 A.D. Roger Bacon learned
of the formula for gunpowder from Latin translations of Arabic books. He brought forth nothing original in this regard.
 
What is taught:The compass was invented by the Chinese who may have been the first to use it for navigational purposes sometime between 1000 and 1100 A.D. The earliest reference to its use in navigation was by the Englishman, Alexander Neckam (1157-1217).
What Should be Taught:Muslim geographers and navigators learned of the magnetic needle, possibly from the Chinese, and were the first to use magnetic needles in navigation. They invented the compass and passed the knowledge of its use in navigation to the West. European navigators relied on Muslim pilots and their instruments when exploring unknown territories. Gustav LeBon claims that the magnetic needle and compass were entirely invented by the Muslims and that the Chinese had little to do with it. Neckam, as well as the Chinese, probably learned of it from Muslim traders. It is noteworthy that the Chinese improved their navigational expertise after they began interacting with the Muslims during the 8th century.
 
What is taught:The first man to classify the races was the German Johann F. Blumenbach, who divided mankind into white, yellow, brown, black and red peoples.
What should be Taught:Muslim scholars of the 9th through 14th centuries invented the science of ethnography. A number of Muslim geographers classified the races, writing detailed explanations of their unique cultural habits and physical appearances. They wrote thousands of pages on this subject. Blumenbach’s works were insignificant in comparison.
 
What is taught:The science of geography was revived during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries when the ancient works of Ptolemy were discovered. The Crusades and the Portuguese/Spanish expeditions also contributed to this reawakening. The first scientifically- based treatise on geography was produced during this period by  Europe ‘s scholars.
What should be taught:Muslim geographers produced untold volumes of books on the geography of Africa, Asia,  India ,  China and the  Indies during the 8th through 15th centuries. These writings included the world’s first geographical encyclopedias, almanacs and road maps. Ibn Battutah’s 14th century masterpieces provide a detailed view of the geography of the ancient world. The Muslim geographers of the 10th through 15th centuries far exceeded the output by Europeans regarding the geography of these regions well into the 18th century. The Crusades led to the destruction of educational institutions, their scholars and books. They brought nothing substantive regarding geography to the Western  world.
 
What is taught:Robert Boyle, in the 17th century, originated the science of chemistry.
What should be Taught:A variety of Muslim chemists, including ar-Razi, al-Jabr, al-Biruni and al-Kindi, performed scientific experiments in chemistry some 700 years prior to Boyle. Durant writes that the Muslims introduced the experimental method to this science. Humboldt regards the Muslims as the founders of chemistry.
 
What is taught:Leonardo da Vinci (16th century) fathered the science of geology when he noted that fossils found on mountains indicated a watery origin of the earth.
What Should be Taught:Al-Biruni (1lth century) made precisely this observation and added much to it, including a huge book on geology, hundreds of years before Da Vinci was born. Ibn Sina noted this as well (see pp. 100-101 of Draper’s book). it is probable that Da Vinci first learned of this concept from Latin translations of Islamic books. He added nothing original to their findings.
 
What is Taught:The first mention of the geological formation of valleys was in 1756, when Nicolas Desmarest proposed that they were formed over long periods of time by streams.
What should be taught: Ibn Sina and al-Biruni made precisely this discovery during the 11th century (see pp. 102 and 103 of Draper’s book), fully 700 years prior to Desmarest.
 
What is taught: Galileo (17th century) was the world’s first great experimenter.
What should be taught: Al-Biruni (d. 1050) was the world’s first great experimenter. He wrote over 200 books, many of which discuss his precise experiments. His literary output in the sciences amounts to some 13,000 pages, far exceeding that written by Galileo or, for that matter, Galileo and  Newton combined.
 
What is taught: The Italian Giovanni Morgagni is regarded as the father of pathology because he was the first to correctly describe the nature of disease.
What should be Taught:Islam’s surgeons were the first pathologists. They fully realized the nature of disease and described a variety of diseases to modern detail. Ibn Zuhr correctly described the nature of pleurisy, tuberculosis and pericarditis. Az-Zahrawi accurately documented the pathology of hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and other congenital diseases. Ibn al-Quff and Ibn an-Nafs gave perfect descriptions of the diseases of circulation. Other Muslim surgeons gave the first accurate descriptions of certain malignancies, including cancer of the stomach, bowel and esophagus. These surgeons were the originators of pathology, not Giovanni Morgagni.
 
What is taught:Paul Ehrlich (19th century) is the originator of drug chemotherapy, which is the use of specific drugs to kill microbes.
What should be Taught: Muslim physicians used a variety of specific substances to destroy microbes. They applied sulfur topically specifically to kill the scabies mite. Ar-Razi (10th century) used mercurial compounds as topical antiseptics.
 
What is taught:Purified alcohol, made through distillation, was first produced by Arnau de Villanova, a Spanish alchemist, in 1300 A.D.
What should be taught:Numerous Muslim chemists produced medicinal-grade alcohol through distillation as early as the 10th century and manufactured on a large scale the first distillation devices for use in chemistry. They used alcohol as a solvent and antiseptic.
 
What is taught:The first surgery performed under inhalation anaesthesia was conducted by C.W. Long, an American, in 1845.
What should be taught:Six hundred years prior to Long, Islamic Spain’s Az-Zahrawi and Ibn Zuhr, among other Muslim surgeons, performed hundreds of surgeries under inhalation anaesthesia with the use of narcotic-soaked sponges which were placed over the face.
 
What is taught:During the 16th century Paracelsus invented the use of opium extracts for anaesthesia.
What should be Taught: Muslim physicians introduced the aesthetic value of opium derivatives during the Middle Ages. Opium was originally used as an anesthetic agent by the Greeks. Paracelsus was a student of Ibn Sina’s works from which it is almost assured that he derived this idea.

Excerpted from Forgotten History of Muslims
By J W Draper


To be continued in the next issue

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2012 on page no. 20

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