Thousand years before English emerged as the international language of science in the latter half of the 20th century, the Arabic language unified scholars across the Muslim world, generating a lively market of ideas from Samarkand to Córdoba. “A book published in Central Asia could be read in southern Spain less than a year later,” explains Roshdi Rashed, an eminent Egyptian-born historian of science, in his office near Paris. “Islamic learning was not like Greek science, which was limited principally to the eastern Mediterranean, but was spread across most of the known world.”
One celebrated example is the Kitab al-Istikmal, a treatise on geometry by Yusuf al-Mu’taman, the 11th-century king of Sarakusta (today’s Zaragosa in northern Spain). The Jewish philosopher Maimonides brought it from Córdoba to Cairo and copies were soon circulating in Baghdad. The work was eventually republished in the 13th century in Central Asia.
Among the babel of scientists and scholars who crisscrossed the polyglot Muslim empire, the common language was Arabic. “Besides Maimonides, you have the great mathematician and physicist Alhazen (Ibn al-Haitham) moving from Basra to Cairo,” says Rashed, “and the astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi journeying every year from Khorasan in northern Iran through Iraq and on to Aleppo to teach.” Even if scholars spoke Persian or another language at home, they wrote their papers in Arabic so that their colleagues in Baghdad, Toledo and elsewhere could understand them, he adds. Omar Khayyam may have penned his quatrains in Persian, but he explicated his mathematical concepts in Arabic. Correspondence among scientists—typically carried by caravan messenger or carrier pigeon—was nearly as far-reaching in the 11th and 12th centuries as it was in the 17th, Rashed maintains.
But despite its ultimate ascendancy, scholarly Arabic had a slow start. “Before the advent of science, Arabic was the language of poetry; it soon became the language of the new religion of Islam, but paradoxically, it did not become the language of power right away,” explains French science historian Ahmed Djebbar. Although the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik decreed at the beginning of the eighth century that government institutions, schools, courts and communications conduct their business in Arabic, it took another 50 to 100 years before the translation of scientific texts from Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian languages into Arabic got under way in earnest, with some 100 translators at work over the course of the ninth and 10th centuries, according to the 10th-century bibliographer Ibn al-Nadim of Baghdad.
Baghdad’s Bayt al-Hikmah (“House of Wisdom”) became a vibrant center of translation. Works like Ptolemy’s Almagest and Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica were translated numerous times as scholars perfected Arabic terminology. The Greek word parabola was initially Arabicized phonetically as barabula, then subsequently refined to qat za’id, which literally means “thick section.” Diabetes was first rendered as diyabita then transformed to da as-sukkar (“sugar sickness”). Over time, Arabic scientific terms and star names were adopted into other languages, a list that includes alkali, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alembic, alchemy, azimuth, elixir, nadir, zenith, Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Rigel and Mizar.
After some seven centuries in which Arabic dominated scientific discourse, it began to be eclipsed in the 15th century by Turkish as Ottoman rule expanded. Ghiyath al-Kashi’s 1427 mathematical treatise Risala al-Muhitiya (Treatise on the Circumference), in which he calculated the value of pi to 17 decimal places, was one of the last significant scientific texts in Arabic. By the time Taqi al-Din, the director of the Istanbul observatory, wrote his books in Arabic on light and marvelous machines in the second half of the 16th century, Latin had largely supplanted Arabic as the universal language of science. Unlike Arabic, however, which was understood by all classes and gave ordinary Muslims access to scholarly knowledge, Latin was used principally by academics and clergy, fencing science in as the preserve of an educated elite.
Yet the duty to promote the Arab intellectual legacy has never been greater, argues Rashed, underscoring the philosophical alliance between science, which strives for unity in the natural world, and religion, which seeks a similar balance in the realm of the spirit. “Muslim science demonstrates that there has always been a profoundly rational base to Islamic civilization,” he explains.
Drawing principally from Greek texts, but also Persian and Indian sources, medieval Islamic scientists made a staggering number of breakthroughs. The brilliant ninth-century Baghdad mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi invented algebra, initially to resolve property disputes (even though countless generations of high school students wish he hadn’t bothered). He also solved linear and quadratic equations using algorithms, the basis of computer programming; the term itself is derived from his surname, testimony to al-Khwarizmi’s enduring gift to mathematics.
Reversing the false Greek notion that light is emitted from the eye, the 11th-century physicist Alhasan ibn al-Haitham, known in the West by his Latinized first name as Alhazen, correctly asserted in Cairo that light rays travel in the opposite direction, reflecting off the surface of objects to enter the eye. Devising the first rudimentary pinhole camera, or camera obscura, Alhazen demonstrated that light emanates from an object in straight lines, establishing the principle of linear perspective essential to the art of Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance masters. (Alas, the Basra-born scientist did not invent film for his primitive camera; civilization would wait until the 19th century for the first photograph.) By putting his concepts to various tests, using the camera obscura and other tools, Alhazen also introduced the experimental method of proof, insisting that theories had to be verified in practice, a key element to modern science that was missing from the less empirical Greek tradition.
“Arab science succeeded as much in pragmatic applications as it did in theoretical concepts,” Audouze maintains. “Islamic scholars distinguished themselves from their Greek predecessors, who were more inventive in ideas than in practical matters.” Arab scholars also introduced the practice of peer review and citations to confirm their source material.
Although the Babylonians, Indians and Egyptians had astronomical observatories, those founded under Islamic rulers in Maragha (in present-day Iran), Samarkand and Istanbul were far more sophisticated, equipped with an impressive array of astrolabes, sundials, sextants, celestial globes and armillary spheres to track the movements of the planets and constellations.
Skilled at determining the precise location of Makkah from anywhere in the Muslim empire, Islamic astronomers were unsurpassed in their calculations and predictions. Many mosques engaged a full-time astronomer, called a muqqawit, to determine the hours of prayer and consult lunar calendars to fix the dates for Ramadan and other religious events.
Persian astronomer Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973–1048), a protean intellectual figure who wrote in Persian, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit, and lived in Kath (in present-day Uzbekistan), corresponded with Abu al-Wafa, another astronomer 2000 kilometers (1242 mi) west in Baghdad, to coordinate the simultaneous observation of a lunar eclipse. On May 24, 997, according to al-Biruni’s book Al-athar al-baqiyah an al-qurun al-khaliyah (Vestiges of Bygone Days, usually shortened to The Chronology), they got their eclipse, measuring its duration and the moon’s angle in the sky to calculate the longitude of Kath with unprecedented exactitude.
Arab astronomers and cartographers strove for—and frequently achieved— uncanny accuracy. To ascertain the distance separating degrees of latitude for a projected global map, the ninth-century Baghdad caliph al-Ma’mun dispatched 70 scientists into the Syrian desert. Using astrolabes, measuring rods and stretched lengths of cord, the teams walked until they observed a change of one degree in the elevation of the polestar, the equivalent to a degree of latitude. Reckoning the distance traveled at 562 2/3 Arab miles (64.5 statute miles or 103.8 km), they computed the Earth’s circumference, which is 360 degrees, as 23,220 statute miles, or around 37,380 kilometers, a respectable error only about seven percent less than the true figure of 24,800 miles (40,000 km). (However, around 200 BC the Alexandrian geographer Eratosthenes handily beat their estimate, calculating the Earth’s circumference at 39,690 km.)
Arabic/Muslim achievements in medicine were also impressive. The ninth-century Persian doctor Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, known in Latin as Rhazes, penned the first treatise on smallpox in his Kitab al-tajarib (Book of Experience), which probed some 900 cases of various maladies. Another Persian doctor, Abu Ali ibn Sina, or Avicenna (980–1037), compiled Qanun fi ’l-tib (Canon of Medicine), a five-volume compendium of Greek and Islamic healing that became one of the principal textbooks in European universities centuries later.
Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (Abulcasis in Latin), a 10th-century surgeon in Córdoba, composed Al-Tasrif, a 30-chapter medical encyclopedia describing dozens of operations, complete with graphic illustrations of surgical instruments, including scalpels, cauterizing tools, feeding tubes and cupping glasses. (A 15th-century Turkish edition added instructively terrifying depictions of doctors treating patients.) Some 300 years after al-Zahrawi, another Andalusian doctor, Ibn al-Baitar, published Al-jami li mufradat al-adwiyya wa l-aghdhiyya (Book of Simple Medications and Alimentations), adding more than 400 medicines and curative plants to the 1,000 catalogued by the first-century doctor Dioscorides and other Greek botanists.
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