Muslim Contribution to Science and Culture – I

Islam not only bound the nomadic tribes of Arabia in a common bond of brotherhood, it gave them a book, the Qur’ān which taught them how to lead a life of purity and righteousness, writes M. A. R Khan

Modern research has established the fact that the human race built up its civilisation some six thousand years ago on the banks of the Shattal-Arab and the Nile; when it spread gradually through various channels all over the world. Knowledge gathered from patient observations, experience and accidental discoveries was disseminated through Khaldia, Babel, Egypt, India and Phoenicia and ultimately reaching Ionia and Greece, found there a most congenial atmosphere to develop and systematise for six or seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Greek enterprise in colonisation brought the fruits of Hellenic research within the reach of various communities bordering on the Levant. But centralisation imperceptibly led to deterioration and decay, and Greece lost her initiation in the cultivation of arts, science and literature. Alexandria and Syracuse upheld, however, for a time the traditions of Greece, but succumbed eventually to the iron discipline of Rome. Rome, which while it ensured order and administration, failed to encourage originality and scientific investigation.

On the downfall of Rome by the Barbarians chaos and intellectual stagnation once more held sway over the civilized world. The masterpieces of Greek science and culture lay buried in tottering libraries or museums and might possibly have disappeared altogether from the face of the earth but for the miracle of Arab rise to power and its subsequent patronage of learning.


Islam not only bound the nomadic tribes of Arabia in a common bond of brotherhood, it gave them a book, the Qur’ān which taught them how to lead a life of purity and righteousness. The beauty of its language and the grandeur of its inculcations inspired the desert people to share the blessings of their faith and Shari’at with the rest of mankind.

We are not concerned here with the territorial conquests of the early votaries of Islam. These will be referred to in a cursory manner merely to trace the transmission of Muslim culture and learning to distant countries and nations.

After the subjugation of practically the whole of Arabia during the life-time of the Prophet, and the conquest of Syria, Iraq, Persia and Egypt in the days of the four orthodox Caliphs, the Umayyad regime (661 A.D. to 750 A.D.) brought the whole of North Africa (with extensions into the Iberian Peninsula), Central Asia right up to the borders of China proper, modern Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Sind and parts of the Punjab under Muslim sway. Most of these acquisitions occurred during the time of Abdul-Malik and his son Walid, under the generalship of Maslamah, Musa ibni Nusair, Muhammad bin Qasim al-Thaqafi, and Qutaibah Ibni Muslim. Had the Umayyads refrained from petty tribal jealousies and, above all, followed in the footsteps of the orthodox Caliphs as did Omar II, they would probably have made further conquests and certainly continued much longer in power. As it was, they made bitter enemies amongst both the Arabs and the Persians and were finally crushed by Abu Al-Abbas As-Saffah, the champion of the Abbasid cause, in 750, and practically the entire Islamic world (with the exception of Andalusia) passed under the sovereighty of Bani Abbaas.

The third Caliph Uthman had already put together the various sūrahs revealed to the Prophet and ensured the unalterability of the text and pronunciation of the Qur’ān.

The basic principles of Arabic grammar were framed by the great exponent of Islamic learning, Ali Ibni Abi Talib. During the Umayyad regime Hajjaj Ibni Yusuf introduced at Basrah the use of dots to discriminate between letters of different sounds but similar form and of diacritical marks to serve as vowels. Arabic thus systematized and endowed with natural flexibility was ready to assimilate the ideas and expressions of the most fully developed languages of the time, Greek, Sasanid and Sanskrit.

As pointed out by At-Tha`alibi (d. 1038 A.D.) in “Lata’if Al-Ma`arif”, the real`opener’ of the Abbasid regime was Abu Ja`far Al-Mansur (754 A.D to 775 A.D.), the `mid-comer’ was Abdullah Al-Ma’mun (813 A.D. to -833 A.D.) and the `closer’ was al-Wathiq (842 A.D. to 847 A.D.), though the dynasty continued till the thirty-seventh and last representative, Al-Musta`sim who perished in the sack of Baghdad by Hulagu in 1258 A.D. It is not the much for its conquests and military glory that the Abbasid Caliphate is famous, as for its achievements in peaceful pursuits such as commerce, arts, science and architecture, though the struggle with Byzantium continued intermittently and, on one occasion at least, brought the victorious Abbasid armies to the very gates of Constantinople, humiliating the Empress Irene (782 A.D.) (“Tabari”, Vol. 3 Pg. 504) and later enforcing a tax on the person of her successor Nicephorus 1 (806 A.D.) (“Tabari”, Vol. Pgs. 696, 709-10)

Cultivation of Medicine, Mathematics and Astronomy in the Abbasid Regime


It was Al-Mansur who built Baghdad near the site of old Ctesiphon on the plan submitted by the Persian philosoper Nau Bakht and the astronomer Masha`allah, a convert to Islam from Judaism. Within fifty years of its planning it rose to be the most important city in the world, rivalling Constantinople itself in the grandeur of its royal mansions, number of public buildings, extent of population and volume of trade and commerce. The glowing accounts of its wealth and splendour preserved for us in the pages of “Al-Aghani” by AbulFaraj Isphani (897 A.D. to 967 A.D.) and “Al-Fihrist” by Ibni Abi-Ya`qub Al-Nadim Al-Warrq (d. 995 A.D.) surpass the feeble attempts of the compilers of “Alif Lailah” to portray the brilliance of the court of Harun-Ur-Rashid.

Al-Mansur’s illness led to the invitation of the famous Nestorian physician Jurijis Ibni Bakhti Yashu of the medical academy of Jundi Shapur to the Abbasid court (“Fihrist”, Pg. 296) an event fraught with most far-reaching effects on the future development of the science and art of medicine. The treatment was successful and the Bakhti Yashu` family flourished for generations in Baghdad as court physicians (“Qifti”, Pgs. 134-5) awakening a keen interest in their royal masters to promote the study of the master pieces of Hippocrates (436 B.C.) and Galen (200 A.D.).

The advent of an Indian mathematician and astronomer to the court of Al-Mansur in 773 A.D. with a copy of Siddhanta (Sindhind, a Sanskrit treatise on astronomy) induced that early patron of learning to get the work translated into Arabic. Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al-Fazari performed the task with the help of competent assistants, and within a few years Iraq gave birth to a number of astronomers who not only mastered all the available knowledge of astronomy but made original contributions to it from time to time, right down to the end of fourteenth century. Desert life under crystal-clear skies had impressed on the Arab mind from time immemorial the majesty of the heavens, shining with countless stars whose configurations they came to know by heart and whose diurnal rotation they utilized to serve as their time-piece. Some of the most eloquent passages in the Qur`an refer to the grandeur of the stellar world, the regularity of solar and lunar movements among the constellations, the repetition of the phases of the moon and the dazzling brilliance of the restless planets. No wonder that the Arabs and later converts to Islam from other nationalities took so enthusiastically to astronomy and left on it their permanent mark. We shall have occasion to deal with this matter in detail subsequently.

The same Indian mathematician introduced to the Arabs Hindu numerals, their efficient notation and the inestimable importance of Zero (Arabic Sifr). They adopted the methods of Hindu arithmetic unhesitatingly and popularized them all over the world so much that Western Europe until quite recently tacitly believed the Arabs themselves to be the originators of these numerals and their notation.


Among the treasures won from Byzantine cities were Greek manuscripts on geometry, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. Even as early as at the close of the eight century A.D. we find Abu Yahya Ibn Al-Batriq translating for Al-Mansur the major works of Galen and Hippocrates. Several other works like the “Elements” of Euclid and the Almagest (Arabic Al-Majisti) of Ptolemy are stated by Ya`qubi (“Buldan”, Vol. 1 Pgs. 150-51) to have been translated into Arabic at about this time, but evidently they had to be revised by abler translators under the patronage of Harun-Ur-Rashid and his son Al-Ma`mun. For lack of adequate knowledge of Greek these early versions had to be rendered first into Syriac by Syrian scholars and retranslated from that language into Arabic. Syrian Christians, therefore, played an important part in this intellectual drama. Yuhanna Ibni Masawayh (d. 857 A.D.), a pupil of Jibril Ibni Bakhti Yashu and teacher of Hunayn Ibni Ishaq, for instance, translated a number of Greek manuscripts into Arabic.

(to be continued)

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