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The Times has prodigiously published books reviews of two effulgent books on the West’s debt to Islam in science and technology. Inundated with negatives images of a demonized population, to many in the West this is news. To many in the East this is not news. Muslims have grown up with the knowledge that the stars have Arab names, the instruments of navigation used by Columbus and other sailors were Islamic in origin. The Muslims of South Asia know that the Britishers destroyed all local manufacturing in Bengal and Bihar and make way for cheap cotton imports from Manchester and Bradford.
Last November, scientists using the Hubble space telescope reported the first sighting with visible light of a planet circling a star other than our own sun. It orbits 25 light years away around one of the brightest stars in the sky, called Fomalhaut.
Isn’t that a curious name for a star? Not obviously mythological, it sounds as if it derives from some forgotten French astronomer. Not so; it is, in fact, from the Arabic fum u’l haut, meaning “mouth of the fish”. And Fomalhaut is not alone in having an Arabic derivation – there are well over 100 others, including Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Deneb. How did the Arabs get to name stars?
The answer, as these two revealing books make clear, is that they once led the world in astronomy. Muslim scientists were mapping the heavens, and pondering our place in them, while Europeans were still gazing at the night sky with baffled awe. To judge from some scientific narratives, the baton of knowledge about astronomy passed directly from the Greek Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD to Copernicus in the Renaissance. In fact, just about everything that the western world knew of the celestial sphere in the 16th century had come to it via the Arabs, who translated and refined Ptolemy’s works between the 9th and the 13th centuries. And they didn’t just read Ptolemy; they added to and challenged him, with data gathered at observatories such as the one established in the 820s in Baghdad by the greatest of the “scientific” rulers, al-Mamun of the Abbasid caliphate.
Astronomy is just one example of the enormous debt that the West owes to the achievements of Islamic science during the periods we still insist on calling the Dark and Middle Ages. While Europeans struggled until at least the 12th century with the mere rudiments of mathematics and natural philosophy, the Abbasid caliphs of the 8th to 13th centuries were promoting a rationalistic vision of Islam within which it was a sacred duty to inquire into the workings of the world. This programme was founded on the remnants of Roman and Hellenic culture, to which the Muslims had direct access in centres such as Alexandria. They prepared Arabic versions of the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy and Archimedes, and set up schools and libraries such as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
One of the most tolerant societies on the planet was brought to end end in Cordoba not because it lacked plurality or assimilation–it was brought to end by the force or arms by barbarians who killed and deported every jew and Muslim in the land.
Mao Zedung said it best “Political Power grows out the barrell of the gun“. Lord Clive did not conquer South Asia because there were a dearth of art, literature, music, science and technology in South Asia. The “British East India Company” conquered South Asia by craftly using cunning and wicked and ruthless application of power.
As well as preserving classical scholarship, Muslim thinkers also innovated in many fields: astronomy, optics, cartography and medicine. The camera obscura, for instance, a kind of pinhole camera in which an outside scene is projected onto a wall in a darkened chamber as light enters through a small hole, was first studied experimentally by Hassan ibn al-Haitham (Alhazen) in the 11th century. Roger Bacon later used the device to study solar eclipses, and old masters from Van Eyck to Vermeer may have employed the projection method to achieve their micro-realist detail.
Islamic mapmakers, meanwhile, were drawing recognisable outlines of Europe, the Gulf and the Indian subcontinent while westerners were still dividing a disc world into absurdly stylised quadrants. (It was a Muslim map that guided Vasco da Gama beyond the Cape of Good Hope to India at the end of the 15th century.) And in chemistry the Arabs went far beyond the tentative efforts of the classical world, bequeathing us words such as alkali and alcohol, alembic, elixir and alchemy. The standard theory of the alchemical transmutation of metals was laid out in the writings ascribed to the 8th-century Persian Jabir ibn-Hayyan, in which nitric, hydrochloric and sulphuric acids – central to practical chemistry then and now – made their debut.
The Muslims also benefited from contact with China, from where they learnt how to make paper, and India, from where they got the “Arabic” numerals that were far superior to the cumbersome Roman system for arithmetic calculations, along with the concept of zero (the word itself is Arabic). These and other discoveries were passed on to the West in due course. From February 1, 2009, Science & Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood plus The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan LyonsScience & Islam by Ehsan Masood, Icon £14.99 pp256, The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, Bloomsbury £20 pp272.
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