Famous Muslim Scientists

The Muslim world did more than just translate ancient works and pass them on to Europe at the end of the Dark Ages. Over the centuries, these works were studied, incorporated into the current framework of knowledge, and then expounded. The scholars of Bayt al-Hikmah and other centers of learning were heavily involved in original research and discoveries. Among the most notable were the introduction of Arabic numerals, the study of algebra, medical anatomical drawings, advances in optics, geographical maps, and the production of several scientific instruments, such as the astrolabe (used in ancient times to determine the position of the sun and stars).

Medicine

Islamic scholars took up the study of Greek medicine very early on. Translators at Bayt al-Hikmah worked diligently to translate the works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Galen, and others into Arabic. At the same time, the first modern hospitals were established throughout the Islamic world. Harun al-Rashid created the first modern hospital in Baghdad in 805 C.E. Libraries and medical schools were connected to the larger hospitals, and medical students put into direct practice what they had been learning from master physicians.

Abu Bakr Al-Razi is one of the best-known contributors to medical knowledge. A native of Persia, Al-Razi traveled to Baghdad to study medicine and later became director of a large hospital there. He wrote more than 200 books and was a master of observation and experimental medicine. Great discoveries and treatises on subjects as diverse as pediatrics, oral hygiene, smallpox, measles, allergies, scabies, and kidney stones are attributed to him.

Another great Muslim medical scholar is known in the West as Avicenna. Abu Ali ibn Sina was born in tenth-century Bukhara, Persia (present-day Uzbekistan). Ibn Sina was a young prodigy, engaging in studies of medicine, philosophy, and poetry. By the age of eighteen, he was well known as a great physician and was summoned to treat the Samanid royal family.

Islamic scholars did not confine themselves to the study of works by Ptolemy, Plato, Euclid, and other Greek sages. They also took an interest in the works of Persian and Sanskrit scholars. The structure of Islam itself encouraged curiosity and promoted the study of ancient writings.

Ibn Sina's masterpiece work was titled The Canon of Medicine. This encyclopedia of all medical knowledge of the time consisted of more than a million words and included summaries of Greek medicine, anatomical drawings, descriptions of diseases and their cures, and an outline of 760 medicinal plants and the drugs that could be derived from them. This monumental work was translated into many languages and served as the main medical textbook and teaching guide until the mid-nineteenth century.

In addition to the works of these two great medical authorities, the works of more than 400 other physicians and authors were translated into European languages. All had a great impact on the future of medicine.

Astronomy

The study of astronomy developed in Islamic society because of a religious need. Scholars needed to observe and study the sun and moon in order to determine the months of the lunar calendar, figure out the prayer and fasting times, and find the direction of the qiblah (direction of Mecca for prayer). Islamic scholars mapped the celestial sky, figured celestial orbits, and questioned the accuracy of Ptolemy's theories.

Muslim scientists built observatories all over the Islamic world and took to refining and revising Ptolemy's catalog and coordinates for the stars. Muslim scholars also excelled in making astronomical instruments. In the eleventh century C.E., Nasir Al-Tusi of Baghdad invented the azimuth quadrant and the torquetum, early instruments used to compute and measure star positions. Indeed, the word “azimuth” comes from the Arabic word assumut, which means “compass bearings.”

The Muslim physicist Ibn Al-Haytham (965–1040 C.E.) calculated the height of Earth's atmosphere at 52,000 paces, which is equivalent to about thirty-two miles. His calculations were very accurate for the time; modern scholarship has concluded that the atmosphere extends thirty-one miles from Earth.

Mathematics

The study of mathematics was closely connected to working out astronomical problems and calculations of physics. Mathematics was a specialty of the early Islamic scholars, and the Muslim world developed many well-known mathematicians.

One of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived was Abu Abdullah al-Khawarizmi. Born in modern-day Uzbekistan, he was raised near Baghdad and was associated with the great institutions of learning there. Al-Khawarizmi is known as the founder of algebra, and he also introduced the concept of algorithm. The word “algebra” itself comes from the title of a book that he wrote on the subject, Al-Jabr wa al-Muqabilah (The Book of Integration and Equation), and the term “algorithm” derives from his last name.

Al-Khawarizmi took the prevailing knowledge of the time and enriched it with his unique contributions. He developed solutions for linear and quadratic equations and detailed trigonometric tables and geometric and arithmetical concepts.

Another famous mathematician, Abu Raihan Al-Biruni, was born in modern-day Uzbekistan in 973 C.E. He studied Greek, Syriac, and Sanskrit and was a contemporary of the famous physician Ibn Sina. Al-Biruni made such extensive contributions to science that an index of his written works would cover more than sixty pages! He wrote about Earth's rotation, made calculations of latitude and longitude, and used mathematical techniques to determine the seasons.

Why are modern numerals called Arabic numerals?

The numerals we use today originated in India but were transmitted to the Western world by Arab Muslim scholars in the eighth century C.E. Muslim mathematicians improved on the system by developing the cipher (sifr), or zero.

Al-Biruni wrote about the speed of light versus the speed of sound and accurately determined the weights of more than a dozen elements and compounds. He studied angles, trigonometry, and the Indian numeral system. Like all other Muslim scholars of the time, his interests were diverse. He also wrote about botany, ancient history, and geography.

Geography

Many Muslim scientists were involved in the development of geographical knowledge. Muslims were among the first to calculate Earth's circumference, publish detailed world maps, and study elements and minerals. Muslim geographers traveled all over the world to gather data.

Mathematician al-Khawarizmi also contributed to the field of geography. Under his leadership, seventy geographers worked together to produce the first map of the globe, in 830 C.E. One of the better-known geographers was Al-Idrisi, who grew up in Muslim Spain in the early twelfth century. Al-Idrisi was educated in Cordoba and was hired to produce a world map for the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. Several of Al-Idrisi's books were translated into Latin, and his work spread rapidly through Europe. Christopher Columbus used a map that was derived from Al-Idrisi's work in his explorations of the New World.

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