Seeding the Renaissance –

Science, Technology and Islam

Jesus Never Existed The Challenge of Islam

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Kenneth Humphreys

 


07.10.11

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Water mill – Cordoba

At the height of Moorish Spain's prosperity 5000 water wheels straddled the Guadalquivir River.

The Christian states of the north viewed the opulence of Cordoba as a biblical 'Babylon' and when they conquered Al Andalus they destroyed its technology.

The province never recovered.

 

 

 

 

Debt to Arab scientists

"Trained by Arab scientists ... I was taught by my Arab masters to be led only by reason, whereas you were taught to follow the halter of the captured image of ancient authority."

Adelard of Bath ('Dodi Ve-Nechdi,' 1137), an early populariser of Muslim science in the West.

 

Textiles

The textile industry flourished in almost all Muslim countries and was the driving force of the medieval Islamic economy.

Hot climates favoured the use of light material.

Damask, 'cloth from Damascus,' Syria, a rich silk cloth of splendid patterns, sometimes with gold or silver thread.

Muslin, so-named from Mosul, the Iraqi city where it was first made.

Gauze, so-named from from Gaza, the Palestinian city which in the Middle Ages was the major centre of production.

 

Fine woollens, cottons and silken fabrics – including satin, brocade and muslin – were matchless in quality and were in great demand in the imperial palaces of both East and the West.

The State robes of medieval Holy Roman Emperors bore Arabic inscriptions!

 

Cotton (from Arabic 'quton'). The cotton plant is indigenous to most parts of the world – but not Europe. It was introduced into Spain by the Moors in the 9th century and was cultivated extensively.

In northern Europe at this time, wool was the only fibre used to make clothing, and a bizarre belief began to circulate that, 'in the East', tiny animals called 'Scythian lambs', grew on the stalks of a plant.

Initial imports of cotton from Spain were small and mainly used for candlewicks – no doubt for the candles of Christian churches!

After the expulsion of the Moors Spain's textile industry went into serious decline.

 

 

 

The tabby cat, so-named because Prince Attãb gave his name to a district of Baghdad – Al'attabiya – which manufactured a rich, striped taffeta.

Taffeta itself takes its name from the Persian 'taftan' ('to shine').

Mohair a fine yarn from the Angora goat, is so named from the Arabic 'mukhayyir' meaning 'choice')

 

 

 

 

Magic Carpet

Nomadic peoples developed woven coverings for the floor of their tents many centuries BC. By the time of Islam's arrival carpet making had reached a high artistic standard.

So prized were carpets from the east that Queen Eleanor, the Castilian bride of King Edward I, brought Andalusian carpets to England as part of her dowry in 1255. Persian carpets are still considered the best in the world.

 



In contrast in Europe, during the dark Christian centuries, earth floors were covered with vermin-ridden straw or rush, woven into mats for the better off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pick a Card ...

Mamluk playing cards

"In the year 1379 there was brought to Viterbo the game of cards, which in the Saracen language is called 'nayb'"
15th century Chronicles of Viterbo attests to Arab introduction into Europe of playing cards.
 

 

 

Highly attractive Arabic calligraphy, and other geometric ornamentation, were stimulated by the Islamic prohibition on depictions of human or animal form.

 

 

During the darkest of Christian centuries – the 9th and 10th – a confident, expansive Islamic empire preserved and extended much of classical knowledge. 'Enlightened' caliphs patronized art and science and encouraged the translation of classical literature. For the most part Muslim intellectuals were free to explore wide horizons and made inventions and discoveries unimagined in Christendom. Without the contribution of the Islamic world there would have been no European Renaissance; without Islamic science and technology the New World would not have been discovered.

 

Chemistry, Mineralogy, Gemology

In the 8th century Iranian Jabir ibn-Hayyan of Kufa (c 721-815) ('Geber' in Europe) transformed alchemy from an occultist art into a scientific discipline – thus earning his reputation as the 'father of chemistry'.

Jabir was active both at the royal court in Baghdad and at his laboratory in Damascus. He wrote over a hundred treatises (notably, 'Summa Perfectionis') describing distillation, crystallization, calcination, sublimation and evaporation. He also wrote works on medicine and astronomy.

Among his many achievements was the distillation of vinegar into acetic acid, followed by nitric, hydrochloric, citric and tartaric acids. He went on to combine hydrochloric and nitric acid to produce aqua regia – a highly corrosive acid used to extract and purify gold (a much-valued skill). His insights led to improvements in rust prevention, tanning, water-proofing, and the manufacture of steel and glass.

Jabir's pioneering methods in the study of chemical reactions anticipating by almost a thousand years the principles of quantitative chemistry and the law of constant proportions. His work provided the standard texts for European alchemists for centuries.

As early as the 10th century, Muslim physicians and surgeons were applying purified alcohol to wounds as an antiseptic agent. Five hundred years after Jabir's death, the Spanish alchemist Arnau de Villanova used his distillation process to produce brandy and whisky. In 1310 sulphuric acid followed.

The Arabs went on to identify a new class of chemicals derived initially from ashes – the alkalis – and from wine and aluminium sulphate from the Sahara, Arab chemists produced alum, used to render dyes more brilliant.

 

The Arab legacy

al kuhul (hence, alcohol; kohl – eye make-up)

<< al'embic (a retort for distillation)

al iksir (hence, elixir – the fabled 'philosopher's stone'

al kimiya (hence, alchemy, chemistry)

al qaliy (hence, alkalis)

973 -1048 Abu Rayhan al-Biruni speculated that the Indus valley was an ancient sea basin filled up with alluvials. He explained artesian wells and natural springs by the principles of hydrostatics. He also calculated to within 10 miles the radius of the earth.

c. 1253 Egyptian al Ahmad Ibn Yusuf Tifashi wrote the work 'Flowers of Knowledge of Precious Stones' on the medicinal and magical uses of gems and minerals.

Talc (from the Arabic 'talq'). Long before talc was used as a cosmetic it was mixed with mud and other materials to create a marble-like look for walls in the new cities of Islam.

 

Zircon, from Arabic/ Persian 'zarqun', a hard mineral containing square prismatic crystals. Arab craftsmen used them as a diamond-like gemstone for hundreds of years.

Borax (from Arabic 'bauraq'), a mineral found in arid regions. The Egyptians used borax in mummification. The Romans in Syria used it in glass making. In the 8th century Arab artisans found a use for borax in gold and silver work.

Antimony (from Arabic 'ithmid') a bluish-white metallic substance, known to the Romans as 'stibium'. Re-entered use in Europe as cosmetic and medicine as a result of Latin translation of Geber.

 

Medicine, Pharmacology, Botany

 

Cooking up medicine

"More than half the remedies and healing aids used by the west came from Islam, including senna, rhubarb, tamarind, nux vomica, kermes, camphor, syrups, juleps, plasters, pomades, unguents and distilled water."

– Braudel, p81.

 

 

 

750 First public pharmacy opens in Baghdad.

800 Al Batriq translates the works of the 2nd century Greek Galen into Arabic.

10th century Ar-Razi used mercurial compounds as topical antiseptics, described the function of the veins and their valves. Writes critique of Galen.

Muslim chemists, pharmacists and physicians produced thousands of drugs and/or crude herbal extracts. In the 14th century Ibn Baytar writes a monumental pharmacopeia listing some 1400 different drugs.

'Drug' – from Arabic 'durawa'


Ibn Zuhr
correctly described the nature of pleurisy, tuberculosis and pericarditis. Az-Zahrawi (d. 1013), accurately documented the pathology of hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and other congenital diseases and performed hundreds of surgeries under inhalation anaesthesia with the use of narcotic-soaked sponges.

Ibn al-Quff and Ibn an-Nafs describe the diseases of circulation.

973 -1048 Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, the Persian polymath, in the train of Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi, the conqueror of India, writes the Kitab-al-Saidana, an extensive compendium of Arab and Indian medicine. He describes various 'monstrosities', including 'Siamese' twins. He also writes the first scientific work of comparative religion Kitab al-Hind (India).

From the 9th - 15th century, the Medical School of Salernum (Salerno), Italy, reestablishes in Europe the medical science of antiquity that had been preserved and refined by the Moslems after the fall of Alexandria.

In 1220 all of Aristotle's work was made available in a Latin translation from Arabic by Michael Scotus in Toledo. It was called De Historia Animalium. It was popularised by Albertus Magnus.

By the end of the 13th century there are flourishing medical schools at Montpellier, Paris, Bologna and Padua and, as a result of contact with the Arab world, the first apothecary in Europe in Florence.

Muslim surgical instruments

 

979-1037 The Persian/Turkish Ibn Sina (aka 'Avicenna') produces a compilation of Hippocrates and Galen. His major work is an encyclopedic compilation of ancient medical wisdom which forms the curriculum of European medical schools until the 17th century.

As an alchemist Ibn-Sina improves the distillation process and 'essential oils' are used extensively in his practice.

'Saint' Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) Benedictine nun and 'visionary' writes 'Causae et Curae', an early compendium on herbalism. She records that cannabis relieves headache.

The 13th-century Arab physician al Samarqandi writes on aromatic baths, aromatic salves and powders. For sinus or ear congestion he suggests steams, vapours, and incenses of marjoram, thyme, wormwood, chamomile, fennel, mint, hyssop and dill and the burning of herbs in a gourd.

   

History

By the end of the 9th century, Abbasid administrators had amassed a great deal of information on their the vast empire. Official reports were mixed with geographies, travellers' journals and tales of natural marvels. Historical interpretation became possible.

Historical writing began with accounts of the life of the Prophet. Regard for 'authoritative' sources ('isnad' ) rather than creative embellishment provided a measure of accuracy.

Idrisi, in 12th century Sicily, was commissioned to compile the 'Book of Roger' for the Norman King of Palermo, with accompanying maps. 13th century Yaqut wrote a large geographical dictionary, compiled from many sources.

15th century Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian government official, who served at Arab courts all the way from Granada to Egypt, established a new standard of historiography with his great work 'Muqaddimah,' in which he noted sociological and natural influences – climate, social customs, food, superstitions – as well as rulers and battles.

 

 

Architecture – Garden Cities

A repertoire of columns, capitals, different shaped arches, ribbed cupolas and mosaics characterised a very distinctive Islamic architecture.

Arab architects combined buildings, plants and fountains with great finesse. In a style echoing a Roman villa or town house, living areas were grouped around and opened onto a central courtyard; high walls shut out the outside.

Gardens to Islam were a mirror of Paradise.

 

'Patio' entered English from the Spanish, the concept of an inner court open to the sky developed by the Moors.
 

al qobbah 'Arch or Vault', hence, alcove.


Azure (from Persian/Arabic 'al 'lazward'). Hence 'lapis lazuli' – blue stone – much favoured on Islamic buildings.

Oddly, also echoed in the word dilapidate (which originally had the meaning 'squander' – i.e. the exuberance of Islamic design).

 

 

   

Mechanics

860 Brothers Muhammad, Ahmad and Hasan ibn Shakir write 'Book of Artifices', earliest extant treatise on mechanics.

1095 -1138 ibn Bajja (aka 'Avempace'), a native of Saragossa, Spain, writes commentary on Aristotle's concepts of Motion.

Clocks

During the 9th century, Ibn Firnas in Spain, invented a watch-like device which kept accurate time.

The pendulum was discovered by Ibn Yunus al-Masri during the 10th century. He was the first to study and document oscillatory motion.

A variety of weight-driven, mechanical clocks were produced in Moorish Spain, both large and small. Designs included epicyclical and segmental gears, and even a mercury escapement.

This knowledge was transmitted to Europe through Latin translations of Islamic books on mechanics during the 15th century.

Glass Mirrors

Glass mirrors were in use in Islamic Spain as early as the 11th century. The Venetians, also proficient in fine glass production, learned the art from Syrian artisans during the 9th and 10th centuries.

   

Law

8th century Abu Hanifa and Malik ibn Anas establish the first Islamic law schools ('Hanafi', 'Malaki').

In the 9th century a more liberal 'Shafii' law school  is established by Idris ash-Shafi and a more severe 'Hanbali 'school founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal follows.

Since Islam draws no distinction between religious and secular life,

Sharia law covers both the observance of religious practice and day-to-day life. As Sharia is held to be divine it can never be altered but only obeyed.

In contrast, not until the 12th century did Europe have Law at all, when Roman Law (preserved in a fashion at Constantinople) was rediscovered and used to establish a harsh jurisprudence.

 

Sources:
W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (Allen Lane, 1994)
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo, 1998)
N. H. H. Sitwell, Outside the Empire-The World the Romans Knew (Paladin, 1984)
Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall, Chapters 50-52 The Coming of Islam, Arab Conquests
M. Brett, W. Forman, The Moors, Islam in the West (Orbis, 1980)
Justin Wintle, History of Islam (Rough Guides, 2003)
J. Bloom, S. Blair, Islam - Empire of Faith (BBC Books, 2001)
J. J. Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries (Viking, 1988)
C. McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (Penguin, 1987)
Robert Marshall, Storm from the East (BBC Books, 1993)

 

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Copyright © 2005 by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material herein is sold for profit.