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March 2013 eGazette – The Muslim Heritage and the European Renaissance

- Jābir ibn Hayyān - The Einstein of the Eighth Century in the Writing of George Sarton - It's time to herald the Arabic science that prefigured Darwin and Newton - Transmission of Islamic science to Europe & Renaissance

Al Islam eGazette

Jābir ibn Hayyān – The Einstein of the Eighth Century in the Writing of George Sarton

George Sarton in his legendary Introduction to the History of Science, attributes each half century of scientific progress to one scientist, who set the tone by his achievements. He assigns the second half of the eighth century to none other than Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān or Geber, as he is known in Europe.

Each of the scientists chosen by George Sarton deserves the highest accolade like Einstein in our times. Therefore, I have no hesitation in calling Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān as the Einstein of the eighth century.

Here I reproduce the 28th chapter of George Sarton’s book, which was first published in 1927.



(Second Half of Eighth Century)

I Survey of Science in Second Half of Eighth Century. II. Religious Background. III. Cultural Background, East and West. IV, Muslim and Latin Mathematics and Astronomy V. Muslim and Latin Alchemy; Japanese technology. VI. Muslim, Chinese, and Japanese Natural History. VII. Latin and Chinese Geography. VIII. Latin, Muslim, Hindu, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese Medicine. IX. Latin, Muslim, and Japanese Historiography. X. Muslim Philology.


1. The intellectual relaxation which characterized the second half of the seventh and the first half of the eighth, at least as far as Europe and the Near East were concerned, was followed by a period of renewed activity. This was entirely due to Muslim initiative, for the Carolingian renaissance did not really begin until the end of the century. It is thus entirely proper to give to this period, which marks the beginning of Muslim science an Arabic name. Yet the time of Jabir is somewhat of a challenge. Let it be so! An elaborate study of all the Jabir texts, whether Arabic or Latin, is one of the most urgent and promising tasks of scholarship. And even if that study did not substantiate the hopes of some Arabists, Jabir would still remain a very impressive personality because of his own achievements and because of the glamour traditionally attached to him.

2. Religious Background – The anti-Talmudic movement, the so-called Qaraism, initiated by Anan ben David, is of Importance because it considerably influenced Jewish thought for some four centuries. Qaraism did to some extent for Israel what Protestant Reformation did for Christianity.

The greatest disciple of Abu Hanifa, the Qadi Abu Yusuf, wrote a legal treatise on taxation which is still authoritative among the Hanifites today. The second of the four orthodox schools of Islam, the Malikite, was founded by Malik ibn Anas. The same Malik compiled the earliest collection of traditions.

A Buddhist renaissance was initiated in Tibet by King Ti-song De-teen with the assistance of the Hindu guru Padma-sambhava. The specific form of Tibetan Buddhism, Lamaism, may be dated back to this time: it was a mixture of Tantrism with various Himalayan superstitions.

Wu K’ung, following the memorable examples of Fa Hsien, Hsuan Tsang, and I-ching, sojourned a long a long time in India in order to collect hooks and relics and to obtain deeper knowledge of Buddhism. The earliest Christian monument of China, a Nestorian stela, was erected at Ch’ang-an in 781. Its existence is of considerable archeological interest, it gives some color of plausibility to the theories according to which Nestorianism influenced some of the Mahayana doctrines. However, this matter is still under dispute: this much is certain: If Chinese Buddhism was at all influenced by Christianity, the influence either was very slight or it was soon smothered by more powerful ones.

3. Cultural Background – East and West – Many rulers used their authority to promote the intellectual welfare and progress of the peoples which Fate had intrusted to them. I have already spoken of the efforts made by the Tibetan king Ti-song De-teen. Two of the ‘Abbasid caliphs distinguished themselves greatly in this respect: the second, al-Mansur, who founded Bagdad, and, even more so, the fifth Harun-al-Rashid, whose fame has been immortalized by many legends. Both encouraged the work of the translators who were busily unlocking the treasures of Greek knowledge.

While Harun was ruling Islam, Charlemagne was leading the Christian West. At the very end of the century, on Christmas 800, he revived the imperial dignity, being crowned by the Pope, in Rome, Emperor of the West (Holy Roman Empire). With the help of an English monk, Alcuin, Charlemagne undertook number of educational reforms. Alcuin took pains to transmit to the Frank, the learning and culture accumulated by Bede. He was by far the noblest figure of that time in the West, but even like Bede in the previous period, he was almost entirely alone.

Japanese civilization was fostered by the energetic solicitude of the empress Shotoku, who ruled twice, from 749 to 758 and from 765 to 770. It was during her first reign that the Daibutau of Nara was completed.

4. Muslim and Latin Mathematics and Astronomy – With the sole exception mentioned at the end of this section, all of the mathematical and astronomical work of this period was done by Muslims. It is interesting to recall that the mathematical work of the previous period had been done almost exclusively by Chinese. In both cases some amount of stimulation had come from India, and even as we witnessed in the previous chapter the eastward transmission of Hindu mathematics, we shall now find evidences of their westward transmission. But in the case of Muslim mathematics, the Hindu stimulation was accompanied and completed by a much more powerful one, which failed to reach the Far East until many centuries later – the Greek one.

Ibrahim al-Fazari is said to have been the first Muslim to construct astrolabes. Ya’qnb ibn Tariq and Muhammad, son of, Ibrahim al-Fazari are the first to be mentioned in connection with Hindu mathematics: Ya’qnb met at the court of al-Mathur a Hindu astronomer called Kanksh (?), who acquainted him with the Siddhanta, and Muhammad was ordered to translate it. The physician al-Batriq translated Ptolemy’s Quadripartitum. Two astrologers, one of them a Jew named Mashallah, the other a Persian called al-Naubakht, worked together to make the measurements necessary for the building of Bagdad. Al-Naubakht’s son, al-Fadl, wrote astrological treatises and translations from the Persian into Arabic.

The only mathematical writer in Europe was Alcuin, who composed some very elementary texts for teaching purposes. One of them is interesting because it contains the earliest examples of arithmetical problems which remained for many centuries a permanent feature of school-books (problems of pursuit).

5. Muslim and Latin Alchemy, Japanese technology – It is noteworthy that the earliest alchemical texts in Arabic and Latin are contemporaneous, that is, if our dating of them is correct. The most famous alchemist of Islam, Jabir ibn Haiyan seems to have had a good experimental knowledge of number of chemical facts; he was also an able theoretician, but it is impossible to appreciate his scientific merit with any finality until comparative study of all the writings ascribed to him and to Geber has been completed.

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It’s time to herald the Arabic science that prefigured Darwin and Newton

Source: Guardian UK – Tuesday 29 January 2008

By Prof. Jim Al-Khalili

Prof. Jim Al Khalili

In this era of intolerance and cultural tension, the west needs to appreciate the fertile scholarship that flowered with Islam

Watching the daily news stories of never-ending troubles, hardship, misery and violence across the Arab world and central Asia, it is not surprising that many in the west view the culture of these countries as backward, and their religion as at best conservative and often as violent and extremist.

I am on a mission to dismiss a crude and inaccurate historical hegemony and present the positive face of Islam. It has never been more timely or more resonant to explore the extent to which western cultural and scientific thought is indebted to the work, a thousand years ago, of Arab and Muslim thinkers.

What is remarkable, for instance, is that for over 700 years the international language of science was Arabic (which is why I describe it as “Arabic science”). More surprising, maybe, is the fact that one of the most fertile periods of scholarship and scientific progress in history would not have taken place without the spread of Islam across the Middle East, Persia, north Africa and Spain. I have no religious or political axe to grind. As the son of a Protestant Christian mother and a Shia Muslim father, I have nevertheless ended up without a religious bone in my body. However, having spent a happy and comfortable childhood in Iraq in the 60s and 70s, I confess to strong nostalgic motives for my fascination in the history of Arabic science.

If there is anything I truly believe, it is that progress through reason and rationality is a good thing – knowledge and enlightenment are always better than ignorance. I proudly share my worldview with one of the greatest rulers the Islamic world has ever seen: the ninth-century Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Abu Ja’far Abdullah al-Ma’mun. Many in the west will know something of Ma’mun’s more illustrious father, Harun al-Rashid, the caliph who is a central character in so many of the stories of the Arabian Nights. But it was Ma’mun, who came to power in 813 CE, who was to truly launch the golden age of Arabic science. His lifelong thirst for knowledge was such an obsession that he was to create in Baghdad the greatest centre of learning the world has ever seen, known throughout history simply as Bayt al-Hikma: the House of Wisdom.

We read in most accounts of the history of science that the contribution of the ancient Greeks would not be matched until the European Renaissance and the arrival of the likes of Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th century. The 1,000-year period sandwiched between the two is dismissed as the dark ages. But the scientists and philosophers whom Ma’mun brought together, and whom he entrusted with his dreams of scholarship and wisdom, sparked a period of scientific achievement that was just as important as the Greeks or Renaissance, and we cannot simply project the European dark ages on to the rest of the world.

Of course some Islamic scholars are well known in the west. The Persian philosopher Avicenna – born in 980 CE – is famous as the greatest physician of the middle ages. His Canon of Medicine was to remain the standard medical text in the Islamic world and across Europe until the 17th century, a period of more than 600 years. But Avicenna was also undoubtedly the greatest philosopher of Islam and one of the most important of all time. Avicenna’s work stands as the pinnacle of medieval philosophy.

But Avicenna was not the greatest scientist in Islam. For he did not have the encyclopedic mind or make the breadth of impact across so many fields as a less famous Persian who seems to have lived in his shadow: Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. Not only did Biruni make significant breakthroughs as a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, but he also left his mark as a theologian, encyclopedist, linguist, historian, geographer, pharmacist and physician. He is also considered to be the father of geology and anthropology. The only other figure in history whose legacy rivals the scope of his scholarship would be Leonardo da Vinci. And yet Biruni is hardly known in the western world.

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Transmission of Islamic science to Europe & Renaissance

By Zakaria Virk, Toronto, Canada

Zakaria Virk with Dr Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate in Physics, in Wisconsin, USA 1982

Muslim scholars of Baghdad had translated scientific works from Greek, Pahlavi, Syriac, & Sanskrit into Arabic in the eighth and ninth centuries. Similarly Arabic scientific and philosophical works were translated into Latin between twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The twelfth century was an age of revival in European science and philosophy. This cultural phenomenon was, to a large extent, a consequence of the appearance of Latin translations of a number of Greek, Pahlavi, Syrian and Sanskrit works, as well as writings of many Muslims in which Greek science had been incorporated and further developed.

The golden period of Islam (750-1200) was in fact dark period of European history. A cursory reading of any history book on this topic, it becomes evident, that in this period all scientific work was done in Islamic countries mainly because Arabic was the scientific language of the world. This period of Islamic scientific revival is referred to as Islamic science, other than that there is no such thing as Islamic science, Hindu science, Jewish science or Christian Science. Science is universal; it knows no boundaries, no nationalities.

Graeco-Arabic science was transmitted to Europe through Islamic Spain (Toledo, Barcelona, Seville, Tarragona, Leon, Segovia, Pamplona, and Salerno), Sicily (Palermo, Syracuse), France (Narbonne, Montpellier, Marseilles, & Toulouse) and southern Italy. These cities were like beacons drawing the curious to their intellectual lights.

Islamic science was passed to Europe between 11th to 14th centuries. Islamic Spain and Sicily were the main regions for the translations of Arabic scientific texts into Latin. These translations took place in the monasteries such as Catalan monastery of Ripoll, St Benedict monastery of Monte Cassini, and the city of Barcelona. In a distant echo of Baghdad’s Baytul Hikma, Muslims, Jews, and Christian scholars worked together in Toledo in an atmosphere of international cooperation.

Some of the Greek scholars whose Arabic translations were made into Latin are: Ptolemy, Galen, Plato, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Socrates, Aristotle, & Euclid.

Eminent European translators who took part in this activity were: Gerbert of Aurillac, Constantine the African, Isaac Israeli, Stephen of Antioch, Adelard of Bath, Abraham bar Hayya, Plato of Tavoli, John of Seville, Bishop Michael of Tarazona, Gerard of Cremona, Abraham ibn Azra, Robert of Chester, Roger of Hereford, Alfred of Saraschel, King Frederick II of Sicily & Michael Scott.

Scientific works of following Muslim scientists were translated: Musa al-Khawrizmi, Banu Musa Brothers, Sabit ibn Qurra, Hunain ibn Ishaq, Yaqoob al-Kindi, Ali ibn Abbas, Zakariya al-Razi, Ibn Sena, ibn al-Haitham, Abul Qasim Zahrawi, Ibn Zuhr, Maslama al-Majriti, Jabir ibn Aflah, al-Bitruji.

Just as the Muslim scholars had Arabized Greek names, names of Muslim authors were Latinized i.e. Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Abi l-Rijal as Haly Abenrajel, Ibn al-Jazzar as Algizar, al-Idrissi as Dreses, Ibn al-Haytham as Alhazen, Ibn Sena as Avicenna, Zakaria al-Razi as Rhazes, Yaqub al-Kindi as Alkindus, Maslama al-Majriti as Methilem, Nur al-Din al-Bitruji as Alpetragius, Abul Qasim al-Zahrawi as Abulcasis, Abu Ishaq al-Zarqali as Arzachel, ibn Zuhr as Avenzoar, Ibn Rushd as Averroes etc. Latinized Islamic names are found in all the Latin translations.

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March 2013

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Science & Islam -The Language of Science – a BBC Documentary

Physicist Jim Al-Khalili travels through Syria, Iran, Tunisia and Spain to tell the story of the great leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries.

Its legacy is tangible, with terms like algebra, algorithm and alkali all being Arabic in origin and at the very heart of modern science – there would be no modern mathematics or physics without algebra, no computers without

Watch the documentary in the video page of the Muslim Times. click here


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