Skip to main content
Islamic Civilization and Science: A Forgotten History
Nov 1, 2014

If you are interested in Muslims' contributions to science and some of their inventions, this interview may be an enjoyable read. We paid a visit to Professor Salim Ayduz, a historian of science who is presently a senior researcher at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester. According to Ayduz, the scientific aspect of Islamic civilization is still a mystery for most people.

The Fountain: What was the role of Islamic civilization in the interim period between the ancient Greeks and the European renaissance?

Salim Ayduz: The advent of Islamic civilization was after the Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Greek civilizations. Muslims studied and analyzed the developments these previous civilizations had made in the sciences and technologies, and then built their own science. Islamic civilization made a brilliant analysis of the earlier ones. Muslims engaged in a fascinating translation work of many ancient books into their own languages, mostly Arabic, and occasionally Persian and Turkish. They did not remain limited to translation; they were critical of what they were translating, and drew upon the text to develop the ideas further. While they were transferring knowledge to their culture and context, they also enhanced it, corrected some mistaken views, and came up with countless new things. Because these contributions from Islamic civilization to science are not known, there is a common misconception that Muslims merely transmitted knowledge through translations.

It is claimed many works and inventions originating from Islamic civilization were adopted in Europe without acknowledgement; are there any concrete examples of this?

There are numerous examples. The most famous one is Copernicus. We see that Copernicus exactly copied scientific facts-such as the models of the moon, solar system, and some facts about the movements of the moon-from previous Muslim scientists, such as Ibn Shatir and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, who had established the first real observatory in Maragheh, East Azerbaijan. However, Copernicus neither mentioned al-Tusi nor Ibn Shatir. Likewise, there was a person who used the name Constantine the African and died around 1099. He translated many books written by Islamic scientists and published them as if they were his own works. The scientific terminology that was used in the Renaissance period did not appear from nowhere, but was taken from the heritage of Islamic civilization, which had accumulated over centuries. It is possible to give a lot of examples of this kind, not only in philosophy but in almost all areas of life. There are number of words and terms that passed from Islamic civilization to Europe. For example, the word "arsenal" means a store of weapons. At the time, it used to denote a dock for the construction and repair of ships. Etymologically, it comes from the Arabic dar-as-sina'ah/house of industry. It first became darsana, and then darsanal. It finally passed to English as Arsenal.

It is difficult to cite a good many great scientists and great inventions in Europe before Isaac Newton. The few existing ones became prominent with a few translated works from the Islamic world. Thus, Newton made a great leap due to the developments and scientific values of Islamic civilization. As an expression of this fact, Newton said, "If I have seen further, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants." Undoubtedly, he was referring to the Muslim scientists who had lived previously.

It was the same with Copernicus. Leonardo da Vinci, as well, made copies or more developed forms of the works previously developed by Al-Jazari, Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi, and the Banu Musa brothers. According to a recent report in The Guardian, Da Vinci's mother was a woman of Middle East origins. Interestingly, most works from this period of Islamic civilization are found in the library of manuscripts in the Vatican. For example, there is only a single copy of Al-Muradi's Kitab al-Asrar fi Nataij al-Afkar (Book of Secrets in the Results of Ideas), which is a very significant work in Islam's history of technology and engineering, and that is conserved in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence.

So you are saying that Europe adopted the sciences produced by Islamic civilization?

Islamic civilization made great contributions to science. For example, one of the most essential subjects studied throughout the world is Algebra, which was developed by Al-Khwarizmi. His work, Al-Jabr wa al-Muqabala, is the foundation of all math textbooks in the world today.

One of the most important components of science is laboratory research and testing. But where does the tradition and system of laboratory research come from? A book published in the U.S. - Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist - gives us the answer: Ibn al-Haytham was an Egyptian scientist who lived in the eleventh century. He invented the dark room, the antecedent of the photo camera. In addition, he is famous for making the first laboratory experiments. He made pioneering works for the laboratory systems of today. It is necessary to give everybody their due in the history of science.

What are your suggestions in this respect?

Textbooks must relate the necessary facts. It is unfair to talk about Copernicus and Kepler in the history of Astronomy but not about al-Tusi, Ibn Shatir, Taqi al-Din Rasid, and Ali Qushji. It is wrong to solely mention Newton without any reference to Abu Bakr Razi and Jabir. It is unfortunate to not find Avicenna, Ibn Nafis, and Zahrawi mentioned in the history of medicine.

History does not record any developed math prior to Muslims. People wrote on dust and made calculations by fingers. Roman numerals were not suitable at all for math. By transferring methods from Islamic civilization, Fibonacci developed the numerals, numbers, and system of formulas, and came up with modern mathematics.

As for another example, Al-Biruni was the person behind the science of mineralogy. He was one of the people who scientifically proved, for the first time, that the world is round and is turning.

And today these scientists are being uncovered in the West?

Yes. Ironically in the West, rather than in the East where they are faded into oblivion. For example, Ali Qushji lived in Istanbul and was one of the chief architects of Ottoman science. He was the scientist who proved, in terms of physics, that the moon is round and the world is rotating around its own axis. The West has newly begun to discover Ali Qushji.

How about the later periods? Is it possible to count other such names?

Within the last century there are numerous examples, such as Hulusi Behçet, the person who described Behcet's disease first. I wrote an article on two innovative Sufi sheikhs. One of them is Ethem Effendi, who was the sheikh of the Sufi lodge of the Uzbeks in Istanbul and lived during the time of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. He invented a single-piston engine and some other tools. All of them are preserved today in the same Sufi lodge. The other is Tevfik Effendi, one of the greatest math researchers. His book named Linear Algebra was published in English in 1872 in Istanbul.

There are many important scientists who merit attention. While talking about mathematics, it is necessary to mention the names of Al-Khwarizmi, Abdul Hamid ibn al-Turk, Mustafa Sidqi, and Matrakçı Nasuh. Most people have never heard their names. Teachers should mention their names in certain contexts. Or they should talk about Jabir ibn Hayyan, when talking about chemistry. Most of these were founders of a discipline, and you do not found a discipline everyday! Just as Jabir ibn Hayyan was the founder of chemistry, Ibn Khaldun was the pioneer of sociology.

Only people like the cartographer captain, Piri Reis, are known to some extent, thanks to UNESCO and some media coverage about him. Islands, mountains, and regions that appeared on his world map were discovered by Europeans three centuries after he drew this world map. We still have not discovered the secret of the Piri Reis' maps.

It seems that what we know about the history of science needs a good deal of revision.

There were very important masters of firearms technology, who produced weapons, gunpowder, and cannons. Some of them developed the first rockets, but there is not even a decent museum to display such works. The same goes for architecture, but fortunately, it is possible to see many of the works at least. The great architectural genius Sinan constructed 477 buildings. Look at Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. It is still standing firm despite many earthquakes over five centuries. How did he achieve it?

What was the factor that brought about the period of decline? Was it simply laziness, a change of regime, or lack of means?

Actually, it is not possible to explain everything with a single reason. On the one hand, there was political and, more importantly, economic decline. The most important incentive behind the scientific developments in the West was prosperity. Most scientists were from aristocratic families. They collected important manuscripts of Islamic civilization without any financial problems. Then they locked themselves in their homes and studied for days. On the other hand, there were the financial gains from newly discovered lands, which facilitated the process. New inventions triggered further developments.

Is there sufficient financial support for this field in Muslim countries?

It is a bit difficult to say. When you suggest a project as a scientist, the budget they provide is so low in comparison to those in Europe. Let me give a simple example. Ptolemy has an essential work in the field of geography, titled Almagest. It is the most important historical work on geography, astronomy, space science, and cosmology. It was a work from which Muslim scientists greatly benefited. In the 9th century, it was translated into Arabic. The original copy is lost. The budget allocated to a European scientist who would unearth all translated versions of this work to rebuild the original was five million euros. It is almost impossible in Muslim countries to get high amounts to unearth a single manuscript.

Before Britain, you used to work in Turkey. Are there any such manuscripts that call for research?

There are thousands of manuscripts left to oblivion in libraries. Each of them is precious like a diamond, but it is unreasonably difficult to approach them. There has been press coverage about the condition of the manuscripts in the Topkapi Palace. They were almost left to decay. It is one of the most valuable libraries in the world and they kept it closed for more than five years. Now you need to have an appointment to enter and there are different obstacles for researchers. They have opened an establishment for manuscripts. We are trying to publish here a facsimile of a work whose original is found in Topkapi Palace. They insisted for nine months that they wouldn't give us a copy of the work. Similarly, it took me six months to receive the copyright payment of a project about the Piri Reis map, which will be published by Oxford University. Authorities have to facilitate easy access to these archives and manuscripts for researchers to be able to uncover the treasures of the past, possibly in digital format via the Internet.

It is said that some manuscripts were destroyed or smuggled abroad within the last century. Do you have any knowledge about this?

We hear every now and then that manuscripts are taken to countries where they are sold for higher prices. This has been a serious problem for many years. When they are not appreciated at home, it almost becomes inevitable for them to be taken abroad. Some works taken abroad and bought for personal libraries disappear for good. However, some, particularly the works that reach libraries in Europe and the U.S., are preserved well and it is easy to study these works. In addition, there are antiques trading companies in the West. For example, I contacted an establishment named Sam Fogg in order to see a manuscript in their possession. They invited me right away and gave me the opportunity to study. When I went there, I saw that hundreds, maybe thousands, of works of Islamic civilization were awaiting sale. The bitter fact is that they are not accessible once they're sold to personal libraries. I wish it were possible to get a digital copy of such works before they are sold.

What are your opinions about a history of science curriculum?

Instead of teaching history of science as a separate subject, I think it will be more appropriate to refer to these scientists during the normal course of a given subject. If you ask students of medicine what they learned about Ibn Sina (Avicenna), their answer will most probably be "nothing." Until the 1800s, Avicenna's work al-Qanun was studied by European medical faculties as an essential course book; in the East and West alike, nobody could become a doctor without studying al-Qanun.

Another great figure, Şerafettin Sabuncuoglu, is completely unknown. He was a surgeon who lived during the time of Mehmed II. He was the scientist who wrote the first illustrated book of surgery in the world. He showed methods of surgery and how to use surgery tools. Incidentally, let me note that there were female surgeons as well, which is wonderful.

Another surgeon, Zahrawi of Andalusia, invented nearly 200 surgical tools, almost all of which reached our time and are still being used in hospitals.

Who was the greatest scientist of the Ottomans in your opinion?

I'd say Taqi al-Din Rasid, without hesitation. In the 1570s, he founded an observatory in Istanbul, which I think was the most remarkable observatory of all Islamic civilization. He made very important contributions, through books he wrote, to such disciplines as mathematics and astronomy. He invented a water pump with six cylinders. Nobody knows today about the observatory he established in Taksim. He made astronomical observatories from the Galata Tower for many years.