Popular imaginings of the European Renaissance have conceived of the age as one of scientific brilliance that would give rise to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. While the Renaissance was undoubtedly a period of great scientific strides, much of that progress paled in comparison to the accomplishments of philosophers nearly a millennia prior. Starting in the 8th century, scholars fluent in Arabic began the greatest intellectual age in all of Afro-Eurasian history, and their writings and discoveries had an undeniable impact on nearly every aspect of human civilization today, from medicine to Star Wars.
The Islamic Golden Age was sparked on the heels of the Abbasid Caliphate. Abu Jafar al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, founded his City of Peace, Baghdad, in the year 762 CE. The epicenter of this new city would be the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom. The Bayt al-Hikma quickly became the central repository of knowledge in the Afro-Eurasian world. The library was funded by voluntary charitable donations from the wealthy and poor alike, and the scholars who worked and studied there were paid exceptionally well, with many having incomes comparable to movie stars and athletes today. To make all of this knowledge accessible, a translation movement emerged to translate every possible text into Arabic. Translators wandered as far west as the Franks and as far east as China to collect scientific and philosophical texts and bring them back to Baghdad, and every generation, translators would return to original texts and compare the translations to ensure optimal accuracy.
Science was a foundation of the caliph’s decision-making process: to determine the best time and location to construct Baghdad, al-Mansur consulted several astrologers, including the Arab al-Fazari, the Persian Nawbakht, and the Jew Masha’allah. When determining where to place the hospital of Baghdad, the physician al-Razi placed meat throughout the city and determined the optimal location based on where the meat putrefied the slowest. Al-Ma’mun, al-Mansur’s illegitimate son and the fourth caliph, took this even further, directly involving himself in the scientific fields. Al-Ma’mun established the field of Egyptology a millennia before Napoleon would be given unearned credit for that. He and his scholars conducted an expedition into the pyramid of Khufu, only to find that it had been raided by robbers sometime before. They were, however, able to begin work on translating hieroglyphics, and this work culminated with Ibn Wahshiyya’s Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham, which would translate roughly 50% of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and this was nearly a thousand years before Young and Champollion cracked the Rosetta Stone! Al-Ma’mun famously sent two teams of astrologers into the Sinjar desert. Along their treks north and south, they recorded their distances travelled of 1 degree each and measured the sun’s altitude at these distances. Using these measurements, they calculated the circumference of the Earth with over 99% accuracy. He was also a thorough scientist. Once, while on campaign, al-Ma’mun stopped in Damascus to double-check some sketchy measurements taken at the Baghdad observatory. He tasked the astronomers to scrutinize the Baghdad measurements and get back to him after a year. When the corrected data arrived in Baghdad, it was determined that the faulty data was caused by a flawed brass armillary sphere, so the astronomers of Baghdad carried the device to the public square and smashed it to pieces to make an example of it. They then sold it for scrap to purchase a new one.
As the Abbasid Caliphate expanded westward across the African coast and into the Iberian peninsula, this academic tradition came with it, and massive cities bloomed around these magnificent libraries. By 800, Baghdad was already larger than Rome had been at its height and boasted over 1 million citizens. Far to the west, the city of Cordoba in modern-day Spain would lay claim to a library of half a million books, a million citizens and a system of street lights to illuminate the city at night. Thanks to the translation movement, bright minds throughout Africa emerged in Islamic territories and needed only instruction in Arabic to be able to access the wealth of human knowledge stored in the great libraries.
Unlike with the European Renaissance, the Arabic scholars were very quick to advance beyond the classical greats such as Ptolemy and Galen. The school of natural philosophy, known in Arabic as falsafa, generated rabid interest in Greek sources, but these were frequently commented on, reworked or simply abandoned in favor of more scientifically accurate theories. Many of our scientific terms used today, from algebra and alchemy to alcohol and alembic come directly from Arabic scholars.
The Arabic Golden Age was a stupendously cosmopolitan period. In 771, just 9 years after the foundation of Baghdad, Abbasid mathematicians returned with Hindu scholars from Arin. These Hindu scholars were the most advanced mathematicians in the world at the time and brought with them mathematic tools such as the numbers 1 through 9, the concept of zero and the decimal system, as well as sine. Religion was not a barrier to academic success, nor was it required that scholars convert to Islam. Nestorians (Hunayn ibn Ishaq), Christians (Jibril ibn Bakhtyashu, Ibn Massawayh, and Yahya ibn abi Mansur), Jews (Sahl al-Tabari, Ishaq ibn Amran, and Masha’allah), and even Pagans (Thabit ibn Qurra) all contributed to the intellectual community. Al-Jazari’s Elephant water clock illustrates this cosmopolitan feature perfectly with its African, Middle-Eastern, Indian, Chinese and Greek artistic features. The scholar al-Kindi said it best when he wrote:
We ought not to be embarrassed about appreciating the truth and obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself, and there is no deterioration of the truth, nor the belittling either of one who speaks it or conveys it.
Figure 1: al-Jazari’s Elephant Water Clock includes representations of Africans, Arabs and Indians, as well as a Chinese dragon and a Greek phoenix.
So many scientific disciplines were improved upon during the golden age that it can be daunting to even try to demonstrate the extent of all the progress made. Standing on the shoulders of the Arinian giants, Arabic mathematicians quickly went on to develop cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant and cosecant. By 870, they’d calculated π to the 16th decimal. The Arabic numeral system, a nearly direct carryover from the Hindu mathematicians, erupted in popularity, but Roman numerals and the Persian sexagesimal system all co-existed for several centuries in Arabic schools. Al-Biruni’s 1025 text Determination of the Coordinates of Cities features latitudinal measurements in decimals but utilized Persian sexagesimals for the more difficult longitudinal measurements.
Mathematical advancements furthered the study of astronomy. Astronomy was cherished in the Islamic world for its practical applications. Without astronomy, Muslims wouldn’t have been able to determine the direction of Mecca, establish times for prayer or even place the beginning and end of Ramadan, so even the staunchest conservative appreciated the astronomical branch of the intellectual community. Some prominent astronomers include:
- Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, who provides the first written mention of the Andromeda Galaxy.
- Omar Khayyam, who calculated the length of a solar year to 365.24219858156 days. His Jalali calendar is more accurate than our current Gregorian calendar.
- Al-Sizji, who proposed a heliocentric universe 500 years before Copernicus. Speaking of Copernicus, the Syrian astronomer al-Battani is frequently cited in De Revolutionibus.
Geography is another field of explosive growth. The Ma’mun map included such features as an accurate depiction of the Great Wall, acknowledged that the Indian Ocean connected to the Pacific (correcting Ptolemy on the matter), and even highlighted resource deposits. No map, however, could quite compare to Muhammad al-Idrisi’s 1154 Tabula Rogeriana. A work nearly 15 years in the making, al-Idrisi communicated with countless explorers and navigators, comparing and contrasting their maps and accounts to weed out errors and create as accurate of a world map as possible. Comparing it to contemporary T-O maps in the Christian West demonstrates how ahead of his time al-Idrisi was. By the time of the Age of Exploration, the Tabula Rogeriana was still a keystone map for explorers.
Figure 2: al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, from a modern replica. The map is shown upside down to correlate with our modern North-South designation.
Figure 3: A T-O Map, from a 12th century reprint of Etymologiae. So named because of the T-shape inside of the O, these maps oriented the viewer in Jerusalem, and from this point you could determine the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.
Perhaps no field of study saw such growth as that of medicine, however. The Islamic world was ideal for such study since Islamic law required charitable endowments from the faithful to build and maintain hospitals. Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahawi codified the conduct of a physician in the Islamic world, advocating for medical treatment regardless of race, religion, status or wealth. Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi was a 10th century physician who dabbled in pretty much every medical field. He developed catgut for internal stitching and invented various spools, hooks, the surgical needle, syringes and the lithotomy scalpel. He used anesthesia in the form of sponges soaked in narcotics such as cannabis and opium. He perfected tracheotomies and worked as a dentist. Many of his inventions are still used in modern medicine today, such as his forceps developed for childbirth. Even everyday hearth wisdom is influenced by Arabic physicians. Take, for example, Ya’qub ibn Ishaq, from his Treatise on the Errors of the Damascene Physicians:
If the [patient’s] strength is weak, but the disease-matter plentiful and the duration long, then the patient should be offered from the very beginning something which sustains the strength while not increasing the disease-matter – and there is nothing more appropriate for that than the right amount of chicken broth.
All this, and we’ve not even begun to explore the dozens of intellectual titans that came out of the Islamic Golden Age. That will have to wait for Part 2 of this series. So join me next time when we take a deep dive into the genius polymaths who made gargantuan strides for human knowledge, such as my favorite historical figure of all time, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. We’ll also talk about Yoda.
Ryan Ziegelbauer holds an MLitt from the University of Glasgow and has worked as an adjunct professor at Rock Valley College and Northern Illinois University. He’s very passionate about worts, copperplates and the erasure of achievements by non-White scholars. He cries whenever people bemoan the burning of the Library of Alexandria while having never heard of the Bayt al-Hikma.