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The Islamic Golden Age Essay

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Introduction

While modern-day Islam is not renowned for its role in the contemporary scientific field, medieval Islam is credited with making enormous contributions to scientific thinking and practice. This great contribution by Islam was made in the legendary “Islamic Golden Age”. This age was characterized by significant scientific endeavors in the Arabian world. Much of the progress made in science by the contemporary world can be attributed to innovations made by Muslims in the Golden Age. This Golden Age of Islamic science occurred from the 8th to the 13th centuries CE. As a whole, the Golden Age is a period typified by glorious scientific advancement in the Arab World. This paper will set out to highlight the role that Islam played in the advancement of science during the Golden Age. The paper will highlight some of the accomplishments made by famous Muslim scientists in order to underscore the contribution of Islam to science.

The Islamic Golden Age: An Overview

The Islamic Golden Age began with the ascendancy of the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid-eighth century. This Caliphate moved the capital of the Muslim world from Damascus to Baghdad and set out to build an empire that valued scholarly knowledge. The Golden Age was made possible by a number of important factors. Arguably, the most important factor was the unification of the previously disparate Arab tribes into one strong nation through religion. The great feat was accomplished by Prophet Mohammed who introduced the religion of Islam and prompted the formation of a united Arabic nation. This unification greatly strengthened the Arabic people and they were able to control and/or influenced large parts of the plan within a century after the death of the Prophet. The unification of the geographically extensive Muslim Empire made communication easy as the Arabic language was used in all provinces. Scholars could therefore travel and share ideas with each other.

The guidelines offered by Prophet Mohammed concerning knowledge also contributed to the development of the Golden Age. The Prophet challenged Muslims to search for knowledge and the Quran clearly articulated, “The scholar’s ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs”. Muslim scholars, therefore, endeavored to increase their knowledge and innovation in the years after the death of the Prophet. Muslims made use of the knowledge of the great ancient civilizations to come up with their own achievements. By studying the past research of Romans, Greeks, Indians, and Persians, Islamic scholars were able to create a glorious future. The result of their work is what made the Golden Age significant.

Islamic Contributions to Knowledge

The golden age was characterized by a gigantic endeavor to acquire and translate the ancient science knowledge from other civilizations and then an endeavor to make splendid original thinking and contributions. A number of specific fields obtained noteworthy advancement during this age of great progress.

Biomedical Sciences

An example was the significant flowering of knowledge in biomedical sciences in the Islamic world during the Golden Age. Muslim scholars went into great troubles to translate and analyze the works of prominent physicians such as Hippocrates, Rufus, and Galen. The scholars proceeded to synthesize the works of these great minds and elaborate on the knowledge gathered. This led to the development of a number of prominent Arab pioneers such as Yuhanna ibn Massuwayh who performed numerous dissections in an attempt to discover how the human body operated. Through his work, he was able to provide original material on the capillary system.

Likewise, Al-Razi is considered the “greatest physician of Islam and Medieval Ages”. Born in the city of Ray, Al-Razi demonstrated a deep thirst for knowledge and entered into the field of medicine in his later years. Al-Razi is the individual who identified smallpox and measles, writing an influential treatise on these two ailments. He wrote numerous works on medicine and treatment and was a pioneer in pediatrics and obstetrics. Al-Razi authored the al-Hawi, which is a “comprehensive book on medical works based on medical knowledge from the Greeks, Syrians, and early Arabs”. This book is widely regarded as the most extensive and comprehensive book ever written by a single medical scholar and it served as an authority in medicine for centuries. Al-Razi was also knowledgeable in other sciences including chemistry. Al-Razi was able to apply his knowledge of chemistry to his medical practice with great success. He was the first physician to make use of alcohol as a disinfectant when treating his patients. He also made use of opium as anesthesia as he performed surgery on his patients.

Another great Muslim pioneer was Az-Zahrawi who engaged in numerous experiments in human surgery. Falagas et al. (2006: 1582) reveal that because of the revolutionary nature of Az-Zahrawi’s work, he is known as the father of surgery. This great pioneer engaged in successful tracheotomy and lithotomy on numerous patients. He is also credited with introducing the use of cotton in medicine to dress wounds. Az-Zahrawi was also among the first physicians to properly identify breast cancer and offer suggestions on how it could be detected. Al-Zahrawi’s work was so impressive that it drove Western scholars to increase their interest in the medical knowledge of the Muslims. Al-Zahrawi’s book on surgery, which was a culmination of what was known in his time, became a standard in Europe. His work was unique since it was the first medical work to contain diagrams of surgical instruments. His work provided novel knowledge on issues such as fractures and paralysis due to spinal injuries. His book was the first to offer treatments for deformities of the mouth and dental arches.

The era also produced the great Muslim pioneer in medicine, Ibn Sina, who remains to be the most highly recognized Muslim scholars in the field of medicine. He had started practicing medicine by the age of eighteen and by the age of twenty-one, he had written an encyclopedia of medicine. The book “The Canon of Medicine” authored by Ibn Sina was radical in its time and even today, it is the most important book on medicine ever written. Some of the contributions made by this book include the differentiation of meningitis from other neurologic diseases, the identification and description of tuberculosis as a contagious disease, and the introduction of urethral drug installation. Ibn Sina also stressed on the importance of hygiene in promoting human health and encouraged a holistic approach to patient care.

The House of Wisdom

The Islamic Golden Era contributed to the development of knowledge with the establishment of the House of Wisdom in 1004CE. The House of Wisdom (Bayt-el-Hikma) was built with the help of a grant offered by the Abbasid Caliphate. This academic institution, which was established in Baghdad, served as a major global intellectual hub. It was a major library where all significant knowledge from all over the world was translated into Arabic and stored for use by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. In addition to translating almost all the scientific works of the classical Greeks into Arabic, Muslim scholars also added commentaries and made original contributions.

The House of Wisdom contributed to the advancement of research efforts by scholars and scientists in the Golden Age era. This House of Wisdom was a true science academy that provided a center where high-level mathematicians and scientists could work and consult. Research indicates that many great contributions to world knowledge came from this medieval Science Academy. The union of scientific tradition and an effective centralized government enabled sustained research to take place in the House of Wisdom. Scholars from other parts of the Muslim world were attracted to this academy and they visited it frequently making their own contributions to the library. They added their unique knowledge and research. The collaboration made possible by the Bayt-el-Hikma led to growth in scientific knowledge in the period. For example, African scientists were able to communicate with their colleagues over the vast stretches of Muslim influence, from Spain and Italy on the West across Africa and Asia, to China on the East. By using the Bayt-el-Hikma as the central location and Arabic as the common language of learning, knowledge was exchanged and great advances were fostered.

Also, Islam made a great contribution to the development of historical knowledge. Muslim scholars in the Golden Era were responsible for the preservation of knowledge from extinction. Through their scholarly efforts, they sought out knowledge of nearly all of the other hitherto major civilizations. These works were then translated into Arabic and disseminated as widely as possible. Information that would otherwise have been destroyed or lost forever was therefore preserved due to the Muslim scholars of the Golden Era.

While Islam was demonstrating a pre-eminence in every field of learning, Europe was lurking behind. The prominent encyclopedist of sciences, George Sarton, in a comparison of European with Muslim learning during the Golden Age wrote moving from European to Islamic learning was like “passing from the shade to the open sun and from a sleepy world into one tremendously active one”. This overwhelming superiority of the Islamic culture continued to prevail through the 10th century. The West was able to experience scientific growth by using knowledge from the Islamic culture.

Astronomy

The Muslims were able to make astonishing progress in the field of astronomy. Great advances were made in this field through the works of Ibn Yunus. This mathematician was one of the great astronomers of all time. Ibn Yunus prepared the “Hakimi Tables” which contained observations of eclipses and conjunctions of the planets. Ibn Yunus made use of superior equipment to test and improve the observations of earlier astronomers and their measurements of astronomical constants. He was able to accomplish significant feats such as solving the problems of spherical astronomy by use of orthogonal projections or the celestial sphere.

Nasir al-Din’s also made a significant contribution to astronomy. Due to his outstanding knowledge of the field, he was commissioned to build an observatory in Maraghah in Iran. This observatory was the most modern at its time and it had the most sophisticated scientific instruments and an expansive library. Nasir al-Din spent a considerable amount of time compiling a new set of planetary tables and he wrote a comprehensive book on astronomy. This book, the Zij-i Ilkhani, became a standard in the field of astronomy.

The contribution made by astronomers in the Golden Age contributed significantly to navigation. Muslim sailors were able to travel further into the expansive sea without getting lost. Travelers who ventured into distant lands could use the knowledge on the position of the constellations and the movements of the bright stars to establish the route to follow and to calculate the time.

Mathematics and Physics

The mathematics formulated in the Golden era was often used to solve practical problems. Even so, the Islamic mathematics tradition was not limited to this and some mathematicians established theorems and proofs. The Arabic thinkers surmised that theoretical mathematics was necessary to understand the world and practical mathematics were useful to solve everyday problems. Mathematics in the modern world has benefited much from the contributions of the Islamic culture. Scholars on mathematics point to the Islamic Golden Age as a time when many well-known Islamic mathematicians made monumental contributions to the field of mathematics. The significance of Islamic contributions to mathematics can be deduced from the fact that the prevalent mathematical terms such as ‘algebra’ and ‘algorithm’ have their roots in Arabic.

The Islamic Golden Age made a significant contribution to algebra through the works of a number of prominent Muslim mathematicians. Al-Khwarizmi is credited with having prepared the oldest astronomical table and produced works on arithmetic and algebra. However, his greatest accomplishment is in algebra. His text on the subject consisted of original research and it was the first of its kind. His treatises on algebra were of great importance and they served as the basis on which modern algebra is built. While al- Khwarizmi’s work did not use the algebraic symbols used today to solve equations, it was the original work on algebra and acted as a foundation from which the modern-day algebraic system is derived.

Abu Kamil went on to develop Al-Khowarizmi’s algebra at a higher level. He wrote a book on algebra and this book was the most advanced of its time. Sertima (1992: 368) reveals that Abu Kamil was able to work with complex irrational quantities and his work was used by prominent Western scholars such as Leonardo Fibonacci. Abu Kamil was able to develop a number of useful algebraic formulas that are still in use to date. His formulas were used to solve nonlinear solutions for indeterminate equations.

Great advances were made in measuring techniques during the Golden Age. One of the great Arabic scholars, al-Biruni did numerous studies on measurements of the earth and was able to measure the distance around the world with a light error. Al-Biruni observed the altitude of the North Star and proceeded to measure it from northern and southern vantage points. He then used trigonometry to come up with the figure for the earth’s circumference. While al-Biruni’s measurement of the circumference of the Earth was not entirely accurate, the result had a remarkably small error of 200 miles only.

Muslim scientists made a contribution in various areas of physics. The most renowned Islamic physicist was Ibn-Haytham who made groundbreaking revelations in optics engaging in an in-depth study on the nature of light in the human eye. Based on this study, he was able to demonstrate that humans are able to perceive objects since rays of light are reflected from the objects. This observation refuted the previously held theory of extra mission that suggested that human’s perceived objects since their eyes emitted energy. A further experiment by al-Haytham showed that images register on the retina and are then transmitted to the brain along optic nerves.

Architecture

The Islamic Golden Age led to a development in architecture as a number of innovations were made in the field. The social and religious needs compelled Muslim architects to develop their own creative stylistic features. During the Islamic Golden Age, most masonry structured were in arched, vaulted, or domed form, borrowing from the prominent Roman and Byzantine building traditions. A defining characteristic of Islamic architecture was that it made use of precise geometry. This style led to a distinct form that was unique to the Arabic world. Muslim builders aimed to achieve structures that would provide a conducive atmosphere in the hot and dry Middle East. The development of sophisticated window scoops became a key aspect of Islamic buildings. Muslim builders mastered the art of constructing these sophisticated window systems for climate control.

In addition to the aesthetic value of their creations, Muslim builders were concerned about the stability of their buildings. They, therefore, made use of designs that were less susceptible to earthquakes. They made use of the pointed arch and horseshoe arches in their structures. These features would become prominent in Western Gothic architecture.

The decline of the Golden Age

The era after the Islamic Golden Age is referred to as the “age of decline”. It was marked by a significant slowdown in the scientific advances that the Islamic world has enjoyed for over a century. This period was characterized by a decline in the magnitude of scientific work and achievement in the Islamic world. This age started in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and by the fifteenth century, Islamic science had become a shadow of its previous self. This period made it possible for the Western world to catch up with Islamic progress and surpass it over the following centuries. Even so, the contributions made during the Islamic Golden Age continued to be used by the West and had spectacular results. The great knowledge and intellect obtained from the Islamic world had a major influence on the scientific practices of Europe in the subsequent centuries.

Conclusion

This paper set out to highlight the contributions made by Islam to the global scientific body, documenting how Muslim scholars made a considerable contribution to science using information from ancient civilizations, and enlarging their own knowledge to further various disciplines during the Islamic Golden Age. A number of Islamic works in mathematics, medicine, and astronomy became standard texts for scholars all over the world. Also, the paper has shown how Islamic scientific and scholarly works were developed in the Golden Age and gradually spread to Europe in the subsequent centuries. The great knowledge and intellect obtained from the Islamic world had a huge influence on Western science for centuries.

References

Abdalla, M. (2007). “Ibn KhaldĐn on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century.” Islam & Science, Vol. 5, No. 1. (Pp. 61-70). Web.

Basheer, A., Syed, A., & Siddiqui, A. (2005). Muslim Contributions to World Civilization. Paris: International Institute of Islamic Thought. Web.

Chavoushi, S. (2012). “Surgery for Gynecomastia in the Islamic Golden Age: Al-Tasrif of Al-Zahrawi (936–1013 AD).” International Scholarly Research Network, Vol. 2, No. 2. (Pp. 1-5). Web.

Essa, A., & Othman, A. (2010). Studies in Islamic Civilization: The Muslim Contribution to the Renaissance. Paris: IIT. Web.

Falagas, M., Zarkadoulia, E., & Samonis, G. (2006). “Arab science in the golden age (750-1258 C.E.) and today.” FASEB Journal, Vol. 20. No. 10. (Pp.1581-1586). Web.

Meri, J. (2004). Medieval Islamic civilization. NY: Routledge. Web.

Ofek, H. (2011). “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.” The New Atlantis, Vol. 3. No. 1. (Pp.3-23). Web.

Sertima, I. (1992). The Golden Age of the Moor. Boston: Transaction publishers. Web.

Shafiq, A. & Al-Roubaie, A. (2011). Globalization of Knowledge: Islam and Its Contributions. Manchester: Trafford Publishing. Web.

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