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Hidden History: Inventions from the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation


‘The Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation’ – a time when men and women  of different faiths and  cultures, in order to improve the quality of life of society, worked together.

Speaking at the launch of the award – winning ‘1001 Inventions of the Muslim world’ exhibition in Ljubljana, this month, the Slovenian Prime Minister, Dr. Miro Cerar said:

There is a common belief that the 20th century was so far the one when science prospered the most. Never in the history of humankind has the development of science, technologies, and inventions been so rapid. Man invented the car, the plane, penicillin, a heart was transplanted for the first time, astronauts travelled to the Moon and back. We developed a social state and strengthened democracy and human rights. Not everywhere, of course, and in many places not enough. But there is a big progress. Unfortunately, the 20th century also witnessed inventions which brought humankind during two world wars and many local wars and conflicts in an era of deep darkness. But even in the worst darkness, there is germ of new light, and this very big ambivalence is a call that all ideas, inventions and human activities must be monitored by our hearts. A long time ago, our hearts invented or discovered love and humanity, which should be the fundamental motif of every true researcher. And when the mind and the heart are united in the best sense, their inventions serve the good and noble in each of us – and this is what we need to strive for, individually and together, in the 21st century. So may the beginning of the 21st century be a special challenge for humankind. Let’s pave the road to this century with a great measure of hope and striving for peace, knowledge, respect to everything living, and a sustainable development of human society. May we be inspired, encouraged and helped also by the golden era of Islam civilization and all its inventions and other achievements which keep exciting our spirit, awakening a desire for the new, the good and the best in us. “

Just some of the Inventors Celebrated

Abbas ibn Firnas  – Flight

When: 9th Century

Where: Cordoba

Who: Poet, astronomer, musician and engineer

What: Made several attempts to make a flying machine.

In 852 he jumped from the minaret of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba wearing a loose cloak wrapped around himself, with wooden struts. He wanted to glide like a bird but instead slowed his fall – creating what is believed to be the first parachute.

In 875, aged 70, having worked hard on  a machine of silk and eagles’ feathers he tried again, jumping from a mountain. He flew to a significant height and stayed aloft for ten minutes before crashing on landing. He realised it was because he had not given his device a tail so it would stall on landing.

Other inventions: designed a water clock called al-Maqata, devised a means of manufacturing colorless glass, invented various planispheres,  devised a chain of rings that could be used to simulate the motions of the planets and stars, made corrective lenses (“reading stones and developed a process for cutting rock crystal –  this allowed Spain to cease exporting quartz to Egypt to be cut. At  home, he  constructed a room in which spectators witnessed stars, clouds, thunder, and lightning, which were produced by mechanisms located in his basement laboratory.

Baghdad international airport and a crater on the Moon are named after him.

Some say his name was anglicised to Armen.

Abbas Ibn Firnas You tube link

 Ibn al-Haitham – Cameras

 When: 10th Century

Where: Cairo

Who: mathematician, astronomer and physicist.

What: The first person to realise that light enters the eye, rather than leaving it (the ancient Greeks thought our eyes emitted rays, like a laser, which enabled us to see). He invented the first pin-hole camera after noticing the way light came through a hole in window shutters. The smaller the hole, the better the picture, he worked out, and set up the first Camera Obscura (from the Arab word qamara for a dark or private room) He is also credited with being the first man to shift physics from a philosophical activity to an experimental one.

Ibn Hazm – Astronomy

When: 9th century

Where: Cordoba

Who: polymath

What: Many Muslim scholars took it for granted that the Earth was a sphere. The proof, said astronomer Ibn Hazm, “is that the Sun is always vertical to a particular spot on Earth” He is known to have started his debate by stating verses from the Quran: “He makes the Night overlap the Day, and the Day overlap the Night” (Zumar;5)- the word “to make [something] overlap” here, in Arabic kawwara ( كَوَّرَ ), is derived from kura( كُرَة ), which means “ball” or “sphere”. So after detailed studies using celestial globes he concluded proof. This was 500 years before that realisation dawned on Galileo.

The calculations of Muslim astronomers were so accurate that in the 9th century they reckoned the Earth’s circumference to be 40,253.4km – less than 200km out.

The scholar al-Idrisi took a globe depicting the world to the court of King Roger of Sicily in 1139.

Jabir ibn Hayyan – Chemistry

When:  The year 800

Where: Iran

Who: Polymath:  a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer, philosopher, physicist, and pharmacist and physician

What: Said to be the father of modern day chemistry. He transformed alchemy into chemistry, inventing many of the basic processes and apparatus still in use today – liquefaction, crystallisation, distillation, purification, oxidisation, evaporation and filtration.

In addition to discovering  sulphuric and nitric acid, he invented the alembic still, giving the world intense rosewater and other perfumes and alcoholic spirits.

It is believed his name was anglicised to ‘Geber.’

al-Zahrawi – Surgery

When: 10th Century

Where: Al-Andalus

Who: physician and surgeon

What: He has as been described by many as the father of modern day surgery. His greatest contribution to medicine is the Kitab al -Tasrif, a thirty-volume encyclopedia of medical practices.  His pioneering contributions to the field of surgical procedures and instruments had an enormous impact in the East and West well into the modern period, where some of his discoveries are still applied in medicine to this day. His scalpels, bone saws, forceps, fine scissors for eye surgery and many of the 200 instruments he devised are recognisable to a modern surgeon. It was he who discovered that catgut used for internal stitches dissolves away naturally (a discovery he made when his monkey ate his lute strings) and that it can be also used to make medicine capsules.

He is known in the West as Albucasis.


Women Contributors

Few sources mention the role of Muslim women in the development of science and technology.

Some women mentioned are:

Zubayda who pioneered a most ambitious project of digging wells and building service stations all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca.

Sutayta who was a mathematician and an expert witness in courts.

Dhayfa Khatun who excelled in management and statesmanship.

Fatima al-Fehri who founded the Qarawiyin mosque and university in Fez.

The astrolabe maker Al-‘Ijliya.

The rulers and queens Sitt al-Mulk, Shajarat al-Durr, Raziya of Delhi, and Amina of Zaria.

Women Contributors article

Further inventions: independent newspaper link

1001 inventions Youtube link starring Sir Ben Kingsley

Huffington post article link