Muslim scientists and scholars have contributed immensely to human knowledge especially in the period between 8th and 14th century CE. However, their contributions have been largely ignored, forgotten or have gone un-acknowledged. On this site you can read fascinating accounts of some of the most talented Muslim scholars in history whose contributions have left lasting marks in the annals of science, astronomy, medicine, surgery, engineering and philosophy.
YAQUB IBN ISHAQ AL-KINDI
Abu Yousuf Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi was born at Kufa around 800 C.E. His father was an official of Haroon al-Rashid. Al-Kindi was a contemporary of al-Mamun, al-Mu’tasim and al-Mutawakkil and flourished largely at Baghdad. He vas formally employed by Mutawakkil as a calligrapher. On account of his philosophical views, Mutawakkil was annoyed with him and confiscated all his books. These were, however, returned later on. He died in 873 C.E. during the reign of al-M’utamid.
Al-Kindi was a philosopher, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, physician, geographer and even an expert in music. It is surprising that he made original contributions to all of these fields. On account of his work he became known as the philosopher of the Arabs.
In mathematics, he wrote four books on the number system and laid the foundation of a large part of modern arithmetic. No doubt the Arabic system of numerals was largely developed by al- Khawarizmi, but al-Kindi also made rich contributions to it. He also contributed to spherical geometry to assist him in astronomical studies.
In chemistry, he opposed the idea that base metals can be converted to precious metals. In contrast to prevailing alchemical views, he was emphatic that chemical reactions cannot bring about the transformation of elements. In physics, he made rich contributions to geometrical optics and wrote a book on it. This book later on provided guidance and inspiration to such eminent scientists as Roger Bacon.
In medicine, his chief contribution comprises the fact that he was the first to systematically determine the doses to be adminis- tered of all the drugs known at his time. This resolved the conflic- ting views prevailing among physicians on the dosage that caused difficulties in writing recipes.
Very little was known on the scientific aspects of music in his time. He pointed out that the various notes that combine to produce harmony, have a specific pitch each. Thus, notes with too low or too high a pitch are non-pleatant. The degree of harmony depends on the frequency of notes, etc. He also pointed out the fact that when a sound is produced, it generates waves in the air which strike the ear-drum. His work contains a notation on the determination of pitch.
He was a prolific writer, the total number of books written by him was 241, the prominent among which were divided as follows:
Astronomy 16, Arithmetic 11, Geometry 32, Medicine 22,
Physics 12, Philosophy 22, Logic 9, Psychology 5, ar,d Music 7.
In addition, various monographs written by him concern tides, astronomical instruments, rocks, precious stones, etc. He was also an early translator of Greek works into Arabic, but this fact has largely been over-shadowed by his numerous original writings. It is unfortunate that most of his books are no longer extant, but those existing speak very high of his standard of scholarship and contribution. He was known as Alkindus in Latin and a large number of his books were translated into Latin by Gherard of Cremona. His books that were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages comprise Risalah dar Tanjim, Ikhtiyarat al-Ayyam, Ilahyat-e-Aristu, al-Mosiqa, Mad-o-Jazr, and Aduiyah Murakkaba.
Al-Kindi’s influence on development of science and philosophy was significant in the revival of sciences in that period. In the Middle Ages, Cardano considered him as one of the twelve greatest minds. His works, in fact, lead to further development of various subjects for centuries, notably physics, mathematics, medicine and music.
ABU AL-NASR AL-FARABI
Abu Nasr Mohammad Ibn al-Farakh al-Farabi was born in a small village Wasij, near Farab in Turkistan in 259 A.H. (870 C.E.). His parents were originally of Persian descent, but his ancestors had migrated to Turkistan. Known as al-Phrarabius in Europe, Farabi was the son of a general. He completed his earlier education at Farab and Bukhara but, later on, he went to Baghdad for higher studies, where he studied and worked for a long time viz., from 901 C.E. to 942 C.E. During this period he acquired mastery over several languages as well as various branches of knowledge and technology. He lived through the reign of six Abbasid Caliphs. As a philosopher and scientist, he acquired great proficiency in various branches of learning and is reported to have been an expert in different languages.
Farabi travelled to many distant lands and studied for some time in Damascus and Egypt, but repeatedly came back to Baghdad, until he visited Saif al-Daula’s court in Halab (Allepo). He became one of the constant companions of the King, and it was here at Halab that his fame spread far and wide. During his early years he was a Qadi (Judge), but later on the took up teaching as his profession. During the course of his career, he had suffered great hardships and at one time was the caretaker of a garden. He died a bachelor in Damascus in 339 A.H./950 C.E. at the age of 80 years.
Farabi contributed considerably to science, philosophy, logic, sociology, medicine, mathematics and music. His major contributions seem to be in philosophy, logic and sociology and, of course, stands out as an Encyclopedist. As a philosopher, he may be classed as a Neoplatonist who tried to synthesize Platonism and Aristotelism with theology and he wrote such rich commentaries on Aristotle’s physics, meteorology, logic, etc., in addition to a large number of books on several other subjects embodying his original contribution, that he came to be known as the ‘Second Teacher’ (al-Mou’allim al-Thani) Aristotle being the First. One of the important contributions of Farabi was to make the study of logic more easy by dividing it into two categories viz., Takhayyul (idea) and Thubut (proof).
In sociology he wrote several books out of which Ara Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila became famous. His books on psychology and metaphysics were largely based on his own work. He also wrote a book on music, captioned Kitab al-Musiqa. He was a great expert in the art and science of music and invented several musical instruments, besides contributing to the knowledge of musical notes. It has been reported that he could play his instrument so well as to make people laugh or weep at will. In physics he demonstrated the existence of void.
Although many of his books have been lost, 117 are known, out of which 43 are on logic, 11 on metaphysics, 7 on ethics, 7 on political science, 17 on music, medicine and sociology, while 11 are commentaries. Some of his more famous books include the book Fusus al-Hikam, which remained a text book of philosophy for several centuries at various centres of learning and is still taught at some of the institutions in the East. The book Kitab al-lhsa al ‘Ulum discusses classification and fundamental principles of science in a unique and useful manner. The book Ara Ahl al-Madina al- Fadila ‘The Model City’ is a significant early contribution to sociology snd political science.
Farabi exercised great influence on science and knowledge for several centuries. Unfortunately, the book Theology of Aristotle, as was available to him at that time was regarded by him as genuine, although later on it turned out to be the work of some Neoplatonic writer. Despite this, he was regarded the Second Teacher in philosophy for centuries and his work, aimed at synthesis of philosophy and sufism, paved the way for Ibn Sina‘s work.
Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina was born in 980 C.E. at Afshana near Bukhara. The young Bu Ali received his early education in Bukhara, and by the age of ten had become well versed in the study of the Qur’an and various sciences. He started studying philosophy by reading various Greek, Muslim and other books on this subject and learnt logic and some other subjects from Abu Abdallah Natili, a famous philosopher of the time. While still young, he attained such a degree of expertise in medicine that his renown spread far and wide. At the age of 17, he was fortunate in curing Nooh Ibn Mansoor, the King of Bukhhara, of an illness in which all the well-known physicians had given up hope. On his recovery, the King wished to reward him, but the young physician only desired permission to use his uniquely stocked library.
On his father’s death, Bu Ali left Bukhara and travelled to Jurjan where Khawarizm Shah welcomed him. There, he met his famous contemporary Abu Raihan al-Biruni. Later he moved to Ray and then to Hamadan, where he wrote his famous book Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb. Here he treated Shams al-Daulah, the King of Hamadan, for severe colic. From Hamadan, he moved to Isphahan, where he completed many of his monumental writings. Nevertheless, he continued travelling and the excessive mental exertion as well as political turmoil spoilt his health. Finally, he returned to Hamadan where he died in 1037 C.E.
He was the most famous physician, philosopher, encyclopaedist, mathematician and astronomer of his time. His major contribution to medical science was his famous book al-Qanun, known as the “Canon” in the West. The Qanun fi al-Tibb is an immense encyclo- paedia of medicine extending over a million words. It surveyed the entire medical knowledge available from ancient and Muslim sources. Due to its systematic approach, “formal perfection as well as its intrinsic value, the Qanun superseded Razi‘s Hawi, Ali Ibn Abbas’s Maliki, and even the works of Galen, and remained supreme for six centuries”. In addition to bringing together the then available knowledge, the book is rich with the author’s original eontribution. His important original contribution includes such advances as recognition of the contagious nature of phthisis and tuberculosis; distribution of diseases by water and soil, and interaction between psychology and health. In addition to describing pharmacological methods, the book described 760 drugs and became the most authentic materia medica of the era. He was also the first to describe meningitis and made rich contributions to anatomy, gynaecology and child health.
His philosophical encyclopaedia Kitab al-Shifa was a monu- mental work, embodying a vast field of knowledge from philosophy to science. He classified the entire field as follows: theoretical knowledge: physics, mathematics and metaphysics; and practical knowledge: ethics, economics and politics. His philosophy synthesises Aristotelian tradition, Neoplatonic influences and Muslim theology.
Ibn Sina also contributed to mathematics, physics, music and other fields. He explained the “casting out of nines” and its applica- tion to the verification of squares and cubes. He made several astronomical observations, and devised a contrivance similar to the vernier, to increase the precision of instrumental readings. In physics, his contribution comprised the study of different forms of energy, heat, light and mechanical, and such concepts as force, vacuum and infinity. He made the important observation that if the perception of light is due to the emission of some sort of particles by the luminous source, the speed of light must be finite. He propounded an interconnection between time and motion, and also made investigations on specific gravity and used an air thermo- meter.
In the field of music, his contribution was an improvement over Farabi’s work and was far ahead of knowledge prevailing else- where on the subject. Doubling with the fourth and fifth was a ‘great’ step towards the harmonic system and doubling with the third seems to have also been allowed. Ibn Sina observed that in the series of consonances represented by (n + 1)/n, the ear is unable to distinguish them when n = 45. In the field of chemistry, he did not believe in the possibility of chemical transmutation because, in his opinion, the metals differed in a fundamental sense. These views were radically opposed to those prevailing at the time. His treatise on minerals was one of the “main” sources of geology of the Christian encyclopaedists of the thirteenth century. Besides Shifa his well-known treatises in philosophy are al-Najat and Isharat.
Abu’l Waleed Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West, was born in 1128 C.E. in Cordova, where his father and grandfather had both been judges. His grandfather was well versed in Fiqh (Maliki School) and was also the Imam of the Jamia Mosque of Cordova. The young Ibn Rushd received his education in Cordova and lived a quiet life, devoting most of his time to learned-pursuits. He studied philoso- phy and law from Abu J’afar Haroon and from Ibn Baja; he also studied medicine.
Al-Hakam, the famous Umayyad Caliph of Spain, had construc- ted a magnificent library in Cordova, which housed 500,000 books, He himself had studied many of these and made brief marginal comments on them. This rich collection laid the foundation for intellectual study in Spain and provided the background for men like Ibn Rushd, who lived 2 centuries later.
Abu Yaqub, the Caliph of Morocco, called him to his capital and appointed him as his physician in place of Ibn Tufail. His son Yaqub al-Mansur retained him for some time but soon Ibn Rushd’s views on theology and philosophy drew the Caliph’s wrath. All his books, barring strictly scientific ones, were burnt and he was banished to Lucena. However, as a result of intervention of several leading scholars he was forgiven after about four years and recalled to Morocco in 1198; but he died towards the end of the same year.
Ibn Rushd made remarkable contributions. in philosophy, logic, medicine, music and jurisprudence. In medicine his well- known book Kitab al-Kulyat fi al-Tibb was written before 1162 C.E. Its Latin translation was known as ‘Colliget’. In it, Ibn Rushd has thrown light on various aspects of medicine, including the diagnoses, cure and prevention of diseases. The book concentrates on specific areas in comparison of Ibn Sina‘s wider scope of al-Qanun, but contains several original observations of Ibn Rushd.
In philosophy, his most important work Tuhafut al-Tuhafut was written in response to al-Ghazali‘s work. Ibn Rushd was criticised by many Muslim scholars for this book, which, neverthe- less, had a profound influence on European thought, at least until the beginning of modern philosophy and experimental science. His views on fate were that man is neither in full control of his destiny nor is it fully predetermined for him. He wrote three commenlaries on the works of Aristotle, as these were known then through Arabic translations. The shortest Jami may be considered as a summary of the subject. The intermediate was Talkhis and the longest was the Tafsir. These three commentaries would seem to correspond to different stages in the education of pupils; the short one was meant for the beginners, then the intermediate for the students familiar with the subject, and finally the longest one for advanced studies. The longest commentary was, in fact, an original contribution as it was largely based on his analysis including interpretation of Qu’ranic concepts.
In the field of music, Ibn Rushd wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s book De Anima. This book was translated into Latin by Mitchell the Scott.
In astronomy he wrote a treatise on the motion of the sphere, Kitab fi-Harakat al-Falak. He also summarised Almagest and divided it into two parts: description of the spheres, and movement of the spheres. This summary of the Almagest was translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Jacob Anatoli in 1231.
According to Ibn al-Abbar, Ibn Rushd’s writings spread over 20,000 pages, the most famous of which deal with philosophy, medicine and jurisprudence. On medicine alone he wrote 20 books. Regarding jurisprudence, his book Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa-Nihayat- al-Muqtasid has been held by Ibn Jafar Thahabi as possibly the best book on the Maliki School of Fiqh. Ibn Rushd’s writings were translated into various languages, including Latin, English, German and Hebrew. Most of his commentaries on philosophy are preserved in the Hebrew translations, or in Latin translations from the Hebrew, and a few in the original Arabic, generally in Hebrew script. This reveals his wider acceptance in the West in comparison to the East. The commentary on zoology is entirely lost. Ibn Rushd also wrote commentaries on Plato’s Republic, Galen’s treatise on fevers, al- Farabi‘s logic, etc. Eighty-seven of his books are still extant.
Ibn Rushd has been held as one of the greatest thinkers and scientists of the 12th century. According to Philip Hitti, Ibn Rushd influenced Western thought from the 12th to the 16th centuries. His books were included in the syllabi of Paris and other universities till the advent of modern experimental sciences.
Abd al-Rahman Ibn Mohammad is generally known as Ibn Khaldun after a remote ancestor. His parents, originally Yemenite Arabs, had settled in Spain, but after the fall of Seville, had migrated to Tunisia. He was born in Tunisia in 1332 C.E., where he received his early education and where, still in his teens, he entered the service of the Egyptian ruler Sultan Barquq. His thirst for advanced knowledge and a better academic setting soon made him leave this service and migrate to Fez. This was followed by a long period of unrest marked by contemporary political rivalries affecting his career. This turbulent period also included a three year refuge in a small village Qalat Ibn Salama in Algeria, which provided him with the opportunity to write Muqaddimah, the first volume of his world history that won him an immortal place among historians, sociologists and philosophers. The uncertainty of his career still continued, with Egypt becoming his final abode where he spent his last 24 years. Here he lived a life of fame and respect, marked by his appointment as the Chief Malakite Judge and lecturing at the Al-Azhar University, but envy caused his removal from his high judicial office as many as five times.
Ibn Khaldun’s chief contribution lies in philosophy of history and sociology. He sought to write a world history preambled by a first volume aimed at an analysis of historical events. This volume, commonly known as Muqaddimah or ‘Prolegomena’, was based on Ibn Khaldun’s unique approach and original contribution and became a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology. The chief concern of this monumental work was to identify psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. In this context, he analysed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group-feelings, al-’Asabiyya, give rise to the ascent of a new civilisation and political power and how, later on, its diffusion into a more general civilization invites the advent of a still new ‘Asabiyya in its pristine form. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of rise and fall in human civilization, and analysed factors contributing to it. His contribution to history is marked by the fact that, unlike most earlier writers interpreting history largely in a political context, he emphasised environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing the apparent events. This revolutionised the science of history and also laid the foundation of Umraniyat (Sociology).
Apart from the Muqaddimah that became an important independent book even during the lifetime of the author, the other volumes of his world history Kitab al-I’bar deal with the history of Arabs, contemporary Muslim rulers, contemporary European rulers, ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc., Islamic History, Egyptian history and North-African history, especially that of Berbers and tribes living in the adjoining areas. The last volume deals largely with the events of his own life and is known as Al-Tasrif. This was also written in a scientific manner and initiated a new analytical tradition in the art of writing autobiography. A book on mathematics written by him is not extant.
Ibn Khaldun’s influence on the subject of history, philosophy of history, sociology, political science and education has remained paramount ever since his life. His books have been translated into many languages, both in the East and the West, and have inspired subsequent development of these sciences. For instance, Prof. Gum Ploughs and Kolosio consider Muqaddimah as superior in scholarship to Machiavelli’s The Prince written a century later, as the forrner bases the diagnosis more on cultural, sociological, economic and psychological factor.