Knowledge & Islam

Islam has been getting a lot of negative press and being the month of Ramadhan, I find this a good opportunity to highlight some of the contributions of the religion to the advancement of the human species. Part one of this series looks at the place of knowledge in Islam. The article takes us on a journey to a time when Islam shone a light on the world, leading a gallant effort in keeping the dark clutches of ignorance away from the human race.

You’ve obviously heard of the misguided beliefs of radical groupings that base their claims against education on ‘Islamic teachings’. Boko Haram infamously claim that Western education is sinful while the Taliban kills girls who seek education. The following paragraphs will not only show how incredibly misguided these groups are but also highlight how Islamic civilization contributed so much to the advance of multiple disciplines of knowledge.

The transmission of knowledge throughout history can be compared to a relay race. A civilization at the height of its power places great emphasis on learning. It drags the human race forward in scientific and cultural advancement until it declines and passes the baton of knowledge to the next great civilization. Ancient Greece is rightfully considered the foundation upon which subsequent civilizations built on to maintain the trajectory of human progress that led us to where we are today.

The popular version of history taught in schools has this incremental chain of learning moving from the classical Greek era to the Roman empire. After the collapse of the Roman empire, humanity fell into an age of ignorance and cultural stagnation – the ‘dark ages’ if you would have it – only to wake up close to 1000 years later with the early stirrings of the renaissance. Or so we are led to believe. While Europe floundered after the fall of the Roman Empire, learning did not stop but shifted eastwards and thrived ensuring the steady progress of humanity.

The Islamic civilization provided a melting point of knowledge from across different cultures. Between the 8th and 15th century, the Muslim world was more advanced technically, scientifically and philosophically than any other place in the world. The religion rose from Arabia in the 7th century to conquer territory that stretched from Southern France through North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia to the banks of the Indus in the Indian subcontinent within a century of its establishment. With this advance, much of the knowledge of the ancient world fell in the hands of various Muslim Empires and what they did with this knowledge was astonishing. The ancient knowledge of the Greeks, Persians and Indians existed in isolated spheres of achievement and after conquest, the Muslims fused the intellectual advances from these three great civilizations to establish a multi-cultural fountain of knowledge.

Islamic Empire at its peak

Spurred by a religion that lays great emphasis on knowledge, the successive Muslim empires translated classical knowledge then offered critiques and built on the works of earlier scholars. Manuscripts on astronomy, medicine, philosophy, engineering, mathematics and many other fields were translated from their original languages of Greek, Syriac, Aramaic, Sanskrit & Pahlavi to Arabic which was the official language of the Islamic empires. This process that came to be known as the ‘translation movement’ ensured the preservation of classical works of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Brahmagupta, Euclid and Socrates among others while providing a chance to critique and improve these works.

With Arabic as the lingua franca and de facto language of knowledge, the translation movement attracted great minds from across the breadth of the empire. The scholars from multiple faiths, cultures and civilizations thrived in specific centers of knowledge such as Baghdad’s famed House of Knowledge. Scholars came from present day Iran, Uzbekistan, India, Greece, Turkey to work in centers of knowledge in Baghdad, Cordoba and Damascus. It is worth noting that the relative degree of religious tolerance in these empires attracted scholars from all backgrounds to the extent that one of the leading scholars who made significant contributions to the translation movement was Hunayn, a Christian scholar in Abbasid Baghdad to whom the world owes a great deal for translating and preserving the works of Galen.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these scholars who led advances in various fields of knowledge was how they dabbled in multiple unrelated disciplines. It is rare, almost impossible, to hear of a leading modern physicist making ground breaking advances in philosophy or a leading biologists making geographical discoveries while being an accomplished poet. But such polymaths were the norm in these Empires.

Al-Khwarizmi for example was a famous geographer who revised Ptolemy’s Geography and an astronomer to boot but his legacy lies in the mathematical advances he made. He is considered the father of algebra, an operation to solve quadratic equations whose Arabic name of Al-Jabr was Latinized to read ‘Algebra’. Algorithm, another mathematical operation, was an original concept of Al-Khwarizmi and the word algorithm itself is a direct Latin translation of his name. His most significant work was the spread of Indian system of numeration, later called the Arabic numerals because it came to Europe through Al Khwarizmi.

The system as explained by Al Khwarizmi uses only ten digits to give value to every possible number from zero to the biggest number imaginable. This paradigm shifting approach revolutionized mathematics by making calculation easy relative to the cumbersome Roman numerals that were widely in use at the time. Imagine trying to subtract 38 (XXXVIII in Roman numerals) from 858 (DCCCLVIII) to appreciate the significance of this achievement. The Arabic numerals were later adopted in Europe and spread throughout the world to become the language of mathematics that is in use to this very day. Al Khwarizmi also calculated the earth’s circumference and was only off its actual size by 4% in the 9th century. To give you a sense of perspective, this was an era when conventional wisdom suggested the earth was flat.

Albucasis from Cordoba in Muslim Spain is considered the father of surgery with some of his surgical advances in use from 1000 AD to date. He wrote treatises on surgical and medical instruments introducing 200 surgical instruments. The use of catgut for internal stitching used in modern medicine was an invention of Albucasis. Razi (Rhazes in Latin) was the first to produce sulphuric acid and also wrote influential works on smallpox and chicken pox. He is considered the father of pediatrics having authored the first book on the subject as well as being a prominent philosopher.

Ibn Sinna, known as Avicenna in the Western world was another leading polymath from the Samanid Empire in present day Iran and Uzbekistan. His main works are in the fields of medicine, philosophy, theology, physics and poetry. Ibn Sinna wrote more than 400 books. His most famous work is ‘The Canon of Medicine’ which provides an overview of all aspects of medicine according to the principles of Galen and Hippocrates. This book was the standard medical textbook in European universities for centuries up to the 17th century. Ibn Sinna was also a famous alchemist, astronomer, geologist and psychologist.

Ibn Sinna's Canon of Medicine

Muslim Spain proved to be the conduit through which knowledge from the Islamic world entered Europe. The seminal works in Arabic were translated to Castilian and Latin and accessed by Renaissance figures. The likes of Copernicus built directly on works from the aforementioned scholars. The Islamic Empires in Spain provided a form of tolerance and co-existence where Christians, Jews and Muslims worked together in many different sectors of society. The period of tolerance and cultural interplay of ideas from the three major religions is referred to as Convivencia and played a key role in the introduction of Arabic works to Europe. The Islamic Empires in Spain lasted from the 8th century to the 15th century and the knowledge therein accrued fell in the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires and partly explains why these two were leading European nations before the industrial revolution thrust Britain to the forefront.

The Portuguese were able to access such important works as ‘The Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation’ by Ahman inb Majid which has been credited with guiding Vasco da Gama in his maiden voyage to East Africa enroute to India. There are accounts of Muslims navigators from Spain landing in the Americas in the 10th century, a whole five centuries before Colombus’ famous voyage across the Atlantic. Al Masudi’s world map of 956 shows an ‘unknown land’ across the Atlantic from Africa. Colombus himself is said to have used the navigational aid of Muslims and maritime knowledge from Muslim Spain to make his voyage.

In Africa, the territories that came under Islamic influence witnessed great development and an emphasis on education absent in the rest of the continent. In the Swahili coast, advances in architecture saw thriving city states exist along the Indian Ocean. City states such as Gedi and Kilwa had complex features for their time including bathrooms with drains and overhead flush toilets. There was also the case of Kilwa traders making their way to Australia five centuries before the white man. In West Africa, Islam had a more profound effect having spread through the Trans-Saharan trade. Educational centers like Timbuktu are famed to date for being oases in a desert of ignorance. Households in Mali had and continue to have thousands of manuscripts in their private libraries to complement the elaborate public libraries that existed.

In Morocco, the oldest University in the world exists as a testament to both the role of Muslims and women in institutionalizing the quest for education. The University of Qarawiyyin was built in 859 by a Muslim lady Fatima Al-Fihri and acted as the place through which Al Khwarizmi’s works were accessed and popularized in Europe.

These significant contributions to human knowledge and progress are barely recognized or acknowledged both in the Western and Islamic world. History lessons barely mention the role played by scholars from Islamic civilizations or the role of the religion that inspired the search for knowledge.

It saddens to see the Islamic population lag behind intellectually to the extent that there have only been two scientists who have won the Nobel prize from the Islamic world in the last 113 years of the award’s existence. In Kenya, Muslim-majority counties perpetually lag behind in education averaging the lowest marks in national exams. The lack of emphasis on education perpetuates ignorance and poverty through generations. But as a student of history, I take great pride in learning about the role Islam played in the advance of human knowledge. I get inspiration to study as much as possible from as many diverse fields of knowledge as I can.

I’ll leave you with the most significant reason as to why Islamic empires so cherished education. The first instruction that the Prophet Mohamed got from God through Angel Gabriel (Jibril) – the first verse of the Quran – was ‘Read’. Not pray. Or fast. Or give alms but Read. This revelation acted as the inspiration from which Muslims sought education and played their part in the collective effort of advancing human knowledge. So go ahead, pick up that book and read. You can start of by reading Lost Islamic History by Firas AlKhateeb, a recently published book that seeks to contextualize the impact of Islamic belief on scientific advancement, social structures and cultural development of humanity. Get your copy here.

(Images c/o Wkipedia)

About the Author

Galimo Askumo
An explorer, an infomaniac and a hippie. I got tired of wanting to read detailed, long form articles on various topics that interest me so I decided to write about them. My username is an ode to the last two known members of my family tree which goes back 11 generations.

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8 Comments

  1. solo

    Mashaallah that was a great piece down memory lane. Al jabr n algebra is really informative

    • Don Pablo

      Shukran Solo. Interesting stuff to find out huh?

  2. Oshin

    This is one of the most revealing, necessary, and timely posts I have read in a while. Thank you so much for going to the trouble of sharing this knowledge about knowledge (I feel it always the best kind to have). Love it. This is the flesh and skin and teeth and hair on all the structural bone and nerve information you have been giving me about it. Brilliant! I do especially love that you have highlighted something I was just discussing today. . . polymaths. We have become so entrenched in specialization to become experts while we are building on theorem and logic founded by experts who were masters of all trades. Inspirational. I have always admired and gravitated toward such folks. Also, the Iqra verse. Would you believe I used that today to explain to someone why I love to read and seek knowledge. And I explained how funny it is that I said that today when it is Ramadhan and actually could be when the Qur’an was revealed. Synchronicity! Sorry for such a long comment I am just excited and you know how I get hehe.

    • Don Pablo

      Wow, you are far too kind. Thanks for going through the trouble of reading 1900+ words and relating. Synchronization indeed, great minds.

      Specialization for what? Mastery of one field of knowledge only makes it easier to learn another. Like being a great artist can make it easier to be a great sculptor etc. Learn as much as you can. It’s why I try to expand my areas of interest as much as possible and they feed each into each other. Like how my knowledge of Geography has helped me understand some astronomy.

      Ramadhan’s been a great inspiration, reading up on Islamic history in an attempt to offer a narrative that counters the negative portrayal of the religion and its adherents. You’ll love the next one on Astronomy in Islam. Thanks for the support.

  3. loso

    Very informative piece Moha thanks I can’t wait for part two

    • Don Pablo

      Thanks Jose. Glad you can relate. Part two will be up soon IA

  4. m_oyo

    Lovely piece Don. Felt like i was in a virtual history class and learnt a lot. Good stuff Don

    • Don Pablo

      Happy to hear you learnt a thing or two from the post Dennis. Thanks for reading

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