Historical Islam / Muslims WorldWide

Islamic science – Or the story about 1001 delusions?


Here’s a funny article written by a delusional sod named Jim Al-Khalili for the Guardian newspaper. While Al-Khalili lists a string of the greatest scientific advancements “from the Muslim world” – read and make a judgement yourself whether you find much signs of them originating anywhere near the Muslim world.

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The greatest scientific advances from the Muslim world

From the elephant clock to the camera obscura, here are six amazing inventions from between the 9th and 15th centuries

Ibn Firnas' flying contraption

Ibn Firnas’ flying contraption. Photograph: Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images

There is no such thing as Islamic science – for science is the most universal of human activities. But the means to facilitating scientific advances have always been dictated by culture, political will and economic wealth.

What is only now becoming clear (to many in the west) is that during the dark ages of medieval Europe, incredible scientific advances were made in the Muslim world. Geniuses in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Cordoba took on the scholarly works of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, India and China, developing what we would call “modern” science. [hm… if Muslims ‘take on the scholarly’ works of foreign countries and foreign cultures, they are obviously not inventing anything]

New disciplines emerged – algebra, trigonometry and chemistry as well as major advances in medicine, astronomy, engineering and agriculture. Arabic texts replaced Greek as the fonts of wisdom, [what wisdom ever originated fom Arabia? Arabs were vicious looters and invaders. Even the Quran is 70% plagiarism except the sections on Muhammad]. helping to shape the scientific revolution of the Renaissance. What the medieval scientists of the Muslim world articulated so brilliantly is that science is universal, the common language of the human race. The 1001 Inventions exhibition at London’s Science Museum tells some of the stories of this forgotten age. Here are my top six exhibits . . .

1 The elephant clock (below)

This centrepiece of the exhibition is a three-metre high replica of an early 13th-century water clock and one of the engineering marvels of the medieval world. It was built by al-Jazari, and gives physical form to the concept of multiculturalism. It features an Indian elephant, Chinese dragons, a Greek water mechanism, an Egyptian phoenix, and wooden robots in traditional Arabian attire. The timing mechanism is based on a water-filled bucket hidden inside the elephant.

Basically, the only Muslim science and invention in this is the Arabian attire!

2 The camera obscura

The greatest scientist of the medieval world was a 10th century Arab by the name of Ibn al-Haytham. Among his many contributions to optics was the first correct explanation of how vision works. He used the Chinese invention of the camera obscura (or pinhole camera) to show how light travels in straight lines from the object to form an inverted image on the retina.

Where’s the Muslim science in this? Plagiarism is science?

3 Al-Idrisi’s world map

This three-metre reproduction of the famous 12th-century map by the Andalusian cartographer, Al-Idrisi (1100-1166), was produced in Sicily and is regarded as the most elaborate and complete description of the world made in medieval times. It was used extensively by travellers for several centuries and contained detailed descriptions of the Christian north as well as the Islamic world, Africa and the Far East.

Andalusia is in Spain. During Muslim invasion many had to convert and change their names. Again, where exactly is the Muslim invention of this? The Chinese created a world map 5000 years ago.

4 The Banu Musa brothers’ “ingenious devices”

These three brothers were celebrated mathematicians and engineers in ninth-century Baghdad. Their Book of Ingenious Devices, published in 850, was a large illustrated work on mechanical devices that included automata, puzzles and magic tricks as well as what we would today refer to as “executive toys”.

Publishing other people’s inventions is now a Muslim science?

5 Al-Zahrawi’s surgical instruments

This array of weird and wonderful devices shows the sort of instruments being used by the 10th-century surgeon al-Zahrawi, who practised in Cordoba. His work was hugely influential in Europe and many of his instruments are still in use today. Among his best-known inventions were the syringe, the forceps, the surgical hook and needle, the bone saw and the lithotomy scalpel.

Cordoba again is in Spain. Where is Muslim science or invention in this? Far older instruments originate in China, India and other parts of the world.

6 Ibn Firnas’ flying contraption (above)

Abbas Ibn Firnas was a legendary ninth-century inventor and the Da Vinci of the Islamic world. He is honoured on Arabic postage stamps and has a crater on the moon named after him. He made his famous attempt at controlled flight when, aged 65, he built a rudimentary hang glider and launched himself from the side of a mountain. Some accounts claim he remained airborne for several minutes before landing badly and hurting his back.

Jim Al-Khalili is an author and broadcaster. He is professor of physics and of the public engagement in science at the University of Surrey.

One thought on “Islamic science – Or the story about 1001 delusions?

  1. If you had read Jim Al-Khalili’s book, “Pathfinders”, you would clearly know he ack owledges the foreign origins of the sciences studied in the islamic world at the time of Al-Andalus and the Abbasid era. He recognizes that many of the scientists were jews, christians and non-arabs. Infact Jim dedicates a whole chapter discussing why he agrees that we should NOT call it “Islamic science”. The purpose of the book is nonetheless about how in the middle east the sciences of greece, Egypt, India, China etc, were brought together and were studied and thaught in the middle East. It is also about the few contibutions made by scholars such as nasir al din al tusi and Ibn Al-Haytham.

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