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Door: Nasser Mohamud
Islam: The language of Science

As a Muslim, I consider myself a representative of Islam, a promoter of Islam, a believer in Islam, a follower of Islam and its prophet. Therefore I feel obligated to spread knowledge about Islam and help others understand the beauty about this religion and its history, message and contribution to the world. Now, more than ever, it is important to understand the faith of Islam, its enormous contributions to world history and civilizations. Important aspects which makes me proud to be a Muslim and follower of the religion Islam.  

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the resultant war against terrorism have increased interest, coverage, and the need to know more about the faith, history, politics, and culture of Islam and Muslims. 

Today Islam is the second largest of the world's religions, encompassing one-fifth of the world's population. The 1.2 billion Muslims live in some 56 Muslim countries, where they make up a majority of the population. Today Islam is the second largest religion in Europe and the third largest in the United States.



Islam and the Islamic world have played and continue to play a major role in world history. In the century following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E., Islam spread widely and Muslim rulers created an empire that extended from North Africa to South Asia. The empire was greater than that of Rome at its zenith. While the West passed through its Dark Ages, Islamic civilization flourished, making major contributions to mathematics (Arabic numerals, algebra, geometry), philosophy, medicine and other sciences, art, and architecture.

The language of Science

There was a Golden age of Islamic scholarship between the 9th and 12th century and a great leap took place in the scientific knowledge in Bagdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba. What are their contribution to science??  Are their medieval Muslim scientists who should be spoken in the same breath as Galileo, Newton or Einstein? More importantly!! What are the relationship between science and Islam??

The language of modern science still has references to his Arab roots. Take scientific terms  like Algebra, Algorithm and Alkali. These words are instantly recognizable as Arabic and at the same time the heart of what science does! There will be no modern mathematics or physics without Algebra! No computers without Algorithms! And no chemistry without Alkali!

Surprisingly few people in the west today, even scientists, are aware of this medieval Islamic legacy. But it wasn’t always so! From the 12th till the 17th century, European scholars regularly referred to earlier Islamic text. In fact Arabic names pop up in many medieval European texts on subjects as varied as map making, optics and medicine.

Page 406 of the book "Liber Abaci" by the great Italian mathematician Leonardo Pisano shows reference by an older text called: ‘algebra et almuchabale’ and in the margin states the name Maumeht which is the Latinized version of the name Mohammed. The person Leonardo Pisan is referring to is Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi.

Thanks to Al-Khwarizmi the European world realized their way in doing arithmetics which was still essential based on Roman numerals which was hopelessly inefficient.

Al-Khwarizmi showed Europeans that there is a better way of doing arithmetics. In his book entitled: “The Hindu art of Reckoning”  he describes a revolutionary idea! You represent any number you like with just 10 simple symbols. The idea of just using 10 symbols, the digits from 10 to 9 plus a symbol for 0 to represent all the numbers from 1 to infinity, was first developed by Indian mathematicians around the 6th century ad. 

What was powerful about these digits and about these numerical system is how it simplified arithmetics calculations. Al-Khwarizmi went further than just translating the Indian system into Arabic. They also created the decimal point. 

The story of numbers and decimal point hints that even over a thousand years ago science is becoming much more global! Ideas were spreading and emerging from India, Greece and even China.

Looking at this map which shows where people lived a thousand years ago, gives an insight why medieval Islam would play such an important role in development of science.

If you look at this map you can see which city lays at the centre of the known world. A place where the widest range of people and ideas were bound to collide. It is the city which was the capital of the Islamic Empire Bagdad (Iraq). This used to be one the greatest cities in the world! Bagdad was
 founded in 762 ad. by the Caliph Al Mansur. His aim was to make it a glorious capital of a brand new Empire united by Islam which was the rising religion at the time.   

Abbasids caliphs have claimed their right to rule by declaring that they were directly related to the prophet Mohammed who have founded the new religion Islam a hundred years earlier. But in that short time the armies of Islam had concurred a vast territory. Starting in a small area around the city Medina (Saudi Arabia) Muslims moved rapidly out of the Arabian peninsula and within a few decades they have taken control of the Levant, North Africa, Spain and Persia.

Dr. Amira Bennison/University of Cambridge: This was an era that people believed in God and the dramatic successes of the Arabs pulled them out of Arabia. With such that a lot of people did observe and say they must have God on their side and this must be the true God. Some people did convert and if they didn’t convert they did submit to Arab Muslim political control for that reason.

The Islamic translation movement

By the early 8th century Islamic caliphs ruled a vast territory. And like most successful empires from Caesar to Napoleon they understand that political power and scientific knowhow go hand in hand. There are many reason for this and some were practical. Medical knowledge could save lives, military technology could win wars and mathematics could help deal with the increasing complexities of the finances of the state. 

Islam as a religion also played a pivotal role. The prophet himself has told believers to seek knowledge wherever they could find it even if they had to go as far as China. And many Muslims felt that to study and better understand God creations was in itself a religious duty. There were also other motives that were important. To many in the ruling elite in the Islamic Empire, knowledge itself has a self-serving purpose. Because possessing it was seen as proof of the new Empire superiority over the rest of the world.

But with military and political success the Islamic caliphs faced an inevitable problem. How do you sensibly govern a hugely diverse population. Although some of the empires have converted to Islam they were still separated by huge distances, many languages and traditions. In the 8th century ad. the Empire leader caliph Abd al-Malik had to find a way to administrating these different languages.  His solution was laid the foundation of a scientific renaissance.

Professor George Saliba/Columbia University: It was Abd al-Malik who said this bureaucratic has to stop! We cannot continue to run the government and govern all this span of land with all this tower of Babel languages. So he wanted to govern it with a uniformed language. He wanted to understand that uniformed language so he demand it that it was Arabic.

The choice of Arabic as the common language of the Empire went beyond administrative convenience. The decision has extra force and persuasiveness because Islam’s holy book the Quran is in Arabic. And Muslim consider Arabic the language of God. 

The words of the Quran are so sacred that its text hasn’t changed in over 1400 years. By comparison English has changed dramatically in just 700 years. To our ears Chaucer, who’s known as the Father of English literature and widely considered to be the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, is unintelligible. Whereas any Quran can be understood by anyone who reads Arabic.

Making copies of the Quran has always been a specialized and a highly respected job since the foundation of Islam. Arabic Calligraphy experts believe that the complexity of Arabic Calligraphy was enforced on the people because of the spread of Islam and because they were afraid that the meaning of the words will be lost. 

The consequences for science were immediate! Scholars from different lands who previously had no way of communicating now had a common language. And it was a language which was specially developed to be precise and unambiguous which made it ideal for scientific and technical terms. 

Professor Simon Schaffer/University of Cambridge: What this meant was the expansion of a vast intellectual community where scholars from very different parts of the world could engage in dialog, comparison, debate, argument often very fierce argument with each other. It was possible for scientists who were based in Cordoba in southern Spain to engage in scientific debate with scientists from Bagdad and else were.

The scholars were not only motivated by the love of knowledge only! There’s nothing like a large chunk of cash to focus the mind. By the early 800 the ruling elite of the Islamic Empire were pouring money into a truly ambitious project which was global in scale and which was to have a profound impact on science. It was to scour the libraries in the world for scientific and philosophical manuscripts in any language Greek, Syriac, Persian or Sanskrit and nd to bring them to the Empire and translate them into Arabic.      

This became known as the translation movement. The effort the scholars put into finding ancient text was astonishing! And one key reason for this was bringing a book to the caliphs which he could add to his library could be extremely lucrative. The story goes that Caliph Al-Ma'mun  was so obsessed that he would send his messengers out of Bagdad far and wide to distant lands just to get a hold of books he didn’t posses for the translation movement. Anyone who brought him a book he didn’t have he would repay him his weight in Gold.   

Dr. Amira Bennison/University of Cambridge: To give some sense into the extend of this activities between 750 and 950 ad. A list was made which counted 70 translators. This shows you how large and how many people were involved in the translation. Translators could get up to 500 dinars a month and this is probably between 24000 dollars which is a huge sum of money for what they were doing. It was a very prestigious well paid well patronized  activity.

Motivating this large acquisition of knowledge was a pressing practical concern. One which rarely crosses our minds today. 

Professor Simon Schaffer/University of Cambridge: One of the things we tend to forget because we live in a age of massive information storage and perfect communication more or less….is the ever present possibility of total loss. That was very very important for medieval Islamic scholars. They knew extremely well that writings could be forgotten or buried or burned or destroyed and cities could pass away. And what we see in Bagdad or Cairo is exactly the gathering together translation analysis accumulation storage and preservation of material they were well aware could be lost forever.

And if there was one branch of knowledge that everyone from the mighty caliphs to the humble trader wanted to preserve and enhance was medicine!

Islamic Medicine 

These were after all times that a few lived to old age. Writings from the times remind us that what we might consider a relatively minor infection today could be a death sentence. Religious teaching were not just a source of comfort. There were a constant reminder that we should never give up!

In the hadith which is the collective sayings of the prophet Mohammed it says: "That God did not send down a disease without also sending down its cure."

It is statements like these that lead Muslims even today to believe that cures for all diseases are out there somewhere and that we need to search to find them. But how did this optimism effected Islamic medicine??

Dr. Peter Pormann/University of Warwick: What people don’t realize is that the history of Islamic medicine is really the history of our medicine. Because our medicine the medicine that we used until the 19th century was based to large extent to all this work of these Islamic physicians.

Islamic medicine build extensively on the foundation laid by the ancient Greeks. The most highly priced and among the first translated into Arabic were the medical manuscripts of the 3rd century Greek physician Galen. Galen believed that a healthy body was one in balans. A balans of four types of flout called humours which circle through the body and anyone of which if out of balans will cause illness and a change of temperament. The four humors were yellow bile which in excess will cause the patient to become bilious or bad tempered or nauseous . Blood to of which would cause patient to become Sanguan or cheerful and flushed. Black bile which which in excess would cause the patient to become lethargic melancholic or even depressed. And phlegm which can cause the patient to become phlegmatic and emotionally detached.

Galen argued that illnesses are caused by imbalance of one of the humors. So the cure lays in draining the body of some of that humor. So he recommended techniques like cutting to induce bleeding or using emetics to induce vomiting.

Islamic doctors were aware that Galen and Greek medicine were only one source of medical knowledge. There were other traditions of medicine that were equally keen to incorporate into their understanding of how the body functions. Medieval Arabic text referred to ‘wise woman’ who provided medical drugs. Many areas and smaller towns didn’t have a doctor at all. As a result, midwives and wise woman (lay healers) provided not just obstetrical care, but nearly all primary care in these areas. Wise Woman tradition is the world’s oldest healing tradition and this tradition continuous till today.    

But medieval Islamic doctors were also aware of other traditions of medicine from China and India. Yet another tradition of medical guidance came from within Islam itself and takes some of its ideas from the Quran and some from the collective sayings of the prophet the hadith.   


The Prophetic Medicine by Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya. The author was born in the 14 century. The book describes how to deal with a lot of diseases from back then. For example how to deal with the plague it says: “If you come across a land where the plague has come down then do not enter that land. And if the plague comes down to your land and you’re there then do not leave your home in the hope of escaping it.” Another amusing part of the The Prophetic Medicine book says that the Greek and Galen believed that epilepsy originated from the brain. However the The Prophetic Medicine book says that they were ignorant and they didn’t realize the true cause of epilepsy which is the possession of the body by evil spirits and it talks about the cure of epilepsy being exorcism. The book is hardly scientific but it is Islam most tangible contribution to medicine is less in his specific remedies and more in his overarching philosophy.

Islam is after all a religion who is central idea is that we should feel compassion for our fellow humans. The Nur Al-Din hospital was once upon a time the leading hospital of the Islamic Empire which was built in Damascus and now it is a Museum.

Dr. Peter Pormann/University of Warwick: Stipulated in Islam was the idea to be charitable (Zaka). It was an obligation and if you were a ruler who has a lot of money what you could do is be really charitable and set up a nice hospital like The Nur Al-Din hospital in Damascus.

And within this hospital Islam actively encouraged a degree of religious tolerance. Something we take for granted in the modern secular society.

Dr. Peter Pormann/University of Warwick: The Nur Al-Din hospital in Damascus was open for all societies and so you would have Christians, Jews and Muslims obviously. They were all patients and also practitioners. Muslims would teach and the opposite with Christians and jews would happen so the medicine what was practiced here transcended the religion.

As a result of the translation movement Muslim, Christian and jews physicians became aware of the latest remedies as far away as India and China. And as the new drugs filtered in from the rest of the world, hospitals started to set up a new kind of facility within their walls which was the pharmacy. So is this notion of a pharmacy  in a hospital new?

Dr. Peter Pormann/University of Warwick: The whole package is new and what is interesting is if you look for innovation on the level of pharmacy and if you look at Bagdad and even Damascus it shows a crossword of cultures and lots of things and drugs such Indian drugs would come in.

The most goulash aspect of Islamic medicine was surgery. Eye surgery was for example one of Islamic medicine great successes. One innovation was to improve an older technique for curing cataract called “Couging” which in their hand had a success rate of 60%. 

Looking back at medieval Islamic medicine with modern scientific eyes is frustrating. They take truth to many things we know its nonsense. But on the other hand their desire to deal with this vast subject logically and systematically is truly admirable and truly marks a break with the past.

One Islamic scholar more than other embodies the synthesis of religion, faith and reason. His name was Ibn Sina or Abu Sana as he’s known in the west. He was a polymath who clearly thrives in intellectually and courtly circles. 

In 1025 he completed this: "The Canon of Medicine". In this book Ibn Sina collated and expanded on all what have gone before him. Medical ideas from Greece to India and turned them into a single work.  


Dr. Peter Pormann/University of Warwick: How do you place this book into historical context? This book is very important. What this encyclopedia does is it sort of swipes away everything else and it becomes textbook which supersedes a lot of other text. People often complain that this book so good and so tightly organized and so easily accessible that people forgot to read the Greek sources in Arabic translation.

In this book Ibn Sina collated and expanded on all what have gone before him. Medical ideas from Greece to India and turned them into a single work.  

At first sight the sheer ambition of the three volumes of the book is impressive. In the book Ibn Sina attempts to describe diagnoses and cures for diseases as diverse as depression, meningitis and small pokes.

Dr. Peter Pormann/University of Warwick: This book was obviously not nonsense and taken seriously. The fundamental ideas contained in this book about how the body works haven’t changed until the early 19th century. There were progress off course on certain levels but the essence was the same. And then came the big break with the discovery of bacteria, viruses and things like that. But from the 2nd till the 9th century and on medicine was totally revolutionized. 

Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine is a landmark in the history of the subject. Although much of the medical science it describes we know to be terribly misguided, its value lays in accumulating the best knowledge in the world at the time into one accessible organized text. The book would give future generation something to rewrite.

Cataloging the worlds medical knowledge has clear and obvious benefits. But the Islamic empire obsession to uncover the knowledge of the ancient went beyond practical knowledge like medicine. Many like the caliph Al-Ma'mun believed that the people of antiquity posses dark and even magical power. And once more new evidence come to light to show just how hard Islamic scientists work to re-discover them.

Islamic translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs 

The translation movement took the Arabs to Egypt on a quest to break a code which they thought hit the secrets of the dark art of alchemy. Saqqara a graveyard of the ancient farao’s was built in the 13 millennium before Christ. These are said to be among the oldest stone buildings in the world. Most believed that Egyptian hieroglyphs had remained completely undeciphered till the 19th century. Then came to discovery of the famous rosseta stone.


This stone had the same inscription written in both hieroglyphs and Greek. It provided the crucial clues which British and French scholars used to decipher the writings of ancient Egypt.

That is usual the story one hears. But Dr. El Daly has made a discovery that dramatically alters it. Dr. El Daly recently unearthed a number of rare works by the Islamic scholar Ibn Washiyya. What he did is figure out a corresponds between hieroglyphs and letters in the Arabic alphabet.    

Dr. Okasha El Daly/Foundation of Science, Technology & Civilisation:
The one good thing about the early Arab scholars was their ability to link ancient Egyptian language hieroglyphs into their own contemporary Coptic. They realize that Coptic was nothing but the later stage of ancient Egyptian language.  

The Islam Arab scholars realize this because the translation movement has literally placed hundreds of coptics text into their hands. The scholars could now see a direct link between hieroglyphs and Arabic.   

Dr. Okasha El Daly/Foundation of Science, Technology & Civilisation: The Islami Arab scholars got 14 letters correctly which was half of the hieroglyphs correctly. So that was a remarkable achievement in 9th and 10th century.

This shows that Egyptology didn’t start in the 19th century but yet again it seems that Islamic scholars actually cracked hieroglyphs and they cracked it for strange reasons. They cracked it because they were interested in astrology and alchemy. This is another example of this amazing translation movement. The Islamic scholars weren’t only translating Greek, Indian or Persian text but they were also translating Egyptian hieroglyphs as well which was absolutely incredible!

Unfortunately for caliph Al-Ma'mun the hieroglyphs contained no alchemical secrets. But what this story reveals is the insatiable curiosity Islamic scholars had about the world. They were desperate to absorb knowledge from all cultures purely on merit with no qualms about the places or religion from which it came.    

Professor Simon Schaffer/University of Cambridge: Most intellectual traditions including if I may say so our own (British) tend to work very hard to keep everybody else out! Whereas here we have an example of an enterprise (Islamic empire) which is desperate curious to turn itself into a importer of intellectual product. That is a very important lesson in the history of sciences.

Capital of the Islamic Empire 

This fueled dramatically scientific innovation. But it is also worth remembering that the Islamic scientific movement wasn´t just about science and medicine. As the capital Bagdad set in the centre of a vast successful empire, it became home to a extraordinary flourishing of all kinds of culture. This is a time described by 1001 nights of great and generous caliph´s, magic carpets and great journey´s. But also ambitious buildings, music, dance, storytellers and the arts. Bagdad was such a cultured and vibrant city that one traveler at the time wrote:

“There is none more learned than their scholars, better informed than their traditionalists, more perspicuous than their grammarians, more accurate than their readers, more skillful than their physicians, more melodious than their singers, more delicate than their craftsmen, more literate than their scribes, more lucid than their logicians, more devoted than their worshipers, more pious than their ascetics, more juridical than their judges, more eloquent than their preachers, more poetic than their poets, and more reckless than their rakes”.


It really must have felt that Bagdad and the Arabic empire were the world leaders in civilization and culture. To be part of that city growing intellectual elite must have been as exciting as it gets.   

Dr. Amira Bennison/University of Cambridge: It was a incredible city and it only started to be built in 756 ad. It was full of rich individuals who were trying to make their way at the top of it. So it has that sort of sense of almost being on a frontier of being something new of being different. It was a place where innovation was valued and appreciated.

At the heart of the cities intellectual life was a system called “The Majlis” and this word could probably best be translated as salon or talking house.


In 9th century Bagdad what this meant was that the city’s elite the caliphs and his courtiers, his generals and aristocracy would hold regular meetings. You might call them seminar discussions during which the city’s cleverest men the philosophers theologians, astronomers and additions would gather to discuss and debate their ideas.

Dr. Amira Bennison/University of Cambridge: It was not the case where people expected to adhere to a particular line or adopted a particular religion. They were allowed to express their own sentiments and their own views very freely. The point was that they should do so in elegant Arabic and a good logical reasoning.

The effect of “The Majlis” was to create a heady mix of money and brains with the best minds in the empire swapping ideas while simultaneously engaged in fierce competition for patronage. 

Out of the very heart of this intellectual whirlwind came the great mathematician, astronomer and courtier and favorite of the caliphs Al-Mamoun…..Al-Khwarizmi who brought the west the decimal system. Al-Khwarizmi was a product of his age and émigré from Eastern Persia into Bagdad surrounded by books well-versed in learning from Greece, Persia, India and China and he was fearless in his thinking.

Al-Khwarizmi and Algebra 

Al-Khwarizmi brought together two very different mathematical traditions and synthesized them into something new.

Professor Simon Schaffer/University of Cambridge: The capacity to have own your desk simultaneously two very different kinds of mathematics presses on models what counts calculation and what counts measurement and I think accelerate the process of intellectual change.     

The first of these traditions came from the Greek-speaking world. Greek mathematics dealt mainly with Geometry the science of shapes like triangles, circles and polygons. And how to calculate areas and volume. 

The other great mathematical tradition Arabs inheritage came from India. They invented the ten symbol decimal system which made calculating much simpler. 


Thanks to the translation movement Al-Khwarizmi was in a astonishing lucky position of having access to both Greek and Indian mathematical traditions. Therefore he was able to combine geometrical intuition with arithmetic precision. Greek pictures and Indian symbols inspiring a new form of mathematical thinking that today we call algebra. 




Professor Ian/University of Warwick: The work of Al-Khwarizmi was revolutionary. He made it possible for Algebra to exsist as a subject in its own right rather than as a technique for finding numbers. Its just this beautiful general series of principles. And if you understand those then you really understand Algebra.

What is the true importance of Algebra? Its been used throughout the ages to solve all kind of problems. Let the massive of the canon ball be (M) and let the distance it has to travel be (D). Use algebra to work out the optimal angle you have to put your canon. That sort of knowledge wins wars!

Or lets call the speed of light (C) the change of in Massillon atomic nucleus (M) and then calculate the energy release with the following algebraic formula E=MC2. Mastery of that information truly is power!   

Algebra has helped create the modern world and our science is unimaginable without it! This sums up so much that was remarkable about medieval Islamic science. Taking ideas from Greece and India combining and enhancing them. Similarly modern medicine owes a considerable debts to the work of the Islamic physicians.

But the real story of what happened to science in the Islamic world in the 8th and 9th centuries tells us more than  any single discovery. What it really tells us is about the universal truth of science itself. The real great achievement of the medieval Islamic scientists was to prove that isn’t Islamic or Hindi or hedonistic or jewish, Buddhist or Christian. It cannot be claimed by any other culture. Before Islam science was spread across the world but the scholars of medieval Islam pieced together this giant scientific jigsaw by absorbing knowledge that had originated from far beyond their own Empire’s borders.

This great synthesis is produced not just new science, but showed for the first time that science as an enterprise transcends political borders and religious affiliations. It is a body of knowledge that benefit all humans. Now that an idea which is relevant and as inspiring as ever!!