Transfer of Islamic Technology to the West

Technology is the tool of civilization, and for Islamic civilization to have been such a leading force in the world for several centuries, it must have been based on important technological achievements.

The blossoming of science and culture in Islamic civilization was the result of the increasing quality of material life in its cities. The material prosperity, the varied local industries, the local and international trade, and the flourishing science and culture, in these cities, were all linked together, and would have been impossible without a developing technology.

If Islam was the force behind the rise of cities, as is frequently asserted, then it was also the force behind all aspects of the prosperity of these cities and hence the technological efforts associated with it.

In addition to the positive effects of the ideology of Islam as a religion, Islam achieved a unique effect in the history of mankind. It united the civilizations and populations of the vast expanse of territory which lies between the borders of China and the Atlantic. This area comprised the lands of those ancient civilizations which were also the seat of later civilizations in the Near East, such as the Hellenistic. It remained under one government during the first centuries of Islam.

Moreover, even after the rise of various dynasties, the region benefited from the cultural unity Islam provided. Islam abolished the barriers which had isolated these countries from each other, so that the whole area now had one religious tradition and one literary and scientific language. The cultural unity also ensured free passage and free trade from China in the east to Spain in the west.

Scientists and men of letters were free to travel, and crossed vast distances to meet other scholars. Moreover, although the Umayyads in Spain did not acknowledge the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, there always exited links between Spain and the Eastern territories under Islamic rule.

Transfer of Technology

The traditional view of Western historians is that European culture is the direct descendant of the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. According to this theory, the works of classical authors–mostly in Latin, but some in Greek–were preserved by the Church during the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, to re-emerge as a potent source of inspiration in the later middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Few would deny the strong influence of classical literature on European thought. Until recently, the works of Homer, Thucydides and the Greek dramatists, of Tacitus, Virgil and Horace, to name but a few, were part of the cultural background of every educated European.

In science, however, the situation is very different. During the sixth century after the Hijrah (twelfth century CE) the writings of such scholars as al-Farabi, al-Ghazali, al-Farghani (Afragamus), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) were translated into Latin, and became known and were esteemed in the West.

The works of Aristotle, soon to become the predominant influence on European thought, were translated from the Arabic together with the commentaries of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd to the medieval Europeans. These commentaries were as important as the works of Aristotle himself in forming European scientific and philosophical thought. Many other scientific works, which had originally been translated from Greek into Arabic centuries earlier, were now translated into Latin. However, most of these were from the Hellenistic period, and though they were written in Greek, their authors came from all the countries of the Near East and eastern Mediterranean.

It seems, therefore, that some European writers, being deeply appreciative of the literary masterpieces of Greece and Rome, have been led to believe that Western civilization, in all its aspects, was based upon Greek and Roman foundations. This is not the case with science and technology.

The British historian of science, technology, and medicine Charles Singer has discussed some of the points already touched upon. The Greco-Roman heritage was built upon the great civilizations of the Near East and, furthermore, the major achievements in science and technology that are called Hellenistic and Roman were mainly Near Eastern achievements due to the scholars and artisans of Egypt and Syria.

The pre-Islamic civilizations from Spain to Central Asia and northern India were inherited by Islam. Under the influence of Islam and the Arabic language, the science and technology of these regions was developed and improved. Referring to the Eurocentrism of Western historians, Singer wrote: “Europe, however, is but a small peninsula extending from the great land masses of Afrasia. This is indeed its geographical status and this, until at least the thirteenth century CE, was generally also its technological status.” In skill and inventiveness during most of the period CE 500 to 1500, Singer continues: “the Near East was superior to the West… For nearly all branches of technology the best products available to the West were those of the Near East… Technologically, the West had little to bring to the East. The technological movement was in the other direction.” (see S. Charles, et al., A History of Technology, 8 vols, Oxford, 1954).

We shall now indicate how this technology transfer occurred, and give some examples of the transfer of ideas and techniques from Islam to the West. The adoption by Europe of Islamic techniques is reflected by the many words of Arabic derivation that have passed into the vocabularies of European languages. In English these words have often, but not always, entered the language from Italian or Spanish. To cite but a few examples: in textiles–muslin, sarsanet, damask, taffeta, tabby; in naval matters–arsenal, admiral; in chemical technology–alembic, alcohol, alkali; in paper–ream; in foodstuffs–alfalfa, sugar, syrup, sherbet; in dyestuffs–saffron, kermes; in leather-working–Cordovan and Morocco.

As one would expect, Spanish is particularly rich in words of Arabic origin, especially in connection with agriculture and irrigation. We have, for example, tahona for a mill, acena for a mill or water-wheel, acequia for an irrigation canal. Many Arabic works on scientific subjects were translated into Latin in the later middle Ages. The translation bureau in Toledo in the twelfth century CE, where hundreds of such works were rendered into Latin, is a notable example of this activity.

There was, unfortunately, nothing comparable in the field of technology, in which direct translations from Arabic were extremely rare. About CE 1277, in the court of Alfonso X of Castile, a work in Spanish entitled Li-bros del Saber de Astronomia was compiled under the direction of the King, with the declared objective of making Arabic knowledge available to Spanish readers. It includes a section on time keeping, which contains a weight-driven clock with a mercury escapement.

We know from other sources that such clocks were constructed by Muslims in Spain in the eleventh century, that is about 250 years before the eight-driven clock appeared in northern Europe. About CE 1277 the secrets of Syrian glass-making were communicated to Venice under the terms of a treaty made between Bohemond VII, titular prince of Antioch, and the Doge. Such direct examples of technology transfer are still comparatively rare but more will undoubtedly come to light as research proceeds. For the moment, we can indicate several points in space and time where the exchange of ideas took place. Relations between Christian Europe and the Islamic world were not always hostile.

Muslim rulers were often enlightened men and tolerant towards their Christian subjects, an attitude enjoined upon them by the precepts of the Quran. Furthermore, commercial considerations led to the establishment of communities of European merchants settled in Byzantium, where they made contact with Swedish traders traveling down the Dnieper. There were particularly close commercial ties between Fatimid Egypt and the Italian town of Amalfi in the fourth and fifth centuries AH (tenth and eleventh centuries CE). The ogival arch, an essential element of Gothic architecture, entered Europe through Amalfi–the first church to incorporate such arches being built at Monte Casino in CE 1071.

Some historians think that the influence of the Crusades on European culture has probably been exaggerated, but transmission certainly occurred, as we have seen in the case of Syrian glass-making. Certainly, however, the mast fruitful exchanges took place in the Iberian Peninsula, where over many centuries the generally tolerant rule of the Umayyad caliphs and their successors permitted friendly relationships between Muslims and Christians. Muslim operations in agriculture, irrigation, hydraulic engineering, and manufacture were an integral part of everyday life in the southern half of the peninsula, and passed from Spain into Italy and northern Europe. These transmissions were not checked by the Reconquista.

Indeed, they were probably accelerated, since the Christians took over the Muslim installations and maintained them in running order in the ensuing centuries. The Muslim irrigation systems with their associated hydraulic works and water-raising machines remained as the basis for Spanish agriculture and were in due course transferred to the New World. Other installations passed into Christian hands. Industrial plants, such as the paper mill at Jativa near Valencia, were taken over. Two large water-clocks on the banks of the Tagus at Toledo were found by the Christians where they continued in operation for at least fifty years. These few examples must suffice as indicators of the passage of Muslim ideas into Europe.


The contributions of Islamic civilizations to science, notably mathematics and astronomy, have long been recognized. The application of this scientific expertise to technology, however, has been neglected. The story of Islamic technology is far from complete. Research in this area is still at an early stage and, notwithstanding what has been published so far, contributions by Islam to science and technology have yet to be fully revealed.

During the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries, Western research into Islamic science yielded outstanding results, but only after a long period of silence has that interest now been revived. There is still a need for additional coordinated research if significant results are to be obtained. The field of alchemy/chemistry and chemical technology is a case in point. At present this is an almost totally neglected area in which few seem to have taken even a slight interest since the admirable research several decades ago of Kraus, Ruska, Stapleton and Wiedemann.