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History of Islamic Contributions to Science

In the book, “Medicine: A History of Healing,” Ray Porter writes, “Arabic medicine contributed little to the treasures of Greece and Rome.” However, in an article on Islamic plant medicine found in “Herbs for Health Magazine,” David Tschanz writes, “In the middle of the seventh century, Europe was mired in stagnation… For Europe, it was the dark ages. But while Europe lost, then forgot its intellectual heritage, a new force emerged from the Arabian Peninsula.”

So which is true? This new section will bring to light the truth of the second statement and illustrate how the Arabophon world has saved many scientific and medical discoveries as well as improving upon them.

Visitors to the Islamic Museum in Cairo are always astounded at the geographical tools, resources and maps they find, many of which date back to times long before we supposedly discovered that the earth was round. These materials are a tribute to the significant contribution that Islam has made to the field of geography.

While many Muslims actually made significant geographical discoveries, perhaps their most valuable contribution lies in the fact that they shared their knowledge with the West; thus influencing too the dispersal of world knowledge about Islam.

One of the key figures in this sharing of knowledge was the Moroccan geographer, Abu Abdallah Al-Idrisi. However, before him, a long line of Muslim explorers left their marks on the world.

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The earliest Islamic geographical works still available today date back to the 9th century during the rule of Ma’mun. A map of the world was actually drawn during this period that is said to be more accurate than that of Ptolemy, the Western expert of the time.

During the 10th and 11th centuries, the work of Muslim geographers took on more of an Islamic flavor, focusing on Islamic lands and often making Mecca the center of the world.

However, as Muslims traveled more and more for trade, increasingly accurate maps were drawn that started with China or India and continued to expand.

It was about this time that Muslims realized that many existing maps, collected during their travels and contact with the Greeks and Persians, were inaccurate.

Indeed, cooperation and integration with other cultural and religious groups are a part of the great legacies left by early Muslims. While people of other religions and cultures were largely suspicious of outsiders, Muslims during these eras had a great tolerance for people of other religions whom the Qur’an had told them were also “people of the book.”

They were not scared to mix with non-Muslims, considering them as potential converts to Islam and kindred spirits amongst Allah’s Creation (The History of God by Karen Armstrong).

The Prophet’s (SAW) teachings also encouraged Muslims to “seek knowledge even if it be in China,” and the Qur’an itself created an environment in which science and religion could merge and not be at odds.

In addition, the unified structure of the Islamic world and the Hajj, which enables pilgrims from all over the Islamic world to gather, facilitated the exchange of ideas between diverse groups.

Abu Abdallah Al-Idrisi provided an ultimate example of how this kind of openness and cooperation can result in great works. His world map was based upon Islamic and Hellenistic sources and is said to “mark the apogee of Islamic geography in this domain” (Islamic Science by Sayyed Hussein Nasr).

The map was actually not even created for the Muslim world; it was a part of a geographical encyclopedia called The Book of Roger created for King Roger II in Sicily who was a Christian, and was accompanied by a 400-pound silver globe on which was drawn, in great accuracy, the entire earth and all its measurements.

Although some of the more extreme Muslims of the time rejected him as a “renegade who worked in the Christian court,” the titles of many of his works reflect his deep influence by Islam.

The Book of Roger, his first work, was also called Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq (The delight of him who desires to journey through the climates) and his second book was called Rawd-Unnas wa-Nuzhat al-Nafs (Pleasure of men and delight of souls).

Al-Idrisi also made major contributions to the field of medicine by writing several revised compilations of historical herbals from around the world such as the Kitab al-Jami-li-Sifat Ashtat al-Nabatat. Through them, the evaluation of a large number of plants became available to medical practitioners.

Al-Idrisi even listed the names of the plants/medicines in six languages: Syriac, Greek, Persian, Hindi, Latin, and Berber.

This article was first published in 2008 and is currently republished for its importance.