Ten greatest minds in Islamic Golden Age

Islamic festival Eid Mubarak crescent moon religious background

Written by Jem Duducu

From the 8th century CE, while Europe descended into the Dark Ages, the Islamic world excelled at philosophy, science and mathematics. Known as the Islamic Golden Age, this era coincided with the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled most of the Muslim world from Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, from 750 to 1258. Centrally located between Europe and Asia, Baghdad became a hub for trade and the exchanging of brilliant ideas. The city’s scholars translated Ancient Greek and Roman writers into Arabic, as well as texts from Persia, India and China. However, rather than simply preserving or imitating these great works, Islamic thinkers expanded on them, making incredible advances and spreading this knowledge throughout the Muslim world – all the way from modern-day Pakistan to Moorish Spain.

The Islamic Golden Age gave US many concepts that we take for granted today. For example, most mathematical and scientific words beginning with ‘al’ indicate an Islamic origin, so algebra, the star Algol and chemical compounds like alkali and – perhaps surprisingly, considering it is generally considered haram (‘forbidden’) for Muslims – alcohol. Even the way we count is thanks to Muslim mathematicians. The Romans had no value or symbol for 0; this was invented in India and spread west by Islamic mathematicians. The English word ‘zero’ also comes from the Arabic ‘sifr’ (from which we also get the word ‘cipher’).

The Golden Age was brought to an end after 500 years by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu Khan. The Mongol sacked Baghdad, killed the Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim and burned down the city’s great library and scientific buildings. However, much of the knowledge of this era survived in the wider Islamic culture. From the 11th century, Moorish scholars began translating much of this work from Arabic into Latin so Europeans could understand it. Here, we celebrate ten intellectuals whose impact on the world is still being felt 1,000 years later.

Abu Bakr – The caliph who commissioned the Qur’an

Also known as al-Siddĩq, Abu Bakr was the Prophet Muhammad’s trusted companion. After the founder of Islam’s death, Abu Bakr was appointed the first caliph – the chief Muslim civil and religious ruler. During his brief reign from 632-34, he suppressed tribal politics and religious uprisings to bring central Arabia under Muslim control. Under his rule the Muslim conquests of Iraq and Syria began, but his greatest contribution to Islam far exceeds territorial gains.

As the Prophet dies, Abu Bakr (in blue bending over him) mourns for his friend

Most non-Muslims don’t realise that the Prophet Muhammad did not write the Qur’an. The story of its revelation is that when the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic and yes, the same one from the Bible) visited the Prophet, Muhammad had to memorise what he was told. In turn, Muhammad relayed the holy word to crowds, and his followers were also expected to commit the knowledge to memory. However, Abũ Bakr understood that his empire was far too large to spread the word of the Prophet through oral tradition alone. Worse still, the death of several Qur’an reciters at the Battle of Yamama risked parts of the sacred scripture being lost entirely. As a result Abu Bakr had Muhammad’s revelations formally written down and codified shortly before he died, producing the cornerstone of Arabic literature.

Abu al-Qasim (936-1013) – The greatest surgeon of the Middle Ages

Al-Qãsim lived in Al-Andalus, a region that today is central and southern Spain. It is a reminder of how far-reaching the Islamic caliphate was. It was here that al-Qãsim practised new forms of medicine and his findings are preserved in his masterwork, Kitab al-Tasrif, a 30-volume encyclopaedia of medical information, experiments and practices.

Al-Qasim once hung meat in different parts of town to see where germs spread

Al-Qăsim was not only the first to observe that haemophilia was hereditary (along with other breakthroughs in medicine), but he also designed new surgical instruments, including ones to remove debris from the ear and nose and another to inspect the interior of the urethra and remove kidney stones.

A Latin version of al-Qasim's work

At a time when head wounds were left to self-heal or degenerate, al-Qãsim was interested in treating them. One of his most impressive feats was to remove fluid from the brain with no resulting infection, a challenge even to modern doctors. His practices were concurrent with the time in Anglo-Saxon England when bloodletting was common and, if the patient bled too much, the wound might even be blocked with horse-dung.

That’s not to say everything he wrote would make medical sense now. In the Kitab al-Tasrif there’s a section about cosmetics and makeup, which allegedly argues (in his own words) that these are the “medicine of beauty”.

Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815)

This Persian alchemist put experimentation at the heart of research

Jabir was an inventor as well as a chemist

The Persian polymath Abũ Mũsã Jabir ibn Hayyãn has nearly 3,000 treatises, texts and articles credited to him, on topics ranging from music and medicine to grammar and geometry. This is a suspiciously large body of work, and some modern scholars think only about half of those accredited to him are actually his. Even so, it’s a sign of Jabir’s influence and standing that these other works were assumed to be his as well.

Jabir is regarded as the father of Arabic chemistry, in which he showed surprising scientific rigor. Jabir invented over 20 types of laboratory equipment (including the alembic and retort), described specific processes to distil wine and sulphuric acid, and began classifying elements into different categories, arguably foreshadowing the periodic table. Most significantly of all, he emphasised the importance of experimentation in his scientific research.

Geber was a character who may have been based on Jabir

After Jabir’s death, a mutilated version of his work was published in Europe under the Latinised name of Geber. Called the Summa Perfectionis Magisterii (The Sum of Perfection), the book became the most famous book on alchemy of the Middle Ages. While Jabir certainly tried to find the philosopher’s stone – a mythic compound that could bestow eternal life – the father of Arabic chemistry was in another league to the many mystics and charlatans that have invoked his name ever since.

Al-Khwarizmi (780-850)

The mathematician who reached for the stars

Al-Khwarizmi would have used tools like this astrolable for tracing the path of the stars

Around 820 CE, Muhammad ibn Mũsã al-Khwãrizmĩ was appointed as the astronomer and head of the Library of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. It was the equivalent nowadays of receiving both the Nobel Prizes for Literature and Physics at the same time. However, it is his book The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing that elevates his status to the likes of Euclid in terms of mathematical prowess. In it he presents a systematic solution to linear and quadratic equations, the first person to do so. It was the power of Arabic numbers rather than Latin numerals that allowed far more complex mathematics to develop, which helped in the study of other areas of science. Another of his texts, Astronomical Tables, proved to be a turning point in Islamic astronomy. Prior to Al-Khwarizmi, Muslim astronomers had only translated the works of others, but now they made their own discoveries.

Al—Farabi (780-950)

This scholar was a great preserver, but only the ‘second teacher’

Al Farabi dabbled in science and was one of the greatest minds of his day

The writings of the Romans and Greeks were not preserved in Latin by the church and then rediscovered in the Renaissance. In reality, many of these masterworks of philosophy, mathematics and science were translated by Muslim scholars and spread throughout the land. The European translations were actually from the Arabic, not from the original Greek and Latin.

One of the most prolific of these Arabic scholars was Al-Farabi, also known as Alpharabius and Avennasar in the West. Not only did he translate texts, he wrote treatises on them, often building on concepts, most notably Aristotle’s. He could even be said to be a Neo-Platonist. He wrote philosophical treaties in the East at a time when intellectual activities in the West consisted largely of copying of the Gospels.

To learned Islamic scholars, Aristotle was referred to as the ‘first teacher’, such was the standing of this pagan thinker in the Muslim world. As a result of his work based on Aristotle’s concepts, Al-Fãrãbi was nicknamed ‘the second teacher’.

Al—Khalil ibn Ahmad (718-786)

The author of the first Arabic dictionary

Al-Khalil was a man who studied the Arabic language and was instrumental in standardising it. This is important, because while Latin was the lingua franca of Medieval Europe, Arabic was the common tongue of the Middle East. But regional variations were widespread, which could cause confusion. Full name Abũ ‘Abd al-Rahmãn al-Khalĩl ibn Ahmad al-Farãhĩdĩ al-Azdi, the philologist’s work resulted in the first Arab language dictionary (possibly the first dictionary ever) about 1,000 years before Samuel Johnson wrote his famous compendium of English. Al-Khalil’s rhythms and rules have since set the standard for the pace of the Arabic language and of Arabic poetry too.

AI-KhalTI was so important to regulating the language that he became a household name across the Arab world in his own lifetime. However, he had other talents and was well versed in astronomy, mathematics, Islamic law and musical composition. He also wrote a book on cryptography, the study of codes and ciphers. Encryption had been used to hide the meaning of messages since the time of the Ancient Greeks, but it may have been thanks to ‘modern’ Islamic mathematics and numbers that codes were able to make a leap forwards in terms of complexity. It is small wonder then that Al-Khalil is widely regarded as the outstanding genius of the Muslim world.

Lubna of Cordoba (10th century)

The genius slave girl

Lubna of Córdoba had it very tough. As a slave living in Al-Andalus, she was probably a non-Muslim because the Qur’an forbids making slaves of Muslims. While it was standard practice to have slaves convert to Islam, making it a bit of a hypocritical situation, nobody seemed to notice for about 1,000 years. On top of her lowly status as a slave, being a woman meant she had far fewer rights than her male counterparts. So with this incredibly harsh start in life, it is amazing that she became Caliph Al-Hakam H’s poet, scribe and secretary. She could only have achieved this with self-taught reading and writing skills because slave girls didn’t receive schooling.

Lubna’s first love was always books and learning, which led to her role as the head of the Royal Library of Cordoba, one of the largest libraries in the world at that time. By ensuring a regular supply of new acquisitions, the library had around half a million texts, books and manuscripts when she died. According to a contemporary scholar, “There were none in the Umayyad palace as noble as her.” Little more is known about her.

Avicenna (980-1037)

The prolific Persian polymath

Ibn Sĩnã, or Avicenna as he’s known in the West, was a physician, astronomer and writer. In his lifetime he is thought to have written around 450 works, of which about 240 have survived. In his philosophical pursuits Avicenna pondered the biggest question: what is the nature of our being? He broke this down between essence (Mahiat) and existence (Wujud). In his search for truth he quotes Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, which led to criticism from some quarters about his reliance on non-Muslim thinkers. He ignored their grumbles.

Then there is his rather misleadingly titled text, The Book of Healing, which has nothing to do with medicine. Divided into four parts, it covers logic, natural sciences, mathematics (including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) and metaphysics. Nonetheless, Avicenna is best remembered as a physician. He wrote a five-volume medical encyclopaedia called The Canon of Medicine, which suggested a concept of germ theory about 1,000 years before it became accepted by the medical establishment. The book became a standard text in the Islamic world and Europe up to the 18th century.

Ibn Battuta (1304-1368)

The explorer with the world at his feet

When it comes to great explorers, Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus come to mind, but both of these men’s travels pale in comparison to the life of Ibn Battuta. His years of travel were summarised in his book A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling. In it he describes how he got the travel bug on his pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca when he travelled from Morocco to modern-day Saudi Arabia, a trip that should have lasted about a year and a half. He would not return home for a quarter of a century.

After completing his pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta toured Egypt then the Middle East, seeing Baghdad when it was still a shadow of its former self following its destruction at the hands of the Mongols some 70 years earlier (this event is often seen as the end of the Islamic Golden Age). From there he continued eastwards through Persia, eventually reaching China. He also visited the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and the African Horn. Later in life he went west into Spain. It is estimated he travelled about 75,000 miles in his lifetime.

Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040)

The scientist who had a keen eye for detail

Ibn al-Haytham’s fields were mathematics, astronomy and physics. He believed that a hypothesis must be proved by observable results from experiments based on confirmable procedures and/or mathematical evidence. This is exactly how science works and is now simply called the ‘scientific method’, but Ibn alHaytham identified it about 500 years before Renaissance scientists.

Another hugely influential work is his huge treatise on optics, kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics). At the time there were two different theories about how light and the eye worked. He showed through experiment that light travels in straight lines and that the eye works with light falling on it. He also invented a type of camera obscura, the theory of which already existed in China but had yet to reach Europe.

Ibn al-Haytham also wrote a book titled Doubts about Ptolemy, which was a scientific dissection and rebuttal of some of his works. Ibn al-Haytham was peer reviewing, carrying out scientific methods and learning from observations. It’s hard not to argue that he was the world’s first proper scientist.

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