Ahmed Djebbar photo by Younes Boudiaf

The Dicsoveries in Islamic Countries by Ahmed Djebbar

From the middle of the VIII century to the end of the XVI, a new scientific tradition emerged then it was developed in numerous towns and the immense territory conquered in the name of Islam between 632 and 751. It was from this double heritage, as shown in the sphere of past civilisations, that the new learned persons began to form themselves.

The first heritage regrouped the savoir-faire, often ingenious, that were practised and transmitted, orally and on initiation in the world of corporations, particular professions or activities. This was the case of the knowledgeable who dealt with generally, by commodity, to be classed in the following groups: military or civil technology (water based systems, automations), chemistry (treatment of glass and colours, cosmetics, metal works), administration and calculations for transactions, geometry, land surveying and decoration etc. The comparative study of these methods and techniques reveals the diversity of their origins and their links with different cultures in which they occurred.

The second heritage comprises of the theories or applications of knowledge which have been preserved and circulated in writings. They were produced generally in Greece, India, Persia, Mesopotamia and to a lesser extent the Iberian peninsula. The results of their enquiries have not been the same all over: a great part of Greek sciences were hypothetically deduced, those of India, Persia and Mesopotamia were due to algorithmic and experimental methods.

This diversity had the same goal, that of establishing the results and making tools, characteristic of the first scientific footsteps in Islamic countries were disparate elements of knowledge coming from diverse cultural horizons, having firstly been juxtaposed before making the object arising from a prolific amount of suggestions and giving a unified expression across the Arab world. It is also from the IX century, that a network of scientific establishments were set up, in towns such as Baghdad and Damascus at the centre of the Empire, Samark and in central Asia, Kairouan au Maghreb abd Cordoba in the Iberian peninsular. From the end of the X century, its centres would come together with others, all just as dynamic, such as Rayy in Iran, Cairo in Egypt and, a little later, Toledo, Saragossa and Marrakech in the Muslim East. It is important to remember that, in all these centres, science was practised in the same fashion, according to a norm that you could describe as “universal”, that is to say did not depend on any specific denomination, ethnic or cultural identity, apart from the unity of the language of expression, that we have already evoked, and that is the only justification for the mode of expression of “Arabic science” to design this together in practice.

After a period of more than a century where this was known, from the first heritage, which was to work in different sectors of activity in the Islamic city, the need to access the contents of the second heritage, starting by formulating and improving some of the first translations, which were financed by the caliphs and other high persons of the State. But, from the end of the IX century, these initiatives experienced a great amplification –right through to the middle of the X century- carried by civil members of the society not necessarily belonging to the courts of caliphs and princes. As this society was cosmopolitan, multi-denominational and multi-cultural, it is not surprising that this long-time activity of translation reflecting its diversity (even if the Arabic libraries note the strong participation of the Christian communities increasingly in the activity of translation). It must, finally, be added, about this phenomenon, that its duration is explained by the development, in certain groups of society, of a real demand. The member of these groups were generally less well off than the patron caliphs but relatively more numerous. Amongst them, it is interesting to note the presence of eminent scientists such as al-Kindi (died circa 873) and the brothers Banû Mûsâ (IX century).

These translations concern all the scientific and technical domains as were practised in the previous civilisations: astronomy and Indian medicine written in Sanskrit or Persian writings in pehlevi, texts in Latin dealing with astrology and medicine, treatises of nabatéen agriculture. . . To this modest amount, you must add, much more importantly, produced within the framework of Greek scientific and philosophical tradition since the V century B.C. It is this material, which after translation, has added to or impregnated all the disciplines practised in Islamic countries, even those who have originated contributions to the new civilisation. There was, in the first place, mathematicians, with their different orientations, which were designed from the end of the III century: numerical theories with Pythagoras and Nikomacheia, plane and cubic geometry of Euclid, conic geometry with Apollonius, and geometry of measurement with Archimedes. In close relation with his disciples, he also studied astronomy, (models of planets, astronomical tables, instruments for measuring) and physics (statics, hydrodynamics, optics). At the time there was all the sciences as one considered them as not Arts; Greek heritage: medicine (physiology, anatomy, pharmacopaeia), mechanics (ludic or utilitory) chemistry (experimental or esoteric), botany, zoology, agriculture, etc.

As the discoveries and innovations in this book unfold themselves, they are divided into six categories, it seems practical to describe them, briefly, the development of each one is placed in order to show its original contribution which is the object of this book to show the general development of the science to which they refer.

Mathematics started off in Islamic countries, from its practical aspects, which refer to the different economic needs (accounting, commercial transactions), justice (division of inheritances) and arts (architecture, decorations). Some ancient chapters have been reactivated, such as the procedures for mental calculation, the Indian arithmetical procedure based on the system of positional numbers (with the zero), geometry tools to make the architectural shapes and to copy the figures in two dimensional decorations. It is within this frame-work that they have valued and perfected the geometric steps and techniques (symmetry, rotations, calligraphy, and that of the mosaic).

The second great orientation of mathematics is purely theoretic in the sense where the researchers wanted to solve problems that their Greek predecessors had stumbled on or new problems that they had been set, or other sciences had asked them to solve. Sharing the results and the steps that were inherited from the Ancients, they started off by commenting on them, sometimes criticising them, then reflecting on the foundations of their discipline, to elaborate on the thesis, before developing them in new ways. Certain ones, as algebra and trigonometry, were extensions and enrichments of old practices. Others, as combination analysis and magic squares were suggested then favoured by a cultural context.

From the start, astronomy had the attention of the State. Certain caliphs not only financed the translations but also made certain orders to the leading astronomers: the compiling of calendars and geographical maps, the determination of the direction of Mecca, calculation of the times for everyday prayers. Always in response to the needs, this time in response to particular people (merchants, pilgrims, men of science), interest in ancient instruments (planispheric astrolabes, solar bodies) which were redressed and perfected, such as was described in the chapter “ from al-Khwârizmî to al-Zarqâlî, the astrolabe became the king of instruments”. Later, and in the scope of optimisation (lightening instruments) new instruments were invented (the universal astrolabe, sines).

But astronomy had had an important theoretical wing that one knew less and had perhaps constituted a decisive stage in the development of this discipline, even across some of its checks. In this domain, the work concerned the realisation of numerous astrological tables for all uses, the conception of models of new planets to replace those of Ptolemy which, which having reigned for centuries in astronomy were no longer considered as satisfactory. They even had, at the beginning of the XI century, in central Asia, discussions on the theory of the Earth’s rotation on its axis and that of its rotation around the sun. These hypothesises were finally abandoned, not for theological or philosophical reasons, but for reasons judged as scientific in their time.

In physics, and in an extension of Greek traditions, four disciplines were particularly developed: statics, dynamics, hydro-dynamics and optical. Three of the contributions as presented in this book illustrate the vitality of these domains: the scales of wisdom of al-Khâzinî (XII century), the theory of light of Ibn al-Haytham (died 1041) and the rainbow theory of al-Fârisî (died 1319). It is important to state that the contributions were not the end of the investigations that had started, for certain among them, at the start of the IX century. To take for example optics, the sources we learn first researched concerned mirrors, which interested first of all the military, because they could be used to start fires and so burn the fleets and fortresses of the enemy. Then there were the theoretical preoccupations on the technical aspects. Led by al-Kindî, Ibn Sahl (X century) and their two successors; these studies concerned the physiology of optics, the laws of reflection and refraction and certain light phenomena that can be seen in the sky.

Arab medicine, solidly anchored in the galénic medical tradition, seems to have had trouble to free itself from its ancient conceptions and convictions. But this did not impede the innovation in certain other domains. Its most significant contribution, by amplitude and duration, has been the setting up of a medical hospital, financed firstly by State representatives then by members of the society with the help of waqf (Assets belonging to the state that can’t be sold). Certain of these hospitals even had sections for the mentally ill. They also had advances in anatomy (knowledge of certain bones in the human body), in the diagnosis of certain illnesses, in the practice of surgical instrumentalisation, in particular with the contribution of Andalusian az-Zahrâwî (XI century), and in the elaboration of great medical synthesis, such as those of Ibn Sîna (Avicenne, died 1037) and of ar-Râzî (Rhazes, died 935), who directed medical teaching in Europe until XVIIth century. But it was in physiology, with the discovery of the small circulation of blood, which is described in the chapter “the discovery of pulmonary circulation by Ibn al-Nafîs”, that a new road was followed. Unfortunately, this was abandoned by the medical community of the era (XIII century) which stayed faithful to the Galien theory, confirmed by Avicenne.

In mechanics, it was in response to civil and military needs that the works of Héron of Alexandria, Archimedes, and Philon de Byzance were translated into Arabic. After having adapted and perhaps bettered their contents the Islamic countries’ mechanics set out to innovate, in particular automations and hydraulic systems. It is in this last domain that they updated and applied the conical valve, the camshaft, the piston and the crankshaft. Certain original ideas were already thought up in the book of the brothers Banû Mûsâ. But it was with al-Jazarî (died in 1206) that you hear the most numerous and significant innovations, as those that we presented here, in the chapter “the al-Jazari (hydraulic) water pump”.

Chemistry with medicine is the discipline, which, it appears, the best to survive the decline of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean. This explains its precocious reactivation in the sphere of the new civilisation. in effect, from the start of the VIII century, it has assisted with the constitution of a solid tradition in this domain with, as the undisputable animator, the famous Jâbir Ibn Hayyân (Geber), whose works together with those of his disciples, abound in original results. after them, different chemical practices were developed, such as calcination, sublimation, purification, and above all distillation, which had substantial progress, as is shown in the chapter “Introduction to Arab alchemy”. Always in the framework of the theory of the four elements inherited from the Greeks and refined by Jâbir, these works added to the description of substances not previously known about, the setting up of mineral acids and the elaboration of new classifications of analysed products. Among the scientists who have taken part in these advances are al-Kindî and Abû Bakr ar-Râzî.

One part of the contributions that we are going to present briefly has started to circulate, relatively quickly, outside the borders of Islamic countries, in particular towards Europe. The figures called “Arabic” and the astrolabe arrived in the south of Europe at the end of the X century. Some works of medicine published in Baghdad and at Kairouan have been transcribed in Latin by Constantine the African in the second half of the XI century. But you have to wait until the start of the XII century for this activity of translation (from Arabic to Latin and Hebrew) to grow. At Toledo and Palermo, where this phenomenon had its seat, dozens of young Europeans freshly ‘arabised’ were engaged in this with a passion, supported and financed by enlightened men of the church and, later, by the Castilian king Alphonse X the wise. Their work allowed access for men of science and practitioners to the rich inheritance in origin Greek, Indian and Arab cultivated and elaborated on in the Muslim world since the IX century. The assimilation of these rich contents opened the way to new investigations which were, in their turn, contributions to modern day science.

In conclusion, it remains for us to make a few remarks on the nature of the scientific activities of Islamic countries, in the sphere of which the discoveries presented here have been realised, and on the actual gateway of these discoveries.

It should be first of all stated that as the scientific practices which are going to be briefly described here, during each of their phases, in a context of intercultural exchanges, which are never contradicted. The scientific historians have even observed the totally non religious character of these practices, which may be at the level of their contents, of their formation, of their approach, or discussion which has been produced on the scientific production itself. This aspect only serves to reinforce the universality of the science produced in Islamic countries, favouring, just the same, their circulation in Muslim cultures and in Christian cultures of medieval Europe, and this in spite of the religious antagonisms that are sometimes expressed from the advent of Islam and which are deepened from time to time, particularly, at the time of the crusades (end XI – end XII centuries).

As to the discoveries presented here, they are certainly constituted on a time, largely well passed, in the elaboration of science. But they are more than that. In effect, by the motivations which have animated their authors, by their approaches and their goals that they have met, they witness, further than the specificity of each of them, from what appears to men of science from different eras and cultures: an instant curiosity, patient observation of studied phenomenon, taking things into account, with a critical attitude, in relation to your predecessors, obstinate research of the truth, comforted by the unbreakable faith in the capacities of science to surpass all obstacles. It is this lesson, finally very modern and universal, that the authors of this book have read in the contributions of some of these Islamic savants, and that they want to render it accessible to the teachers and their pupils.

Ahmed Djebbar

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