Islam, Science and Civilisation

For the last two centuries the world has witnessed unprecedented leaps in science and technology, the development of railways, aeroplanes, nuclear technology, the Internet, IVF and genetically modified food. Such developments have taken place in parallel to the development of the West, reaching levels unparalleled in history. This monopolisation of technological and scientific inventions has led to the belief that liberal values are a pre-requisite for development.

Most thinkers, scientists and philosophers claim Islam has no place in the world today. This view is built upon the premise that none of the Muslim countries have produced anything in terms of scientific research or technological invention. The West claims that progress in science and technology occurred when the West rid itself of the authority of the Church and separated religion from life. For them the church stifled the development of science and reason as religion is inherently built upon faith and superstition. Only with its removal from the public sphere did the West manage to launch an industrial revolution and then flourish. Today for liberals it is they who invented science as we know it. They claim they laid its foundations and have created its numerous branches.

Such a narrative omits a number of historical developments that are not Western and shows how the West continues to view its history as the history of the world. Such a narrative also conveniently omits what the West took from previous civilisations and especially the Islamic civilisation. Historically all civilisations have been characterised with some form of technological and scientific development. The West has documented the contributions the Romans made to the discipline whilst the Islamic world in the 8th – 10th century translated the works of the Greeks in the area.

Science in essence is the study, research, and experimentation into the observable parts of the universe.

The development of automobiles was due primarily to the development of the combustion engine. This is where the burning of fuel in an engine acts on the pistons causing the movement of the solid parts, eventually moving the automobile. This was possible due to the British Empire who originally used steam and then coal to drive pistons and then eventually to generate rotary (motion) to move machines. Such developments where based upon Al-Jazari’s work in the 12th century where he invented the crankshaft, and created rotary motion through the use of rods and cylinders. He was the first to incorporate it into a machine.

A parachute is a device used to slow the motion of an object through an atmosphere by creating drag. Current day parachutes were developed from the designs and experiments of the past. In the 9th century, Ibn Firnas invented a primitive version of the parachute. He jumped from the minaret of the Mezquita mosque in Córdoba using a huge wing-like cloak to break his fall and landed with minor injuries. Subsequent Parachutes were made more compact and from stretched linen over a wooden frame. Then folded silk, was developed as the material for parachutes taking advantage of silk’s strength and light weight.

Such examples amongst others show that no civilisation can lay claim to science belonging inherently to them but rather they made a contribution to this universal area. The fact atoms and molecules are subjected to the rules of the universe which can be manipulated will not change if one is a Muslim, Christian or a liberal. This is something that is universal and not affected by one’s belief. The real debate is therefore which civilisation made significant contributions to science and what exactly drove them to excel in the field.

The Islamic golden age is considered to be the period from the 8th century to the 13th century. During this period, engineers, scholars and traders in the Islamic world contributed to the arts, agriculture, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, sciences, and technology, both by preserving and building upon earlier traditions and by adding to them. Howard Turner, an expert on medieval history mentioned in his book ‘Science in Medieval Islam,’: ‘Muslim artists and scientists, princes and labourers together created a unique culture that has directly and indirectly influenced societies on every continent.’ There were a number of specific elements within Islam that were the driving engine which motivated Muslims to excel in this field.

The worship of Allah سبحانه وتعالى was one such factor that led to a number of inventions. The times of the five daily prayers, the direction for Qibla and the beginning and ending of Ramadan required accurate readings of the positions of the stars and the moon. It was due to this that Muslims began to invent observational and navigational instruments. This is why most navigational stars today have Arabic names such as Acamar, Baham, Baten Kaitos, Caph, Dabih, Furud, Izar, Lesath, Mirak, Nashira, Tarf and Vega.

Muslims made a number of contributions to Astronomy and eventually to the development of the astronomical clock. A Mechanical lunisolar calendar with a gear train and gear-wheels was invented by Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī in the 10th century. Based on such designs Taqi al-din invented the mechanical clock in the 15th century. The need to ascertain the Qibla led to the development of the compass, which itself was based upon the findings Muslims astronomers had collated. Muslims developed the compass rose which displayed the orientation of the cardinal directions, north, south, east and west on a map and nautical chart.

Allah سبحانه وتعالى says in the Holy Qur’an:

وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ لَكُمُ النُّجُومَ لِتَهْتَدُواْ بِهَا فِي ظُلُمَاتِ الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ
“And it is He who ordained the stars for you that you may be guided thereby in the darkness of the land and the sea.” [TMQ 6:97]

This motivated Muslims to begin to find better observational and navigational instruments. Such instruments were used to explore the world, which many Muslim geographers collated into manuals. They were driven by the ayah in the Qur’an where Allah سبحانه وتعالى says:

وَجَعَلْنَا فِي الْأَرْضِ رَوَاسِيَ أَن تَمِيدَ بِهِمْ وَجَعَلْنَا فِيهَا فِجَاجًا سُبُلًا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَهْتَدُونَ
“And we have placed in the earth firm hills lest it quake with them and we have placed therein ravines as roads that happily they may find their way.” [TMQ 21:31]

Early Muslims understood that Islam views all the material matters which include the sciences, technology and industry, as merely the study of the reality and a study of how matter can be manipulated to improve the condition and living standards of humanity. As many lands came under the fold of the Islamic civilisation, urbanisation led to a number of developments. The Arabian Desert had scant water springs making most of the region uninhabitable. This was overcome by Muslim engineers developing canals from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The swamps around Baghdad were drained, freeing the city of Malaria. Muslim engineers perfected the waterwheel and constructed elaborate underground water channels called qanats. This led to the development of advanced domestic water systems with sewers, public baths, drinking fountains, piped drinking water supplies and widespread private and public toilet and bathing facilities.

Muslims thinkers, scientists, engineers and experts made significant contributions to science as well as many other disciplines. Many of these contributions were later used by the West who made further contributions to the field. The nature of science as a universal subject means no single civilisation can lay claim to inventing it but rather most civilisations have documented their contributions throughout history which acted as previous information when experimentation was carried out by latter civilisations. Prior to the emergence of Islam in the Middle East the host population made no contribution to science. When the very same people accepted Islam they made contributions which later generations utilised to invent new items which today still remain with us. Islam rather than being an obstacle to science, was the catalyst that drove Muslim’s contribution to science.