[By Dr. Mohamed Elmasry] – Nov 24, 2007
The science of charting the Earth’s lands and waters was of primary
importance to Muslim navigators, for next to faith itself and one’s
obedience to it, commerce and travel fed the social economy and thus
governed people’s daily lives.
In addition to improving the astrolabe (without which no Western mariner
would feel safe on the open seas for centuries to come), Muslims were the
first to apply the principle of magnetism to marine and land travel,
perhaps as early as the 9th and 10th centuries.
Al-Khwarizmi and other leading Muslim scientists measured and standardized
the length of a terrestrial degree, while Al-Biruni accurately determined
latitude and longitude: in fact, six centuries before Galileo, he pondered
the possibilities of the Earth’s rotation about its own axis.
The leading 12th-century geographer al-Idrisi, a star product of the
brilliant Islamic culture that flourished in Sicily, was commissioned by
the Norman King Roger II to compile a world atlas. With dozens of maps
covering areas never before charted, al-Idrisi’s atlas became the best
mapped representation of the known world in Medieval times. Muslim
achievements in geography and cartography were still leading the world
during the 15th-century. When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set out to
sail down the coast of Africa, his ship was guided by a Muslim pilot using
Muslim maps and sea-charts still unknown to Europeans.
Not surprisingly, Muslim geographical encyclopaedias and dictionaries were
a mainstay of European libraries for centuries. Works such as al-Burini’s
History of India and Yaqut’s Mu’jam al-Buldan lit the way for future
Western explorers, traders, and historians.
Ibn Baas was one of the greatest traveler-authors of the Middle Ages.
Covering 75,000 miles between North Africa and China during the 14th
century, he recorded in his famous book, Rihla (meaning “journey”)
everything from geography and politics to local religious and social
customs wherever he visited. A later Muslim geographer produced the first
authoritative account of Africa, which remained a basic source of European
knowledge for two centuries.
The knowledge gained by Muslim geographers and cartographers was passed to
the West largely through translators appointed by Christian kings, who were
eager to advance their own nations by enriching them with Islamic
scientific and intellectual achievements. Indeed, when the Holy Roman
Emperor Frederick II founded the University of Naples in 1224, one of his
major aims was to enable Western scholars to learn from Islamic culture.
It is hard to imagine what modern life would be like without Arabic
numerals. The history of the last seven centuries, particularly in the
West, would certainly be different if 13th-century Europe had not adopted
the Arabic style of counting and calculating.
Arabic numerals, as they came to be called throughout the world, also made
it far easier to cope with simple everyday sums. Try solving even a simple
arithmetic problem in Roman numerals — the system in general Western use
until the 13th century – and you would find it extremely unwieldy and time-
consuming! Thus the Muslims gave to Europe an essential tool on which all
of the world’s science and commerce now depends.
The further mathematical development of Algebra – in which alpha-numeric
symbols are capable of infinite potential or possibilities — was a crucial
innovation by 9th-century Muslims, most notably al-Khwarizmi, one of the
greatest scientific minds of his era. Here, at the heart of this pivotal
achievement, is a reflection of the Islamic faith in the mathematical
concept of a universe whose creation by God is an unending, or infinitely
Later Muslim scholars also made revolutionary advances in trigonometry and
geometry. These new mathematical developments made it possible to reform
the calendar to such a level of accuracy that it would be in error by only
one day in five thousand years.
Armed with such flexible, yet precise methods of calculation, Muslim
astronomers could explore the heavens in greater detail than had ever been
possible. Their discoveries were not only important to science, but again
both important and practical to their faith; for Muslims everywhere needed
to know exactly in which direction to turn for prayers, what course to set
for pilgrimages, and exactly when to begin the month-long fast of Ramadan.
In fact, it would take volumes to talk about Muslims contributions to
mathematics and astronomy in the detail they deserve.
The 8th century scientists al-Fazari, al-Farghani, and al-Zarqali, as well
as later scholars al-Battani, Ibn-Yunus and others, improved instruments
such as the astrolabe and compass, built unprecedented large-scale
astronomical observatories, and compiled planetary tables and star charts
that were used throughout Europe for centuries.
In observing and mapping the movements of the sun, planets, stars and other
heavenly bodies so comprehensively, Muslim astronomers expressed the
fundamental aims of Islam, which urged a never-ending quest to understand
God’s visible signs in the cosmos.
Through observing the material universe, Muslims came to better understand
the works of God. Nothing that humans could investigate on earth or in
space was considered alien by these scientists.
Thus throughout the Muslim world, it was not at all unusual for an
astronomer to be also a mathematician, geographer, physician, or even
something of a philosopher and certainly, to some degree, a theologian!
Such multi-disciplined scholars paved the way for the European “Renaissance
man” concept – a kind of versatile genius represented by Leonardo da Vinci,
among others. He and other gifted scientists throughout the West, such as
Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, benefited from the fruits of
disciplined Muslim mathematician-astronomers who passed on their methods of
objective investigation, as well as their preserved transcriptions of early
classical pioneers, including Aristotle and Ptolemy.
Without this great combined heritage, the European Renaissance and modern
Western civilization could hardly have taken shape as they did.
Without their Muslim scientific forebears, would it indeed have been
possible for 20th-century astronauts to set foot on the Moon?
There is much more to know about Islamic sciences at: