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Science: Islam's Forgotten Geniuses

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Science: Islam's forgotten geniuses[using large font size is not allowed]

 

 

Telegraph. UK

29/01/2008

 

 

Although the Muslim world is often now seen as ill-equipped for scientific discovery, we can look back to Baghdad and see the origins of the modern scientific method, the world's first physicist and the world's first chemist; advances in surgery and anatomy, the birth of geology and anthropology; not to mention remarkable feats of engineering[using large font size is not allowed].

 

For 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic; and Baghdad, the capital of the mighty Abbasid Empire, was the centre of the intellectual world.[using large font size is not allowed] The story starts around 813, when the caliph of Baghdad, al-Ma'mun, is said to have had a vivid and life-changing dream. In it, he met the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who instructed him to "seek knowledge and enlightenment".

 

This was the starting point for a lifelong obsession with science and philosophy. Al-Ma'mun created the famous House of Wisdom, a library, translation house and scientific academy unmatched since the glory days of Alexandria.

 

The caliph would then recruit some of the greatest names in Arabic science, such as the mathematician al-Khwarizmi and the philosopher al-Kindi. Although many of these thinkers were not Arabs themselves, they conducted their science and wrote their books in Arabic.

 

In the West, though, they were better known by their Latin names, such as Alkindus, Alhazen, Averroes and Avicenna. The most famous of all was Avicenna (or ibn Sina, to give him his correct name).

 

Born in Persia in 980, he was a child prodigy who grew up to become one of the world's greatest philosophers and physicians. His great work, the Canon of Medicine, was to remain the standard medical text both in the Islamic and Christian worlds until well into the 17th century.

 

He is credited with the discovery and explanation of contagious diseases and the first correct description of the anatomy of the human eye. As a philosopher, Avicenna is referred to as the Aristotle of Islam; as a physician, he is its Galen.

 

What brought to an end this golden age of Abassid and Arabic science? The standard answer is that the ending came suddenly, in 1258, when the Mongols ransacked Baghdad. During the occupation, a large number of the books in the House of Wisdom were destroyed[using large font size is not allowed].

 

But Baghdad was by this time far from the only centre of scholarship in the Arabic speaking world - and wonderful advances continued to be made in Cairo and Cordoba right up to the European Renaissance in the 15th century.

 

The mystery is why the debt the West owed to Muslim scholars was then overlooked[using large font size is not allowed]: acknowledged at all, the Abbasids are normally credited with nothing more than acting as the guardians of Greek science.

 

In a world of increasing religious tension, the untold story of Arabic science is a timely reminder of the debt the West owes to the Muslim world – and, perhaps more importantly, of the proud heritage today's Muslims should acknowledge[using large font size is not allowed].

 

 

Jim Al-Khalili is professor of physics and public engagement in science at the University of Surrey.

 

 

 

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