Time to acknowledge debt science in West owes to Islamic world

OPINION: The Muslim world is too often neglected when discussions turn to science, writes ALASDAIR SOUSSI.

OPINION:The Muslim world is too often neglected when discussions turn to science, writes ALASDAIR SOUSSI.

AS THE scientific world celebrates the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, one’s thoughts naturally turn to his and one of mankind’s greatest triumphs – the theory of evolution.

With the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Speciesset to be marked later in the year, 2009 is shaping up to be an unforgettable 12 months for both evolutionists and creationists alike. Indeed, wherever one stands on the debate between Darwinism and intelligent design, few could argue against the notion that the English-born scientist possessed one of the greatest thinking-minds in the history of mankind.

But as we delve into the relative merits of Darwin’s groundbreaking work, and, in turn, the impact of other great European minds, it should be done with an eye to the Arab and Muslim world – a civilisation that has too often been neglected when discussions turn to the global significance of innovations in science, medicine, literature and other such disciplines. In fact, far from being inferior to Europe’s great intellects, Islamic thinkers were, between the years of 800 and 1450, unparalleled in their capacity to assimilate and generate ideas and discoveries that would not only underscore the comparative stagnation of Medieval Europe, but lay the foundations upon which future scientists and scholars from the Western world would build and prosper. As Islam – then extending from India in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west – spread out of the Arabian Peninsula into Egypt, Syria and Iran, it brought with it a civilisation that was hungry to learn and eager to pass on scientific and philosophical works from bygone years.


Translating texts from Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi and Sanskrit into Arabic – a movement beginning in Baghdad, under the orders of the caliph – and using them to both disseminate and further their own innovations, Islamic scholars made advances that equalled and, at times, outweighed anything that had ever been known to previous generations and cultures.

Even Darwin himself has a challenger – albeit a very rudimentary one – to his crown. Al-Jahiz (Arabic for the "goggle-eyed" – so called due to his unusual facial appearance) was a famed Baghdad-based scientist and scholar who, in his ninth century text, the Book of Animals, wrote: "Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."

Whilst such words only loosely point towards a Darwinian-like theory of natural selection (al-Jahiz's Book of Animals, however influential on subsequent Arab scholars, was largely based on superstition), there is much to value within al-Jahiz's text, says Jim al-Khalili, a Professor of Physics and Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey.

“What’s important here is that [al-Jahiz] was trying to understand the world. He talked about how [animals] could live in different environments, and whether the quality of the water they drank, and the air that they breathed could affect them in some way . . . rather than just saying God created life as it is and has always been.”

Al-Jahiz’s theory of natural selection is hardly likely to challenge Darwin’s long-held dominance, but other European giants of the scientific world have to contend with more weighty Arab challengers to their crown. Until recently, it was assumed that Jean-François Champollion was the first to crack the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822. Using the Rosetta Stone – a piece of basalt containing text in Greek, Coptic and hieroglyph – Champollion painstakingly deciphered the code after years of struggle before promptly collapsing from exhaustion. But recent evidence points towards a certain Ahmad bin Abu Bakr ibn Wahshiyah, a ninth and 10th century polymath from Iraq, who seems to have beaten Champollion to the punch by some eight centuries.

Ibn Wahshiyah managed to figure out a correspondence between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Arabic alphabet, and correctly interpreted more than half of the ancient Egyptian script, proving that not only had Egyptology began long before the likes of Champollion, Howard Carter and Giovanni Belzoni, but that claims of Europe being the first to decipher hieroglyphics were greatly exaggerated.

Medicine was another crucial aspect of Islamic innovation. Al-Nafis, a Syrian-born physician and polymath, who studied medicine in Cairo and Damascus in the 13th century, is best known for his critique of Galen, a Greek doctor, who, amongst other exploits, worked in Rome as a surgeon to the gladiators. In one of his many books, The Perfect Man, al-Nafis correctly refuted Galen's theory of blood flow through the heart, and did so some 300-years before English physician, William Harvey. Indeed, whereas Galen believed that blood could pass through the cardiac interventricular septum (from the right to the left ventricle), al-Nafis maintained that all the blood that reached the left ventricle had passed through the lung – a crucial breakthrough in the study of the human body. Harvey's great discovery of the so-called greater circulation – or systemic circulation – remains unrivalled, but as the first person to correctly describe the pulmonary circulation, al-Nafis deserves his place in history.

So too does another Islamic physician – al-Zahrawi – or as he is known in the Western world – Albucasis. A great 10th century surgeon born near the Spanish city of Cordoba, then the Islamic capital on the Iberian Peninsula, Albucasis codified the art of surgery in his encyclopaedic work, The Method of Medicine, and was the most renowned surgeon of his time.

"He was a man of great innovation," says Peter E Pormann, an Assistant Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, and co-author of the book, Medieval Islamic Medicine. "We know that he came up with new instruments, such as forceps for the removal of dead foetuses, and even illustrations of medical instruments, which seem to be the first time such illustrations were included in a medical text."

This golden age of Islamic and Arabic innovation met its decline in 1258 when the Mongols sacked Baghdad – then the capital of the Muslim world. Though Samarkand and Cairo had also become centres of scholarly excellence in their own right, the weakening of the caliphate had adverse effects on the inclination of caliphs to encourage and finance scholarly works. But as one movement declined, so another – the European Renaissance – rose. And it is to Islam, that the European Renaissance owes much of its success, and to both – in equal measure – that we owe our own.

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist specialising in Middle Eastern and north African countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. He has written for a number of publications, including The (UAE) Nationaland AlJazeera.net, and is currently writing a book on Lebanon. His website is www.alasdairsoussi.com