Part II: Advances Made by Muslims in Science
A. Chemistry and Alchemy
Jabir Ibn Haiyan, known in Europe
by the name Geber, is generally known as the Father of Chemistry. He was one of
the leading scientists in Kufa (in present day Iraq) around 776 C.E. In his
early days, he was supported by the advisor to the Abbasid Caliph. Jabir died in
Kufa in 803 C.E.
Jabir's (Geber's) major contribution was in the field of
Chemistry. He is famous for writing twenty-two books on chemistry and alchemy.
He introduced experimental investigation into alchemy which led to modern
Chemistry. Jabir emphasized experimentation
and development of methods to show the same result when an experiment was repeated. He
developed basic chemical methods and the study of various chemical reactions and
thus helped develop chemistry as a science and away from the legends and "magic"
[Note: Alchemy was an early "science" - or was it magic?
Alchemists tried to change metals like lead into gold, and to find a magic
"elixir" or medical potion that
would keep people from ever dying. While it is not really a science, some
alchemists helped us understand the beginnings of chemistry.]
To learn more about him, read Dr. Zahoor's
1. Why was Astronomy important to Muslims?
Astronomy was important to Muslims because of their religion!
They needed to know the beginning of the month of Ramadan, the hours of
prayer, and the direction of Mecca. By observing the position of the sun and
moon, Muslims could know the direction of Mecca. As Islam expanded to an
empire over 6,000 miles wide, astronomers could help them know these
Muslims follow the Lunar, or "moon" Calendar as required by
the Qur'an. Months change according to the phases
(changes in time)
and position [place, location
in the sky] of the moon. Each month begins with the first
sighting of the crescent moon. This is especially important in the Muslim
holy month of Ramadan when fasting is during the day for one
Astronomy also led to developments in
trigonometry, a field of mathematics important to the
mapping of the earth and to the computation of planetary orbits.
GIF animation by Ed Stephan, wwu.edu showing
the phases of the moon.
This image is from Michael Olmert, Smithsonian Book of Books,
1992. The original source of the eclipse diagram is the Parliament Library in
2. Famous Astronomers:
Al-Farghani was one of the most
distinguished astronomers in the the House of Wisdom. He wrote "Elements of
Astronomy" , a book on celestial (heavenly) motion and
science of the stars. It was translated into Latin in the 12th century and
exerted great influence upon European astronomy. It supported the widely
held view that the earth was the center of a system around which went the
planets and the sun (first described by Ptolemy, a
Greek astronomer who lived in Alexandria,
al-Sufi was a Persian astronomer who lived during
the 10th century. In 964, he described the Andromeda galaxy, our closest
neighbor, and called it "little cloud". This was the first record of a star
system outside our own galaxy. Al-Sufi's book on stars was translated into
many languages and had a big influence on European astronomy.
c. Al-Zarqali (known as Arzachel in Europe)
In Muslim Spain, there were many famous astronomers.
Al-Zarqali (known as
Arzachel in Europe) lived from about 1029 to 1080. He was the most famous
astronomer of his age. He made a kind of astrolabe that measured the motion
of the stars. His work was translated into Latin and other languages and his
books were studied later in Europe.
d. Al-Bitruji (known as Alpetragius in
Al-Bitruji developed a new
theory of stellar
(star) movement. He was born in
Morocco. He later migrated (moved) to Spain
and lived in Seville. He died at the beginning of the thirteenth century
around 1204 C.E.
Above is a Turkish miniature painting showing astronomers and
their tools (from Topkapi Palace Museum: "Taqi al-Din b.
Maruf and his colleagues at the Istanbul observatory" from Lokman,
Shahanshahnama, or "Book of the King of Kings"), Istanbul,
1581-1582). Click on the picture
above to see two large images of the
3. Observatories (places to look
at the night sky and study the stars) were first
established in the Islamic world in major cities such as Baghdad, Hamadan,
Toledo, Maragha, Samarkand, and Istanbul, and new instruments were developed.
The Muslim invention of the astrolabe, for example, was one of the most
important in astronomy until the invention of the telescope in the 17th
century. Muslims were also the first astronomers to
challenge the long-accepted theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle regarding
eclipses, planetary orbits, and the position of the stars.
4. Tools of Astronomy: Muslims
further developed the earliest astrolabe, a great astronomical tool. (They
improved upon the Greek invention.) It was used to determine one's latitude
(or place on the earth) by looking at the position of the stars and sun. It
was especially important to travelers.
Learn more about the Astrolabe:
- The astrolabe (an instrument used for measuring the
positions on the earth). For a student project "Building
an Astrolabe" and one from Singapore's Virtual Science Center -
an Astrolabe". Photo: Muslim scientists developed the astrolabe,
an instrument used long before the invention of the sextant to observe
the position of celestial (heavenly) bodies.
- Read an excellent article on Islamic Astronomy
which tells how Muslim scientists translated Greek and Indian works,
and improved upon them. This site also has a good description of the
how it was used as a measuring device and as a "calculator".
This map below is by Al-Idrisi. It is shown both as he drew it
(north to the bottom) and "upside down" (north to the top, as we are more used
to seeing maps). Can you make out the land and sea features - that's the
Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea in the middle.
Muslims traveled widely during the Middle Ages. They traveled
on the hajj to Mecca, and on vast caravans for trade across Africa, the Middle
East, and Asia.
l. Al-Idrisi (also known as Dreses) 1099-1166 C.E. [Geographer]
Al-Idrisi is best known in the West as a geographer, who made a globe or sphere
of silver weighing 400 kilograms for the Christian King Roger II of Sicily. Some
scholars regard him as the greatest geographer and
of the Middle Ages. He put together a geographical
encyclopedia with many maps.
See another short biography of
Al-Idrisi . A copy of the map of Al-Idrisi is displayed
in the Sharjah
Islamic Museum in the United Arab Emirates.
Africanus (Hasan a-Wazan) was
a traveler and map-maker who lived from 1485-1554. He was captured by Christian
pirates and presented to the Pope as a slave. He later was commissioned to write
about and make maps of his travels in West Africa. His description of Timbuktu
(now in the country of Mali) tells of the city famous for trade of African
products and for scholarship with a thriving trade in books. (From "Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu" Washington State
University.) Read another biography of "Leo Africanus:
Moorish Man of Learning."
For more information on geography and travelers, see our
own webpage: Travelers and Map-Makers.
3. Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE)
Al-Biruni image (from
University of St. Andrews, Scotland site)
Al-Biruni made original and important contributions to science.
He discovered seven different ways of finding the direction of the north and
south, and discovered mathematical techniques to determine exactly the
beginnings of the season. He also wrote about the sun and its movements and the
eclipse. In addition, he invented a few astronomical instruments. Many centuries
before the rest of the world, Al-Biruni discussed that the earth rotated on its
axis and made accurate calculations of latitude and longitude.
Al-Biruni was the first to conduct elaborate experiments
related to astronomical phenomena. He stated that the speed of light is immense
as compared with the speed of sound. He described the Milky Way as a collection
of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars.
When the Sultan sent him three camel-loads of silver coins in
appreciation of his encyclopedic work, Al-Biruni politely returned the royal
gift saying, "I serve knowledge for the sake of knowledge and not for money."
Al-Biruni is considered to be one of the greatest scientists of
Go back to Page One: Islamic
Science and Math (Introduction)
You are here at Islamic Sciences, Page Two: Chemistry,
Astronomy, and Geography
Go to Page Three: Islamic
Sciences: Medicine, Botany, Optics.
Go to Page Four: Islamic
Sciences: Why did the "Golden Age" end?
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