Muslim science and technology in de Middle Ages

The crusades brought the European elite in contact not only with muslim warfare technology, but also with muslim science. What did the "Franks" encounter?

From the preservers and compilers of the learning of the ancient civilizations they had conquered in the early centuries of expansion, Muslim peoples - and the Jewish scholars who lived peacefully in Muslim lands - increasingly became creators and inventors in their own right. For several centuries, which spanned much of the period of Abbasid rule (750-1258 AD), Islamic civilization outstripped all others in scientific discoveries, devising new techniques of investigation, and in the innovation and dissemination of technology. Their many accomplishments in these areas include major corrections to the algebraic and geometric theories of the ancient Greeks and great advances in the use of the concepts of the sine, cosine, and tangent that are basic to trigonometry.

Among numerous discoveries in chemistry, two that were fundamental to all subsequent investigation were the creation of the objective experiment and al-Razi's scheme of classifying all material substances into three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral. The sophistication of Muslim scientific techniques is indicated by the fact that in the 11th century al-Biruni was able to calculate the exact specific weight of 18 major minerals. This sophistication was also manifested in the astronomical instruments and observations made through the cooperation of Muslim scholars and skilled craftsmen.

Muslim technicians greatly improved devices, such as the astrolabe and armillary sphere, for measuring and mapping the position of celestial bodies. Muslim astronomers devised the names, which we still use today, of many of the constellations and individual stars. Their astronomical tables and maps of the stars were in great demand among scholars of other civilizations, including those of Europe and China.

As these breakthroughs suggest, much of the Muslims' work in scientific investigation had very practical applications. This practical bent was even more pronounced in a number of other fields. In medicine, for example, Muslim cities, such as Cairo, boasted some of the best hospitals in the world. Doctors and pharmacists had to follow a regular course of study and pass a formal exam before they were allowed to practice and Muslim scientists did important work on optics and bladder ailments.

Muslim traders and crafpsmen introduced into the Islamic world and Europe many basic machines and techniques - namely, paper making, silk weaving, and ceramic firing - that had been devised earlier in China. Muslim scholars made some of the world's best maps, which were envied and copied by geographers from Portugal to Poland.

Muslim travelers, such as Ibn Khaldun and al-Biruni, wrote ethnographic and historical accounts of the lands they visited, which remain to the present day some of our fullest and most accurate sources on these regions. The Arab dhow was one of the finest sailing vessels of its day, and its hull and sail design later greatly influenced the shipbuilders of Italy and Iberia who would pioneer European overseas exploration from the 13th century onward. As these achievements testify, despite continuing political instability, Islamic civilization remained vibrant, receptive, and highly creative through much of the era of Abbasid decline and the political fragmentation of the Muslim heartlands.

Text based on Illustration: Jabir ibn Hayyan, "the father of Chemistry", source Wikipedia

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