Article 5: Science, Society and the contribution of the Islamic World

Traveling opens one’s eyes. You see, you learn, you feel, you create and you are part of the creation. You cannot enter a space and not affect it – similarly you cannot affect a space and not be affected by it. For those readers following the last four columns, this journey took me across a continent and across the globe to the Northern Hemisphere. From Cape Town to Cairo, as the popular saying goes. Skipping the middle bits – saving them for future adventures. Traveling not just geographically within the lands of the Pharaohs, but also chronologically through time. This journey explored the earliest kingdoms, some from before 2 650 BC, while parts took us into contemporary Egypt and the hopes of its people into the future. 


The region is beset not only with rich history, art and culture – but is furthermore a central element of the iterative process of development that has contributed to the modern world in ways many have not even thought possible. The journey started in Cairo, a city containing many engineering masterpieces, hospitals, universities, mosques and international airports. Within the second part of the journey – the Sinai showed us how printing changed the modern world. How paper seeded diplomacy and later democracy and how the written word came to guarantee trade through the adoption of the contemporary numeral set. In the country of Jordan the skills of master masons, engineers, hydrologists, navigators and trades people all came together to develop one of the richest and most important cities in the region. What does all this have to do with the modern world? EVERYTHING. The modern world as we know it – as the western history of science and discovery is slowly starting to tell it – is built on the foundations developed within the Middle East and the Islamic world. 

Anthropology reminds us that humanity as we recognise ourselves, emerged from Africa and moved out to populate the rest of the world. History would have us remember that after the 5th century and the fall of the Roman Empire, the world entered the Dark Ages. One thousand years of nothingness – disease, mud and time lost forever. Contemporary evidence puts forward another theory on this. Early societies in Great Zimbabwe were building stone structures far earlier than our European counterparts. Further North, social and political systems, far more advanced were being effectively headed by female monarchs. While Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages – the East and particularly the North African and Arabic world was thriving. A period many scholars are now calling the Golden Age. Some of the first mega-engineers came from this region – the discoveries of Imhotep, in building the step pyramid revolutionised design and construction. Within the realm of human anatomy – Al-Zahrawi (936-1013 AD) contributed immensely to the art and science of medicine, inventing many of the tools still used by modern surgeons. He literally wrote the book – a three volume set on surgery covering cauterization; venesection, perforation, incision, bone-setting, obstetrics and gynaecology. The oldest mosque outside of Saudi Arabia is situated in Northern Africa. 


We flew to Egypt – and this got me thinking about the history of flight. Ever since Icarus, we have wanted to take to the skies. As history has taught us, the first to reasonably achieve this were the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. When examining history we see that among other great inventions like the manufacture of clear glass, a means to cut crystal, poetry and medicine, Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887 AD) is mostly remembered for his pioneering work in aviation. However, he never fully achieved this ambition. So great is Ibn Firnas that there is a crater on the Moon named after him. Similarly, first attempt at manned rocket flight came from the Ottoman world, in the name of Hassan Çelebi in the 17th Century. Medicine flourished within the Islamic golden age. Standard texts influenced the foundations of modern medicine within this period – as we already mentioned Al-Zahrawi. Another famous scholar is the brilliance of Al-Razi (845 – 925 AD) – considered the father of modern psychology. Beyond this he also scientifically studied the spread of infectious agents like smallpox and measles. His work in medical ethics and pharmacy are also noted in history. However, his greatest contribution must be in his acute understanding of experimental design. Al-Razi developed and was first to use the experimental method and in fact created the concept of a control group into modern medical research. Without this development, all of modern science and indeed the scientific method would have been inhibited for generations to follow. The modern world owes Al-Razi an eternal debt. We remember Chris Barnard as a key figure in cardiac surgery – however the name of Ibn Al-Nafis would not be as familiar. Nafis (1213 – 1288 AD), was first to consider the circulation of blood through the four chambers of the human heart. He realised that the circulation needed to first be oxygenated via the lungs, and then pumped back to the rest of the body. In his lifetime, he contributed more than 100 volumes to medical research and is considered by many to be a key figure not only in Islamic jurisprudence but also in medical ethics. 


The early works of Al-Jazri are among my favourites. This man, who many know very little about, invented the most critical piece of the Agricultural and indeed the Industrial Revolution. Central to all modernity is the simple mechanical device engineered by Al-Jazri. He developed a way to convert rotary motion, into linear motion. Why is this amazing??? Well put simply – he created the early crankshaft. This allowed a rotating mechanical force to be applied in a linear way to lift water out of rivers, to turning milling wheels and early vacuum pumps. The development of this was based in Al-Jazri’s desire to invent machines that would assist human beings. What he called Automata – humanoid robots are not far-fetched in contemporary thought around artificial intelligence and robotics. However, in Al-Jazri’s day these were often misunderstood and created some sense of fear. As a result, many of his drawings often featured animals powering the machines, to introduce a “force” that would explain the motion, within a society that often did not understand basic mechanics. These massive cranks were later geared and powered using steam and gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. Motor cars today still use the crankshaft as do certain sea and aircraft. As great as all of those follow on inventions are – to me his best contribution must remain those within the domain of arts and culture. Many of these devices served little productive purpose – except in their genius. Automatic music playing machines – using waterpower and flutes. Time keeping devices such as the legendary Elephant Clock. The clock adopted ideas from around the world – as a consequence of the Islamic worlds fascination with literacy and translating texts from other nations. The clock featured an elephant from India, dragons from China, birds from Egypt, figures from Arabia and many more. The Banu Musa brothers record this device in the book called the Kitab al-Hiyal (850 AD) that records the first flushing toilet; automated washing stations (wudhu) and musical machines. These devices became in essence the first programmable machines in history – centuries before Microsoft and Silicon Valley were dreamt about. 


The early Islamic world (unlike today) also made significant space for female scientists and scholars. In fact the oldest university in the world, the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez, Morocco was founded by a female scholar. The university, still in operation today, is considered by UNESCO to be the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world. Founded in 859 AD by Fatima al-Fihri, the university set the tone for the academic climate and value across the region. Many of the traditions of contemporary institutions came from this region. The idea of a scientific chair – in Economics, Science, Technology or Physics at any global university came from these traditions. The first health and wellness inspector in the world was appointed in Arabia. Her job was to ensure safe, fair and healthy practices in commerce in early Medina, a rich trading city. This was a critical role in the functioning of the city and many of the unnamed manuscripts that came out of this period are suspected to have been penned by woman scholars. Later in history, another such remarkable female figure is remembered. Around 960 AD, Mariam al-Asturlabi rose to prominence as a key figure in early astronomy. She developed unique and complicated devices called astrolabes. These devices could be paralleled to scientific measuring computers or cell phone applications today. Pocket-sized computers that could be used in specific locations to tell the position of the stars, navigation, inclination, position and provide local-time. In many ways modern clocks, compasses, GPS and critical satellite positioning rests on the foundations laid by people like Al-Asturlabi.



Now I am not going to sit here and profess that the Arab world gave us modernity in isolation. This is most certainly not the aim of recording the above few examples of excellence in science. Not Islamic science but science – a critical aspect of human culture and social evolution of our species. Noted that in some cases, this is not far from reality. However, what I will state without any ambiguity is that the contemporary record of history has been presented in a manner that perpetuates a particular ideological view and negates the tremendous influence of the East and the South to the development of scientific and social values into the Western world. The very notion of collaboration, of learning by imitating, of recording and translating for future generations was championed by the Islamic world. The focus on literacy, through the reading and studying of the Quran and other religious texts ensured that this tradition served not only the Islamic world and gave rise to many of the greatest dynasties of our time – but more so served all of humanity toward the embetterment of society as a whole. In recording a one sided image of science and history, the West didn’t just rob the East of gold and jewels – the Kohi Noor and countless Tombs. I would say the true loss and the greatest treasure that was taken was in fact the history and contribution that Non-Western societies, scholars and communities contributed to the iterative progression of global knowledge. The knowledge that was lost in history not only robbed the Islamic world of recognition but more so generations that followed of the hope that the region contributed so much to modernity – and that many more such contributions could indeed come from within this geographical hotbed. The instituted socio-political systems that followed within the global power plays of the 14th to 20th centuries systematically eroded an academic culture from the African and Islamic world through this period. It now remains our generation’s responsibility to correct this fact-gerrymandering by uncovering and rediscovering the immense contribution we have, and will continue to make to the history of science and the role it may play in driving diplomacy through global knowledge production.  


I am a proponent of the idea that there should never be monopolies in knowledge systems – one group owning the rights to claim source and invention – as creativity is always a social process. However, that is exactly how it has been presented and internalised in modern education. This has been a significant obstacle to onward innovation and development within many of these societies. The othering and externalising of innovationits them and not us who do these great things – has been the main obstacle in driving this societal block in innovative output. This is thankfully changing. From the Southern tip of Africa to the eastern edge of China – these histories and contemporary scholars are contributing in ways never seen before. China is threatening to take the lead in a number of areas of technology development, Indian space scientist are among the best in their field. The expat community drives Silicon Valley. Dubai and the UAE are becoming central not only to global travel but also scientific in-shoring and R&D. Universities in South Africa, Tunisia and Algeria consistently feature on global indices. More so our reliance on external funding and research partners is waning. Developments like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA – South Africa), work in the Bio-Economy, Artificial Intelligence, Marine Science, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Anthropology are changing the way the world understands science – and more so how the scientific world sees Africa. 


Within the rising of major names in global technology, sport, culture and politics – the voices of those most marginalised by history are being heard at increasing volumes. This provides the role models and brings closer the ideas that change can come from all segments of the global society. I am reminded here of the words of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? …As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. The words of Williamson, often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela, reminds me that we need these lights, these stars in our night sky to remind us of what remains inside our own capabilities. A journey such as the one I undertook reminded me of what I didn’t know I was physically capable of doing. However, what it made me see is entirely different. Travelling does open your eyes. It reminds you of the giants who’s shoulders we stand on. Not just Newton or Al-Nafis – but all of those creators who contributed to the luxuries we enjoy today in lifestyle, travel, Wi-Fi and mobile computing. Most importantly it reminds us all, of the tremendous responsibility we carry to ensure that these are conveyed forward, that we continue building on these legacies and realise that among the many things in modernity that separates us – nothing binds us more than where we came from. It’s that history that remains embedded within our shared DNA, building the futures we all dream of. What will your chapter be?