By Uzma Jawed
Our civilization is the product of human efforts. The seven centuries of Muslim leadership in various fields of knowledge was a significant contribution. In addition to the fields of mathematical sciences and medicine, Muslims also made outstanding and original contributions to geography, chemistry, philosophy, arts and architecture.
The scholars of Islamic Spain initially started with the geography of Al-Andalus by Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Al-Razi and descriptions of the topography of North Africa by Muhammad Ibn Yousuf Al-Warraq. Then the Muslim geographers began to study practically the whole globe (minus the Americas) from both geographical as well as climatic point of view.
During the eighth and the fifteenth centuries, numerous books were produced on the geography of Africa, Asia, India, China and the Indies. Other books were written on such specialized topics as climate and plants. These writings also included the world’s first encyclopedias, almanacs and maps. The maps included detailed and accurate features, such as the origin of the Nile, which was not discovered in the West until much later. Al-Biruni was the first known writer to identify certain geological facts. He wrote a book on geology as well as improved the measuring methods of longitudes, latitudes, heights of mountains and the diameter of the Earth.
Muslims invented the compass and guided the European navigators regarding its use. The most famous Muslim traveler was Ibn Batutah, who traveled for twenty-eight years and produced a fourteenth century masterpiece that provided vivid and detailed insights about people, places, navigation, caravan routes, roads and inns.
The very name alchemy and its derivative chemistry come from the Arabic word Al-Kimiya. Jabir Ibn Hayyan (the Latin Geber) of the eighth century had a lasting influence in Europe till the sixteenth century. He was given the title of the father of modern chemistry. He contributed greatly to the fields of pharmacology and toxicology.
Vast amount of knowledge, accumulated by Islamic alchemists and chemists, has survived over the centuries in both the East and the West. For instance, Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya Al-Razi’s divisons of material in animal, vegetable and mineral is still popular. Many words in chemistry have Arabic roots, including alkali (Al-Qaliy) and alcohol (Al-Kohl), and the chemical instrument alembic has the Arabic root Al-Anbiq.
Islamic scholars also took an avid interest in dealing with intellectual problems posed by the Greek philosophers in the context of Islam. The first one to study this was Ibn Hazm, also known as one of the giants of the intellectual history of Islam. He authored more than four hundred books.
Another great figure in Islamic philosophy is Imam Al-Ghazali. He was a professor at the Nizamiyah University, a reputed learning institute of the time. In philosophy, he believed in the approach of mathematics and exact sciences as essentially correct and used these techniques of Aristotelian logic to show the flaws of excessive rationalism. He contended that it is not possible for reason to understand the absolute and infinite. He was largely successful in creating a balance between religion and reason.
Muslim philosophers also wrote extensively on creation, God, Aristotelian thought and logic. Ibn Bajjah (known in the West as Avampace) wrote a book on how a perfect society was dependent on the inner perfection of individuals within the society. Ibn Tufayl, a physician and a philosopher, wrote the book “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” (“Living Son of the Awake”). Ibn Khaldun, who contributed widely to the philosophy of history and sociology, wrote on how psychology, economy and the environment affected the advancement of human civilization. A Spanish-born Islamic philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), wrote about religion and philosophy in his book “Kitab Fesal Al-Makal,” as well as wrote an answer to Al-Ghazali’s works. Moreover, his scholarly commentaries on Aristotle had considerable influences on the development of Western philosophy. He was known as ‘the commentator’ during the Western middle ages and the renaissance.
The well-known Hadeeth, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty” (Muslim), encouraged many Islamic scholars to contribute to various social sciences. For instance, Ibn Khaldun, who was considered the most original mind of the time, generated laws, which affected the rise and decline of a civilization.
Another distinguished scholar was Ibn Al-Khatib who created more than fifty works on travel, medicine, poetry, politics and theology. Muslims also developed a stylized form of decorative handwriting called calligraphy. This calligraphic art was initially used to beautify the word of Allah (swt) in the Quran. Eventually, this art form came to use in objects, houses, mosques and architecture in general.
T.B. Irving, a prominent American Muslim and a leading expert on the Arab-Islamic period in Spanish history, writes on Islamic architecture: “… few civilizations have approached Islam’s beauties in architecture: her soaring minarets and spires, her fabled domes, her cool corridors, all reflect the yearning of Muslims, who refusing to find expression in natural depiction concentrate their energies on buildings and their embellishment.”
These works of art could be found throughout Persia, India, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco in the intricate calligraphic mosaics of mosques, tombs, houses and buildings. Certain elements were an integral part of Islamic architecture: the Mihrabs, tombstones, geometric shapes and patterns, domes, mosaics, intertwining leaf motifs and design, fountains, gardens and courtyards.
These distinctive and outstanding Islamic structures became a prototype and model for lots of other civilizations. The Chinese showed this influence in their carpets and vases. Medieval Europe also drew from Islamic architectural examples. The use of domes, arches and interior courtyards were quite prevalent in many structures, especially the Gothic cathedrals. The most well-known example is of the Notre Dame of Paris.
We have in front of us the everlasting proofs of the impact of eminent Islamic scholars. This evidence is easily accessible through books, objects, famous structures and buildings. Hence, it is easy for us to comprehend them visually and physically. However, we, the current generation, need to understand them spiritually. We need to identify with their inner motivation, their self-determination and the drive that led them to such heights of success.
Their pursuit of knowledge was successful because they were equipped with strong faith, truth of the Quran and the Sunnah, and pride and confidence in Islam. They absorbed those things, which confirmed their beliefs, and immediately rejected those that did not. If we could identify with our role models of the past, we could also triumph over this period of illiteracy, which is dominated by traits like enmity, intolerance and narcissism. If we could truly transcend over this phase, we could again experience the dawn of knowledge and, Insha’Allah, with Allah’s (swt) help, rise to the golden age of Islam.