A LONG WEEKEND READ: The Arabic World and Science


There is no greater evidence for abrupt global climate change than what happened to the world around 565.  The ancient world was abruptly changed into the Dark Ages.  The former Roman Empire changed from a viable civilization into a dark world were there was vast starvation and poverty.  This enabled Islam to expand.  It was the ONLY reason Islam expanded.

“…There are many implications and the reader is referred to Keys’ book to learn about them. But one of the most fascinating is the conflation of the birth of the prophet Mohammed and the spread of Islam at exactly the time that earth’s population of humans is being killed off by severe climate changes. Keys notes that the prophet Muhammad preached a “creed ideally suited to its time—a new religion which emerged directly out of the apocalyptic atmosphere of the period” until his death in 632 AD. Furthermore, “[t]he Muslim advance was one of the most rapid in human history.” (p. 100) The Islamic armies in 150 years subjugated most of the Roman Empire (excluding what is today Turkey) and the Persian Empire. Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, in his book “What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response”****, traces Islam’s current problems directly to its explosive origins when it vanquished starving and diseased peoples (along with their belief systems) and, as a result, never had to learn to deal with competing creeds as it spread like fire across the African, European, and Asian continents….”

Hillel Ofek has a fascinating expose in the New Atlantis:  Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.  He notes that modern Islam in not known for modern science.  Their golden age of science was nearly a thousand years ago.  If anything says something about the deterioration of a culture, this should.

“…To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.

Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”…”

If you know anything about the history of the era, you know there was a great disparity in education, arts, culture and science in the Muslim world during the medieval era.  The Pink Flamingo thinks one of the very real problems facing the former Roman Empire was not the break-up of Rome’s allegedly civilizing force, but a major catastrophe that occurred right around the time of the “fall” of Rome.  Major global cooling (the word at the time was a good 3-4 degrees warmer than it is now) threw the world into such turmoil that civilization basically collapsed.

“...In Keys’s startling thesis, a global climatic catastrophe in A.D. 535-536–a massive volcanic eruption sundering Java from Sumatra–was the decisive factor that transformed the ancient world into the medieval, or as Keys prefers to call it, the “proto-modern” era. Ancient chroniclers record a disaster in that year that blotted out the sun for months, causing famine, droughts, floods, storms and bubonic plague. Keys, archeology correspondent for the London Independent, uses tree-ring samples, analysis of lake deposits and ice cores, as well as contemporaneous documents to bolster his highly speculative thesis. In his scenario, the ensuing disasters precipitated the disintegration of the Roman Empire, beset by Slav, Mongol and Persian invaders propelled from their disrupted homelands. The sixth-century collapse of Arabian civilization under pressure from floods and crop failure created an apocalyptic atmosphere that set the stage for Islam’s emergence. In Mexico, Keys claims, the cataclysm triggered the collapse of a Mesoamerican empire; in Anatolia, it helped the Turks establish what eventually became the Ottoman Empire; while in China, the ensuing half-century of political and social chaos led to a reunified nation. Huge claims call for big proof, yet Keys reassembles history to fit his thesis, relentlessly overworking its explanatory power in a manner reminiscent of Velikovsky’s theory that a comet collided with the earth in 1500 B.C. Readers anxious about future cataclysms will take note of Keys’s roundup of trouble spots that could conceivably wreak planetary havoc. Maps. BOMC and QPBC selections. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc….”

Real Climate

“...Lacking hard evidence for many of the causal chains he envisions, Keys offers a series of suppositional flow charts, each beginning with the presumed supereruption in 535. The flow charts end with the emergence of Islam, the shaping of modern Judaism, the creation of what is now Pakistan, the reunification of China and the decline of Mayan civilization, among other things. In Keys’s view, the 535 eruption also played a major role in the decline of the Roman Empire. He even sees a possible connection with the supposed death in 537 of Britain’s legendary King Arthur.

Since almost none of Keys’s assertions are proved, much of his narrative is couched in subjunctive phrasing. Describing supposed events in South America, for instance, he writes:

”The climatic events of the mid-sixth century — the drought and the El Ninos — had the effect of destabilizing the Moche empire. The 30-year drought must have led to severe famines, and the c.556 El Nino flood would have destroyed irrigation systems, thus making the food supply situation even more precarious. The population, weakened by starvation, would then have fallen prey to a range of contagious diseases, much as the Teotihuacanos of Mexico were succumbing to famine and disease at exactly the same time.” All that sounds plausible, but scientists and historians generally want supporting evidence, which is here sorely lacking.

Moreover, Keys leaves readers with several unanswered questions. Why, for example, has it taken so long for a volcanic eruption billed as the most violent in human history to come to the attention of modern experts? Thanks to Pliny the Younger, people have long known details about a much older event — the destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Of course, sixth-century Java may simply have lacked eyewitness chroniclers, but it would be nice to clear up doubts about the point.

Nevertheless, Keys makes a good case that a stupendous eruption (or possibly several eruptions) blasted the island of Java in 535 or thereabouts, at about the same spot where a much less powerful volcano, Krakatoa, blew up in 1883. Krakatoa’s eruptions were heard some 3,000 miles away, and the ensuing tidal waves killed some 36,000 people. Keys and his collaborators have dubbed the presumed 535 event ”proto-Krakatoa.”

Haraldur Sigurdsson, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island who visited the proto-Krakatoa site, has reported finding a highly symmetrical and gigantic caldera under the shallow water of the Sunda Strait, dated at an age consistent with an eruption in 535. And Kenneth Wohletz, a volcanologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and an expert on nuclear weapons testing, has analyzed data from the site. ”I did a numerical model just to estimate the size of the eruption,” he told me in an interview. ”And sure enough, it would have been larger than any recorded in history.”

The power of volcanoes to visit misery upon the world has never been in doubt. The monster eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815 cast a pall of dust over the world; the resulting global chill destroyed crops and brought on a famine that lasted nearly two years. Cemeteries even in New England contain the graves of starvation victims who died in 1816 — the ”year without a summer.”…”

Suburban Emergency Managment Project

If you know anything about ancient  history, and very few Americans know anything that happened last year, let alone in 562AD, you will know that the Europe of the Roman Empire was thrown into a great cold, darkness, famine, and disease.  Centers of learning, which had primarily been in Athens, Alexandria, and Rome were cut off from the rank and file people who were simply trying to survive.

“…Science in the medieval Islamic world, also known as Islamic science or Arabic science, is the science developed and practised in the Islamic world during the Islamic Golden Age (c.750 CE – c.1258 CE). During this time, Indian, Iranian and especially Greek knowledge was translated into Arabic. These translations became a wellspring for scientific advances, by scientists from the Islamic civilization, during the Middle Ages.

Scientists within the Islamic civilization were of diverse ethnicities. Most were actually Persian, as well as a great number of Arabs, Moors and Egyptians. They were also from diverse religious backgrounds. Most were Muslims, but there were also some Christians, Jews and irreligious….”

You want to know something about important Islamic scientists?  Please just read through the list, taking note of the dates they live.

“…In medieval Islam, the sciences, which included philosophy, were viewed holistically. The individual scientific disciplines were approached in terms of their relationships to each other and the whole, as if they were branches of a tree. In this regard, the most important scientists of Islamic civilization have been the polymaths, known as hakim or sages. Their role in the transmission of the sciences was central.

The hakim was most often a poet and a writer, skilled in the practice of medicine as well as astronomy and mathematics. These multi-talented sages, the central figures in Islamic science, elaborated and personified the unity of the sciences. They orchestrated scientific development through their insights, and excelled in their explorations as well.

Jabir ibn Hayyan (ca. 8th – 9th centuries) was an alchemist who used extensive experimentation and produced many works on science and alchemy which have survived to the present day. Jabir described the laboratory techniques and experimental methods of chemistry. He identified many substances including sulfuric and nitric acid. He described processes including sublimation, reduction and distillation. He utilized equipment such as the alembic and the retort. There is considerable uncertainty as to the actual provenance of many works that are ascribed to him.

The Banu Musa brothers, Jafar-Muhammad, Ahmad and al-Hasan (ca. early 9th century) were three sons of a colorful astronomer and astrologer. They were scholars close to the court of caliph al-Mamun, and contributed greatly to the translation of ancient works into Arabic. They elaborated the mathematics of cones and ellipses, and performed astronomic calculations. Most notably, they contributed to the field of automation with the creations of automated devices such as the ones described in their Book of Ingenious Devices.

Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (801–873) was a philosopher and polymath scientist heavily involved in the translation of Greek classics into Arabic. He worked to reconcile the conflicts between his Islamic faith and his affinity for reason; a conflict that would eventually lead to problems with his rulers. He criticized the basis of alchemy and astrology, and contributed to a wide range of scientific subjects in his writings. He worked on cryptography for the caliphate, and even wrote a piece on the subject of time, space and relative movement.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) was one of the most important translators of the ancient Greek works into Arabic. He was also a physician and a writer on medical subjects. His translations interpreted, corrected and extended the ancient works. Some of his translations of medical works were used in Europe for centuries. He also wrote on medical subjects, particularly on the human eye. His book Ten Treatises on the Eye was influential in the West until the 17th century.

Abbas ibn Firnas (810–887) was an Andalusian scientist, musician and inventor. He developed a clear glass used in drinking vessels, and lenses used for magnification and the improvement of vision. He had a room in his house where the sky was simulated, including the motion of planets, stars and weather complete with clouds, thunder and lightning. He is most well known for reportedly surviving an attempt at controlled flight.

Thabit ibn Qurra (835–901) was a Sabian translator and mathematician from Harran, in what is now Turkey. He is known for his translations of Greek mathematics and astronomy, but as was common, he also added his own work to the translations. He is known for having calculated the solution to a chessboard problem involving an exponential series.

al-Khwarizmi (ca. 8th–9th centuries) was a Persian mathematician, geographer and astronomer. He is regarded as the greatest mathematician of Islamic civilization. He was instrumental in the adoption of the Indian numbering system, later known as Arabic numerals. His developed algebra, which also had Indian antecedents, by introducing methods of simplifying the equations. He used Euclidian geometry in his proofs.

al-Battani (850–922) was an astronomer who accurately determined the length of the solar year. He contributed to numeric tables, such as the Tables of Toledo, used by astronomers to predict the movements of the sun, moon and planets across the sky. Some of Battani’s astronomic tables were later used by Copernicus. Battani also developed numeric tables which could be used to find the direction of Mecca from different locations. Knowing the direction of Mecca is important for Muslims, as this is the direction faced during prayer.

Abu Bakr Zakariya al-Razi (ca. 854–925/935) was born in Rayy, Iran. He was a polymath who wrote on a variety of topics, but his most important works were in the field of medicine. He identified smallpox and measles, and recognized fever was part of the body’s defenses. He wrote a 23-volume compendium of Chinese, Indian, Persian, Syriac and Greek medicine. al-Razi questioned some aspects of the classical Greek medical theory of how the four humors regulate life processes. He challenged Galen’s work on several fronts, including the treatment of bloodletting. His trial of bloodletting showed it was effective; a result we now know to be erroneous.

al-Farabi (ca. 870–950) was a rationalist philosopher and mathematician who attempted to describe, geometrically, the repeating patterns popular in Islamic decorative motifs. His book on the subject is titled Spiritual Crafts and Natural Secrets in the Details of Geometrical Figures.

Ibrahim ibn Sina (Avicenna) (908–946) was a physician, astronomer, physicist and mathematician from Bukhara, Uzbekistan. In addition to his master work, The Canon of Medicine, he also made important astronomical observations, and discussed a variety of topics including the different forms energy can take, and the properties of light. He contributed to the development of mathematical techniques such as Casting out nines.

al-Zahrawi (936–1013) was an Andalusian surgeon who is known as the greatest surgeon of medieval Islam. His most important surviving work is referred to as al-Tasrif (Medical Knowledge). It is a 30 volume set discussing medical symptoms, treatments, and mostly pharmacology, but it is the last volume of the set which has attracted the most attention over time. This last volume is a surgical manual describing surgical instruments, supplies and procedures. Scholars studying this manual are discovering references to procedures previously believed to belong to more modern times.

ibn al-Haytham (965–1040) was an Egyptian scientist who worked in several fields, but is now known primarily for his achievements in astronomy and optics. He was an experimentalist who questioned the ancient Greek works of Ptolemy and Galen. At times, al-Haytham suggested Ptolomey’s celestial model, and Galen’s explanation of vision, had problems. The prevailing opinion of the time, Galen’s opinion, was that vision involved transmission of light from the eye, an explanation al-Haytham cast doubt upon. He also studied the effects of light refraction, and suggested the mathematics of reflection and refraction needed to be consistent with the anatomy of the eye.

al-Zarqali (1028–1087) was an Andalusian artisan, skilled in working sheet metal, who became a famous maker of astronomical equipment, an astronomer, and a mathematician. He developed a new design for a highly accurate astrolabe which was used for centuries afterwards. He constructed a famous water clock that attracted much attention in Toledo for centuries. He discovered that the Sun’s apogee moves slowly relative to the fixed stars, and obtained a very good estimate for its rate of change.

Omar Khayyam (1048–1131) was a poet and mathematician who calculated the length of the year to within 5 decimal places. He found geometric solutions to all 13 forms of cubic equations. He developed some quadratic equations still in use. He is well known in the West for his poetry (rubaiyat).  (FYI – Omar Khayyum was a Christian)

al-Idrisi (1100–1166) was an Andalusian traveler, cartographer and geographer famous for a map of the world he created for Roger, the Norman King of Sicily. al-Idrisi also wrote the Book of Roger, a geographic study of the peoples, climates, resources and industries of all the world known at that time. In it, he incidentally relates the tale of a Moroccan ship blown west in the Atlantic, and returning with tales of faraway lands.

ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288) was a physician who was born in Damascus and practiced medicine as head physician at the al-Mansuri hospital in Cairo. He wrote an influential book on medicine, believed to have replaced ibn-Sina’s Canon in the Islamic world – if not Europe. He wrote important commentaries on Galen and ibn-Sina’s works. One of these commentaries was discovered in 1924, and yielded a description of pulmonary transit, the circulation of blood from the right to left ventricles of the heart through the lungs.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) was a Persian astronomer and mathematician whose life was overshadowed by the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan and his grandson Helagu. al-Tusi wrote an important revision to Ptolemy’s celestial model, among other works. When he became Helagu’s astrologer, he was furnished with an impressive observatory and gained access to Chinese techniques and observations. He developed trigonometry to the point it became a separate field, and compiled the most accurate astronomical tables available up to that time….”


The New Atlantis

“…There is a more fundamental reason, however, why it may not make much sense to urge the Muslim world to restore those parts of its past that valued rational and open inquiry: namely, a return to the Mu’tazilites may not be enough. Even the most rationalist schools in Islam did not categorically argue for the primacy of reason. As Ali A. Allawi argues in The Crisis of Islamic Civilization (2009), “None of the free-thinking schools in classical Islam — such as the Mu’tazila — could ever entertain the idea of breaking the God-Man relationship and the validity of revelation, in spite of their espousal of a rationalist philosophy.” Indeed, in 1889 the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher noted in his essay “The Attitude of Orthodox Islam Toward the ‘Ancient Sciences’” that it was not only Ash’arite but Mu’tazilite circles that “produced numerous polemical treatises against Aristotelian philosophy in general and against logic in particular.” Even before al-Ghazali’s attack on the Mu’tazilites, engaging in Greek philosophy was not exactly a safe task outside of auspicious but rather ephemeral conditions.

But more importantly, merely popularizing previous rationalist schools would not go very far in persuading Muslims to reflect on the theological-political problem of Islam. For all the great help that the rediscovery of the influential Arabic philosophers (especially al-Farabi, Averroës, and Maimonides) would provide, no science-friendly Islamic tradition goes nearly far enough, to the point that it offers a theological renovation in the vein of Luther and Calvin — a reinterpretation of Islam that challenges the faith’s comprehensive ruling principles in a way that simultaneously convinces Muslims that they are in fact returning to the fundamentals of their faith.

There is a final reason why it makes little sense to exhort Muslims to their own past: while there are many things that the Islamic world lacks, pride in heritage is not one of them. What is needed in Islam is less self-pride and more self-criticism. Today, self-criticism in Islam is valued only insofar as it is made as an appeal to be more pious and less spiritually corrupt. And yet most criticism in the Muslim world is directed outward, at the West. This prejudice — what Fouad Ajami has called (referring to the Arab world) “a political tradition of belligerent self-pity” — is undoubtedly one of Islam’s biggest obstacles. It makes information that contradicts orthodox belief irrelevant, and it closes off debate about the nature and history of Islam.

In this respect, inquiry into the history of Arabic science, and the recovery and research of manuscripts of the era, may have a beneficial effect — so long as it is pursued in an analytical spirit. That would mean that Muslims would use it as a resource within their own tradition to critically engage with their philosophical, political, and founding flaws. If that occurs, it will not arise from any Western outreach efforts, but will be a consequence of Muslims’ own determination, creativity, and wisdom — in short, those very traits that Westerners rightly ascribe to the Muslims of the Golden Age….”