Medieval Muslims Made Stunning Science Breakthroughs


Richard Moore

Original source URL:,,1728032,00.html

Charting the lost innovations of Islam

Paul Lewis highlights a new exhibition that reveals the inventions made by the 
Muslim world

Paul Lewis
Friday March 10, 2006
Guardian Unlimited

It is the thread that links cars, carpets and cameras and is also responsible 
for three-course meals, bookshops and modern medicine.

The Islamic civilisation, according to the curators of a national exhibition 
that opened this week, has made an enormous but largely neglected contribution 
to the way we live in the west.

The project, 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage of Our World, 
supported by the Home Office and the Department for Trade and Industry, uncovers
the Islamic civilisation's overlooked contribution to science, technology and 
art during the dark ages in European history.

It lifts the veil on hundreds of innovations - from kiosks and chess through to 
windmills and cryptography - that are often popularly associated with the 
western world but originate from Muslim scholarship and science.

Based on more than 3,000 peer-reviewed academic studies, the exhibition charts 
Islamic innovations during ten decades of "missing history" spanning from the 
6th to the 16th century and covering an area stretching from China to southern 

Tailored to appeal to school children and their teachers, and accompanied by a 
book and online resource, the project was launched at Manchester's Museum of 
Science and Industry and will tour the country.

Professor Salim al-Hassani, who has led a five-year project to collate and 
validate the research behind the exhibition, said: "If you ask the average 
person where their spectacles or camera or fountain pen come from, few people 
would say Muslims.

"A lot of these scientific and cultural developments are accepted as fact in the
academy, but the vast majority of people - because of the nature of the 
education system - are completely unaware of their origins."

In his own field, mechanical engineering, Professor al-Hassani has used original
13th century manuscripts to produce virtual reconstructions of sophisticated 
water pumps and cranks.

"The technology behind these mechanisms was incredibly sophisticated for its 
time and eventually gave birth to pioneering machinery which still features in 
every single car," he said.

A central theme is the exchange of knowledge and culture between civilisations 
and their lasting significance today.

For example, the 9th century musician and fashion designer known as Ziryab, who 
travelled from Iraq to Andalusia in Spain, is said to have introduced the 
concept of the three-course meal.

Meanwhile, it was Caliph al-Ma'mum's interest in astronomy that led to the 
development of large observatories, sophisticated astronomical instruments and a
rigorous analysis of the stars.

The organisers, the Manchester-based Foundation for Science, Technology and 
Civilisation, hope to use the compilation to bring about an audit of the 
national curriculum to ensure it recognises Islamic achievements and the full 
extent of knowledge transfer between civilisations through the ages.

"For a lot of children in schools, the history of science seems untouchable and 
remote," said Yasmin Khan, the exhibitions project manager. "We need to change 
the way we explain civilisation's progress in our schools."

Last year, the government's preventing extremism working group on education 
proposed that the entire education system should be instilled with "a more 
faithful reflection of Islam and its civilisation".

Professor Mark Halstead, a lecturer in moral education at Plymouth University, 
said there was scope in the existing curriculum to teach the contributions of 
Islamic civilisation, but teachers required better training.

"Islam needs to take its place alongside other historic groups, such as the 
ancient Romans and Greeks," he said.

"When Europe was living in the dark ages, Islamic civilisation was blossoming, 
and the advances during this period are more relevant to the modern world than 
those of the Ancient Egyptians and Aztecs." © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006

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