|The 16th-century al-Amiriya madrassa in Yemen incorporated architecture |
based on complex trigonometric designs [EPA]
Within a century of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in AD 622, the new Arab Muslim empire spread from the Arabian peninsula reaching as far as Spain in the West and China in the East.
It was during the formative years of this empire that the Arabs launched a renaissance incorporating the sciences, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, architecture, agriculture and innovations from the lands they conquered.
Between the seventh and 13th centuries, the Arabs developed a keen sense of education and spearheaded a wave of scientific and social developments.
The following are some of the Arab achievements seen by many historians as those most important in enabling the European renaissance to flourish several centuries later.
The madrassa, or school, evolved in the 10th century as a centre of education where a formal curriculum was introduced, a precursor to the modern interpretation of the traditional university.
One such university was established in Fez in present-day Morocco by Fatima al-Fihri, a wealthy businesswoman.
Instructors were paid a regular salary and various subjects including Islamic jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and commerce were taught.
It was here that Christian, Jewish, Arab, Persian, Kurdish, Hindu and Byzantine Greek philosophies openly intermingled.
In 815, Mohammad ibn Musa al-Khawarzimi, a prominent mathematician at the House of Wisdom academy in Baghdad, sought precise measurements to settle land inheritance issues as stipulated by the Quran.
He developed the Hindu concept of numerals, which introduced the concept of the zero as a place holder value system, and created the decimal system.
He went on to write a treatise, Hisab al-jabr w'al-muqabala, on the concept of al-jabr (algebra), the first such work on the subject. The word algorithm is derived from his name.
Many of the Arab inventions were spurred on by the needs of Islamic practise and the astrolabe was no exception.
Originally devised by the Greeks 2,200 years ago, it was not until the eighth century that Arab astronomers perfected its use to calibrate the times of sunrise and sunset to facilitate the five prayer times for Muslims.
The astrolabe was also used to determine when Muslims began and ended their fast during the month of Ramadan.
Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a Persian Tajik physicist, became an expert on the astrolabe in the 10th century and used it to theorise that the Earth rotated on its own axis, a postulate later proven by Galileo.
Arab scientists were also able to use the astrolabe to determine latitude and longitude and produced detailed astronomical charts.
By the 12th century, widespread use of the astrolabe spread into Europe from Andalusian Spain.
The medical encyclopaedia
Modern medicine has its roots in the documented compilations of several Arab scientists, chief among them Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian scientist who in the ninth century stressed the need for clinical medicine and observation.
Among his many achievements was the study of smallpox and measles and he was the first to distinguish between the two, becoming an expert on human contagions. He also discovered ethanol and applied it to medicinal practise.
In his Kitab al-Mansuri, al-Razi produced a series of medical surveys which were compiled into the first medical encyclopaedia.
Less than 100 years later, Abu Ali al-Hussain ibn Abdullah ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, built on al-Razi's research and produced a volume of study on about 750 drugs used in the treatment of patients.
He also wrote Al Qanun, The Canon of Medicine, a volume of detailed medical studies combining experimentation and quantification in the study of physical and psychological illnesses.
His works were standardised for use in Arab and European universities until the end of the 19th century.