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For the culture and civilization that were founded on Islam not only preserved the heritage of the ancient world but codified, systematized, explained, criticized, modified, and, finally, built on past contributions in the process of making distinctive contributions of their own. The story of Islam's role in the preservation and transmission of ancient science, to say nothing of its own lasting contributions, is truly fascinating—and a bit of a puzzle. Why is it that so many ancient Greek texts survive only in Arabic translations? How did the Arabs, who had no direct contact with the science and learning of the Greeks, come to be the inheritors of the classical tradition?

The answers to these questions are to be found in a unique conjunction of historical forces. From the first, it appears, the Umayyad dynasty located in Damascus evinced an interest in things Greek, for they employed educated Greek-speaking civil servants extensively. Early friezes on mosques from the period show a familiarity with the astrological lore of late antiquity. The theory of numbers, developed and expanded from the original Indian contribution, resulted in the "Arabic numbers" 1 through 9. Islamic scholars also used the concept of zero, which was a Hindu concept. Without the zero, neither mathematics, algebra, nor cybernetics would have developed.

Algebra was essentially developed by the Arab Muslims; the very word derives from the Arabic al-jabr. Among the most prominent scholars is the Basra born Ibn al-Haytham , who developed the "Alhazen problem," one of the basic algebraic problems, and who made great contributions to optics and physics.

He had advanced long before Newton the thesis that extraterrestrial scientific phenomena governed the motion of the earth and stars.

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He also developed experiments on light which were nothing short of extraordinary at that time. He demonstrated the theory of parallels, based on the finding that light travels in straight lines, and the passing of light through glass. Astronomy, developed by the Babylonians, continued to flourish under Islam. It soon expanded beyond the science of observation into the design of measuring instruments.

In addition, it gave rise to the development of planetary theory. The Arabic alphabet developed from the ancient script used for Nabataean, a dialect of Aramaic, in a region now part of Jordan. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters.

The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment

However, additional letters have been added to serve the need of other languages using the Arabic script; such as Farsi, Dari, and Urdu, and Turkish until the early part of the 20th century. The Qur'an was revealed in Arabic. Traditionally the Semites and the Greeks assigned numerical values to their letters and used them as numerals. But the Arabs developed the numbers now used in languages. The invention of the "zero" is credited to the Arabs though it has its origins in Hindu scholarship. The Arab scholars recognized the need for a sign representing "nothing," because the place of a sign gave as much information as its unitary value did.

The Arabic zero proved indispensable as a basis for all modern science.

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The medical sciences were largely developed throughout the works of Ibn Sina Avicenna , al-Razzi, and Husayn bin Ishak al-Ibadi, who translated Hippocrates and other Greeks. Razi is reported to have written books on medicine, one of them on medical ethics, and the Hawi, a 25 volume practical encyclopedia. Ibn Sina became a famed physician at 18 who wrote 16 books and the Canoun, an encyclopedia on all known diseases in the world.

It was translated into many languages. But medical science soon led into zoology, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, pharmacology and chemistry. Indeed the word "chemistry" derives from the Arabic word al-kemia or alchemy as it was later known.

The most important medical school was that of Judishapur, Iran, which after became part of the Muslim world. It was managed by Syrian Christians and became the center for most Muslim practical learning and the model for the hospitals built under the Abbasids between The Arabs clearly followed the Hadith of the Prophet urging them to pursue knowledge from birth to death, even if that search was to be in China deemed the most remote place on the earth.

The Abbasids, who displaced the Umayyads and moved the seat of government from Damascus to Baghdad, made the first serious effort to accommodate Greek science and philosophy to Islam. The Abbasid rulers, unlike the Umayyads who remained Arab in their tastes and customs, conceived an Islamic polity based on religious affiliation rather than nationality or race. This made it easier for people of differing cultural, racial, and intellectual heritages to mingle and exchange ideas as equals.

Persian astronomers from Gandeshapur could work side by side with mathematicians from Alexandria in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Baghdad. Then, too, the success of the Islamic conquest had erased existing national boundaries which had worked to keep peoples linguistically, politically, and intellectually apart. For the first time since Alexander the Great former rivals could meet and exchange ideas under the protection of a single state.

The rise of Arabic as the international language of science and government administration helped matters along. As the cultivation of the sciences intensified and the high civilization of the Abbasids blossomed, the expressive resources of Arabic blossomed as well, soon making Arabic the language of choice for international commerce and scholarship as well as divine revelation. Most important of all, however, it was the attitude that developed within the Islamic state toward the suspect writings of the Greeks. Unlike the Christian communities of late antiquity, whose attitudes toward the pagan philosophers were shaped by the experience of Roman persecution, Muslims did not suffer—or at least to the same degree—the conflict between faith and reason.

On the contrary, the Qur'an enjoined Muslims to seek knowledge all their lives, no matter what the source or where it might lead. As a result, Muslims of the Abbasid period quickly set about recovering the scientific and philosophical works of the classical past—lying neglected in the libraries of Byzantium—and translating them into Arabic. The task was herculean and complicated by the fact that texts of the classical period could not be translated directly from Greek into Arabic. Rather, they had first to be rendered in Syriac, the language with which Christian translators were most familiar, and then translated into Arabic by native speakers.

This circuitous route was made necessary by the fact that Christian communities, whose language was Syriac, tended to know Greek, whereas Muslims generally found it easier to learn Syriac, which is closer to Arabic. A doctor and patient discuss vitrified lead poisoning on this page from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.

The Greek work, from the first century BC, was translated into Arabic in the ninth century; this is a 13th-century copy made in Iraq. The translation effort began in earnest under the reign of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur He sent emissaries to the Byzantine emperor requesting mathematical texts and received in response a copy of Euclid's Elements.

This single gift, more than any other perhaps, ignited a passion for learning that was to last throughout the golden age of Islam and beyond. The effort was subsequently systematized under al-Ma'mun, who founded an institution expressly for the purpose, called the Bait al-Hikmah or House of Wisdom, which was staffed with salaried Muslim and Christian scholars. The output of the House of Wisdom over the centuries was prodigious, encompassing as it did nearly the entire corpus of the Greek scientific and philosophical thought.

Not only Euclid but Aristotle, Galen and Hippocrates, and Archimedes were among the authors to receive early treatment. It would be wrong to suggest that the scholars of the House of Wisdom were occupied with task of translation only. Muslim scholars generally were concerned to understand, codify, correct, and, most importantly, assimilate the learning of the ancients to the conceptual framework of Islam.

The greatest of these scholars were original and systematic thinkers of the first order, like the great Arab philosopher al-Farabi who died in His Catalog of Sciences had a tremendous effect on the curricula of medieval universities. Perhaps the most distinctive and noteworthy contributions occurred in the field of mathematics, where scholars from the House of Wisdom played a critical role in fusing the Indian and classical traditions, thus inaugurating the great age of Islamic mathematical speculation.

The first great advance consisted in the introduction of Arabic numerals—which, as far as can be determined, were Indian in origin. They embody the "place-value" theory, which permits numbers to be expressed by nine figures plus zero. This development not only simplified calculation but paved the way for the development of an entirely new branch of mathematics, algebra.

The study of geometry was sustained by a remarkable series of scholars, the Banu Musa or "Sons of Musa," who were all, quite literally, sons of the al-Ma'mun's court astronomer, Musa ibn Shakir. Their activities were all the more noteworthy because they carried on their research and writing as private citizens, devoting their lives and expending their fortunes in the pursuit of knowledge.

Not only did they sponsor the translation of numerous Greek works but contributed substantial works of their own.


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Al-Hasan, one of the sons, was perhaps the foremost geometrician of his time, translating six books of the Elements and working out the remainder of the proofs on his own. In addition to mathematics and geometry, Abbasid scholars in the House of Wisdom made important and lasting contributions in astronomy, ethics, mechanics, music, medicine, physics, and philosophy to name a few. In the process men of enormous intellect and productivity rose to prominence. One of these was Thabit ibn Qurra. Recruited from the provinces—where he had worked in obscurity as a money changer—he came to the Bait al-Hikmah to work as a translator.

There his exemplary grasp of Syriac, Creek, and Arabic made him invaluable. In addition to his translations of key works, such as Archimedes' Measurement of the Circle later translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century , he also wrote over 70 original works on a wide range of subjects. Ensslin's chapters in the Cambridge Ancient History , vol. XII and Prof. Baynes in The Journal of Roman Studies , vol. For Oriental. Origin of Christian Church Art , , and O. Dalton, East Christian Art Good accounts of the Nestorians, Monophysites and their schools are to be found in V.


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  • Labourt, Le Christianisme dans l'empire perse Paris, , and R. Paris, For the intellectual debt of Islam to the Eastern sects, see De L. Browne, A Literary History of Persia , vol. I , Carra de Vaux, Les penseurs de l'Islam 5 vols. Becker, Islamstudien 2 vols. Arnold and Guillaume, How could there be more than one form of the religion of the One God? He also thoroughly believed that this Monotheistic religion had preserved a Revelation, which perhaps he conceived of as an original revelation given to man, but lost and forgotten by idolaters. In any case he had no hesitation in adopting, as his own belief, what he discovered to be part of this revelation, or in fact anything which he found to be believed and related in connection with it, by.

    He made no concealment of his borrowing from that source.

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    Why should he? Could there be more than one revelation? God might make known His decrees to different peoples in different forms, but the actual content of the Revelation must always be the same. To find out what it was and put it in Arabic form, was that not to give his people the Revelation? But he had evidently great difficulty in finding out what Revelation, or the Scripture which he soon discovered was regarded as the record of it, really contained.