Muslim scientists: On the shoulders of giants

"Muslim scientists have made no contributions to the knowledge of the world". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ovais Mangalwalla August 28, 2011

Given the state of science in the Muslim world today, one could be forgiven for imagining that Muslim scientists have made no contributions to the accumulated knowledge of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth.



INTEREST: Medicine, Astronomy, Chemistry, Geology, Psychology, Theology, Logic, Mathematics and Poetry

WORKS: Ibn-e-Sina, known in the west as Avicenna, memorised the Qur’an and a great deal of Arabic poetry by the age of ten. At the age of thirteen, he began to study medicine and mastered the subject in just three years after which he began treating patients.

His most famous work is the 14-volume Al-Qanun fit Tibb that served as a chief guide for medical science in the West from the 12th to the 17th century. The book is known for the discovery of contagious and sexually transmitted diseases, the introduction of quarantine to limit the spread of infectious diseases and the introduction of experimental medicine.

His most important mathematical work is the 20-volume Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing) in which he included astronomy and music as branches of mathematics.

LEGACY: Ibn-e-Sina is considered the most famous Muslim scientist. He is remembered in the West as a major figure who made important contributions to medicine and eventually the European Renaissance.

In his honour, a lunar crater on the far side of the moon has been named after him. In March 2008 it was announced that all new directories of education institutions for health care professionals worldwide would now be called Avicenna Directories.

Al Khwarizmi


COUNTRY: Iraq  (Baghdad)

INTEREST: Mathematics, Astronomy and Geography

WORKS: Al Khwarizmi and his colleagues were scholars at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad where their tasks involved the translation of Greek scientific manuscripts and studying mathematics, geometry and astronomy. He wrote that given an equation, collecting the unknowns on one side of the equation is called al-Jabr and collecting the knowns on the other side of the equation is called al- Mukabalah. It is the title of this book that became the foundation of the modern word ‘Algebra’.

Al Khwarizmi also helped introduce Arabic numerals, the decimal position system, and the concept of zero. He was principally responsible for spreading the Indian system of numeration throughout the Middle East and Europe.

His masterpiece,  Zij Al Hind Sind (astronomical tables of Sind and Hind) marked the turning point in the field of Islamic astronomical research. It contains tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time. Al Khwarizmi also composed a major work on geography listing latitudes and longitudes, cities, mountains, seas, islands, geographical regions, and rivers.

His minor works cover topics such as the astrolabe, the sundial and the Jewish calendar.

LEGACY: Al Khwarizmi is considered the Father of modern Algebra. It was he who developed the sine, cosine and trigonometric tables, which were later translated in the West.

His work in the field of geography became the basis for the development of a world map.

Al Battani


COUNTRY: Born in Harran in Upper Mesopotamia (Turkey)

INTEREST: Astronomy and Mathematics

WORKS: Al Battani, like his father Al Hattani, was skilled in making astronomical instruments.

His major work is the 57-chapter Kitab-al-Zij, in which he determines the length of the solar year as being 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes and 24 seconds. The book also describes the division of the celestial sphere into the signs of the zodiac and into degrees. Moreover, it discusses the construction of a sundial and a number of astronomical instruments. Al Battani also catalogued 489 stars.

In mathematics, Al Battani produced a number of trigonometric relationships.

LEGACY: His work in observing the stars and scrutinising their motions led to a number of discoveries in the field. The renaissance Astronomer Copernicus mentioned his indebtedness to Al Battani and quoted him in the book that initiated the Copernican Revolution. He is also quoted by Tycho Brahe, Riccioli, Kepler and Galileo, among others.

The crater Albategnius on the Moon is named after him.




COUNTRY: Tunisia

INTEREST: Sociology, History, Economics, Philosophy and Theology

WORKS: Ibn-e-Khaldun is the originator of modern sociology and politics; he gave political science a whole new outlook.

He wrote a world history preamble with the first volume aiming to analyse all historical events. This volume, written in 1377, known as Muqaddimah or Prolegomena, was based on Khaldun’s unique scientific approach towards the subject and became a masterpiece in literature on the philosophy of history and sociology. The last volume deals largely with the events of his own life and is known as Al-Tasrif. This was also written in a scientific manner and initiated a new analytical tradition in the art of writing autobiographies.

Unlike most of the earlier writers interpreting history largely in a political context, he emphasised environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing historical events.

LEGACY: Ibn Khaldun’s books have been translated into many languages, both in the East and the West, and have inspired subsequent development of these sciences.Muqaddimah is considered to be superior to Machiavelli’s The Prince in the sphere of political science. British historian Arnold J Toynbee called it “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”

Khaldun’s methodology of recording history also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history, leading to the development of historiography.

Al Haytham or Al Basri


COUNTRY: Basra, Iraq (then Persia)

INTEREST: Physics, Anatomy, Astronomy, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine, Psychology and Philosophy.

WORKS: Al Haytham wrote on a theory of light, a theory of vision, astronomy, mathematics, geometry and a number theory.

The seven volume work on optics, Kitab al-Manazir, is Ibn Al-Haytham’s most important contribution. It was translated into Latin as Opticae Thesaurus Alhazeni in 1270. He also made a thorough examination of the passage of light through various media and discovered the laws of refraction. He dealt at length with the theories of various physical phenomena like shadows, eclipses and the rainbow and described accurately the various parts of the eye and gave a scientific explanation for the process of vision. His studies of optics led him to propose the use of a camera obscura.

In mathematics, he developed analytical geometry by establishing a linkage between algebra and geometry.

LEGACY: Al Haytham is considered the Father of modern Optics. The Latin translation of his main work, Kitab-al-Manazir, has exerted great influence on Western science, especially on the works of Roger Bacon and Johannes Kepler.

The crater Alhazen on the moon is named in his honour, as is the asteroid ‘59239 Alhazen’.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 28th,  2011.