Sunday, September 05, 2004

Arabs Invent Algebra!

A long time ago while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley I signed up for a summer school class in Medieval Islamic History with Bernard Lewis, a visiting professor from England. Lewis was considered one of the leading Anglo-American experts on Islam, but I didn't know that. I was nineteen and needed a history elective in summer school and Lewis's class was open. Lewis is generally pro-United States and has been criticized by younger Islamic scholars. He had us read the whole Koran besides history books. I suggest everybody read the whole Koran. I was moved reading this book which is about the same lenght as the New Testament.

What struck me was Lewis talking about the importance of poetry in Islamic society where political poets had important public roles. According to Eric Ceadel in Literatures of the East Arabic poetry goes back to pagan times (before Muhammed) where the poet was the “artist, journalist, propagandist and public relations officer of his tribe” Besides learning that Islamic society has a 1,400 year history of poetry (longer than the literary history of most European nations), I did a paper in college on Muslim science and mathematic discoveries. I learned that Islamic society produced the most important scientific, philosophic and mathematic writers and researchers while Europe was in the Dark Ages.

In fact, Europe had lost most of the Greek classics while Islamic countries had kept copies of these classics in their great libraries. Further, the Islamic caliphs, the head of the huge empire, encouraged the translation of Greek classics on medicine, astronomy, chemistry, logic, mathematics and philosophy into Arabic. Centuries later Arabic and Jewish translators in Spain translated most of the Greek classics from into Arabic into European languages, thus giving these works to Europe. Besides these translations from the Greek, the Muslims translated history and literary books from Persian; Sanskrit books on mathematics, medicine, astronomy and literature; Syriac books on agriculture. Islamic scholars then built on the work of Greeks, Persians, Syrians, and Indians.

According to Najib Ullah’s Islamic Literature from the 8th-12th centuries Islamic astronomers made huge contributions and “introduced new procedures, formulas, calculations, and tables, which …. were the sources of reference for the great astronomers of Europe such as Tycho Brahe, Kelpler, Galileo, and Newton." Ullah also says that algebra is considered to be a Muslim invention. Mohammed ben Musa al_Khwarazami (d. 850) was the author of the first book on algebra. Ullah also says that Muslim mathematicians made innovations in arithmetic, geometry, spheric trigonometry, and introduced the numeric system and the concept of zero.

As for chemistry and physics, Ullah describes that "Al-Hazen's work on optics was the first of its kind ... The Muslims discovered alcohol, sulfuric acid, nitirc acid, royal water, potassium, ammonia salt, silver nitrate, sublimiated corrosives, as well as the method of preperation of mercury... The words alchohol, alembic, alkali, and elixir are Arabic." Islamic researches, furthermore, contributed to the development of medicine, natural sciences, and agriculture. In medicine, for example, Ibn Zohr of Muslim Spain pioneered in the method of scientific observation in medcine, surgery, and pharmacology as well as diagnosing and treating many new diseases.

I’d like to mention one Islamic scientist/philospher Abu Ali Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) who was born in 980 and educated by his scholar father and at the great library of the kings of Bukhara. Avicenna is very much an Islamic Aristotle: he wrote over 100 books on almost all topics of science, philosophy and literature. He wrote the Shifa, a book on logic, physics, mathematics, and astronomy; a work on logic called The Book of Theorems and Warnings; The Sources of Philosophy on physics and theology; several books of poetry in both Arabic and Persian et al. According to Ullah, “He believed in the unlimited power of reason. … He made original studies on questions of time and movement, the divisibility of matter, the conduction of light and heat. etc. His book on medicine The Canon was used in Europe for centuries.His theories of vacuum were utilized by Galileo and Torricelli ….” During the 12th century, Europeans translated over 100 of his books.

So I wrote the paper on Islamic mathematics and science and learned quite a lot how scholars from the Greece, India and, of course, the Islamic world, contriubted to developing mathematics, medicine and science.

I have yet to seen a mainstream media in the United States make one reference to Islam’s history as a leader of science and mathematics as well as producing wonderful poetry. I’ve never yet seen Muslims portrayed in mainstream U.S media as men and women of reason. I'd like to see a TV show on Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) as a great man of science, medicine, poetry and phiosophy. I think another good TV show would be on the debt Europe owes to all those Muslim and Jewish translators (many in Muslim Spain) who translated Greek classics into European languages. At that point Christain, Muslim and Jewish scholars worked productively together to enlarge scholarship. I think the mainstream U.S. media give out very stereotypic views of Islamic civilization and needs to change.

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