From about 750-1200A.D., Islam led a scientific golden age. Islam had rapidly spread as far east as China and as far west as Spain, extending south to Northern Africa and India.[1] The Caliphate Empire extended trade to all corners of its empire and, through it, Islam made contact with Europe, Africa, and Asia to exchange goods and ideas alike.[2]

The center of Islamic power was Baghdad (in modern-day Iran), crossroads of the world, under the rule of the Abbasid caliphs who came to power in 749 and ruled for the next 500 years.[3] The high literacy rate required to read the Quran—combined with the generous support of pious Muslims, including several heads of state—lead to a large number of Muslims being able to study scientific texts.[4] Additionally, the basic tenants of Islam command its followers to treat others as equals. This, coupled with a diverse population of over 1 million in Baghdad by 930, all lead to Islamic science being more inclusive and egalitarian than its European counterpart.[5]

Development of new knowledge and research was encouraged, as was anything that improved the quality of life. Abbasid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma’mun, established a House of Wisdom which was a center of diverse learning from many different cultures and religions. There, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all collaborated and worked side by side in peace.[7]

Foreign texts were of interest—particularly the works of the Greeks. In 840, al-Ma’mun paid scholars to bring back copies of foreign texts to the House of Wisdom to be translated into Arabic.[8] The translation movement saw the compilation and translation of thousands of important works. al-Ma’mun even sent emissaries to collect surviving Greek manuscripts from the Byzantines and demanded them as loot in war. By 950, virtually every scholarly Greek text in existence had been translated to Arabic multiple times, and the libraries of Baghdad had become the largest international libraries in the world.[9]

The caliphs were dedicated to preserving knowledge, not only because the Quran stated that the pursuit of knowledge was a holy activity, but because they themselves had a personal interest in scholarship and they could see the benefits in the useful inventions and discoveries it produced.[10] Their dedication established many centers of learning that included observatories, hospitals, public libraries, mosques, and madrasas (or colleges).[11] Each center of learning had paper books, made possible by the introduction of paper from China, the development of mass production in paper mills across the empire, and an early form of the printing press.[12]

Centralized knowledge, religious tolerance, multinational diversity, and a system that prized discovery and scientific advancement created an environment in which great advances in knowledge and discovery were possible.


In 825, Baghdad mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī wrote one of the most mathematically significant books in history, al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa’l-muqābala (translated into Latin in the 12th century as Algebra et Almucabal, from which the modern term algebra is derived).[13] Algebra was designed as a system to mathematically describe the world and by 1000CE, several other important mathematical works like Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius of Perga, Ptolemy, and Diophantus had all been translated into Arabic. These, combined with works from Babylonian and Indian mathematicians, helped to lay the foundation for the geometric justification of their mathematical proofs based on a systemization of all the cases.[14]

The apex of Islamic genius allowed for wider application and greater flexibility of mathematic application. Where the Greek sources had been rigid and specific mathematical functions had been designed purely for one application, Arab mathematicians mixed different equations to allow them to solve problems of greater complexity.

A classic example of this is Egyptian mathematician Abu Kāmil, who treated the solution of his quadratic equation as a number he could then apply to other problems, rather than as a rigid line segment. This multi-dimensional thinking, along with the implementation of the Indian decimal system, made possible something as abstract and universally applicable as the algebraic equation.[15]

This video shows the life of al-Khwārizmī and the birth of algebra.[16]

File:Image-Al-Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala.jpg

Arabic scholars translated the works of the great Indian mathematicians and, in doing so, adopted their notation system: ten symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0.[18] These formed the foundation of the new wave of mathematic exploration and they would go on to replace the abacus.

File:Bakhshali numerals 2.jpg

Of special interest were Siddhantas—an Indian astronomical treatise whose oldest dates back to around 425CE. These texts may have been the primary means of introduction through which the Hindu numeral system was adopted.[20]

In 813, al-Khwārizmī made several astronomical tables that included the numeral zero and the detailed instructions for its use. In his book Keys of the Sciences, he stated “if in a calculation, no number appears in the place of tens, a little circle should be used to keep the rows. This circle the Mosloems called ṣifr, ‘empty’."[21] These contributions were radical because the use of zero is critical to the identity of integers, real numbers, and all other aspects of mathematical theory.[22]

This video’s visuals are stunning, and it details the discovery and application of the number 0.[23]

Trigonometry is used to turn shapes, specifically triangles, into numbers. This is important because triangles are in everything and the ability to find the angle between two points allows mathematicians to tell times based on the angle of the sun or to survey an area for construction.

In the early 9th century, al-Khwārizmī published the first accurate table of sine and cosine, which allowed mathematicians to easily calculate the remaining sides (and angles) of a triangle using the length of its longest side and any internal angle—regardless of the triangle’s size.[24] This allowed mathematicians to use sine, cosine, or tangent to calculate the length of a triangle, which could then be used to calculate angle, area, volume, and a host of other functions. Since a triangle is one of the basic shapes of Euclidean geometry, mathematicians possessed a major tool to describe the world around them.[25]

By 900CE, Abū al-Wafā' al-Būzjānī described all three trigonometric functions which allowed Al-Jayyani of al-Andalus to write The Book of Unknown Arcs of a Sphere, which is widely considered to be the first treatise on spherical geometry as it allowed for the solving of right-handed triangles and spherical triangles, even if the length of all sides was unknown.[26] Finally, triangulation was invented by Muslim mathematicians primarily for surveying and geography.[27]

This video displays the prevalence and universality of math.[28]


As Islam spread west, Muslim scholars became acquainted with Greek medicinal writings. Determined to retain this knowledge, Arabic scholars translated copies and distributed the works of Hippocrates which formed the foundation of Islamic medicine.[29]

The most important centers of learning and knowledge distribution were the madrassa, a school attached to a mosque that served to teach students everything—from law and Greek natural philosophy to astronomy and medicine.[30] Over time, some mosques became hospitals and the madrassas attached to them became medical schools that specialized in a particular discipline.[31]

File:DivrigiUluCami (2006).jpg

The Arabic contributions to modern medicine are exemplified in the work of Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna. In 1025, he published his culminating work Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb,* or Canon of Medicine. *This colossal tome attempted to harmonize the works of Galen and Hippocrates with Greek and Arabic philosophers. The book is divided into five sections. The first discusses basic medical principles like anatomy and diagnosis. The second section covers pharmaceuticals and remedies, with instructions on how to prepare them. The third explains the diagnosis and treatment of diseases local to specific body parts, with the fourth section discussing systemic diseases and poisoning. The final section is an index of compound remedies.[33]

What makes this work so amazing is that is a compendium of all medical knowledge at the time and it would form the foundation of European and Islamic medicine for the next eight hundred years.[34]

File:The Canon of Medicine.jpg

This video breaks down Islamic medicine and its contributions to modern medicine.[36]


Practical considerations motivated the development of improved navigation and, by extension, the development of a more accurate understanding of the cosmos. Navigating from one end of the empire to the other was a long and arduous journey that required more accurate maps and other navigation techniques.[37]

One of the most important developments was the addition of the azimuth to the Greek astrolabe, which was used to determine the angle of celestial bodies for triangulation.[38] The azimuth allowed the navigator to more accurately determine the angle of the stars. The astrolabe was later improved into the spherical astrolabe, which combined an armillary sphere and an astrolabe to give a three-dimensional view of the celestial sphere, with the angles and periods of stars’ orbits.[39] The result was not only a breathtakingly beautiful device, but an instrument so accurate that scholars could navigate from India to France using nothing but the sky.[40]

This video shows how astrolabes can be used to tell time.[41] They were used in the Arabic world to fix prayer times and orient worshipers towards Mecca.[42] Astrolabes are incredible pieces of technology, and one source lists over a thousand functions from surveying to measurement, and even to calculation. In effect, it was the world’s first portable computer.[43]

The following video shows how effective and beautiful an armillary sphere is at modeling the orbits of celestial bodies.[44]

By counting paces to a specific point in the north and south and tracking the stars along one degree, Islamic scholars measured the Earth’s circumference to within 2% of today’s measurement. Then they multiplied the distance by 360 degrees and to finalize their measurement.[45]

Another important contribution was the Zij books, astronomical handbooks that fixed prayer times. These handbooks were so accurate that some scholars like Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji and Abu ma'shar proposed heliocentric models of the solar system.[46]


Islamic engineering reached extraordinary heights during the Middle Ages. Islamic scholars adopted the peaked arch and built amazing dams and waterworks—even underground channels to tap groundwater.[47]

In 850, the Banu Musa brothers wrote The Book of Ingenious Devices, which described one hundred devices, how to build them, and what they did.[48] Some of the most impressive inventions in the book are early versions of the plug valve, float value, and tap—all of which allow for the control of the flow of liquid inside of a pipe.[49] They also designed the first clamshell grab used to extract an item from underwater.[50] There are also details for an early gas mask and bellows to extract foul air from wells.[51] They even had a programable organ that could play different songs by changing out cylinders with raised pins that programmed the organ’s notes like a giant music box; this could quite possibly be the world’s earliest programmable device.[52] One of their most complex inventions were fountains that distributed water; some variations were powered by wind and some ejected a single jet or multiple streams.[53]

The penultimate Islamic engineer was unquestionably Badi' al-Zaman Abu-'l-'Izz Ibn Isma'il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, called al-Jazari for short. In 1206, he published The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which described even more inventions and how to build them. Some of the most important inventions were the water wheel, water mill, improved fountains, and an early version of the camshaft and segmental gear which underpin nearly all of our modern technology.[54] The camshaft is what drives the opening and closing of intake and exhaust valves in an engine, and they are a central component of the internal combustion engine.[55] The segmental gear allows for the creation of torque and transmits rotational motion to a different axis; they are essential for everything, from clocks and motors to industrial equipment and weight lifting devices.[56]

File:Al-Jazari Automata 1205.jpg

One of al-Jazari’s most complex and impressive inventions was his robotics and human automatons. He designed an enormous elephant water clock that uses a stopcock, which is also present in all modern toilets.

File:Al-jazari elephant clock.png

This video gives a detailed breakdown of how the massive elephant clock tells time.[59]

He also invented a serving girl that poured tea, which was an automaton designed to wash your hands; a peacock fountain, built upon the inventions of the Banu Musa brothers; and an autonomous, programmable four-member band that could float down the river.[60]

File:Al-Jazari - A Musical Toy.jpg

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