টপিক: Muslim Scientific Inventions

The Muslim Scholar

Muslims distinguished themselves not only as theoretical scientists and scientific thinkers, but contributed through innumerable inventions to the growth of the modern sciences. Though the mediaeval Muslims had very meagre resources at their command as compared to those of the present age, they achieved a great deal. They replaced the old speculative method of the Greeks with an experimental method, which in later periods formed the basis of all scientific investigations.

The Inventions

The Telescope

Abul Hasan is distinguished as the inventor of the Telescope, which he described to be a “Tube, to the extremities of which were attached diopters”.

The Pendulum

The Pendulum was invented by Ibn Yunus, a genius in science who lived in the reign of Aziz Billah and Hakim bi-Amr-illah, the Fatimid monarchs of Egypt. The invention of the Pendulum led to the measurement of time by its oscillations. His outstanding work Sijul Akbar al-Hakimi, named after his celebrated patron Hakim bi-Amr-illah, was acknowledged to be the masterpiece on the subject replacing the work of Ptolemy. It was translated into Persian by Omar Khayyam in 1079.

The Watch

The first watch was made by Kutbi, a renowned watch-maker of his time. During the Abbasid reign the use of a watch became quite common and the famous Harun-আর-Rashid once despatched a watch as a gift to his celebrated contemporary, the French Emperor Charlemagne. At that time a watch was considered a novel thing in Europe and was regarded as an object of wonder.

Mustansariya, the well-known university of Baghdad had a unique clock with a dial blue like the sky and a sun which continually moved over its surface denoting the time. Maulana Shibli, the famous Urdu litterateur, has described a watch of Damascus in the following words:

“The watch was kept in the door of a wall. It contained copper plates and twelve doors. There was an Eagle (Bat) standing in the Ist and the last plate. At the end of each hour, these two eagles lay down on the copper plates and hence a sound was produced to show the time. At twelve all the doors were closed. This system was being repeated continuously”.

The construction of water clocks was also common in Islamic Countries. “The Arabs were skilful in the construction of clepsydras and water clocks with automata,” says a European writer.

The Mariners Compass

The invention of Mariners Compass, which revolutionised sea borne commerce and oceanic shipping and enabled the Arabs to roam over the stormy seas in quest of new lands and additional markets for their commodities, is essentially a contribution of the Muslims to the world of science.

Knowledge about the properties of the needle, can no doubt be traced to Chinese sources, but putting it into working shape, in the form of a mariners’ compass, was the achievement of Muslim scientists. The compass was probably invented for the purpose of finding out the Qibla for Prayers.


Mir Fatehullah Khan is known to history as the inventor of gun and gunpowder. The presumption that gunpowder was first made by the Chinese does not stand the test of historical research. Writing in his book Arab Civilization, the author says that “gunpowder was a great invention of the Arabs who were already using guns”. Guns were used by Arabs in 1340 A.D. in the defence of Al-Bahsur, when Franzdol besieged it. The statement of Dr. Leabon about the invention of gunpowder by the Arabs is further corroborated by Mr. Scott in his well-known work, History of the Moorish Empire in Spain.

“It has been acknowledged by Joseph Hell in his book, Arab Civilization, that the distinction of inventing photography goes to Ibn al-Hashem, who is not only credited with its invention but also its development. Muhammad Musa, a great scholar of geography, has the unique distinction of being the inventor of an instrument by which the earth could be measured. He also invented the “Astrolabe”. These novel instruments invented by him have been preserved in the Museum of Madrid (Spain).”

Shipping instrument

A unique instrument was invented by Abu Solet Umayyah in 1134 A.D. through which a sunken ship would be raised – which greatly helped in the salvage expeditions of mediaeval times.

Manufacturing Soap, Paper and Cloth

The credit for manufacturing soap goes to Arab chemists, who introduced it to the world. The first paper in Islamic countries was manufactured in 794 A.D. in Baghdad by Yusuf Bin Omar. The paper manufactured in Arab countries was of superior quality than that made in Europe.

A paper mill was established in Baghdad, and soon paper replaced parchment (skin of animals) and papyrus (‘paper’ made from plants). the development of paper made knowledge and learning easier, for more people were able to have access to it.

In the manufacture of cloth, Muslims particularly in Spain exhibited marvellous skill and taste. Their woven cloth captured almost all the big markets of the world and was considered to be the finest as well as extremely durable.

The Windmill

Al-Masudi who died in Cairo in 957 A.D. may be called the “Pliny of the Arabs” In his celebrated work The Meadows of Gold, he has described an earthquake, and the first windmill which was also invented by a Muslim.

Astronomy and Navigation

Giralda or “The Tower of Seville”, was the first observatory in Europe. It was built in 1190 A.D., in the Spanish town of Seville under the supervision of the celebrated Mathematician, Jabir Ibn Afiah. It was meant for the observation of heavenly bodies. It was later turned into a belfry by Christian conquerors, who, after the expulsion of the Moors, did not know how to use it.

The many references to astronomy in the Qur’an and hadith, and the injunctions to learn, inspired the early Muslim scholars to study the heavens. They integrated the earlier works of the Indians, Persians and Greeks into a new synthesis.

Ptolemy (a 2nd Century Greek writer)’s ‘Almagest’ (the title as we know it today is actually Arabic) was translated, studied and criticized. Muslims were inspired to investigate and study the Earth, the features of the land, methods of mapping and so on. Many new stars were discovered, as we see in their Arabic names – Algol, Deneb, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Aldebaran.

Astronomical tables were compiled, among them the Toledan tables, which were used by Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Kepler.

These works were used to determine the direction of Makkah from various locations, to improve navigation and surveying, and establishing correct time keeping and calanders.

Using longitude and latitude, calculating the circumference of the Earth within a few hundred miles, the Muslim geographers so greatly improved on Ptolemy’s famous ‘Almagest’, that it is not certain how much of the work actually belongs to the famous Greek, and how much was added to successive copies.

Also compiled were almanacs – another Arabic term. Other terms from Arabic are zenith, nadir, Aledo, azimuth.

Muslim astronomers were the first to establish observatories, like the one built at Mugharah by Hulagu, the son of Genghis Khan, in Persia, and they invented instruments such as the quadrant and astrolabe, which led to advances not only in astronomy but in oceanic navigation, contributing to the European age of exploration. Other instruments used by muslim astronomers and navigators were the quadrant and the planisphere, a large, complicated device for plotting stars. Observatories were set up in desert locations where the best observations could be made. Accurate measurement of time used very similar mathematical skills to those needed for

navigation. Al-Biruni, for example, wrote a mathematical treatise on shadows that helped calibrate sundials accurately.


The Astrolobe is perhaps the most famous of ‘Islamic inventions’. Primitive astrolobes were developed by the Greeks, but the refinements made by the Muslim Mathematicians, and craftsmen made them more accurate and versatile. When the device entered Europe through Spain and Italy, it was the latest in high technology. In the storyteller of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, Geoffery Chaucer, wrote instructions on its use. The well-known romance of Heloise and Abelard resulted in a son they named – Astrolobe! their instruments used by Muslim astronomers and navigators were

Mathematics Bold experiments and unique innovations in the field of mathematics were carried out by Muslim mathematicians who developed this science to an exceptionally high degree. Algebra may be said to have been invented by the Greeks, but according to Oelsner, “it was confined to furnishing amusement for the plays of the goblet” Muslims developed it and applied it to higher purposes.

Thus, The first great Muslim mathematician, Al-Khawarizmi, invented the subject of algebra (al-Jabr), which was further developed by others, most notably Umar Khayyam. Al-Khawarizmi’s work, in Latin translation, brought the Arabic numerals along with the mathematics to Europe, through Spain. The word “algorithm” is derived from his নামে.

The Muslims invented the symbol for zero (The word “cipher” comes from Arabic sifr), and they organized the numbers into the decimal system – base 10. Additionally, they invented the symbol to express an unknown quantity, i.e. variables like x.

They invented spherical trigonometry, discovered the tangent and were first, “to introduce the sine of arc in Trigonometrical Calculations” Zero is an invaluable addition made to mathematical science by the Muslims. They have also shown remarkable progress in mathematical geography.

Medical Sciences

The Muslims have made a lasting contribution to the development of Medical Science. Razi (Rhazes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Abu Ali al-Hasan (Alhazen) were the greatest medical scholars of mediaeval times.

Al-Razi, known in the West as Rhazes, the famous physician and scientist, (d. 932), was the inventor of “Seton” in Surgery and the author of ‘Al-Judari wal Hasbak’, an authentic book dealing with measles and small pox.

Seen as one of the greatest physicians in the world in the Middle Ages, Razi stressed empirical observation and clinical medicine and was unrivalled as a diagnostician. He also wrote a treatise on hygiene in hospitals.

Kahaf Abul-Qasim Al-Sahabi was a very famous surgeon in the eleventh century, known in Europe for his work, ‘Kitab al-Tasrif’ (Concessio).

Avicenna wrote ‘Al-Qanun Jil Tib known as Cannon’, which was the most widely studied medical work of mediaevel times and was reprinted more than twenty times during the last 30 years of the 15th century in many different languages. The book remained a standard textbook even in Europe, for over 700 years. Alhazen was the world’s greatest authority on “optics”.

The contagious character of the plague and its remedies were discovered by Ibn Katina, a Moorish Physician.

Other significant contributions were made in pharmacology, such as Ibn Sina’s ‘Kitab al-Shifa’ (Book of Healing), and in public health. Every major city in the Islamic world had a number of excellent hospitals, some of them teaching hospitals, and many of them were specialized for particular diseases, including mental and emotional. The Ottomans were particularly noted for their building of hospitals and for the high level of hygiene practiced in them.

Glass Ibn Firnas is credited with making glass from stones. He had constructed his home as a sort df planetarium where one could see stars, clouds and even lightning. Attempts at flight

According to Hitti, “Ibn Firnas was the first man in Arab history to make a scientific attempt at flight. His flying equipment consisted of a suit of feathers with wings, which, we are told carried him a long distance, in the air. When he alighted, however, he hurt himself because his suit was not provided with a tail.”

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