Every scholar and scientist goes through a cycle of knowledge during his or her life. During their formative years they mainly gain new knowledge from the outside world. During their mature years they continue to gain knowledge, but also produce new knowledge that they share with others.
Every scholar and scientist goes through a cycle of knowledge during his or her life. During their formative years they mainly gain new knowledge from the outside world. During their mature years they continue to gain knowledge, but also produce new knowledge that they share with others. In their old age, if they are lucky, they produce relatively little new knowledge, but focus on sharing their knowledge and experience, mainly with younger people.
One of the many reasons Islamic science flourished during the ‘Golden Age of Science in Islam’ (900 to 1400 CE) was that Muslim scholars made a huge effort to share their knowledge with others.
This was possible because Arabic was widely spoken throughout the Islamic world, not only by lay people but also by scholars.
In contrast, in Europe at the time, dozens of different languages were spoken by lay people, and scientists communicated mainly in Latin, which lay people could not read or write. Science therefore became an elitist pre-occupation.
Furthermore, Muslim scholars had a policy of encyclopaedism, i.e. producing monumental books or book series on their life’s work. These books were manually printed, often hand-copied and widely distributed. They were also translated into many other languages.
For example, the famous Muslim zoologist, al-Jahiz, who worked in Baghdad in the 8th century, wrote more than 200 books.
These included his seven-volume ‘Book of Animals’, one of the most advanced books on animals and ecology in the medieval era. In these books he discussed complex biological and ecological issues, such as the social behaviour of animals, animal communication, host-parasite relationships, predator-prey relationships, animal fossils and the impact of diet and the changing environment on the lives of animals. These were topics that were not discussed in detail in Europe for another 900 years.
Al-Jahiz appears to have had a wicked sense of humour, because he also published books with delightful titles, such as ‘The Art of Keeping One’s Mouth Shut’ and ‘Against Civil Servants’. He died an appropriate death, if there is such a thing, at the ripe old age of 92 when a pile of books, including many of his own, fell on his head in his library.
Many of the books written by Muslim medical researchers, such as al-Razi (10th century), al-Zahrawi (10/11th century) and ibn Sina (11th century), were still used centuries later in Europe.
In particular, ‘Method of Medicine’, the 30-volume book series published by al-Zahrawi, was the mainstay of medical curricula in Europe for more than 500 years.
The 10th century Iraqi scholar, Ibn al-Haitham, who mainly worked in Egypt, wrote the famous ‘Book of Optics’ which laid the foundation for the science of optics and explained how the eye works.
Ibn al-Haytham is also credited with the development of the hypothetico-deductive scientific method more than half a millennium before Bacon, Galileo or Newton.
Many centuries later the Latin translations of his works by Gerhard of Cremona had an enormous impact on the thinking and experimentation of leading European scholars, such as Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Descartes and Johannes Kepler.
Other great encyclopaedic books were written by al-Khwarizmi on mathematics and geography, al-Battani and al-Zarqali on astronomy, al-Idrisi on geography and the Banu Musa brothers and al-Jazari on engineering.
The versatility of these early Islamic polymaths is epitomised by the Iraqi scientist, al-Kindi (9th century), who published books on such diverse topics as philosophy, chemistry, perfume-making, mathematics, astronomy, cryptography, music and medicine. He is widely regarded as one of the 12 great minds in history.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to these early Muslim scholars who so unselfishly shared their knowledge with future generations.