FC47: Arab math and science to c.1000


FC47 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #6866.

The flow of history sometimes takes some devious twists and turns in its course of events.  Such is the case with our own modern science, which received its legacy of Greek science and math not directly from the Greeks, but by way of Islam.  Indeed, one of Islam's greatest cultural legacies was the preservation of Greek philosophy, math, and science.  Islam and the rise of the Arab empire affected Arab math and science in two ways.  First of all, rather than rejecting ancient Greek learning, Muslim culture remained quite open to it.  The story goes that the caliph al-Ma'mun had a dream where the Greek philosopher Aristotle assured him that there was no conflict between reason and faith.  This revelation led al-Ma'mun to start gathering the works of the Greek philosophers.  Second, the rise of their empire directly exposed the Arabs to Byzantine and Persian cultures that still carried on ancient scholarship.  Therefore, the Arabs were both willing and able to absorb Greek math and science.

There were three things the Arabs needed to do: get copies of the Greek texts, translate them, and provide funding for these endeavors.  As far as getting the books was concerned, many of them had fallen into Arab hands through conquest.  However, there were still many texts that they needed.  Sometimes they would negotiate with the Byzantines for copies of these books.  At other times, raids into Byzantine territory would actually be aimed at seizing such works along with more material plunder.

Once these works had been gathered, the Arabs needed to translate them into Arabic.  Luckily, Islam attracted a large number of converts, among them many men educated in Greek.  However, since the Koran at that time was written only in Arabic, new converts had to learn that tongue in order to read Islam's holy book.  As a result, Islam's appeal created a number of brilliant translators.

Funding largely came from the caliphs themselves.  Caliph Ma'mun founded a palace learning center known as the House of Wisdom where many of the most brilliant minds of the age were gathered to translate Greek works and then add to this knowledge.  The budget for the House of Wisdom was 500 gold dinars a month, with fifty-seven translators working there at one point.  The translator, Hunayn, was supposedly paid the weight of his translated books in gold.

All this led to a level of scholarship that was unsurpassed in its day.  Since books were hand written, and thus prone to a growing number of mistakes as each generation of books was copied, the translators would gather as many copies of a particular book as they could.  They would then compare these texts to see which was probably closest version to the original text.  Just compiling such critical texts alone was one of Islam's greatest legacies to us.

Starting with this excellent base of Greek knowledge, the Arabs made their own advances in the fields of Mathematics, medicine, and physics.  Since Islam also encompassed part of India, its math was assimilated into the larger body of mathematical knowledge and passed on to us.  The Indians came up with two very valuable concepts that simplify math for us immensely: place value digits and zero.  As brilliant as Greek math was, it did not have these two tools, thus severely limiting what it could accomplish, since any math using Roman numerals is extremely cumbersome.  Because of such limits, Greek math excelled in geometry, which could function better than other branches of math without place value digits and zero.  Even proofs in non-geometric math were done with the brilliant use of geometric figures to illustrate problems.

The Muslims embraced Greek geometry wholeheartedly.  One need only look at Islamic art and architecture to see their fascination with various geometric shapes and the ingenious things they could do with them.  The religious ban on portraying the human figure certainly spurred Muslim art to excel in this direction.

However, the Muslims did not just slavishly copy the Greeks.  Rather, they made their own original contributions in the fields of mathematics, medicine, and physics.  Equipped with the Indian place value digits and zero, they developed trigonometry and first clearly defined sine, cosine, and cotangent functions.  They further developed algebra (from the Arabic, al-jabr, which means "the missing").  The mathematician al-Khwarizmi wrote the first textbook on algebra and was probably the first to solve quadratic equations with two variables.  In future centuries his textbook would be the basis for European algebra.  It has been said that science is always pushing against the frontiers of math.  If that is true, then the Muslim mathematicians certainly allowed those frontiers to be expanded considerably.

As advanced as Islamic math and science were for their day, we should keep in mind that scientists then were not specialized in the way scientists today are.  For example, the translator Qusta ibn Luqa wrote on such topics as politics, medicine, insomnia, paralysis, fans, causes of the wind, logic, dyes, nutrition, geometry, astronomy, etc.

The Arabs also excelled in medicine.  The great physician al-Rhazi, or, as he was known in Europe, Rhazes (865-923), correctly differentiated between the symptoms of small pox and measles and showed that diagnosis on the basis of examining a patient's urine was not very useful.  He also used animal gut for suturing wounds and developed mercurial ointments for treating skin and eye diseases.  Keep in mind that the accomplishments of Muslim science were done without the microscope.  Not until that was invented in the 1600's would scientists be able to see microbes and understand the real causes of most diseases.  This makes Muslim medicine seem all the more remarkable.

Al-Rhazi also knew how to use psychological treatment.  It is said that he was once commissioned to cure a caliph stricken with paralysis.  He took the caliph to a cave and threatened him with a knife.  The enraged caliph got up and chased al-Rhazi out of the cave and into exile.  Al-Rhazi later sent a letter explaining that was the treatment, and the caliph subsequently rewarded the physician.

Muslim scientists also made advances in physics and optics, anticipating later European theories on specific gravity and developing formulae for figuring specific and absolute weights of objects.  They calculated the size of the earth to an unprecedented degree of accuracy, though they still followed Aristotle in their belief in the geocentric (earth centered) universe.  Muslim scientists disproved the Greek theory that light emanates from the eye to the object perceived.  Ibn al-Hathan showed this theory was wrong by studying how light is refracted through water.

Muslim civilization peaked around 1000 C.E.  But, as with other civilizations, a higher level of culture tended to make the Arabs soft and open to attack.  Also, Arab civilization was also running into problems of internal decay that triggered two waves of invasions.  First came the Seljuk Turks out of Central Asia.  Although they did adopt Islam & restore some of its unity, the arrival of these Asiatic nomads initially had a somewhat disruptive effect on Arab culture and its attitudes toward the outside world.  Even more upsetting in this respect were the Crusades, wars of conquest waged by Christians from Western Europe to recover Palestine for their faith.  Unlike the Turks, the Crusaders were not about to convert to Islam and were much more hostile toward and destructive of Arab civilization, especially in the early years of the crusading era.  Finally, the most destructive invasions of all came from the Mongol onslaught in the 1200's.  The wholesale massacres of populations and destruction of cities that they committed dealt a terrible blow to Islamic civilization.  These invasions were such a shock to the Arabs that Muslim culture became much more resistant to new ideas and foreign influences, making it more conservative and inward looking.

This helped cause a religious reaction against putting too much emphasis on science and reason and too little emphasis on faith.  Except for the House of Wisdom, science and learning were largely supported by religious institutions and thus subject to their conservative influences.  Also there arose a mystical movement known as Sufism, which discredited learning and reason, believing in a more direct and mystical experience with God.  From this point on, Muslim science and math started to stagnate.

However, Islamic science spread to Western Europe and survived.  By the 1100's, translations of Arabic texts were making their way from Muslim Spain into European universities.  These Arab texts stimulated the growth of Western science, which is the dominant scientific tradition today.  We should never lose sight of the fact that our own science today rests squarely on the accomplishments of Muslim science, which, as a result, is still very much alive.