The Islamic Golden Age and the Advancement of Math and Science Throughout the duration of history, there have been many eras in which science and math have flourished. But none advanced these two topics more than what is called the Islamic Golden Age.
In this paper, I am going to examine the specific topics that were advanced as well as how these advancements are used in todays society.
I will delve deeper into each of the scientific and mathematical ideas that came from this Golden Age as well as how it is tied to religion, specifically Islam.
This idea of scientific and mathematical acquisition of knowledge helped the Islamic empires to reign supreme in the middle east and helped to create a world in which science and math are respected tools in the quest for knowledge about the world around us. There have been a large amount of what one may call ‘Golden Ages’ throughout history, but none more important than that of the Islamic Golden Age. During this time, advancements in medicine, surgeries, geometry, trigonometry, and even calculus helped pave the way for even greater achievements than ever thought possible. The Islamic Golden Age was pivotal in the success of later eras and was a large shoulder to stand on in the search for new ways of solving problems. In this paper I will touch on many of the advancements that came about during this time and explain in further detail the impact that they have had on society as a whole.
First, we need to have some background surrounding the time in which the Islamic empire ruled. The demand for science in Western Europe between the fifth and ninth centuries was reduced drastically under feudalism. Science, culture, and even literacy, by in large, were confined to the clergy. Scientific thought in the Byzantine Empire was no better. With the repression of free inquiry, exemplified by the closing of the School of Athens in 529 CE and religious prosecutions, scholars and scientists fled east to the more tolerant Islamic lands. There, they were to become the links between ancient Greek sciences and the Islamic sciences that were beginning to flourish, especially in the new cultural city of Baghdad. Within a few years of the death of Mohammad, his followers had decisively defeated both the Roman and Persian armies. By the eighth century, the Islamic empire stretched from India and Persia, to Morocco and Spain, from the Ganges to the Atlantic Ocean, including Egypt and large parts of the Byzantine and Roman Empires along the Mediterranean. This vast area was united under a common religion, culture, and literary language. Owning to the intellectual thirst, open-mindedness, and vigor at the peak of this era, the knowledge and wisdoms produced by the ancient cultures of these lands, including the Babylonian, Hindu, Egyptian, Phoenician, and Greco-Hellenistic cultures, were brought together, preserved, and cultivated (Teresi 10). The language primarily used was Arabic, but these scientists included not only Arabs, but also Indians, Persians, Christians, and Jews, as well as Muslims from the areas around Cordoba and Granada in Spain.
Many caliphs, especially in Damascus and Baghdad, became patrons of learning and invited distinguished scholars to their courts. If not for the effort of the scholars and scientists at the employment of these caliphs, much of the work of these cultures would have been irretrievably lost in Europe over the long period of the Dark Ages. The immediate effect was a great stimulus to culture and science, the Golden Age of Islam (Teresi 70). During its height, in virtually every area, the work of Arabic scientists was the most advanced in the world. In science, no other field was connected to mathematics as deeply as astronomy. The Arabic-Islamic influence on the development of this branch of science can be recognized today, many stars such as Vega and Rigel are still known by their Arabic names, as is Ptolemy’s great work, the Almagest.
The Almagest had a fair amount of problems though, and in being translated from Greek to Arabic a multitude of times, the Muslim astronomers began making revisions in it to right some of the false concepts found in the book. One text by Al-Haytham was even titled “Doubts about Ptolemy” in which he critiques the famous Astronomer (Teresi 144). In a particularly interesting example, proposed planetary models by Ibn al-Shatir in the 14th century were mathematically identical to those of Copernicus some 150 years later. The big difference was that Ibn al-Shatir developed the models while trying to improve the geocentric system. The geocentric system was a system in which the earth was at the center of the solar system rather than the sun. Copernicus on the other hand, had proposed a heliocentric one. Copernicus’ own work incorporated mathematics suspiciously identical to that found in al-Shatir’s work (Teresi 3). Although Al-Shatir and Copernicus lived almost 200 years from one another, Copernicus still ended up with equations and formulas near identical to that of Al-Shatir even though he lived so long after Al-Shatir. One can reasonably conclude that the work of Al-Shatir and other Islamic mathematicians and astronomers must surely have had some sort of influence on the work of Copernicus.
Quadratic equations were also a concept that was credited largely to Khwarizmi. In his book titled “Al-Jabr Wal Muqabala” he writes “[O]ne square, and ten roots of the same, amount to thirty nine dirhems;” That is to say, what must be the square which, when increased by ten of its own roots, amounts to thirty–nine? The solution is this: you halve the number of the roots which in the present instance yields five. This you multiply by itself; the product is twenty–five. Add this to thirty– nine; the sum is sixty–four. Now take the root of this, which is eight, and subtract from it half the number of the roots, which is five; the remainder is three. This is the root of the square which you sought for; the square itself is nine. (Mansouri Pg. 57). This is complicated to decipher but in modern English it could be written as such: x^2+10x=39 This equation can be solved to give the solution: x= √((b/a)^2+c)-b/a These equations are used almost daily in many applications in our lives and the reason they are is because the Islamic empire was so favorable towards free thinking.
Finally, the law of Sines is largely credited to Abu’l-Wafā’ al-Buzjānī (Sesiano 157). This was extremely revolutionary because it did not rely on the triangle being a right triangle, rather it only required a side and an angle. The formula looked like this: SinA/a= SinB/b= SinC/c This formula is used daily. Whenever one flies on an airplane, the law of sines is being used. Health and hygiene played an integral role in the Islamic way of life, and some of the most famous Arabic-Islamic contributions were in the field of medicine. Abu Al-Razi (ca. 864-ca. 932) known to the West as Rhazes, was born in Persia and was the author of more than 140 books. His greatest medical work was the ‘Al Hawi,’ the Content, an encyclopedia of medicine and surgery. A second great physician was Abu Ibn-Sina (ca. 980-ca. 1037) or Avicenna, one of the greatest scholars of the Islamic Golden Age (Javadi 721). He wrote 250 works of different lengths, the best-known being The Law of Medicine, otherwise known as the Canon (a medical encyclopedia of Greek and Islamic medical knowledge that covers medicine, anatomy, physiology, pathology, and pharmacology).
Once the book was translated into Latin, it became one of the most frequently printed scientific texts during the European Renaissance. Some Muslim scholars oppose the permissibility of examination of a patient by a member of the opposite sex. Their biggest argument relies heavily on a verse of the Quran (Rodini). In surah al-Nur, verse no. 31 states “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display or reveal their adornments except what appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ son, their brothers or their brothers’son, or their sisters’s sons…and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And o ye Believers! Turn ye all together towards Allah in repentance that ye May be successful.” (al-Nur (24): 31). From this verse, some Muslims understood that Islamic law had said that a man is only to see and touch a woman after getting married, and that foreigners are prohibited from looking at any part of her save her face and hands. Not all are on that side though. Imam Bukhari, a scholar during the 800s, titled one of his collections “Bab Hal Yudawi al-Rajl al-Mar’ah wa al-Mar’ah al-Rajl (may a man treat a woman or a woman treat a man) in which he uses Yudawi, meaning medical treatment, and not yukhdimu which means to serve (Rodini).
The development of hospitals in Islam arose as a direct result of the Muslim belief of charity and sympathy for those who are sick and in need. To care for those who are less fortunate was considered a sacred duty (Rodini). This idea came from the prophet who said “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your wards. The ruler is a guardian and the man is guardian of his family; the woman is a guardian and is responsible for her husband’s house and his offspring; and so all of you are guardians and are responsible to your wards.” While the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt sought eternity by building pyramids, the rulers of Islam sought the same by building hospitals, mosques, and schools (Rodini). Islamic scientists made some of their greatest original contributions to modern science in the field of chemistry. Their work was deeply rooted in the ancient civilizations, both mystical and experimental, and in many ways led to the founding of modern, scientific chemistry. Here again, free from the class prejudices that had kept the Greeks from integrating manual experiments with their thinking, Islamic scientists developed the first full scale production of such commodities as soda, alum, nitr, and other salts, particularly used then by the textile industry (Teresi 295). Islamic scientist Al-Razi as well as Jabir Ibn Hayyan both believed in alchemy, the process of turning one element into another.
This process is usually envisioned using the element lead and turning it into a precious metal like gold. Although this is not possible, these two scientists ultimately became the most famous Islamic chemists in history, and influenced many European scientists that came after them (Teresi 304). This showed how scientific achievement did not always have to come from following the right scientific ideology. The scientist Avicenna had this to write on the topic of transmutation. “As to the claims of the alchemists, .. . it is not in their power to bring about any true change of species. They can, however produce excellent imitations, dyeing the red metal white so that it closely resembles silver, or dyeing it yellow that it closely resembles gold. . . . Yet in these the essential nature remains unchanged; they are merely so dominated by induced qualities that errors may be made concerning them.” This idea that the essential nature remained unchanged is reminiscent of the first rule in modern chemistry which is that matter can neither be destroyed or created as well as what the modern definition for what an “element” vs a “homogeneous mixture” is (Teresi 305). Not only was the knowledge of advancements in chemistry and an extensive coverage of the Science of chemical substances used by physicians passed on to the West, but so too were the tools and techniques.
When it comes down to transforming an entire discipline, the field that experienced the most Arabic-Islamic influence was optics. Optics was expanded from the Greek focus on vision, optima, to a study of light lenses and mirrors, as well as of the eye itself. Its methodology went beyond the geometric and into the experimental realm (Teresi 10). Ibn Al-Haytham’s (also known as Alhazen) seven books on the topic included a wide range of subjects: the properties of light and color, visual perception and visual illusions, and reflection and refraction. The idea of experimenting was created by Ibn al-Haytham as well. From astronomical works, he used it to replace purely geometrical demonstrations. In one instance, he challenged the idea that rays came from our eyes rather than coming from other objects and that is why we are able to see objects. This “Ray Theory” was perfectly reasonable at the time, but Ibn Al-Haytham challenged that theory by stating that if other objects sent out rays rather than our eyes, then staring at the sun would hurt (Teresi 10). Ultimately, staring at the sun did hurt, and the “Ray Theory” was deemed to be false by Ibn Al-Haytham. Given the dominance of Aristotelian beliefs that considered physical experimentation to be unworthy manual labor, this was an important development in the transformation of this science. Although Ibn Al-Haytham would continue to regard experiments in optics as mathematical inquiry, it helped to create a new kind of thinking in the sciences.
Throughout history there have been many different ‘Golden Ages’. That being said, a large majority of them would have never come to fruition without the Islamic Golden Age. The advancements in science and math helped pave the way for greater human achievement and was responsible for solidifying many ways of thinking in modern society. The Islamic rulers of the time welcomed outside thinkers from across the globe, and that atmosphere of thirst for knowledge created an environment in which science and mathematics flourished. There were great advancements in medicine as well as arithmetic that would not have been possible had the empire of the time limited free thinking and allowed for the challenge of what was known or believed to be known at that moment. During this period, the Islamic empire was pushing scientific discovery as well as mathematical innovation.