Science, medicine and everyday life in the Islamic world

The Islamic world was far ahead of the western world in the Middle Ages.

Artefacts from Muslim world: Spain: Ivory casket 1049, Egypt: Inlaid bras astrolabe - 1236, Turkey: Elephant clock - 1136-1206. Persia: Sherbet jar - 13th century, Copper jug - 1218.


  • Muslim scholars knew of many books written, not only by ancient Greek and Roman writers, but by Persian, Indian and Chinese writers too. A famous caliph, al-Mamun, set up a translating house in Baghdad which translated the books from all these countries into Arabic. Later on, in the 11th century, in Toledo, Spain; these Arabic editions were translated into Latin and circulated all over Christian Europe.
  • Al-Khwarazmi was a famous mathematician. He helped to introduce the Hindu decimal system to the Arab world, which was then adopted in Europe. This is because the numerals (1, 2, 3, 4) used in the Arab world were much easier to use than Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV).
  • The study of astronomy was well established before this period but the Muslims developed knowledge of astronomy. The names we now use for over a hundred stars in the sky are Arabic in origin.They improved instruments of navigation, in particular the astrolabe. A primary motivation was to find the direction of the kaaba in Mecca in order to pray facing in its direction.


  • The Islamic world housed some of the first and most advanced hospitals from the 8th century, notably in Baghdad and Cairo. Built in 805, the Baghdad hospital housed a medical school and a library. Unlike medieval Christian hospitals, its aim was to treat patients, not just to care for them.
  • Muslim doctors were skilled and knowledgeable; they had to pass an examination.
  • There were female doctors and nurses.
  • Wounded crusaders preferred to go to a Muslim doctor than a Christian one because they were more knowledgeable.
  • Muslim doctors translated the texts of Greek and Roman doctors at a time when these ideas had been forgotten in Western Europe. Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna) wrote a huge medical encyclopedia known as the “Canon of Medicine”. It collected the knowledge of ancient Greek and the Islamic world, and was used as the standard medical textbook for European doctors until the seventeenth century.
  • Islamic doctors also added important new ideas. For example Al-Razi (Rhazes), who ran the Baghdad hospital in the late 800s and early 900s, was the first author known to have written a book about children’s diseases. He also explained the difference between smallpox and measles: this helped doctors diagnose the diseases.
  • Ibn Nafis wrote about the circulation of blood round the body in the thirteenth century, 300 years before this was known in the West.
  • Muslims made important advances in surgery. They anaesthetised patients with cannabis and opium, used mercury and alcohol as antiseptics, and had rules about hygiene. Al-Zaharwi (Albucasis) wrote an encyclopedia called “al-Tasirif” including a volume called “On surgery”, which was the first medical book to contain pictures of surgical tools, providing clear information on how they were to be used. His book also gave practical guidance. It was widely translated and used across Europe until modern times.

Everyday life

Madinat al Zahra palace
Madinat al Zahra palace, Cordoba

  • Two of the oldest universities in the world were built in Fez, Morocco, in the 9th century and in Egypt in 970.
  • Hygiene and cleanliness was very important in the Muslim world, partly because Muslims have to perform ritual washing (wudhu) before their five daily prayers. The Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) states that cleanliness is half of faith. The Muslims followed the Roman tradition of public baths at a time when the advances of the Romans were often neglected in Western Europe. For example, as well as supplying its half a million inhabitants with running water, Cordoba in Spain had 300 public baths known as hammams. Turkish baths, which are now popular across Europe, followed this tradition.
  • There were wonderful palaces such as the Madinat al Zahra palace just outside Cordoba.
  • Muslims were very religious. Every Muslim town had at least one mosque with a muezzin, who called people to prayer five times a day.
  • Muslim agriculture, science and religion were brought to Europe from Spain. Irrigation was brought to Spain by the Muslims: crops such as oranges, apricots, and rice, which needed a lot of water could now be grown.
  • In the late 800s glassmakers in Cordoba discovered how to make crystal. Beautiful jewellery showed the wealth of Spain and the skill of its craftsmen.
  • Some Muslim communities thought that it was wrong to picture human beings, so Muslim artists used beautiful patterns and calligraphy in mosques and on copies of the Qur'an.
  • Many Muslims were well-educated. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad was the world’s largest library in the early 800s, and a study centre for scholars from a range of ethnicities and faiths.
  • A Muslim singer from Baghdad called Ziryab came to Cordoba bringing all kinds of trendy fashions from the east. He opened beauty parlours and popularised hairstyles, deodorants, toothpaste, the three-course meal, drinking from glasses and table manners.