BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden
« Previous | Main | Next »

The 'golden age' of Arabic science

Tom Feilden | 08:22 UK time, Saturday, 13 November 2010

Arabic astrolabe

A brief thumb-nail sketch of the history of science typically begins in antiquity - with the likes of Pythagoras, Euclid and Plato - before leaping the best part of a thousand years to Kepler, Galileo and the European Renaissance of the 16th century.

What went in between is often dismissed as the Dark Ages - a period in which Europe, and scientific progress, slumbered.

But this, admittedly western, model overlooks the importance of a huge blossoming of science and scholarship in the Islamic world of the middle ages. A period in which the Ummayyad and Abbasid Caliphs created one of the greatest centres of learning the world had ever known - the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom.

"Just because Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages," argues Jim Al-Khalili the professor of physics at the University of Surrey and author of Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science, "we shouldn't assume that the rest of the world had stagnated. There was this great flourishing of scholarship and discovery in the Islamic world of the middle ages".

Great advances were made across a range of fields between the 9th and 13th centuries, from mathematics and astronomy to medicine and chemistry. The proof lies in the words we still use today: words like algebra, alchemy and alkaline; and in the names of stars like Dubhe, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar and Alkaid - five of the seven stars that make up one of the most familiar constellations in the night sky, the plough, or Ursa Major.

Among the many great thinkers of the period al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham stands out as the father of the modern scientific method. Long before Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes al-Haytham was scrupulously gathering data and testing his ideas through meticulous observation and experiment.

According to Jim Al-Khalili, al-Haytham's work on the defraction of light puts him on a par with Galileo and Newton.

"We learn at school that Isaac Newton was the father of optics, using prisms to split light into its constituent colours. But al-Haytham also wrote extensively on light and optics and the Latin translations of his work were hugely influential in the European Renaissance."

Not all Al'Khalili's heroes were Arabs: Persians, Christians and Jews all played their part in this golden age.


One of the greatest mathematicians of the medieval world was al-Khwarizmi, a Persian credited with inventing algebra. Even the word "algebra" comes from the title of his great work, Kitab al-jebr, and the Latin translation of his name, Algorithmus, gives us algorithm.

Ultimately civilisations ebb and flow and the 'baton of enlightenment', as Al-Khalili describes it, ultimately passed to Europe. So much so that today, he says, science is widely regarded with suspicion in the Islamic world: a western, secular, even atheist construct.

But all that may be about to change: In Saudi Arabia a £20 billion pound endowment aims to turn the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology into a powerhouse to rival anything the West has to offer. Qatar is committed to invest 2.8 percent of its GDP on research, and Abu Dhabi is planning to raise the world's first fully sustainable city and innovation hub from the desert sands.

It's a modern, Arabic renaissance, that Jim Al-Khalili hopes will benefit us all.

"Look where the Muslim world was a thousand years ago. It was the centre of the civilised world. There's a long way to go, but the signs are that things are moving impressively rapidly in the right direction".


  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Sir, your unquestioning piece on the renaissance of Arabic science read like an advertisement. it is unsettling to hear something on the TODAY programme that sounds like product placement. Science cannot thrive in a society where even the most basic liberty of thought does not exist. Your lack of analysis and comment are disturbing and have shaken my trust in the BBC.

  • Comment number 2.

    The reference to the sustainable city in Abu Dhabi: search for Masdar City (BBC terms of use forbid me from posting links). Designed by Foster + Partners and now being built, it looks very impressive indeed.

  • Comment number 3.

    Are we moving forwards or backwards?
    Having just read Pathfinders, I find myself asking myself (though I am not always the best source for my own answers): is our world going forwards or backwards.
    All science has stood on the shoulders of giants. The achievements of the ancient Greeks rested on the achievements of the Hurrians, the Hittites, and of course the real source of all ancient knowledge, the Sumerians.
    Yes, the Bayt al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom) was a major accomplisment, but examine what was discovered (in every field imaginable), and you will find the Sumerians discovered it first. The Sumarians were first with irrigation, academia, astronomy - they even knew that the earth was not flat and that it encompassed 360 degrees. They knew the number of planets was 12; they knew about the asteroid belt and how it was created. They knew the moon was a seperate entity, not a blasted-off piece of the earth.
    We honour persons such as Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a polymath who outshines everyone in history except Leonardo da Vinci; Ibn al-Nafees, who correctly described blood circulation 400 years before William Harvey. But it occurs to me that there is nothing new under the sun, once a person becomes very familiar with Sumer and its sister (younger) civilization, Egypt.
    The West is weak on history - true history, valid history, and because our modern viciliation does not know history, it is destined to refind the lost knowledge or reinvent it. Instead of moving forward on the magnificent inheritance of the Sumerians and Egyptians, we have stagnated into a ever-worsening DARK AGE.
    Can we built a pyramid? Do we even know the true purpose of the pyramid? Do we know its age?
    Can we built anything to rival the Sumerian temples? South American temples? Stonehenge?
    Answer: No, this is all lost knowledge. I guess we lost it when we started to fight each other, destroy each other's civilizations, and discovered that it was a lot easier to tear down than build.
    There is evidence in both Sumerian and Hindu ancient texts that the elitie of these civilization could fly, and their ships did not use oil to do it!
    How very sad that our ignorance (wherever and whenever it began) forces us to reinvent, refind...What a waste of time. The worst part: our modern civilization still appears to be moving backwards...

  • Comment number 4.

    What a debate. Firstly I agree that the History of Science is poorly understood or at least documented to the public. How does one find the hidden truth? Every system has its root secrets, but discovering each in turn you can onlock further secrets.

    For those searching for a path to truth I suggets you set the following course:

    1. Look where no-one wants you to look. One of the largest nations on earth is largely invisible to us. It is their way.

    2. How does one know ones longitude at sea before the clock was invented?

    3. China is not china. India is not India. The answer is in Dresden.

    4. Marriage is important but not in a totally religious sense. Its the hook that counts!

    5. The Riddles are designed to allow only seeking Polymaths. keep puzzling.

    6. Think in all ways, but ultimately science verifies all. You however will need, art, ethnography, history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and many other streams of thought to pick up the scraps which sit in the subtexts and corners of books all around the world.

    7. If I discovered it so will others I am from the masses so the masses will soon know. God knows what will happen then. Englightenment? Asimovs Star child? The latest trend or more obscurity because the masses dont really want to know.

    8. The Portuguese and Spanish were not the discoverers they are fantastically written as, neither for that matter are the Arabs.

    9. St mf rd R ff l s

    That should be enough to help the travellers/seekers etc on their way. Good luck! Its worth it in the end.

    The true god is quite human, not omnipotent, they just know their past and the past of mankind.

    People of the world start hacking history. Forget cracking servers and all that, how Passe! A wall of propaganda must be torn down.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.