Saturday, May 28, 2022

The origin and expansion of Islamic religion: How Islamic scholars contributed to the scientific community?

Credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme - Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany



Around two billion Muslims worldwide fast from dawn to sunset starting from the evening of Friday, April 1 ending in the evening of Sunday, May 1. Though the starting and ending days might vary depending on the moon sighting, Ramadan fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. It marks the day when Prophet Muhammad, the son of a Quraysh tribe Abdullah Muhammad and his wife Amina, born in 570 A.D., was enlighten with message from Allah through the Angel Gabriel. The message from Allah was put together in 114 chapters (also called Surahs) in the Muslim’s holy book the Quran. These Surahs are subdivided into verses or “ayats” which are of unequal lengths. Of the 114 chapters, 86 were revealed by Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and 28 in Madinah. It was very surprising to know how an orphan and illiterate Prophet Muhammad, raised by his uncle, could recite the whole of Quran without any assistance. Prophet Muhammad lost his father before he was born, and he lost his mother at the age of six years. He neither attended any school nor was coached by any teacher.

How did Prophet Muhammad receive the knowledge?

Prophet Muhammad was raised in a farm and used to look after the sheep for his living. He used to pray at cave Hira very frequently. At age 40, he was reported to have been visited by the Angel Gabriel who gave him an important message from Allah.  After the delivery of this message from Gabriel, Prophet Muhammad reveled 86 chapters in Mecca, where the Kaaba, the holy black stone is placed, and later 28 chapters were revealed in Madinah. Both Mecca and Madinah are in the Saudi Arabia.

This article is dedicated to Islamic friends who dedicate a month-long ritual fasting irrespective of any difficulties they may come across during this period. Also, this article informs interested readers about the origin and expansion of Islam and how did Islamic scholars contribute to the scientific community.  

The faith

Globally, around two billion Muslims including four percent of the 30 million Nepali Muslims pray five times a day as a corporate group. During their prayers, Muslims bow down and fully submit their body and mind to Allah while reciting versus from the Quran. They also invite others all around the world to express their solidarity to Islam. During prayer, the Muslims face toward Kaaba located in the holy city of Mecca.

For Muslims, it is undisputable that Mecca is the holy city where the faith of Islam was originated. Because of its religious importance, Muslims consider themselves lucky to have visited Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

The origin of the Islamic faith

Muslim scholars argue the faith of Islam was originated from Mecca and it has spread worldwide through expansion, relocation, [and hierarchical] diffusion processes. In the Quran Mecca has been mentioned as the Forbidden Gathering Place or the Holy House or the place of Becca or Weeping, “Um-el Korra,” “a wonderful city”, “Mother of all cities.” Muslim scholars see no reasons to debate about the origin of Islam even if Mecca per se is not repeatedly mentioned in Quran. For Muslims, it is undisputable that Mecca is the holy city where the faith of Islam was originated. Because of its religious importance, Muslims consider themselves lucky to have visited Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Muslims are honored with the title of Hajji once they visit Mecca. Performing Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is an undeniable fact that Prophet Muhammad was born in Saudi Arabia in 570 A.D. His grandfather and his father were Nabataean merchants. Prophet Muhammad himself married a merchant woman and lived in Mecca till he was in his 40s. The Muhammad couple were blessed with four daughters and three sons. Unfortunately, the three sons were diseased at early ages.  

The beginning of the Islamic Calendar

Routinely, Prophet Muhammad recited the message he received from the Angel Gabriel without any interruptions. He started conveying the message to the global community, “there is only one God that is Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” He also gave an impression that worshipping different idols has no meaning as there is only one God that is Allah. This enraged many Meccans because they were worshipping other idols assuming these idols as the representations of important deities. There was a heavy debate among the idol worshippers and the followers of Prophet Muhammad. Scuffle and persecution began against Muhammad and his followers. Prophet Muhammad and his followers decided to migrate to Madinah. The time Prophet Muhammad embarked from Mecca to Madinah is considered the beginning of the Islamic calendar--Hijrah (solar) or Hijra (lunar). As per the Julian calendar, this date comes close to 16 July, 622 A. D. During the journey, Prophet Muhammad and his followers encountered several obstacles. Upon his arrival in Madinah, Prophet Muhammad was warmly welcomed. The number of his followers increased rapidly, and he was able to establish a strong battalion. This battalion expanded Islamic influences throughout the whole of Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, and North African (MENA) region.

Islam: Universalizing Religion

In Madinah, Prophet Muhammad gave a speech calling upon his followers to take the faith of Islam to the entire world. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly in 632 A. D. at the age of 62. After his death, disputes were engulfed over the leadership that led to the emergence of two schools of thoughts. Sunni believers argued in favor of Abu Bakr while Shia believers argued in favor of Ali. Eventually, Abu Bakr succeeded Prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr brought the Arabian Peninsula under the strong grip of Islam with his good organizational skills. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr, not only Saudi Arabian Peninsula but also much of north Africa including Damascus, Baghdad, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Anatolia came under the heavy influence of Islam. However, the difference between Sunni and Shia sect grew up rapidly.

Despite differences in religious authorities, there is no confusion in the beliefs of Sunni and Shi’a that qibla is towards Mecca.

There are many commonalities between Sunni and Shi’a in their Islamic faiths and beliefs. The difference however are due to the power imbalance or geopolitical conflict including the sharing of resources.  Both groups accept the main message of Islam, and agree Quran is the book that was descended on the Prophet Muhammad through the Agnel Gabriel. Both the Sunni and Shi agree on the five pillars of Islam. These include Profession of Faith (shahada), the belief that "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”, Salah (prayer five times a day facing toward Mecca—Qiblah or Qibla or Kiblah), Zakat (alms giving to the poor and needy), Fasting the month of Ramadan (month-long fasting from dawn to sunset), and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime) if a person is able to do so. Muslims believe that they originally faced towards Jerusalem while praying; however, from 624 A.D., Prophet Muhammad was instructed by Allah to change the qibla to Mecca “masjid al-haram” as revealed in Surah 2 verses 149-150 of the Quran.  

Despite differences in religious authorities, there is no confusion in the beliefs of Sunni and Shi’a that qibla is towards Mecca. Both agree that Al-Azhar University in Cairo and Islamic Study Center in Mali are their major Islamic knowledgebases. The tensions between Iran (with over 85 percent Shi’a) and Iraq (with over 85 percent Sunni) however were mainly attributed to geopolitics, political power, and resource sharing. Also, some differences are seen in their practices and resource sharing between Wahhabism (subdivision of Sunni) of Saudi Arabia and Shi’a of Iran. Whatsoever, there are no philosophical differences between the Sunni and Shi’a. In fact, the disputes persist mainly due to ignorance. If there have been philosophical differences, Islamic religion would not have spread worldwide. Today, much of North Africa and Central Asia is under the strong influence of Islam. Archeological evidence confirms the existence of Islamic religion all over the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region. Many cities like Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Mali, Rabat, Wasit (Eastern Iraq), Tehran, and Yemen have come under the heavy influence of Islam where several Mosques were built. Though there are low percentages of Islamic population in Germany and China, in every country, the Muslim population is increasing rapidly.  Indeed, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Brunei, and The Maldives have overwhelming Muslim majority. Every country has Muslim population but that might be in different proportions. They are living in harmony with other communities. Indeed, some Nepali Muslims argue that Nepal will be peaceful if it is declared as a Hindu country instead of it being a secular one.    

The contributions of Islamic scholars to modern science

About one percent Islamic scholars have won the Nobel prizes in science. Up until the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258, Islamic science was at the most advanced stage in the world. Merchants from Africa, Asia, and Europe traded along the ancient routes and exchanged goods for coins, materials, and other products. The most valuable commodity was silk, and the trade route was named after its trade. The Romans and Persians had explored the Silk Road and constructed the required infrastructure to support and facilitate the incoming trade. As caravans traveled along the Silk Road, they exchanged Egyptian glass, Persian saffron powder, Turkoman stallions, Tamil steel, Chinese lacquerware, and Porcelains and much more. At the heart of the Silk Road was the Abbasid Empire. If the Romans wanted to import Gujarati sandalwood or Nubian slaves, they had to travel along the Abbasid checkpoints. As the business grew in Baghdad, the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad nobility in the 8th century. To cope with the surge in commerce, the Abbasids founded new centers of trade, such as Samarqand in Southeastern Uzbekistan. Likewise, the wealthy and diverse city of Marv (ancient city of Turkmenistan) was considered as the mother of earth. Tehran also was developed as a commercial gate, and it became a competitor city of Marv. Yet, no city could compete with Baghdad in literacy, business, and cultural diversity. To diversify business, Abbasid Empire built another commercial city at the narrow crossing of Tigris and Euphrates. Despite all these attempts, Baghdad remained the most non-challenging city for Islamic knowledgebase. Damascus could not compete with Baghdad to become the Caliph capital. Near the Baghdad metropolitan area, parks, bath houses, bazaars, mosques, schools, courts, forums and even hospitals were developed. With the addition of several components, Baghdad became the earth’s largest city in the 10th century. Eventually, the Baghdad emerged as the center for Islamic knowledge, fine craftsmanship, exotic foods, and Chinese paper. After knowing the importance of the paper for the bureaucracy, the Islamic rulers set up paper mills in cities such as Basra, Alexandria, and Baghdad. Subsequently the availability of paper encouraged record-keeping, banking, poetry and even scholarship as literacy increased and books became a common item. The availability of cheap paper contributed to the expansion of the Imperial library of al-Rasheed. In Baghdad, several scholars were engaged in translating various research work that were documented in Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit and Persian languages to assist research in the field of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Astronomy, Philosophy, and Geography to help scientific community.

With the right people in charge, the scientific knowledge flourished.

Contributions to Scientific Community

In Islamic knowledgebase, studies in astronomy and trigonometry were advanced to help determine the direction to Mecca. Arabic language became a part of the scientific language making the Islamic center in Baghdad as intellectual haven. Unfortunately, because of the rising conflicts between Abbasid and Umayyad nobilities, many ambitious scholars emigrated elsewhere from Baghdad seeking peace and stability. One such family was the Burma kids’ dynasty from Balkh known for their patronage of physicians. This family left Baghdad creating a huge vacuum in medical science. Likewise, Bukhtishu, a Christian family of medical surgeons who helped translate these Assyrian and Sassanid studies also emigrated from Baghdad. Nonetheless, during the reign of Abdallah al-Mamun the seventh Abbasid ruler, the quest for scientific achievements accelerated, and the Baghdad’s Imperial Library was converted into the House of Wisdom. Physics scholars such as Ibn Ishaq (8th century Muslim historian and hagiographer) were made in-charge of translating foreign scripts such as Greek knowledge into Arabic and vice-versa. It was a Golden period for ambitious educational undertaking since the foundation of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Over time, state-funded centers were established in Baghdad. Other areas such as Alexandria, Nishapur (present day Iran), Bukhara (Uzbekistan), and Kabul (Afghanistan) became Islamic leaning centers. With the right people in charge, the scientific knowledge flourished. The Abbasid scholar al-Khwarizmi (circa 750-850) founded linear algebra (linear and quadratic equation) by combining the work of Greek and Indian scholars. Al-Kindi (circa 801), a Baghdad Muslim philosopher contributed to polymath, physics, and musical theories. Likewise, an Egyptian scholar Ibn Al-Haytham (circa 965-1040) made significant contribution to the principles of optics. He is credited to have influenced to the alchemy and European chemistry courses. Similarly, Persian scholar al Tabari (circa 839-923) is regarded as a great contributor to the world “history, poetry, lexicography, grammar, ethics, mathematics, and medicine” and enriched the history of the Middle East. Another scholar Banu Musa brothers (circa 803-873) contributed to the development of advanced geometry. Their book of Igneous Devices on automata is cited by both Islamic and European scholars.

Among the women scholars, al-Fihri from Morocco known by the name Umm al-Banayn (circa 859) contributed to the establishment of mosque and cultures. Likewise, al-Mahamili in Ukraine contributed to the field of mathematics and medical fields. Similarly, Labana, a slave girl of Spanish origin, was appointed as the secretary to the Caliph of Córdoba after her contribution to the field mathematical education. Muslim rulers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region not only hosted several Greek, Indian, Persian, Chinese and Roman scholars and asked them to contribute to the scientific communities, but also they assimilated Neoplatonic philosophy and Aristotelian metaphysics. This period was considered as the Islamic Golden Age. Abbasid Caliphate translated substantial portions of the Greek scientific and philosophical tradition into Arabic. Islamic scientists developed mathematical dimension reflecting the Pythagorean view, the science of astronomy and astrology. Likewise, they also developed several theories in chemistry and numerology. The softer social sciences ranging from anthropology and sociology to political science and economics were leaned on quantitative data to claim legitimacy as a science humanity.

The contribution of the Islamic community to scientific world is very significant.

Concluding remarks

The Islamic community while maintaining its strong tradition such as Ramadan and others, made significant contributions to sciences such as geometry, algebra, physics, medicines, and astronomy even during the dark ages of medieval Europe. Present day Baghdad (Iraq), Cairo (Egypt), Damascus (Syria) and Cordoba (Spain) contributed to various fields of science. Many Abbasid empires/caliphs hosted scholars from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, India and China facilitating them to contribute to modern science. Advances were made in the disciplines of algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, medicines, astronomy, geography, engineering, and agriculture. Some rulers desire to localize the scientific discovery and initiated to change Greek texts with Arabic fonts hoping “to shape the scientific revolution of the Renaissance.”  The contribution of Ibn al-Haytham to the development of camera obscura to correct the focal length of retina brought a revolution in vision. Al-Idrisi contributed to the development of world map. The Clark University has advanced Idrisi software for spatial data analysis, and the software is named after the name of the scientist. The Banu Musa brothers contributed to the development of mechanical devices to solve several mechanical puzzles.

Likewise, Al-Zahrawi is known for his surgical instruments such as syringe, forceps, surgical hook and needle and lithotomy scalpel instrument. Today, it has been advanced with both protected and conventional styles full line of surgical blades. Ibn Firnas is known for his discovery of a rudimentary hang glider. Overall, the contribution of the Islamic community to scientific world is very significant. Let us congratulation this intellectual community on this blessed month of Ramadan.

Bhattarai is a Professor of Geography, Department of Physical Sciences at University of Central Missouri.

Yousef is a Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, School of Computer Science and Mathematics, University of Central Missouri.

Published on 5 April 2022