A great deal of what we know about the ancient world and its scientific ideas has come to us from documents which were translated from ancient Greek or other ancient languages into Arabic, and later from Arabic into European languages. The material reached the Arab world in many cases through the Roman empire in the East, Byzantium, which survived until 1453, almost a thousand years after the fall of Rome, during the period known in Europe as the Dark Ages.
During this time the consolidating influence of Islāmic religion saw Arab Muslims begin to build an empire that was to stretch across the Middle East and across North Africa into Spain. At the heart of the Islāmic world the caliphs ruled in Baghdad. Arab scientists sowed the seeds that would later be reaped in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, especially under the Abbasid dynasty during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Mamun, and the Middle East became the intellectual hub of the World.

depiction of early islamic scholars at work at various scientific investigations

In the ninth century, at the House of Wisdom – a mixture of library, research institute and university – scholars worked to translate the great works of the GREEK thinkers. Muslim scholars of this golden age made important and original contributions to mathematics and astronomy, medicine and chemistry. They developed the ASTROLABE, which enabled astronomers to measure the position of the stars with unparalleled accuracy.Astrology & Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia: Astrolabe: An ancient astronomical instrument
In medicine they made the first serious studies of drugs and advanced surgery. A number of mathematicians, including Habash al-Hasib (‘he who calculates’), Abul’l-Wafa al-Buzjani, Abu Nasr al-Iraq and Ibn Yunus formulated trigonometry (including all six trig functions [ sin, cosec, cos, sec, tan, and cot ]) at a level far above that introduced by the Greek astronomer-mathematician HIPPARCHUS in the second century BCE.
It is largely through such efforts that Greek ideas were preserved through the DARK AGES.


Eight hundred years before COPERNICUS, a model of the solar system was advanced with the Earth as a planet orbiting the Sun along with other planets.

A few centuries later this idea fell into disfavour with the early Christian Church, which placed mankind at the centre of the universe in a geo-centric model. The alternative teaching would be deemed heresy punishable by death and it would not be until the seventeenth century that the work of GALILEO, KEPLER and NEWTON gave credence to the ideas revitalized by Copernicus in 1543.

It is worth noting that even to-day at least half the named stars in the sky bear Arabic names (Aldebaran and Algol amongst others) and many terms used in astronomy, such as Nadir and Azimuth, are originally Arabic words.

 The Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The elaborate observatory established by the Ulugh Begg in Samarkand in the fifteenth century appeared to function with a dictum meant to challenge PTOLEMY’s geocentric picture of the universe sanctioned by the Church in Europe. Arabic scholars had access to the early teachings of ARISTARCHUS, the astronomer from Samos of the third century BCE. (referred to by Copernicus in the forward of an early draft of De Revolutionibus, although omitted from the final copy)



AL-KHWARIZMI (800-847)

820 – Baghdad, Iraq

Portrait of AL-KHWARIZMI


The man often credited with the introduction of ‘Arabic’ numerals was al-Khwarizmi, an Arabian mathematician, geographer and astronomer. Strictly speaking it was neither invented by al-Khwarizmi, nor was it Middle Eastern in origin.

786 – Harun al-Rashid came to power. Around this time al-Khwarizmi born in Khwarizm, now Khiva, in Uzbekistan.

813 – Caliph al-Ma’mun, the patron of al-Khwarizmi, begins his reign in Baghdad.

Arabic notation has its roots in India around 500 AD, thus the current naming as the ‘Hindu-Arabic’ system. al-Khwarizmi, a scholar in the Dar al-ulum (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad in the ninth century, is responsible for introducing the numerals to Europe. The method of using only the digits 0-9, with the value assigned to them determined by their position, as well as introducing a symbol for zero, revolutionised mathematics.

al-Khwarizmi explained how this system worked in his text ‘Calculation with Hindu numerals‘. He was clearly building upon the work of others before him, such as DIOPHANTUS and BRAHMAGUPTA, and on Babylonian sources that he accessed through Hebrew translations. By standardizing units, Arabic numerals made multiplication, division and every other form of mathematical calculation much simpler. His text ‘al-Kitab al-mukhtasar- fi hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala’ (The Compendious Book on Calculating by Completion and Balancing) gives us the word algebra. In this treatise, al-Khwarizmi provides a practical guide to arithmetic.

In his introduction to the book he says the aim of the work is to introduce ‘what is easiest and most useful in mathematics, such as men constantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, lawsuits and trade, and in all their dealings with one another, or when measuring lands, digging canals and making geometrical calculations.’ He introduced quadratic equations, although he described them fully in words and did not use symbolic algebra.
It was in his way of handling equations that he created algebra.

The two key concepts were the ideas of completion and balancing of equations. Completion (al-jabr) is the method of expelling negatives from an equation by moving them to the opposite side

4x2 = 54x – 2x2  becomes  6x2 = 54x

Balancing (al-muqabala) meanwhile, is the reduction of common positive terms on both sides of the equation to their simplest forms

x2 + 3x + 22 = 7x + 12  becomes  x2 + 10 = 4x

Thus he was able to reduce every equation to simple, standard forms and then show a method of solving each, showing geometrical proofs for each of his methods – hence preparing the stage for the introduction of analytical geometry and calculus in the seventeenth century.

The name al-Khwarizmi also gives us the word algorithm meaning ‘a rule of calculation’, from the Latin title of the book, Algoritmi de numero Indorum.

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OMAR KHAYYAM (c.1048–1131)

In the service of the Kurdish-Turkish Sultan Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin صلاح الدين يوسف بن أيوب‎ ), the nemesis of Richard the Lionheart during the second crusade, there was published a definitive treatise by Khayyām on algebra in which he classified algebraic equations up to the third degree and showed how geometric solutions to the equations could be obtained.

Image depicting OMAR KHAYYAM

Ironically, the source of Khayyām’s most enduring legacy is neither his mathematics nor his science but rather his poetry. The Rubaiyat, a translation, or recomposition, published initially in 1859 by the British poet Edward Fitzgerald, presents his work in a series of melancholic ruminations concerning the irreversibility of fate and the fleeting nature of life.

One explanation of the decline of science in Islāmic civilization, which began in the late fifteenth century, is the general fatalism that pervaded Islāmic culture, as revealed in the melancholia and pathos of Khayyām’s quatrains describing life continuing among the ruins of ancient grandeur.
Another explanation is the emergence in twelfth century Baghdad of an intellectual movement spearheaded by the fundamentalist al-Ghazali, which favoured faith and dogma over reason and direct evidence.

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