Islam’s historical contribution to maths and science


So few are aware of the medieval Islamic legacy upon science. From the 12th to the 17th century, European scientific scholars would refer to earlier Arabic texts as a context for math’s and science, as it is used today around the world. The 9th and 12th centuries were considered as the golden age of Islamic scholarship, which was the epicenter in Baghdad, Iraq, and Syria, where Islam had a major role in its contribution to science. Medieval scientists went unacknowledged for decades, yet provided the same contribution to science as well-known historical figures such as Newton, Galileo, and more. 

Baghdad was the epicenter and hub of scientific and mathematical development in the ancient world, a debt that humanity owes to the Islamic scholars that founded many scientific and mathematical achievements. With the emergence of the Abbasid dynasty in the 9th century, the Abbasid caliphs established an academy of science, where many Islamic scholars would study and create new ways for the world to progress with math and science. Thousands of documented manuscripts were created in the House of Science, which later was translated to Latin, and proclaimed by Roman and English mathematicians and scientists.

When looking at the relationship between science and Islam, going back to the ancient history of Egypt and its Arabic roots is crucial. When you look at Algebra and Algorithm, words that are intrinsically Arabic, it shows the very heart of Islam’s contribution to science in the golden age. Math’s and Physics could not exist without algebra, and in addition, modern technology would not exist without algorithms. When looking at the ancient Italian book, by Mathematician ‘Liber Abacci’ by Leonardo Pisano, famously known as Fibonacci, one finds that the book has references to an even more ancient text, called ‘Algebra et Almuchabale’, by Maumet, the Latin version of the Arabic name, Muhammad, better known as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (780c – 850c) who was both an Islamic Mathematician and Astronomer.

Al-Khwārizmī was a scholar, at ‘The House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad. Al-Khwārizmī revolutionized the way that the world worked with equations, through his fundamental understanding of Algebra. This was a fundamental progression from Greek mathematics, which was primarily based on geometry.  It is not uncommon to find Arabic references in medieval texts, that relate to everything from maths, astronomy, and science. In Al-Khwārizmī’s text, ‘The Hindu Art of Reckoning”, he describes how you can represent any number, with just ten different symbols. Yet, Al-Khwārizmī’s went further than translating Arabic to English with the basic numeric system of 1-10, as he created the decimal point, as it is known today. 

The decimal system extends, to fractions, and is the basis upon which we understand Mathematics. Another important Muslim scholar that changed the way we see maths and science today was, Omar Khayyam, from Iran, c1380, who created a systemic solution for cubic and third-quarter equations, evolving the algebra discoveries and innovation by Al-Khwārizmī. The ‘Treatise on Demonstrations of problems of Algebra,’ was an advancement of Greek mathematics, as it involved the method of two conic intersections which would proceed to cover all equations. This was later evolved by an Islamic scholar, Sharaf al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, in c1213, which would evolve cubic equations even further, to the point of which it is utilized to this very day and age.

The Muslim sociologist-historian, Ibn Khaldun, translated Al-Khwarizmi’s extensive collation of mathematical techniques into Greek. Following that, the astronomy and scientific scholar  Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušhd, better known by his nickname Ibn Rushd, or the Latin translation of Avveroes, came from an Islamic family of a prominent line of Islamic judges of court, of which he spent his later life serving as a judge at the Almohad Caliphate, a Moroccan Islamic movement. Ibn Rušhd Averroes’s contribution to scientific and philosophical thought was pronounced and renowned in history, as he has studied and developed the many teaching of Aristotle. By 1153, Ibn Rušhd Avveroes had built science universities in Morocco where astronomy and science would be further developed in the North African region. Of the 67 books Ibn Rušhd Avveroes had published, some have become fundamental touchstones globally in studying the scientific world today, not to mention politically influencing the Greeks and Romans during the era of Aristotle.

In 872, Ahmad ibn Tulun would make an immense contribution to civilisation through the university and hospitals, that was founded in Egypt. A surgeon at the hospital named Al-Zahrawi soon became known as the “Father of Surgery” writing an encyclopedia that would become a reference point for surgeons across Europe for the next 500 years. After that, in the 13th century, Ibn Nafis would detail and document pulmonary circulation, 300 years after which the English would claim to have made the discovery. In the 8th and 9th century, Islamic scholar Jabir Ibn Hayyan was considered as the founder of modern chemistry, as he had invented the process of transforming alchemy into scientific chemistry though advanced distillation processes, which later led to the discovery of sulphuric and nitric acid.

Islamic scholars had in a sense, invented many of the scientific, philosophical, and mathematical processes that are used today around the world, and it is for that reason that the medical and scientific community remain indebted to Islam in gratitude, for its outstanding contribution towards the evolution of humanities scientific and mathematical progression.

Chelsea Lotz is a freelance writer interested in South African politics and international affairs. She has been a speaker at the United Nations Ministerial Roundtable Conference in Geneva, following several years of NGO work.