I. Characterisation of the tradition of Islamic Technology
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1. Beginning of Islamic Science and Technology
The tradition of Islamic science and technology had its roots in the Hellenistic Greek civilisation, whose main centre was at Alexandria. Greek civilisation in turn has been nourished by the earlier cultures of the Near East and the Mediterranean. However the real beginning of Islamic science did not occur until the start of the 3rd century AH/ 9th century CE, nearly two hundred years after the beginning of Islam.
The reasons for this interval was the conquests till the territorial limits with the addition of the Iberian Peninsula and Central Asia, during which Muslim faith became predominant. Followed by the completion of the codification of the Arabic language that made it available to all educated Muslims as a vehicle for expression of literary and scientific ideas .
Islamic science flourished during the Golden Age, a period of unrivalled intellectual activity, whereby Muslim scholars made important and original contributions in all fields; namely literature, science and technology. This blossoming was the result of the increasing quality of material life in Muslim cities and the faith in Islam as the driving force.
At the same time, the urban life of these Muslims cities, the material prosperity, the varied local industries, the local and international trade would not have flourished without a developing technology . Important advances in agriculture were also made in the Golden Age where ancient networks of wells, qanat (underground canals), waterwheels and water-raising devices were preserved and improved.
It is interesting to note that the technology they dealt with was one which utilised natural forces within the environment in question, making the maximum use of human skills and causing the minimum amount of disturbance within the natural environment .
Furthermore, Islamic technology had the means then to make complicated machines (as what the modern technology had developed during the past two century), however the Muslims never took that step which would mean the creation of technology out of harmony with the natural environment. Feeling instinctively the dangers of the development of technology, which incorporates elements alien to the natural environment resulting in the loss of nature equilibrium.
This sentiment is reflected by the 15th century Persian Sufi poet ‘Abu al-Rahman Jami who seemed to have a presentiment of the present day predicament of man, who in his attempt to gain knowledge has lost sight of the spiritual empyrean. As in one of his quatrains, he says :
Scientific research and development began to decline in 12th to 13th century CE. The reasons are complex but the most obvious ones were the simultaneous Spanish Catholic and Mongol invasions which devastated the organic infrastructure of the Eastern and Western parts of the Muslim world.
2. Islamic Technology
There are many branches of Islamic studies, whereby only the subject of relevance, Islamic technology, will be studied hereafter. Islamic technology can be further divided into two categories; namely Fine Technology and Utilitarian Technology .
Fine technology refers to machines or instruments that were designed to cause wonder and aesthetic pleasure to courtly circles, or for timekeeping, or for the use of scientists (mainly astronomers). The source of information on fine technology can be found in a few precious technical treatises, such as al-Jazari's ‘The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices'.
Utilitarian technology, however, refers to machines that were essential to the economic prosperity of society but were very much simpler technically than the construction of Fine Technology. The source of information on Utilitarian Technology comes largely from archaeology finds, examination of existing machines and references in the works of geographers, travellers and other non-technical writers. Machines of this category are mills, water-raising devices and textile machinery .
It is interesting to note that al-Jazari's Third Water-Raising Device incorporates the two categories of technology together, as the machine is designed to be a beautiful ornamental artefact with splendid craftsmanship, and raises water at the same time.
3. The Teaching of Islamic Engineering
Many of the Muslim scholars devoted themselves to the study of the laws of simple machines, basing themselves on the teaching of Archimedean, Alexandria and the pseudo-Aristotelian schools, the latter associated with the Mechanica (see Fig. 2).
Figure 2: A miniature depicting a traditional scene of instruction.
They also knew the book of Mechanica by Hero of Alexandria and the book of Pneumatica by Philo of Byzantium. These and other Greek and Alexandria works served as a basis for their research in this domain .
The Alexandria school teaches a series of writings on various mechanical devices, gadgets and automata. This branch of science is called the ‘ilm al-hiyal' in Arabic and had attracted the imagination of Muslims, fascinated with the unusual, ‘ilm al-hiyal' itself has always been related in the Muslim mind with the occult sciences and magic, as the word itself whose roots means stratagem or ruse, shows.
In addition, many Muslim scholars also learn from the works of their predecessors. In accordance, a series of works describing complicated machines and gadgets can be found in various important works. From the treatise of the Banu Musa on the balance ‘qarastun', those attributed to Ibn Sina such as the ‘Mi‘yar al‘uqul' (The Standard of the Intelligence), to the work of the 13th century AD author Ibn al-Sa‘ati who describe the clock of Damascus .
Another important feature of the thinking behind many of the devices described in the treatises is the preoccupation of the Arab engineers with controls, particularly with controls that would allow a given machine to continue working for a long period of time without human intervention .
The above mentioned might also be the basis of teaching for al-Jazari and he in turn will also contribute to this method of teaching through his work, ‘Kitab fi ma‘rifat al-hiyal al-handasiya' (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices).
The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices is a compilation of writing on automata and the like, which were a source of wonder and served as pastimes for princes and rulers. It consists of six parts, fifty complicated mechanical devices such as clepsydras and fountains, some of practical use and others more for amusement, following the tradition of the Alexandrines. The treatise was translated from Arabic into Persian as late as the 19th century and because of the variety of its content and beautifully illustrated manuscripts found in relative profusion, has become the best-known work of its kind in the West after it had been studied by historians of science and of art since the 19th century .
4. Comparison of Islamic and Modern Engineering Concept
There are a few areas whereby there is notable difference between Islamic and modern engineering concept, namely in what concerns the use of mathematical analysis, the lack of sufficient resources and the use of various sources of power. These are further elaborated as follows.
4.1. Calculation (Mathematical Analysis)
The assumption for the Modern Engineering Concept is that engineering tasks must be accompanied by rigorous mathematical analysis. Whereas in the Islamic Engineering Concept of the past, most of the mathematical relationships that underlie the physical phenomena had not been identified, and engineers had to draw upon a large fund of practical experience. This is to say that the Muslim engineers of antiquity most probably didn't do many calculations at all and obtain the best results through trial and error methods.
Of course, not all the work of Muslim engineers was so laborious; they had a clear understanding of arithmetic, plane geometry, and measurement, and they used these sciences to the full in the construction and assembly of their devices. But when a set of mechanisms was particularly complex and delicate, final assembly and adjustment were done by painstaking trial and error .
4.2. Limited Resources
The Muslim engineers most probably needed to have at their command all the contemporary scientific and technical skills available in order to obtain the best possible results from the limited resources at their disposal.
4.3. Source of Power
The Modern Engineering uses fossil fuel, water pressure, air pressure, nuclear energy etc. for its source of power whereas Islamic Engineering was essentially bases only upon the use of the effects of water pressure and air pressure.
5. Transmission of Islamic Studies
Islamic Studies obtained most of its knowledge from various ancient civilisations (see Fig. 3), and subsequently the transmission of knowledge from Islamic Studies to Europe was mainly by literary means and occurred on a large scale. However, the situation is completely different for Islamic Engineering, there are very few works in Arabic dealing with engineering, and the treatises that have survived were never translated into Latin nor, until recent time, into any modern European language.
Figure 3: A scheme depicting the transmission of science and learning from the civilisations of Antiquity to the Islamic world.
Therefore, we cannot always assume that diffusions came from Islam into Europe simply because the constructions appeared earlier in Islam. The construction might have appeared in the same source of reference/ideas that may have come from the classical world; eg. Philo of Byzantium, when craftsmen examined the constructions of their predecessors and we must never dismiss the possibility that the invention occurs independently in different cultural areas.
Not surprisingly, in view of the foregoing, investigations into the transfer of Islamic Engineering seldom arrive at firm conclusions. Nevertheless, informed speculation should continue until fresh light can be thrown upon diffusions by new discoveries in literature, iconography or archaeology. In the process, some questions may ultimately be resolved, others moved closer to resolution. Whereas for the time being, we can summarise the present state of knowledge in some of the more important engineering subjects; eg. the water raising machine .
There is no evidence for al-Jazari's water-raising machines or the ideas embodied in them having been transmitted to Europe. In particular, the crank in his fourth machine, and the fifth machine as a whole, with its conversion of rotary to reciprocating motion, its true suction pipes and its use of the double acting principle, all these could have been of great importance in the history of machine design. Oddly enough, when the European piston pump makes its appearance in the fifteen-century writings of Taccola (1450) and Martini (1475) the suction stage is already incorporated. Indeed it predominates, in that the forced or delivery stage of the pumps' action is little more than the stroke of the piston. It is very unlikely that either of the two engineers in question had any knowledge of al-Jazari's work. Further research may one day identify the sources of the new machines .
It is important, however, not to evaluate Islamic engineering only with regard to its contribution to the development of its European counterpart. Engineers in the Islamic world were responding to the needs of society and in a number of fields, for example irrigation, masonry construction and milling, their responses were conspicuously successful .
 Ahmad Y. al-Hassan & Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History. Cambridge. Paris/Cambridge: UNESCO/ Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 19.
 Ibid, p. 8.
 Ibid, p. 147.
 S. H. Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study. Photographs By Roland Michaud. London: The World of Islam Festival Trust, 1976, pp.147-150.
 L. Sprague De Camp, The Ancient Engineers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963, p. 283.
 Dionisius A. Agius & Richard Hitchcock (editors), The Arab Influence in Medieval Europe: Folia Scholastica Mediterranea. Ithaca Press, 1994, p. 25.
 S. H. Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, op. cit., p. 144.
 Ibid, p. 145.
 D. A. Agius & R. Hitchcock (editors), The Arab Influence in Medieval Europe, op. cit., p. 30.
 S. H. Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, op. cit., p. 145.
 John R. Hayes (editor), The Genius of Arab Civilization Source of Renaissance. Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1976, p. 180.
 Donald R. Hill,Islamic Science and Engineering. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993, pp. 226-227.
 Ibid, pp. 228-229.
 Ibid, p. 235.
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by: Salim T. S. Al-Hassani and Colin Ong Pang Kiat, Thu 24 April, 2008