Portable Cosmologies


Figure 1.  (Left) Portrait d’Ignazio Danti 16th Century and (Right) Taqi al-Din, in Istanbul, depicted in this 16th-century Turkish manuscript from the Book of the Kings.


Figure 2. (Source)

Within early modern histories of astronomy, two debilitating presumptions have dominated and disfigured the scientific narrative. One, that European and Near Eastern cultures of astronomy developed along separate, linear, non-intersecting paths, and two, that the Copernican heliocentric cosmology emerged on its own in Europe, inaugurated the Scientific Revolution, and only then traveled from West to East. These presumptions underscore the richly complex and fascinating networks of scientific exchange that were in fact very present in the early modern Mediterranean world. A mapping of this cross-cultural scientific exchange in relation to concurrent architectural activity reveals unexpected shared aesthetic ideologies and practices between the East and West. By isolating sites of exchange of the astrolabe between Ottoman and Italian courts in the 15-16th centuries, my research will illustrate the prevalence of both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary influence.

With the expansion of empires and the setting up of trading posts in the East, scholars extensively exchanged books, manuscripts, letters, instruments, and traveled to other intellectual centers to study. Much like the trades of Persian tapestries, Illyrian and Istrian stone, Iznik tile and even Mediterranean snow that traversed the vast network of the Mediterranean sea, the navigation of the shared Mediterranean sky also witnessed diverse trades of celestial globes, quadrants, armillary spheres, incense burners, and planispheric astrolabes that transformed the vision of human existence in the universe. More than any other scientific figures of the 16th century, astronomers operated within cross-cultural networks and were highly knowledgeable of adjacent cultures.

The astronomer’s astrolabe (a Ptolemaic instrument reconfigured and perfected in the medieval Islamic East) was unique in that its utility transcended boundaries between function and ornament. Through the process of holding the astrolabe aplomb and measuring the angle between the viewer and a specific star in the sky using, one could turn the dials and recreate a miniature model of the night sky. Alternatively, the astrolabe prefigured the meridian line in that it functioned as a portable sundial; regardless of day or night, one could hold heaven in hand. The design of the rete of the astrolabe superimposes a regulated grid of the instrument maker’s choice over the stereographic projection of the night sky. This act of imposing symmetry over the asymmetrical layer of the starry sky would be of great interest to artists and architecture of High Renaissance, wherein painting and building acted as metaphysical sutures between the divine and human realms. By capturing and recreating the dimensions of the cosmos, heavenly attributes of prudence, temperance, and mediation were evoked through art in response to a world of expansion, shifting scientific notions of the universe, and political unpredictability.

The Eastern tradition of oral intellectual dissemination has left scarce physical evidence for historians of Islamic art to directly point and signify meaning and path of influence. Similarly in Italy, the climate of the Counter-Reformation and condemnation of Galileo and Copernican alliances has left a void of explicit signification in astronomical and cosmological knowledge. Complicating accessibility further, the Pythagorean Neo-Platonism that underlie both Islamic and Italian Golden Age cosmologies require knowledge of numerical and mathematical symbolism to decode languages of secrecy and enigma. With these conditions in mind, it is through the tracing of the appearance of the astrolabe and its legacy within the humanist culture that I seek to connect with advancements in visual culture that led to shifts in early modern identities, thus illuminating the veiled cosmological dialogue between East and West.

Star-finders Astrolabes
Figure 3. Aristotle teaching astronomy while using an astrolabe on an Arabic Manuscript (Source)

The Portal of the Islamic East

“The Islamic redactions of the Almagest not only reformulated and paraphrased its contents but also corrected, completed, criticized, and brought the contents up to date both theoretically and practically.” George Saliba[1]

 With the dissolution of Byzantium and emerging nodes of porous exchange with the Ottoman East, Northern and Central Italy gained access to coveted sources of ancient knowledge. Eastern Mediterranean scholars such as Basilios Bessarion, Guillaume Postel, Ciriaco d’Ancona, Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, and George of Trebizond (to name only a few), brought with them fluency of Hippocrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, Euclid, and most importantly, Ptolemy’s Almagest. This 2nd-century mathematical and astronomical treatise on the motions of the stars and planets was the critical source of ancient knowledge for astronomers in the East and West from the Middle Ages up until the Scientific Revolution. The Almagest was first translated in the Near East, with at least five iterations by the late 8th and 9th centuries.[2] The translations gave rise to commentaries and subsequent commentaries of commentaries, locating the first sentiments of Ptolemaic scepticism in the Islamic world.

The first challenge to Ptolemy was put forth by a Muslim astronomer and mathematician from Seville active in 12th century Islamic Iberia, Abū Muḥammad Jābir ibn Aflaḥ. His work Iṣlāḥ al-Majisṭi (Correction of the Almagest) introduced spherical trigonometry as a way of correcting the mathematical inadequacies of Ptolemy.[3] The commentary most circulated in Western Europe was that of the mid-13th-century work of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. In need of a setting that would allow him to directly observe and correct the planetary tables for himself, the Maragheh Observatory was established in 1259 on the hills of Northwestern Persia.

At the observatory, Al Tusi produced the most accurate tables of planetary movement of his day, with his Zīj-i Īlkhāni (“Ilkhan Stars”) calculating the positions of the planets and the names of the stars. For his planetary models, he invented a geometrical technique called the Tusi-couple, an advancement that completely altered the configuration of the universe and consequentially of the astrolabe. Updating Ptolemy’s fundamental geometry that was first used to construct the astrolabe, Al-Tusi applied the concentric circle to the layout of the instrument’s tablets. The Maragha Revolution was thus characterized by a shift away from the philosophical foundations of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy in favor of individual empirical observation and mathematical application of astronomy and nature as a whole, considered by Saliba as “a Scientific Revolution before the Renaissance.”[4]  This method was promulgated by prominent figures of the Maraghah and Samarqand Observatories, such as Ibn al-Shatir, Ali Qushji, al-Biruni, and al-Khafri.

In addition to the practice of astronomical innovation and production of instruments, it is also important to consider the theories that guided them. Alkindi, (abu-Yusuf Ya’kub ibn Ishak ibn Sabbah al-Kindi), who led the 8th century House of Wisdom in Baghdad, worked to promote the Arab assimilation of Indian, Greek, and Persian science. His treatise, On the Stellar Rays, prefigures the notion that astrology, physics, and psychology should be interlaced. Alkindi wrote of the presence of “rays” in earthly objects that correspond to rays of the stars and planets, thus concluding that heaven and earth exist in reciprocal relation to one another. Even further, Alkindi supported the idea of human agency against the divine- attributing to the arts inherent occult capabilities that could be exercised without any involvement of a higher power and by the individual alone. In Gulru Necipoglu’s “The Topkapı Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture”, her unfolding of the intricate Timurid geometric illustrations gives access to an understanding of geometry in the service of Islam that involves an inner spiritual knowledge in connection with the divine. She describes a group of Mesopotamians from Harran as, “a sect of star worshippers who had synthesized the late antique Neo-Platonic heritage of the Alexandrian school with Pythagorean-Hermetic elements and Babylonian astrology.”[5] Renowned for their skill as astrolabe makers, this connection of theory and praxis, of mystical and functional is built into the materiality of the astrolabe. As carriers of mathematical formulas inscribed into their multiple tablets they were also heavily ornamented with Islamic scripture- and in the case of the Italian Renaissance, inscriptions of patronage and even encoded enigma.

Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Bessarion, & Jabir ibn Aflah

“The three objects- the 1062 astrolabe, the 1462 astrolabe, and Piero’s painting- have been waiting hundreds of years to speak to us. The eight images of people alone call to mind a palette of human situations: ineffective leadership, indifference; aggression; treachery; self-sacrifice; salvation; hope, brutality, scholarship, bereavement, refugee status, hope for the youth of the future, memories of lost youth, benevolence. One could argue that Piero’s Flagellation of Christ is a painting about life.” -David King [6]

 Jabir ibn Aflah’s Correction of the Almagest was translated from Arabic into Latin in 1175 by Gerard of Cremona, who was born in Northern Italy but moved to Toledo to study and translate ancient philosophies of science. It was not until the 16th century that Gerolamo Cardano would point out that the application of spherical geometry used by Regiomontanus in his 1463 On Triangles was drawn without reference from Jabir ibn Aflah’s commentary.[7] An astrolabe made by Regiomontanus for Cardinal Bessarion is still extant today, physical evidence of one of the earliest sites of astrolabe exchange to circulate from East to West.

While visiting the court of Frederick III in 1460, Cardinal Johannes Bessarion came into contact with Georg von Peuerbach and his student Regiomontanus. Seeking assistance in a crusade to reclaim Constantinople and its history from the Turks, Bessarion proposed that Peuerbach and Regiomontanus create a new translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest from the original Greek while studying from his own home in Rome. Bessarion’s extensive connections all around Greece, Constantinople and Italy along with his deep commitment to intellectual advancement led to the development of his personal library as an informal academy for the translation of Greek manuscripts into Latin. Accepting the task, Peuerbach and Regiomontanus joined Bessarion’s household in Rome and spent the next four years looking for and copying mathematical and astronomical manuscripts for corrections to the Ptolemy. With Peuerbach’s unexpected death in 1461, Regiomontanus had to continue the promised task alone.

Aside from Peuerbach and Reiomontanus’ dependency on Eastern astronomical texts, the presence of the astrolabe circulating around the visual representations of Bessarion further this claim of Eastern influence. Just one of many examples is Vittore Carpaccio’s 1502, St. Augustine In His Study. In Patricia Fortini Brown’s essay, “Carpaccio’s St. Augustine in His Study: A Portrait within a Portrait”, she argues that the presence of the astrolabe distinguishes this as a double portrait of both St. Augustine and Bessarion. Brown’s use of Ruskin’s commentary on the painting illustrates the aura of mystical mathematics that resonated around the image of the astrolabe, “an ideal representation of the perfect mastery of the mind, in the fulfilment of the right desires of the Spirit.” The opened portal doors of Bessarion’s study reveal a collection of planispheric astrolabes which would have been a definite fixture in the workshop of Regiomontanus, who gifted an astrolabe that he made himself to Bessarion in 1462.

David King analyses the extant 1462 astrolabe constructed by Regiomontanus to a1062 also extant Byzantium astrolabe that Bessarion had brought back with him from Constantinople, (the back of the 1062 instrument entails a Greek inscription describing the astrolabe as an “icon of the universe”). No one having heeded Bessarion’s warning against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, he witnessed and bore the weight of the fall of Byzantium in 1453 and Trebizond in 1461 to Sultan Mehmet II, “The Conquerer.” The elegiac couplet in the four lines on the back of Regiomontanus’ astrolabe contains an epigram that unlocks the hidden geometries, perspectives, and identities of Piero Della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ– according to which the turbaned figure facing Christ is that of Mehmet II. King interprets the painting where Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome become one as achieving four goals: to memorialize the betrayal of Christ, to recall the suffering of the Eastern Church and Byzantium, to serve as consolation for three young men that had been close to Bessarion who had died, and to celebrate the arrival and activity of Regiomontanus in the service of Bessarion.[8] It is my own opinion that the statuette of the classical god is that of Apollo- his golden hue and raising of the spherical sun as an artistic alliance to the heliocentric notions of the universe that Regiomontanus defended against the inaccuracies of his and Bessarion’s rival, Georg of Trebizond.

In Italy, we see the object of the astrolabe transformed into a vehicle for memory and commemoration. While King’s hypothesis requires a detailed reading for a full understanding of its intricacies, significant to my research here is the construction of a Renaissance astrolabe in conversation with an Eastern precedent, the use of the instrument to transmit semiotic knowledge, and the translation of this astrolabic message into the painted frame.

Shortly after the completion of the painting, Regiomontanus was appointed by Pope Sixtus IV to advise on the correction of the calendar using techniques established in his updating of Ptolemy and the astrolabe. Eerily, he died unexpectedly and without a known cause in Rome before publishing his final commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest. Rumours of poisoned vengeance by the embittered family of Georg of Trebizond shadowed his death. Regiomontanus’ work was finally published in 1538, just as the work of Copernicus, who calls on different Islamic sources, would render Regiomontanus’ work obsolete.

Figure 4. “Using an Astrolabe” by Emily Winterburn (Source)

Copernicus & Arab Astronomy

In the 1490s Copernicus was enrolled at the University of Krakow where he was taught by Professor Albert Brudzewski- a scholar of Aristotelian philosophy who taught astronomy to select students in private. Under this influence, Copernicus was first exposed to Brudzewski’s commentary on Georg Peuerbach’s Theoricae Novae Planetarum. While we have seen that Peuerbach’s own treatise was also influenced by shadows of Arab astronomy, a curious drawing serves as evidence that Copernicus was handling and studying the Arab Ptolemaic commentaries as primary sources himself.

The trigonometry that Copernicus outlined in the first part of his iconic De Revolutionibus was also rooted, without reference, in the work of ibn-Aflah. In the 1950s, ES Kennedy also proposed that the solar, lunar, and planetary models proposed by Ibn al-Shatir were mathematically identical to those of Copernicus 150 years later. The visual evidence leading up to this discovery relies heavily on the visual culture of the astrolabe and its mathematical drawings inscribed on the tablets. In 1973, evidence supporting Kennedy’s conjecture was put forth by William Hartner’s discovery of Copernican models that correlated to the Arabic diagrammatic inscriptions of al-Tusi.[9]

But how would Copernicus come into contact with the work of Al-Tusi and Ibn Al-Shatir? Especially if he was not fluent in Arabic? With his formative years spent in Italy and inspired by the work of Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, he conducted a public observation of the brightest star of the Taurus constellation by the moon in 1497 Bologna. His years spent in Padua, the jubilee year of 1500 spent in Rome, and his many returns in and out of Italy would have exposed him to many traveling Arabist scholars, one of which was Guillaume Postel.

Charged with the task of buying Greek books during his 1536 delegation visit to the Ottoman Empire to negotiate a treaty with Suleiman the Magnificent, Postel instead bought at least 5 Arabic scientific texts, including several original manuscripts by Al-Tusi, as well as several astrolabes. Another Arabist of the time, Andreas Alpagus, lived and studied in Damascus, the same city Maragha astronomer Ibn-al-Shatir had been 100 years earlier. Alpagus, like Postel, was well versed in Arabic and brought his mathematical and scientific discoveries home with him to Padua at the turn of the 16th century. With Copernicus being born in Poland, so close to the borders of the Ottoman Empire, and his education in Northern Italy, it is believed that Copernicus came into contact with many of these traveling Arabist scholars, who would have translated texts and theories for him. This movement of valuable astronomic texts Westward would have explained why in this drawing, Copernicus copies and uses Arabic alphabetical systems to diagram his own work.[10]

The Siena School

“While filtering the deleterious aspects of the heavens and one’s own character, the architecture of the Gubbio studiolo embodied a garden of earthly experience and a mechanism for divine contemplation. Whether metaphorically lifted by the machina of aedificatio or elevated by the virtues and colors of architectural ornament, contemplation was characterized as an ascent from the earthly body and was accounted for in physiological terms.” –Robert Kirkbride [11]

An earlier site of exchange that would place the influence of the astrolabe in Central Italy even before the arrival of Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, and Copernicus was the Sienese School of Mariano di Jacopo detto il Taccola and his student Francesco di Giorgio Martini. While the astrolabe of Regiomontanus traces the influence of the astrolabe into the realm of painting, Siena would provide proof that the astrolabe also had influences on contemporary architecture. Between 1424 and 1434, Taccola held a high position in this Camerarius of the Domus Sapientiae, or “House of Learning”. The Siena School hosted imminent figures of their time, including Mariano Sozzini, Leon Battista Alberti (who actually spent an entire month there in 1443), Filippo Brunelleschi and the polymath astrologer-cosmographer, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli.

Through Taccola’s detailed illustrations in his 1430 De Ingeneis showing the use of the astrolabe for surveying purposes, the instrument is used here as a status symbol to market their proficiency in innovative building practice to the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. While it is uncertain why Taccola wrote the second treatise De Machinis, it is known to have been involved in a significant exchange between East and West. By 1450 a copy of the illustrated text ended up in the library of Sultan Mohammad II in Istanbul, who was fond of richly illustrated manuscripts depicting Western military architecture and engineering. It is believed that Ancona traded Taccola’s De Machinis to the library of the Sultan in exchange for Islamic instruments, which accounts for the knowledge and circulation of the astrolabe and its design in Siena.[12]

Tacocola and Francesco di Giorgio’s richly illustrated codecettos with emphasis on measuring devices mark a significant rise of machine illustration, graphic prevalence over textual description, and instruments being embedded into architectural ornament- accounting for more accessibility of early modern technology such as the astrolabe. Aside from the functional use of the astrolabe in surveying and measuring, di Giorgio’s subsequent architectural work implores whether or not the astrolabe and its connection to the divine had an influence on his work at both the Studiolo of Gubbio and Urbino and in his Church Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio.

In 1475, di Giorgio continued the Sienese tradition of gifting ornamented treatises in his dedication of Opusculum de Architectura to Duke Federico III of Montefeltro. With a deep Vitruvian influence, this dedication won him the commission of the 1480 Gubbio and Urbino Studioli in the Palazzo Ducale. The walls of the Studioli are executed in wood-inlay intarsia, showing latticed cabinets that display objects reflecting Duke Federigo’s wide-ranging artistic and scientific interests, including one cabinet including an astrolabe and armillary sphere.

Robert Kirkbride traces the directed path of the gaze in the studiolo, sighting the presence of 11 hooks which contain objects of the most significance to Federico: a dagger, a scopetta, Federico’s armor (occupying five hooks), an astrolabe, an armillary sphere, a tablet, and a birdcage. Carved in detail, the astrolabe in this context has served both as a symbol to scholarship, but also as a mnemonic device of rhetoric invention. Kirkbride elaborates,

“Other figures hover enigmatically between the symbolic and utilitarian. The astrolabe and chess pieces, for example, offered rebuses for memory training and metaphors of prudent governance in addition to their more familiar applications in astronomical observation and gentlemanly gamesmanship.”[13]

Kirkbride makes a larger claim about the phenomenological experience of di Giorgio’s design for the Studioli, drawing on the text of Marsilio Ficino and Nicholas Cusanus.

In exploring the cosmological implications of the room of intarsia, Kirkbride ties the inscription encircling the wall of the room to a literary reference by contemporary humanist Marsilio Ficino.  The inscription begins with the word “ASPICIS”, which can be translated literally as “see how”, or adspicere “to look at”. Kirkbride points out that this word could double as a reference to astronomy, with the word of “aspect” also referring to “the relative positions of the heavenly bodies as they appear to an observer on the Earth’s surface at a given time”, or “the way in which the planets, from their relative positions, look upon each other”. This interlacing of geometry, optics, and divinity is further enhanced by di Giorgio’s gold, green, blue, red, purple, and gray ceiling- Ficino’s recommendation for colors that evoke the generative and protective influences of the heavens. Ficino’s Euclidian comparison of celestial bodies to “eyes” that channel spirituality through rays of light is reminiscent of the cosmology of Alkindi.

The presence of the astrolabe in a room designed to reverberate with the heavens is testament to the contemporary aesthetic of proportion and harmony.  On the hills of Cortona, di Giorgio designed the architectural embodiment of divine geometries. In the 1480 Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, di Giorgio’s elimination of side aisles in favor of thick supporting exterior walls allowed interior simplicity while still producing the effect of exterior monumentality. With three-nave bays leading to a central square, the geometry of the church forms a cube topped by an eight-sectioned dome. In Christiane Joost-Gaugier’s Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe: Finding Heaven, she points out to the Vitruvian perfection of the church culminating in the paired pilasters totalling in a number of 16 vertical columns, the perfect number for a Vitruvian temple. Only from the skies is it possible to see Di Giorgio’s efforts to distribute the eight windows of the dome’s lantern and drum in perfect proportion to the four arms of the church.

Toscanelli, Nicholas of Cusa & Brunelleschi

“The perfect animate being is one possessing sense and intellect. This being should be thought of as a cosmographer who has a city with five gates, which are the five senses. Through these gates messengers enter from all over the world, announcing the disposition of the entire world … The cosmographer should sit and note down all things that are related to him, in order to have a description of the entire perceptible world represented in his own city. … The cosmographer therefore tries as hard as he can to keep all the gates open, to listen constantly for the reports of new messengers, and to bring his description ever closer to the truth. Finally, when he has made a complete representation of the perceptible world in his own city, he compiles it into a well-ordered and proportionately measured map lest it be lost.” – Nicholas of Cusa

In what would be the Florentine equivalent of the Siena School was the humanist circle of Nicholas of Cusa, Toscanelli, and Filippo Brunelleschi. Toscanelli was the recipient of two treatise dedications from Nicholas of Cusa in 1445, evidence of a strong friendship that had been forged in their studies together in Padua. Trained in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic, Cusa’s trip to Constantinople with the task of reconciling Eastern and Western Churches may have been unsuccessful, but he returned with sixteen books on astronomy, a wooden celestial globe, a copper celestial globe, an astrolabe, and the inspiration or his pivotal 1440 piece, De Docta Ignorantia. These instruments and manuscripts established his theories of heliocentricism, the possible existence of infinity, and the assertion that man’s knowledge of the universe was incomplete.

The reciprocity of influence between Cusa and Toscanelli was undeniable, particularly in Toscanelli’s own cosmographical pursuits in his Spice Island map for Columbus as the first to express the possibility of a passage to India cartographically. Toscanelli’s 1474 letter to his friend Fernan Martinez de Roriz, a Portuguese canon who later became King Alfonso’s confessor at the Court in Lisbon, details the route according to Toscanelli’s oceanic measurements. While the original map was lost, reconstructions by Heinricus Martellus and the Erdapfel of Martin Behaim of the map are the only two extant non-Ptolemaic world maps of the 15th century to be graduated in latitude and longitude.

Toscanelli’s experimental and innovative application of scientific knowledge was passed down to a friend, collaborator, advisee, and student Filippo Brunelleschi. Toscanelli’s piercing of Brunelleschi’s dome and laying out of the meridian in the Florentine cathedral in 1475 have sensuous similarities to the experience of sunlight filtering through the astrolabe’s pierced sighting holes signalling the Islamic prayer time, (the shared materiality of bronze is also interesting). In the Islamic world, astrolabes functioned as a source of portable sacrality for traveling Muslims who needed to determine prayer times and their direction to Mecca independently. By setting the alidade at a shadow length appropriate for a given prayer, the astrolabe was hung plumb, and the prayer was begun when a ray of sunlight passed through pinholes of the alidade’s sighting plates. With Toscanelli’s meridian, at midday on the Summer solstice, a beam of sunlight, passing through a hole in a small bronze shelf inserted in the wall at the base of the southern window in the lantern-lit up an inlaid marble disk in the floor of the cathedral. With no written treatise for the purpose of the Meridiana, it is only through Toscanelli’s correspondence with Regiomontanus that we know the project to be motivated by a desire to check whether the inclination of the earth’s axis changes over time.[14]

Toscanelli’s projection of the astrolabe into cosmologic and cosmographic design, as well as his connections with Gemistus Platho, Nicholas Cusanus, Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola align him with a design ethos modelled after Pythagorean ideologies. That Pythagorean ideologies involve the technologies of the astrolabe are inherent, in that any instrument dedicated to mensuration of the earth and sky support the cause of building geometric divinity. Pythagorean influence has visual evidence in the work of his student Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, the Sacristy of San Lorenzo, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, and Santa Maria degli Angeli. The Pythagorean notion of spherical domes of the heavens regulating the cube of the earth below is accentuated by the references to celestial divinity in the proportioning of the vaults. Just as Toscanelli had experimented in translating the astrolabe’s measurement of time through the observation of the eclipse into architecture, so too did Brunelleschi’s domes translate the measurement of time in the night sky.

Two cerulean frescoes detailing a specific moment in the sky over the northern hemisphere occupies the entire surface of the cupola above the Scarsella of San Lorenzo as well as the Pazzi Chapel. While no written account of the frescos exists, the conjecture is that they may have been painted by Giuliano d’Arrigo, known as Pesello, undoubtedly under the supervision of an astronomer, who would have been Toscanelli. The scientific import of the representation is revealed by the extreme precision with which the celestial bodies are positioned. Appearing in gold against the blue background of the sky are the Moon, the Sun, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and the main coordinates of the celestial sphere, while the personifications of some of the constellations are outlined in black with white highlights. The position of the planets shows that the painting represents the sky over Florence on July 4, 1442, evidently a date-worthy of being recorded, and perhaps connected to the arrival of René of Anjou. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that an almost identical fresco was painted a little later in the Pazzi Chapel, a family with close ties to the Angevin sovereign. One can almost imagine Toscanelli, Brunelleschi, and Pesello setting an astrolabe to correspond with the date of July 4, sketching out the positions of the stars and houses of the zodiac, and collaborating on how best to translate that celestial moment into architectural space.


Figure 5. An early seventeenth-century margin drawing from the folio in Jahāngīr’s Album showing an astrologer surrounded by his equipment—an astrolabe, zodiac tables and an hourglass. (Source)

The Sangallos and The Baghdad Astrolabe

Di Giorgio’s involvement in the 1475 war between Siena and Florence put him into close contact with Giuliano da Sangallo, between whom information on the astrolabe may have been exchanged. This exchange is made all the more probable upon examination of a curious drawing by the hand of Antionio da Sangallo the Younger.

Living now in the Uffizi Gallery is Antonio da Sangallo’s meticulous recreation of a ninth-century astrolabe from Baghdad. So detailed is Sangallo’s drawing of both the front and back of the astrolabe, that we are able to clearly decipher the astrolabe maker as Khafif, the apprentice of Ali bin Isa. Sangallo’s careful rendering of the instrument is in isolated parts- the alidade, the pin, and the rete. George Saliba, a scholar who has worked extensively on scientific exchange in the Mediterranean, brings up the point that Antonio Sangallo was at the time working on the building of St. Peter’s in Rome. The 10th-century text by astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi cites an astrolabe such as this as being capable of solving 380 mathematical and astronomical problems. Accordingly, Saliba attributes Sangallo’s interest in the astrolabe to the functionality it would provide to such an engineer. Supported by the extreme detail to which Sangallo takes apart this astrolabe, Saliba goes further to illustrate the extent to which Renaissance men of science were dependent not only on the technology of the world of Islam, but a dependence on the accompanying theoretical scientific results also produced in the world of Islam.[15]

Exploring the role of the architect caught between this exchange of scientific and cosmological theories of East and West, the design aesthetic of Sangallo architecture is one in constant dialogue with the mutual measurements of heaven. Antonio da Sangallo the Elder’s Montepulciano 1508 church of San Biagio, “shows the purity obtainable from the unifying powers of geometry and number.”[16] With a close to perfect geometry in the dome’s articulation of 16 pilasters both inside and out, the diameter of the firmament of Sangallo’s dome is exactly equal to that of the centralized cube below. Joost-Gaugier again urges the viewer to consider the view from above, in which one can view an architectural response to Nicholas of Cusa’s manifesto for the pursuit of a more complete universal knowledge.

Antonio’s proclivity for architectonic harmony is also seen in San Biagio’s precedent of his brother Giulio da Sangallo’s 1485 unfinished Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri at Prato. Natural light floods the centralized space of the interior from the 12 windows of the dome and 6 windows of the lantern- both cosmological numbers associated with the heavens. Situated as a detached and visible from all four sides, this church stands as the first example of a perfectly balanced Greek cross plan with a mimetic quality of interior and exterior unity. In the same way that the astrolabe uses light to signal the commencement of sacred salat, Giulio da Sangallo crafts the placement of the building to achieve a similar effect to use light as a source of veneration for the image of the Virgin. As the historic site of miraculous apparitions, Giulio oriented the building so that exactly on the day of the miracle, and just at the hour in which the chronicles report the occurrence of the first apparition – at 3:18 p.m. on July 15– an ellipse of light glistens at the center of the white marble altar, remains there a few minutes, and then disappears toward the lower right. Similarly, on the day of the summer solstice when the azimuth of the Sun coincides with the main axis of the church, a beam of light falls from the windows in the lantern, perfectly centring the fresco of the Virgin.

Egnazio Danti, Cosimo de Medici, Santa Maria Novella, and San Petronio

“Undoubtedly the long physical indisposition I have suffered for so many years would have put me under the ground if my mind, continually sweetened by the contemplation of astronomy, had not attenuated the weakness of my body.” -Pier Vincenzo Rinaldi

The miraculous manipulations of light-mediated through architectural space by those acquainted and versed in the technology of the astrolabe is practiced in another site of exchange- this time in the Perugian family of Rinaldi-Danti.[17]

Figure 6. Portrait d’Ignazio Danti 1576-1586 (Source)

Egnazio Danti was exposed to the practice of painting and building by his father Giulio Danti, who studied architecture under Antonio da Sangallo. His interests in astronomy can be traced to the influence of his grandfather Pier Vincenzo Rinaldi, who during the outbreak of the Perugian plague in the 1490s attributed his survival to the devoted observation of the stars as recorded in his own writing above. While not much is known of the Danti family, this excerpt survives from a preface that Rinaldi wrote to his own translation of Sacrobosco’s Sphere. While Johannes de Sacrobosco is an interesting point of scientific exchange himself, all that should be noted for our path is that his De sphaera was a 13th-century introduction to astronomy that merged Ptolemy’s Almagest with the aforementioned Islamic commentaries.

Having just pledged to Dominican monastic life, Egnazio received the call to cosmography from Cosimo De Medici in 1563. In need of a man who possessed the combined skills of cosmographer, designer, and painter, Cosimo embarked on the creation of the Stanza del Guardaroba in the Palazzo Vecchio. The Guardaroba boasts 57 floor to ceiling maps of various regimes drawn as cartographically accurate as possible. Roused at the accuracy and speed with which Danti was producing the maps, Cosimo moved the friar-cosmographer from Santa Maria Novella into the palace walls and began a collaborative vision to reform the papal calendar.

Judging from the relative accuracy of the maps given limited resources as well as allusions to the circular brass form and the crowning throne of the astrolabe, we see Danti’s familiarity with the instrument as early as 1563. This proficiency with astronomical instruments would factor into the project of calendar reform, when in 1572-74 Danti mounted two objects of astrolabe ancestry onto the facade of Santa Maria Novella: an armillary sphere and a quadrant that are still in part there today. Whether these instruments were mounted as an advertisement for Cosimo’s calendar reform or in order to obtain quantitative data is complicated by the fact that Danti also began work on the construction of a meridian line in the church’s interior. The choice of the cathedral had less to do with Danti’s Dominican affiliation and more to do with the agreeable conditions for the observation that churches provided, and in his own words, “it was the most convenient and stable in Florence, being strong enough to stand immobile as long as the world lasts, and being freely exposed to the south so as to receive the rays of the sun at the times of the equinoxes from morning until evening.”[18] Danti’s publication of his grandfather’s translation of Sacrobosco revealed the source of his astrolabic intelligence.

Danti would continue the family tradition of passing down the knowledge of the astrolabe and its workings after the unveiling of his armillary sphere attracted a crowd and new patron to witness the play of light as the sun was captured exactly between Danti’s golden rings. Danti was then patronized by Cosimo’s brother Ferdinando I, and just as Regiomontanus had given to Bessarion, and Danti’s grandfather had given to Alfano Alfani, so to did Danti present to his new patron what was said to be the most beautiful and exquisitely fashioned astrolabe in all of Italy. Having earlier given Cosimo a Mercator astrolabe and seeing his patron’s admiration but total incomprehensibility as to how the instrument functioned, Danti also presented Ferdinando with a dedicated treatise on the astrolabe which detailed how it worked. The first edition of Trattato dell’ Uso, e della fabbrica dell’ astrolabio was published by Danti in 1569. It was the first book to be published in Italy on the astrolabe.

With instruments mounted and the laying of the marble meridian, everything was in place for the Medici to begin an impressive campaign in astronomical advancement. However, Cosimo’s untimely death in 1574, and the succession of his cosmologically averse son Francesco to power left the Meridiana incomplete and Danti conveniently dismissed from Florence to Bologna. Danti’s continued pursuit of the sun without a specific patron raises the question of his true motivations; Was it purely perfecting the date of Easter? The late Gothic creamy interiors of Bolgona’s San Petronio provided the perfect setting for Danti’s marble engraving of the houses of the zodiac for the sun to dance upon. Danti’s projection of the portable workings of the astrolabe onto the scale of the monumental San Petronio impressed Pope Gregory XIII to such greatness that in 1581, Danti would receive his final call for cosmography at the Vatican.

In what is perhaps his most impressive work, Danti completed the Italian maps adorning the walls of the Belvedere Gallery. Within the context of circulating new cosmologies, especially those associated with the Reformation, the church used cosmography as a way to assert the universality of the church. Danti had also constructed the Torre dei Venti on the roof of the Vatican, which functioned in architectural scale as an anemoscope, an instrument he had invented to measure wind. Here in this tower of winds, Danti constructed another meridian lines according to the principles laid by his treatise of the astrolabe.[19] So pleased was Gregory with Danti’s work that he awarded him the highest honor of an Alatrian bishopric. Danti’s work is testament that with the right alliances, under the right campaigns and with a vast amount of knowledge, one could practice advanced astronomy with subtle Copernican sympathies with the funding of the Vatican itself.

Meanwhile in Galata… Mimar Sinan and Takiyuddin 

Star-finders Astrolabes

Figure 7. (Source)

This focus of Westward movement is not to say that Italian architecture and science exchanged only with spectres of medieval Islamic astronomers past, to stop here would be detrimental to a rounded study of cosmological exchange in the early modern Mediterranean. Islamic astronomy was not only active well into the 16th century, but also engaging with developments occurring in the West. For this, we have the Istanbul observatory of Takiyuddin and the architect Mimar Sinan.

An unexpected direction of influence that may in fact be a direct result of both a heritage in advanced astronomy and also an eye kept on Italy is the interaction between Mimar Sinan and Takiyuddin. As we have seen in the case of Piero della Francesco, Francesco di Giorgio, Brunelleschi, the Sangallo family, and patrons such as the Medici and the Vatican, there was a marked influence directly from astronomers such as Regiomontanus, Toscanelli, Cusa and Egnazio Danti. In the case of the Galata Observatory, an illustration of the scientific instruments and library of Takiyuddin reflect influence directly from the architect. Beginning at the bottom right corner of the 1581 Shahanshanama watercolor, the gaze is directed from ecliptic measures and celestial spheres, up to triangular rulers and quadrants pointed towards the sources of their research: the library of scientific manuscripts. Just below the collection of manuscripts is Takiyuddin explains the workings of the astrolabe to his colleagues. Necipoglu details the development of the neighborhood surrounding Sinan’s residence into an intellectual center of great scholarship. She affirms this from a 1578 incontestable imperial decree ordering that the mathematical treatises kept in the muezzin of Mimar Sinan Mahallesi be transported to Takiyuddin’s observatory. The esteemed collection of manuscripts, once belonging to the scholar Molla Lutfi, serves as evidence to Sinan’s own incorporation of these scientific theorems and the use of the astrolabe into his own building practice, particularly in his surveying for the Kirkcesme water project.[20]

In the only known portrait of Sinan, the Ottoman use of a scientific instrument echoes the Italian employment of the astrolabe in visual culture as a status symbol for intellectual prowess. Necipoglu illustrates this point in her analysis of the watercolor of Sinan managing the building of Sultan Suleyman’s mausoleum. By depicting him holding a cubit measure, this symbol of intellectuality attests to his rigorous training in geometry and sets him into the realm of the divine. “The exalted self image projected in Sinan’s autobiographies echoes the Lives of Italian artists and architects, with their notion of the artwork as a material trace of it’s makers mental powers of invention. The term ‘divine’ (divino), used for Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, is also applied to Sinan by his biographer, who is intent on advertising the chief-architect’s God-given genius: ‘divine maestro’ (aziz-i kardan), ‘divine architect’ (mimar mubarek).”[21]

While the example of Sinan’s Suleymaniye Mosque alludes to a shared Italian-Islamic aesthetic of the domed cube module we have seen in the raw geometries at Cortona and Montepulciano, the Selimiye mosque signals a shift in Ottoman expression of the divine:

“While his Italian contemporaries focused much of their creative energy on the classical orders and on pedimented facades with classicizing sculptural details, Sinan adopted an elastic approach to architectural design.. His steadfast devotion to the geometry of hemispherical domes also brought him closer to the Roman tradition than Renaissance architects, who were equally attracted to domes with elevated profiles like that of the Florence Cathedral.”[22]

In an architectural expression of the shifting cosmologies being exchanged throughout the East and West, Sinan’s Edirne mosque reflects the hybrid image of progressive and deeply historic identity of the Early Modern Mediterranean world:

“Intended as an unmatched exemplar ‘worthy of being seen by the people of the world’, the multivalent Selimiye transcended the limits of Ottoman architectural tradition. By boldly reclaiming the Romano-Byzantine and Islamic roots of that tradition, and perhaps even making an indirect reference to contemporary Italian Renaissance architecture, the elderly chief architect in his eighties created a timeless testament to his creative genius.”[23]

In the dome of the Selimiye, the cosmic inscriptions echo the shape of Islamic astrolabic thrones, again translating into architectural scale the space of divine inscription. Within the radiance of Selimiye however, there lingered a sense of irresolute panegyric. As Necipoglu points out, the timing of Selim II’s death and Murad III’s disinterest in the building prefigured what Sai details in his “Complaint about the times” as a decline in patronage of the intellectual arts. His line, “nobody pays attention anymore to whose inner world is rich”, can be seen as a shift from the deep roots of science and art based upon “inner knowledge”. Necipoglu suggests that while this may have been in regards to Sai’s own field of poetry, it could be applicable to Sinan’s own sentiments on diminished royal patronage. This shift in the value of imperial support for arts and science can also be seen in Takiyuddin’s Galata Observatory, marking perhaps a larger change in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1574, the Ottoman court historian Mustafa Ali describes the “disorder of the age and perturbations of space and time which appeared, one by one, after Murad III’s accession, and which proved to be the cause of the disruption and degeneration of the world.”[24] Notoriously superstitious and in need of a remedy to the prophecies of the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, Murad III turned to Takiyuddin to return cosmic order to the Ottoman Empire. The comet of 1577 called into service not Takiyuddin’s mathematical talent, but that of his astrological diplomacy. The reading was lyrical enough, “Oh world swaying King, The candle of your pleasant society shall be resplendent”[25], but it wasn’t enough to elevate Murad out of his melancholy and left Taqi al Din and his astrological instruments with sentiments of bad omen. Murad, depressed at the state of his personal and military losses, ordered for the close of the observatory in 1580, only 3 years after it had been opened. This closing undermined Takiyuddin’s significant contributions of the construction of mechanical clocks, talismans, automata, and the significant updating to astronomical tables of the 16th century. The instruments produced at Galata were so advanced, it is said that even the observatory of Tycho Brahe on the Danish island of Hven imitated their instruments.

Fabrizio Bonoli has termed this historical moment, “the passing of the European torch from Arab astronomy to that of Europe, marking the conclusion of a vast process that had begun over five centuries earlier: the confluence in Europe of Arab-Islamic culture with the Greek culture of the Classic and Hellenistic ages mediated and developed by Near Eastern scholars.”[26]


Figure 7. (Source)

It is not my intention to claim that because of a heritage in advanced astronomic theory, Ottoman architecture had an accompanying architectural practice that heeded no influence from the West. The backwards glance of Renaissance astronomers and architects should not undermine two significant contributions of 14-15th century Italy: one, astronomic advancements to questions raised but unresolved in early Islamic astronomy, and two, architectural reification of those astronomical advancements. In her manuscript “Age of Sinan”, Necipoglu outlines in detail the returned gaze of Ottoman to Italian architecture, particularly in the case of Sinan and Palladio and Ottoman travelers and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger’s wooden model of St. Peter’s in Rome.

By focusing this research on isolated exchanges of the astrolabe in the 15-16th century in Renaissance Italy and the Ottoman Empire, it has been my goal to bring to light a shared pursuit of a divine truth rooted in mensuration of the universe in both East and West. The path of the astrolabe from Ancient and Medieval East to Western Europe and back again to the Ottoman Empire traces the symbol of the astrolabe to uses of building and engineering function, an emblem of intellectual superiority, a rhetorical device for memory and commemoration, and most significantly, an instrument that allowed the architect to create and compete with designo of the divine.

The tradition established in Quattrocento and Cinquecento Italy of a collaborative and hybrid practice uniting roles of mathematicians, astronomers, astrologers, artists, architects, priests and patrons was to be carried out in the age of Galileo as well. Following the decline of royal patronage in the Ottoman Empire and the menacing environment surrounding the Council of Trent in Italy, the passed torch from Eastern to Western astronomy and from Copernicans to Galileans kept alive the artist-astronomer cult of secret science. The fact that the invention of the telescope didn’t render the continued laying of meridian lines attests to the enduring symbol of the astrolabe and its sacrality. Toscanelli’s meridian was perfected in 1755 by grand-ducal astronomer Leonardo Ximenes, and Danti’s meridian of San Petronio was perfected in 1695 by Giovanni Cassini. In the example of Emmanuel Maignan, the physicist-theologian who was called to Rome to teach mathematics at the Trinita dei Monti, the astrolabe merges with meridian and takes on an ornamental commemorative status. While in the convent, Maignan spent years hand-drawing exact positions of the constellations in what is now known as the “Astrolabe Catoprique”. His commission to draw a non-functional ceiling meridian at Palazzo Spada served to advertise Bernardino Spada’s cultivation of study and establish the intellectual presence of this as a meeting place for members of the Accademia dei Lincei.

In Eileen Reeves, “Painting the Heavens”, she explores how artists in their decoration of church murals were able to participate and insert themselves into the biggest scientific debate of their time. Illustrated most powerfully in Ludovico Cigoli’s Immacolata in the dome of the Pauline Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore, Reeves argues that the rendering and positioning of the moon were strategic in order to elucidate astronomical and religious arguments, “To see the entire portrait of the Immacolata is to understand the particulars of Galileo’s argument- that the moon is rough, dark, and wholly impervious light- and the amplitude of Cigoli’s version, where the science cannot be severed from the scriptural.”[27]

Through the use of astrolabe as an object of mediation and reconciliation between Eastern and Western metaphysics and scientific philosophies, architects of the early Renaissance paved the way for the High Renaissance based on the same values of art as an art of ideas. With the defining characteristic of the idealization of nature through the construction of visual order exemplified by geometric harmony, a mutual modernism blossomed in both the East and West and elevated the architect to the domical layer of divinity.

Star-finders Astrolabes

Figure 8. From 1001 Inventions School of Scholars canvas ©1001inventions (Source)

Works Cited

Ben-Zaken, A. 2010, Cross-cultural scientific exchanges in the eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Galluzzi, P. 1999, Renaissance engineers from Brunelleschi to Leonardo da Vinci, Giunti :Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza, Firenze.

Heilbron, J.L. 1999, The sun in the church: cathedrals as solar observatories, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Joost-Gaugier, C. 2009, Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe: finding heaven, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.

Katz, V.J. & Imhausen, A. 2007, The mathematics of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and Islam: a sourcebook, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Kennedy, E.S.(., King, D.A. & Saliba, G. 1987, From deferent to equant: a volume of studies in the history of science in the ancient and medieval Near East in honor of E.S. Kennedy, New York Academy of Sciences, New York, N.Y.

Kennedy, E.S.(., Kunitzsch, P., Lorch, R.P. & Abū Jaʻfar Aḥmad ibn ʻAbd Allāh, active,9th century 1999, The melon-shaped astrolabe in Arabic astronomy, F. Steiner, Stuttgart.

King, D.A. 1993, Astronomy in the service of Islam, Variorum, Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain; Brookfield, Vt., USA.

King, D.A. & Holzschuh, B. 2007, Astrolabes and angels, epigrams and enigmas : from Regiomontanus’ acrostic for Cardinal Bessarion to Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ, Steiner, Stuttgart.

Kirkbride, R. 2008, Architecture and memory: the Renaissance studioli of Federico de Montefeltro, Columbia University Press, New York.

Nasr, S.H. 1968, Science and civilization in Islam, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Necipoglu, G., Al-Asad, M. & Paul Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities., J. 1995, The Topkapi scroll: geometry and ornament in Islamic architecture: Topkapi Palace Museum Library MS H. 1956, Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, Santa Monica, CA.

Necipoglu, G., Arapi, A.N. & Günay, R. 2005, The Age of Sinan: architectural culture in the Ottoman Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

North, J.D. 2008, Cosmos: an illustrated history of astronomy and cosmology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Paschos, E.A.(. & Sotiroudis, P. 1998, The schemata of the stars: Byzantine astronomy from A.D. 1300, World Scientific, Singapore; River Edge, N.J.

Reeves, E.A. 1997, Painting the heavens: art and science in the age of Galileo, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Saliba, G. 2007, Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Samsó, J. 1994, Islamic astronomy and medieval Spain, Variorum, Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain; Brookfield, Vt., USA.


[1] Saliba, G. 2007, Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 127.

[2] North, J.D. 2008, Cosmos: an illustrated history of astronomy and cosmology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 148.

[3] Katz, V.J. & Imhausen, A. 2007, The mathematics of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and Islam: a sourcebook, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 4.

[4] Saliba, G. 2007, Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 28.

[5] Necipoglu, G., Al-Asad, M. & Paul Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.,J. 1995, The Topkapi scroll: geometry and ornament in Islamic architecture: Topkapi Palace Museum Library MS H. 1956, Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, Santa Monica, CA, 131.

[6] King, D.A. & Holzschuh, B. 2007, Astrolabes and angels, epigrams and enigmas: from Regiomontanus’ acrostic for Cardinal Bessarion to Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ, Steiner, Stuttgart, 188.

[7] Katz, V.J. & Imhausen, A. 2007, The mathematics of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and Islam: a sourcebook, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 4.

[8] King, D.A. & Holzschuh, B. 2007, Astrolabes and angels, epigrams and enigmas: from Regiomontanus’ acrostic for Cardinal Bessarion to Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ, Steiner, Stuttgart, 159.

[9] Kennedy, E.S.(., King, D.A. & Saliba, G. 1987, From deferent to equant: a volume of studies in the history of science in the ancient and medieval Near East in honor of E.S. Kennedy, New York Academy of Sciences, New York, N.Y., 260.

[10] Paschos, E.A.(. & Sotiroudis, P. 1998, The schemata of the stars: Byzantine astronomy from A.D. 1300, World Scientific, Singapore ;River Edge, N.J., 27.

[11] Kirkbride, R. 2008, Architecture and memory: the Renaissance studioli of Federico de Montefeltro, Columbia University Press, New York., 35.

[12] Galluzzi, P. 1999, Renaissance engineers from Brunelleschi to Leonardo da Vinci, Giunti: Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza, Firenze, 47.

[13] Kirkbride, R. 2008, Architecture and memory: the Renaissance studioli of Federico de Montefeltro, Columbia University Press, New York, 63.

[14] Heilbron, J.L. 1999, The sun in the church: cathedrals as solar observatories, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 333.

[15] Saliba, G. 2007, Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 67.

[16] Joost-Gaugier, C. 2009, Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe: finding heaven, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ;New York, 112.

[17] The grandfather, Pier Vincenzo Rinaldi, was a poet amongst his many other intellectual pursuits. His friends nicknamed him Danti, as a reference to Dante, and the name stuck and eventually overrode the name Rinaldi.

[18] Heilbron, J.L. 1999, The sun in the church: cathedrals as solar observatories, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 72.

[19] Heilbron, J.L. 1999, The sun in the church: cathedrals as solar observatories, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 79.

[20] Necipoglu, G., Arapi, A.N. & Günay, R. 2005, The age of Sinan: architectural culture in the Ottoman Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 141.

[21] Ibid., 135.

[22] Ibid., 103.

[23] Ibid, 256.

[24] Ben-Zaken, A. 2010, Cross-cultural scientific exchanges in the eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 24.

[25] Ibid., 32.

[26] North, J.D. 2008, Cosmos: an illustrated history of astronomy and cosmology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 148.

[27] Reeves, E.A. 1997, Painting the heavens: art and science in the age of Galileo, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 175.

Original published date 28 May 2020

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts

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Hydraulic engineering in the medieval Arab world: the historical background 

The use of water-power for operating machines has a long tradition in the several regions which came under the dominion of Islam in the medieval times. This heritage includes scientific traditions in the Greco-Roman world, as well as the numerous aspects and technological features of water-powered machines all over the Mediterranean, as well as the Near East and the Middle East.

The expansion of the Muslim state in the Mediterranean, the Mesopota-mia and the Iranian territory during the 7th century AD enabled contacts and interactions of several scientific and engineering cultures under the Muslim rule. In the case of water-powered machines and hydraulic technology in general different geomorphological landscapes and climatic conditions acted as a polymorphic background for know-how transfer and further development. Novel techniques for crop irrigation were substantial for the transfer of species like cotton, sugar cane and oranges from East up to the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand using water-power for milling cereals, oil seeds and sugar cane became increasingly important for the food supply of the rural and urban populations in the several Muslim states which resulted from the Arab expansion. Crucial importance obtained the several types of water-raising machines for both fresh-water supply and irrigation in the Arab-ruled regions which in many cases were characterised by shortage of surface water. Beside their role in every-day technological applications (mostly in rural context as well as in procedures of food processing) water-powered machines were engaged in many marvellous devices conceived and, to a certain extent, presumably realised in environments maintained and supported by princes, rulers and distinguished persons.

The importance of hydraulic science and engineering in the Muslim states and the Arab contribution to the transmission of previous know-how and to further development have been worked out and analysed by several authors. The purpose of the present study is to demonstrate characteristic patterns of presenting water-power plants in Arabic historical sources and to interpret these perception patterns in the specific political and cultural context.

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts
(Left) A manuscript shows Al-Jazari’s reciprocating pump. This was the first time an illustration of a crank appeared in a manuscript* – (Right) 3D animated image of reciprocating pump (Source)


Historical references and archaeological evidence concerning water-powered machines in the Greek, Roman and Islamic world are given in the works on history of technology by Forbes (1957), Schioler (1973), Oleson (1984), Hill (1984/1996; 1986), Schnitter (1994), El Faiz (2005). In his monumental work on Science and Civilisation in China J. Needham (1965 & 1966) extended the comparative study by considering Chinese evidence.

If we focus our study upon Arabic primary sources, we encounter mentioning of such machines in travel reports as well as in works of cosmography (i.e. combination of geographical data with cosmological and philosophical doctrines) describing Islamic and non-Islamic countries. Further genres are treatises on agriculture, on the rural projects of the State, and finally special treatises concerned with the description of ingenious devices, a kind of marvellous machines conceived on the basis of mechanics and hydraulics.

In the following we shall present first some typical references in Arabic geographic texts of the 10th century AD. We shall then proceed by considering a treatise of the beginning of the 11th century on hydraulic projects of the Muslim state and several texts on agricultural engineering. We shall conclude by referring to several texts concerned with imagery and visions of hydraulic technology as well as with the typical Arabic tradition of hydraulic marvellous machines.

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts
(Left)  Third page of the section devoted to the six-cylinder pump in the Chester Beatty MS (p. 38) of Al-Turuq al-Saniya. – (Right) 3D animated image of six-cylinder pump (Source)

Utilitarian perspectives 

Arab geographers often refer to agricultural production of the countries they describe. A special aspect in such descriptions is the dependency of agriculture on water management. Irrigation systems, darns, as well as water-mills belong to large-scale technology which becomes a positively connoted sign of the landscapes described.

Al-Muctaddasi (d. 1000 AD) describes several dams in Iran, among which a pre-Islamic dam which provided hydraulic power in Khuzistan, and a dam built in the 10th century AD on the river Ki1r, in the Iranian province Fars, by the Buyid emir eAcIrtd al-Dawla:

Adud al-Dawla closed the river between Shiraz and Istakhr by a great wall, strengthened with lead. And the water behind it rose and formed a lake. Upon it the two sides were ten water-wheels like those mentioned in Khuzistan, and below each wheel was a mill, and it is today one of the wonders of Fars.” (Al-Muqaddasi, Arabic text p. 344; Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 137)

The positive attitude of Arab and Persian writers towards water power and milling is expressed in the way they estimate water stream according its capacity in powering mills. Referring to Upper Mesopotamia, the granary of Baghdad, Ibn klawqal (10th century AD) underlines the use of Tigris stream for powering ship-mills:

The ship-mills on the Tigris at Mosul have no equal anywhere, be-cause they are in very fast current, moored to the bank by iron chains. Each [mill] has four stones and each pair of stones grinds in the day and night 50 donkey-loads. They are made of wood —sometimes of teak.” (Ibn klawqal, Arabic text p. 219; Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 137)

In 1184 AD Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217 AD) describes the ship mills across the river Khabur in Upper Mesopotamia with the exalting expression “fonning, as it were, a dam” (Ibn Jubayr, Arabic text p. 243; Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 137).

Even tidal mills are mentioned, e.g. by al-Muqaddasi:

The ebb-tide is also useful for operating the mills, because they are at the mouths of the rivers, and when the water comes out it turns them.” (Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 138)

What is characteristic in all above references is the narrative scheme of the Arab geographers according to which the utilitarian use of water-powered rural machines appears as an indicator for improving the prosperity of the regions described (Hill, 1991, p. 184). Only few technical details of functioning or construction are mentioned, which implies that the authors had poor knowledge of or no interest in such details. Their main goal was to present these human constructions as something exceptional, as “wonders” which contributed to the image and the prestige of the regions.

A different utilitarian perspective can be traced in treatises concerned with agriculture. Already in the Nabatean Agriculture, a treatise translated from the Syriac into Arabic in the 10th century AD (El Faiz, 2005, p. 30) we get a detailed description of water-raising machines, such as sciqiya, a perpendicular potgarland driven by an animal which rotates a horizontal beam fixed to the perpendicular axis with a gearing to the potgarland. The sources we will refer to come from al-Andalus. Most probably the *rya was introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs. In the treatises of the AndalusT agronomists Ibn al-‘Awwam and Abu l-Khayr several water-raising machines used in agriculture are not only described in their outlook and functioning but also with respect to their construction specifications and the possibilities of improving thief efficiency —perhaps a rational option of prestige writing (El Faaz, 2005, pp. 219-220; Glick, 1992, p. 981).

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts
These norias, which raise water from the Orontes River, are in Hama, Syria* (Source)

Patterns of prestige and political legitimacy 

Prestige issues are conventionally associated to persons of the political stage (or, more generally, of the public sphere). It is, therefore, understan-dable that important works related to water —whether providing drinking water, establishing adequate irrigation of fields or constructing water-powered machines— have been honourably attributed to distinguished Muslims. A well-known example is the project to provide the pilgrimage mute from Baghdad to Mecca with drinking water. The idea was inherent to the religious duties of the Muslim caliph. It is Zubayda (d. 831 AD), one of the wives of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809 AD), who has associated her name with the project of a canal supposed to carry water from Baghdad all the way down to Mecca. The idea and some financial details of the project are mentioned in the biographical dictionary of Ibn Khallikan(1211-1282 AD) (lbn Khallikan, vol. I, p. 337). However, no precise information concerning any realised parts is provided, except of the plant for supplying Mecca with water from a spring some 25 miles away. In his journey description Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217 AD) gives some aspects of the water supply along the route from Baghdad to Mecca (El Faiz, 2005, pp. 111-114). However, this hydraulic infrastructure is commonly attributed to the caliph al-Ma’mfm (813-833 AD) (El Faiz, 2005, p. 113). The imprecise and often contradictory information about the ambitious water-supply projects concerning the Islamic Holy Place (Hitti, 1970, p. 302; El Faiz, 2005, p. 111-114) underlines the symbolic value of the subject and renders the several versions of the narrative a pattern of prestige and political legitimacy rather than a puzzle of historical evidence.

Similar narratives of political prestige and power concern prestigious regional rulers or public persons, e.g. the “superintendent of irrigation” of Mery in the 10th century, who was said to have more power than the prefect of the city since he commanded some 10000 workers to build and maintain irrigation canals and dams, and a series of 10 norias and attached mills (Ibn 1;lawqal, pp. 635-636; Hill, 1984/1996, p. 25). With reference to the same dam of the river Kur in Fars mentioned by al-Muqaddasi (al-Muqaddasi, p. 344), Ibn al-Balkhi underlines 150 years later (12th cent. AD) the labour organised and the money spent by ‘Adud al-Dawla for constructing the dam (Lambton, p. 867).

A report combining description and admiration of administrating irrigation services is included in the Kitab al-Hawi dating to the 2nd quarter of the 11th century AD (Cahen, 1949-1951, pp. 117-143). Among fiscal regulations we find detailed data concerning the output of the various water-driven plants: mills, water-raising machines, etc. Written at the end of the Buyid era it is a typical demonstration of political legitimacy through a discourse based on the hydraulic network.

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts
(Left) Page from a 13th-century manuscript depict a water-raising machine designed by Al-Jazari. (Source)

Hydraulic imagery and marvellous machines: cosmographies, hiyal 

The Arabic reports about irrigation plants, dams and water-powered ma-chines formed a cultural construction which could be called hydraulic imagery. Quite often patterns of this imagery were associated with individual biographies. The Egyptian historian Ibn al-Qifti (1172-1248 AD) reports about the audacious project of the Basrian scientist Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039 AD) who considered to erect a dam on the river Nile near the first cataract in the south of Aswan. The aim of this vision was the effective regulation of the annual overflow of the Nile (Ibn al-Qifti, pp. 114-116). After having been officially invited by the Fatimid caliph al-Ijakim, Ibn al-Haytham surveyed the region, but apparently gave up his plan. It is reported that he then “simulated” madness in order to escape the wrath of the Fatimid caliph. It is not easy to exclude exaggerations and gigantomany with respect to the biographies of the Fatimid caliph or Ibn al-Haytham; this could be the contribution of the historiography to the formation of hydraulic imagery in the service of glorifying or colouring individuals. On the other hand the subject itself is the prototype of an incredible gigantesque project. The name of the Basrian scientist remained inherently associated with his hydraulic utopia and his “collateral madness” as embodied exaltation (El Faiz, 2005, pp. 129-137).

Exaltations in reports concerning agricultural technology, particularly hydraulic machines, as well as affinity to the Arabic literary form of the “wonders” (‘aja’ib) (Dubler, pp. 203-204; Institut du Monde arabe, 1978) are typical characteristics of textual sources on travelling and geography of the 12th to the 14th centuries AD. These aspects are especially prominent in treatises which present both geographical evidence and cosmological models explaining the data on a philosophical and theological basis. In modern terms such treatises are usually called cosmographies. This is not to say that information on prestigious and highly estimated hydraulic constructions that is provided in such treatises is generally exaggerated. Many references of technological devices constitute today valuable information on medieval technology, i.e. the mention that we find in al-Qazwini’s cosmography (1203-1283 AD) about the water-mill with horizontal wheel in Malaga. In the cosmography of al-Dimashqi (1256-1327 AD) such descriptions mostly refer to extraordinary ways of using natural resources (matter, wind or water).

In the description of the land of Azerbaijan al-Dimashqi presents the fortified town of Merend (Mehren, 1884, pp. 254-255, French translation; Mehren, 1866, p. 188, Arabic text). The information he gives about this place is concentrated on its remarkable water-mill: “In the place named Merend there is a mill which is put in rotation by a still water; and this belongs to the marvels of the world. It is built in the following way:

The mill house comprises two stone mills with two water wheels. Each water wheel is put in rotation by its own water [stream]. The upper [mill] stone rotates and grinds the grain. The two water wheels are fixed at the lateral parts of a vault in which the water remains stored with a depth of a man’s body and a breadth as well as a length of 6 cubits [e.g. ca. 4 m]. In the middle of this vault there is a pillar stretched like a bridge [horizontally] over the breadth of the vault and fixed on both side walls. This pillar bears two reinforced leaden water pipes which hold on each other tightly [unified] and hang over the pillar up to the surface of the water. Both water pipes are open. Inside there is a structure [device?] by means of which the water is sucked up towards a height of half a cubit [e.g. ca. 34 cm]. It is elevated in it [i.e. in the pipes] and kept on in stream until it flows down powerfully through the other pipe, which rises over the surface of the water in a certain distance. Thus the water flows out from this pipe and, as it falls on the water wheel, it revolves the wheel and moves the mill stone. After falling on the wheel scoops the flowing water reaches the same water [of the storing basin], then it is raised up in the other pipe turned to the other side and flows down from there. This pipe is of the same height and breadth [as the first one]. Thus each pipe sucks alternatively the water ejected by the other, so that the water mass neither decreases nor increases nor moves except at the openings of the two pipes where they suck up and pour out again the water.”

It is not the purpose of the present study to smooth or modernise the text in order to make it understandable as far as the functioning of the twin water-pipes is concerned. The details provided by the text are not enough to reconstruct the outline of the plant; they do not even elucidate the several possible functions. Even the illustration embedded in the manuscript and referring to the water-mill does not just illustrate the text (Canavas, 2005, pp. 291-297). Moreover, it underlines the apparent goal of the presentation of the water-mill of Merend by al-Dimashqi: the marvel described here is a perpetuum mobile. Work (i.e. turning the mill stones) is done without any visible input of external power!

The textual treatment of hydraulic machines as marvels finds its most remarkable expression in the compendia of ingenious machines (Arabic: hiyal) composed by Banu Musa in Abbasid Baghdad (9th century AD) and by al-Jazari in Diyarbakir (1206 AD). The Book of Ingenious Devices of the brothers Banu Musa contains descriptions and illustrations of 100 devices. Al-Jazari’s compedium yields descriptions and construction de-tails for 50 elaborate devices which combine mechanics, pneumatics and hydraulics (Hill 1984/1996, p. 199 ff.). Both treatises refer to design and construction for palace environments —”utilitarian” purposes similar to those of the rural machines described above are not mentioned in the biyal treatises.

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts
The Self Changing Fountain of Banu Musa bin Shakir (Source)


In our study we analysed several Arabic textual sources concerning hydraulic machines. The various patterns traced are strongly related to the specific literary forms and the historical-cultural context of the texts. Whereas travellers and geographers of the 10th century AD underline utilitarian aspects and insert the hydraulic machines into the specific political and economic landscape, later historians and biographers introduce similar utility patterns as prestige criteria in assessing persons of the public sphere: dealing with hydraulic artefacts enables exalting and distinguishing (in case of failure: discrediting) individual persons. The hydraulic imagery finds a prominent position in the literary form of the “wonders” (`aja’ib), the Arabic mirabilia, and in the category of “tricky” devices in palaces and gardens.

The above patterns are expressed through specific narrative forms. As a consequence, these forms standardised the manners in which hydraulic know-how and technology are reported. Such reports were undoubtedly inspired by the practical reality; however, it would be an over-interpretation of poor reliability to assert that they depicted social and technological practice. Even if the textual sources in many cases allow the assumption of theoretical scientific insight in the period considered, this is not enough to conclude that “practical realisation of the theory” was just a question of logistics. Technology in the era considered here was not “applied science”. The social conditions of technology development might have been quite different from those of literary production, and the motives for using certain narrative forms are not to be found in the literal content of these narratives. In order to trace the paths of know-how transmission from the Nabateans up to the Muslim Arabs additional historical sources and archaeological evidence are still required.

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts
The Albolafia noria, or waterwheel, is the last vestige of an array of mills and dams built on the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba between the 8th and 10th centuries as it appears in its present condition. (Source)


  • CAHEN, Cl., 1949-1951. “Le service de l’irrigation en Iraq au debut du XI’ siècle”. Bulletin d’etudes orientales, Damas, XIII, 117-143.
  • CANAVAS, C., 2005. “Erinnerungsprozesse in der Wissensreprasentation: Raumliche Ordnungskonzepte in Illustrationen arabisch-islamischer Handschriften”, in S. Damir-Geilsdorf, A. Hartmaim and B. Hendrich (eds.), Mental Maps – Baum – Erinnentng, Münster, 285-301.
  • DUBLER, C. E.: ‘aja’ib, article in Eld, I, 203-204.
  • EL FAIZ, M., 2005. Les maitres de I ‘eau. Histoire de i’hydraulique arabe. Arles: Actes Sud.
  • FORBES, R. J., 1957. “17. Power” & “19. Hydraulic engineering and sanitation”, in SINGER, Ch. et al (eds.): A History of Technology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, vol. II, pp. 589-622 & 663-694.
  • GLICK, Th., 1992. “Hydraulic Technology in Al-Andalus”. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden: Brill, 974-988.
  • HILL, D. R., 1984. “Information on Engineering in the works of Muslim Geographers”. History of Technology, London, 9, pp. 127-142.
    – 1984/1996. A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times. London/New York: Routledge.
    – 1986. “Ma’; 2. Hydraulic machines”, in Eld, Leiden: Brill, vol. V, pp. 860-862.
    – 1991. “Arabic mechanical engineering: Survey of the historical sources”. Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 1, pp. 187-209.
  • HITTI, Ph. K., 1970. History of the Arabs. (10 ed.) Houndmills: Macmillan.
  • IBN AL-QIFTI, 1903. Akhbar al-hukama Ed. J. Lippert, Leipzig.
  • IBN HAWQAL, 1938. Kitab surat al-ard Arabic text ed. J. H. Kramers, ed. of vol. 2 of BGA. Leiden: Brill.
  • IBN JUBAYR, 1907: Rihla (Journey). Ed. William Wright, 2nd ed. M. J. de Goeje, Leyden.
  • IBN KHALLIKAN, 1843-1871: Wafayat al-A’yan… Cairo: 1299 a. H. (3 vols.); Engl. transl. De Slane, Paris, 4 vols,.
  • Institut du Monde arabe (ed.) (1978): L’etrange et le merveilleux dans I ‘Islam medieval (Actes du colloque tenu au College de France a Paris, en mars 1974), Paris.
  • LAMBTON, A. K. S. “Ma’: Irrigation of Persia”, article in Eld, V, 865-874.
  • MEHREN, A. F. (Ed.), 1866. Cosmographie de ed-Dimichqui (texte arabe), Saint-Petersbourg.
  • MEHREN, A. F. (Ed.), 1884. Manuel de la Cosmographie du moyen age (traduit de l’arabe), Copenhague.

First published on 4 Sep 2018


Figure 1. Black Death in Seljuk and Ottoman Era (Source)


Note of the Editor: In the light of the current pandemic, this short article has been extracted from the “Turkish Medical History of the Seljuk Era” article in remembrance of the late Professor Dr Ali Haydar Bayat (1941-2006), Ege University in Izmir, Turkey. He was a member of the Medical Faculty, Medical Ethics and History Department, Ege University in Izmir, Turkey. He published extensively on the history of medicine, especially in the Ottoman period.



Figure 2.  (Source)

The worst epidemics of the Middle Ages were the plague, black death/peste noir, peste, pestis in the West, ta’un in the Islamic world and kiran, olet among the Turks.

Because Anatolia is a bridge between the East and West, it has seen many epidemics throughout its history. The first great epidemic was seen in the Mediterranean countries during the 6th century, called the Justinian Plague. It lasted three years and destroyed a great number of the population it hit. There are no records of the deaths and destruction in Anatolia but just in Istanbul about 16,000 died per day, which gives an idea of its destruction.

There were many epidemics in various places where the Seljuks ruled that came from Anatolia and foreign countries. Mostly epidemics started after military campaigns, sieges and famines. The main epidemics were: the plague that started in Istanbul; during the time of Suleyman Shah I (1078), killing 160,000 in four months; during the time of Kilicarslan I (1093), during the siege of Antakya, during the First Crusade (1098) when just from the French military 100,000 died; during the time of the Danismand ruler Melik Muhammed (1143), an epidemic in Malatya first killed poultry, then humans, mostly small children; during the military campaign to Cukurova of Mesud I (1153), a part of the Seljuk and Konya military; during the rule of Kilicarslan II (1178) a plague due to a famine in Syria, Iraq, Diyarbakir and Ahlat, the people were not able to bury their dead in time as the rate of death was too high; during the Third Crusade (1189), the French army had many casualties due to an epidemic stemming from the heat and famine; during the rule of Ala Al-Din Keykubad (1221), an epidemic in Konya, in 1244 in Malatya, in 1259 in Syria and in Anatolia due to a famine; and the Mongolian invasion that took place at the same time brought an epidemic in Mardin and Meyyafarikin (Silvan) that caused immense damage.

Figure 3. Gilles Le Muisit’s painting depicts the mass burial of plague victims in Belgium. (Source)

The reasons for the epidemics were not known, and they were explained by supernatural causes, as the people tried to stop the epidemic material and spiritual ways. In the Christian world, sacrifices, magic, religious ceremonies were performed and miracles were expected from saints. In the Islamic world they obeyed the saying of Prophet Muhammed: “Do not enter a place of plague, and do not leave it,” creating a quarantine, but as they did not know the cause of the epidemics other from trying various medicines, they also tried superstitious beliefs.*

*Feda Samil Arik, “Seljuklular Zamaninda Anadolu ‘da Veba Salginlari”, Tarih Arastirmalari Dergisi 1990-1991, vol. XV, No. 26, Ankara, 1991, pp. 27-57; Sezgin Guclüay, “Tarihte Ticareti Etkileyen Unsurlar”, Turk Dünyasi Arastirmalari, 126, 2000, pp. 48-49.

…in the memory of Professor Dr Ali Haydar Bayat (1941-2006):

Turkish Medical History of the Seljuk Era



Note of the Editor: This article “Turkish Medical History of the Seljuk Era” by  Professor Ali Haydar Bayat* was first published 3rd April 2009. (20142019). It has been republished again to honour the passing of Prof Ali Bayat.


Table of contents
1. Some History: the Great Seljuk era
2. Medicine during the Turkish Seljukid period
3. Hospitals
4. Medical education
5. Physicians and their work
6. Epidemics
7. The Practice of folk medicine
8. Further resources


1. Some History: the Great Seljuk era

The Oguzlar, who were a part of the Gokturk Empire that was disbanded in 744 CE, had settled in an area that was under Samanogullari’s rule in Maveraunnehir, Harezm and Horasan. However, after a dispute, Seljuk Bey migrated with his followers to the banks of the Ceyhun River (present Oxus River). After they won the war of Dandanakan against the Gaznelis, the Seljuks established the Great Seljuk State in 1040 and conquered vast lands in the neighborhood, covering large regions from the Middle Asia to India, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia.[1]

Figure 1. Prof. Dr. Ali Haydar. (Source).

The scientific and civil life of the Great Seljuk state cannot be separated from the Islamic civilization. During this era, although born and raised in Turkish states, medical great names like Ibn Sina and al-Biruni, who wrote their works in Arabic, the scientific language of the era, were real heroes of the Islamic scientific tradition. In an era when the idea of community was more important, it was not expected to question the scholar’s nationality. Thus, the scientists were able to travel, settle, teach and carry on scientific and medical investigation without any political boundaries. This was a very common feature for this era.

To quote just few names, among the famous names pertaining to this tradition were Ibn al-Tilimdh, Abu ‘l-Barakat al-Baghdadi, Ibn Jazala. Ibn al-Tilmidh worked for the Sultan Sancak [2], whilst Sultan Mesud’s physician Abu Al-Barakat from Baghdad worked in the palace and had been awarded once with a hilat, a robe of honour [3]. During the era of the Sultan Meliksah, there were such physicians as Saîd b. Hibetillah, who wrote Kitâb al-Mugni fi al-Tibb and Ibn Jazala who wrote Kitâb Taqwîm al-Abdân and Minhâj al-Bayan fî mâ Yasta’milah al-insan [4]. Abdullah ibn al-Muzaffar al-Bahalî from Andalusia had been the physician of Mahmud, the son of Sultan Meliksah [5]. One of the most important books on pharmaceuticals that was written in this era was Kitab al-Abniye ‘an Haqâyik al-Adwiya [6].

Hospitals that existed in the Muslim world before the Seljuks were developed and spread by them. However, we have little information on Seljuk hospitals. Among these there are the hospitals and madrasas that were built by order of the vizier to Sultan Sancak, Ahmed Kâshî, in Kâshan, Ebher, Zencan, Gence and Errân [7], hospitals in Kirmân (1281) and Berdesir (11th and 12th centuries) [8], and care centres for the blind and disabled in Mosul (1159). Additionally the vizier Kunduri, upon the order of Tugrul Bey, restored hospitals such as the hospital al-Adhudi built by Adhud Al-Dawla in Baghdad [9]. They also created field hospitals for the military, where camel- earned physicians, medical personnel, provided the wounded with medicines and medical supplies [10].

The Turkish Seljuks, in the beginning, acted as the western arm of the Great Seljuk State, but then became independent and created their own identity. The science of medicine in the era of Turkish Seljuks was not of their own but a continuation of the experience, tradition and knowledge of the Islamic medicine which they helped spread through the Seljuk territories.

Figure 2. A map showing the Great Seljuk Empire at its height, upon the death of Malikshah in 1092. (Source).

2. Medicine during the Turkish Seljukid period

After the victory of Alparslan in Malazgirt (Manzikert) in 1071, the doors to Anatolia opened for many Turks to migrate through. By the 13th century, Anatolia had become the homeland to one third of the Turks. Even Europeans started to call Anatolia by the name of “Turkey”.

As Anatolia was an economical bridge between east-west and north-south, the economic and political policies of the sultans caused an economic rise of the region. Among the measures edited were: the lowering of the customs tax, the absence of taxes from wheat and metalwork, the guaranteeing of the safety of the international trade routes and the caravanserais on them, the safety provided to the traders. Therefore, the income of the country grew parallel to the agricultural and industrial production [11]. The budget of the state was 27 million dinars (gold), compared to 3 million in France and 4 million in England [12]. The treasury that was stored was used for making public works.

It is in this context that we understand the following statement by Ibn Havkal in the 10th century: “In the Islamic countries, the rich are spending their money for their own pleasures, where in Turkistan the rich population is using their wealth for religion and charity [13].” From his part, Ibn Battuta remarked in the 13th century: “Abundance in Damascus, compassion in Anatolia [14].” With these favorable factors, Anatolia, which knew a period of trouble and confusion in the previous period, started to experience an economic and cultural growth not seen before [15]. Cities, whose population exceeded one hundred thousand on important caravan routes like Konya, Kayseri, Sivas, became important centres. Mosques, madrasas, soup kitchens for the poor, lodges for the dervishes, bridges, inns, hammams and hospitals were built, and the social status of the people was raised. Especially during the reign of Kilic Asian II and Ala Al-Din Keykubat, many scientists and artists were invited to live in Anatolia, and these men, by moving in temporarily or permanently, helped the progress of sciences and arts.


Figure 3: The Kharaghan twin towers, built in 1053 in Iran, are the burial place of Seljuq princes. (Source).

Among the architectural works that have survived to the present, those that are important for medical history are the dar al-shifa-s (hospitals) that prove the civilized status of the Anatolian Seljuks.

3. Hospitals

During the Anatolian Seljuk times with its economic growth and cultural progress, hospitals called dar al-shifa, dar al-sihha or bimâristan were opened in every city. Medical assistance was given to those who got sick at caravanserais [16], and soup kitchens were create for the poor. The hospitals that were built by the royal family and supported by foundations were able to do their duties over a long period without becoming a financial burden on the state. Medical treatments were given free of charge and physicians, ophthalmologists, surgeons and pharmacists worked in these hospitals. Some of the many Seljuk hospitals that have made it to the present are as follows:

  • Mardin, Necmeddin Ilgazi Hospital (MâristanMâristan) [502-516 H/1108-1121: It was started by the Sultan of Artuklu Necmeddin Ilgazi and completed after his death in the name of his brother by Amin Al-Din Ilgazi. The hospital institution consisted of a mosque, a madrasa, a hammam and a fountain. The institution was built over a vast land and the mosque, madrasa, hammam and fountain survived until today in ruins. The hospital was in the area south of the hammam.
  • Kayseri, Gevher Nesibe Medical Madrasa and Hospital (Mâristan) [602 H/1205-1206]: It is the first medical building the Turkish Seljuks built in Anatolia. The ruler of the Seljuks Giyaseddin Keyhusrev, through the will of his sister Gevher Nesibe Sultan, who died at a young age, built the complex with a hospital (Shifâiye) on the west and a medical madrasa (Giyasiye) on the east.

Figure 4. Ince Minareli (founded in 1258) Madrasa in Konya and Sifahiye Madrasa (founded in 1217-18) in Sivas, both in Turkey. (Source).

The two buildings were connected by a corridor that was 1.5 x 11 meters; the hospital was 40 x 42 m (1680 m2), and the madrasa was 28 x 40m (1120 m2). Both sections had a plan that included a pool in the middle, a courtyard that was surrounded with pavilions and four antechambers. Together with the rooms around the courtyard, 18 cells that were discovered in the latest excavation on the western wall of the hospital were restored. As it was traditional among the Anatolian Seljuks to bury the founder of the place in the complex, one of the rooms in the medical madrasa with an octagon pyramid roof was built for Gevher Nesibe’s grave.

  • Sivas, Izzeddin Keykavus Hospital (Dar al-Sihha) [614 H/1217): The hospital built by Izzedin Keykavus in Sivas in 1217, together with its destroyed parts (54.65 x 61.90m), was about 3400m2. It was the largest of the Seljuk hospitals.

The hospital was built like a madrasa with antechambers and a courtyard. The 690m2 courtyard was covered with stone and surrounded with 30 rooms with porches. The mausoleum of the donator, Izzeddin Keykavus, which is located inside the hospital, was built with the special Seljuk art of brick lying and mosaic tile.

The foundation deed, dated 1220 CE, is the only example from the Seljuk hospitals that has survived to the present. This is why it is very important. From this foundation deed, we are able to gather information on the hospital staff and how the hospital was run. The administration of the hospital foundation was given to the palace treasurer and founder of the Cankiri hospital, Cemaleddin Ferruh. The administrators decided on the wages of the experienced and well performing physicians, surgeons, ophthalmologists and pharmacists, and provided the raw material for the making of medicine. They also decided on the wages of the various workers in the hospital. Five farms, 7 pieces of land and 108 shops devoted to the foundation covered an area as big as a couple villages and the money generated from these economic resources was used in maintaining the hospital. The leftover money was used to buy more income generating resources [17].


Figure 5. Tile assemblage from the first half of the 13th-century Seljuq Anatolia. Composite body, overglaze-painted, its dimensions being 9,3 inches (23.3 cm). This composite tile formed by smaller elements to create a hexagon probably originates from the palace of ‘Ala’ al-Din Kay-Qubadh (reigned in Konya from 1220 to 1237). © The Metroplolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source).

  • Divrigi, Turan Melek Hospital (Dar al-Shifa) (628 H / 1228): The complex consisted of a mosque and a hospital. Ahmed Shah, the ruler of the Divrigi area of the Mengüceks, built the mosque and his wife, the daughter of the Erzincan Bey, Turan Melek Sultan, built the hospital. This one and only Ulucami and hospital complex was built on the east side of the city on sloping land. It is very fortunate for Anatolian Turkish art that this building has survived. The hospital had a plan of a madrasa with a courtyard with four antechambers and due to the harshness of the climate, it was covered with three vaults supported by four columns, and was lit up with a large lamp. There were seven rooms around the courtyard and an octagon pool under the place where the light was hanging. There was a stone stairway in the south corner that led to the mezzanine and there was a big hall and two rooms across the front. In the northeast corner of the courtyard, where the gate to the mosque and hospital was located was the mausoleum of Turan Melek.
  • Konya and Aksaray Hospital (Dar al-shifa): It is known that in Konya and Aksaray, as they were the capitals of the Anatolian Seljuk State and adorned with many monuments, there were three hospitals. The first of these three hospitals that has not survived to the present was probably commissioned by Kilic Arslan II and became the Mâristan-i Atik.
  • Dar al-shifa-i Alai, which was commissioned by Ala Al-Din Keykubad, was located on the north side of the Ala Al-Din hill, near the Seljuk kiosk, just in front of the Ertas gate, on the left side of the Ferhuniye/Sud Tekke street.

The third hospital in Konya was commissioned by one of the viziers of Izzeddin Keykavus II, the religious judge Izzeddin Muhammed. The complex had a mosque, a madrasa and a hospital. The hospital unit was funded from revenues from the Kestel and Kocmar villages near Kadinhani. In 1254, when Izzeddin Muhammed reorganized the foundation, the hospital was referred to as Mâristân-i Atik.

We do not have much information on the hospital that was established in Aksaray circa 13th century.

  • Cankiri, Cemaleddin Ferruh Hospital (Dar al-afiye) (633 H/1235): the foundation administrator of the Sivas hospital, Atabey Cemaleddin Ferruh, commissioned this hospital. The only remaining parts of the hospital are the inscription made by Atabey Cemaleddin Ferruh and a grail with two intertwined snakes.
  • Kastamonu, Ali bin Süleyman Hospital (Mâristan) [671 H/1272|: It was commissioned by Muhezzibuddin Ali, the son of one of the Seljuk viziers Muineddin Süleyman in 1272 in Kastamonu. After a terrible fire about one hundred and fifty years ago, only the front where the door was and some of the sidewalls remain.
  • Tokat, Muinuddin Suleyman Hospital (Dar al-Shifa) [1255-1275]: One of the buildings of the complex (madrasa, hospital) that was built in Tokat by one of the statesman of the Seljuk State, Pervane Muinuddin Süleyman, was a hospital. From the complex only the madrasa, now used as the Tokat Museum, has remained. Probably the hospital was one of the adjacent buildings to the madrasa.
  • Amasya, Anber bin Abdullah Hospital (Dar al-shifa) [708 H/1308/9]: It was built during the era of the Ilhan ruler Olcayto Mehmed, around the years 1308/09, by Amber bin Abdullah, the slave of princess Yildiz Hatun. The hospital was built on the side of the road next to the Yesilirmak river and its dimensions were 24.58×32.90m using a madrasa plan and with an antechamber and ten rooms.

Besides being a hospital complex, it was also known as a place that trained physicians. We have information about the physicians that were assigned there during the Ottoman era. Some of these physicians were Shukrullah (1488), Sabuncuoglu Serefeddin (after 1465), who worked here for ten years and created many valuable pieces of work for Turkish medical history, and Halimi (1516).

  • Hot springs: Due to its geological structure, Anatolia has rich healthy hot water sources. The hot springs that had been mentioned since antiquity by writers such as Homer, Calinos and Strabon were used for healing purposes. Hot springs that were left from the Roman and Byzantium eras were still used during the Turkish Seljuk State and new springs were opened for public use.

Figure 6. Gevher Nesibe Sultan’s statue. (Source).

According to the 14th century writer Omari, there were over 300 thermal springs that the public used for healing purposes. The most famous was the Ilgin hot springs built by Ala Al-Din Keykubad in 1236 on top of the thermal springs that had been known about since the time of the Roman Justinian. This hot springs area that has remained intact along with its inscriptions consisted of two hammams with a pool under its domed roof [18].

We can also mention the other hot springs of the time as follows: Agamemnun in Izmir, Haymana, Kizilcahammam in Ankara, Cardak (1175) in Eskisehir, Yoncali (1233) in Kütahya, Kizozü/Aslanagzi (1256) in Havza, Karakurt (1135) in Kirsehir, Ilica in Erzurum and Karakaya in Ayas [19].

Hammams also played an important role in the development of health areas during the Seljuk time. Many hammams were built by foundations, sultans and statesman for the public, for both men and women [20].

4. Medical education

In the Islamic world, in the Mustansiriye Madrasa in Baghdad, other than the professors teaching Islamic science, the existence of sheikh al-tibb professors that taught 10 students [21] and the announcement that medical classes were being given in the Mansuriyye and Muayyadiya madrasas in Cairo, show that medicine was taught in some of the madrasas. Also, Nuaymi’s introduction of three medical madrasas in Damascus (Dinvariyya, Dunaysiriyya ve Labbudiyya), illustrates that although they were few, there were independent medical schools [22]. Private lessons were also given. Damascus physicians Muhazzab Al-Din and Muhaddab (1232) had left instructions that after their deaths their homes and books were to be used for medical studies [23].

There is no proof that medical classes were given in Turkish Seljuk madrasas. The Seljuk hospitals in Anatolia, on one hand being a health facility, were also places where physicians were educated through a master-apprentice relationship. Two documents regarding the appointment of physicians in hospitals have survived to the present. In one of these, the physician Burhan Al-Din Abu Bakr, who was appointed to succeed on the death of physician Izzeddin of the Konya hospital was told to take care of the sick with kindness and compassion, not to discriminate between the sick and the insane, and that his salary would be paid by the foundation of the hospital. The second document stated that Serafeddin Yakûb being a talented physician, he was to be appointed to the hospital, that he should not mix the medicines together other than what was stated in medical books, that he should not discriminate between the rich and the poor, and that he should enlighten the students with precise proofs during their education at the hospital [24].


Figure 7. Gevher Nesibe Sultan Madrasa in Kayseri, Turkey.

5. Physicians and their work

We are able to gather information on the Turkish Seljuk physicians from history books, publications, literature, and from their writings that have survived to the present. Although some present publications state that the position of head physician was given, there are no documents to prove this [25]. Seljuk rulers appointed some of the valuable physicians for their own health problems when they saw fit.


Figure 8. Divrigi Gok Madrasa and Dar al-Shifa complex in Sivas, Turkey.

From sources that have survived until now, we can see that in the Anatolian Seljuk era, due to developments in the medical field, there were many physicians active in the cities. Especially during the rule of Kilic Arslan II and Ala Al-Din Keykubad, there were many physicians invited to Anatolia. Because of their wide range of knowledge, their reputation and intellectual personalities, some physicians were sent on political missions to foreign countries by their administrators (for instance, Abu Bakr bin Yusuf) [26].

Some of the physicians worked in hospitals, but some of them travelled from city to city, practicing medicine. For example, the physician Saduddin Mes’ud, in a letter he wrote to a friend, mentioned going to Sinop, Kastamonu, Amasya and Niksar to heal patients and that he longed to return but that he had to go to the Canik area to cure some patients. We learn from the narratives of Evhadudduddin Kirmani that in Anatolia there were ear cleaners that travelled with a copper flask that contained oil and alcohol [27], similar to the quack eye physicians that roam the same areas today performing cataract operations.

Well known physicians with good reputations were addressed as: “Malik al-Hukama’, Sultân al-Atibbâ, Aflâtun al-Dahr, Bakurat al-‘Asr, Masîh al-Zaman, Fakhr al-Milla wa-l-Din… “ [28]

There were many physicians who created works during the Anatolian Seljuk era, who were invited by the rulers to come to Anatolia temporarily to do their job. Some of these physicians are as follows:

  • Hakim Barka/Baraka: He is the first physician to write a medical book in Turkish, Tuhfa-i Mubarizi. In the preface, he states that he first wrote the book in Arabic under the name Lubâb al-Nukhab, then he translated it into Persian under the name Tuhfa-i Mubarizi. He then submitted this book to the Amasya Governor of Ala Al-Din Keykubat, Mubaruziddin Halifet Alp Gazi. The Governor liked the book but stated: “If it had been written in Turkish, it would have been an invaluable piece of work.” Therefore, he translated it into Turkish. He also wrote the book Kitab-i Hulasa der ‘ilm al-Tibb [29].
  • Ekmeleddin Muayyad el-Nahcuvani: Ekmeleddin, who was described to Mevlana as “our son whose self is pure and correct,” was born in Nahçivan. We do not have the information of where he learned to become a physician and when he came to Konya. We understand from the names given to him by the palace, statesman and Mevlana: malik al-hukemâ, wa al-atibbâ; rais al-atibbâ; hukamâ-i cihân, sultân-i etibbâ-i zaman; iftihâr all-atibbâ; Calinus al-fazl, Aflâtun al-tadbir, Calinus al-zamân; tadbir-i dahr, Aflâtun al-zaman; Bakurat al-‘asr, that he was a well-respected physician [30].
  • Abu Bakr b. Al-Zaki el-Mutatabbib el-Konavi: We get most of the information about him from the works Ravzat al-Kuttâb and Hadikat al-Elbâb that he wrote in 1279 from letters to Ekmeleddin. From this we learn that he was a student of Ekmeleddin, that he made medicine for the statesmen, that he cured an emir’s son, that he found an impostor trying to be a physician and that he had written a brochure Bab-i Munazara-i Meyân-i Dil u Dimag (the debate between the heart and brain) [31].
  • Gazanfer Tabrizi: His real name was Abu Ishak Ibrahim b. Muhammed known as Gazanfer al-Tabrizî (if there is not someone else with the same name at that time). He was one of the physicians that worked with Ekmeleddin on the deathbed of Mevlana Jalal Al-Din Rumi to cure him. His copies of the writings of the commentary Hâsil al-Masa’il on Huneyn b. Ishak’s (871) al-Masa’il fi al-Tibb lil-Mutaallimin and his commentary on Ibn Sina’s al-Ishârat wa al-tanbihât, that he wrote in 1301-2, has survived until the present. We know two of his works that he reproduced. These are Biruni’s Kitâb al-Saydana and the criticism of Bahmanyâr to Ibn Sina’s Anvâr al-afkâr [32].
  • Hubaysh al-Tiflisî: It is thought that he came to Anatolia when Kilicarslan II decked out Aksaray with mosques, madrasas, soup kitchens for the poor and bazaars, and when many scientists and merchants settled there from Azerbaijan. He has written about thirty books on topics such as medicine, language, literature, astrology, dream explanations and the pronunciation of words in the holy Qur’an. Although he has many works, he is not mentioned in Islamic sources. Among his medical works, some examples that he wrote are as follows:

Adviyat al-Adviya: A book on pharmaceuticals, the gathering of medicines, how to store, burn, cook and use the formulas of ink medicine and how they are made.

Ihtisaru Fusuli al-Bukrat: An Arabic copy of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms.

Kifayat al-Tibb: This work consisted of two books and 224 chapters. It was written in Persian and was presented to Meliksah.

Risala fi Sharh Ba’zi al-Masail- li-Asbab and ‘Alamat Muntahabe Min al- Qanun: It is a pamphlet that explains the reasons and symptoms of illnesses, using examples from Ibn Sina’s Qanun.

Other works include Sihhat al-Abdan, Takdîm al-‘ilac and Bezrekat al-Minhac, Rumuz al-Minhac and Kunuz al-‘Ilac and Lubab al-Asbab [33].

  • Najm Al-Din Nahçuvânî: He was a very talented scientist who lived in the 13th century. He was also the vizier to Keykâvûs II. He wrote a commentary on the works of Fahreddin Râzî’s Sharh Kulliyât al-Qanun and Hallu Shukuk al-Mufrada fi Sharh al-Fahr al-Razî written in 1253, Ibn Sina’s al-Isharat wa al-Tenbihât in his books Zubdat al-Nakz and Lubâb al-Kaff [34].
  • Abdullah Sivasi: He lived in the 14th century and was known for his summary of the works of Hippocrates’ Aforizma, Ibn Abi Sadik al-Nishaburi’s commentary in his book Umdat al-Fuhul fi Sharh al-Fusul, written in 1314 in Aksaray [35].
  • Ali Sivasi: He lived in the 14th century and is known for his book Kitâbu Iksir al-Hayat fi Talhisi Kava’id al-Muâjalât that he wrote for the Amasya princes’ tutor, Emir Yasbak [36].
  • Tacuddin Bulgari: He was one of the students who came from the Volga Bulgarian Turks who had come to the Islamic states for scientific education. He was sent in his older age as an ambassador to Baghdad by Giyaseddin Keyhusrev II. He has one book, Muhtasar fi Ma ‘rifat a1-Adviyat al-Mufrada [37].
  • Muhazzibiddin bin Hubel (1213): He was a student of the famous physician Abu al-Barakat from Baghdad. He was praised highly by Allatsahi Ibrahim and made a fortune when he returned to Damascus. One of the physicians that tried to cure Sultan Ala Al-Din Keykubat when he was in Malatya, Izzeddin ibn Hubel was probably his son. His book al-Muhtar fi al-Tibb was used as a main reference book during his time [38].

Figure 9. The gate of Ala Al-Din Mosque in Konya, Turkey.

Other than these physicians whom we know about from their works, there are also those who we know about from their being in the sultan’s service such as: Hasnun, Faridaddin Muhammed Câcermi, Izzeddin ibn Hubel, ‘Isâ, Carrah Vasil, Ebu Salim b. Keraya, Safiyuddevle, Rakkali Ridvan bin Ali (1247) [39], Resü’laynli Takiyeddin Abu Bakr [40], and Erzincanli Ala Al-Din [41]. There are those who had also been mentioned for being around the Sultan, such as Sarafaddin Ya’kub, Burhanuddin Abu Bakr, Sa’duddin Mas’ud, Badraddin ibn Hariri, Bedruddin Ceriri, Shamsuddin b. Hubel, Fahruddin Abu Bakr Ahmed b. Mikail bin Abdullah Konevî. There were also those physicians who had been temporarily invited to come to Anatolia. Abdullatif bin Yusuf el-Bagdadi, who had been invited by Ala Al-Din Davutshah of the Mencunuk at a high salary, wrote many books when he was in Erzincan [42]. It is also known of a physician in Konya named Mevlana Emir Hasan [43]. There was also Gabriel, Urfali Hasnun (1227) and his student ‘Isa, Harputlu Shamon and Ahron who worked in Malatya. From libraries that kept written works in Sivas, Erzincan, Konya, Aksaray, the copied works of great physicians prove that there was a dynamic and active scientific life in these areas [44].

It is understood that a portion of these scientists had a very active life. For example the physicians from Konya Fahreddin Abu Bakr Ahmed bin Mika’il bin Abdullah and Fahreddin Abu al-Barakat bin Abdussalam bin Mansur Mardini [45], pharmacist Kutbeddin Sancar bin Abdullah Atik es-Sahib Ala Al-Din Ata el-Melik Cuveyni er-Rumi, had moved to Tabriz from Anatolia [46]. After the battlefield loss in Kosedag in 1241, there was a lot of activity in the Eastern cities and the physician Imaduddin Malati and other scientists moved from Malatya to Konya [47].

During Seljuk times, medicines were prepared and sold in herbal stores (attar). The medicines were prepared accordingly to the medical books and the main ingredients consisted mainly of plants from Anatolia. The rest of the raw material was obtained from India and other Islamic countries through the Spice and Silk Roads. Hospitals and caravanserais had their own little pharmacists [48].

6. Epidemics

Throughout history one of the greatest disasters humankind has seen are epidemics. In their most critical times, they have killed millions, causing people to migrate, paralyzing work forces, agriculture and stockbreeding decline, creating numerous negative effects on the economy. The worst epidemics of the Middle Ages were the plague, black death/peste noir, peste, pestis in the West, ta’un in the Islamic world and kiran, olet among the Turks.

Because Anatolia is a bridge between the East and West, it has seen many epidemics throughout its history. The first great epidemic was seen in the Mediterranean countries during the 6th century, called the Justinian Plague. It lasted three years and destroyed a great number of the population it hit. There are no records of the deaths and destruction in Anatolia but just in Istanbul about 16,000 died per day, which gives an idea of its destruction.

There were many epidemics in various places where the Seljuks ruled that came from Anatolia and foreign countries. Mostly epidemics started after military campaigns, sieges and famines. The main epidemics were: the plague that started in Istanbul; during the time of Suleyman Shah I (1078), killing 160,000 in four months; during the time of Kilicarslan I (1093), during the siege of Antakya, during the First Crusade (1098) when just from the French military 100,000 died; during the time of the Danismand ruler Melik Muhammed (1143), an epidemic in Malatya first killed poultry, then humans, mostly small children; during the military campaign to Cukurova of Mesud I (1153), a part of the Seljuk and Konya military; during the rule of Kilicarslan II (1178) a plague due to a famine in Syria, Iraq, Diyarbakir and Ahlat, the people were not able to bury their dead in time as the rate of death was too high; during the Third Crusade (1189), the French army had many casualties due to an epidemic stemming from the heat and famine; during the rule of Ala Al-Din Keykubad (1221), an epidemic in Konya, in 1244 in Malatya, in 1259 in Syria and in Anatolia due to a famine; and the Mongolian invasion that took place at the same time brought an epidemic in Mardin and Meyyafarikin (Silvan) that caused immense damage.

The reasons for the epidemics were not known, and they were explained by supernatural causes, as the people tried to stop the epidemic material and spiritual ways. In the Christian world, sacrifices, magic, religious ceremonies were performed and miracles were expected from saints. In the Islamic world they obeyed the saying of Prophet Muhammed: “Do not enter a place of plague, and do not leave it,” creating a quarantine, but as they did not know the cause of the epidemics other from trying various medicines, they also tried superstitious beliefs [49].


Figure 10. Picture of Sultanhan on the Konya-Aksaray Road: the main portal, the stalactite arch of the main portal, an inscription detail, and the side arcades of the main portal. Source: Miniaturk-Istanbul.

7. The Practice of folk medicine

In Anatolian Seljuk society, as it has always been over time, the people attempted to cure diseases apart from science, by going to sheikhs for religious (Tibb-i Nebevi), magical and practical solutions.

We are able to follow the folk physicians, like all social life of the era, through the writings about Mevlana Jalal Al-Din Rumi and his environment. Examples of folk medicine are: recitations by sheikhs for inability to hold urine, boils, malaria; writing words of ailment on cloves of garlic and almonds for swallowing; drinking water containing a piece of paper with religious writings; fumigating with dog hair; in the case of eye diseases having the sheikhs rub their fingers on patients eyes with their saliva while praying; and for broken bones canting religious words over the broken bone; wiping with the palm of the hand for ablution; reading or writing religious words over the skin with boils and warts.

Other than the already mentioned methods of treatment, herbal remedies were also used in scientific medication that was also used by the people. For example, garlic for prolonged fevers (allium sativum) or honey made into a paste; myrobalan (fructus myrobalani citrinae) for diarrhea; a mix of honey and vinegar to lower fever; honey, garlic and yogurt for colds; eating of raw turnip to strengthen the eye; scammony plant for constipation; myrobalan roots (radix scammoniae) for diarrhea; theriacs for intestinal pains; visits to thermal baths for skin diseases; drinking watered wine for reaction to weather changes; opium milk for over sleeping (opium, succus papaveris); hot springs for leprosy; blood letting for colds and visits to a hamam [50].

The most important part of the Anatolian Seljuk medical practice for Turkish cultural history is probably that it started to put medical practice into Turkish, and within the paradigm of Islamic medicine, the first Turkish works were produced. This started in 1233 when the physician Baraka moved from Harezm to Anatolia and translated his own book Tuhfa-i Mubârizi, that he had written in Arabic into Turkish, and continued during the Beylik (principality) era when works written in Aydinoglu, Mentese, Karesi, Candaroglu Beyliks were in Turkish [51].

8. Further resources

The articles published on Muslim Heritage website on the Seljuks’ art, culture, history and knowledge:


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  • [39] Ibn Bibi, El-Awâmir al-‘Ala’iyye fi ‘l-‘Umuri ‘l-Ala’iyye (facsimile), Türk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1956, p. 296; Turkish translation: Ibn Bibi, el-Evamirül Ala’iye fi Umuri’l-Alaiye, translated by Mürsel Oztürk, Ministry of Culture, 1000 Temel Eser, Ankara 1996, p. 312; Emine Uyumaz, “Sultan I. Aldeddin Keykubad Doneminde Anadolu’da Hekimlik Yapan bazi Tabibler”, Yeni Tip Tarihi Arastirmalari, vol. 4, Istanbul, 1998, p. 153-154; Ali Sevim (Trans.), Ibnü’l-Adim, Biyografilerle Seljuklular Tarihi [Bugyetü’t-Taleb fi Tarihi Haleb] (Secmeler), Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1972, pp. 193-194.
  • [40] Kamal al-Din ibn al-Adim, Bughyat at-Talab fi Tarih Halab, edited by Ali Sevim), Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1976, p. 94.
  • [41] Osman Turan, Dogu Anadolu Turk Devletleri Tarihi, Turan Nesriyat Yurdu, Istanbul, 1973, p. 74, Eflaki, Ariflerin Menkibeleri, vol 1,translated by Tahsin Yazici, second edition, Milli Egitim Bakanligi Yayinlari, Istanbul, 1964, pp. 337-338.
  • [42] Osman Turan, Dogu Anadolu Turk Devletleri Tarihi, Turan Nesriyat Yurdu, Istanbul, 1973, pp. 64, 74.
  • [43] Ahmet Eflaki, Ariflerin Menkibeleri, translated by Tahsin Yazici, vol. II, Maarif Vekaleti, Istanbul, 1954, p. 446.
  • [44] Cevat Izgi, “Anadolu Seljuklu Tabibleri”, op. cit., pp. 232-233.
  • [45] Ibrahim-Cevriye Artuk, “Fahreddin el-Mardini”, II. Turk Tip Tarihi Kongresi (Istanbul, 20-21 Sept 1990), Kongreye Sunulan Bildiriler, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1999, pp. 187-189; Ilhami Nasuhioglu, “Artuklular Doneminde Bilim ve Kultür”, Dirim, 1, 5, Istanbul 1976, p. 217.
  • [46] Ziya Musa Bünyatov, “Ibn al-Fuvati’nin Talhis Macma’ al-Adab fi Mu’cam al-Alkab Eserinde Belirtilen Konya Sultanliginin Gorkemli sahislan”, VIII. Turk Tarih Kongresi (Ankara, 11-15 Oct. 1976), Kongreye Sunulan Bildiriler, II, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1981, pp. 594-596.
  • [47] Mikail Bayram, “Seljuklular Zamaninda Anadolu’da Bazi Yoreler Arasindaki Farkh Kültürel Yapilanma ve Siyâsi Boyutlari”, Seljuk University Türkiyat Arastirmalari Dergisi, 1, Konya, 1994, p. 85; “Seljuklular Zamaninda Malatya’da Ilmi ve Fikri Faaliyetler”, I-II. Milli Seljuklu Kültür ve Medeniyeti Semineri, Seljuk University, Seljuklu Arastirmalari Merkezi, Konya, 1993, p. 123.
  • [48] Erdogan Mercil, “Anadolu Seljuklulari’nda Serbest Meslekler”, Cogito, No. 29, Istanbul, 2001, pp. 147-148; Osman Turan, Türkiye Seljuklulari Hakkinda Resmi Vesikalar, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1958, p. 54.
  • [49] Feda Samil Arik, “Seljuklular Zamaninda Anadolu ‘da Veba Salginlari”, Tarih Arastirmalari Dergisi 1990-1991, vol. XV, No. 26, Ankara, 1991, pp. 27-57; Sezgin Guclüay, “Tarihte Ticareti Etkileyen Unsurlar”, Turk Dünyasi Arastirmalari, 126, 2000, pp. 48-49.
  • [50] Ali Haydar Bayat, “Anadolu Seljuklulari Devrinde Konya ‘da Saglik Hayati”, Turk Kültürü, XXVII, 311, Ankara 1989, p. 174.
  • [51] Ihsan Fazlioglu, “Seljuklular Döneminde Anadolu’da Felsefe ve Bilim (Bir Giris)”, Cogito, No. 29, Istanbul 2001, p. 164.

*The late Professor Dr Ali Haydar Bayat (1941-2006) belonged to Ege University in Izmir (Turkey). He was member of the Medical Faculty, Medical Ethics and History Department. He published extensively on the history of medicine, especially in the Ottoman period. See this list, this one also, and the references mentioned in the footnotes.

An Overview of Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine

Herbs banner


Produced from Chapter 1 of the Book “Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine: Traditional System, Ethics, Safety, Efficacy, and Regulatory Issues” By Bashar Saad and Omar Said, Copyright _ 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



Natural products, such as plant, fungal, and bee products, as well as minerals, shells, and certain animal products, represent the oldest form of medical treatment. Currently, many of the commonly used drugs are of herbal origin and about 25% of the prescription drugs contain at least one herbal-derived active ingredient or synthetic compound, which mimics a plant-derived compound. There are over 80,000 plants that have medicinal uses throughout the world and usually a specific part of the plant is used for medical preparations such as tablets, infusions, extracts, tinctures, ointments, or creams. The pharmacological action of these medicines is often described in very general terms, such as carminative (an agent that prevents formation of gas in the gastrointestinal tract or facilitates the expulsion of said gas), laxative (an agent that induces bowel movements or loosens the stools), demulcent (an agent that forms a soothing film over a mucous membrane, relieving minor pain and inflammation of the membrane), antitussive (cough suppressants), or antiseptic (antimicrobial substances that are applied to living tissue/skin to reduce the possibility of infection). Unlike synthetic drugs, which usually consist of a single and often synthetic chemical, herbal-based medicines contain multiple constituents.

In the history of science, Arabic medicine, Islamic medicine, Arab–Islamic medicine, Greco-Arab medicine, or Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine are terms that refer to medicine developed during the Golden Age of Muslim civilisation (Figure 1). This civilisation became the centre of brilliant medical developments and innovations, as well as great achievements in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, philosophy, and artistic culture. Arab and Muslim scholars translated and integrated scientific knowledge of other civilisations into their own innovations. These included the discovery of the immune system, the introduction of microbiological science, and the separation of pharmacological science from medicine. Medicine in general is considered to be one of the most illustrious and best-known achievements that influenced Western medical circles to such an extent that it was included in the curriculum of medical schools up to sixteenth century.


Figure 1. Development of Arab-Islamic medical science. The Babylonians and ancient Egyptians initiated the foundations of medicine with using trial and error. Through trial and error, they laid down the foundations of medicine upon which this field progressed.  Both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian lands witnessed fruitful exchange of medicine with Europe over hundreds of years. First, Mesopotamian medicine was transmitted in part to the Greeks, and together with Egyptian medicine, it paved the way for the great Hippocratic reform of the fifth century B.C. Then, during the rise of the Arab-Islamic Empire, Greek medicine was translated to Arabic. The Arabs preserved Greek medicine when most of the original works were lost from Europe. The Arabs improved on Greek medicine as well as made new discoveries over several centuries. In the 13th and 14th centuries Greco-Arab medicine was disseminated to Europe again from Arab capitals such as Cordoba in Andalusia and Baghdad in Iraq. History documents the evolution of medicine, how medical therapies come and go, and how useful procedures become not so useful.

Despite great progress in allopathic medicine, Arab–Islamic medicine has continued to be practiced within the Mediterranean as well as most Muslim countries (Figure 2), where cultural beliefs and religion often lead to self-care or home remedies in rural areas and consultation with traditional healers. In addition, Arab–Islamic therapies are most often utilized by people who have faith in spiritual healers and herbalists. These people are the first to be consulted for problems such as infertility, impotence, diabetes, obesity, epilepsy, psychosomatic troubles, and many other diseases. The popularity of herbal preparations based on Greco-Arab and Islamic medicines has increased worldwide in the past four decades, probably because of the sustainability of this medicine over the years. Other factors include the notion that herbal-based drugs are safe, that they are relatively inexpensive, the restricted access to physicians imposed by managed care, and the adverse effects of synthetic drugs.

Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine was practiced in the Muslim world (Figure 2) including countries other than those in the Middle East, such as Iran, India, Turkey, Maghreb region, and Pakistan [1–10]. India is the only country where Greco-Arab medicine has an official status, usually referred to Unani-Tibb. “Tibb” is an Arabic word meaning “medicine,” while “Unani” is thought to be derived from “Ionan” (meaning Greek), acknowledging the influence of early Greek medicine Islamic medicine. An Unani physician is known as a hakim.


Figure 2. The medieval Muslim world at its largest extension.

However, the Unani medicine currently practiced in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent is vastly different from its Greco-Arab roots. It benefited from the native medical system or folk medicine in practice at the time in various parts of central and southern Asia, mainly Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine.

The Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation

The development of Muslim civilisation started in the Arabian Peninsula, the homeland of the Arabs. The Peninsula is predominantly deserted and the tribes who inhabited this area were nomadic, that is, they travelled from one grazing land to another. The great unifying power of these nomadic Arabs was clearly the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, PBUH) (570–632) from the Quraysh tribe that ruled Mecca. Though Mecca was a prosperous caravan city, it was still tied to traditional social customs and was governed by the tribal societies of the desert. Each tribe worshipped its own gods in the form of objects from nature but all Arabs worshipped one object in common, the Kaaba, a large black stone at Mecca, which made Mecca significant as a place of worship and pilgrimage. The Prophet was able to unite the nomadic tribes and to create a strong nation, able to defeat the two powerful empires at that time, the Persian and Byzantine Empires.

The Byzantines and Persians were the first to feel the power of unified Arabs. At Yarmuk in 636, the Muslims defeated the Byzantine army (Table 1). Syria fell in 640. A decade later, the Muslims had conquered the entire Persian Empire. Egypt, the Maghreb (North Africa), and Spain were all conquered and under Muslim rule by the 720s. Muslim expansion in Europe ended after their loss of the Battle of Tours in 732. The Muslims not only conquered new lands, but also became scientific innovators through originality and productivity. They preserved the cultures and knowledge of the conquered lands, tolerated religious minorities within land they had conquered, and were careful to protect the purity of their religion, language, and law from any foreign influence.

The first problem after the death of the Prophet was who should be caliph, the spiritual and secular successor to the Prophet (PBUH). The first four caliphs were elected by a tribal council of elders and are referred to as the Rashidun (Guided) Caliphs, ruling from 632 to 661. However, as the state grew, this form of government became increasingly inadequate. In addition, tribal and clan rivalries continued. Finally, the Umayyad clan took over and established the Umayyad Dynasty (661–750). From then on, the dynastic principle of one family choosing the caliph dominated. From the start, the Umayyads were influenced by Byzantine and Persian ruling techniques. Therefore, they instituted some major changes. They moved the capital from Medina in Arabia to a much more central location, Damascus in Syria, created the first Muslim coinage, and also adapted and further developed Byzantine and Persian bureaucratic methods as well as postal communication and transmission of news. In 750, a revolt led by Abbas, a governor of Persia, overthrew the Umayyads and established the Abbasid Dynasty (750–1258). The victorious Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad to signify a break with the Umayyads. However, the reconstituted Umayyads set up a rival state and put their capital at Cordoba, in Al-Andalus. Even as the Abbasids, in particular the Caliphs Harun al-Rashid (ruled from 786 to 809) and Al-Mamun (ruled from 813 to 833) and their heirs, turned Baghdad into the smartest, most creative, and most modern city of the world, the Umayyads led by Abd Al Rahman I and his heirs set out to do the same thing in Cordoba, Granada, and the other Andalusian cities.


TABLE 1 Timeline of Arab Islamic Civilisation

Year Historical Event

570 The Prophet Muhammad is born in Mecca

622 The Prophet and followers emigrate to Medina. The first year of Islamic calendar

632 Death of the Prophet

632 Muslim armies consolidate their power over Arabia

634–644 Muslim forces advance through the Persian and Byzantine empires

636 Battle of Yarmuk. Byzantine emperor Heraclius is defeated by Muslim army in Syria

642 Muslims conquer Byzantine Egypt and expand into North Africa

656 Mohammad’s son-in-law, Ali, succeeds to the leadership of Islam

661–750 Umayyads rule in Damascus

711 Tariq bin Ziyad with a mixed force of Arabs and Berbers invades Spain

712 Muslims advance into Sind (modern-day Pakistan) and Central Asia

725 Muslims occupy Nimes in Southern France

750–945 Abbasids rule in Baghdad

756–929 Umayyad Emirs rule in Spain

762 Al-Mansur founds the city of Baghdad

786 Haroun al-Rashid becomes caliph in Baghdad

792 The first papermaking factory in the Muslim world is built in Baghdad

813–823 Al-Mamun reigns in Baghdad. He founds the House of Wisdom

823 Beginning of Muslim conquest of Sicily

909–1171 Fatimids expand in North Africa

929–1031 Umayyad caliphate reigns in Spain

969 Fatimid conquer Egypt and transfer their capital to Cairo in 973

976 Al-Azhar university is founded in Cairo

1058 Seljuks take Baghdad

1090 Cordoba is taken by Almoravids

1096 First Crusade. Christians rule in Jerusalem in 1099

1145–1232 Almohads rule in Spain

1171 Saladin overthrows the Fatimids in Egypt

1171–1250 Ayyubid Dynasty rules in Egypt and Syria

1187 Saladin returns Jerusalem to Islamic rule

1206–1406 Mongol Empire

1492 Christian Reconquest of Spain

1453–1922 Ottoman Empire

1494–1566 Suleiman I guides the Ottoman Empire to its fullest extent, ranging from Morocco to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf and into Europe through the Balkans to Hungary

1922 End of the Ottoman Empire

All dates given in the table are those of the Christian calendar. Bold entries denote dynastic rule.


Under the Abbasid Caliphs, Islamic civilisation entered a Golden Age. And while in Europe, learning seemed to be at its lowest point, the Arabs created a highly sophisticated civilisation. The period from the seventh to roughly the end of the fifteenth century is known as the Golden Age of Islamic civilisation. During this period, the vigorous desert tribesman from Arabia assimilated and interpreted the Byzantine, Persian, and Indian cultural traditions into their own. Perhaps the most important catalyst was Islam itself that encouraged study, thinking, and discussion, as well as a scientific understanding of the world. Historians of Arab science point to various statements in the Qur’an and in the body of other statements attributed to the Prophet (PBUH): “Even if you must go to China, seek knowledge.” or “Acquire knowledge, because he who acquires it in the way of the Lord performs an act of piety; who speaks of it, praises the Lord; who seeks it, adores God.” Another recognized trigger for the rise of Arab intellect was the acknowledged intellectual traditions of the older societies that fell under Arab and Muslim influence. Places such as Alexandria, Damascus, Tunis, Spain, the Byzantine lands, Persia, and India had been urban and intellectual centres for many centuries when the Arab armies arrived. So people who had long been trained in the ways of research, study, debate, and invention were eager to continue their work within the Arab context. Thanks to Arab and Muslim scholars, ancient Greek knowledge, acquired from their contact with Byzantine scholars, was kept alive and was eventually transferred to the West in the twelfth century and after. But not only did Arab and Muslim scholars preserve the heritage of Greek science and philosophy, they added to it by writing commentaries and glossaries, thus adding to what eventually became the Western intellectual tradition.

The Muslim civilisation covered a period of roughly nine centuries, from the middle of the seventh to the end of the fifteenth century, when the Muslim world was divided into three independent states, the Ottoman based in Turkey, the Safavid based in Persia, and the Mughal covered the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Islamic regions fell under the sway of European imperial powers. Following World War I, the remnants of the Ottoman state became European protectorates [1–18].

The Development of Arab Medical Sciences

The health care practices of the medieval Muslim world over a large area and nine centuries were not uniform. The everyday practices and the public health were affected by many factors: fasting laws and dietary regulations during the holy month of Ramadan, hygiene and burying the dead by Muslims as well as by non-Muslims, the climatic conditions of the vast area, the living conditions of nomadic, rural, and urban communities, the amount of travel undertaken or commerce, or for pilgrimage, the maintenance of a slave class and slave trade, the injuries and diseases attendant upon army camps and battles, and the incidence of plague and endemic diseases [4–6].

As mentioned above, the Abbasids moved the Islamic capital to Baghdad by the tenth century. The city became the centre of scientific knowledge and research activity and emerged as the capital of the scientific and cultural world. In addition to Baghdad, Seville, Toledo, Granada, and other cities established themselves as centres for medical sciences. The eagerness of the rulers and society for learning resulted in the translation of substantial amounts of Greek, Persian, and Indian medical texts into Arabic. During the Golden Age, collaborative works of physicians and scientists from different nations and ethnic groups raised the dignity and calibre of the medical profession. Disease was seen by physicians as a problem that can be challenged. The Prophet (PBUH) was credited with many statements on health care problems and their treatments. For instance, “The one who sent down the disease sent down the remedy.” and “For every disease, God has given a cure.”  He was also credited with articulating several specific medical treatments, including the use of honey, olive oil, figs, and cupping. But most importantly, whereas other societies usually feared the sick and afflicted, at best isolating them and at worst leaving them somewhere to die, the Prophet had a very compassionate and forgiving view of the sick.

As a result, health care services rose in esteem from that of a menial calling to the rank of a learned profession. It had advanced from ephemeral talisman and theology to real hospital wards, mandatory examination for doctors, and the use of technical terminology. Baghdad and Cairo had hospitals that were open to both male and female patients staffed by attendants of both sexes. These hospitals contained libraries, pharmacies, intern systems, externs, and nurses. There were mobile clinics to reach the disabled, the disadvantaged, and those in distant areas, regulations were imposed by the health authorities to maintain quality control on drugs, medical ethics was introduced, and pharmacy became separated from medicine and a licensed profession.

Baghdad and Cordoba became the main centres for development of herbal medicines. Al-Zahrawi (Albucasis, tenth century) of Cordoba wrote The Book of Simples, an important source for European herbal medicine. The Andalusian botanist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati introduced the use of experimental scientific methods in the thirteenth century. He also introduced empirical techniques in the testing, description, and identification of numerous materia medica. Al-Nabati separated unverified reports from those supported by actual tests and observations. This allowed the study of materia medica to evolve into the science of pharmacy. Later on, Ibn al-Baitar, who lived in Damascus, published The Book on Drinks and Foods, a collection of different drinks and foods. It is considered as one of the most prestigious books in the medieval pharmacopeia in which the drugs are classified in alphabetical order. Other pharmacopoeia books include that written by Abu- Rayhan Biruni in the eleventh century and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) in the twelfth century. Daoud al-Antaki used different herbs for treating patients and published a book on medicinal herbs summarizing the knowledge of his predecessors. Al-Antaki in the sixteenth century described in his book 57 plants that were used as a source for simple drugs, or frequently as one ingredient in complex herbal-based preparations. He described the plant and the way it was used by physicians. For instance, birthwort, carob, castor oil plant, common fennel, common myrtle, Persian cyclamen, saffron, serapias, sycamore fig, and Syrian bryony. Furthermore, Al-Antaki mentioned foreign plants that were brought to the area for their medicinal properties, such as cornelian cherry, purging croton, and gardenia. He also described pharmacological uses of typical agricultural crops, such as caraway, carrot, wild coriander, pear, quince, sugar cane, and walnut.

The development of medicine and pharmacy in the Muslim world laid the foundations for the development of modern Western medicine and pharmacy. Scholars from Muslim civilisation contributed many insights of their own to the development of medicine while acknowledging the knowledge they received from other civilisations. It is important to mention that they translated classical medical texts not only from Greek, but also from Persian, Indian, and Chinese sources. This synthesis resulted in a richer and universal medical system, based on scientific rules and experimentation. Al Tabbari (838–870), Al-Razi (Rhazes, 864–930), Al-Zahrawi (Albucasis, 936–1013), Al-Biruni (973–1050), Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980–1037), Ibn al-Haitham (960–1040), Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), Ibn Khaldun (1332–1395) (Figure 3), Ibn al-Baitar (1197–1248), and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar, 1091–1161) are regarded as among the great medical authorities of the medieval world and as physicians whose textbooks were used in European universities up to the sixteenth century. They made accurate diagnoses of plague, diphtheria, diabetes, gout, cancer, leprosy, rabies, and epilepsy. Avicenna’s and Rhazes’s works on infectious diseases led to the introduction of quarantine as a means of limiting the spread of these diseases. Other physicians laid down the principles of clinical investigation, drug trials, and animal tests, and uncovered the secret of sight. They mastered operations for hernia and cataract, filled teeth with gold leaf, and prescribed spectacles for defective eyesight. And they passed on rules of health, diet, and hygiene that are still largely valid today. Physicians of different languages and religions cooperated in building a medical organization whose outlines are still visible in current medical practices.

The development and the recognition of the independent, academically-oriented status of pharmacy as a profession charged with the preparation of safe and effective drugs started in Baghdad during Al-Mamun’s caliphate (813–833). The main objectives of pharmacists were directed not only toward the translations and interpretations of accumulated data on natural product-based drugs, but increasingly toward the search for the potential of natural products as sources for new drugs, and they even started to elucidate physicochemical properties of these products. Drugs were classified according to their effects on the human body, for example, diuretics (promote urination and thus expel toxins), expectorants (remove mucous accumulation), topical antiseptic cleansers, stimulants (prescribed to increase blood flow and raise energy level), tonics (general strength building and disease prevention), analgesics and anesthetics, digestive aids, and oral health agents. Pharmacists, or saydalaneh in Arabic, managed to introduce a large number of new drugs to clinical use, including senna, camphor, sandalwood, musk, myrrh, cassia, tamarind, nutmeg, cloves, aconite, ambergris, and mercury. They also developed syrups, juleps, and pleasant solvents such as rose water and orange blossom water as means of administering drugs.

The first pharmacy shop was apparently in Baghdad, founded in 762, and medicines were manufactured and distributed commercially, and then dispensed by physicians and pharmacists in a variety of forms: ointments, pills, elixirs, confections, tinctures, suppositories, and inhalants. Saydalaneh were required to pass examinations and be licensed and were then monitored by the state [1–18].


Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406). The fame of Ibn Khaldun in modern scholarship is due to his writing of the Muqaddimah, or “Introduction.” In the Muqaddimah, he laid the foundations of a new science, “Ilm al-Umran,” or the science of human social organization.

The selection of potential natural products as sources for new drugs was based on traditional knowledge developed in the pre-Islamic era based on a long history of trial and error, and then by theoretical and practical knowledge introduced by Islam. These include natural products mentioned in the Holy Quran or in the Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH), notably honey, milk, dates, black seeds, olive leaf, and olive oil.


In addition, theoretical and practical knowledge developed in other medical systems, which became available to scholars after the translation of foreign scripts, played a central role in developing new medicines. The works of Galen, Hippocrates, and the Indian physicians Sushruta and Charaka were translated into Arabic. Physicians developed hundreds of new natural product-based remedies. They were not guided by a long history of trial and error, but mainly by scientific methods, which led to the development of evidence-based medication. Avicenna discussed in his book, on simple drugs (materia medica), the nature and quality of drugs and the way that compounding them influences their effectiveness. He stated “You can tell the potency of drugs in two ways, by analogy and by experiment. We say experimenting leads to knowledge of the potency of a medicine with certainty after taking into consideration certain conditions.” Physicians of Muslim civilisation considered all components of existence with equal importance, from breath and body to the soul and matter; both spiritual and physical health are treated equally. Hence, the body should be treated as a whole and not just as a series of organs and tissues. Physicians noted that there are individual differences in the severity of disease symptoms, and in the individual ability to cope with disease and healing. Hippocrates thus laid the foundations of the modern theory that thoughts, ideas, and feelings, which he proposed to originate in the brain, can influence health and the process of disease. Rhazes supported this concept by his recommendation:

“The physician, even though he has his doubts, must always make the patient believe that he will recover, for state of the body is linked to the state of the mind.” Later on, Avicenna who defined medicine as “the science from which we learn the states of the human body with respect to what is healthy and what is not; in order to preserve good health when it exists and restore it when it is lacking” supported the views of Rhazes. He stated that “We have to understand that the best and most effective remedy for the treatment of patients should be through the improvement of the power of the human body in order to increase its immune system, which is based on the beauty of the surroundings and letting him listen to the best music and allowing his best friends to be with him.”

It is now clear that the mind and the body interact, influence, and regulate each other. The perception of stress can lead to production of “stress hormones” as well as mediators of the immune system, for example, cytokines and free radicals. Stress hormones act in a feedback pathway to regulate their own production and the production of certain immune products. These immune products act on the brain to modify behaviour and the ability to perceive and to respond to stressful challenges by inducing lethargy, fever, and vomiting.

Based on the recommendations of Rhazes and Avicenna, patients were treated through a scheme starting with physiotherapy and diet, and if this failed, drugs were used. Rhazes’s treatment scheme started with diet therapy; he noted that “if the  physician is able to treat with foodstuffs, not medication, then he has succeeded. If, however, he must use medications, then it should be simple remedies and not compound ones.” Drugs were divided into two groups, simple and compound drugs. Physicians were aware of the interaction between drugs; thus, they used simple drugs first. If these failed, compound drugs consisting of two or more compounds were used. If these conservative measures failed, surgery was undertaken.

The Greek and Roman humour theory of the human body or humoralism had a great influence on the development of the Greco-Arab medical system. Hippocrates was the first who applied this idea to medicine and it became strongly accepted in the medical canon through the influence of Galen. The humoral theory was adopted and further developed by physicians of Muslim civilisation and it became the most commonly held view of the human body among European physicians until the advent of modern medical research in the nineteenth century [1–8].

Commonly Used Herbal Medicines and Diets in The Arab And Islamic World

Medicinal plants and their products have been used traditionally across the world for the prevention and treatment of almost all known types of diseases. Clinical and basic scientific research confirmed the efficacy and action mechanism of several plants for treating several ailments, including liver disease, diabetes, skin diseases, and hypertension. As a result, about 25% of the currently prescribed drugs are of herbal origin. For instance, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been shown to have clinical applications in the treatment of liver diseases, including toxic hepatitis, fatty liver, cirrhosis, ischemic injury, radiation toxicity, and viral hepatitis, via its antioxidative, antilipid peroxidative, antifibrotic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Furthermore, milk thistle has shown immunomodulating and liver regenerating effects. Another example is Nigella sativa (black seed). The seeds of this plant are known to have many medicinal properties and are widely used in Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine. Therapeutic potential and toxicological properties of the seeds have been extensively studied. A Medline search using “Nigella sativa” or “black seed” reveals more than 800 citations, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, hypotensive, antinociceptive, choleretic, uricosuric, antidiabetic, antihistaminic, immunomodulatory, anticancer, and antifertility effects [1–8].

Food plays an important role in Arab–Islamic medicine in maintaining a healthy body, soul, and spirit. Muslims are commanded to follow a set of dietary laws outlined in the Holy Quran where almost everything is permitted, except what God specifically prohibited. Later on, when the Muslim world covered all of Arabia, half of Byzantine Asia, all of Persia, Egypt, the Maghreb (North Africa), and Spain, Arabs and Muslims became exposed to foreign and multinational culinary heritages. Furthermore, great developments in scientific fields, the establishment of “modern” hospitals, and growing socioeconomic conditions of Islamic empire increased the awareness of the relationship between food and health. During this period, a type of Islamic food therapy developed that was a blend of Quranic teaching and Greek medicine.

The foods favoured by the Prophet were dates, honey, olive oil, and black seeds. Concerning olive oil, he said “Eat olive oil and massage it over your bodies since it is a holy tree.” Black seeds were regarded as a medicine that cures and prevents all types of diseases. The Prophet once stated:

“The black seed can heal every disease, except death.” Dates are mentioned in 20 places in the Quran. The Prophet is reported to have said: “if anyone of you is fasting, let him break his fast with dates. In case he does not have them, then with water. Verily water is a purifier.”

Safety and Efficacy of Herbal Medicines

The widespread use and popularity have also brought concerns and fears over quality, efficacy, and safety of the “natural” products available on the market as well as the professionalism of practitioners. It is well known that adulteration, inappropriate formulation, or lack of understanding of plant and drug interactions can lead to adverse reactions that are life threatening or lethal to patients. Safety assessment of herbal-based preparations has often been neglected since traditional and prolonged use is usually considered evidence of its safety. Another important factor is the belief that these medicines are prepared according to the principles of the Greco-Arab tradition that forms the basis for the current conventional product. However, a history of traditional usage is not always a reliable guarantee of safety since it is difficult for traditional practitioners to detect or monitor delayed effects (e.g., mutagenicity), rare adverse effects, and adverse effects arising from long-term use. Most reports concerning toxic effects of herbal medicines are associated with hepatotoxicity although reports of kidney, nervous system, blood, cardiovascular, dermatologic effects, mutagenicity, and carcinogenicity have also been published in the biomedical literature. A systematic safety review of herbal medicine and the contribution of scholars of Muslim civilisation to toxicology are given in chapter 11of the present authors’ book[1]. Standards for safety, quality control, use of modern cell biology and biochemistry, and in vitro as well as in vivo techniques for the evaluation of medicinal plants are also discussed in chapter 8.

There is little doubt that the use of the concept of Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal therapy has shown remarkable success in healing acute as well as chronic diseases. As mentioned above, Arab and Muslim physicians were the first to use scientific methods in the field of medicine and pharmacy, including the introduction of quantification, animal testing, and clinical trials. Hospitals in the Arab–Islamic world featured the first drug tests, drug purity regulations, and competency tests for physicians. In his Comprehensive Book of Medicine, Rhazes documented clinical cases of his own experience and provided very useful recordings of various diseases. He also introduced urinalysis and stool tests. Avicenna (980–1037) introduced experimental medicine and systematic experimentation and quantification in physiology. He discovered the contagious nature of diseases and described many medical treatments, including clinical trials, risk factor analysis, and the idea of a syndrome in the diagnosis of specific diseases. His book, The Canon of Medicine, was the first book dealing with evidence-based medicine, randomized controlled trials, and efficacy tests. Concerning the medical documentation, the first documented description of a peer-reviewed publication process was written by Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahwi (854–931). In his work, The Ethics of the Physician, he stated that a physician must always make duplicate notes of a patient’s condition. When the patient was cured or had died, the notes of the physician were examined by a local medical council of other physicians, who would review the practicing physician’s notes to decide whether the treatment had met the required standards of medical care.

Modern in Vitro and in Vivo Test Systems

Under international regulations, animal tests play a crucial role in developing new knowledge that provides the basis for a new drug development. The appropriate use of animals in biomedical research and safety testing is an indispensable part of the process for acquiring the knowledge necessary to control or treat disease and injury. Regulatory bodies worldwide require preclinical efficacy and safety data for new drugs based on animal tests before human clinical trials can be conducted. Animal studies are mandatory in order to reduce the risks for people and allow the safe creation of new therapies. Drug development is a time-consuming, costly, and complicated research process. Thousands of chemical compounds must be synthesized or purified (in the case of natural products) and tested in order to find a desirable therapeutic result. The Food and Drug Administration in the United States (FDA) estimates that it takes approximately 8.5 years to study and test a new drug before it can be approved for the general public. This estimate includes preclinical in vitro studies and animal testing, as well as clinical trials using human subjects. The appropriate and responsible use of animals is a mandatory part of biomedical research and pharmaceutical product safety testing. They significantly reduce the probability of side effects occurring during testing in humans. Around 70% of serious adverse effects that occur in humans are identified at the animal testing stage. In addition, animal tests enable researchers to determine which experimental compounds in advanced development are unsuitable for use in humans either because the risk of potential toxicity is too great or because they do not have the desired pharmacokinetic profile. Therefore, animal testing is extremely beneficial in minimizing the risks to humans in clinical trials.  Culturing cells is the most widely used in vitro method in pharmacology, toxicology, and biomedical research. In general, in vitro test systems represent the first phase of the evaluation procedure.

Modern in Vitro And in Vivo Test Systems

In vitro cell culture methods have the advantage of relatively well-controlled variables and are generally accepted as a very effective method for safety testing. Advantages of these systems over classical methods, such as long-term studies on experimental animals, include relatively well-controlled variables, decreased costs, a reduced time to completion, and reduced number of animals necessary to complete the study. Although some advanced in vitro systems are available that allow prediction of the local effects of test pharmaceuticals, even the most sophisticated in vitro test cannot yet be used to measure systemic effects, for example, blood pressure or fever.

Given the well-known problem of using two-dimensional cell culture pharmaceutical test systems, more realistic three-dimensional tissue constructs are required in order to create more in vivo-like cell culture conditions, where cells and tissues do not exist in isolation but communicate with and are interdependent on neighboring tissue. The breakthrough might be to develop human three-dimensional in vitro test systems and tissue equivalents that could serve as in vitro model systems during the initial stages of drug discovery.

Drug Development from Herbal Sources and Regulatory Issues

Herbal-based drug discovery research is a multidisciplinary approach combining ethnopharmacology and traditional knowledge on the one hand and botanical, phytochemical, biological, toxicological, pharmacological, and molecular techniques on the other hand. As mentioned above, about 25% of the currently used prescription drugs contain at least one herbal-derived active ingredient and several herbal-based drugs either have recently been introduced to the market or are currently involved in late-phase clinical trials. Although herbal-derived compounds continue to provide an important source of new drug leads, numerous challenges are encountered including the procurement of plant materials, for example, the selection and implementation of appropriate high-throughput screening bioassays and the scale-up of active compounds.

It is generally believed that the standardization and regulation of plant materials is not required when used by the rural communities for their primary health care. Nevertheless, regardless of whether the medicinal plant is to be used by local communities or by industry, a systematic approach is required for a traditionally used plant, as is done in modern medicine. It is necessary to standardize all stages of herbal-based drug discovery: from cultivation, ethnopharmacology, utilization, isolation, and identification of active constituents to efficacy evaluation, pharmacology, safety, formulation, and clinical evaluation.

In general, many herbs are effective when consumed as whole or as extracts. Current trends, however, are directed toward the use of purified herbal-derived agents that can serve not only as new drugs themselves but also as drug leads suitable for optimization by medicinal and synthetic chemists. Even when new chemical structures are not found during drug discovery from medicinal plants, known compounds with new biological activity can provide important drug leads. In this respect, the sequencing of the human genome paves the ways for identification of thousands of new pathologically active molecules. With the help of modern in vitro and in vivo screening assays directed toward these targets, known herbal-derived compounds may show promising and possibly selective activity. Several known herbal-derived compounds have already been shown to act on newly validated molecular targets (e.g., indirubin selectively blocks cyclin-dependent kinases). Other herbal-derived compounds have also been shown to act on novel molecular targets, thus reviving interest in members of these frequently isolated plant compound classes [22-25].


  1. Esposito JL. The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  2. Hitti PK. History of the Arab. St. Martin’s Press, 1970.
  3. Saad B, Azaizeh H, Said O. Arab botanical medicines. In:Watson RR, Preedy VR (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Botanicals in Clinical Practice. CABI Publishing, 2008.
  4. Saad B, Azaizeh H, Said O. Tradition and perspectives of Arab herbal medicine: a review. eCAM 2005;2:475–479.
  5. Pormann PE, Savage-Smith E. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Edinburgh University Press,2007.
  6. Morgan MH. Lost History: the Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists. National Geographic Society, 2007.
  7. Bilal A, Jamal A. Unani system of medicine. Pharmacogn. Rev. 2007;1(2):210–214.
  8. Hajar Al Bin Ali HA. History of medicine. Heart Views December 2001–February 2002; 2(4).
  9. Deuraseh N. Health and medicine in the Islamic tradition based on the book of medicine (Kitab al-Tibb) of Sahih Al-Bukhari. JISHIM 2006;5:2–14.
  10. Said O, Zaid H, Saad B. Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal medicine and cancer treatment/ prevention. In: Watson RR, Preedy VR (Eds.), Bioactive Foods and Extracts: Cancer Treatment and Prevention, Taylor & Francis Group, 2009.
  11. Saad B, Azaizeh H, Abu Hijleh G, Said O. Safety of traditional Arab herbal medicine. eCAM 2006;3:433–439.
  12. Ibn Sena(Avicenna). Al Qanun Fi al Teb. Book 6. Dar Alfiker, Bairut, Lebanon, 1994, pp 77–78 (in Arabic).
  13. al-Antaki D. Tadhkirat Uli l-al-Bab wa l-Jami li-L-‘Ajab al-‘Ujab. Cairo, 1935 (in Arabic).
  14. Ibn Albitar. Aljamea Limufradat Aladwiya Walaghdiya. Dar Bulaaq, Cairo, 1974 (manuscript from twelfth century).
  15. Souayah N, Greenstein JI. Insights into neurologic localization by Rhazes, a medieval Islamic physician. Neurology 2005;65:125–128.
  16. Ar-Razi. Kitab al-Hawi Fi Al-Tibb li-Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya ar Ra-Razi, Vol. 1Al-Osmanya, Hyderabad, 1956.
  17. Ar-Razi.In: Al-Bakry Al-Siddiky H (Ed.), Al-Mansuri Fi Al-Tibb (The Book of Medicine for Mansur) Institute of Arab Manuscripts, Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization, Kuwait, 1987(in Arabic).
  18. Abun-Nasr J. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  19. Pak E, Esrason KT, Wu VH. Hepatotoxicity of herbal remedies: an emerging dilemma.Prog. Transplant. 2004;14:91–96.
  20. Fugh-Berman A. Herb–drug interactions. Lancet 2000;355:134–138.
  21. Rousseaux CG, Schachter H. Regulatory issues concerning the safety, efficacy and quality of herbal remedies. Birth Defects Res. 2003;68:505–510.
  22. Imtara H, Kmail K, Touzani S, Khader M, Hamars H,  Saad B, Lyoussi B (2019) Chemical analysis, cytotoxic and cytostatic effects of twelve honey samples collected from different regions in Morocco and Palestine, Evidence based complementary and alternative medicine Volume 2019, Article ID 8768210, 11 pages
  23. Shanak S, Saad B, & Zaid H (2019) Metabolic and Epigenetic Action Mechanisms of Antidiabetic Medicinal Plants. Evidence based complementary and alternative medicine Article ID 3583067, Volume 2019 (2019)
  24. Saad B, (2015) Integrating traditional Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal medicine in research and clinical practice. In Phytotherapies: safety, efficacy, and regulation, Ed. Igbal Ramazan. Wiley-Blackwell John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  25. Saad B, (2019) Prevention and Treatment of Obesity-Related Cardiovascular Diseases by Diet and Medicinal Plants. In “Herbal Medicine: Back to the Future, Volume 2: Vascular Health. Edited by Prof. Ferid Murad, Prof. Atta-Ur-Rahman, and Prof. Ka Bian, Bentham, pp 125-165.

BASHAR SAAD, PhD, is Professor of cell biology and immunology at the Arab American University in Jenin, Palestine, and at Al-Qasemi Academic College, Baga Algharbiya, Israel. He made a significant contribution in combining cell biology, immunology, and 3D cell culture techniques with Arab-Islamic herbal wisdom. His research interests include antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties of medicinal plants.  He has written more than 150 original papers as well as review articles and book chapters on Arab-Islamic herbal medicine.

[1] Bashar Saad and Omar Said, “Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine: Traditional System, Ethics, Safety, Efficacy, and Regulatory Issues”,  2011 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Video: Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World

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Alex Kronemer, Michael Wolfe

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Al-Andalus, a Bridge Between Arabic and European Science

Figure 1. Article Banner


Note of the Editor: This article was originally published as: “Al-Andalus, a Bridge Between Arabic and European Science”, Alhadra, 1, 103-126 pp., 2015. We thank the author, Julio Samsó, for allowing us to republish on Muslim Heritage website.


Figure 2. Al-Andalus 711-1492 (781 Years) (Source)

The European reception of Arabic science was the result of a process of transmission which originated in the Iberian Peninsula, and al-Andalus was the bridge across which all this knowledge circulated. Only books actually reaching al-Andalus could be translated and one of the hypotheses defended in this paper is that the arrival of Eastern books was interrupted with the fall of the Cordovan Caliphate. The Cordovan emirs and caliphs had been collectors of Eastern Arabic books since c. 800. These books were kept in the Royal Library which reached its apogee during the caliphate of al-Ḥakam II al-Mustanṣir (961-76). Al-Ḥakam became caliph when he was 47 years old, and up to that time he had spent his life collecting books, which were bought for him by his agents in the Middle East. This was the last instance of a general library in al-Andalus receiving a significant proportion of the most relevant books written in the Mashriq. During the ṭā’ifa period (1031-86), none of the monarchs ruling over the small kingdoms resulting from the fall of the caliphate had either sufficient interest or the financial capacity to continue with such a policy. In spite of this, there can be no doubt that smaller, more specialised libraries existed, though they were rarely able to keep up to date with the latest Oriental novelties. Examples of such smaller libraries can be found in the library of Yūsuf ibn Hūd al-Mu’taman, king  of Zaragoza (r. 1081-5) or in the libraries found in the city of Toledo by Christian scholars after the conquest of the city by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085.

Figure 3. Muslim and Christian women play chess. El Libro de los Juegos, commissioned by Alphonse X of Castile, thirteenth century. Madrid, Escorial Library, f.54r (Source)

Figure 3. This theorem is often attributed to Giovanni Ceva, who published it in his 1678 work De lineis rectis. But it was proven much earlier by Yusuf Al-Mu’taman ibn Hűd (Source)

A logical result of this process is that only exceptionally did books from the Mashriq, produced after ca. 950, reach Cordova or the main ṭā’ifa cities. The aforementioned king al-Mu’taman was a competent mathematician, author of an important treatise (al-Istikmāl) on geometry and number theory, in which he quotes the works of the Banū Mūsā (active around 830), Thābit b. Qurra (d. 901), Ibrāhīm b. Sinān (d. 946) and Ibn al-Haytham (d. c. 1040), who is the only mathematician active between c. 950 and c. 1050 mentioned by him, while Abū Ja‘far al-Khāzin (d. c. 965), Abū l-Wafā’ al-Būzjānī (940-97), Abū Sahl al-Kūhī (fl. c. 988), Abū Maḥmūd al-Khujandī (d. c. 1000), Abū Naṣr Manṣūr Ibn ‘Irāq (died before 1036) and al-Bīrūnī (973-1048) are simply ignored.

This explains why the great works of Eastern Islamic science produced from the 10th century onwards were rarely known in Medieval Europe: they simply never reached the bridge across which transmission took place.

The transmission process began in Catalonia towards the end of the 10th century and it dealt with the construction and use of astronomical instruments: the astrolabe, horary quadrant, an instrument similar to al-Battānī’s celestial sphere (bayḍa) and various types of sundials. Interestingly, the earliest case of an astrolabe being “translated” from Arabic into Latin appears also during this period: the so-called “Carolingian” astrolabe now preserved in the museum of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. This process was interrupted for over a hundred years and did not resume until the beginning of the 12th century.

Figure 4.  Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (Source)

I contend, and this is my second hypothesis, that transmission recommenced only when great Arabic libraries were once more accessible to Latin scholars, that is after the fall of Toledo (1085), Zaragoza (1118), Cordova (1236) and Seville (1248). With each conquest of one of these cities, new libraries became available and had a bearing on the selection of sources to be translated. At the same time, translators were dependent on patrons, who provided them with a living but whose personal tastes also influenced the choice of texts. We know of two clear instances of this: Bishop Michael of Tarazona, whose personal interests were taken into account by translator Hugo Sanctallensis, and Alfonso X, surrounded with a team of (mainly) Jews, but also ‘Spaniards’ and ‘Italians’, who oversaw the process of translation and the revision of the translated texts. Here it should be pointed out that Alfonso X constitutes the first true instance of royal patronage; before him, only high-ranking members of the Church seem to have been interested in patronising translations…


Figure 5-6. Detail of the Aljafería palace, constructed by Ahmad I al-Muqtadir. – The father of al-Mu’taman ruler of Zaragoza, who was a competent mathematician, author of an important treatise (al-Istikmāl) on geometry and number theory (Source)

Book Review: “Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine: Traditional System, Ethics, Safety, Efficacy and Regulatory Issues”




This is a review of the book published by Wiley-Blackwell John Wiley & Sons, Inc in 2011, authored by Bashar Saad and Omar Said. Titled “Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine: Traditional System, Ethics, Safety, Efficacy and Regulatory Issues”.


Currently and despite the great progress in modern medicine, traditional Arab-Islamic medicine continues to be practiced within the Mediterranean as well as most Arab and Islamic countries. A very important factor that enhanced the present popularity and widespread use of Arab herbal-based medicines is the belief that they are prepared according to the principles of Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine, which was developed during the Golden Age of Muslim civilization.

This civilization spanned from the seventh to fifteenth century and extended from Spain and Portugal to Central Asia and India. It became a wellspring of brilliant medical developments and innovations, as well as of great achievements in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, philosophy, and the arts. Scientists significantly contributed to the development of modern Western medicine, accomplishing far more than mere translation.


Development of medical science. Mesopotamian medicine was transmitted in part to the Greeks, and together with Egyptian medicine, it paved the way for the great Hippocratic reform. Then, during the rise of the Arab–Islamic Empire, Greek medicine was translated to Arabic. The Arabs improved on Greek medicine as well as made new discoveries over several centuries. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, medicine was disseminated to Europe again from Arab capitals such as Cordoba and Baghdad. (Source: Figure 2.1 from the book)

A closer look at their activity during the medieval period shows that they translated classical medical texts not only from Greece, but also from Persia, India and China. From this, scientists from Muslim civilisation were able to synthesize and develop a rich and universal medical system, based on scientific methods and experimentation. The works of scholars gained widespread use and were used in European medical schools.  For instance, the physicians Al Tabbari, Al Razi (Rhazes), Al Zahrawi (Albucasis), Al-Biruni, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn al Haitham (Al Hazen), Ibn al Nafees, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) are regarded as among the great medical authorities of the ancient world and medieval world, physicians whose textbooks were used in European universities up to the sixteen century. They were among the first to make accurate diagnoses of plague, diphtheria, diabetes, gout, cancer, leprosy, rabies, and epilepsy. The works of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al Razi (Rhazes) on infectious diseases led to the introduction of quarantine as a means of limiting the spread of these diseases. These polymath physicians laid down the principles of clinical investigation and drug trials, and animal tests. They mastered operations for hernia and cataracts, filled teeth with gold leaf and prescribed spectacles for defective eyesight.


Drug discovery in Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine. Selection of potential natural products was based on (1) knowledge developed traditional healers in the pre-Islamic period based on a long history of trial and error; (2) knowledge introduced by the Islam; (3) Greek and Persian medical knowledge; and (4) theoretical and practical knowledge introduced by Arab and Muslim scholars. At present, herbal-based drug discovery continues to provide new and important leads against various ailments, for example, cancer, psoriasis, diabetes, malaria, and pain. With only 5–15% of the approximately 250,000 species of higher plants systematically investigated, and the potential of the marine environment barely tapped, these areas will remain a rich source of novel bioactive compounds (Source: Figure 6.1 from the book)

The physicians and scientists of the Islamic Golden Age, who were of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, passed on rules of health, diet and hygiene that are still largely valid today.

The high degree of development achieved in Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine is observable in a statement of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037), who defined medicine in his Canon of medicine as

the science from which we learn the states of the human body with respect to what is healthy and what is not; in order to preserve good health when it exists and restore it when it is lacking.

He further stated that

“we have to understand that the best and most effective remedy for the treatment of patients should be through the improvement of the power of the human body in order to increase its immune system, which is based on the beauty of the surroundings and letting him listen to the best music and allowing his best friends to be with him.”

Another statement concerning therapeutic methods was made by Al Razi (Rhazes) (846-930):

if the physician is able to treat with foodstuffs, not medication, then he has succeeded. If, however, he must use medications, then it should be simple remedies and not compound ones.”

Medical practice in the Muslim world influenced Western medical circles to such an extent that it was included in the curriculum of European medical schools for many centuries.

This book is well placed to be the best academic book in the field of herbal medicine that explores and introduces Arab herbal medicine aspects using original ethnopharmacological surveys conducted by the authors’ group in the Mediterranean area. In the course of their 19 chapters the authors, reveal the complexities, encourage comparisons, and offer answers to questions such as: How did Arab-Islamic medicine reach such high levels of knowledge and practice? How did scholars lay the foundations of modern Western medicine and pharmacology? How did Arab physicians discover and successfully treat diseases and how did they lay the foundations for clinical trials and animal testing? And finally, the authors give an overview of currently used medicinal plants in the contemporary Arab world and their efficacy and safety. The authors organized their book around nineteen major topics, reflected by the titles of these chapters:

  1. An overview of Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine,
  2. History of Arab and Islamic medicine,
  3. History of Arab and Islamic herbal medicine,
  4. Common roots of Arab medicine and Western medicine,
  5. Contributions of Arab and Islamic Scholars to modern pharmacology,
  6. Methodology of drug discovery in Arabic and Islamic medicine,
  7. Method of therapy in Arabic and Islamic medicine,
  8. Commonly used herbal medicines in the Mediterranean,
  9. The current state of knowledge of Arab herbal medicine,
  10. Arabic and Islamic medicine practiced outside the Middle East,
  11. Biosafety of Arab herbal medicine,
  12. Arab medicinal plants from traditional uses to scientific knowledge,
  13. Modern in vitro test systems,
  14. Modern in vivo evaluation and clinical trials of traditional Arab herbal medicine,
  15. Medical ethics in Arabic and Islamic medicine,
  16. The uses of medicinal herbs and extracting their active ingredients,
  17. Food therapy,
  18. Arab herbal remedies: Use, demographic, regulatory issues, and
  19. Drug development from herbal sources.

Diseases and Commonly used medicinal plants. Herbs are used either in their crude forms or as herbal teas, syrups, infusions, and powders in treatment and prevention of diseases. Efficacy and safety medicinal plants in this diagram are discussed in detail in Chapters 8 and 12. (Source: Figure 3.1 from the book)

The authors provide in chapter 8 an overview of traditional uses, safety, and efficacy of commonly used herbal medicines where more than 3600 plant species are found and about 450 plants are noted for their uses as medicinal herbs. Plant parts used included leaves, flowers, stems, roots, seeds, and berries. In order to reduce the confusions of common names, which can refer to different plants depending on the region where they grow, we used Latin names as well as common Arabic names and common English names.  To keep within the scope of this chapter they briefly mention the most commonly used medicinal plants in the Mediterranean region.

Based on scientific and traditional knowledge, there is little doubt that the concept of Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal medicinal therapy has shown recognised success in healing acute as well as chronic diseases. The authors purport that Physicians from the Muslim civilisation were the first to use scientific methods in the field of medicine, including the introduction of quantification, animal testing, and clinical trials. Hospitals in the Arab-Islamic world featured the first drug tests, drug purity regulations, and competency tests for physicians. They denote that the earliest known medical experiment was carried out by Al Razi (Rhazes) (865 – 925). In order to locate the most hygienic place to build a hospital, he hung pieces of meat in places throughout Baghdad and built the hospital where the meat decomposition was the least. In his Comprehensive Book of Medicine, Al Razi (Rhazes) documented clinical cases of his own experience and provided very useful recordings of various diseases. He also introduced urinalysis and stool tests. They report that Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) introduced experimental medicine and systematic experimentation and quantification in physiology. He discovered the contagious nature of diseases, and described many medical treatments, including clinical trials, risk factor analysis, and the idea of a syndrome in the diagnosis of specific diseases. His book, The Canon of Medicine, was the first book dealing with evidence-based medicine, randomized controlled trials, and efficacy tests. Concerning medical documentation, the first documented description of a peer review publication process was written by Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahwi (854–931). In his work, the Ethics of the Physician, he stated that a physician must always make duplicate notes of a patient’s condition. When the patient was cured or had died, the notes of the physician were examined by a local medical council of other physicians, who would review the practicing physician’s notes to decide whether the treatment has met the required standards of medical care.

The authors refer to a Hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad), the stomach is the central basin of the body and origin of many diseases:

“The stomach is the central basin of the body, and the veins are connected to it. When the stomach is healthy, it passes on its condition to veins, and in turn the veins will circulate the same and when the stomach is putrescence, the veins will absorb such putrescence and issue the same.”

Indeed, the Prophet used to recommend food for ailments even more than herbs or animal-based medicines. He used everything from barley soup to honey to camel milk to heal his followers and advised them to eat certain foods to prevent or cure other diseases. In fact, diet is one of the oldest and most respected healing agents available to man. Honey, camel’s milk, dates, olive oil, and black seeds were the favoured foods by the Prophet who regarded food as part of an overall holistic approach. Concerning olive oil, he said

“Eat olive oil and massage it over your bodies since it is a holy tree”.

Black seeds were regarded as a medicine for that cures all types of diseases. He once stated,

“The black seed can heal every disease, except death”.

Dates are mentioned in 20 places in the Quran. The Prophet is reported to have said:

“if anyone of you is fasting, let him break his fast with dates. In case he does not have them, then with water. Verily water is a purifier”.

The authors highlight the therapeutic significance of the prophetic medicine in chapters six and seven.



Natural Products Used by the Prophet Mohamed and Their Current Pharmacological Uses (Source: Table 6.1 from the book)



Nigella sativa, black seed (Alhaba Alsawadaa or Habbatul-Barakah). (See the color version of this Figure in Color Plates section.) (Source: Figure 8.1 from the book)

Nigella sativa, black seed, is one of the most commonly used medicinal herbs throughout the Middle East. Black seeds have been used for centuries as a spice and food preservative, as well as a protective and curative remedy for numerous diseases have long been prescribed in Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine as well as in Indian and Chinese traditional medicine for prevention and treatment of a wide range of diseases, including bronchial asthma, headache, dysentery, infections, obesity, back pain, immune-stimulator, hypertension and gastrointestinal problems. It is the black seed referred to by the Prophet, who once stated that

“the black seed can heal every disease, except death.”

 Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037 CE) refers to black seeds in his Canon of Medicine, as the seed that stimulates the body’s energy and helps recovery from fatigue and dispiritedness.


Olive tree (Source), olives and olive oil appear in numerous chapters in the book. (Source

Olea europaea, the Olive, like black seeds, is one of the most commonly used medicinal herbs throughout the Mediterranean. While olive oil is well known for its health benefits, the leaf has been used medicinally in various historical contexts and cultures. Olive leaf and olive leaf extracts are now marketed as antioxidants, anti-aging, immunostimulators, and even antibiotics. Clinical evidence has proven the anti-diabetes and anti-hypertension effects of leaf extracts. In addition, several studies support its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. The olive tree is described in the Qur’an as the holy tree and Prophet (PBUH) said “Eat olive oil and massage it over your bodies since it is a holy tree.”


Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek (Hilbe). See the color version of this Figure in Color Plates section (Source: Figure 8.5 from the book)

Trigonella foenum graecum, fenugreek, is extensively cultivated in the Mediterranean region. It is a spice used in Indian cooking and commonly used herb in Ayurveda. Defatted seeds of fenugreek, which are rich in fibre, saponins, and protein, have been described in early Greek and Latin pharmacopoeias as anti-hyperglycaemic. In addition to the seed, other parts of the herb have also been investigated. Therapeutic effects include delay of gastric emptying, slowing carbohydrate absorption, and inhibition of glucose transport from the fibre content, as well as increased erythrocyte insulin receptors and modulation of peripheral glucose utilization. Fenugreek is another herb that was favoured by the Prophet and herbalists for thousands of years.


Punica granatum, the pomegranate (Rumman). (Source: Figure 8.17 from the book)

The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a fruit-bearing deciduous shrub or small tree growing to between five and eight metres tall. This tree is native to the region from Persia to northern India and has been cultivated and naturalized over the whole Mediterranean region and the Caucasus since ancient times. The fruit is covered by a leathery pericarp, contained within are numerous arils, each a single seed surrounded by a translucent juice-containing sac. Thin acrid-tasting membranes extend into the interior of the fruit from the pericarp, providing a latticework for suspending the arils. Pomegranate, especially its fruit, possesses a vast ethnomedical history and represents a phytochemical reservoir of heuristic medicinal value. The tree/fruit can be divided into seven anatomical compartments: seed, juice, peel, leaf, flower, bark, and roots, each of which has interesting pharmacologic activity.


Phoenix dactylifera, date palm and date fruits Rutab (left) and Tamer (right). (Source: Figure 17.1 from the book)


Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine apply three types of  herapies. These include the diet, drug, and regimental therapies. The diagnostic parameters of the Greco-Arab medicine include the rate, strength, width, and depth of the pulse and the color, odor, amount of urine and stool. After confirming the cause of the disease, the physician starts the treatment by recommending the diets or drugs that have temperament opposite to the prevailing abnormal temperamental condition of the affected organ or system. (Source: Figure 7.2. from the book)



Commonly used Medicinal plants and their Pharmacological properties (Source: Table 8.1 from the book)



Bashar Saad, PhD, is Professor of cell biology and immunology at the Arab American university in Jenin, Palestine, and at Al-Qasemi Academic College, Baga Algharbiya, Israel. He made a significant contribution in combining cell biology, immunology, and 3D cell culture techniques with Arab-Islamic herbal wisdom. His research interests include antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties of medicinal plants. He has written more than 150 original papers as well as review articles and book chapters on Arab-Islamic herbal medicine.



Omar Said, Phd, is the Chief Research Officer and founder of BeLeaf Pharma. He is a pioneer in the field of Greco-Arab medicine, herbal medicine and pharmacology. He serves as the head of the Arab medicinal plant project in the Galilee Society R&D regional centre, Israel. He has a PhD in Pharmacology. As an expert in the fields of pharmacology and ethnopharmacology, he made a significant contribution in combining this modern science with the medicinal plants’ tradition. His research interests include diabetes, obesity, fertility, psoriasis, acne, hyper-lipidemia, and liver diseases. He has written more than 65 original papers as well as review articles and book chapters on Arab-Islamic herbal medicine.


Resources and further reading

  • Al-Hassani, Salim, Chief Editor, 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilsation. Editor. Forward by HRH Prince Charles. National Geographic, 3d edition, 2012, 352 pages.
  • Saad B, Zaid H, Shanak S, & Kadan S, (2017) Anti-diabetes and Anti-obesity Medicinal Plants and Phytochemicals Safety, Efficacy, and Action Mechanisms.
  • Shanak S, Saad B, & Zaid H (2019) Metabolic and Epigenetic Action Mechanisms of Antidiabetic Medicinal Plants. Evidence based complementary and alternative medicine Article ID 3583067, Volume 2019 (2019)
  • Saad B, (2019) Prevention and Treatment of Obesity-Related Cardiovascular Diseases by Diet and Medicinal Plants. In “Herbal Medicine: Back to the Future, Volume 2: Vascular Health. Edited by Prof. Ferid Murad, Prof. Atta-Ur-Rahman, and Prof. Ka Bian, Bentham, pp 125-165.
  • Saad B, (2015) Integrating traditional Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal medicine in research and clinical practice. In Phytotherapies: safety, efficacy, and regulation, Ed. Igbal Ramazan. Wiley-Blackwell John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Touzani S, Embaslat W, Imtara H Kmail A, Kadan S, Zaid H , Ilham ElArabi Lyoussi B, Saad B, (2019) “In Vitro Evaluation of the Potential Use of Propolis as a Multitarget Therapeutic Product: Physicochemical Properties, Chemical Composition, and Immunomodulatory, Antibacterial, and Anticancer Properties,” BioMed Research International, vol. 2019, Article ID 4836378, 11 pages, 2019.


Book review by Salim T S Al-Hassani, President of the UK based Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC). This review would have not been accomplished without the assistance of a few members of FSTC, in particular, Dr Sameena  Z H Haq, Associate Fellow of FSTC, who is specialised in parasitology and herbal medicine.

The Emergence of Sophisticated Mosque Architecture in Early Islam

mosque banner


‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (‘Umar II) was the most revered Muslim ruler after the first four rightly-guided caliphs (al-khulafa’ al-rashidun). So much so that he is regarded as the fifth rightly-guided caliph, though a period of about sixty years separates between him and ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 41 AH/661 CE), the forth rightly-guided caliph. As the 8th Umayyad Caliph, he is also held as the first and arguably one of the greatest revivers of the Islamic faith, culture and civilization (Nadvi, 1978, pp. 113-115).

When the historians and biographers dwell on the contributions of ‘Umar II as caliph, they normally focus on the political, economic and religious aspects of his rule (al-Zuhayli, 1998, pp. 135-140; al-Sallabi, 2006, pp. 267-295; Ibn al-Jawzi, 2001, pp. 68-88; Nadvi, 1978, pp. 150-181). However, rarely was there a scholar, before or now, who tried to analyze and eventually reconcile between the ostensibly conflicting views of ‘Umar II concerning mosque decoration, one of the emerging and pressing issues of the day. This is surprising because the latter is no less significant than the former in that it constituted the substance of the fast evolving phenomenon of the Muslim artistic and architectural identity, which functioned as the physical locus of the Muslim cultural and civilizational consciousness and yield, facilitating and further spurring them. Hence, understanding the points of view of ‘Umar II as regards mosque decoration, and by extension Muslim architecture, greatly helps in understanding many other directly and indirectly related aspects of his personality and rule.

At the core of the spiritual as well as cultural life of ‘Umar II, firstly as the governor of Madinah (87-93 AH/706-712 CE) then as the Umayyad Caliph in Damascus (99-101 AH/718-720 CE), stood Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Madinah and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. At the behest of the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid b. ‘Abd al-Malik (d. 96 AH/715 CE) in Damascus, ‘Umar II, as the governor of Madinah, significantly enlarged and refurbished the Prophet’s Mosque, using mosaics, marble and even gold as decorative media. The job lasted approximately three years.

Almost concurrently, from 87 AH/706 CE to 96 AH/715 CE, Caliph al-Walid was building the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus which was regarded as a wonder of the world on account of its unparalleled magnificence and beauty, using also mosaics, marble and gold – albeit to an unprecedented degree — for decorative purposes. Later, when he himself became Caliph and had to move to Damascus, ‘Umar II was so struck by the Umayyad Mosque and the extent of its decoration especially, that he articulated some of the most astonishing and unfavorable views expressed with regard to the then-fast-growing marvels of Muslim art and architecture. He is reported to have wanted to strip the Mosque off its expensive and ostentatious decoration, covering it with white draperies instead (al-Ya’qubi, 2002, vol. 2 p. 214; Ibn ‘Asakir, 1995, vol. 2 p. 276). Those views seem to have been at odds with what he had done slightly more than a decade ago in Madinah with the Prophet’s Mosque. To Alami (2011, pp. 178-182), such was the case of ‘Umar II’s total transformation from being a typical Umayyad, or just a mundane ruler and prince who enjoyed listening to music, eating good food and wearing fine clothing, to an exemplary zealous Sufi or an ascetic.

Nonetheless, the views of ‘Umar II on mosque decoration were rather consistent. They just need to be carefully examined against the backdrop of the overall personality of ‘Umar II, as well as the prevailing socio-political, cultural and religious developments in the Umayyad state. The overarching character of the identity of authentic Muslim art and architecture, which was slowly emerging, warding off a great many potential deviations and excesses, both at the conceptual and practical planes, played also a prominent role. This paper intends to do exactly that.

Figure 1. The Prophet’s Mosque after Caliph al-Walid’s (‘Umar II’s) expansion. (Courtesy of the ‘Madinah: the Refuge of Faith’ Museum in Madinah)

‘Umar II and Mosque Decoration The Prophet’s Mosque

In 88 AH/707 CE, one year after he had been appointed as governor of the Prophet’s city of Madinah, ‘Umar II was instructed from Damascus by Caliph al-Walid to reconstruct and enlarge the Prophet’s Mosque. ‘Umar II applied himself to the task with vigor, completing it three years later in 91 AH/710 CE. The project involved the pulling down of the existing form of the Mosque together with those apartments (hujurat) of the wives of the Prophet as abutted the Mosque on its eastern side, incorporating them into the Mosque proper. The land and other houses that stood near the Mosque and were also meant to be incorporated by the unprecedented Mosque expansion were purchased from their owners in a way that satisfied all the parties involved. Some people naturally hesitated at first and raised some objections, but in the end had no choice but to agree as the development plans had to proceed and neither they nor the government could maneuver for different solutions. When completed, the Mosque measured about one hundred meters by one hundred meters, that is, ten thousand square meters. (al-Tabari, 1990, vol. 23 p. 141; Ibn al-Athir, 1983, vol. 4 p. 109; al-Samahudi 1997, vol. 2 pp. 513-521). According to some accounts, however, the width of the Mosque was eighty four meters and its length nearly one hundred meters, in which case its total area was about 8,400 square meters. The extension thus was about 2,768 square meters (Isma’il, 1998, p. 43).

There were three categories of workforce, owing to the size and complexity of the construction project. There were firstly local architects, engineers, artisans and general workers who partook in the demolition task as well as in the implementation of the initial and basic planning and building phases. They did their job in advance of the arrival of the more skilled personnel that al-Walid sent from Damascus (al-Qu’aiti, 2007, p. 69). It is narrated that the Caliph even sought the assistance of the Byzantine Emperor in this regard. The latter responded by sending him additional craftsmen and building as well as decoration materials such as fine tiles, mosaic pieces, chains for lamps and gold for ornamentation. Al-Tabari (1990, vol. 23 p. 142) reported that the Byzantine Emperor sent “one hundred thousand mithqals (a unit of mass equal to 4.25 grams) of gold, one hundred workers and forty loads of mosaic…Al-Walid sent all that on to ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz”.

When it was finished, the Prophet’s Mosque was a sight to behold. Its new walls were built on a solid foundation of stone on rock, with the structure above the surface constructed with cut and chiseled stone dressed in plaster. This was later on to be covered with marble, or decorated with mosaics. The thickness of the new western wall was less than one meter, while the eastern wall was thicker at one meter and four fingers (asabi’). The latter was strengthened due to its proximity to a stream which caused its collapse, along with the wall of the hujrah (the Prophet’s wife ‘A’ishah’s house that contained the graves of the Prophet, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar) (Isma’il, 1998, p. 43). That connoted one of a few sustainability measures that rendered the Mosque a reasonably environment conscious building.

The columns, too, were of stone and reinforced with lead and iron to add to their strength and durability. They formed arcades that run parallel to the qiblah (direction of prayer) wall. The ceiling was of teakwood, decorated with gold. Minarets were added to the Mosque’s morphology for the first time; one minaret was provided for each of the four corners of the hypostyle Mosque (al-Qu’aiti, 2007, pp. 69-70; Basha, n.d., vol. 1 p. 463). One of them on the western side was taken down during the reign of Caliph Sulayman b. ‘Abd al-Malik (d. 99 AH/717 CE) because it overlooked the house of Marwan b. al-Hakam (d. 66 AH/685 CE) which was also the residence of the Umayyad caliphs when they came to Madinah. The two minarets that stood at the two corners of the eastern wall were about 27.2 meters high. The third one at the north-west corner of the western wall was one meter shorter. The dimensions of each minaret were 4 X 4 meters, making them square (Isma’il, 1998, p. 44; Ibn al-Najjar, 1981, p. 101). This was the first time that the hypostyle Mosque was built in such a way that colonnades or cloisters of stone columns on all four sides enclosed a vast inner courtyard.

The roof of the Mosque was double — a decorated ceiling below, of gilded teak, and a lead-covered roof above. That was in order to protect the Mosque from the rain. The lower ceiling’s height was nearly 12.5 meters. The first who made the mihrab (a praying niche for imam or the prayer leader) in the form of a niche, as an important architectural innovation, was ‘Umar II who did so in the Prophet’s Mosque, regardless of whether he introduced it on his own or at the behest of al-Walid. Similarly, there was in the Mosque the first instance of a domical vault in front of the mihrab, which was to become such a familiar aspect of Muslim architecture (Creswell, 1989, p. 46).

The mihrab stood where Caliph ‘Uthman’s maqsurah was earlier erected, perpendicularly in front of the place where the Prophet used to lead his companions in prayers. This was so because both ‘Umar and ‘Uthman enlarged the Mosque towards the southern or qiblah direction. After the two expansions, the Prophet’s praying place (musalla), next to the Perfumed Column (al-ustuwan al-mukhallaqah), remained clearly indicated and preserved. However, there was no any mihrab there yet, unlike what some scholars have contended (Hamid, 2003, p. 127). In passing, no other subsequent expansion took place towards the southern direction, and that is why the main mihrab even today stands where ‘Uthman’s maqsurah and afterwards the first al-Walid’s mihrab had stood. It is called ‘Uthman’s mihrab (al-mihrab al-‘Uthmani) with Caliph ‘Uthman being its eponym.

The foreign workers from Byzantium were employed mainly for decoration purposes using gold and mosaics. Half of them were Romans and half Copts from Egypt. The former’s tasks focused on the roof and the rear of the Mosque, while the former worked at the Mosque’s front, including the qiblah wall. It was a general perception that the Copts were more skilled and their work output more superb. Some of the workers that handled mosaic decoration are reported to have said that their decorative themes revolved around the concepts of trees (vegetation) and palaces as articulated in relation to Paradise (jannah). So concerned and excited was ‘Umar II about the matter that whenever a worker excelled in depicting with mosaics a large and beautiful tree, as a decorative motif in the Mosque, he would reward him with an extra bonus of thirty dirhams (al-Barzanji, 1914, p. 13; al-Samahudi 1997, vol. 2 pp. 515-520). The Mosque expansion did not prove to be a cheap undertaking, despite the prudent nature of ‘Umar II’s personality. For example, only for building and decorating the qiblah wall and sections of the double roof, he is said to have spent forty or forty five thousand dinars (al-Samahudi 1997, vol. 2 p. 523).


Figure 2. Another rendition of the Prophet’s Mosque after Caliph al-Walid’s (‘Umar II’s) expansion. (Courtesy of the Museum of ‘Dar al-Madinah’)

The Umayyad Mosque

When he rebuilt and expanded the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, ‘Umar II did so in his capacity as the governor of the city at the request of Caliph al-Walid who, in turn, was very pleased with the job when it was done. Around the same time as the construction of the Madinah Mosque, the Caliph himself was building the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus on a matchless scale. The latter building exercise lasted nine to ten years, three times the duration of the Prophet’s Mosque’s construction.

When it was finished, the Umayyad Mosque was reputed as a mosque – perhaps, generally, a religious institution – of no equal in the whole world in terms of fine proportion, size and scale, construction excellence, durability and, above all, the brilliance of its decorative schemes and styles generously executed in gold, mosaics and marble with diverse colors. The Mosque’s decoration depicted calligraphic inscriptions, geometric patterns, stylized interwoven floral motifs, and such stylized and denaturalized components as buildings, bridges, fountains, palaces, gardens and trees. To many people since the inception of the Mosque’s existence, the scenes depicted represented a vision of Paradise (Ibn Kathir, 1985, vol. 9 p. 158; Ibn ‘Asakir, 1995, vol. 2 p. 236). Titus Burckhardt (1976, p. 23) wrote about the decoration of the Umayyad Mosque: “The walls of the mosque were adorned with mosaics, of which only fragments survive; they represent fantastic towns and palaces, surrounded by flowers and bordered by rivers, all composed with great mastery of design and color, which bears witness to the survival of a school of Byzantine art in the Syria of the Umayyads.”

For the Umayyad Mosque, too, Byzantine skilled workers, two hundred of them, were employed. Some sources even suggest that al-Walid threatened the Emperor that if he did not send his workers as requested, his lands would have been invaded and the Byzantine religious and cultural heritage under Muslims destroyed (Ibn Kathir, 1985, vol. 9 p. 153). The Mosque thus was a source of religious and national pride to the people of Damascus in particular, and Muslims in general. It symbolized the cultural and civilizational strength of Muslims in a land dotted with elements evocative of the centuries-old cultural and religious dominance of the Byzantine Empire and its Christian orientation and character. It was an act of a Muslim civilizational self-assertion, so to speak. As a result, many exaggerated accounts and legends in relation to the status of the Umayyad Mosque have been concocted and articulated. Some were even associated with Prophet Muhammad (Ibn ‘Asakir, 1995, vol. 2 p. 236).

Nonetheless, when he became Caliph, ‘Umar II developed an aversion to the decoration of the Umayyad Mosque, intending to take from it the gold, marble, mosaics and expensive chains used for lamps and deposit everything in the state or royal treasury (bayt al-mal, literally house of money or wealth). ‘Umar II contested that such was a sign of profligacy and wastefulness, as well as that people were distracted in their prayers by looking at those luxurious elements. He said that he wanted to substitute them by mud, ropes, white draperies and other natural and crude materials (Ibn Kathir, 1985, vol. 9 p. 157; Ibn ‘Asakir, 1995, vol. 2 p. 273).

However, when he was told that therein was a trap for the enemy, ‘Umar II relinquished his initial radical plans, much to the delight of especially the Muslims of Damascus and the whole of Syria (al-Ya’qubi, 2002, vol. 2 p. 214). That means that the Umayyad Mosque was built, primarily, in order to rival in splendor and magnificence the finest churches of Syria so splendidly built that a great many Muslims ended up holding them in high regard. Hence, building the Mosque enchantingly fair was meant to overshadow the Christian churches and put thereby an end to such an unfavorable and increasingly disturbing custom. According to other reports, additionally, ‘Umar II was convinced by the people that most of the money used for the Mosque’s lavish and so, controversial decoration was not from bayt al-mal. Rather, the support came from the people either in the form of their personal contributions, or in the form of their war spoils. At any rate, the structure and decoration of the Umayyad Mosque was left intact (Ibn Kathir, 1985, vol. 9 p. 157; Ibn ‘Asakir, 1995, vol. 2 p. 273; Creswell, 1989, p. 46). Parenthetically — as a final point — nothing to the similar effect, which could be ascribed to ‘Umar II, has ever been reported as regards the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and its own decorative style and content. ‘Umar II never regretted them.


Figure 3. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

‘Umar II as Governor

‘Umar II was born in Madinah. As a young man, prior to his appointment as the governor, ‘Umar II lived only in the city of the Prophet, surrounded by some of the best scholars of the day from the first and second generation of Islam. During his childhood, though he enjoyed a life of ease and relative prosperity, he committed the whole Qur’an to memory (hafiz al-Qur’an) and studied Arabic grammar and poetry. He studied hadith (the Prophet’s tradition) from different religious masters. From his association with those authorities, ‘Umar II acquired a degree of scholarship which was acknowledged even by the greatest authorities in the fields of various disciplines. He is thus often described as a great jurist, muhaddith (expert in the Prophet’s tradition), mujtahid (an authoritative interpreter of the Islamic law) and reliable hafiz of the Qur’an. He was reputed as one of the most knowledgeable persons in Madinah, the seat of the Islamic learning and the Prophet’s tradition, to whom people often resorted from near and far for answering difficult religious questions (Nadvi, 1978, p. 11; al-Sallabi, 2006, p. 19).

When he became the governor of Madinah, ‘Umar II saw the appointment as an opportunity to put his gained knowledge and inherent genius to test by applying them at some of the highest and most demanding personal and social levels of life, adding thus an invaluable practical dimension to what he already had and was ready to offer to others. Hence, he at first was reluctant to take up the governorship job to the point that Caliph al-Walid was greatly puzzled. When asked why he hesitated to accept and go out to his new job, ‘Umar II replied that he was willing to do so  only under certain conditions, the most important one of which related to his outright rejection to follow the oppressive and iniquitous standards and practices of his predecessors. Caliph al-Walid’s response was: “You are free to do in accordance with what is right and just, even if you would not be able to send us a single dirham of revenue” (Ibn al-Jawzi, 2001, p. 49).

As soon as he became the governor, ‘Umar II formed a council with which he run and managed the territories under his administration. The council consisted of the leading jurists (fuqaha’) and scholars of Madinah. When he assembled them for the first time, he told them that he did not want to take any decisions without consulting them. If they found anyone, especially his officers, committing any acts of oppression or injustice, they must, he commanded them in God’s name, report the matter to him. He told them that such was a thing that would earn them heavenly rewards and a good name as supporters of the truth (Nadvi, 1978, p.13). The jurists and scholars, consequently, never stopped regarding him rather as one of them. They regularly prayed for God’s blessings on him and his righteous policies.

In terms of his education, wisdom and eloquence, ‘Umar II was called “the best of men” and “the master of masters” in front of whom scholars and scientists felt as though they were just like pupils (Ibn al-Jawzi, 2001, p. 41). In agreement with his personality, he seriously encouraged and facilitated knowledge-seeking, offering remunerations to teachers and educators. As a sign of things to come, many other small-scale reforms he also started off.

Within this spiritual and intellectual climate, reconstructing and enlarging the Prophet’s Mosque was undertaken. While doing his job, ‘Umar II must have been further motivated by the verity that the Prophet’s Mosque is the second most important mosque on earth – the first being al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah — which via its status, overall function and glorious history served as a beacon and guidepost to all Muslims. In addition, the Prophet’s Mosque is one of the three mosques to which pilgrimage is strongly recommended to be undertaken — the other two being al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Palestine. The Prophet’s Mosque, it follows, stands for an everlastingly global mosque with a global agenda, meaning and purpose. It is special, commanding a special treatment in every respect.

‘Umar II’s time as the governor in the city of the Prophet – as well as in the cities of Makkah and Ta’if — was so extraordinary and productive that formal complaints forwarded by the people of the territories under his jurisdiction to Damascus, the seat of the Umayyad power, virtually stopped. Moreover, as a result, many people started migrating to Madinah and Makkah from Iraq, running from and looking for refuge from their notorious governor, al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf (d. 96 AH/714 CE). ‘Umar II regularly complained to al-Walid against the harshness and oppression of al-Hajjaj towards his people in Iraq, stressing that such was occurring “without any right (on his part) or offense (on theirs)” (al-Tabari, 1990, vol. 23 p. 201). However, this approach of ‘Umar II did not go down well with the infamous nature of al-Hajjaj’s personality. He held it against ‘Umar II and wrote to al-Walid, pressurizing him to remove ‘Umar II from his job. Al-Walid eventually bowed to the mounting pressure from Iraq and in the year 93 AH/712 CE dismissed ‘Umar II.


Figure 4. The interior of the Umayyad Mosque.

‘Umar II as Caliph

When he became Caliph in 99 AH/718 CE, ‘Umar II ultimately saw the post as an opportunity to diversify and take his reforms, which he in his limited capacity as the governor of Madinah had once instigated, to a whole new level. If truth be told, ‘Umar II never coveted the post of the caliphate. He perceived it as too big a burden to bear, and it was placed on him without obtaining his prior opinion and consent. He reiterated on many occasions that he did not ask for the caliphate because there was no single Muslim anywhere in the world who did not have a right upon him which he had to duly fulfill without demand or notice (Nadvi, 1978, p. 22; al-Zuhayli, 1998, p. 139). Indeed, that was a dreadful prospect which only a few persons as were granted a special spiritual insight were able to comprehend. Being the governor where the scope of responsibilities was substantially smaller and their intensity lighter was in comparison distinctly less strenuous and exhausting.

To ‘Umar II, the caliphate thus was a necessary evil with which, he thought, he was greatly tested, and which on account of his unparalleled spiritual, intellectual and moral aptitude, on the one hand, and the will of those who mattered most in the state insofar as the wellbeing of Muslims and the Muslim community was concerned: the scholars, the righteous and the ordinary people, on the other, he had no choice but to reluctantly accept and responsibly discharge. He felt that he owed it to the religion of Islam and the people, even if he personally had to suffer. His wife, Fatimah, once said that ever since he became Caliph, her life and the lives of the members of their household became miserable. “May he never been made the Caliph”, she exclaimed (Ibn al-Jawzi, 2001, p. 251).

Thus, when ‘Umar II became Caliph, on the basis of mutual consultation as a new political culture, benevolence and respect for all, broad spectrum implementation of the national social, religious and economic reforms got into full swing. They covered education, morality, religious zeal and observance, inviting people to Islam (da’wah), welfare programs for the people of all strata of society, taxation systems, military, state administration and improving the Umayyad establishment from the inside. It was as part of this wave of sweeping reforms and general developments that ‘Umar II said what he said about the decorative styles and elements of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus which, as intended, had instantaneously become the symbol of the Umayyad state and rule. Those views were uttered when he relatively unhindered was carrying through his national wide-ranging reforms deeply rooted in his clear Islamic vision, mission and purpose. Hence, there was nothing inconsistent in ‘Umar II’s personality – and so, in his views towards mosque decoration — at the beginning and end of his political career. There was only gradual maturation as well as crystallization of certain, especially complex, ideas and views, which naturally come to pass in people as they get older, more experienced and more insightful mentally and spiritually. As a standard-setter, ‘Umar II wanted to articulate an extreme sense of religious fervor and practical austerity in relation to the subject of mosque decoration, particularly in situations where many vested interests were also at play – and such was becoming increasingly widespread and condoned — so that the people could take those viewpoints into consideration in their future mosque building undertakings. He wanted to provide an antidote to what was fast becoming a potentially repugnant custom.

The Evolution of the Identity of Muslim Architecture

Generally, it is asserted that the history of Muslim architecture started in earnest with Caliph al-Walid (Holt, Lambton & Lewis, 1970, p. 703). Notwithstanding the fallacy of this belief – for the history and identity of Muslim architecture, which lays emphasis more on the function and serviceability of buildings than on their sheer forms, started with the commencement of the first and exemplary Muslim society in the prototype Muslim city-state of Madinah – it nevertheless clearly demonstrates that during al-Walid’s tenure as Caliph, some of the final acts of the crystallization and generous enrichment of the recognizable identity of Muslim architecture, as well as its imposition and assertion on the world scene, were more prominent and vibrant than ever before, and rarely paralleled ever after. The whole matter was commensurate with the rest of the happenings on the cultural and civilizational scenes of the dynamic Muslim state, embodying and mirroring their scale and potency. For instance, it was during the rule of al-Walid that in terms of its conquests and expansion the Muslim state was approaching its zenith. It was then that Andalusia (Spain), Transoxiana, Sindh, Samarkand and Farghana were conquered. Envoys were sent to China as well. Thus, Muslim architecture was increasingly becoming a global phenomenon. If it heretofore was extensively borrowing from other fairly advanced cultures and civilizations, while it was shaping its own distinct identity, the time has finally come for Muslim architecture, while the Muslim state was at the apex of its power, to start giving back to and enrich the general theater of the world’s architectural styles.

Indeed, the entire development signified a foremost law or principle of the evolution of civilizations. It was a natural process and its currents could neither be stemmed nor redirected. That is why ‘Umar II, despite being an embodiment of piety, simplicity and austerity, did not hesitate to partake in and contribute to the architectural developments in the state. In doing so, he even demonstrated a strong sense of ardor and enthusiasm. For example, when many people objected to the proposition of demolishing the houses of the Prophet’s wives, which stood adjacent to the eastern side of the Prophet’s Mosque, significantly expanding the Mosque towards that particular direction, ‘Umar II, after consulting the Caliph in Damascus, overruled the initial doubts and objections of the opposition and proceeded with the given task anyway (al-Zuhayli, 1998, p. 125). The people contended that the houses should have been kept intact so as to serve to everyone as signs of simplicity, propriety and purity. ‘Umar II did not deny the validity of their arguments and the aptness of their overall sentiments, but felt that by expanding the Prophet’s Mosque as envisioned by the Caliph and himself, greater benefits were set to be achieved. In its capacity as the second most consequential mosque on earth to which pilgrimage has been strongly urged, the Mosque needed to welcome and accommodate the ever increasing number of worshippers and pilgrims. It had to epitomize, facilitate and further promote and advance the exceptional greatness and strength of the Muslim community on the world scene, thereby advocating the Islamic values and standards that stood for the root-causes of such civilizational triumphs.

Furthermore, ‘Umar II was happy to be associated with some of the greatest innovations in the realm of the vocabulary of Muslim architecture. As mentioned earlier, while rebuilding the Prophet’s Mosque, the notion of the mihrab (the praying niche) was for the first time introduced in Muslim architecture; as was the domical vault in front of the mihrab (Creswell, 1989, p. 46). The minarets were added as well for the first time to the morphology of the Prophet’s Mosque. Their number was four. Likewise, the extent, style and content of Mosque decoration were unheard of in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Even in the whole of the Muslim world, the only existing structure that could match the Mosque was the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, as part of al-Masjid al-Aqsa, which was built by al-Walid’s father, Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan (d. 87 AH/705 CE). ‘Umar II was so enthusiastic about what he was doing that he used to reward with extra bonuses those who really excelled in their work.

It is noteworthy that Raja’ b. Haywah (d. 112 AH/730 CE), a leading scholar and jurist (faqih) of the day who was most instrumental in ‘Umar II’s appointment as Caliph, was also a calligraphist and was the artist most responsible for the detailed calligraphic and decorative inscriptions on the walls and ceilings of the Dome of the Rock (Ibn Manzur, 1985, vol. 8 p. 312). All this shows that the evolution of the identity of Muslim architecture was at the heart of the development of the identity of Muslim culture and civilization at large, one reflecting and supporting the other. There were no lines drawn between the religious and secular, and the spiritual and material, realms in the multidimensional social development processes to which the Muslim state was subjected since the inception of its existence. That also shows that, accordingly, everyone was able to participate and make a contribution. The evolution of the identity of Muslim architecture was thus all-inclusive, representing a framework for the implementation of Islam. At a micro level, it mirrored the identity of Islamic culture and civilization (Omer, 2009, pp. 8-10).

What ‘Umar II and some other prominent scholars and religious personalities, like Raja’ b. Haywah, have done was in fact an affirmation of a rising culture in the spheres of the built environment, something that was characteristic only of Islamic civilization. The trend continued for many subsequent centuries and did not start to wane until the serious decline of Islamic civilization when, as a consequence, the spiritual and material, and the religious and secular, aspects became at odds with each other and eventually separated. That further shows that just like every other vital sector of Islamic civilization, architecture and its growth, too, were not only supervised and watched over from a distance by the intellectual and religious leadership in society, but also practiced, directed and regulated right on the ground where the correct translation of ideas and theories into practice was acutely needed. Such was a truly commendable tactic subtly anchored in mutual consultations and a form of ijtihad (the exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment). At times, the matter was tantamount to a minor form of ijma’ (the universal and infallible agreement of the Muslim community spearheaded by scholars).

Obviously, ‘Umar II was regarding the creation of the Umayyad Mosque as part of the natural evolution of the identity of Muslim architecture as well. As the Umayyad Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah were built almost at the same time, albeit with the former starting about one year earlier (87-96 AH/706-715 CE) and finishing due to its size and complexity five years after the latter (88-91 AH/707-710 CE), ‘Umar II could not really follow the exact developments as regards the construction of the Mosque in Damascus. He was so absorbed in the construction and enlargement of the Prophet’s Mosque that he had little or no time to genuinely worry about other projects somewhere else. In addition, he was dismissed as the governor of Madinah three years before the completion of the Mosque in Damascus, so, whatever he might have felt or said about it following its completion was definitely for the consumption of his small inner circles of friends and family members, for he is said to have withdrawn into seclusion, strict religious observance and spiritual contemplation after his dismissal.

Pragmatism versus Idealism

However, on becoming Caliph himself, ‘Umar II developed some grave misgivings concerning the excessive decoration of the Umayyad Mosque, but not because he changed his views about Muslim architecture and the laws that governed the evolution of its identity, but because such evolution was displaying signs of being tainted by certain deviational both conceptual and applied tendencies which resulted from myriad deviations and malpractices connected with several other critical segments of Muslim civilizational development. Thus, when ‘Umar II voiced his concerns about the excessive and disproportionate decoration in the Umayyad Mosque, suggesting that the matter ought to be corrected, he was only defending the intrinsic processes of the Muslim architectural evolution. He was promulgating that Muslim architecture must continue developing, but only along the lines of its natural principles and the principles as well as benchmarks of the Islamic spirituality and ethics. Deviating either from the intrinsic path of civilizational evolution and development, or the path of the Islamic spirituality and ethics, was bound to present itself as the most unnatural and aberrant course of action. It, therefore, had to be rejected and set right.

That ‘Umar II in the end did not strip the Umayyad Mosque of its extravagant decoration implies the astonishing power of the laws which preside over the evolution of an architectural identity. It also implies how much ‘Umar II was aware of such laws and their authority, and how much he subscribed to their legitimacy. What’s more, ‘Umar II did not do away with the decoration in question because so dynamic and fast-evolving was the identity of Muslim architecture, and so novel and embryonic were the deviations associated with it, that many ambiguities and questions about them kept emerging, but were left adequately neither answered nor solved. Hence, many vague and debatable matters were to be given more time and extra chances to resolve themselves either as potentially constructive or detrimental aspects of Muslim architecture. As we can gauge from ‘Umar II’s debates with the people regarding the decoration under discussion, it was still unclear whether those issues were set to become integral or deviational elements within the body of the Muslim architectural identity. Owing to that, ‘Umar II incessantly consulted people, respecting their opinions and collective wisdom, because the formation and maturation of authentic Muslim architecture was the concern of the whole Muslim community (ummah), rather than individuals, and was a global, rather than local, phenomenon.

The Emergence of the First Muslim Architectural Deviations

The end of the 1st AH, the beginning of the 8th CE, century signified the zenith of the Umayyad rule. The most outstanding epoch-making individuals who contributed most to the molding of one of the most memorable legacies were Caliphs al-Walid and ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. With regard to the subject of Muslim architecture, it was not a coincidence that exactly around that time it was coming of age and was expanding very rapidly and on a broad front. It was finding its own definitive language principally in its major forms, details and overall physical, intellectual and spiritual functions. If the creation of the Dome of the Rock between 69 and 73 AH/688 and 692 CE was still regarded as belonging to Byzantine art and as Muslim only in terms of the choice of its constituent elements, and if the masterpieces of the second half of the 2nd AH/8th CE and through the 3rd AH/9th CE centuries, such as the great Mosque of Cordova in Andalusia (Spain), founded in 169 AH/785 CE, and the great Mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun in Cairo, finished in 266 AH/879 CE, were regarded as the true representations of the fully developed and completely matured identity of Muslim architecture (Burckhardt, 1976, p. 9), then the creation of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and all the other high-profile building projects successfully executed during the reign of Caliph al-Walid, including the reconstruction and expansion of the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, signified a critical transition from the formative to the golden era in the history of Muslim architecture.

However, the latest developments came at a price. With the expansion and flourishing of Muslim architecture, such deviations and outright vices as are normally associated with excessive and intense building pursuits, such as extravagance, pride, haughtiness, unhealthy competition, covetousness, self-indulgence, wealth misappropriation, commemorating and symbolizing rulers and dynasties, deadening symbolism and formalism, etc., started to emerge and slowly establish themselves on the Muslim religious and socio-political scenes. The matter was exacerbated by the presence of some persons at the helm of the Muslim cultural and civilizational reality who possessed inadequate intellectual, spiritual or ethical penchant as well as capacity. It is interesting to observe at this point that both the Qur’an and the Prophet’s sunnah are replete with enlightening edicts as to the true meaning, importance and objectives of building, warning of its two-edged and potentially hazardous nature. For instance, the Prophet once said: “Every building is a misfortune for its owner, except what cannot, except what cannot (that is, except that which is essential)” (Abu Dawud, 1997, hadith no. 5218). He also said: “The Day of Judgment will not come to pass till people start competing in erecting high buildings” (al-Bukhari, 1981, hadith no. 6588).

Some of the biggest architectural deviations for which al-Walid was responsible for setting in motion at least were constructing buildings with the intention of rendering them as symbols of power, rulers and dynasties, over-spending, pride and making certain aspects of architecture an end in themselves rather than the means. On that score, he is reported to have said, for example: “O people of Damascus! You pride yourselves against others on four things: your air, your water, your fruits and your pigeons, and I wished to add you a fifth one, which is this Mosque” (Ibn Kathir, 1985, vol. 9 p. 156).

And the plan worked perfectly well. The Mosque was universally regarded as a wonder of the world. It was even compared to a palace from Paradise (jannah). It was held in awe by both Muslims and non-Muslims. But if it was a source of pride and delight to friends and allies, it was very much a source of distress and unhappiness to foes and rivals. The Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi (d. 169 AH/785 CE), while paying once a visit to the Mosque, lamented: “The Umayyads outshone us (the Abbasids) because of three things: this Mosque for which I know no equal on earth; the nobility of their supporters; and ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, by God, there will never be anyone like him among us.” Two other Abbasid Caliphs, al-Ma’mun (d. 218 AH/833 CE) and al-Mu’tasim (d. 227 AH/842 CE), are also reported to have expressed their highest admiration for the Mosque when they visited the Syrian capital (Ibn Kathir, 1985, vol. 9 p. 158). Moreover, Ibn ‘Asakir (1995, vol. 2 p. 277) reported that an official Byzantine delegation while visiting on one occasion Damascus sought permission to visit the Mosque. When they entered and stood under its main dome, they were humbled by its greatness and beauty, feeling compelled but to praise the Caliph as a man behind the vision and construction, and to secretly compliment the religion of Islam which the Mosque, both as a concept and sensory reality, was personifying.

Some historians reported that for the Umayyad Mosque’s construction al-Walid brought together the best skills of Persia, India, the Maghrib (Muslim West) and the Byzantine territories. He spent the land tax (kharaj) of Syria of seven years, and eighteen shiploads of gold and silver obtained as war spoils from Cyprus, plus the mosaics and devices offered to him by the Byzantine Emperor (Alami, 2011, p. 166). Many others questioned, nevertheless, the accuracy of those reports, claiming that they were exaggerated, at best (Ibn ‘Asakir, 1995, vol. 2 pp. 266-270). Apparently, al-Walid’s obsession with architecture and its far-reaching repercussions for other life sectors at last became a burden on the population. The predicament even worsened owing to the exploits of those members of the ruling Umayyad family who followed in al-Walid’s footsteps. Thus, when Yazid III (d. 126 AH/744 CE) ascended the throne, he made explicit reference to the matter by saying: “O people, I promise you I will not put one stone on another, nor a brick on another… I promise you not to use the money of one town in another one until the first town is well served, and its people are not in need” (Alami, 2011, p. 166).

The Expediency of Sophisticated Mosque Architecture and Decoration

When ‘Umar II as the governor in Madinah became thrust into the latest state developments as regards architecture, he without the slightest hesitation actively partook in them for the reasons explained in the preceding sections of this paper. However, following his dismissal from the governorship post, ‘Umar II devoted himself to spiritual isolation, contemplation and self-assessment which lasted about three years, from 93 AH/712 CE to approximately 96 AH/715 CE (al-Zuhayli, 1998, p. 127). That phase of his life ended with the death of al-Walid and the commencement of the caliphate of Sulayman b. ‘Abd al-Malik (d. 99 AH/718 CE) for whom ‘Umar II acted as advisor. Three years later, Caliph Sulayman died and ‘Umar II became Caliph following the earlier appointment by the former.

During the phase of isolation and contemplation, ‘Umar II’s eyes became more opened to what exactly was transpiring in the state. He had then more time and was in a better position than before to assess the conditions. He was not burdened by the endless responsibilities of governorship, nor did he owe any answers or explanations for anything to anybody, save his consciousness and God. Among the things that ‘Umar II must have realized were the seeds and the initial manifestations of the first architectural deviations at the forefront of which stood some aspects of the Umayyad Mosque, in particular its decoration. There is no mention of the decoration in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and whether he had ever developed a sense of regret concerning it, because, firstly, such was not as extensive, luxuriant and off-putting as was the case with the decoration in the Umayyad Mosque, and, secondly, because the Prophet’s Mosque enjoyed an extraordinary heavenly status in the Islamic faith as well as in history and the hearts and minds of the people.

So, upon becoming Caliph based in Damascus, ‘Umar II decided to resolve the dilemma. His most farfetched plan was to eliminate altogether the problematic decorative elements. However, he changed his mind when, after consulting the people – as well as his consciousness — he realized that the decoration in question did not amount to clear-cut and conclusive deviations about which the people could arrive at a broad consensus. As such, it was better to leave the quandary as it was, for going against the will of the people in disputed and divisive issues, and worse yet, by imposing on them some difficult and to many unacceptable propositions, could backfire and produce in the long run more damage than benefit. ‘Umar II thus felt that it was better to educate the people as to the real meaning of those subjects and themes as are pertinent to the notions of building, decoration and aesthetics taken as a whole. And surely, his intensive discussions on the subject of the Umayyad Mosque and its doubtful decorative styles served as the first and perhaps most emphatic lessons in that regard which have been passed on to posterity. It is on account of this that ‘Umar II never ceased to be a true source of inspiration and guidance to the Muslims of all epochs in virtually all segments of the Islamic culture and civilization building processes.

Practically ‘Umar II thought that his own behavior and personal example will also serve as good lessons. Hence, when it comes to the building enterprise during his tenure as Caliph, we are told that no single grand building was constructed. He constructed only a few necessary buildings of an ordinary type, and most of them were religious. After a mosque in Madinah had collapsed, its governor drew Caliph ‘Umar II’s attention to the necessity of rebuilding it. ‘Umar II’s reply was: “It was my wish to go from this world without having placed one stone or one brick upon another. However, rebuild this mosque on a medium scale with mud bricks” (Nadvi, 1978, p. 147). There is a marked resemblance between this statement of ‘Umar II and the earlier one ascribed to Yazid III where the influence of the former on the latter is readily apparent.

Finally, the following account sums up the above sentiment. According to Ibn Kathir (1985, vol. 9 p. 172), al-Walid’s main obsession was building which was so impactful on the masses that they, too, were so preoccupied and passionate about it that whenever they met, they would ask one another: “What have you built?” and “What have you developed (in terms of buildings and estates)?”. Whereas during the caliphate of ‘Umar II, they would ask: “How are your prayers (and other religious obligations)?”, “How much of the Qur’an did you recite today?” and “How much of dhikr (God remembrance) do you perform daily?”, reflecting thereby the extent and profundity of the effect of ‘Umar II’s personality and lifestyle on the masses, and confirming a life principle that cuius regio, eius religio, which means “whose realm, his religion”.


At the time of ‘Umar II’s governorship in Madinah, then his caliphate based in Damascus, the phenomenon of Muslim architecture was coming of age and was expanding very quickly and on a broad front. Its vocabulary was being enriched more rapidly and more generously than ever before. At the core of the development of the Muslim architectural identity stood the subject of mosque decoration, both as an idea and a tangible reality.

‘Umar II, certainly more than anybody else, was aware of the challenges posed by the rapid developments in the realm of Muslim architecture in general, and mosque decoration in particular. Accordingly, his views and concrete actions as regards mosque decoration were fluid, flexible, multi-dimensional and almost open-ended, so as to accommodate both the general precepts and specific guidelines of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s sunnah, and the growing exigencies of the time, space and cultural factors. ‘Umar II’s views signified that he was cognizant of the astonishing power and authority of the laws that hold sway over the evolution of an architectural identity, fully subscribing to their legitimacy. He indirectly defended the intrinsic processes to which the Muslim architectural evolution and its most critical segment, mosque decoration, were subjected. He upheld that the authentic mosque decoration styles and systems must continue developing, but only in line with their natural principles and the principles as well as benchmarks of the Islamic spirituality and ethics. Swerving either from the intrinsic path of civilizational evolution and progress, or the path of the Islamic ethos, was bound to present itself as the most unnatural and deviant strategy. It thus had to be repudiated and rectified.

Surely, failure to come to terms with these physical and metaphysical variables that whittle the core of ‘Umar II’s position on mosque decoration inevitably leads a casual observer to contend that his views on the subject were rather incoherent. However, that would be grossly inappropriate and unfair to the authentic history of Muslim architecture and mosque decoration, as well as to the amazing and standard-setting personality of ‘Umar II.


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An Untold Story: The Important Contributions of Muslim Scholars for the Understanding of Human Anatomy



Note of the Editor: This article was originally published as: “An Untold Story: The Important Contributions of Muslim Scholars for the Understanding of Human Anatomy”, Anatomical Record, volume 300, issue 6, 986-1008 pp., 2017.



Figure 2. of the veins from the skeletal system illustrated from Mansur’s Anatomy book dated 1261 Hijri (Khalili etal., 2010). (Source)

The Greeks incorporated medical and clinical anatomy theory from the Egyptians, which, in this sense, did play a key role in paving the way for the development of the anatomical sciences (Loukas et al., 2011; Standring, 2016). Galen (129-~199 AD) and Aristotle are usually considered the fathers of anatomy (Russel, 1916; Singer, 1957; Leroi, 2014). Yet Galen’s human anatomy was often wrong, because he never dissected humans, at least not to the public knowledge. The culture of human dissection developed mainly in the Christian West, in contrast to the Greco-Roman culture of the dead body, in which the human corpse was considered impure (Park, 2006). In fact, Galen based his descriptions of human anatomy on dissections of animals such as sheep, oxen, pigs, dogs, bears, and particularly the “Barbary ape”, an Old World monkey (Macaca sylvanus) that has a vestigial tail and thus superficially seems like an ape in this respect (Singer, 1957, 1959; Cole, 1975). Because the anatomy of this monkey is very different from that of humans, particularly concerning soft tissues such as muscles (Diogo and Wood, 2012), factual errors abounded in Galen’s descriptions of human anatomy. For instance, he did not describe the two most peculiar muscles of the human forelimb, the flexor pollicis longus and extensor pollicis brevis, as distinct muscles (more examples given in SI Table 1). Moreover, apart from such accurate descriptions of macaques that are inaccurate for humans, he inaccurately described features that are similar in humans and macaques, contributing to further errors about human anatomy. For example, he did not recognize the extensor carpi radialis brevis and longus as separate muscles (SI Table 1).


Figure 3. Ibn al‐Haytham’s (965–1040) diagram of eye anatomy from his book of optics (Kita‐b Al‐Manazir ) (Reproduced with permission from Daneshfard etal. J Med Biogr, 2016, 24, 227–231). (Source)



Figure 4. Full‐length figure of the skeletal system illustrated from Mansur’s Anatomy book (1394–1409) (Ibn Ilyas, 1709). (Source)

More known to the general public are Galen’s inaccuracies about the human skeletal system, which are also clearly based on observations of other animals, for example his descriptions of left and right lower jaws, a separate premaxilla, seven distinct sternal segments, and the coccyx with five pieces (Cole, 1975). His inaccuracies also refer to human body systems and to functional morphology and physiology. For instance, he stated that air enters the heart directly from the lungs, and that blood passes from one side of the heart to the other through the septum between these ventricles (Singer, 1957, 1959). These errors had crucial repercussions for anatomy in particular, and biology and science in general, because Galen so impressed the people of his time and of succeeding ages that for centuries his works were regarded as almost infallible (Singer, 1957, 1959).

The immense respect in which the name and work of Galen were held during centuries is partially related to the fact that, although he remained a pagan, he believed in one God and developed the idea that every organ in the human body was created by a God in the best possible form and for its perfect use, an idea that fitted in well with that of Christianity (Cunningham, 1997). However, despite its inaccuracies, the work of Galen profoundly increased the knowledge of human anatomy, and was also the basis for the Fabrica of Vesalius (1543). This latter work is often seen by historians as a “corrected and expanded version” of the Corpus Galenicum (Cole, 1975: 42). According to Cole (1975: 42), the “tendency to see nothing in Galen but his errors reveals a lack of knowledge and understanding, and is just as wrong as was the servile faith which for centuries proclaimed his infallibility”.

Figure 5.  Timeline of Muslim scholars from 7th–13th century AD. The lower row shows the years in Hijri , that is, after the Islamic calendar. (Source)



Figure 6. Full‐length figure of the muscular system illustrated from Mansur’s Anatomy book (1394–1409) (Ibn Ilyas, 1709). (Source)

This short introduction to Galen’s work is crucial for the context of this paper because the dominant idea that is often defended in most textbooks is that “after Galen we encounter no biological activity for centuries” in Western literature, the “revival of anatomy” thus happening mainly with Vesalius (1514-1564) (Singer, 1959: 63-64, 98). However, these textbooks do recognize that in the 8th/9thC the intellectual leadership passed to the Muslim scholars and remained with them until the 13thC (e.g., Singer, 1957, 1959; Hehmeyer and Khan, 2007). But they mainly argue that Muslim scientists saved the Greek knowledge from total destruction by translating many scientific books, including numerous medical books, rather than by discovering new facts (e.g., Persaud, 1984; Muazzam and Muazzam, 1989).

The translating stage was very active during the 8thC, encouraged by the Caliph (ruler) Harun Al-Rashid (786–809), who designed Bayt Al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom) in Baghdad during the Golden Islamic Age (7th–15th or 16thC), and who was culminated under his son Al-Ma’mun. Arab, Persian and Christian scholars, like Hunayn ibn Ishaq who translated more than 129 works of Galen, were part of this educational institute (Meyerhof, 1926; Savage-Smith, 1995).

Many historians have started to recognize, in the last decades, that the traditional (19thC) view of history about the “Middle Ages” – i.e. that this period between the demise of Rome and the Renaissance mainly lacked innovation – is not correct. Historians of science, however, tented to retain this idea for a longer time, but in the last few decades this has also begun to change.


Figure 7. A diagram that can be commonly found in the books of Muslim scholars showing the cranial sutures (Reproduced with permission from Contadini, Arab painting: text and image in illustrated Arabic manuscripts, 2007, 90, Brill). (Source)

They have adopted a broader outlook, recognizing various forms of exchange and circulation of knowledge among different geographical and cultural regions, and that Arabic speakers as well as Persians made major contributions to biological knowledge (e.g., Newman, 1998; Roger, 2000; Syed, 2002; Ihsanoglu, 2004; Tibi, 2006; Pormann and Savage-Smith, 2007; Abdel-Halim, 2008; Russel, 2010; Gotthard, 2012; Jurgen, 2012; Campbell, 2013; Yarmohammadi et al., 2013a, b; Dalfardi et al., 2014a, b, c; Ziaee, 2014).

However, the contribution of Muslim scholars for human anatomy in particular continues to be mainly an untold story for the broader public. Most recent works (e.g., Persaud et al., 2014) on the Muslim contribution to Science concern medicine, and the few focusing on anatomy are often very specific and/or published in specialized journals about a single Muslim scholar, about a very short period of time, and/or about a single region (e.g. Persia: Shoja and Tubbs, 2007). As a result, there is not even a single, accessible work that provides a review of all key Muslim scholars that had worked on human anatomy before Vesalius (1543), as we do here.

The main question we want to address in this paper is therefore the following. Were Muslim scholars able to build and improve anatomical knowledge using translations of the Greek books as a foundation? To discuss this question, we offer a detailed literature review that includes: 1) recent literature on this subject; 2) analyses of the original literature by Muslim scholars who published works on human anatomy before Vesalius (1543); and 3) a detailed comparison between the descriptions of Galen and those of the Muslim scholars, listing the specific nerves (Table 1) and muscles (SI Tables 1-3) reported by these scholars and by Galen (see also text below)…

Link for the full text: https://anatomypubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ar.23523

The Principles of Animal Advocacy in Islam: Four Integrated Ecognitions

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

A page from the Arabic version of Kalila wa dimna, dated 1210, illustrating the King of the Crows conferring with his political advisors.”


Note of the Editor: This article was originally published as: “The Principles of Animal Advocacy in Islam: Four Integrated Ecognitions”, Society and Animals, volume 19, issue 3, 279-290 pp., 2011.



“Society & Animals – Journal of Human-Animal Studies” Cover (Source)

The paper Principles of Animal Advocacy in Islam: Four Integrated Ecognitions published by Society and Animals (Brill), authored  by Nadeem Haque and the late Al-Hafiz B.A. Masri, explores the sensitive relationship between humans and animals and the much needed advocacy that could lead the world to optimal human and animal relationships in a fast deteriorating Planet Earth. Indeed, animals are suffering in factory farms and cages, through animal experimentation and poaching, and through a myriad other adverse conditions and atrocities. In addition, the destruction of the ecosystem/animal species and the balance, that, in effect, impoverishes the land, seas and biosphere, including the spill-over effect of pathogens entering into the human domain, poses a great global threat. Haque and Masri engage in a deep discussion on foundational principles of human recognition and behaviour – using complementary evidence from science and the Quran – where they discuss the  ‘four ecognitions’, whose realization and implementation they passionately, but logically, argue is vital.  A short talk on this paper was presented at Harvard University in 2013 by Nadeem Haque (available online on Vimeo), which was based on Masri’s unpublished papers and Haque’s further research over the years. 

Haque and Masri discuss, in depth what these these ecognitions are, how they are inter-related, and also how they are derived from nature and the Quran itself. The ecognitions concern the awareness of a Creator, the balance of nature, animals living in communities and personhood of animals. They show that each ecognition is not only interrelated but there is an hierarchy among them, one encapsulating the other, as for example animals living in communities brings about the dynamic balance of nature itself. In discussing these topics, pertaining to the human beings’awareness of the trust bestowed to them from God, the authors also discuss the connection between sentient beings and God, in terms of consciousness and how that brings about ‘affinity’, in a discussion of ‘animal souls’ and the Islamic concept of ruh. It is this affinity, they argue that brings about justice and compassion.

In addition, Haque and Masri expostulate on the concept of taqwa or God consciousness, which is the integrator of all these ecognitions. In discussing personhood, they describe fascinating animal communication mentioned in the Quran, 1,400 years ago, which latest research in the area of ethology is currently fast confirming. They also briefly but concisely discuss ‘animal intelligence’ with respect to how it has been perceived by humans in history, both in the East and the West, and what the Quranic view is, on this topic, from a linguistic perspective.

Haque and Masri  approach the Quran from a rational perspective, which they argue is the very Quranic method itself, where it is argued that rationality, evidence in nature and the Quran all conform to each other in perfect harmony, bringing about respect, dignity, concern, advocacy and justice for all the creatures of God. In conclusion, by discussing all these concepts, they formulate the principles of animal advocacy in Islam, which can be urgently applied to developing sound policies for both ecology and nature, as we wade through the precarious, yet hope filled, waters of this pivotal 21st century.

Link for the Brill article: https://brill.com/view/journals/soan/19/3/article-p279_5.xml
Link for Full text: http://www.ifees.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/haque.pdf
Link for the Video Presentation: https://vimeo.com/68147397

The Arab Roots of European Medicine

banner medicine

Figure 1. Article banner

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Note of the editor

This article was first published in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World (May/June 1997, pp. 20-31) written by David W. Tschanz. We reproduce it with the permission of the publisher.

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In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales , Geoffrey Chaucer identifies the authorities used by his “Doctour of Physic” in the six lines quoted above. The list includes four Arab physicians: Jesu Haly (Ibn ‘Isa), Razi (Al-Razi, or Rhazes), Avycen (Ibn Sina, or Avicenna) and Averrois (Ibn Rushd, or Averroes). These four did not make Chaucer’s list only to add an exotic flavor to his late-14th-century poetry. Chaucer cited them because they were regarded as among the great medical authorities of the ancient world and the European Middle Ages, physicians whose textbooks were used in European medical schools, and would be for centuries to come. First collecting, then translating, then augmenting and finally codifying the classical Greco-Roman heritage that Europe had lost, Arab physicians of the eighth to eleventh century laid the foundations of the institutions and the science of modern medicine.

Galen, Ibn Sina, and Hippocrates
Figure 2. Galen, Ibn Sina (Avecena), and Hippocrates, the three authorities on medical theory and practice in a woodcut from an early 15th-century Latin medical book. (Source).

After the collapse of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, Europe lost touch with much of its intellectual heritage. Of Greek science, all that remained were Pliny’s Encyclopedia and Boethius’s treatises on logic and mathematics; the Latin library was so limited that European theologians found it nearly impossible to expand their knowledge of their own scriptures.

The center of Europe’s new world view became the church, which exerted profound new influences in medicine. Because Christianity emphasized compassion and care for the sick, monastic orders ran fine hospitals—but they did not function as hospitals do today. They were simply places to take seriously ill people, where they were expected to either recover or die as God willed. There were no learned physicians to attend them, only kindly monks who dispensed comfort and the sacraments, but not medicines.

Because the Christian church viewed care of the soul as far more important than care of the body, medical treatment and even physical cleanliness were little valued, and mortification of the flesh was seen as a sign of saintliness. In time, nearly all Europeans came to look upon illness as a condition caused by supernatural forces, which might take the form of diabolical possession. Hence, cures could only be effected by religious means. Every malady had a patron saint to whom prayers were directed by the patient, family, friends and the community. Upper respiratory infections were warded off by a blessing of the throat with crossed candles on the feast of Saint Blaise. Saint Roch became the patron of plague victims. Saint Nicaise was the source of protection against smallpox. Kings, regarded as divinely appointed, were believed to be able to cure scrofula and skin diseases, among other maladies, with the “royal touch.”

1001 Cures: Contributions in Medicine and Healthcare from Muslim CivilisationFigure 3. Ibn Rushd in a dialogue with Porphyre in a medieval Latin manuscript Liber de herbis by Monfredo de Monte Imperiali (Source)

With the study of disease and of patients neglected, licensed medicine as an independent craft virtually vanished. Those physicians who endured were mostly connected with monasteries and abbeys. But even for them, the generally accepted goal was less to discover causes, or even to heal, than to study the writings of other physicians and comment on their work. In the middle of the seventh century, the Catholic church banned surgery by monks, because it constituted a danger to their souls. Since nearly all of the surgeons of that era were clerics, the decree effectively ended the practice of surgery in Europe.

At roughly the same time, another civilization was rising in the east. The coming of Islam, also in the seventh century (See Aramco World, November/December 1991), led to a hundred years of continuous geographical expansion and an unprecedented era of ferment in all branches of learning. The Arabs rapidly melded the various cultures of the Islamic domain, and Arabic—the language of the Qur’an—became the universal language. By the 10th century a single language linked peoples from the Rann of Kutch to the south of France, and Arabic became to the East what Latin and Greek had been to the West—the language of literature, the arts and sciences, and the common tongue of the educated.

Medicine was the first of the Greek sciences to be studied in depth by Islamic scholars. After Plato’s Academy was closed in 529, some of its scholars found refuge at the university at Jundishahpur, the old Sassanid capital of Persia, which had also sheltered excommunicated Nestorian Christian scholars—among them physicians—in 431. Persia became part of the Islamic world in 636, and Arab rulers supported the medical school at Jundishahpur; for the next 200 years it was the greatest center of medical teaching in the Islamic world. There, Islamic physicians first familiarized themselves with the works of Hippocrates, Galen and other Greek physicians. At the same time, they were also exposed to the medical knowledge of Byzantium, Persia, India and China.

Recognizing the importance of translating Greek works into Arabic to make them more widely available, the Abbasid caliphs Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and his son, al-Ma’mun (813-833) established a translation bureau in Baghdad, the Bayt al-Hikmah, or House of Wisdom, and sent embassies to collect Greek scientific works in the Byzantine Empire. (See Aramco World, May/June 1982.) This ushered in the first era in Islamic medicine, whose effects we feel today: the period of translation and compilation.

bannerFigure 4. House of Wisdom Sketch © 1001 inventions 

The most important of the translators was Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-‘Ibadi (809-73), who was reputed to have been paid for his manuscripts by an equal weight of gold. He and his team of translators rendered the entire body of Greek medical texts, including all the works of Galen, Oribasius, Paul of Aegin, Hippocrates and the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, into Arabic by the end of the ninth century. These translations established the foundations of a uniquely Arab medicine.

Muslim medical practice largely accepted Galen’s premise of humors, which held that the human body was made up of the same four elements that comprise the world—earth, air, fire and water. These elements could be mixed in various pro portions, and the differing mixtures gave rise to the different temperaments and “humors.” When the body’s humors were correctly balanceda person was healthy. Sickness was due not to supernatural forces but to humoral imbalance, and such imbalance could be corrected by the doctor’s healing arts

Muslim physicians therefore came to look upon medicine as the science by which the dispositions of thehuman body could be discerned, and to see its goal as the preservation of health and, if health should be lost, assistance in recovering it. They viewed themselves as practitioners of the dual art of healing and the maintenance of health.

Even before the period of translation closed, advances were made in other health-related fields. Harun al-Rashid established the first hospital, in the modern sense of the term, at Baghdad about 805. Within a decade or two, 34 more hospitals had sprung up throughout the Islamic world, and the number grew each year.

medicine institutions
Figure 5. Fountains were central to the architecture of the Bimaristan Arghun: Three courtyards each held a fountain, around which patient rooms were arranged, while the central courtryard featured a large rectangular pool and well. (Source)

These hospitals, or bimaristans, bore little resemblance to their European counterparts. The sick saw the bimaristan as a place where they could be treated and perhaps cured by physicians, and the physicians saw the bimaristan as an institution devoted to the promotion of health, the cure of disease and the expansion and dissemination of medical knowledge. Medical schools and libraries were attached to the larger hospitals, and senior physicians taught students, who were in turn expected to apply in the men’s and women’s wards what they had learned in the lecture hall. Hospitals set examinations for their students, and issued diplomas. By the 11th century, there were even traveling clinics, staffed by the hospitals, that brought medical care to those too distant or too sick to come to the hospitals themselves. The bimaristan was, in short, the cradle of Arab medicine and the prototype upon which the modern hospital is based.

Like the hospital, the institution of the pharmacy, too, was an Islamic development. Islam teaches that “God has provided a remedy for every illness,” and that Muslims should search for those remedies and use them with skill and compassion. One of the first pharmacological treatises was composed by Jabir ibn Hayyan (ca. 776), who is considered the father of Arab alchemy. The Arab pharmacopoeia of the time was extensive, and gave descriptions of the geographical origin, physical properties and methods of application of everything found useful in the cure of disease. Arab pharmacists, or saydalani, introduced a large number of new drugs to clinical practice, including senna, camphor, sandalwood, musk, myrrh, cassia, tamarind, nutmeg, cloves, aconite, ambergris and mercury. The saydalani also developed syrups and juleps—the words came from Arabic and Persian, respectively—and pleasant solvents such as rose water and orange-blossom water as means of administering drugs. They were familiar with the anesthetic effects of Indian hemp and henbane, both when taken in liquids and inhaled.

By the time of al-Ma’mun’s caliphate, pharmacy was a profession practiced by highly skilled specialists. Pharmacists were required to pass examinations and be licensed, and were then monitored by the state. At the start of the ninth century, the first private apothecary shops opened in Baghdad. Pharmaceutical preparations were manufactured and distributed commercially, then dispensed by physicians and pharmacists in a variety of forms—ointments, pills, elixirs, confections, tinctures, suppositories and inhalants.

The blossoming of original thought in Arab medicine began as the ninth century drew to a close. The first major work appeared when Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (ca. 841-926) turned his attention to medicine.

medicine hospitals
Figure 6. In the late ninth century, a leading physician and polymath Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi helped establish a bimaristan—hospital—in Baghdad staffed with 25 doctors, optometrists, surgeons and bonesetters. The illustration above, from a 13th-century European translation of Al-Razi’s Compendium of Medical Treatises, shows him treating a patient. (Source)

Al-Razi, known to the West as Rhazes, was born in Persia in the town of Rayy, near Tehran. After a youth spent as a musician, mathematician and alchemist, Al-Razi went to Baghdad to take up the study of medicine at the age of 40. Completing his studies, he returned to Rayy and assumed the directorship of its hospital. His reputation grew rapidly and within a few years he was selected to be the director of a new hospital to be built in Baghdad. He approached the question of where to put the new facility by hanging pieces of meat in various sections of the city and checking the rate at which they spoiled. He then ordered the hospital built at the site where the meat showed the least putrefaction.

Al-Razi is regarded as Islamic medicine’s greatest clinician and its most original thinker. A prolific writer, he turned out some 237 books, about half of which dealt with medicine. His treatise The Diseases of Children has led some historians to regard him as the father of pediatrics. He was the first to identify hay fever and its cause. His work on kidney stones is still considered a classic. In addition, he was instrumental in the introduction of mercurial ointments to treat scabies. Al-Razi advocated reliance on observation rather than on received authority; he was a strong proponent of experimental medicine and the beneficial use of previously tested medicinal plants and other drugs. A leader in the fight against quacks and charlatans—and author of a book exposing their methods—he called for high professional standards for practitioners. He also insisted on continuing education for already licensed physicians. Al-Razi was the first to emphasize the value of mutual trust and consultation among skilled physicians in the treatment of patients, a rare practice at that time.

Following his term as hospital director in Baghdad, he returned to Rayy where he taught the healing arts in the local hospital, and he continued to write. His first major work was a 10-part treatise entitled Al-Kitab al-Mansuri, so called after the ruler of Rayy, Mansur ibn Ishaq. In it, he discussed such varied subjects as general medical theories and definitions; diet and drugs and their effect on the human body; mother and child care, skin disease, oral hygiene, climatology and the effect of the environment on health; epidemiology and toxicology.

Al-Razi also prepared Al-Judari wa al Hasbah, the first treatise ever written on smallpox and measles. In a masterful demonstration of clinical observation (see column at right), Al-Razi became the first to distinguish the two diseases from each other. At the same time, he provided still-valid guidelines for the sound treatment of both.

Figure 7. “Among Europeans, al-Razi’s most sought after work was his Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb (The comprehensive book on medicine), which was translated into Latin in 1279 under the title Continens Rasis by Faraj ben Salim, a physician of Sicilian-Jewish origin employed by Charles of Anjou to translate medical works. This book is also known in Latin as Continens Liber and in English as The Virtuous Life. Shown here is the rare 1529 edition of Continens Rasis, which was printed in Venice by Johannes Hamman” (Source)

His most esteemed work was a medical encyclopedia in 25 books, Al-Kitab al-Hawi, or The Comprehensive Work, the Liber Continens of al-Razi’s later Latin translators. Al-Razi spent a lifetime collecting data for the book, which he intended as a summary of all the medical knowledge of his time, augmented by his own experience and observations. In Al-Hawi, Al-Razi emphasized the need for physicians to pay careful attention to what the patients’ histories told them, rather than merely consulting the authorities of the past. In a series of diagnosed case histories entitled “Illustrative Accounts of Patients,” Al-Razi demonstrated this important tenet. One patient, who lived in a malarial district, suffered from intermittent chills and fever that had been diagnosed as malaria, but nonetheless seemed incurable. Al-Razi was asked to examine him. Upon noting pus in the urine, he diagnosed an infected kidney, and he treated the patient successfully with diuretics.

Al-Razi’s clinical skill was matched by his understanding of human nature, particularly as demonstrated in the attitudes of patients. In a series of short monographs on the doctor-patient relationship, he described principles that are still taught a millennium later: Doctors and patients need to establish a mutual bond of trust, he wrote; positive comments from doctors encourage patients, make them feel better and speed their recovery; and, he warned, changing from one doctor to another wastes patients’ health, wealth and time.

Not long after Al-Razi’s death, Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina (980-1037) was born in Bukhara, in what today is Uzbekistan. Later translators Latinized his name to Avicenna. It is hard to describe Ibn Sina in anything other than superlatives. He was to the Arab world what Aristotle was to Greece, Leonardo da Vinci to the Renaissance and Goethe to Germany. His preeminence embraced not only medicine, but also the fields of philosophy, science, music, poetry and statecraft. His contemporaries called him “the prince of physicians.”

Ibn Sina’s life was in fact the stuff of legend. The son of a tax collector, he was so precocious that he had completely memorized the Qur’an by age 10. Then he studied law, mathematics, physics, and philosophy. Confronted by a difficult problem in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Ibn Sina re-read the book 40 times in his successful search for a solution. At 16 he turned to the study of medicine, which he said he found “not difficult.” By 18, his fame as a physician was so great that he was summoned to treat the Samanid prince Nuh ibn Mansur. His success with that patient won him access to the Samanid royal library, one of the greatest of Bukhara’s many storehouses of learning.

At 20, Ibn Sina was appointed court physician, and twice served as vizier, to Shams al-Dawlah, the Buyid prince of Hamadan, in western Persia. His remaining years were crowded with adventure and hard work, yet he somehow found time to write 20 books on theology, metaphysics, astronomy, philology and poetry and 20 more on medicine—including Kitab al-Shifa’, or The Book of Healing, a medical and philosophical encyclopedia.

His supreme work, however, is the monumental Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, The Canon of Medicine. Over one million words long, it was nothing less than a codification of all existing medical knowledge. Summarizing the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions, describing Syro-Arab and Indo-Persian practice and including notes on his own observations, Ibn Sina strove to fit each bit of anatomy, physiology, diagnosis and treatment into its proper niche.

Figure 8. Inside image of the Canon of Medicine book (Source)

The Canon stressed the importance of diet and the influence of climate and environment on health. It included discussions of rabies, hydrocele, breast cancer, tumors, labor and poisons and their treatment. Ibn Sina differentiated meningitis from the meningismus of other acute diseases; and described chronic nephritis, facial paralysis, ulcer of the stomach and the various types of hepatitis and their causes. He also expounded the dilation and contraction of the pupils and their diagnostic value, described the six motor muscles of the eye and discussed the functions of the tear ducts, and he noted the contagious nature of some diseases, which he attributed to “traces” left in the air by a sick person.

The Canon also included a description of some 760 medicinal plants and the drugs that could be derived from them. At the same time Ibn Sina laid out the basic rules of clinical drug trials, principles that are still followed today. (See page 28.)

Not surprisingly, The Canon rapidly became the standard medical reference work of the Islamic world. Nizami-i Arudi of Samarkand spoke for generations of physicians when he wrote, in the early 12th century, “From him who manages the first volume [of The Canon], nothing will be hidden concerning the general theory and principles of medicine.” The Canon was used as a reference, a teaching guide and a medical textbook until well into the 19th century, longer than any other medical work.

During the 10th century, when Arab astronomical texts were first translated in Catalonia, Europe began to reap the intellectual riches of the Arabs and, in so doing, to seek out its own classical heritage. The medical works of Galen and Hippocrates returned to the West by way of the Middle East and North Africa, recovered through Latin translations of what had become the Arab medical classics. Through the intellectual ferment of the Islamic present, Europe recovered some of its past.

The two main translators of classical material from Arabic into Latin were Constantinus (also known as Leo) Africanus (1020-1087), who worked at Salerno and in the cloister of Monte Cassino, and Gerard of Cremona (1140-1187), who worked in Toledo. It was no accident that both translators lived in the Arab-Christian transition zone, where the two cultures fructified each other. And it was no coincidence that Salerno, Europe’s first great medical faculty of the Middle Ages, was close to Arab Sicily, nor that the second, Montpellier, was founded in 1221 in southern France, near the Andalusian border.

Ibn Sina’s Canon made its first appearance in Europe by the end of the 12th century, and its impact was dramatic. Copied and recopied, it quickly became the standard European medical reference work. In the last 30 years of the 15th century, just before the European invention of printing, it was issued in 16 editions; in the century that followed more than 20 further editions were printed. From the 12th to the 17th century, its materia medica was the pharmacopoeia of Europe, and as late as 1537 The Canon was still a required textbook at the University of Vienna.

Translations of Al-Razi’s Al-Kitab al-Hawi and other works followed rapidly. Printed while printing was still in its infancy, all of Al-Razi’s works gained widespread acceptance. The ninth book of Al-Kitab al-Mansuri (“Concerning Diseases from the Head to the Foot”) remained part of the medical curriculum at the University of Tübingen until the end of the 15th century.

Contemporary Europeans regarded Ibn Sina and Al-Razi as the greatest authorities on medical matters, and portraits of both men still adorn the great hall of the School of Medicine at the University of Paris. In The Inferno, Dante placed Ibn Sina side by side with antiquity’s two greatest physicians, Hippocrates and Galen. Roger Bacon consulted Ibn Sina to further his own inquiries into vision.

But it was not only Al-Razi and Ibn Sina who influenced Europe. Translations of more than 400 Arab authors, writing on such varied topics as ophthalmology, surgery, pharmaceuticals, child care and public health, deeply influenced the rebirth of European science.

Despite their belief in now superseded theories such as humors and miasmas, the”medicine of Ibn Sina, Al-Razi and their contemporaries is the basis of much of what we take for granted today.

It was those Arab physicians who made accurate diagnoses of plague, diphtheria, leprosy, rabies, diabetes, gout, cancer and epilepsy. Ibn Sina’s theory of infection by “traces” led to the introduction of quarantine as a means of limiting the spread of infectious diseases. Arab doctors laid down the principles of clinical investigation and drug trials, and they uncovered the secret of sight. They mastered operations for hernia and cataract, filled teeth with gold leaf and prescribed spectacles for defective eyesight. And they passed on rules of health, diet and hygiene that are still largely valid today.

Thus the Islamic world not only provided a slender but ultimately successful line of transmission for the medical knowledge of ancient Greece and the Hellenic world, it also corrected and enormously expanded that knowledge before passing it on to a Europe that had abandoned observation, experimentation and the very concept of earthly progress centuries before. Physicians of different languages and religions had cooperated in building a sturdy structure whose outlines are still visible in the medical practices of our own time.

Figure 9.  The miniature depicting of Rustem’s birth by Nursel Uvendire (Original source: Shahnama-i Firdawsī, Turk-Islam Exhibits Museum, Istanbul, MS 1955). Image taken from: Turkish Medical History through Miniature Pictures. ed. Nil Sari, Istanbul 2002.

The Caliphs’ Researches

Fourteenth-century historian and political scientist Ibn Khaldun wrote about the intellectual curiosity that helped to preserve Greek learning.

When the Byzantine emperors conquered Syria, the scientific works of the Greeks were still in existence. Then God brought Islam, and the Muslims won their remarkable victories, conquering the Byzantines as well as all other nations. At first, the Muslims were simple, and did not cultivate learning, but as time went on and the Muslim dynasty flourished, the Muslims developed an urban culture which surpassed that of any other nation.

They began to wish to study the various branches of philosophy, of whose existence they knew from their contact with bishops and priests among their Christian subjects. In any case, man has always had a penchant for intellectual speculation. The caliph al-Mansur therefore sent an embassy to the Byzantine emperor, asking him to send him translations of books on mathematics. The emperor sent him Euclid’s Elements and some works on physics.

Muslim scholars studied these books, and their desire to obtain others was whetted. When al-Ma’mun, who had some scientific knowledge, assumed the caliphate, he wished to do something to further the progress of science. For that purpose, he sent ambassadors and translators to the Byzantine empire, in order to search out works on the Greek sciences and have them translated into Arabic. As a result of these efforts, a great deal of material was gathered and preserved.

Figure 10. The Byzantine embassy of John the Grammarian in 829 to Ma’mun (Source)

A Physician Observes

In Al-Judari wa al-Hasbah, Al-Razi distinguished smallpox from measles for the first time in medical history. This passage shows his skill as a medical observer, a competence on which he placed great importance.

The eruption of the smallpox is preceded by a continued fever, pain in the back, itching in the nose and terrors in the sleep. These are the more peculiar symptoms of its approach, especially a pain in the back with fever; then also a pricking which the patient feels all over his body; a fullness of the face, which at times comes and goes; an inflamed color, and vehement redness in both cheeks; a redness of both the eyes, heaviness of the whole body; great uneasiness, the symptoms of which are stretching and yawning; a pain in the throat and chest, with slight difficulty in breathing and cough; a dryness of the breath, thick spittle and hoarseness of the voice; pain and heaviness of the head; inquietude, nausea and anxiety; (with this difference that the inquietude, nausea and anxiety are more frequent in the measles than in the smallpox; while on the other hand, the pain in the back is more peculiar to the smallpox than to the measles;) heat of the whole body; an inflamed colon, and shining redness, and especially an intense redness of the gums.


Figure 11.  “Lady Montagu and the Introduction of Smallpox Inoculation to England” –  The painting Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour (oil on canvas, circa 1717). © National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 3924.

Testing New Medicines

In his voluminous writings, Ibn Sina laid out the following rules for testing the effectiveness of a new drug or medication. These principles still form the basis of modern clinical drug trials.

1.  The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality.

2.  It must be used on a simple, not a composite, disease.

3.  The drug must be tested with two contrary types of diseases, because sometimes a drug cures one disease by Its essential qualities and another by its accidental ones.

4.  The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, there are some drugs whose heat is less than the coldness of certain diseases, so that they would have no effect on them.

5.  The time of action must be observed, so that essence and accident are not confused.

6.  The effect of the drug must be seen to occur constantly or in many cases, for if this did not happen, it was an accidental effect.

7.  The experimentation must be done with the human body, for testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man.

written by David W. Tschanz; read online here.

The Form and Function of the Prophet’s Mosque during the Time of the Prophet 



Editor’s Note: This is a short article extracted from a book titled “History and Architecture of the Prophet’s Mosque” by Omer Spahic, 2019, www.daralwahi.com. The book may be obtained from here.



When Prophet Muhammad migrated from Makkah to Madinah, the first and immediate task relating to his community-building mission was constructing the city’s principal mosque. Every other undertaking, including building houses for the migrants a majority of whom were poor and practically homeless, had to be deferred till after the Prophet’s Mosques was completed. When completed, the form of the Prophet’s Mosque was extremely simple. Its unpretentious form notwithstanding, the Mosque since its inception served as a genuine community development centre, quickly evolving into a multifunctional complex. The Mosque was meant not only for performing prayers at formally appointed times, but also for many other religious, social, political, administrative and cultural functions. It became a catalyst and standard-setter for civilization-building undertakings across the Muslim territories. In this paper, the significance of the Prophet’s Mosque as a prototype community development center is discussed. The architectural aspect of the Mosque and its reciprocal relationship with the Mosque’s dynamic functions is also dwelled on. The main paper, out of which this article is extracted, is divided into six sections: 1) From Yathrib to Madinah; 2) Madinah (the city) as a microcosm of Islamic civilization; 3) The introduction of the Prophet’s Mosque; 4) The main functions of the Mosque; 5) The architecture of the Mosque; 6) Seven lessons in architecture.


Figure 1. Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque before its first expansion by the Prophet himself in the 7th year of the hijrah (629 CE). At first, for about 16 or 17 months, the qiblah or prayer direction was towards al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of the Museum of Dar al-Madinah in Madinah)

In the wake of the hijrah (migration), the city-state of Madinah underwent significant changes in virtually all its features including changing its name from Yathrib to Madinah. The significations of the latter unmistakably implied the new character, purpose and aspirations of the rising city-state.

Since people are both the builders and demolishers of every civilizational accomplishment, and since they are the establishers and inhabitants of cities, the Prophet through a number of heavenly inspired legislative moves paid some special attention to bringing up virtuous and honest individuals who formed a healthy, virtuous and dynamic society. The believers’ relationships with God, the environment and other people were set to become and remain perpetually sound and just, making the living places of theirs – and if given a chance, the whole of earth – better and more conducive to a pious and truly productive living.

The first city component introduced by the Prophet to the city of Madinah was the mosque institution, the Prophet’s Mosque. Since its inception, the Mosque functioned as a community development center. Different types of activities were conducted within its realm. In addition to serving as a place for congregational prayers, as well as for other collective worship (‘ibadah) practices, the Mosque, likewise, furnished the Muslims with some other crucial social amenities and services. It was the seat of the Prophet’s government, a learning center, a place for some medical treatments and nursing, a detention and rehabilitation center, a welfare and charity center, and a place for some legitimate leisure and recreational activities.

When completed, the form of the Prophet’s Mosque was extremely simple. Its unpretentious form notwithstanding, to Muslims the Mosque instantly became a catalyst and standard-setter for civilization-building.

At first, the Prophet’s Mosque was just an enclosure. Its walls, made of mud brick and raised over stone foundations, enclosed a roofless and unpaved area of approximately 1,200 square meters. There was no roofed section; one was introduced later as a result of heat. Three entrances pierced the southern, eastern and western walls. The northern side was the qiblah (prayer direction) wall facing al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. After 16 or 17 months following the hijrah, the qiblah was redirected from al-Masjid al-Aqsa to al-Masjid al-Haram and so, the simple form of the Prophet’s Mosque responded accordingly: the entrance in the southern wall was bricked up since it started to function at once as a new qiblah side, while a new entrance was perforated in the northern wall which heretofore functioned as the qiblah side (Creswell, 1989, p. 4; Hillenbrand, 1994, p. 39).


Figure 2. Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque after its qiblah change, but before its first expansion by the Prophet. (Courtesy of the Museum of Dar al-Madinah)

About three years before his death, i.e., in the 7th year of the hijrah (629 CE), the Prophet, while duly answering the needs created by the rapid increase of worshippers as well as the rapid expansion of Madinah as a prototype Muslim city-state, significantly enlarged the Mosque, making it measure approximately 2,500 square meters.

The following is a standard description of the form of the Prophet’s Mosque at the time of the Prophet’s demise as given by most scholars: “In the construction method a stone foundation was laid to a depth of three cubits (about 1.50 meters). On top of that adobe, walls 75 cm. wide were built. The Mosque was shaded by erecting palm trunks and wooden cross beams covered with palm leaves and stalks. On the qiblah direction, there were three porticoes, or colonnades, each portico had six – or even eight – pillars (palm trunks). On the rear part of the Mosque, there was a shade, where the homeless muhajirs (migrants) took refuge. The height of the roof of the Mosque was equal to the height of a man (with his hands raised)” (Hamid, 1996, p. 226; al-Samahudi, 1997, vol. 2 p. 481).


Figure 3: Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque after its first expansion by the Prophet. (Courtesy of the Hadarah Tayyibah Exhibition held in Madinah in 2010-2012)

Based on the Prophet’s building experiences, we can conclude that Muslim architecture is not to be concerned about the form of buildings only. Authentic Muslim architecture signifies a process where all the phases and aspects are equally important. It is almost impossible to identify a phase or an aspect in that process and consider it more important than the others. The process of Muslim architecture starts with having a proper understanding and vision which leads to making a right intention. It continues with the planning, designing and building stages, and ends with attaining the net results and how the people make use of and benefit from them. Muslim architecture is a fine blend of all these factors which are interwoven with the treads of the belief system, principles, teachings and values of Islam.

Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad taught that at the core of Muslim architecture lies function with all of its dimensions: corporeal, cerebral and spiritual. The role of the form is an important one, too, but only inasmuch as it supplements and enhances function. Muslim architecture should embody the teachings, values and principles of Islam as a complete system of thought, practice and civilization, because it functions as the physical locus of human activities, facilitating and promoting them. It should be man-oriented, upholding his dignity and facilitating his spiritual progression while in this world. Architecture is a means, not an end.


Figure 4. A replica of one of the Prophet’s houses where his wife A’ishah resided. (Courtesy of the Hadarah Tayyibah Exhibition held in Madinah in 2010-2012)

Moreover, one of the most recognizable features of Muslim architecture should always be its sustainability penchant. This is so because Islam, as a total worldview, ethics and jurisprudence, aims to preserve man and his total wellbeing, i.e., his religion, self, mental strength, progeny (future generations) and wealth (personal, societal and natural). The views of Islam and Prophet Muhammad concerning the natural environment and man’s relation thereto are unprecedented.


Figure 5. A replica of the Prophet’s minbar (pulpit). (Courtesy of the Hadassah Tayyibah Exhibition held in Madinah in 2010-2012)

It goes without saying, therefore, that without Islam there can be no legitimate Muslim architecture. Likewise, without devout Muslims, who in their thoughts, actions and words epitomise the total message of Islam, there can be no Muslim architecture either. Muslim architecture is a framework for the implementation of Islam, a framework that exists in order to facilitate, encourage and promote such an implementation. Hence, properly perceiving, creating, comprehending, studying and even using Muslim architecture, cannot be achieved in isolation from the total framework of Islam with its comprehensive worldview, ethos, doctrines, laws, practices, genesis and history. Any attempt or method that defies this obvious principle is bound to end up in failure, generating in the process sets of errors and misconceptions. Indeed, the existing studies on Muslim architecture, by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, and the ways in which Muslim architecture is taught and “practiced” today, is the best testimony to the confusion that surrounds Muslim architecture as both a concept and sensory reality.

Prophet Muhammad’s time represented the first and certainly most decisive phase in the evolution of the identity of Muslim architecture, as it is known today. What the Prophet   did with regard to architecture, by and large, amounts to sowing the seeds whose yield was harvested later especially during the Umayyad and Abbasid epochs and beyond. Prophet Muhammad laid the foundation of true Muslim architecture by introducing its veiled conceptual aspects that were later given their different outward appearances as dictated by different contexts. The aspects contributed by the Prophet to Muslim architecture signify both the quintessence of Muslim architecture and the vitality that permeates its every facet and feature. Thus, the permanent and most consequential side of Muslim architecture is as old as the Islamic message and the Muslim community, but at the time of the Prophet it could take no more than a simple and unrefined physical form. The evolution of the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah was the epitome of the Prophet’s contributions to the evolution of the revolutionary phenomenon of Muslim architecture.

The following sources were used in main paper:

  • ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Abdullah. (1992). Mujtama’ al-Madinah fi ‘Ahd al-Rasul. Riyad: Jami’ah al-Malik Sa’ud.
  • ‘Abdullah, ‘Umar Faruq. (2006). Islam and the Cultural Imperative. Retrieved September 22, 2007 from http://www.crosscurrents.org/abdallahfall2006.htm.
  • Al-‘Umari, Akram Diya’. (1991). Madinan Society at the Time of the Prophet. Herndon: The International Institute of Islamic Thought.
  • Abu Dawud, Sulayman b. al-Ash‘ath. (1997). Sunan Abi Dawud. Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm.
  • Abu Zahrah, M. (1970). The Fundamental Principles of Imam Maliki’s Fiqh. Retrieved September 18, 2007 from http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ABewley/usul12.html.
  • Ahmad b. Hanbal. (1982). Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal. Istanbul: Cagri Yayinlari.
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  • Ayyad, Essam. (2013). The ‘House of the Prophet’ or the ‘Mosque of the Prophet’? Journal of Islamic Studies, 24, pp. 273-334
  • Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma‘il. (1981). Sahih al-Bukhari. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr.
  • Creswell, K.A.C. (1989). A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
  • Al-Farabi, Abu Nasr. (1985). Al-Farabi on the Perfect State (al-Madinah al-Fadilah). A revised text with introduction, translation, and commentary by Richard Walzer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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The Islamic Roots of the Modern Hospital

medicine hospitals

Figure 1. In the late ninth century, a leading physician and polymath Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi helped establish a bimaristan—hospital—in Baghdad staffed with 25 doctors, optometrists, surgeons and bonesetters. The illustration above, from a 13th-century European translation of Al-Razi’s Compendium of Medical Treatises, shows him treating a patient. (Source)

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Note of the editor

This article was first published in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World (Volume 68, Number 2, March/April 2017, pp. 22-27). We reproduce it with the permission of the publisher.

* * *

The modern West’s approach to health and medicine owes countless debts to the ancient past: Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome and India, to name a few. The hospital is an invention that was both medical and social, and today it is an institution we take for granted, hoping rarely to need it but grateful for it when we do. Almost anywhere in the world now, we expect a hospital to be a place where we can receive ease from pain and help for healing in times of illness or accidents.

We can do that because of the systematic approach—both scientifically and socially—to health care that developed in medieval Islamic societies. A long line of caliphs, sultans, scholars and medical practitioners took ancient knowledge and time-honored practices from diverse traditions and melded them with their original research to feed centuries of intellectual achievement and drive a continual quest for improvement. Their bimaristan, or asylum of the sick, was not only the true forerunner of the modern hospital, but also virtually indistinguishable from the modern multi-service healthcare and medical education center.

The bimaristan served variously as a center of treatment, a convalescent home for those recovering from illness or accident, a psychological asylum and a retirement home that gave basic maintenance to the aged and infirm who lacked a family to care for them.

Asylum of the Sick

The bimaristan was but one important result of the great deal of energy and thought medieval Islamic civilizations put into developing the medical arts. Attached to the larger hospitals—then as now—were medical schools and libraries where senior physicians taught students how to apply their growing knowledge directly with patients. Hospitals set examinations for the students and issued diplomas. The institutional bimaristans were devoted to the promotion of health, the curing of diseases and the expansion and dissemination of medical knowledge.

medicine institutions

Figure 2. The Nur al-Din Bimaristan, a hospital and medical school in Damascus, was founded in the 12th century. Today it is the Museum of Medicine and Science in the Arab World. (Source)

The First Hospitals

Although places for ill persons have existed since antiquity, most were simple, without more than a rudimentary organization and care structure. Incremental improvements continued through the Hellenistic period, but these facilities would barely be recognizable as little more than holding locations for the sick. In early medieval Europe, the dominant philosophical belief held that the origin of illness was supernatural and thus uncontrollable by human intervention: As a result, hospitals were little more than hospices where patients were tended by monks who strove to assure the salvation of the soul without much effort to cure the body.

Muslim physicians took a completely different approach. Guided by sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) like “God never inflicts a disease unless He makes a cure for it,” collected by Bukhari, and “God has sent down the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves medically,” collected by Abu al-Darda, they took as their goal the restoration of health by rational, empirical means.

Hospital design reflected this difference in approach. In the West, beds and spaces for the sick were laid out so that the patients could view the daily sacrament of the Mass. Plainly (if at all) decorated, they were often dim and, owing to both climate and architecture, often damp as well. In the Islamic cities, which largely benefited from drier, warmer climates, hospitals were set up to encourage the movement of light and air. This supported treatment according to humoralism, a system of medicine concerned with corporal rather than spiritual balance.

Mobile Dispensaries

The first known Islamic care center was set up in a tent by Rufaydah al-Aslamiyah during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Famously, during the Ghazwah Khandaq (Battle of the Ditch), she treated the wounded in a separate tent erected for them.

Later rulers developed these forerunners of “mash” units into true traveling dispensaries, complete with medicines, food, drink, clothes, doctor and pharmacists. Their mission was to meet the needs of outlying communities that were far from the major cities and permanent medical facilities.

They also provided the rulers themselves with mobile care. By the early 12th-century reign of Seljuq Sultan Muhammad Saljuqi, the mobile hospital had become so extensive that it needed 40 camels to transport it.

Permanent Hospitals

The first Muslim hospital was only a leprosarium—an asylum for lepers—constructed in the early eighth century in Damascus under Umayyad Caliph Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik. Physicians appointed to it were compensated with large properties and munificent salaries. Patients were confined (leprosy was well known to be contagious), but like the blind, they were granted stipends that helped care for their families.

The earliest documented general hospital was built in 805 in Baghdad.

The earliest documented general hospital was built about a century later, in 805, in Baghdad, by the vizier to the caliph Harun al-Rashid. Few details are known, but the prominence as court physicians of members of the Bakhtishu’ family, former heads of the Persian medical academy at Jundishapur, suggests they played important roles in its development.

Over the following decades, 34 more hospitals sprang up throughout the Islamic world, and the number continued to grow each year. In Kairouan, in present-day Tunisia, a hospital was built in the ninth century, and others were established at Makkah and Madinah. Persia had several: One in the city of Rayy was headed for a time by its Baghdad-educated native son, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi.

In the 10th century five more hospitals were built in Baghdad. The earliest was established in the late ninth century by ‘Al-Mu’tadid, who asked Al-Razi to oversee its construction and operations. To start, Al-Razi wanted to determine the most salubrious place in the city: He had pieces of fresh meat placed in various neighborhoods, and some time later, he checked to determine which had rotted the least and sited the hospital there. When it opened, it had 25 doctors, including oculists, surgeons and bonesetters. The numbers and specialties grew until 1258, when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad.

The vizier ‘Ali ibn Isa ibn Jarah ibn Thabit wrote in the early 10th century to the chief medical officer of Baghdad about another group:

“I am very much worried about the prisoners. Their large numbers and the condition of prisons make it certain that there must be many ailing persons among them. Therefore, I am of the opinion that they must have their own doctors who should examine them every day and give them, where necessary, medicines and decoctions. Such doctors should visit all prisons and treat the sick prisoners there.”

Shortly afterwards a separate hospital was built for convicts, fully staffed and supplied.

medicine institutions

Figure 3. This plaque on the wall of the Bimaristan Arghun in Aleppo, Syria, commemorates its founding by Emir Arghun al-Kamili in the mid-14th century. Care for mental illnesses here included abundant light, fresh air, running water and music. (Source)

In Egypt, the first hospital was built in 872 in the southwestern quarter of Fustat, now part of Old Cairo, by the ‘Abbasid governor of Egypt, Ahmad ibn Tulun. It is the first documented facility that provided care also for mental as well as general illnesses. In the 12th century, Saladin founded in Cairo the Nasiri hospital, which later was surpassed in size and importance by the Mansuri, completed in 1284. It remained the primary medical center in Cairo through the 15th century, and today, renamed Qalawun Hospital, it is used for ophthalmology.

In Damascus the Nuri hospital was the leading one from the time of its foundation in the mid-12th century well into the 15th century, by which time the city contained five additional hospitals.

In the Iberian Peninsula, Cordóba alone had 50 major hospitals. Some were exclusively for the military, and the doctors there supplemented the specialists who attended to the caliphs, military commanders and nobles.

medicine institutions

Figure 4. With its airy, high-ceiling rooms, the Bimaristan Arghun functioned as a hospital until the early 20th century. Later, it became a museum. (Source)


medicine institutions

Figure 5. Fountains were central to the architecture of the Bimaristan Arghun: Three courtyards each held a fountain, around which patient rooms were arranged, while the central courtryard featured a large rectangular pool and well. (Since these photos were taken, unesco has listed the bimaristan as damaged by warfare.) (Source)


medicine institutions

Figure 6. (Source)

In a fashion that would still be recognizable today, the typical Islamic hospital was subdivided into departments such as systemic diseases, surgery, ophthalmology, orthopedics and mental diseases. The department of systemic diseases was roughly equivalent to today’s department of internal medicine, and it was usually further subdivided into sections dealing with fevers, digestive troubles, infections and more. Larger hospitals had more departments and diverse subspecialties, and every department had an officer-in-charge and a presiding officer in addition to a supervising specialist.

Hospitals were staffed also with a sanitary inspector who was responsible for assuring cleanliness and hygienic practices. In addition, there were accountants and other administrative staff to assure that hospital conditions—financial and otherwise—met standards. There was a superintendent, called a sa’ur, who was responsible for overseeing the management of the entire institution.

Physicians worked fixed hours, during which they saw the patients who came to their departments. Every hospital had its own staff of licensed pharmacists (saydalani) and nurses. Medical staff salaries were fixed by law, and compensation was distributed at a rate generous enough to attract the talented.

Funding for the Islamic hospitals came from the revenues of pious bequests called waqfs. Wealthy men and rulers donated property to existing or newly built bimaristans as endowments, and the revenues from the bequests paid for building and maintenance. To help make it pay, such revenues could come from any mix on the property of shops, mills, caravanserais or even entire villages. The income from an endowment would sometimes also cover a small stipend to the patient upon dismissal. Part of the state budget also went toward the maintenance of hospitals. To patients, the services of the hospital were free, though individual physicians occasionally charged fees.

Patient Care

Bimaristans were open to everyone on a 24-hour basis. Some only saw men while others, staffed by women physicians, saw only women; still others cared for both in separate wings with duplicate facilities and resources. To treat less serious cases, physicians staffed outpatient clinics and prescribed medicines to be taken at home.

Special measures were taken to prevent infection. Inpatients were issued hospital wear from a central supply area while their own clothes were kept in the hospital store. When taken to the hospital ward, patients would find beds with clean sheets and special stuffed mattresses ready. The hospital rooms and wards were neat and tidy with abundant running water and sunlight.

Inspectors evaluated the cleanliness of the hospital and the rooms on a daily basis. It was not unusual for local rulers to make personal visits to make sure patients were getting the best care.

The course of treatment prescribed by doctors began immediately upon arrival. Patients were placed on a fixed diet, depending on condition and disease. The food was of high quality and included chicken and other poultry, beef and lamb, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

The major criterion of recovery was that patients be able to ingest, at one time, an amount of bread normal to a healthy person, along with the roasted meat of a whole bird. If patients could easily digest it, they were considered recovered and subsequently released. Patients who were cured but too weak to discharge were transferred to the convalescent ward until they were strong enough to leave. Needy patients were given new clothes, along with a small sum to aid them in re-establishing their livelihood.

medicine institutions

Figure 7. In Egypt, the al-Mansur Qalawun Complex in Cairo includes a hospital, school and mausoleum. It dates from 1284-85. (Source)

The 13th-century doctor and traveler ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, who also taught at Damascus, narrated an amusing story of a clever Persian youth who was so tempted by the excellent food and service of the Nuri hospital that he feigned illness. The doctor who examined him figured out what the young man was up to and admitted him nevertheless, providing the youth with fine food for three days. On the fourth day, the doctor went to his patient and said with a rueful smile, “Traditional Arab hospitality lasts for three days: Please go home now!”

The quality of care was subject to review and even arbitration, as related by Ibn al-Okhowa in his book ‘Ma’alem al-Qurba fi Talab al-Hisba’ (The Features of Relations in al-Hisba):

“If the patient is cured, the physician is paid. If the patient dies, his parents go to the chief doctor; they present the prescriptions written by the physician. If the chief doctor judges that the physician has performed his job perfectly without negligence, he tells the parents that death was natural; if he judges otherwise, he tells them: Take the blood money of your relative from the physician; he killed him by his bad performance and negligence. In this honorable way, they were sure that medicine is practiced by experienced, well-trained persons.”

In addition to the permanent hospitals, cities and major towns also had first aid and acute care centers. These were typically located at busy public places such as large mosques. Maqrizi described one in Cairo:

“Ibn Tulun, when he built his world-famous mosque in Egypt, at one end of it there was a place for ablutions and a dispensary also as annexes. The dispensary was well equipped with medicines and attendants. On Fridays there used to be a doctor on duty there so that he might attend immediately to any casualties on the occasion of this mammoth gathering.”

medicine hospitals

Figure 8. Depicting a scene in the hospital at Cordóba, then in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), this 1883 illustration shows the famed physician Al-Zahrawi (called Abulcasis in the West) attending to a patient while his assistant carries a box of medicines. (Source)

Medical Schools & Libraries

Because one of the major roles of the hospitals was the training of physicians, each hospital had a large lecture theater where students, along with senior physicians and medical officers, would meet and discuss medical problems in seminar style. As training progressed, medical students would accompany senior physicians to the wards and participate in patient care—much like a modern residency program.

Surviving texts, such as those in Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah’s ‘Uyun al-anba’ fi tabaqat al-atibb’ (Sources of Information on Classes of Physicians), as well as student notes, reveal details of these early clinical rounds. There are instructions on diets and recipes for common treatments, including skin diseases, tumors and fevers. During rounds, students were told to examine the patients’ actions, excreta, and the nature and location of swelling and pain. Students were also instructed to note the color and feel of the skin, whether hot, cool, moist, dry or loose.

Training culminated in an examination for a license to practice medicine. Candidates had to appear before the region’s government-appointed chief medical officer. The first step required was to write a treatise on the subject in which the candidate wanted to obtain a certificate. The treatise could be an original piece of research or a commentary on existing texts, such as those of Hippocrates, Galen and, after the 11th century, Ibn Sina, and more.

Candidates were encouraged not only to study these earlier works, but also to scrutinize them for possible errors. This emphasis on empiricism and observation rather than slavish adherence to authorities was one of the key engines of the medieval Islamic intellectual ferment. Upon completion of the treatise, candidates were interviewed at length by the chief medical officer, who asked them questions relevant to problems of the prospective specialties. Satisfactory answers led to licensed practices.

Another key aspect to the hospital, and of critical importance to both students and teachers, was the presence of extensive medical libraries. By the 14th century, Egypt’s Ibn Tulun Hospital had a library comprising 100,000 books on various branches of medical science. This was at a time when Europe’s largest library, at the University of Paris, held 400 volumes.

Cradle of Islamic medicine and prototype for today’s hospitals, bimaristans count among numerous scientific and intellectual achievements of the medieval Islamic world. But of them all, when ill health or injury strikes, there is no legacy more meaningful.

Below is the translation of a young Frenchman’s letter from a Cordóba hospital in the 10th century:

You have mentioned in your previous letter that you would send me some money to make use of it in my medicines costs. I say, I don’t need it at all as treatment in this Islamic hospital is for free. Also there is something else concerning this hospital. This hospital gives a new suit and five dinars to every patient who has already got well lest he should find himself obliged to work in the period of rest and recuperation.

Dear father, if you’d like to visit me, you will find me in the surgery department and joints treatment. When you enter the main gate, go to the south hall where you will find the department of first aid and the department of disease diagnosis then you will find the department of arthritis (joint diseases). Next to my room, you will find a library and a hall where doctors meet together to listen to the lectures given by professors; also this hall is used for reading. The gynecology department lies on the other side of the hospital court. Men are not allowed to enter it. On the right of the hospital court lies a large hall for those who recovered. In this place they spend the period of rest and convalescence for some days. This hall contains a special library and some musical instruments.

Dear father, any place in this hospital is extremely clean; beds and pillows are covered with fine Damascus white cloth. As to bedcovers, they are made of gentle soft plush. All the rooms in this hospital are supplied with clean water. This water is carried to the rooms through pipes that are connected to a wide water fountain; not only that, but also every room is equipped with a heating stove. As to food, chicken and vegetables are always served to the extent that some patients do not want to leave the hospital because of their love and desire of this tasty food.

The Islamic Scientific Supremacy. Ameer Gafar Al-Arshdy. 1990, Beirut, Al-Resala Establishment.


Print edition of Saudi Aramco World (Volume 68, Number 2, March/April 2017, pp. 22-27) written by David W. Tschanz; read online here.

Documenteries on Muslim Civilisation



Note of the Editor:  This article was first composed by Cem Nizamoglu for 1001 Inventions website and now updated for Muslim Heritage website.


There are tons of information out there in writings but still, we need a visual presentation to understand things better as the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words”. That’s where documentaries come in handy. Some still think Muslim Civilisation did little contribution to science, even there are many books and encyclopedias out there to prove this otherwise. Therefore, what better way to list some documentaries here to prove this with visual presentation.

There is and was always lots of information about Muslim Civilisation out there, but it wasn’t well presented. The knowledge is in big thick books, in huge encyclopedias with lots of long academic footnotes and references. With the movement started by1001 Inventions in early 2000, there were also documentaries started pop-out at the same time. Some 1001 Inventions worked with or some inspired or some just were not aware of each-other but trying to create that awareness together.

Maybe all these inspired by the same message HRH Prince Charles gave at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, titled “Islam and the West.” when he said:

“If there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilization owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure, which stems, I think, from the straitjacket of history, which we have inherited. The medieval Islamic world, from central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished. But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien culture, society, and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history.” Prince Charles, 1993

Documentaries are more than watching a TV, it is an experience like following a guide in an ancient city or a diver in an ocean or even an astronaut in space. So here is ten guides show you around what was going on in the Muslim Civilisation:

What The Ancients Did For Us
with Dr. Adam John Hart-Davis

A segment from the documentary – https://vimeo.com/288564995

Adam Hart-Davis

“What The Ancients Did For Us – The Islamic World” is part of 2005 BBC documentary series presented by Adam Hart-Davis that examines the impact of ancient civilizations on modern society’. Dr. Adam John Hart-Davis builds and tests some of the most extraordinary discoveries from the early Muslim Civilisation. From soap to torpedoes, and from water pumps to windmills. Presented by Adam Hart-Davis, Hermione Cockburn, and Jamie Darling.

“Series examining the innovations and inventions of ancient civilisations. Adam Hart-Davis builds and tests some of the most extraordinary inventions from the early Islamic World. From soap to torpedoes and from water pumps to windmills Adam shows the lasting effect the Islamic world has left on the technology we use today. Also, reporter Amani Zain tells us the stories behind the golden age of Islamic discovery.” BBC

Adam Hart-Davis with the editors of 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in our World” book with Professor Salim T S Al-Hassani, Elizabeth Woodcock at 1001 Inventions Manchester Exhibition back in 2006:

“I am absolutely delighted to be involved in this wonderful exhibition of 1001 inventions.” – “It is a super celebration of Islamic brilliance in the Middle Ages…” Adam Hart-Davis


An Islamic History of Europe
with TV Presenter Rageh Omaar

Figure 6. “The designs are miniature palaces that project from the exterior. Although prevalent throughout Turkish cities long ago, there are only a fraction of them left today.” Photos: Caner Cangül (Source)

Omaar Rageh

The video documentary produced by the BBC in 2005 An Islamic History of Europe, by the famous TV presenter Rageh Omaar (who also covered the American invasion of Iraq), reveals the surprising hidden story of Europe’s Islamic past.

An Islamic History of Europe, produced and broadcasted by BBC 4 in 2005 is a documentary about the Islamic influence on Europe and the effect of the Islamic civilization, learning and sciences on the Western world. In this 90-minute documentary, Rageh Omaar, the presenter of the series, uncovers the hidden story of Europe’s Islamic past and looks back to a Golden Age when European civilisation was enriched by Islamic learning. Rageh travels across medieval Muslim Europe to reveal the vibrant civilisation that Muslims brought to the West.

This excellent travelogue and historical essay will open a few eyes as well as provide the tourist boards responsible for Cordoba, Toledo, Granada and Palermo with plenty to smile about. Strongly ecommended” Sunday Times

Chronicling the Islamic influence on modern Europe, this evocative film brings to life a time when emirs and caliphs dominated Spain and Sicily and Islamic scholarship swept into the major cities of Europe. The journey thus recreated reveals the debt owed to Islam for its vital contribution to the European Renaissance. The film revisits Spain, Sicily and France in search of the story of Islam in Europe, uncovering an incredible tale of scientific advances and rich cultural influences.

BBC Four – An Islamic History of Europe – Episode guide (Source)


When the Moors Ruled in Europe
with Historian Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

As part of the Channel 4, Hidden Civilisation season exploring Islam’s rich and significant contribution to western art and culture, historian Bettany Hughes traces the story of the mysterious and misunderstood Moors, the Islamic society that ruled in Spain for 700 years, but whose legacy was virtually erased from Western history.

Bettany Hughes is presenting 1001 Inventions mini-documenteries:

1001 Inventions at UK Houses of Parliament with Bettany Hughes:

“I have to say that I am absolutely delighted to support the 1001 Inventions Project.” “…with a project like 1001 Inventions, I think we are going to see a phoenix rise from the ashes.” “…1001 Inventions: How Muslim Civilisation Shaped The World. It reminds us just how the Middle East, North Africa and Al Andalus catalysed many of the trappings of modern life. An immensely useful corrective to our Greco-Roman-Renaissance sense of Western Civilisation ” Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes: www.bettanyhughes.co.uk
Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_the_Moors_Ruled_in_Europe

(Left to Right) Dr Rim Turkmani, Ms Bettany Hughes, Prof. Jim Al-Khalili, Prof. Lorna Casselton, Prof. Mohamed El-Gomati, Sir Crispin Tickel and Prof. Salim T S Al-Hassani (Source)


Science and Islam
with Prof Jim Al-Khalili

Jim Al-Khalili

BBC Four – Science & Islam by Prof. Jim Al-Khalili: British scientist, author and broadcaster Prof. Jim Al-Khalili travels through Syria, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey and Spain to tell the story of the great leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries.

“This is a wonderful [1001 Inventions] book, beautifully illustrated and very well re-searched. I bought a copy and I read it from cover to cover. I also lent it to my father who also thinks it is great! In its own right, it is a wonderful read that also has a rich background for my own projects. I do recommend it and think it is a fascinating book that is extremely well put together and referenced” Prof Jim Al-Khalili


After Rome Holy War and Conquest
with Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

Two-part series, Boris Johnson travels to France, Spain, Egypt, Israel, Syria and Turkey to investigate the early beginnings of what some people now call ‘the clash of civilisations.’ This is the idea that the two historically opposed religious cultures of Christianity and Islam are locked into a never-ending cycle of mutual antipathy, distrust and violence.

Episode 1: This first programme looks at the early history of Islam; the extraordinary series of conquests that gained for it half the territories of the old Roman empire in just 80 years; the rich and sophisticated civilisation Islam produced; the relationships between Muslims, Jews and Christians; and the background to the crusades.

Episode 2: In this programme Boris Johnson also looks at the Sack of Constantinople, when Latin Christians fought eastern Christians, leading eventually to the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. He looks too at the Reconquista in Spain, which culminated in the wholesale expulsion of Jews and Muslims. At every turn of his journey, Boris Johnson finds that the real history is a good deal more subtle and interesting than the fictions that have grown up around it.

“If we don’t have the wit to escape from history, then let’s at least try and relive the good bits…” Boris Johson

Boris Johson & Elizabeth Woodcock, Co-Editor of 1st and 2nd edition of 1001 Inventions Book


The Story of Maths: The Genius of the East
with Prof Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy

Four-part series about the history of mathematics, presented by Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy.

In the Middle East, he looks at the invention of the new language of algebra and the spread of Eastern knowledge to the West through mathematicians such as Leonardo Fibonacci, creator of the Fibonacci Sequence.

They dedicated one part of the episode of “Genius of the East” to the advancement of science in the Muslim civilisation and its impact on Europe and also “House of Wisdom”, algebra, Arabic Numerals, Al-Khawarizmi, Omer Khayyam and many more…

“Episode Two “The Genius Of The East” gave me a much more solid working knowledge of each. Basically, I am very intrigued by CONCEPTS of mathematics and this program was able to translate my concepts into factual representations from the real world, in order to help me wrap my unconditioned brain around the ideas.” Zomgpwn


Art of Spain: The Moorish South
with Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon

Critic and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon travels from southern to northern Spain to tell the story of some of Europe’s most exciting and vital art. In an exploration of Moorish Spain, he looks at Muslim political and cultural influence as he travels from Cordoba to Granada, seeing classic buildings such as the Great Mosque in Cordoba, the Alcazar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada. He also shows how the Moors introduced new foods – including citrus fruits, coffee and spices – to Spain.

“Spain has produced some of the most startling and original art ever created… the art we need to know about, because it holds the key to understanding all of Europe and its culture…” Andrew Graham-Dixon


The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain

This film takes viewers on an epic journey back into one of the most captivating and important periods of world history, a centuries-long period when Muslims, Christians and Jews inhabited the same far corner of Western Europe and thrived. Here were the very roots of the European Renaissance. But the fragile union dissipated, destroyed by greed, fear and intolerance.

“The history of Islamic Spain, as told in Cities of Light, demonstrates that when religious diversity is accommodated within a social and political system, problems and tensions may still exist, but society is able to manage them, generally to the benefit of all. But when governing powers and religious movements reject complexity and insist on a single cultural and religiously centered point of view, then society is likely to see a widespread loss for everyone.” (source)


The Man Who Walked Across the World
with Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Tim Mackintosh-Smith

The man who walked across the World: The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. A three-part series of documentary travelogues in which Tim Mackintosh-Smith follows in the footsteps of 14th Century Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta, who is regarded by many to be one of the greatest travelers and explorers the world has ever seen. In fact, he was able to travel over 75,000 miles, in twenty years and through some 44 nations (as defines by modern day borders) and three continents.

Part 1 – Wanderlust: Beginning in north Africa, Tim visits Battutah’s birthplace of Tangier in Morocco, and stumbles on a performance of medieval trance music. In Egypt, he goes to a remote village where Battutah had an astonishing prophetic dream and visits the world’s oldest university in Cairo.

Part 2 – Magicians and Mystics: In Turkey, Tim watches an illegal whirling dervish ceremony, and in the Taurus mountains he meets the last of the Turkoman nomads. He chats to Tatars in Crimea, while in Delhi he watches a Muslim magician performing the Indian rope trick.

Part 3 – Trade Winds: Tim explores the place of Islam in Hindu-dominated India and communist China, and tells the story of the Islamic trade empire of the 14th century. In Cina, he meets a clan who trace their ancestry back to Arabs, and witnesses an illegal Arabic lesson.

Ibn Battutah and I are quite similar, inasmuch as we both set off for the East at the age of 21 and we have both spent a lot of time there. Ibn Battutah was certainly an Arab, but he was very much a “westerner” too, being from Morocco which was the edge of the known world at that time.” Tim Mackintosh-Smith


Hidden Civilisation: Paradise Found
with art critic Waldemar Januszczak

Waldemar Januszczak

BBC Four: “The Dark Ages have been misunderstood. History has identified the period following the fall of the Roman Empire with a descent into barbarism – a terrible time when civilisation stopped.”

Waldemar Januszczak disagrees. In this four-part series he argues that the Dark Ages were a time of great artistic achievement, with new ideas and religions provoking new artistic adventures. He embarks on a fascinating trip across Europe, Africa and Asia, visits the world’s most famous collections and discovers hidden artistic gems, all to prove that the Dark Ages were actually an ‘Age of Light’.

Along with Christianity, the Dark Ages saw the emergence of another vital religion – Islam. After emerging in the near East it spread across North Africa and into Europe, bringing its unique artistic style with it. Waldemar examines the early artistic explorations of the first people in Muslim Civilisation, the development of their mosques and their scientific achievements” (archived link)

“This is a series about an artistic period that’s looked down on, that never gets the respect it deserves…” Waldemar Januszczak

Also, check Hidden Civilisation: Paradise Found. The art critic and art lover, Waldemar Januszczak, sets out on an epic journey of discovery across the Muslim world from Central Asia, to the heart of the Middle East and beyond to reveal a world of awe-inspiring architecture, spectacular Islamic treasures and a host of artists and craftsmen – to bring the largely unknown and fascinating story of Islamic art and architecture to the attention of the British public. Along the way he meets an array of characters, such as carpet-weavers, calligraphers, potters, jewellers and a supporting cast of local historians and experts. The result is a new and refreshing insight into the world of Islamic art, providing a stimulating introduction to an important culture of great tradition and wondrous beauty:


There are more documentaries out there such as epic Islam: Empire of Faith documentary narrated by Sir Beng Kingsly, whom also played in 1001 Inventions and The Library of Secrets starring as Al-Jazari or very well know British political commentator Andrew Marr’s “History of the World: Into the Light” or documentaries on Zheng He – the Chinese Muslim Admiral. All these documentaries are very interesting from one another. The information is out there either on the paper or your television, it is up to you now discover more…

We will leave with The Medieval Islamicate World: Crash Course History of Science #7:

The Islamic Roots of Modern Pharmacy

Figure 1. Medical flasks and bottles can be seen in this Ottoman manuscript about the Islamic market, medicine and pharmacy. (Source)

* * *

Note of the editor

This article was first published in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World (Volume 67, Number 3, May/June 2016, pp. 18-23) written by David W. Tschanz. We reproduce it with the permission of the publisher.

* * *

“The professional who is specialized in the collection of all drugs, choosing the very best of each simple or compound, and in the preparation of good remedies from them following the most accurate methods and techniques as recommended by experts in the healing arts.” Abu al-Rayan al-Biruni, c. 1045 CE


Figure 2. Flanked by figures indicating his tutelage from master physicians (the figure on the right may represent first-century Greek physician Dioscorides), a saydalani—as an early pharmacist was called in Arabic—is shown at work in his dispensary, in which hang a variety of vessels for alchemical production. The illustration comes from 12th-century Iraq. (Source)

Al-Biruni’s definition of the pharmacist could have been written today. Along the road from sympathetic magic and shamanism to the scientific method, much trailblazing was carried out over a few centuries by scholars, alchemists, physicians and polymaths of the Muslim Middle East, and their rules, procedures and expectations are, to a great extent, practiced almost universally today.

“In the West and the Middle East, early medicine as a whole was primarily a fusion of Greek, Indian, Persian and later Roman practices that had progressed over the better part of a millennium. Texts on medications were common, but most of these materia medica were simply lists of plants and minerals and their various effects. By the start of the Seventh-Century CE Europe and much of the Near East had weakened culturally, and those achievements of Hellenistic arts, sciences and humanities that had not been erased were on an intellectual endangered-species list.

“By mid-century, the rise of Islam brought with it a new thirst for knowledge. This openness to discovery began the saving and, eventually, the expansion of much of what the classical world had lost. Nowhere was this truer than in the field of health, where medical practitioners took guidance from several hadiths (hah-DEETH), or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as this related by Bukhari: “God never inflicts a disease unless He makes a cure for it.” Similarly, Abu Darda narrated that the Prophet said, “God has sent down the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves medically.” Such words placed the responsibility for discovering cures squarely on the medical practitioner.


Figure 3.  This depiction of an early European apothecary appeared in Tacuinum Sanitatis, a 14th-century Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s 11th-century Taqwim al-Sihah (Maintenance of Health). (Source)

Within a century of the death of the Prophet in 632 ce, one of the earliest systematic approaches to drugs was underway in Damascus at the court of the ruling Umayyads. Snake and dog bites, as well as the ill effects of scorpions, spiders and other animals, were all causes of concern, and the poisonous properties of minerals and plants such as aconite, mandrake and black hellebore were exploited. As with most areas of medicine at the time, Greek physicians Galen and Dioscorides were considered the ancient authorities, and building off their works, Muslim writers discussed with particular interest poisons and theriacs (antidotes).

Sudden death was not uncommon in royal courts, and it was frequently attributed, often erroneously, to poison. Not surprisingly, fear of poison convinced Umayyad leaders of the need to study them, detect them and cure them. As a result, much of early Islamic pharmacy was done by alchemists working in toxicology.

The first of these was Ibn Uthal, a Christian who served as physician to the first Umayyad caliph, Mu’awiyah. Ibn Uthal was a noted alchemist who had conducted a systematic study of poisons and antidotes. He was also reported to be Mu’awiyah’s silent executioner, and in 667 he was himself poisoned in an act of vengeance by the relatives of one of his alleged victims. Another Christian physician-pharmacist, Abu al-Hakam al-Dimashqi, served the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid.


Figure 4.  This page from Kitab al-Diryaq (The Book of Antidotes), a 13th-century guide to medicinal plants, also from Iraq, highlights the role of botany in early Islamic pharmacy. (Source)

Yazid’s son, Khalid bin Yazid, took particular interest in alchemy, and he employed Greek philosophers who were living in Egypt. He rewarded them well, and they translated Greek and Egyptian books on chemistry, medicine and astronomy into Arabic. A contemporary of Khalid’s was Jabir ibn Hayyan, called Geber in the West, who promoted alchemy as a profession, laying early foundations for chemical and biochemical research.

These early Islamic alchemists proved to be meticulous and persistent in their experimentation, and they made careful written observations of results. They designed their experiments to gather information and answer specific questions, and through them “scientific alchemy” arose. Avoiding unproven belief (superstition) in favor of the compilation and application of procedures, measurements and demonstrated trials that could be tested and reproduced, their work represented the true advent of the scientific method.

The role of scientific alchemy cannot be overemphasized. By the ninth century, the trend, approach and type of information that circulated in Arabic alchemical manuals represented some of the best work in this field. The careful methodology the alchemists developed served all fields, including pharmacy.

In the process of experimenting in making amalgamations and elixirs, important mineral and chemical substances were used, such as sal ammoniac, vitriols, sulphur, arsenic, common salt, quicklime, malachite, manganese, marcasite, natron, impure sodium borate and vinegar.

Among simples of botanical origin, they used fennel, saffron, pomegranate rinds, celery, leek, sesame, rocket, olives, mustard and lichen. Significant gums such as frankincense and acacia were used, as well as animal products including hair, blood, egg white, milk (both fresh and sour), honey and dung.


Figure 5.  A French manuscript from the 14th century depicts alchemists at work. Some 500 years later, French chemist, Henri Moissan was shown at work in his lab at Paris’ l’Ecole de Pharmacie, below. (Source)

Laboratory equipment consisted of pots, pans, tubes, retorts, alembics, crucibles and various distilling apparatus; covering platters, ceramic jars, tumblers, mortars and pestles (often made of glass or metals); as well as tripods, scales and medicinal bottles. The range and scope of alchemical operations included processes often used today: distillation, sublimation, evaporation, pulverization, washing, straining, cooking, calcination and condensation (the thickening of liquid compounds).

While the translation of Greek, Persian and Indian scientific books into Arabic had begun under the Umayyad caliphate, it blossomed in the ninth century under the Baghdad-based Abbasids. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, with his superlative knowledge of Syriac, Greek and Arabic, was probably the greatest of the translators, and his works included most of the corpus of Hippocrates and Galen. Intellectual ferment, reinforced by support from the highest levels of government, paved the way for some 400 years of achievements. Methods of extracting and preparing medicines were brought to a high art, and these techniques became the essential processes of pharmacy and chemistry.

A pharmacist was called saydalani, a name derived from the Sanskrit for a seller of sandalwood. The saydalanis introduced new drugs including—not unexpectedly— sandalwood, but also camphor, senna, rhubarb, musk, myrrh, cassia, tamarind, nutmeg, alum, aloes, cloves, coconut, nuxvomica, cubeb, aconite, ambergris, mercury and more. They further introduced hemp and henbane as anesthetics, and they dispensed these in the forms of ointments, pills, elixirs, confections, tinctures, suppositories and inhalants.

As was the case in Europe and America up to modern times, many prominent physicians in Islamic lands prepared some medications for their patients themselves. While Al-Majusi, Al-Zahrawi and Ibn Sina are all good examples, they are actually exceptions, for the typical medical professional often welcomed the separate, specialized role of a saydalani, whose work proved as distinct from medicine as grammar is from the composition.


Figure 6.  According to science historian E. J. Holmyard, Jabir ibn Hayyan, born in the early eighth century and known in the West as Geber, worked with classical Greek texts and the alchemy of his own time and “opened a gate which no one had ever opened,” paving the way to scientific alchemy and, from there, to the foundations of modern rational chemistry based on controlled, replicable experiments. (Source)

By the beginning of the ninth century, Baghdad saw a rapid expansion of private pharmacy shops, a trend that quickly spread to other Muslim cities. Initially, these were unregulated and managed by personnel of inconsistent quality, but all that changed as pharmacy students were trained in a combination of classroom exercises coupled with day-to-day practical experiences with drugs, and decrees by the caliphs al-Mamun and al-Mutasim required pharmacists to pass examinations and become licensed professionals pledged to follow the physician’s prescriptions. To avoid conflicts of interest, doctors were barred from owning or sharing ownership in a pharmacy. Pharmacists and their shops were periodically inspected by amuhtasib, a government-appointed inspector of weights and measures who checked to see that the medicines were mixed properly, not diluted and kept in clean jars. Violators were fined or beaten. Hospitals developed their own dispensaries attached to manufacturing laboratories. The hospital was run by a three-man board comprising a non-medical administrator, a physician who served as mutwalli(dean) and the shaykh saydalani, the chief pharmacist, who oversaw the dispensary. Around this time pharmacy developed its own specialized literature. It built first on Dioscorides’ materia medica of some 500 substances, and then also on Nestorian physician Yuhanna bin Masawayh, a second-generation pharmacist, who penned an early treatise on therapeutic plants and aromatics.

It was a younger colleague, Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari, who said that the therapeutic value of each drug needed to be reconciled with the particular disease, and he urged physicians not to simply provide a routine remedy. He identified the best sources for components, stating, for example, that the finest black myrobalan comes from Kabul; aloes, from Socotra; and aromatic spices, from India.

He recommended glass or ceramic storage vessels for liquid drugs, special small jars for eye liquid salves and lead containers for fatty substances. To treat ulcerated wounds, he prescribed an ointment made of juniper gum, fat, butter and pitch. In addition, he warned that one mithqal (about four grams) of opium or henbane causes sleep and also death.

Figure 7.  (Source)

The first known medical formulary was prepared in the mid-ninth century by Al-Aqrabadhin Sabur ibn Sahl for pharmacists in both private and hospital pharmacies. The book included medical recipes, techniques of compounding, pharmacological actions, dosages and the means of administration. The formulas were organized by tablets, powders, ointments, electuaries or syrups, and later, larger formularies followed his model.

More generally, pharmacological drugs were classified into simples and compounds—mufraddat and murakkabat. The largest and most popular of themateria medica manuals, written by Ibn al-Baytar, born in Malaga in the kingdom of Granada toward the end of the 12th century, offered an alphabetical guide to more than 1,400 simples taken from Ibn al-Baytar’s own observations as well as 150 from named written sources.

Today, every prescription filled, every pharmacy license granted, every elixir, syrup and medicament created, used or tested reflects this Islamic legacy. If what the alchemists and early medical practitioners did then seems all too obvious to us now, it is only because today’s obvious is yesterday’s discovery.

This article was first published in the print edition of Saudi Aramco World (Volume 67, Number 3, May/June 2016, pp. 18-23) written by David W. Tschanz; read online here


Figure 8.  Henri Moissan (1852-1907) French chemist, working on Fluorine in his laboratory at l’Ecole de Pharmacie, Paris. He isolated Fluorine in 1883. Later in his career, he worked on the production of artificial gems, particularly diamonds. From La Nature, Paris, 1903 (Source)

Islamic Glass Image Gallery

1.1 Stained glass windows of Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran – (Source)


Note of the Editor:  This article was first composed by Cem Nizamoglu for 1001 Inventions website and now updated for Muslim Heritage website.


From Ibn Al-Haytam’s optical lenses and Ibn Hayyan’s chemistry flasks to a mosque lamp of Amir Qawsun, Muslim Civilisation played a major role in inspiring the growth of glass industry from the 8th century onwards.

Mosques, houses and cities were transformed into beautiful spaces richly decorated with glass. Beauty and functionality were both essential elements of design in Muslim Civilisation. Possibly in an effort to supply the thousands of mosques, and also thanks to the input provided by the thriving scientific activity in fields such as optics and chemistry, glassmakers in Muslim Civilisation turned – what had up till then been – a craft into an industry employing new techniques and large number of workers from different parts of the Muslim Civilisation.

Under Islam, the glass industry witnessed a revival. The old centres flourished and new ones were established. The remarkable, sumptuous Islamic glass treasures which are distributed among museums throughout the world, bear witness to the high artistic and technological level of Islamic glass.
A. Y. Al-Hassan*

*Al-Hassan, A. Y. “Science and Technology in Islam: Technology and applied sciences” UNESCO, 2001; Page 74.

2.1 Ewer with Molded Inscription, 9th century, Iraq (Abbasid period) (Source)
2.2 Bottle, 7th–early 8th century, Egypt or Syria (Sasanian period?) (Source)
2.3 Bottle with Blue Trails, 12th century, probably Syria (Seljuk Period?) (Source)
“… Similar bottles are in museums in Saint Petersburg, Kiev, and Berlin. That a majority of these examples were reportedly found in the Caucasus region or along the coast of the Black Sea suggests that they were part of the well-established glass trade between Syria, northwestern Asia, and eastern Europe”

Vast Production

Throughout the Muslim Civilisation glassware was produced in vast amounts from the 8th century either by blowing liquid glass into holds or by cutting it from crystal. Glassmakers in Syria and Egypt inherited the Roman glass industry and improved it by developing their own technique perfecting glass decoration and colouring, and expanding the variety of products.

Muslim and non-Muslim glassmakers working in the Islamic areas, however, were extraordinarily creative and, in tune with the general evolution of Islamic art, brought this craft to a new technical, technological, and artistic heights.”
Josef W. Meri*

*Meri, J. W. “Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia”; Routledge, 31 Oct 2005; Page 297.

Excavation work in Syria and other parts of the Muslim Civilisation uncovered a huge amount of glassware. Aleppo in Syria was mentioned as a glassmaking and decorating centre by the geographers Yaqut Al-Hamwi (d. 1229) and Al-Qazwini (d. 1283). Damascus, too, was described as a glassmaking centre by Ibn Battuta (d. 1377). Egypt, Iraq and Andalusia were also all producing glass in vast quantities.

Glass from the Muslim Civilisation, and especially that from Syria, was highly prized the world over. Glass objects were discovered in medieval European sites in Sweden, and Souther Russia. Even such fragile objects as Syrian enamelled glass of the 13th century have been found in Sweden.

3.1. From 
The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA)  exhibition on glass of the Islamic world, 2012 (Source)

4.1 Goblet with Incised Designs, 8th–9th century, probably Iraq or Syria (Abbasid or Ummayd periods)
“… Some objects bear inscriptions, such as the kufic calligraphy on this goblet that reads, “Drink! Blessings from God to the owner of the goblet”. Formulas including good wishes were commonly found on eating and drinking vessels in both pottery and glass.” (Source)
4.2 Glass Bowl in Millefiori Technique, late 10th–early 11th century, Probably Iraq ((Abbasid period?)  (Source)

Supporting Scientific Endeavours

Modern chemistry grew, in some measure, out of Islamic alchemy…. There was a great deal of practical experimenting done in the making of glass, leather, and cloth, the working of metals, and in the preparation of drugs...”
F. B. Artz*

*F.B. Artz: The Mind; op cit; pp. 165-7.

5.1 Glass chemical flasks, Arabic manuscript held in the British Library showing the distillation process in a treatise of chemistry. © The British Library, London.

image alt text
6.1 Medical flasks and bottles can be seen in this Ottoman manuscript about Islamic market, medicine and pharmacy.

In the early 14th century, more than 300 years after Ibn Sahl, Maragha astronomer-mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Farisi experimented with a glass sphere filled with water to analyze the way sunlight breaks into the spectrum colors of a rainbow. The rays that produced the colours of the rainbow, he observed:

… were refracted upon entering his glass sphere, underwent a total internal reflection at the back surface of the glass sphere (which sent them back toward the observer), and experienced a second refraction as they exited the sphere. This occurred in each droplet within a mist to produce a rainbow.”
Kamal al-Din Al-Farisi (1267-1319)*

*R. Rashed, “Kamal al-Din”; C.B. Boyer, The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics,

7.1. Cup, about 800-999 (Source)
“the makers of such objects may have been seeking ways to achieve some freedom of expression within the rules of repetition common in Islamic art. This freedom could be achieved by using different combinations of tongs, which bore patterns different from those of one- or two-part molds. Archeological finds indicate that this type of glass was traded extensively in the Islamic world during the ninth and 10th centuries.”
7.2 Bottle, about 800-899 from Egypt, Syro-Palestine (Source

Al-Jazari’s treatise includes water and irrigation devices, machines where robot girls place a drinking glass in the ruler’s hand, mechanical flutes, decorative items such as a monumental door with one of the earliest descriptions of green-sand casting.”
Al-Djazairi, S.E*

*Al-Djazairi, S.E.. The Golden Age and Decline of Islamic Civilisation, Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 2759-2760). MSBN Books. Kindle Edition. 

The technique of cutting crystal was said to have been introduced by ‘Abbas ibn Firnas (d. 887), scholar and inventor in the courts of ‘Abd al-Raḥman II and Muḥammad I. It is worth pointing here to the genius of Ibn Firnas, who was not only able to decipher the most complex writing, but also made attempts at flying by building artificial wings. In relation to glass, he was familiar with the scientific properties of glass, and contributed to the early experiment with lenses and the idea of magnifying script by their use. He also lent his skills to the glass making furnaces of Cordoba, and made a representation of the sky in glass, which he was able at will to make clear or cloudy, with lightning and the noise of thunder at the press of a finger.

8.1 Rock Crystal ewer made for the Fatimid caliph al-Aziz. 975-976. Rock Crystal. One of the few surviving Fatimid court objects, carved from a single piece of rock crystal. al-Aziz ruled Egypt from 975 to 996. The crystal was imported from Afria and was velieved to prevent nightmares. Many of these precious artifacts were later melted down and sold for their metals. Treasury of St. Mark’s, Venice. pg 253. (Source)

Decorative Art

“The rise of Islam, and the resulting expansion of Muslim territories through the seventh century A.D., ultimately gave rise to a society that kept alive many of the achievements that were lost in the west. Mosaic glass, cast and cut vessels, and free- and mold-blown wares continued to be made, and starting in the ninth century, new decorative approaches emerged. The principal advance began with the discovery that glass could be painted with metallic stains, resulting in a type of glass known as lustre ware because of its distinctive sheen. This was the first stained glass.”*

9.1 Window in stained glass, 17th century, Egypt or Syria (Ottoman period?) (38.7 x 48.3 cm). A window such as this with brightly coloured panes in blue, orange, green, and red might have been found in a room of an aristocratic home in the Islamic world. Tinted glass was favoured because it filtered the light, but it also complemented the multihued furnishings of the room.

German art historian Otto von Simson explained the origin of the rose window by comparing the idea to the six-sided rosettes and octagon window on the outside wall of the Umayyad palace Khirbat al-Mafjar, built in the Holy Land in about 750 CE. The theory is that Crusaders saw such windows and brought the idea back to Europe, introducing it into churches.” 

10.1 Mosque Lamp of Amir Qawsun, ca. 1329–35 (Source)
“… Large glass lamps of this type were commissioned by sultans and members of their court for mosques, madrasas (Qur’anic schools), tombs, hospices, and other public buildings in fourteenth-century Mamluk Cairo. This example bears the name of its patron, Qawsun (d. 1342), amir of the Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalaun (r. 1293–1341 with brief interruptions), and was probably intended for one of his two architectural commissions in Cairo—a mosque or a tomb-hospice complex.”
10.2 Glass Bowllate 10th–early 11th century (Source)

Varied Techniques

… The first painters of glass in the Islamic world applied a brownish or yellowish metallic pigment on bowls, dishes, and other objects. The decoration usually consists of animal or vegetal motifs, sometimes accompanied by inscriptions. By applying pigments to both sides of these objects, glassmakers could highlight details or exploit the transparency of the glass to produce subtle shading effects…
Muneneh Michael*

*Michael, Muneneh “An exploration into barriers to use of waste glass in interior spaces in Nairobi” Page 29 (PDF

11.1. Animal with Double Cosmetic Tube, 7th– 9th century, possibly Syria (Sasanian period) (Source
11.2 The Corning Ewer, about 10th century, possibly Egypt (Fatimid period?) or Western Asia (Source)
11.3 Drinking Horn, 7th– 9th century, probably Egypt (Abbasid period?) (Source)

Some of the most sophisticated Egyptian glass vessels were decorated with lustre. This shiny, sometimes metallic effect was achieved by painting copper or silver oxide on the surface of the object, which was then fired at a temperature of about 600°C (1112°F) in reducing conditions. The same technique, as already noted, was used in the decoration of earthenware, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq and Iran. Until recently, controversy raged over the origin of lustre painting, but the problem appears to have been solved by the discovery at Al-Fustat, of a glass cup of local type, inscribed with the name of ‘Abd al-Hamad, governor of Egypt in 771-772; Egyptian glass painters were therefore using lustre some time before its appearance in Iraq.

12.1. A cut glass beaker, 10th century, Persia (Saffarid period?)  (Source)
12.2 A clear glass inkwell, 12th/13th Century,(Seljuk or Khwarazmian period?) Persia (Source)
12.3 A Free-blown trailed-glass hanging lamp, 7th/8th century, (Umayyad period?) Syria (Source)
 “At once decorative and functional, the delicately applied trailing designs on the present hanging lamp cover almost its entire surface. Composed of deep blue glass, these trailing motifs act as contrasts to the yellowish body of the vessel. Stefano Carboni links this type of decoration to the late Roman period, the production of which was extended into the early Islamic period, and at first limited to: “areas that were once part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, including Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia” (Carboni 2001, p. 163)

13.1. Beaker, enameled glass vessels, late 13th century, Mamluk period, Syria (Source)
“… Its decoration is probably inspired by contemporary manuscript paintings and depicts courtly figures and scenes of royal pastimes, such as hunting and polo.”

Contact between the Byzantine Empire and the new empire of Islam allowed Islamic glassmakers to add the known Roman and Byzantine glassmaking techniques to their own glassmaking knowledge. As with many chemical arts, this cumulative glassmaking knowledge was then preserved by the world of Islam until the coming of the Renaissance in the West. In Islam glassmaking flowered again for a time, combining Roman knowledge with indigenous traditions...”
Seth C Rasmussen*

* Rasmussen, S. C. “How Glass Changed the World: The History and Chemistry of Glass from Antiquity to the 13th Century”; Springer Science & Business Media, 24 Feb 2012. Page 40

14.1 Stock Photo: Stained-glass window in La Giralda, Seville, Spain, Image ID:33481360 Copyright: S.Borisov (Source)

In Al-Andalus, glass vessels were blown in Almeria, Malaga, and Murcia in imitation of eastern wares, such as the irakes –glass goblets– so favoured on the noble tables of 10th-century León. The technique of cutting crystal was said to have been introduced by ‘Abbas ibn Firnas (d. 887), scholar and inventor in the courts of ‘Abd al-Raḥman II and Muḥammad I. It is worth pointing here to the genius of Ibn Firnas, who was not only able to decipher the most complex writing, but also made attempts at flying by building artificial wings. In relation to glass, he was familiar with the scientific properties of glass, and contributed to the early experiment with lenses and the idea of magnifying script by their use. He also lent his skills to the glass making furnaces of Cordova, and made a representation of the sky in glass, which he was able at will to make clear or cloudy, with lightning and the noise of thunder at the press of a finger.

Even if you put burning charcoal on its head
The huqqa*, a teacher of etiquette,
Will not respond unless drawn upon.
Thus one can learn refinement from its manners.
(a Persian verse)*

*Huqqa: hookah, shisha, narghile, argilah (more names)
 A coloured glass and silver-gilt huqqa ,Ottoman, 19th century (Source)

*[Persian verse on its base. In the verse, the huqqa obeys the rules of courtly etiquette, remaining silent until its patron draws it out in “conversation”.]
AramcoWorld.com – Gökçigdem, Elif “Fragile Beauty: Islamic Glass”


Read More on other industries in Muslim Civilisation


More Quotes and Images

15.1. Turkish/Ottoman glass work, 19th Century, Turkey (Source)
Glass Armband, 8th-9th centur, ex-Barakat Egypt (Source)

There is an excellent passage by al-Farabi (870-950), which proves that Muslims used telescopes and other sighting devices for the observation of the planets at quite an early date. His passage on the science of mechanics and other devices includes:

“The optical devices used in the production of instruments that direct the sight in order to discern the reality of the distant objects, and in the production of mirrors upon which one determines the points that reverse the rays by deflecting them or by reflection or refraction. With this, one can also determine the points that reverse the sun’s rays into other bodies, thus producing the burning mirrors and the devices connected with them.” Al-Farabi*

*Ihsa’ al-Ulum; ed. O. Amin; Al-Maktaaba al-Anglo-Misriya (Cairo; 1968), pp. 108-110; in G. Saliba: The Function of Mechanical Devices in Medieval Islamic Society; in Science and Technology in Medieval Society; edited by P.O. Long; The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (New York; 1985), pp. 141-51; at pp. 145-6.
Al-Djazairi, S.E.. The Golden Age and Decline of Islamic Civilisation, Volume 1, MSBN Books.

16.1. Glass Dish with Mule and Rider, and Animals, about 901-999 (Source)
“In the ninth and 10th centuries, Islamic glassmakers introduced new shapes, colors, and decorative patterns. This is among the most extraordinary stained glass objects that have survived from the Islamic period…”
16.2 Glass Bowl with pigeon and fish motives, about 900-1099 (Source)

Glass changed the course of the history. For example, it is said that – the inventors of gunpowder, paper, printing, and the compass -Chinese did not make much advances in technology after 14th Century because they simply preferred porcelain tea cup over wine glass:

“The invention of glass meant that we also had the technology of lens grinding, telescopes and microscopes. The invention of spectacles meant that intellectuals and scientists had an extra 15-20 years of a reading and active life. Also came the invention of beakers, flasks and retorts, which was useful because glass is chemically neutral. Between the 14th century and the 19th century, no glass was made in China. It also meant that they had no mirrors and their windows were made out of paper, which meant they had dark houses. So, the point is that since they liked drinking tea from the teacup, they never bothered to try to invent glass.” *Stephan Fry

*Stephan Fry, QI – Season 7 Episode 4: The Chinese, the teacup and glass

17.1 Turkish Glass Prayer-beads (tesbih) (Source)

“… Also the thinness and translucence of Syrian glass are proverbially famous; one says more delicate than Syrian glass, or clearer than Syrian glass.” Al-Tha’libi (961-1038)*

*H.J. Cohen: Early Islamic Scholars as glassmakers; in A. Engle ed: Readings in Glass History; 2; (Phoenix Publications; 1973); pp. 30-5; at p. 33.

18.1 Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran (Source)

“The designers Muhammad Hasan-e-Memar and Muhammad Reza Kashi Paz-e-Shirazi used extensively stained glass on the façade and other traditional elements such as panj kāseh-i (five concaves), which create a breath taking effect of the interior like standing in a kaleidoscope. Once the sunlight hits the stained glass, the entire building is flooded by a vibrant rainbow of colours. In popular culture, the mosque is also called Pink Mosque, because its tiles are beautifully decorated with a pre-eminently pinkish rose colour.”

*Mosque of Whirling Colours: A Mixture of Architecture and Art in Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran” by Cem Nizamoglu 

19.1 Turkish Ottoman Savatli Glass Ewer, Pasabahce Glass (Source)

“… Egyptian and Syrian glass and metal-work, as well as many of the products of Mesopotamia and Moorish Spain, were highly prized as being manifestly superior to anything that could be made in western Europe. It was largely by imitation and, in the end, sometimes by improvement of the techniques and models that had come from or through the Near East, that the products of the West ultimately rose to excellence…” C. Singer *

*C. Singer et al edition: A History of Technology; vol II; op cit. pp. 754-6.

20.1 “Islamic Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass Vol. 1” by David Whitehouse (Source)

20.2 “Islamic Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass Vol. 2” by David Whitehouse (Source)

“Ibn al-Haytham’s treatise On the Burning Glass exhibits ‘a profound and accurate conception of the nature of focussing, magnifying, and inversion of the image, and of formation of rings and colours by experiments.’ In his treatise ‘The Shape of the Eclypse,’ he tries to explain the crescent image cast by the partially eclipsed sun through a small round aperture. Ibn al-Haytham also wrote on the rainbow, the halo, and spherical and parabolic mirrors, and fixed the height of the atmosphere at the equivalent of about ten English miles.” Al-Djazairi, S.E.*

*Al-Djazairi, S.E. The Golden Age and Decline of Islamic Civilisation, Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 6559-6564). MSBN Books. Kindle Edition. 

21.1 Al-Razi ((Latinized name Rhazes or Rasis) holding a glass flask for the patient treatment – European depiction of Al-Razi in the Latin version of one of his treatises translated by Gerard of Cremona in between 1250-60 (Source)

“Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (Abulcasis in Latin), a 10th-century surgeon in Córdoba, composed Al-Tasrif, a 30-chapter medical encyclopedia describing dozens of operations, complete with graphic illustrations of surgical instruments, including scalpels, cauterizing tools, feeding tubes and cupping glasses.” Ibrahim Shaikh*

*Abu al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi the Great Surgeon” by Dr Ibrahim Shaikh

22.1 Usage of glass flasks in alchemy – Series of woodcuts of chemical and distilling apparatus from The works of Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber in Latin), the most famous Arabian prince and philosopher, faithfully Englished by Richard Russel (London, 1678).  (e) Calcination, (f) Water bath, (g) Vessels, (h) Fixation and Sublimation

“Eighth century treatise on glass: Kitab al-Durra al-Maknuna (The Book of the Hidden Pearl of Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber in Latin) (c. 721–c. 815) On Coloured Glass, On Lustre, On Gemstones And Pearls: Part 1: The Manufacture of Coloured Glass; Part 2: Lustre Glass; Part 3: The Colouring Of Gemstones, The Purifying and Making of Pearls and Other Useful Recipes; Part 4: Assessment of Kitab al-Durra al-Maknuna.”

More Info: www.history-science-technology.com/articles/articles%2093.html

23.1 Islamic Glass game piece or weight (Source)

“Al-Tusi made his observations without telescopes or even glasses,” says Djebbar, removing his own spectacles and waving them theatrically in the air. “Even though the Arabs possessed the knowledge to make lenses, they probably thought it was an idiotic idea. God made us like this; why hang something on our noses to see better?” he jokes, placing his glasses back on his nose with a flourish. His audience erupts into laughter as Djebbar, who was curator of “The Golden Age of Arabic Sciences”—the Paris exhibition, which ran from October 2005 through March 2006 at the Arab World Institute—tries to quiet them down.” Richard Covington*

*Rediscovering Arabic Science” by Richard Covington

24.1 Stained Glass – Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Photo by chem7 (Source)

“… Of these are several small military departments… such as the department of foundries for iron, copper, glass and others.” Al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418)*

*Al-Qalqashandi: Subhi al-A’sha; Cairo Ministry of Culture; part 4; p. 188. “Al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418) in Subhi al-A’sha, when discussing government departments in Damascus during the period of 1171-1250″.  

25.1 A 14th century glass finger bowl, Mamluk dynasty, Egypt or Syria

“A medieval Islamic glass vessel sold in London yesterday[02/04/2009] for 1.6 million pounds ($2.3 million), more than 20 times as much as it fetched less than a decade ago, when it was dismissed as a fake… The bucket is actually a glass finger bowl, intricately gilded and decorated with colourful enamels, that dates from 14th century Egypt or Syria. It was made during the Mamluk dynasty that ruled the region from 1250 to 1517.”*

*14th century bucket sells for £1.6m at Sotheby’s” April 3, 2009 / Anakin 

26.1  pair of Iznik-style glass mosque lamps, Europe for the Islamic market, 19th/20th century (Source)

Keep your distance – health lessons from the history of pandemics

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Editorial Note: Extracted from “1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th Edition) Annotated”. First published in 1001 Inventions website – www.1001inventions.com/health-lessons


From a simple cold to a serious illness, humans have always lived with the risk of catching diseases from one another. Pandemics affecting millions are fortunately rare, but the bubonic plague of the 14th century and the 1918 influenza outbreak have left a dark shadow on history.

During Muslim civilisation, people encountered plague and infectious diseases such as leprosy – but how did physicians then deal with issues of contagion? And are there any lessons we can learn?

Gilles Le Muisit’s painting depicts the mass burial of plague victims in Belgium. (Source)

Preventative Medicine

A key medical principle from the early days of Muslim civilisation was preventative medicine – sensible guidance for people of all ages on keeping well.

Physicians stressed in their medical works the importance of sport, personal hygiene, healthy eating and drinking, and good sleep. They encouraged positive management of worry, anger and anxiety, believing that the health of the body had a close link with the health of the soul.

Examples of those physicians include Al-Razi in his book (Kitab Manafiʿ al-Aghdhiyah wa-Dafʿi Madharriha), and sections of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine.

Similar manuscripts of work on anatomy contained illustrated chapters on five systems of the body: bones, nerves, muscles, veins and arteries. This page depicts the arteries, with the internal organs shown in watercolors… (Source)

Measures to Avoid Contagion


‘Flee from the one with leprosy as you flee from a lion,’ cautioned the 14th-century theologian and physician Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, in reference to a saying of the Prophet Mohammed. In cases of contagious diseases such as leprosy, doctors knew that the only way to avoid transmission was by steering clear of a sick person.

In his book al-Ṭibb al-Nabawi (The Medicine of the Prophet) Ibn Qayyim identified how disease transmits through contact with a sick person or via their breath.


Umayyad Caliph Walid ibn ʿAbd al-Malik built the first Bīmāristān (hospital) in Muslim civilisation in the year 707 in Damascus. In this hospital, lepers were cared for in a separate ward and provided with regular supplies, measures designed to avoid patients infecting others.

Caricature by the English artist James Gillray (1757-1815) The Cow-Pock or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (London, 1802) depicting a vaccination scene at the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras, showing Dr. Jenner vaccinating a frightened young woman and cows emerging from different parts of people’s bodies (Source) (1001 inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, Page 176)

Limitation of movement

Guidance in relation to epidemics was not to enter or leave a land affected by the disease. 14th-century Andalusian physician and scholar Abu Jaʿfar Amad ibn ʿAli ibn Khatima al-Ansari followed this guidance appropriately when he stayed put in the city of Almeria after it was struck by bubonic plague. He made the most of his confinement, however, by investigating the nature of the disease and its spread, as well as tending to patients. His findings are recorded in his book Tahsil Gharad al-Qasd fi Tafsil al-Marad al-Wafid (The fulfilment of the Inquirer’s Aim Concerning All About the Invading Epidemic).

One of Ibn Khatima’s insights was that diet, and the strength of the body’s resistance, play a role in how severe the impact is and how quickly a patient will respond to treatment.


As the world grapples once again with a pandemic, there is a notable resonance with the past. Physicians in Muslim civilisation sought to provide the best care and advice they could during epidemics and outbreaks of infectious diseases, and today the guidance given by governments and health practitioners across the world is remarkably similar.

After all, the notion of medicine is about preserving health and saving lives.

Medicine is a science, from which one learns the state of the human body, in order to preserve good health when it exists and restore it when it is lacking.” 11th century physician and scholar Ibn Sina

The opening of the popular didactic poem on medicine by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). The copy is undated, possibly 17th century. (Source)

Resources and further reading

  • 1001 Cures: Introduction to the History of Medieval Islamic Medicine, Professor Rabie E Abdel-Halim
  • 1001 Cures: Contributions in Medicine and Healthcare from Muslim Civilisation, Peter E Pormann (editor)
  • 1001cures.net

The end of a plague tract that, according to the colophon shown here, was completed on 19 Rabi‘ II 944 (= 26 September 1537). The author is apparently the same as the Malakite theologian Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥaṭṭāb al-Malikī al-Ru‘aynī who died in 1547/954. The undated copy appears to have been made during the author’s lifetime and is possibly in his own hand. (Source)

Some Thoughts on the Politics of Early Modern Ottoman Science

Development of Astronomy in Ottomans

The overview of the astronomical instruments and staff of the Istanbul Observatory with Taqi Al-Din Rasid at work. (Source)


Note of the Editor: This article was originally published in the Journal of Ottoman Studies, ISAM, no 36, 2010. We are grateful to the author for permitting us to republish it on the Muslim Heritage website.


Rifa'at Abou-El-Haj

Rifa’at Abou-El-Haj – Prof. Emeritus of History (Source)

As persuasively argued by Abou-El-Haj, the sixteenth century was a period of profound transformation in the Ottoman Empire. The expansion and unification of imperial currency zones and markets fostered the development of new social forces represented by merchants and financiers who entered the Ottoman political nation despite the vocal protests of the members of the old ruling elite, the descendants of the conquerors and the royal slaves (mostly devşirmes), who considered the newcomers as “outsiders,” or ecnebis. The gradual demise of feudal institutions and the expansion of the political nation created certain pressures on the ruling institution which had to redefine itself, either by expanding itself to include the newly enlarged political nation, or accepting a representative position vis-à-vis the political nation and thus losing its hegemony over the political process.

In this long process of redefining itself, the royal authority increased its efforts to control the sphere of jurists’ law (applied Sharia), first, in order to facilitate the development of a market economy by such devices as the cash vakıf the beneficiaries of which were the new members of the Ottoman political nation, and second, to sustain its hegemony over the political process by regulating the relations between the members of the political nation that were governed by private law, a sphere of jurists’ law rather than feudal administrative law which used to be codified by the dynasty. Elsewhere I elaborate on how these royal efforts to build an Ottoman absolutism opened the way for jurists to intervene in dynastic affairs, such as filicide and fratricide, as the dynasty could not keep trying to control jurists’ law if it did not allow them to enter its own domain as well. Thus jurists’ law became a more politically contested field than ever, leading to the development of two distinct political positions in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with regard to one’s conception of Ottoman royal constitutionalist…

Click here to read the full article.

Suleymaniye Mosque and Medical Madrasa (Source)

by Baki Tezcan,
University of California, Davis

Prophylactic Medicine

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Most medical encyclopaedias and handbooks contain sections on the preservation of health. For instance, in his Paradise of Wisdom, Ibn Rabban al-Ṭabarī (fl. c. 850) talks about raising children, food and drink, tastes and smells, seasons, and other aspects of environmental medicine. He also touches on questions of psychological health. ʿAlī ibn ʿAbbās al-Majūsī (fl. c. 983), the author of a medical encyclopaedia entitled The Complete Book on the Medical Art (Kitāb Kāmil al-ṣināʿa al-ṭibbīya) also called The Royal Book (al-Kitāb al-Malakī) paid close attention to prophylactics, considering prevention to be better than cure. He devoted the first chapter of the second book to the topic of general health. The great Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1037) not only addressed this topic in his Canon of Medicine, but also penned a Poem on the Regimen of Health according to Seasons (Urjūza fī Tadbīr al-ṣiḥḥa fī l-fuṣūl)…

1001 Cures - Prophylactic Medicine

Figure 1. Ibn Jazla’s Almanac of Bodily Parts for the Treatment of People, written in Arabic and Karshūnī, meaning Arabic written in Syriac letters. In it, Ibn Jazlan often arranged the information in the form of diagrams.

Other authors also devoted specific treatises to the regimen of health. For instance, Ibn Buṭlān (d. 1066), author of the Almanac of Health (Kitāb Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa), arranged his treatise around the so-called six ‘non-naturals’, that is, factors contributing to health and illness that are not inside the human body; they are: ambient air; food and drink; sleeping and waking; exercise and rest; retention and evacuation (including bathing and sex); and mental states such as anger, sadness, love, joy, etc.). Another native of Baghdad, Ibn Jazla (d. 1100), wrote an Almanac of Bodily Parts for the Treatment of People (Taqwīm al-abdān fī tadbīr al-insān), in which the information is often arranged in form of diagrams…

1001 Cures - Prophylactic Medicine

Figure 2. Arab physicians divided medicine into two areas: ‘the preservation of health which aims to retain the state of a healthy individual and prevent him or her from becoming ill; and ‘the restoration of health which aims to return the sick person to his natural healthy state. This 13th-century manuscript image from al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt shows doctors visiting a patient.

To keep healthy requires several things. People should develop sound habits in terms of eating, drinking, exercise, sleep, posture, sexual intercourse, and bathing. Physicians must pay special attention to age and seasons, and modify the lifestyle accordingly. Certain parts of the body need special attention, such as eyes, ears, hands, feet and so on. One ought to be particularly careful in case of epidemic diseases and take appropriate protective measures. Then there is the environment, which should be as healthy as possible; here one has to pay particular attention to the ambient air, the water one drinks, and the location where one lives. Finally, there are many psychic factors that affect one’s health…

1001 Cures - Prophylactic Medicine

Figure 3. A physician with a patient about to vomit. Taken from a 13th-century copy of the Arabic version of Dioscorides’ On Medicinal Substances.


Video: Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World

Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World is a PBS documentary film that showcases the variety and diversity of Islamic art.  It discusses Islamic culture and its role in the rise of world civilization over the centuries. It was produced in 2011 by Alex Kronemer and Michael Wolfe of Unity Productions Foundation.

The film is narrated by Susan Sarandon, informs its audience about Islamic art, from ornamented palaces and mosques to ceramics, carved boxes, paintings and metalwork. It compares the artistic heritage of the West and East. The film also examines Islamic calligraphy and the use of water as an artform

  • Mohammad Al-Asad – Jordanian architect and architectural historian, and the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Built Environment in Amman
  • Sheila S. Blair – Norma Jean Calderwood Co-Chair Of Islamic and Asian Art, Boston College
  • Jonathan M. Bloom – Norma Jean Calderwood Co-Chair Of Islamic and Asian Art, Boston College
  • Afshan Bokhari – Assistant Professor of Art History, Suffolk University
  • Oleg Grabar (1929–2011) – Art historian and archaeologist.
  • Ruba Kana’an – Specialist in Islamic art, the urban histories of pre-modern Muslim societies, and the interface between art and law in Muslim contexts
  • Amy Landau – Associate Curator of Islamic Art and Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum
  • Roderick J. McIntosh – Professor of Anthropology at Yale University
  • D. Fairchild Ruggles – Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Co-Director of the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage and Museum Practices at Illinois.
  • Gary Vikan – Director of the Walters Art Museum
  • Kjeld Von Folsach – Director of the David Collection in Copenhagen
  • Mohammed Zakariya – Muslim convert and master Arabic calligrapher

Text Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Art:_Mirror_of_the_Invisible_World

International Women’s Day



Note: Composed by Sairah Yassir-Deane and Cem Nizamoglu and first published on Muslim Heritage, 7th March 2016,  later in 1001 Inventions website also.


In view of the growing importance of the subject of gender and women in society, this collection of articles we present below represents some of what we currently know about some famous Muslim women. We hope that this will initiate debate and start the process of unearthing what could be a most significant find:

Women’s Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilisation: Science, Medicine and Politics

Despite the scarcity of references to the historical role women played in these fields, we endeavoured to unearth significant pieces from various literary genres to build the first synthesis on this important subject. Among the examples we present there are famous ones, such as those of Zubayda who pioneered a most ambitious project of digging wells and building service stations all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Makkah; and also constructing a complex water system to bring water from aquifers to Makkah using underwater canals and aqueducts. Additional examples being that of Dhayfa Khatun who excelled in management and statesmanship alongside Fatima al-Fehri who founded the Qarawiyin mosque – school complex that became the oldest extant university in the world.

There are other women of science who are much less known, such as Sutayta who was a mathematician and an expert witness in courts, Lubana of Cordoba whose expertise in mathematics was quoted in numerous historical sources, and the astrolabe maker Al-‘Ijliya (Al-Astrulabi).


Malika Series by Tom Verde

From Bangladesh to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state. Nor has it ever been.

Stretching back more than 14 centuries to the advent of Islam, women have held positions among many ruling elites, from malikas, or queens, to powerful advisors. Some ascended to rule in their own right; others rose as regents for incapacitated husbands or male successors yet too young for a throne. Some proved insightful administrators, courageous military commanders or both; others differed little from equally flawed male potentates who sowed the seeds of their own downfalls.

This six-part series presents some of the most notable historical female leaders of Muslim dynasties, empires and caliphates:

A 1000 Years Amnesia: Sports in Muslim Heritage

Professor Salim Al-Hassani published in the issue 369 (Spring 2012, p. 10) of Runnymede Bulletin (Spring 2012 Runnymede Bulletin – Sport) a short article on “Sports in Muslim Heritage”. He argues, notably, that while Europe was in the “Dark Ages”, the Islamic world enjoyed a period of high art, science, and sport. During this long period, various forms of Riyadha (sport in Arabic) was widely practiced in the classical Islamic world, and this practice continues intensively in the present.


Daily Sabah: A woman with a past

Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman activist from the annals of history has been reintroduced to inspire future generations.
“Last week I mentioned the one-day conference at the University of Derby on Muslim women activists and suggested that Muslim women activists were not a new phenomenon, that indeed Muslim women have been activists since the advent of Islam. At this same conference, a presentation on historical Muslim women activists was given by the Muslim Women’s Historical Heritage (Müslüman Kadının Tarihi Mirası) who are working in conjunction with the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization (FSTC) from Britain and the Turkish NGO, IGETEV.
FSTC, an NGO which supports activities like the 1001 Muslim Inventions books and exhibitions, Muslim Heritage and Curriculum Enrichment for the Future (CE4tF), has been keen to bring these historical personages, who are missing from the typical curriculum, back into the history classroom and people’s consciousness. In Turkey the MWHH group is concentrating on women with Muslim heritage, they are bringing to light women from the distant past about whom little is known, in the hopes that people will be inspired to find out more. A further aim of this project is to give young people role models from their own culture to whom they can turn.” Zeynep Jane Louise Kandur



Women Dealing with Health during the Ottoman Reign

In the history of Islamic civilization, many hospitals were founded by women, either as wives, daughters or mothers of sultans. All health personnel were male at these hospitals. In the Ottoman period, the female patients were treated either at their homes or at the residences of the medical practitioners until the 19th century. This feature somewhat explains the rich varieties of females practicing medicine both in and outside the Ottoman palace. In this article, Professor Nil Sari, provides information on the various medical practices dedicated to female patients under the Ottomans.



Women of Science, Medicine and Management, Istanbul

The Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), launched a new course in Istanbul, Turkey. Entitled “Women of Science Medicine and Management in Muslim Heritage”, the course was in collaboration with Insan Gelisimi Ve Toplumsal Egitim Vakfi (iGETEV). The course aimed to focus attention on women who excelled in science, medicine and management within the Muslim Heritage.



Jewels of Muslim Calligraphy: Book Review of “Female Calligraphers: Past & Present by Hilal Kazan”

This is a review of the book prepared by Hilal Kazan for the Istanbul Greater City Council Cultural Foundation in order to provide a useful and important bio-bibliographic resource on the history of calligraphy of the Muslim Civilization. Written in Turkish and English, the book consists of notices of past and present Muslim female calligraphers, with many priceless examples of masterpieces of calligraphy. It emphasises also the importance of the activities of female calligraphers in the Muslim civilization at various places. The book reviewed in the following article is a unique work on the subject.


Lady Montagu and the Introduction of Smallpox Inoculation to England

The English aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is today remembered particularly for her letters from Turkey, an early example of a secular work by a Western woman about the Muslim Orient. When Lady Mary was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of variolation, the inoculation against smallpox. Unlike Jenner’s later vaccination, which used cowpox, variolation used a small measure of smallpox itself. Lady Mary, who had suffered from the disease, encouraged her own children to be inoculated while in Turkey. On her return to London, she enthusiastically promoted the procedure, but encountered a great deal of resistance. However, her example certainly popularized the practice of inoculation with smallpox in British high society. The numbers inoculated remained small, and medical effort throughout the 18th century was concentrated on reducing the risks and side-effects of the inoculation process.


Book Review of ‘Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality’ by Asli Sancar

Aise Asli Sancar, a renowned writer and lecturer on women’s issues has said when she began investigating the subject of Ottoman women, she realized that they were much more complex and multifaceted than they are usually portrayed to be. Noting that Ottoman women were described as submissive and suppressed women entrapped in the harem, Sancar says the imperial harem was a more diverse and complex institution than she had formerly thought it to be. This is the main theme of her book: Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality reviewed in this article by Qaisra Shahraz, the well known writer and novelist. Suitable for all publics, the book, a well written and enjoyable to read piece, presents an engaging and appealing image of Ottoman women, far away from the clichés widely spread in the contemporary literature.


Interview with Professor Nil Sari

Professor Nil Sari Akdeniz, the head of the History of Medicine and Ethics Department of Istanbul University at the Cerrahpasha Medical School since 1983, is a world famous historian of Islamic medicine in general and of medical knowledge and practices in the Ottoman Empire and in modern Turkey in particular. In the following unpublished interview, carried on by Dr Mehrunisha Suleman in Istanbul in 2004 on behalf of FSTC and updated in February 2009 by Professor Sari, she expounds her opinion on some issues relating to Muslim Heritage, science and Islam, and her passion as a historian of medicine.



Interview with Dr. Zohor Idrisi

In the following interview, Dr Zohor Idrisi sheds light on Islamic agriculture and the culinary art in Muslim heritage. She mentions the various factors that favorised the development of agriculture in the Islamic civilisation, such the use of astronomical knowledge, the availability of an efficient water management system, the introduction of new techniques in irrigation, the use of new varieties of crops and plants. The result was a real agricultural revolution marked by a high productivity, never reached before in history. The last part of the interview hits upon contemporary issues, like environment strategies and consumption habits that we have to learn from the standpoint of Islamic practices based on respect of nature, human wisdom and common sense.


Interview with Dr. Rim Turkmani

The tradition of Islamic astronomy is the main topic of the following interview, in which Dr Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist scholar, draws on her passion for Islamic science to present a survey on salient aspects of Islamic classical astronomy. At the end, she shows how this scientific tradition is still inspiring today. On that point, the attitude of openness, diversity and tolerance is highlighted.


Queen Rania and Bettany Hughes: Muslim Heritage in Our Homes Video

We are delighted to bring you the most recent YouTube clip uploaded by Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan. This clip highlights just some of the everyday items in our homes that came to us through a shared heritage with Muslim Civilisation. (Image Source)


Bettany Hughes: Divine Women

Bettany Hughes is an advisor to the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) and member of its consultant network Muslim Heritage Awareness Group (MHAG)


Interview with Professor Emilie Savage-Smith

Professor Emilie Savage-Smith expands in this remarkable interview on Islamic medicine of which she draws a lively picture. Beginning with a general survey of the conditions of its inception and development in an intercultural context, she mentions representative names and treatises, then the various fields of expertise are scrutinized and the different innovations this tradition brought are highlighted, from the classification of diseases, their treatment, the use of surgery, the improvement of medical instruments, the foundation of hospitals. The answers of the expert are informative on specific areas of medical care such as ophthalmology, mental illness, the development of a real industry of drugs, the various ways of healing, including the use of music in the treatment of emotional and mental stress. The exploitation of this treasure of medical knowledge in Europe until the 17th century is also reminded.


Women of Science and Management in History June 2014

In June 2014, The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) played host to a delegation from Turkey and held a workshop on Women of Science and Management in History attended by 27 participants. The delegation from the Human Development and Social Education Foundation (iGETEV) was led by Zeynep Jane Louise Kandur and has been working closely with FSTC since June 2013, on highlighting the roles played by a number of remarkable women from the Muslim civilisation. The two day workshop, which took place on the 24th and 25th June 2014, followed on from sessions held in Istanbul in October 2013, and is part of a collaborative project between FSTC and iGETEV.


Zaynab Al Shahda, 12th Century

Zaynab was a famous female calligrapher who was renowned for her work in fiqh (Islamic law) and hadiths, in addition to her husn-I khatt. She was highly praised and positioned, and was appointed as teacher of Yaqut, the last Abbasid Caliph. She was also the calligrapher in the Musa Palace. She was a brilliant, well-established teacher and many people had the opportunity to study with her and to receive their ijaza from her. The fame of Zaynab was well established when she was named Siqat al-Dawla because of her association with al-Muktafibillah, the Abbasid Caliph. She spent her time studying science and literature.

Image by artist Ali Amro created for 1001 Inventions.

Have you heard these names before?

Over thousands of years, many women have left a mark on their societies, changing the course of history at times and influencing small but significant spheres of life at others. Since ancient times, women have excelled in the areas of poetry, literature, medicine, philosophy and mathematics. A famous example is Hypatia (ca. 370-415), a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who lived in Alexandria, in Hellenistic Egypt, and who participated in that city’s educational community

In the same vein, it is interesting to note the Islamic view of Cleopatra of Egypt (b. 69 BCE). Arabic sources referred to her as a strong and able monarch who was very protective of Egypt. These sources focused on her talents but made no reference to her morals or seductive power. They focused instead on her learning and talents in management. This Arabic image of Cleopatra is in direct contrast to that presented by the Greco-Roman sources which presented her as a hedonist and seductive woman.

From the early years of Islam, women had crucial roles in their society. They contributed substantially to the prominence of Islamic civilization. For example, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, had special skills in administration. She became a scholar in hadith, jurisprudence, an educator, and an orator. There are also many references which point to Muslim women who excelled in areas such as medicine, literature, and jurisprudence. This long tradition found its counterpart in modern times. For example, in a more recent and unusual role, Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001) was the first female combat pilot in the world. She was appointed as chief trainer at the Turkish Aviation Institution.

A Turkish banknote dated 30 August 1995 to celebrate Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001), the first female combat pilot in the world and the first Turkish aviatrix.

In contrast, we find little information on Muslim women’s contributions in the classical books of history. New light might arise from the study of not yet edited manuscripts. There are many manuscripts in archives around the world. Only few of them are edited and most of these are not about science. This points to the challenging task lying ahead for researchers into the subject.

Fatima al-Fihri played a great role in the civilisation and culture in her community. She migrated with her father Mohamed al-Fihri from Qayrawan in Tunisia to Fez. She grew up with her sister in an educated family and learnt Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Hadith. Fatima inherited a considerable amount of money from her father which she used to build a mosque for her community. Established in the year 859, the Qarawiyin mosque had the oldest, and possibly the first university in the world. Students travelled there from all over the world to study Islamic studies, astronomy, languages, and sciences. Arabic numbers became known and used in Europe through this university. This is just one important example of the role of women in the advancement of education and civilisation.

Razia (or Raziyya) Sultana of Delhi who took power in Delhi for four years (1236-1240 CE). She was the only woman ever to sit on the throne of Delhi. Razia’s ancestors were Muslims of Turkish descent who came to India in the 11th century. Contrary to custom, her father selected her, over her brothers, to be his successor. After her father’s death, she was persuaded to step down from the throne in favour of her stepbrother Ruknuddin, but, opposed to his rule, the people demanded that she become Sultana in 1236. She established peace and order, encouraged trade, built roads, planted trees, dug wells, supported poets, painters, and musicians, constructed schools and libraries, appeared in public without the veil, wore tunic and headdress of a man. State meetings were often open to the people. Yet, she made enemies when she tried to eliminate some of the discriminations against her Hindu subjects. (Image Source)

During Muslim civilisation, numerous women excelled in various fields in Subsaharan Africa. Among them was Queen Amina of Zaria (1588-1589). She was the eldest daughter of Bakwa Turunku, who founded the Zazzau Kingdom in 1536. Amina came to power between 1588 and 1589. Amina is generally remembered for her fierce military exploits. Of special quality is her brilliant military strategy and in particular engineering skills in erecting great walled camps during her various campaigns. She is generally credited with the building of the famous Zaria wall.

Labana of Cordoba (Spain, ca. 10th century) was thoroughly versed in the exact sciences; her talents were equal to the solution of the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems, and her vast acquaintance with general literature obtained her the important employment of private secretary to the Caliph Al-Hakam II.

Sutayta al-Mahmali. Sutayta was taught and guided by several scholars including her father. Other scholars who taught her were Abu Hamza b. Qasim, Omar b. Abdul-‘Aziz al-Hashimi, Ismail b. Al-Abbas al-Warraq and Abdul-Alghafir b. Salamah al-Homsi. She was praised by historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi and Ibn Kathīr. She died in the year 377H/987CE. Sutayta did not specialise in just one subject but excelled in many fields such as Arabic literature, hadith, and jurisprudence as well as mathematics. It is said that she was an expert in hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics which were well developed in her time. It is said also that she invented solutions to equations which have been cited by other mathematicians, which denote aptitude in algebra. Although these equations were few, they demonstrated that her skills in mathematics went beyond a simple aptitude to perform calculations.

Gevher Nesibe Sultan “was an early 13th century princess of the Sultanate of Rum, the daughter of Kilij Arslan II and sister of Kaykhusraw I, and the namesake of a magnificent complex comprising a hospital, an adjoining medrese devoted primarily to medical studies, and a mosque in Kayseri, Turkey. The complex (külliye in Turkish) that she endowed, is considered one of the preeminent monuments of Seljuk architecture. The hospital was built between 1204 and 1206, and the medrese, whose construction started immediately after Gevher Nesibe’s death in 1206, was finished in 1210. The complex takes its name from the princess. The medrese within is known under a variety of names: the Gevher Nesibe Medrese; the Çifte Medrese (Twin Medrese); or as the Gıyasiye Medrese, after Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhusraw I, who was responsible for its construction. The tomb within the medrese is said to belong to Gevher Nesibe.”(Source)

“Melike Mama Hatun, or simply Mama Hatun, was a female ruler of the Saltukid dynasty, with its capital in Erzurum, for an estimated nine years between 1191 to 1200. During her reign she had a caravanserai, a mosque, a bridge, and a hammam built in the town of Tercan, located midway between Erzincan and Erzurum, which are still standing and are named after her. Her tomb is also in Tercan. The town itself was called Mamahatun until recently, and is still referred to as such locally. Mama Hatun also remains a vivacious figure in Turkish folk literature to this day.” (Source) Mama Hatun Kulliyesi (Kulliye means complex of buildings adjacent to a mosque, “Collage” in modern English).

And many more…

Digital Light & Codebreakers

banner cryptology



(Left-back row): Professor Salim Al-Hassani President FSTC UK, Countess Elizabeth Howe Patron MKIAC, Milton Keynes Mayor Cllr Sam Cook, Mr Anouar Kassim Founder and Director of MKIAC, Dr Rebecca Foy Director of Engagement Bletchley Park, Cllr Ansar Hussein. (Left back row): Vice Lord Lieutenant Alexander Boswell, Professor Kamal Bechkoum, Lord Lieutenant Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher and Dr Iain Standen CEO Bletchley Park.


Digital Light: Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040), the Father of Optics


Figure 1. This drawing is an artist’s idea of what Ibn al-Haytham might have looked like. In some places, Ibn al-Haytham is also known as Alhazen, which is the Latin form of his first name, al-Hasan.

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light (IYL2015), recognising the importance of light-based technologies in meeting the needs of humankind. A number of worldwide celebrations were organised to commemorate important milestones in the history of the science of light. The year 2015 was recognised to represent a millennium since the publication of the great Book of Optics by the Basra born scholar Ibn al-Haytham. He lived at a time of incredible blossoming of creativity and innovation, called the Islamic Golden Age. Ibn al-Haytham was sometimes referred to as the “father of optics” and “father of the scientific (experimental) method”.

For mathematics, that remarkable period in the history began with Muhammad ibn Musaal-Khwarizmi (ca 780–850), a member of the Baghdad House of Wisdom (Bait al-Hikma) whose book Kitab al-Jabr wa‘l-Muqabala (Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) gave a new momentum to algebra. The word “algebra” is derived from the title of the book and the word “algorithm” is a corruption of his name. This new algebra was essentially performing arithmetic calculations carrying the unknown, which is given a name, shay, meaning a “thing.” In English, we use “x” to represent shay. This opened the door to a broad development that allowed mathematics to be applied in ways that were not possible earlier.


Figure 2. From 1001 Inventions book

Al-Khwarizmi was followed by numerous mathematicians making huge advances that preceded European mathematicians such as Ruffini-Horner, René Descartes (1596–1650), Pierre Fermat (1601–1665), Leonhard Euler (1707–1783), John Wilson (1741–1793) and Joseph Lagrange (1736–1813). The numbers from 1 to 9 are now known as Arabic numerals used with slight modification in Europe and North Africa today, as distinct from the Indian numerals that are still found in some eastern parts of the Muslim world. The arrival of these numerals resolved the problems caused by Roman numerals and the abacus, which had been in use until then. Zero, as a concept, was known by ancient Mesopotamian and Indian civilisations. As a number or a space holder, it was used by the Indians, then it reached Baghdad where it became part of the Arabic numeral system. It was al-Khwarizmi who suggested that a little circle be used in calculations if no number appeared in the tens place. The Arabs called this circle “sifr”, or “empty.” The word zero came from French zéro or Italian zero, via Old Spanish from Arabic sifr ‘cipher’.

cryptologyFigure 3. © FSTC Ltd.

Breaking Code


Figure 4. A chart shows the frequency of letters in a passage of text

“One way to solve an encrypted message, if we know its language, is to find a different plain text of the same language long enough to fill one sheet or so, and then we count the occurrences of each letter. We call the most frequently occurring letter the ‘first,’ the next most occurring letter the ‘second,’ the following most occurring the ‘third,’ and so on until we account for all the different letters in the plain text sample… Then we look at the cypher text we want to solve and we also classify its symbols. We find the most occurring symbol and change it to the form of the ‘first’ letter of the plaintext sample, the next most common symbol is changed to the form of the ‘second’ letter, and so on, until we account for all symbols of the cryptogram we want to solve.” Al-Kindi in his ninth-century A Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages

Codebreakers: Al-Kindi (d. 874), the father of Cryptanalysis


Figure 5. Al-Kindi as depicted in a Syrian post stamp.

To avoid vital secrets falling into the wrong hands, messages are scrambled (encrypted) so that only someone with the right code can unscramble them. Bletchley Park is famed as the place where encryption and decryption were carried out during World War Two. Al-Kindi was a scientist known as ‘the philosopher of the Arabs’. He authored 290 books on medicine, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics and music. Al-Kindi’s frequency analysis was followed by cryptographers from the Muslim world for centuries until it reached Europe long before the codebreakers of Bletchley Park. Al-Kindi rightfully deserves the title of the “Father of Cryptanalysis”.

“Cryptology was born among the Arabs. They were the first to discover and write down the methods of cryptanalysis.” David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing


“The birth of cryptanalysis required a society which has reached a high standard of development in three disciplines, namely linguistics, statistics and mathematics. These conditions became available at the time of al-Kindi who had command of these three disciplines and more… Al-Kindi’s technique, known as frequency analysis, shows that it is unnecessary to check each of the billions of potential keys. Instead, it is possible to revealthe contents of a scrambled message simply by analysing the frequency of the characters in the ciphertext ” Simon Singh, The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

cryptologyFigure 6. From 1001 Inventions book

The Mis-Interpreted Age of Civilisation

FSTC news

Dr. Sameena Haq (Left) presenting Books to Mr. Kevin Green, the Principal (Centre) and Mr. Imran Khan Aslam (Assistant Head of Department and Director of Standards) (Right).

On Friday 17th January 2020, Dr. Sameena Haq, Associate Research Fellow at the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) delivered two lectures at the Manchester Health Academy, entitled “The Mis-Interpreted Age of Civilisation”.

She made reference to the little know Islamic heritage of many of the underlying principles of the STEM subjects, to potential career development and progression and highlighted the importance of social cohesion. This resonated with the ethos of the Manchester Health Academy in that it promotes a healthier society through addressing key sensitive physical and mental issues.  She referred to the somewhat over-highlighted, European dominated, scientific achievements in the curriculum. Yet excludes pioneering men and women scholars from The Muslim Civilisation, on whose contributions, many of today’s science principles are based.

A question and answer session at the end followed by showcasing of exhibits and published literature by FSTC allowed for the exchange of healthy dialogue. The presentations were concluded by participating at an extended event hosted by MACFEST at the Academy. Dr. Sameena Haq presented a collection of books published by FSTC, to Mr. Kevin Green, the Principal.

Islamic Sacred Geography and Finding the Qibla by the Sun and Stars


Figure 1. A description in words of a 12-sector scheme of sacred geography is contained in al-Fārisī’s treatise on folk astronomy. Appended to the treatise in the only known copy are these two diagrams which contain different information. From MS Milan Ambrosiana X73 sup., courtesy of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. See Schmidl, Volkstümliche Astronomie, for details.



Figure 2.

In spite of ample documentation, it is not generally known that in historical Islamic civilization, astronomy was practiced at two different levels. The first was what we now call “folk astronomy”, based on what one can see in the sky, without observation, theory or calculation. The second was what we now call “mathematical astronomy”, involving serious observation programmes, theories about and models for the motions of the sun, moon and planets, and extensive tables for computing celestial positions. In the first two centuries of Islam, only the former tradition was known; the Qur’ān, the Prophetic ḥadīth, and pre-Islamic folk astronomy combined to produce a distinctive Islamic folk astronomy such as one finds in the كتب الأنواء , kutub al-anwā’, books on the seasons and associated heavenly phenomena, and the كتب الهيئة السنية , kutub al-hay’a al-sunniyya, books on sacred cosmology. Thereafter, until the introduction of modern astronomy, the former tradition prevailed amongst the scholars of the sacred law and experts on folk astronomy, and the latter tradition prevailed amongst a small, but highly significant and remarkably active and impressively creative group of Muslim astronomers.

Both of these traditions had their influence on the determination of the qibla, the sacred direction toward the sacred Kaaba in Mecca. That edifice is itself related to the heavens: its rectangular base is aligned primarily to the rising point of the star Canopus (سهيل , Suhayl), the brightest star in the southern sky, its minor axis points toward summer sunrise (مطلع الشتاء) and winter sunset مغرب الصيف)), and its corners (labelled الشامي ، العراقي ، اليمني ، الغربي, Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Western) point roughly toward the cardinal directions. The legal scholars and the specialists on folk astronomy developed their own ways of facing the Kaaba using astronomical alignments. They developed a set of schemes for finding the qibla without any calculation. The astronomers, after the middle of the 8th century, began calculating the direction of the qibla using (medieval) geographical coordinates and mathematical procedures, either trigonometric or geometric or rule-of-thumb. They prepared lists of qiblas of hundreds of localities between al-Andalus and China, and even highly sophisticated cartographic grids with which one could find the qibla for the whole world without any calculation at all. All of these qibla-values were based on medieval longitudes and latitudes, which were, of course, less accurate than the modern ones.


Figure 3. This diagram is a particularly important 8-sector scheme of sacred geography because although it is found in an 18th-century Ottoman Egyptian manuscript it is in fact many centuries (6? 7?) older.

It is important to keep in mind that the qiblas proposed by the Muslim legal scholars would be different from those proposed by the Muslim astronomers. Both sets would necessarily different from modern qibla values, which are based on modern geographical coordinates. Therefore, when investigating the orientation of a historical mosque one must remain aware that there were different (now well documented) methods for finding the qibla, and it would be foolish to expect any historical mosque to be oriented in the modern qibla, unless by coincidence.

We present here the known sources for historical Islamic sacred geography, the notion of the world divided in sectors about the Kaaba with the qibla of each sector defined in terms of astronomical phenomena. These sources have never been surveyed before, although they were first introduced in the article “Makka as centre of the world” in the Encyclopedia of Islam (1987). They were rediscovered mainly in previously-unstudied medieval Arabic scientific manuscripts in libraries around the world. Many more manuscripts of works on astronomy, folk astronomy, geography, sacred law, and encyclopedias, were searched for such materials with negative results. On the other hand, there are surely many more such sources that have not yet been located in manuscript libraries.

It was only twenty years ago that we discovered a different tradition of Islamic sacred geography based on complicated mathematics. The world-maps were so designed that for any locality in the Muslim world one could simply read off the direction and distance to Mecca at the centre. The maps were from 17th-century Isfahan, and their sophisticated grids could not possibly have been conceived by Iranians or Europeans at the time. Further investigation of unstudied manuscripts (and some good luck) revealed treatises from 10th-century Baghdad and 11th-century Isfahan in which the mathematics underlying the cartographical grids was described.

Some 10,000 manuscripts in Arabic, Persian and Turkish await future researchers interested in exploring further the history of the Muslim scientific heritage. Anyone who thinks that the history of that heritage has already been written should have another think. It is not without interest to compare four overviews of Islamic astronomy written successively over the past century (Nallino, King & Morrison (2)). Those who now write surveys of Muslim contributions to science on the internet without having a clue about the available resources or the substantial published literature do a great disservice to future generations. The material presented here constitutes a prime example of an entire tradition of scientific materials that were previously unknown in modern times.



Figure 4. The anonymous 8-sector scheme in MS Şehit Ali Paşa 2776,2, fol. 56v, courtesy of the Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul, which has kindly made the entire manuscript available on the internet.

Various modern authors ignorant of or deliberately ignoring historical qibla procedures have recently attempted to investigate the orientations of two groups of mosques – Dan Gibson on 50 mosques from the first 150 years of Islam and A. J. Deus on 250 mosques from the Turkish world. The absurd conclusions of these two authors are mentioned in the Appendix. Since nobody had bothered to measure these mosque orientations before, the investigators were able to discover for themselves using Google Earth that both groups of mosques did not face Mecca. Gibson has found that the early mosques face (the MODERN direction of) Petra, which confirms his false theory that Islam started in that splendid city where, unfortunately for Gibson, in the early 7th century there were neither Arabs nor Muslims. Deus thinks the four significant directions of each Turkish mosque ✢ have more to do with military campaigns than with religious piety. Now of course these mosques do not face Mecca in the modern sense. However, they do face the direction of the Kaaba as prescribed by Muslim legal scholars (we have 20 different schemes) and/or the direction of Mecca as prescribed by Muslim astronomers (we have 80 different Islamic tables of dozens or hundreds of geographical coordinates and a dozen different mathematical procedures, approximate, exact and simple practical for architects). The flawed methodology of these two authors and their outrageous conclusions have already been demolished but they – both authors and their claims – will surely continue to pervert the history of Islamic civilization for that was their original objective.


Islamic Sacred Geography and Finding the Qibla by the Sun and Stars:
A survey of the historical sources,  مسح كتب دلائل القبلة, with an appendix on some recent fallacies about mosque orientations’
by David A. King, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, www.davidaking.academia.edu

Madinat al-Zahra and the Spaces of Knowledge




Fig 1. Above: Roman cornice (1st Century A.D.) found in Ramírez de Arellano Street, Córdoba. Archeological Museum of Córdoba (inv. CE028345). Below: cornice crowning the socle inside the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (354/965).

The palatine city of Madīnat al-Zahrāʼ was, together with the enlargement of the Mosque of Cordoba, the great monumental project of the caliphate. Launched by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 300/912-350/961) around 324/936, the works were extended during some fifty years in numerous consecutive phases until the death of his son al-Ḥakam II (r. 350/961-366/976). Towards the year 400/1010, the city was sacked for the first time and fell into abandonment. Since its discovery in the late 19th century, in the northeast of Cordoba, the parts excavated so far (less than half of the surface occupied by the city) allows us to understand the wealth and complexity of the palatine ensemble. A new palace for the caliph, reception halls, residential units for the courtesans, a congregational mosque, gardens, spaces destined to the administration and the army as well as the neighbourhoods constituted the royal city. And there was something else: knowledge spaces.

Finding a collection of Roman sarcophagi and sculptures in some buildings of the palace of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ has led me to rethink the reasons why materials from Classical times were reused in Islamic architecture and the role played by Antiquity in the construction of al-Andalus. The presence of Roman sculptures in an Islamic palace of the 4th/10th century is absolutely exceptional so far. Why were Classical spolia used at a time, when they were no longer popular? Why reutilize old pieces with so many connotations, featuring scenes and characters (heroes, philosophers and muses) which were a priori pagan and hardly acceptable in an Islamic context like the Caliphate of Cordoba? What was the meaning assigned to these figures and what relationship did they have with their designated location?


Fig. 2.  Left: base of a column from the Sarcophagus found on the area of the Camino de Ronda Bajo Madinat al-Zahra’. Right: Marble base from the ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III’s Hall, Madīnat al-Zahrā’ (inv. 151.57)

The Roman sculptures and reliefs from al- Zahra’ were discovered over an extended period of time, starting from the first excavation campaigns undertaken by Ricardo Velazquez Bosco in the early 20th century, to the most recent ones.  Every piece was found in advanced stages of deterioration, impeding the process of gathering all the fragments necessary to reconstruct the pieces.  The fragments of the Sarcophagus of the Gate of Hades were uncovered in an area of the known as Court of the Clocks, above the vaults of the baths and the rooms adjacent to the Salon Rico or ‘Abd al-Rahman III’s Hall, located in a lower terrace. At the front, on both sides of the Gate of Hades or Tabernacle, we can see a couple represented as philosophers and accompanied by two muses each. Each of the minor sides features two philosophers, one of them sitting and the other standing, holding open and folded uolumina or scrolls. On the upper part of both sides there are orifices made later for its use as a fountain.


Fig. 3. Excavated areas of the Palace of Madīnat al-Zahrā’. 1: Court of the Pillars. 2: Court of the Clocks. 3: Court to be excavated. 4: Camino de Ronda Bajo (Lower Footpath).

The Sarcophagus of Meleager was discovered during the earliest excavation campaigns of the palace-city. The scene depicted at the front shows Meleager hunting the Kalydon boar. The decorated front faced the Western portico of the court. The fragments of two other sarcophagi depicting Philosophers and Muses and a Bacchic scene were discovered in a mound on the Camino de Ronda Bajo (Lower Footpath), north of the Lower Garden. The Philosophers and Muses sarcophagus is a piece of exceptional dimensions. Some characters are holding a uolumen or scroll and wearing a tunic as palliatus, both articles commonly used for the depiction of philosophers and masters. The fragment depicting the image of a female head in profile, dressed with a chiton and playing an aulós, most likely belonged to a scene of Bacchic thiasos.

Fig. 4a.
(Left) Sarcophagus Gate of Hades in the Court of the Clocks. Front fragments. Photo : D-DAI-MAD-WIT-R-116-91-10…
Fig. 4b. (Right) Sarcophagus Gate of Hades. Fragments of the left side. Photo: D-DAI-MAD-WIT-R-116-91-03


Fig. 4c. Sarcophagus of the Gate of Hades: reconstruction drawing by E. Candon and J. Beltrán, 1999 (fig. 41)

Finally, an outstanding herm of Heracles as a child and a series of fragments of three solar quadrants (sundials) were found in the Court of the Clocks, which suggest it may have been used for scientific and astronomical activities. It should be remembered that caliph al-Hakam II had a team of astronomers and astrologers in his service.

According to the Andalusi sources, Madīnat al-Zahrā’ housed spaces dedicated to the education of the princes, places where the scholars (physicians, astronomers, grammarians, legal and religious scholars –‘ulamā’ and fuqahā’) employed by the caliph worked, as well as the archives and the famous palatine library, called by Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ the bayt al-ḥikma of al-Ḥakam II. In his biography of Abū Bakr Ibn al-Salīm, jurisprudence expert and great qadi (judge) of Cordoba, Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ brings up an anecdote supposedly taken from Ibn Ḥayyān (d. 469/1076), the best-informed historian about the tenth century. According to that account, before rising to the position of cadí in 356/966-7, Ibn al-Salīm would have criticised Abū l-Qāsim Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Yūsuf, tutor to Prince Hišam, because al-Hakam II had paid him to collate his books. But, years later, and despite his misgivings, the caliph persuaded Ibn al-Salīm, “resorting to his love of science” according to the chronicler, to “collate (muqābala) [his books in] the dawāwīn (sg. dīwān) of his bayt al-ḥikma” and also in exchange for payment.


Fig. 5. Sarcophagus of Meleager in the Court of the Pillars. Orifices on both minor sides for their use as basin.

This extraordinary mention of al-Hakam’s house of knowledge, the only one I know of so far, is by an author who wrote almost two centuries after the events, when the expressions bayt al-ḥikma and jizānat al-ḥikma were customarily used and interchangeable. According to Van Bladel and Gutas, those two expressions refer to one of the institutions dedicated to preserving knowledge in the Abbasid court of al-Ma’mun. Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ, considered to be a rigorous historian who had studied in the East, could have copied this term from an earlier source, like Ibn Ḥayyān, or could have decided to use it by assimilation with the events in Baghdad. In either case, the mention seems very eloquent to me and complete the information that was already known about the al-Hakam’s library.


Fig. 6.  Sarcophagus of Philosophers and Muses of Madinat al-Zahra’. Fragments of the front. Conjunto Arqueológico de Madīnat al-Zahrā’

Al-Maqqari (d. 1040/1631) quotes earlier authors in his Nafḥ al-tīb to describe al-Hakam II as “a lover of science who gathered more books than any other sovereign”. According to Ibn Ḥazm, “the treasure (khizanat) of knowledge and books was in the house of the Banū Marwān, and the catalogue of books, including only the title and description, took up 44 volumes of 20 pages each.” He sent his emissaries to Baghdad to look for originals and copies and paid generous amounts of golden dinars; “In his library, he gathered experts in transcription and the copying of books, skilled in preservation and book-binding”, in addition to correctors and illuminators. As said by these authors, in the libraries also took place the collation of the copies and the translation of books from Latin and Greek into Arabic, a movement which implications are yet to be properly evaluated. These libraries were also called al-khizāna al-‘ulūm wa l-kutub bi-dār Banī Marwān.


Fig. 7. Sarcophagus found on the Camino de Ronda Bajo. Bacchic thiasos (?)

What was the exact location of the caliphal libraries? This is still unknown, but there is no doubt the books were distributed at least between the two main caliphal residences of Cordoba and Madīnat al-Zahrā’. We do not have any formal or typological equivalent to identify these spaces, since the earliest Eastern institutions –such as the Bayt al-Ḥikma and other Abbasid centres dedicated to the recovery, preservation and promotion of sciences— did not leave any material trace. Textual descriptions suggest that in the 9th and 10th centuries these were multifunctional areas, with no clearly established architectural typology (In order to find buildings that were specifically designed to store books, teach and study, we must go back to Classical and Late Antiquity.)


Fig. 8. Herm of Heracles as a child from the Court of the Clocks. Conjunto Arqueológico de Madīnat al-Zahrā’.

One of the challenges in the study of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ is precisely to identify the functions of certain palatial spaces. It was only recently that the historiography has detached itself from the old Romantic and Orientalist view of the Islamic palaces as a setting for leisure and pleasure. To reach any conclusion about the functionality of a space we need to, not only examine its architectural forms, its decoration and the materials found in its interior, but also the historical, cultural and artistic context. Some buildings of the palace with a central courtyard, in particular the Court of the Pillars and the Court of the Clocks, considered so far as “administrative and service areas”, have enough peculiarities to suggest that they had a quite more specialized function. Their strategic location inside the palace, their architectural structure and, above all, the fragments of sundials, Roman sculptures and sarcophagi reused as fountains in their courtyard suggest that these were spaces related to scientific and intellectual activities. These figures of philosophers and muses would only be acceptable in a domain related to the sciences of the ancients (ʽulūm al-awāʼil), where the images of the philosophers and the heroes of the Antiquity would be recognised and accepted thanks to the books collected and the numerous scholars and scientists active in the court of the Caliphs.


Fig. 9. Plan of Court of Pillars. By Vallejo, 2011 (fig. 43)

The adoption of the caliphal dignity by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 300/912-350/961) in 316/929 led al-Andalus to become the most important artistic and knowledge centre in the western Mediterranean, directly competing with the Fatimid and Abbasid Caliphates and with the Byzantine Empire. As a mean of legitimisation, the Andalusi Umayyads invoked the legacy of the “Rightly Guided” caliphs and of their eastern ancestors that enabled them to present themselves as supreme guides and guardians of Sunni orthodoxy. Similarly, like their Umayyad ancestors and the 9th century Abbasid Caliphs, al-Ḥakam II promoted the sciences and the arts, surrounded himself with scholars and took care of the princes’ education, following the model of the wise rulers, i.e. Alexander the Great, Khosrow, Ardashir and the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mūn. Finally, while becoming the heirs of their Hispanic past, Roman and Hispano-Visigothic, they built a political, cultural and visual corpus predominantly Andalusi.


Fig. 10. Plan of the Court of the Clocks. Vallejo, 2011 (fig. 58)

Those factors were translated in their artistic projects. The phenomenon of recovering Antiquity prompted by the Caliphal court explains why reliefs and Roman sculptures were properly accepted and understood in Madīnat al-Zahrā’. This can also be seen in the revival of classical forms in caliphal architecture. One example is the Classical cornice crowning the basement of the mihrab of Cordoba or the caliphal bases and capitals. In the reception halls of Madīnat al-Zahrā ‘ (called maŷlis by Ibn Ḥayyān), the Andalusi Umayyads recovered the Roman tradition of ceremonial space, used for the cult of the sovereign, that the oriental Umayyads had introduced in their palaces.


Fig. 11. Fragment of one solar quadrant found in the Court of the Clocks (piedra caliza). Museo de Madīnat al-Zahrā’ (Nº Inv. 30135).

The historians at the service of the Umayyad dynasty partially outlined the theoretical discourse upholding the use of spolia in the tenth century monuments. Chroniclers, such as Ahmad al-Razi, were commissioned by al-Hakam II to write a history of al-Andalus. Myths and history were often confused: mythological figures became historical characters both in the East and in al-Andalus, like Hirqilish. If we also consider the survival of certain images from the Greek-Roman mythology related to the stars, such as the female statues crowning the gates of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ and Cordoba, we have sufficient evidence to conclude that the choice of sculptural reliefs representing scenes of muses and philosophers in a studious environment surrounded by books, was a deliberate action designed to exalt –in this case, through images— the importance of Ancient heritage in the creation of the Caliphal culture. Those Roman sculptures became allegories to “the Wisdom of the Ancient”, a visual reference to a past which Muslims had already claimed as their own in the 9th century, and now Andalusi Umayyads used as a means to legitimize their ascension to the Caliphate.

Click here for the full article in Spanish (Espanol) that was originally published in Anales de Historia del Arte, 2012, vol. 22, Num. Especial (II), 131-160.

Sources of the Text

“Madīnat al-Zahrā’ y la observación del tiempo:  el renacer de la Antigüedad Clásica en la Córdoba del siglo X.” In Anales de historia del arte, Departamento de Historia del Arte (Universidad Complutense de Madrid), vol. 22, 2012. pp. 131-160.

“Los espacios de conocimiento en el Islam: Mezquitas, Casas de la Sabiduría y Madrasas.” In M. Parada López de Corselas (ed.), DOMUS HISPANICA. El Real Colegio de España y el cardenal Gil de Albornoz en la Historia del Arte, Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2018, pp. 179-193.

Fig. 12. Sarcophagus Gate of Hades. Right side. Photo: D-DAI-MAD-WIT-R-116-91-11.

Ibn Sina and Sports

ibn sina banner
(Image Source)


The Editorial Note: Extracted from the article “Beauty, Hair and Body Care in the Canon of Ibn Sina” written by Nil Sari on 17th June 2005


  • Digestion or the “attractive force” (quvva-i câzibe[8] may be inefficient. These forces weaken because of the corrupted (fesâd) humour (mizac). Typically, the corrupt humour causing weakness is the “cold” humor (mizac-i barid). The cause of the weakness of the attractive force is “extreme inactivity” (kasrat-i sukûn); for when one is much too inactive, the “attractive force” becomes unresponsive and dormant. This condition is observed more frequently in those who have the habit of activating their function of attracting food by their own “attractive force” with the help of exercise, this is, sports. If such people remain in continuous inactivity, however moderate, (mutedil) the food they eat may be, the “attraction of food” by the attractive force weakens. Here the importance of sports is mentioned in the terms of feeding.
  • Too much dissolution of the food (kesret-i tahallul): The food reaches the organs as intended, yet undergoes too much dissolution upon arrival. (This reminds us of the catabolism and metabolic reactions.) Emaciation may develop by partaking in heavy sports (riyazât-i seriâ), anxiety (hümûm), worries (gumûm) and consuming diseases.
  • Although it is understood that being overweight was regarded as desirable in the past, Ibn Sina had made observations of the harmfulness of obesity. Leading Ibn Sina to conclude that “Obesity also does harm. The obesity [in overweight people] is not like [that which appears in] normal people. Yet, they do not take it seriously as long as they do not appear to receive any harm from it. But one must protect oneself and beware of excessive obesity. Although they may not be suffering from obesity and see no harm in it, their health may unexpectedly fail. In order to lose weight, Ibn Sina advices people to partake in diets, bathing and intensive sports. After achieving these regimes, methods for toning organs such as the arms and legs are discussed.

Additional extract fromSphygmology of Ibn Sina, a Message for Future” by M.M. Zarshenas, Z. Abolhassanzadeh, P. Faridi, A. Mohagheghzadeh

  • Ibn Sina mentioned that different physiological conditions could affect pulse parameters. He mentioned that pulse is massive, fast and frequent when stomach is full. Sport and physical exercise will modify the pulse. During the pregnancy period, pulse is bigger than in the other periods, yet being fast, frequent and massive. Along the end months of pregnancy, especially when approaching the labor phase, pulse becomes thin, weak, fast and frequent. Inflammation changes the pulse to saw-like one. Anger makes it massive, tall, fast and frequent, while distress makes it thin, weak, slow, and different.
    [References:  Ibn Sina. Tehran: Selsele Intisharat-e Anjomane Asare Melli; 1951. Rag Shenasi ya Resaleh dar Nabz (Pulsology, or, treatise on pulse) – Ibn Sina. Translated by Sharafkandi A. Vol. 3. Tehran: Soroush (Publisher); 1987. Qanoun fi al-Tibb (Canon of medicine)]

His biography also published in Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal as “Ibn Sina: The Islamic Polymath” written by Alan Weber

Video: Ibn Khaldun – Greatest Medieval Thinker?

The life story and lessons of a one of a kind person in history, Ibn Khaldun! A video by Hikma History

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Science Institutionalization in Early Islam

A view of one of the two “Iwans” overlooking the courtyard of the so-called “Abbasid Palace” (“al-Qasral-‘Abbasi”) in Baghdad. (Source)

Science institutions have evolved historically, eventually emerging in many forms. Nowadays, they include schools and universities, research centres, learned societies and academies of sciences. However, even with the existence today of over 120 Connally recognised academies of sciences around the world (IAP, 2015), the understanding of the term `academy of sciences’ is, at present, lacking. Many people are ignorant of the fact that an academy of sciences’ primary role is to act as the science advisory or sovereign (supreme authority) (Ravetz, 1980) which actively promotes science in the catchment[1] area where it operates, and a forum where scientific issues are debated, studied and communicated.

A quotation from Drenth, which appears in his book Walks in the Garden of Science provides a definition of an academy of sciences (Drenth, 2006). It reads:

“An Academy is basically a learned society, with (a restricted number of) members who are solely selected on the basis of their scientific or scholarly qualification and reputation… An Academy’s main responsibility is the promotion of science and scholarship through independent research, reflection and discussion as well as evaluative and advisory activities, and the public disclosure of its opinions and judgements.”

Although the above definition essentially explains what the term ‘academy’ means in the context of the 20th century, many of the elements embedded in it are applicable to academies of sciences and academy-type institutions of the past including Bayt al-Hikma of Baghdad in the first half of the ninth century.

This paper aims to provide a short history of ancient academy-type institutions. Moreover, to illustrate the rise of the Islamic tradition of science institutionalisation and patronage, the example of Bayt al-Hikma of Baghdad will be re-examined and the perception that Bayt al-Hikma of Baghdad was an `academy of sciences’ of its day involved in translation, research and information dissemination, will be investigated leading to the conclusion that Bayt al-Hiktna preceded the Accademia dei Lincei, viewed by many scholars as the world’s first academy of sciences established in Rome in 1603.

This, to draw lessons that can help to raise the profile of science and further institutionalise the scientific enterprise in developing countries, today…

The public Library of Hulwan in Baghdad, from a 13th century manuscript of ‘Maqamât by Harîrî (Source)

Bayt al-Hikma: An Academy of Sciences?

Of the most famous scientific institutions to appear in the early ‘Abbasid era of the Islamic civilisation was Bayt al-Hikma of Baghdad.

Ahmed went as far as to describe it as the Baghdad Academy of Sciences (Ahmed, 2008); Abdus Salam described it as an institute of advanced study (Dalafi and Hassan, 1994), while Youssef Eshe described it as a stronghold of Mu’tazelite Thought during the reign of al-Ma’mun (Al-Awady, 1997). It is highly likely that it was more than an institution of learning of the type described by Makdisi in his book, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Makdisi, 1981).

The Rise of Bayt al-Hikma

The preliminary founding of Bayt al-Hikma as a concept or indeed as a forum for debate can be attributed to Harun ar-Rashid (AD 763-809) who regularly convened intellectual debates with scholars and scientists (Shalaby, 1954) (Yazigi, 1966).

The majority of historians, including Hitti (2002) in his History of the Arabs, however agree that it was the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun (AD 786 —833) who had formally instituted Bayt al-Hikma in Baghdad around AD 830(41as a combination of a forum of debate, a library, an academy, and a translation bureau.

Al-Ma’mun was an outstanding caliph who was best known for sponsoring the translation of Greek philosophy into Arabic and for promoting the activity of mathematicians, astronomers, engineers and physicians, as the Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim (the premier Arabic-language bibliographical book to survive to the present day) highlights(Saliba, 2007b) (Ahmad, n.d.) (Cooperson, 2005). His interest in the sciences of earlier civilisations could be traced to the time he had spent at Merv; which has been a stopover town on the Silk Road and on the path of every conqueror that has appeared in Eurasia. Al-Ma’mun was thus influenced by the rich heritage that the earlier cultures of the Greeks. Zoroastrians. Christians, and Buddhists had left (Morgan, 2007). Moreover, Merv, in Khorasan, had a great deal to do with the fortunes of the ‘Abbasids, who drew strong support from that province. The Barmakids, moreover, the family that later supplied the all-powerful ministers who guided and controlled the ‘Abbasid government had its roots in that very city (O’Leary, 1979).

bannerHouse of Wisdom Sketch (Source)

The account of Syed Ameer Ali (1955) of al-Ma’mun’s reign as the most brilliant and glorious included a reference to his academic and scientific pursuits including how he collected the writings of the school of Alexandria, and secured from Athens the best philosophical works of ancient Greece. It was during his reign that new learning reached a climax that culminated in the formal institution of Bayt al-Hikma(Sarton, 1927-31) (Kirk, 1964)(Majeed, 2005).

Modelled after the ancient Library of Alexandria, Bayt was a centre of scholarly activities where books from the Greek, Syriac, and Persian languages were translated into Arabic by expert Arabists (Lerner, 1998); a forum for translating and documenting the rational sciences which were called the ‘sciences of the ancients’ (ulum al-awā’il) to distinguish them from disciplines that dealt with Islam and Arabic language (Sabra, 1987).

Notwithstanding testimonies that Bayt al-Hikma was an academy as important as the Library of Alexandria, and Saliba’s declaration that Bayt al-Hikma (c. 830) and the Accademia dei Lincei (founded in 1603) were carefree physical environments for the pursuit of science (Saliba, 2002), questions were raised on the validity of this argument by Gutas (1998)and later by Saliba himself (2007a) (2008). Gutas has according to Lindberg (2007) debunked the theory that Bayt al-Hikma was a research institute.

In what follows, an attempt will be made to show that Bayt al-Hikma was an academy of sciences of its day with all the associated roles including that of a formally instituted learned society, a forum for debate, research, translation … and should be conceived as such…

Click here to read the full article >>>

by Moneef Rafe’ Zou’bi, Mohd Hazim Shah*

* Islamic World Academy of Sciences, Jordan; and Department of Science and Technology Studies, Faculty of Science, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century at the time of House of Wisdom. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library (Source)

Video: Rise of the Machines and Robots (Kuwait) KFAS Festival on Robotics and AI

KFAS and 1001 Inventions organising Robotics and AI event

The Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS) in partnership with 1001 Inventions announces a new national festival launching on 9th February 2020 about robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in Kuwait.

The “KFAS Robotics and AI Festival” is an educational event in Kuwait that is specifically targeting schools, youth and the general public. It is part of KFAS’s drive to advocate a scientific culture across Kuwait and support the government’s vision to transform Kuwait into a commercial, financial and technological hub.

The Festival is an interactive adventure taking audiences of all ages on a journey from smart machines in Muslim civilisation to the modern hi-tech world of robotics, AI and machine learning…

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The Birth of Modern Astronomy

“An early seventeenth-century margin drawing from the folio in Jahāngīr’s Album showing an astrologer surrounded by his equipment—an astrolabe, zodiac tables and an hourglass (Werner Forman Archive/Naprestek Museum, Prague). ” (Source)


Editorial Note: Extracted from “1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th Edition) Annotated”. First published in 1001 Inventions website – www.1001inventions.com/to-modern-astronomy


However, many historians now think it is not a coincidence that his geometrical models for the Sun, Moon, and five naked-eye planets are identical to those prepared by Ibn al-Shatir more than a century before him.

It is known that Copernicus relied heavily on the comprehensive astronomical treatise by Al-Battani, which included star catalogues and planetary tables. The mathematical devices discovered by scholars in Muslim civilisation before Copernicus referred to in modern terms as linkages of constant length vectors rotating at constant angular velocities are exactly the same as those used by Copernicus.

The only important difference between the two was that the former’s Earth was fixed in space, whereas the latter’s had it orbiting around the Sun. Copernicus also used instruments that were particular to astronomy in the East, like the parallactic ruler, which had previously only been used in Samarkand and Maragha observatories.* This instrument has been described by Ptolemy in his Almagest.

Get the full story from 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th  Edition) Annotated.

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A 15th-century Persian manuscript of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s observatory at Maragha depicts astronomers at work teaching astronomy, including how to use an astrolabe. The instrument hangs on the observatory’s wall.
(Source: 1001 inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, Page 269)



The study of anatomy was universally praised and its importance recognised in pre-modern Islamic societies. Physicians and surgeons deemed it essential for medical practice. In his Commentary on the Anatomy of Ibn Sīnā’s ‘Canon of Medicine’, Ibn al-Nafīs provides numerous examples of how medical practice is improved by studying anatomy, ranging from making better inferences as to the causes of diseases in order to prescribe appropriate drugs, to avoiding harm while performing minor procedures by not accidentally cutting into arteries, nerves or muscle fibres. Anatomy’s value for medical practice was recognised to the extent that even market-inspectors (muḥtasibs) were tasked with ensuring that physicians and surgeons were well-versed in this science.


The human skeleton as illustrated in a copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. (Source)

The term for anatomy in Arabic is tashrīḥ, derived from the root sh-r-ḥ, and like its Greek counterpart anatomḗ, it means ‘to cut up’. Based on pre-modern Arabic dictionaries and medical texts, historians concur that in medical usage the term tashrīḥ could be used equally for: 1) the actual process of cutting open a body, i.e. dissection; and 2) the structure of the human body, i.e. anatomy. The term ʿilm al-tashrīḥ thus refers to the knowledge of the structure of the body and its functions obtained both from texts and empirical observations; the latter could be based on dissections or otherwise. When we add to the inherent ambiguity of the term tashrīḥ the fact that pre-modern physicians often made little distinction between personal observations and recorded observations of other authorities, then we are left guessing as to the precise meaning of any reference to tashrīḥ, or even its practice. This ambiguity is captured in the translation of the quotes at the start of the chapter where every occurrence of tashrīḥ has been rendered as anatomy/dissection.


The system of nerves as illustrated in Manṣūr’s Anatomy (tashrīḥ-i Manṣūrī). (Source)

Additionally, the Arabic translations of Galenic texts on anatomy, such as On Anatomical Procedures, did not censor the gory details of animal dissections found therein; nor were the translators ever rebuked by religious scholars for not doing so. In fact, an examination of the structure and function of the body through dissection was believed to lead the investigator closer to God, for it made him appreciate the foresight and wisdom of the Creator, as Ibn Rushd’s aforementioned quote implies. That is also the ultimate purpose of the dissection scenes described in Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 1185) and Ibn al-Nafīs’s respective fictional narratives, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān and Fāḍil ibn Nāṭiq, wherein their protagonists (Ḥayy and Kāmil) arrive at the knowledge of the existence of God through dissecting animals and observing nature. In short, contrary to popular claims, religion was not an obstacle to the study and practice of anatomy…


The anatomy of a pregnant female body as illustrated in Manṣūr’s Anatomy (tashrīḥ-i Manṣūrī) (Source)

1001 Cures

Author Bradley Steffens on ‘First Scientist’, Ibn al-Haytham

Concerning the Islamic genius, Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965 – c. 1040), [1] Steffens has written the following books: The Prisoner of Al-Hakim. Clifton, NJ: Blue Dome Press, 2017. ISBN 1682060160 and Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist (Profiles in Science). Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1599350246


image alt text
Front cover of Ibn Al-haytham: First Scientist by Bradley Steffens (Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2007). 

Nadeem Haque (NH): Can you please provide us a background of how you got interested in writing books and some of your highlights, aside from your works on Ibn Al-Haytham?

Bradley Steffens: I set my sights on becoming a writer in high school, when my creative writing teacher identified my first assignment—a twenty-line poem entitled “Automobile”—as publishable. He was right; it was published in a literary journal two years later. Bolstered by his encouragement, I changed which college I was planning to attend, changed my major, and embarked on a career in letters. I continued to write and publish poetry in literary journals while in college. At the age of twenty, I collected my published work into pamphlets that I sold on the streets in my hometown of Los Angeles. I supported myself as a street poet for three years. I eventually started writing poetic monologues, dialogues, and then one-act plays-in-verse. When I was twenty-five, a theater in Minneapolis produced my plays-in-verse as an evening of theater. The plays received good reviews, and my identity as a writer deepened. I got married, had children, and at twenty-seven took my first writing job as an advertising copywriter. Many people believe that commercial writing corrupts the artist, but in my case, it taught me how to write lean, taut prose, which carried over into a more economical poetic style. I began to win prizes for my poetry and eventually published about sixty poems.

When my wife’s company relocated from Minneapolis to San Diego, I found myself unemployed, so I began to do freelance proofreading for a local publisher of young adult books. They had a manuscript that was in bad shape, although the research was good, so they asked me if I would rewrite it. It did so for the money, but without credit. They liked my work, so they gave me another manuscript in the same shape. That time I insisted on credit at least as a coauthor. I eventually coauthored seven books in this way. In each case, the original author did most of the research but couldn’t or wouldn’t make the changes required by the publisher. Impressed with my ability to write about complex subjects at a low reading level—a skill that I joked I had developed by writing advertising—my publisher began to offer me the opportunity to write my own books from scratch. I wrote more than twenty for them—histories, biographies, and current affairs.

NH: What prompted or inspired you to write Ibn Al-Haytham: First Scientist?

Bradley Steffens: The young adult books I was writing were all for the library market, and authors for such books are paid a flat fee. You have to remember that when I started, in 1989, there was no public internet and no online booksellers, so the number of copies that could be sold was dictated by the specific market—in my case, the library market. By 2006, I wanted to get into a royalty situation, so I approached a different publisher. I pitched an update of my 1996 biography of Emily Dickinson, which had received excellent reviews but was out of print. The editor was interested in working with me, but he passed on the Dickinson proposal. He asked if I had any other ideas. I had written a book about the invention of photography in 1991. In the chapter on pre-invention technology, I discussed Ibn al-Haytham and his work with the camera obscura. For that book, I focused on Ibn al-Haytham’s technological advances, but it always fascinated me that he had constructed his camera obscura to test a hypothesis about light rays. I had been taught that Galileo was the first person to conduct experiments to test hypotheses. I knew from my previous publisher that books about the Middle Ages were in high demand, because every school system includes a world history course, but there was precious little (at that time) about the Middle Ages, because publishers largely ignored the Islamic Golden Age. I like to think my next book had something to do with changing that. I also knew—had been told directly by my previous publisher—that Booklist and School Library Journal were not reviewing books about “dead white males.” Based on that knowledge, I pitched the idea of a biography of a medieval, non-European scholar: Ibn al-Haytham. My publisher loved the idea, and I got the contract. Sometimes the best answer you can receive is a “no.” If the editor had said “yes” to the Dickinson book, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.

NH: Can you explain your justification for the subtitle “First Scientist”?

Bradley Steffens: At the time I pitched the book, Ibn al-Haytham was all but unknown in the West, so my hook was that he was the “first scientist.” I said that because he was practicing experimental science six hundred years before Galileo, five hundred years before Leonardo da Vinci, and two hundred years before Roger Bacon. Each of those scholars has been credited as “the first scientist” in books by Frederick Aicken, Michael White, and Brian Clegg, respectively.

NH: What is the basic outline of the story of Ibn al-Haytham?

Bradley Steffens: Biographical details are scarce, but when he was sixty-three, Ibn al-Haytham wrote a letter describing his intellectual development. Amazingly, copies of this letter were preserved, and a translation of it appeared in the proceedings of a 1969 conference commemorating the one-thousandth birthday of Ibn al-Haytham. This letter was invaluable to me. It explained what every biographer needs to know: why he did what he did. In the letter he said he had started out as a theologian who sought to unify the sects of Islam. After laboring for who knows how long, he admitted failure, concluding, “I am now convinced that…whatever differences exist between various sects are based not on the basic tenets of faith or the Ultimate Reality but on sociological content.”

I sense that he was bitterly disappointed by his failure. He lost interest in intellectual pursuits that were subject to human opinion. He subsequently discovered the works of Aristotle, and was impressed with the Greek philosopher’s systematic approach to knowledge. This was a turning point for Ibn al-Haytham. He wrote, “I saw that I can reach the truth only through concepts whose matter are sensible things, and whose form is rational.”

He began to write commentaries on Aristotle and mathematicians such as Euclid, Ptolemy, and Apollonius of Perga. He had varied interests and wrote extensively on many topics. Most notably, he solved the mystery of vision that had eluded scholars for millennia, realizing that the eyes did not send out rays to perceive objects, as Euclid and the mathematicians had argued, nor that objects gave off forms that entered the eye, as Aristotle and the physicists had argued, but that vision occurred when light rays entered the eye and created an impression—what he called “a small pain”—at the back of the eye, which the optic nerve carried to the brain. His work on vision turned into thorough a study of the propagation of light—reflection, refraction, curved mirrors, burning mirrors, and the like. This of course was all included in his landmark book, of Kitāb al-Manāzir, or The Book of Optics.

NH: What would you consider his major achievements and legacy?

Bradley Steffens: While Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of analytic geometry and of course made historic breakthroughs regarding light and vision, his greatest achievement was his methodology, his insistence on using what he called “true demonstrations” and what we call experiments to test hypotheses. This was a turning point in human history. It affected not only the physical sciences, but all of the sciences—and society itself. Criminal prosecutors today complain that it’s getting harder and harder to get convictions on circumstantial evidence and logic alone. Juries today demand concrete, physical evidence, in part because of the CSI television programs. That’s a legacy of Ibn al-Haytham’s approach. It’s hard to realize that it wasn’t always like this. What I think is interesting is that we can pinpoint the moment this change occurred, not just to Ibn al-Haytham’s lifetime, but to a specific time in his life. At the beginning of The Book of Optics, he wrote, “I formerly composed a treatise on light and vision in which I employed persuasive methods of reasoning, but when true demonstrations relating to all objects of vision occurred to me, I started afresh. Whoever, therefore, comes upon the said treatise must know that it should be discarded.” He realized that everything he had done up to that point—outside of his mathematics, of course—had been for naught, because it depended on logic rather than on experiment. It also meant that the work of the Greeks and anyone who had supported their theories with “persuasive reasoning” had to be discarded. In my novel, The Prisoner of Al-Hakim, I added a line after his statement above: “Even the most brilliant reasoning is worthless if nature does not support it.” I have him make this remark in a discussion at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. One of the scholars in attendance, a man who specializes in teaching the works of Aristotle, challenges him: “Are you suggesting that we discard the knowledge of the ancients, which has endured for centuries?” The man smiled at his colleagues. “Unless, of course, it passes a ‘true demonstration?’”

The short answer to that was “yes.” That was a revolution in thinking. That was science.

NH: In my capacity as a philosopher of science, I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest scientific thinkers in history were: Archimedes (Ancient); Ibn al-Haytham (Middle Ages) and Isaac Newton (Pre-Modern period), because Ibn al-Haytham introduced the inductive scientific method to the world more than anyone else we know of, the same method that Newton was able to apply further. Would you say that my view is inaccurate or perhaps biased? For the modern period, we’re still waiting for one who will truly unify physics on a rational basis; perhaps the next Newton will be from the Muslim world! Who knows?

Bradley Steffens: I would tend to agree about a very high ranking for Ibn al-Haytham in the pantheon of past thinkers. He was certainly one of the greatest giants upon which Newton stood and was one who, no doubt, made Newton see even farther. Newton was very religious too, was he not?

NH: Newton was an anti-Trinitarian. He was a Unitarian. In fact, he never separated science from religion. Science for him was a means to understanding and worshiping God through reason, just like it was for Ibn al-Haytham, a wholly rational approach, in general, sadly absent today. But to get back to your novel, please take us through the gist of The Prisoner of Al-Hakim, without any spoilers if possible.

Bradley Steffens: The story follows the events of Ibn al-Haytham’s life. The historical record—and there isn’t much of it, just a few paragraphs written by Ibn Abī Usaybi‘ah after his death—says that Ibn al-Haytham supported himself as a copyist in Basra, was summoned to Egypt by Caliph Al-Hakim to see if he could make good on his claim that he could tame the Nile, surveyed the Nile but thought building a dam was not feasible at that time, and was placed under house arrest by Al-Hakim. He remained in prison for ten years, until Al-Hakim’s death. The novel dramatizes those basic facts, and I add fictional episodes along the way. For example, Ibn al-Haytham, whom I call Alhasan in the novel, does not want to go to Egypt, but he is forced to do so by the man sent to retrieve him. Alhasan tries to escape from the man a couple of times, but fails. On the way, they are set upon by bandits. Things like that. Adventures. But each episode has a point, revealing something about Alhasan’s character.

I surmised in my biography that Alhasan began work on The Book of Optics while in prison in Cairo, and a large part of the novel is dedicated to that period. I invented the character of Sadeem, a young woman who brings him his meals, becomes his student, and assists him with his work. There is a somewhat comical scene when Sadeem repeats Alhasan’s experiment with the camera obscura in her home, projecting an image of herself onto a wall and frightening her sisters, who think they are seeing a spirit. This scene is modeled after something that actually happened six hundred years later, when the Italian scholar Giovanni Battista Della Porta gave a demonstration of the camera obscura at night, using actors lit by torches. The audience was terrified and bolted from the room, and Della Porta was brought before the Inquisition on charges of sorcery.

The crisis in the novel comes when Al-Hakim dies and Alhasan faces choices about his future.

NH: How has the reaction been from among both Muslims and non-Muslims to your two books Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist and The Prisoner of Al-Hakim?

Bradley Steffens: The reaction to First Scientist was very positive. Booklist and School Library Journal—the most important reviewers for the young adult market—both recommended it, and it received positive reviews from other publications. Several Muslim and interfaith organizations, including the Pacifica Institute, Women in Dialogue, and the Islamic Medical Association of North America, featured me as a speaker. I also was invited to give a talk in the computer science department of Purdue University. There I met Ahmed Elmagarmid, the head of the department, who later was appointed the first executive director of the Qatar Computing Research Institute. Based on my talk and my book, Dr. Elmagarmid offered me a position as the communications director of the new institute, and I spent three years working in Qatar. That experience, and the many Muslim friends I made while I was there, had a tremendous impact on my novel. It could not have been written without their help and support.

The Prisoner of Al-Hakim has received excellent reviews from three Islamic publications: The Fountain, Blue Minaret, and Wardah Books. Blue Minaret says, “The story of Ibn al-Haytham has now been fictionalized masterfully by Bradley Steffens in the new book The Prisoner of al-Hakim.” Justin Pahl, the reviewer for The Fountain, writes, “From the very first page Steffens brilliantly brings Alhasan’s internal character to life on the page, sketching a conflicted, fascinating portrait of a reluctant hero. It’s not easy to dramatize the acts of thinking and creating–and harder still to do so in a subtle, elegant style–yet Steffens manages the trick. Watching Alhasan’s mind work is a beautiful process.”

I am particularly pleased with Pahl’s comments about Alhasan’s faith. He writes:

Showing religious faith—especially the kind of quiet, devout faith Ibn al-Haytham practiced—can be as difficult for the writer as depicting the inner workings of a great mind. In the book’s final third, Steffens does both, and he does so without losing the story’s momentum. As Alhasan grows in his faith, he grows intellectually, too. His scientific revelations are inextricably connected to his practice of Islam.

Then, to top it off, Michael Faraday Prize winner Jim Al-Khalili, physicist, author, and host of several BBC productions, including Science and Islam, provided my publisher with this blurb for the cover:

Ibn al-Haytham, one of the greatest scholars in history, whose real life was one of the most colourful and fascinating ever told by historians, has been brought to life in a work of fiction utterly brilliantly by Steffens. The reader is transported one thousand years into medieval Arabia. This is a gripping story based on real-life events that is fizzing with adventure and rich in accurate historical and scientific nuggets.

NH: Have you had a chance to interact with the 1001 Inventions project, which featured Ibn Al-Haytham, and also made an animated film about him?

Bradley Steffens: Keep in mind that when I wrote First Scientist there was no other biography in English about Ibn al-Haytham, only A.I. Sabra’s short entry in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, so I was very excited to hear about 1001 Inventions. I made a trip from Doha to Abu Dhabi to see its first traveling exhibit. I was delighted that they showcased Ibn al-Haytham in a freestanding tent, with an actor portraying him. I did find it amusing that they used a lens to demonstrate his camera obscura, because he never mentions using a lens for that purpose in any of his work. He always used an aperture without a lens—a pinhole. I thought it was good entertainment, but bad history. That said, it is entirely possible that he could have placed a lens in an aperture but never wrote about it, or that he did write about it, but what he wrote is lost. He certainly understood the physics of it. When I was writing my novel, I decided to include a scene in which he uses a lens to project an image, but that scene comes after the completion of The Book of Optics. I didn’t want to imply that it was part of that groundbreaking book, because it wasn’t.

While I was at the 1001 Inventions exhibit, I chatted with the person in charge of the bookstore and gave her a sample copy of Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist for possible inclusion in the store. She was enthusiastic, but I never heard back. I also had the chance to meet Dr. Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist formerly at Imperial College London, and a contributor to the 1001 Inventions book, Muslim Heritage in Our World, when she gave a talk in Qatar. I was surprised to learn she was familiar with First Scientist. She actually introduced me to the audience from the stage. After the talk, we discussed featuring my book in the 1001 Inventions bookstore, but nothing came of that, either. Now I understand that my publisher is in talks with 1001 Inventions about The Prisoner.

NH: Are there any plans to produce a movie or TV series on the novel?

Bradley Steffens: I am keen to see this happen. One of my friends in the Middle East, Sheikha Hend Al Qassimi, publisher of Velvet Magazine in Dubai and the author of The Black Book of Arabia, believes it would make excellent television fare during Ramadan, when Muslims like to concentrate on their own culture and history. I am hoping something like that will happen. Currently, a screenplay is underway, in conjunction with an Islamic author/playwright/philosopher of science, which I hope to have completed in 2018; it is not yet clear whether I will be adapting this for a movie or a TV series.

NH: We understand that a sequel to The Prisoner of Al-Hakim is being written. What is that about? How long will it take to complete?

Bradley Steffens: I am very excited about it. I began it about six months ago and already have written forty thousand words, which is about half the length of The Prisoner. While The Prisoner was in production, I began work on another novel set in the Islamic Golden Age, and I am very excited about that one, too. But while I was working on that book, a casual acquaintance suggested writing a sequel to The Prisoner. I had thought about doing that, but I had no story. As the acquaintance and I were talking, I thought back to the closing scene of The Prisoner, and I suddenly had a vision of something occurring in the moment after the last book ended. I had the idea for a completely new adventure: Alhasan [Ibn al-Haytham] hears a rumor about a meteor crash in The Empty Quarter of Arabia and he decides to visit the site to see if he can confirm his theory about what meteors are made of (which he has deduced from observation and his understanding of optics and the atmosphere). This is loosely based on the existence of the Wabar impact craters in Saudi Arabia. There also is a subplot about the findings of his contemporary, Abu Sa’id Al-Sizji, who suggested that the earth moves. The real Ibn al-Haytham never wrote about any of this, so the story is entirely fictional. However, Al-Sizji and his theories are real, and of course Ibn al-Haytham wrote extensively about astronomy, atmospherics, and cosmology. In other words, nothing is discussed that is not in keeping with what was known at the time and the interests and capabilities of the characters in the novel. The working title is The Empty Quarter. And yes, there is also “taste of romance,” as one of the Amazon customer reviewers put it about The Prisoner, in the sequel.

NH: What do you think are the misunderstandings that non-Muslims and also Muslims have about Islam and Science?

Bradley Steffens: I am not really qualified to answer that question. I don’t really know. However, I will say that in the West, there is a divide between science and religion, as if they are incompatible. Ibn al-Haytham was devout, and he believed that the study of the universe was a way of coming closer to God. He wrote in his autobiographical letter, “It became my belief that for gaining access to the effulgence and closeness to God, there is no better way than that of searching for truth and knowledge.” At one point in The Prisoner, I have Alhasan describe experimental science as “a dialogue with the universe, and through it, with The Creator.” So I present a kind of unification of science and theology.

NH: Your works help clarify the role of the evolution of experimental science as chiefly established through the Muslims. Do you think that the causative factor for this was the Qur’an, because it is never really pointed to by non-Muslim historians of science, even to this day?

Bradley Steffens: Yes, I do. The Qur’an talks about gaining knowledge, including knowledge about nature, in verses such as: “Those who remember Allah…reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth.” I think Ibn al-Haytham took that to heart. The Qur’an also teaches that only God is perfect, and human beings are deeply flawed. I think this instilled a deep skepticism in Ibn al-Haytham and drove him to seek a way of knowing things that was as independent of human opinion as possible. In Doubts on Ptolemy, he wrote, “Truths are immersed in uncertainties, and authorities are not immune from error, nor is human nature itself.” This shows a tremendous humility and awareness of shortcomings of human knowledge. Nevertheless, his faith gave him hope that these limitations could be overcome. He wrote, “None of us are free from that human turbidity which is in the nature of man, but we must do our best with what we possess of human power. From God we derive support in all things.”

NH: Which other Muslim scientist/thinker do you think should be written about and paid more attention to?

Bradley Steffens: All of them! Until Al-Khwarizmi is as well-known in the West as Newton, Al-Biruni is as well-known as Galileo, and Al-Sizji is as well-known as Copernicus, we have a long way to go.

NH: How do you think your work can be a bridge to understanding between the Muslims and non-Muslims in today’s highly politicized world?

Bradley Steffens: People learn from stories. They put themselves into the main character’s shoes. They empathize. God willing, that will happen to my readers. They will come to appreciate that Alhasan’s struggles are not that different from their own. Perhaps the most surprising—and promising—reaction the book has gotten so far came from a woman I’ve known since we were in junior high school. She is a devout evangelical Christian, and I was a little surprised that she was even interested in reading a story about an eleventh century Muslim scholar. In her Amazon customer review, she wrote, “I am writing this with tear-stained eyes to say how much I loved this book. It transported me into an adventure I couldn’t walk away from without knowing how it ended.” If other Westerners can relate to the characters as she did, and respect them and their culture, perhaps bridges can be built.

NH: How has your understanding of Ibn al-Haytham’s thoughts and works affected your life?

Bradley Steffens: He has inspired me on many levels. Here’s a guy, stripped of his possessions, placed under house arrest, with the entire world believing he was mad, who had the courage of his convictions to pursue a new way of discovering the truth about the universe. He comes to the realization that everyone has been going about natural science the wrong way, and yet he arrives at this conclusion not out of arrogance, not out of a belief that he is smarter than everyone who has gone before, but out of humility, out of the conviction that he and everyone else is deeply flawed and prone to error, and that their thinking—however brilliant they might think it is, and however well it conforms to the rules of logic—must be tested against a higher authority, against the universe itself.

I am inspired by that. I mean, here I am, sitting in a small house at the end of a dirt road in rural Philippines, telling the story of one of the greatest figures in history, dreaming his dreams, describing his adventures, daring to put words in his mouth. Who am I to do that? But I draw inspiration from Alhasan, his intellectual courage and his faith.

NH: Do you think there needs to be an educational reform in Western education to teach students of the great achievements of other cultures/religions at a younger age? What are your thoughts on this?

Bradley Steffens: Again, not my area of expertise, but I’ll tell a little story. When I was twelve, I had a sixth grade teacher, Betsy Crawford, who taught a survey of world history. I don’t know if it was part of the curriculum or not. She used a nonstandard text—an entertaining, layman’s version of world history. I can’t remember the title of it. This was in the 1960s, and the book was old by then. She scoured used book stores to find copies of it. It focused on the Western tradition, but it also incorporated some things from the East, such as the advent of writing in Mesopotamia and so forth. She was fascinated with the ancient Greeks, and we got thumbnail sketches of Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, and others. She also was a big enthusiast of astronomy. For homework, we would observe the stars and planets. We even had a telephone tree so we could all get in touch if there were an astronomical emergency. An astronomical emergency! Can you imagine? “Hi, Bill. This is Brad. There’s an incredible conjunction of Venus and the crescent moon in the west. Pass it on.” My point is that at that age we were receptive to stories about other cultures and old enough to understand and retain them. There’s more than a little of that twelve-year-old boy in The Prisoner. So yes, the great achievements of other cultures and religions can taught and should be taught at a younger age.


[1] A preprint from the Institute of Higher Reasoning (IHR) journal, Quranicosmos: Volume 1, Issue 2, January 2017.
Website: https://www.facebook.com/instituteofhigherreasoning

Nadeem Haque is a Philosopher of Science and Belief Systems and author of numerous books and articles that focus on ‘Reality Studies’. He is a researcher and author/writer on numerous interrelated areas that connect with Islamic Studies. He is also the author of eight books and one other soon to be published book, and numerous peer-reviewed articles (total of around 40 articles/papers). Nadeem was the co-founder of the King’s College Islamic Society at the University of London (in 1985), and is also one of the founders of the Institute of Higher Reasoning (IHR) which is an educational, research and think tank organisation.

The complex geometry of Islamic design – Eric Broug

Eric Broug covers the basics of geometric Islamic design.

Lesson by Eric Broug, animation by TED-Ed.

The variety of Islamic geometric patterns and compositions is enormous. The best way to start to learn is by looking and observing. The largest online resource is Pattern in Islamic Art. It categorizes patterns by region and has many excellent supplemental materials, including many historically important articles and books. Take a look and see what you discover!

On the Archnet website (The online resource of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT), Eric Broug, author of this lesson, has a section with, amongst other, a selection of sixfold geometric patterns. Click on “View the Collection,” and take a look at the beautiful photos provided. More selections will be added so check back periodically for more examples.

Find all this fascinating? Check out Eric Broug’s youtube channel that includes several step-by-step tutorials such as: How to draw a sixfold star patternHow to draw a tenfold 15th century Quran page from CairoHow to build a muqarnas (three dimensional Islamic geometric design), and various other videos.

If, after watching these videos, you want to learn how to draw patterns, how to understand their construction and history in more depth, consider taking the online course: Introduction to Islamic Geometric Design. It has 13 lectures with titles such as: ‘How Grids and Patterns Work Together’, How to Tessellate a Sixfold Pattern, Highlights of Islamic Geometric Design.

Love to draw? Eric Broug also has two print books and one ebook that all have step-by step instructions, these will enable you to draw many more patterns, ranging from the simple to the complex. The first book ‘Islamic Geometric Patterns’ is available in English, Farsi, Turkish and French. The second book ‘Islamic Geometric Design’ has hundreds of color photos and illustrations and gives an historical and practical analysis. The eBook is called ‘Draw Islamic Geometric Star Patterns and is available on all major eBook platforms.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people around the world, who practice Islamic geometric design. Some do so professionally, such as craftsmen in Morocco and Iran. Many others make patterns as a pastime, because they enjoy the process, the opportunity to make something beautiful and the opportunity to learn. Many of these people are share their work on Eric Broug’s Facebook group dedicated to Islamic geometric design. Visit it and take in the beauty of Islamic geometric design from across the world. Then, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art site: Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art and view the slideshow or Activities for learning section for more information!

View full lesson: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-complex…

Web Of Words

Word Cloud: English Words of Arabic Origin by Mourad Diouri


Editorial Note: Extracted from “1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th Edition) Annotated”. First published in 1001 Inventions website – www.1001inventions.com/arabic-words.


Eastern words that have passed into the English language

This alphabet lists just some of the words that have come from sources in Muslim civilization and have passed into the English language with their original meaning intact. It is only a small selection.

Web Of Words

A is for admiral, from amir-al-, “commander of . . .”, like amir al-bahr, or “commander of the seas.” When the Europeans adapted amiral, they added their own Latin prefix ad-, producing “admiral.” When this reached English, via Old French, it still meant “commander,” and it was not until the time of England’s Edward III that a strong naval link began to emerge.

A is also for azimuth (denoting the arc of a celestial circle from the Zenith to the horizon), from old French azimut, from Arabic as-samt meaning “way or direction.”

B is for barbican, from the Arabic bab al-baqarah, or “gate with holes.”

Web Of Words

C is for crimson, from qirmizi, which is related to the qirmiz, the insect that produced the red dye qirmizi.

C is also for cotton, from the Arabic qutn.

Web Of Words
Arabic ‘Zoomorphic’ Calligraphy. The word ‘Cat’ in Arabic is قَطّ‎ qaṭṭ ~ قِطّ qiṭṭ. (Source)
The English word for ‘Cat’ comes from Latin word Cattus, which goes back to Nubian (
Afro-Asiatic Language) word kadīs and according to M. Lionel Bender this Nubian term was a loan from Arabic (Source)

D is for dragoman, an interpreter or guide in countries where Arabic, Turkish, or Persian is spoken; from the Arabic tarjuman and the verb, tarjama, “to interpret.”

E is for Earth, from German Erde and Arabic Ardh.

F is for Fomalhaut, the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, 24 light-years from Earth; fam al-hut means “mouth of the fish.”

Web Of Words
“Bayad plays the oud to the lady”,Arabic manuscript for Qissat Bayad wa Reyad tale (late 12th century) (Source)
“The English word guitar, the German Gitarre, and the French guitare were all adopted from the Spanish guitarra, which comes from the Andalusian Arabic قيثارة (qīthārah)…” (Farmer 1930, p. 137.)

G is for ghoul, from the Arabic ghul, meaning “the demon.”

G is also for giraffe, from the Arabic zarafa.

Web Of Words

H is for hazard, from Old French hasard, from Spanish azar, from Arabic az-zahr, meaning “chance or luck,” from Persian zār or Turkish zar, meaning “dice.”.

I is for Izar, the name of a star in the constellation Andromeda, from the Arabic al’izar, meaning the “veil or covering.”

J is for jar, from jarrah, a large earthen vase.

J is also for jasmine, from the Persian yasmin.

K is for kohl, from kuhl, meaning “a fine powder,” often of antimony, used in eye decoration or as eyeliner.

L is for lilac, from the Arabic lilak, which was taken from the Persian nilak, meaning “indigo.”

L is also for lemon, from the Persian limun, meaning “lemon.”

Web Of Words
Arabic letters transformed into a high art culture, traditional calligraphy (Source)

M is for magazine, from an Arabic word makhzan, meaning “store.”.

M is also for mattress, coming from Old French materas, which was taken from matrah, a “place where something is thrown” and taraha, meaning “to throw.”

N is for nadir, a point on the celestial sphere directly below the observer and diametrically opposite the zenith. It comes from nadir assamt, meaning “opposite the zenith.”

O is for orange, from the Persian naranj or narang, meaning “orange.”

P is for Pherkad, a star in the constellation Ursa Minor, from the Arabic al-farqad, meaning “the calf.”

Q is for qanun, the ancestor to the harp and zither, introduced by Al-Farabi in the tenth century, but used in Roman times as a freestanding instrument.

R is for risk, from the Arabic rizq, meaning earning provided by God.

S is for sofa; the seat was originally an Arabian ruler’s throne and has been in existence since antiquity. Originally suffah, meaning “long bench” or “divan.”

S is also for sugar from the Arabic sukkar, meaning “sugar”; and for so long, from salam, a greeting and goodbye meaning “peace.”

Web Of Words
The depiction of Orion, as seen from Earth (left) and a mirror-image, from a 13th-century copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars. In this version, Orion’s shield has become a long sleeve, typical of Islamic dress.
(Source: “Arabic Star Names…” by Zakri Abdul Hamid)

T is for tariff, via French from Italian tariffa, based on Arabic ‘arrafa, meaning “notify.”

T is also for talcum powder, which is from the Latin talcum, from the Arabic talq. It was first used in medieval Latin as talc around 1317, and in Spanish as talco and in French as talc in 1582. In German, it is talkum.

U is for Unukalhai, a star in the constellation of the Serpent, from the Arabic ’unuq alhayyah, meaning the “neck of the snake.”

V is for vizier, from wazir, meaning “porter, public servant,” from the verb wazara, “to carry.”

V is also for Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, from the Arabic al-nisr alwaqi’, meaning “the falling vulture.”

W is for wadi, a valley or gully that remains dry except during the rainy season, from the Arabic wadi, which means “valley.”

X in algebra, meaning “a thing,” is an Arabic invention to solve mathematic equations.

TED: Why is ‘x’ the unknown? by Terry Moore (Source)

Y is for yoghurt. The original Turkish word was yogurut, but it had become yogurt by the 11th century. The “g” is soft in the Turkish pronunciation but hard in English. Yog is said to mean, roughly, “to condense,” while yogur means “to knead.”

Z is for zenith, the point of culmination or the peak, coming from the Old Spanish zenit, which was from the Arabic samt, meaning “path,” part of the Arabic phrase samt al-ra’s, meaning “the road overhead,” or “directly above a person’s head.”

Get the full story from 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization
Reference (4th Edition) Annotated.


Web Of Words

When the World Spoke Arabic

(Image Source)


The Editorial Note: First published 18 Dec 2015, updated 18 Dec 2019


At the height of the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation, the Arabic language was the lingua franca that served as the language of science, poetry, literature, governance and art. A big movement of translation of Greek, Roman and other ancient books of science, philosophy and literature into Arabic gave a push for the continued success of Arabic taking centre stage of the old world.

George Sarton in the introduction to the ‘History of Science’:

“From the second half of the eight to the end of the 11th century Arabic was the scientific, progressive language of mankind … When the West was sufficiently mature to feel the need of deeper knowledge, it turned its attention, first of all not to the Greek sources but to the Arabic ones.”

Marking UNESCO’s World Arabic Language Day, we shed light on some of the aspects in which the Arabic language manifested itself as a universal language during the golden age of creativity and innovation in Muslim Civilisation.

(Image Source)

1. Arabic as the Language of Science

In a golden age of innovation more than 1,000 years ago, what was striking about the discoveries, innovations, research and writings of scientists and scholars during the European medieval period is their insatiable thirst for knowledge.

This peaked at a time when the rulers of Baghdad played a key role in an impressive movement of collecting and commissioning translations into Arabic of ancient knowledge from Greece, Rome, China, Persia, India and Africa, building a scientific collection and academy of science that became a place full with scholars, famous translators, authors, men of letters, scientists and professionals in the arts and crafts.

Brian Witaker wrote in the Guardian Newspaper:

“The Baghdad House of Wisdom ‘was an unrivalled centre for the study of humanities and for sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology and geography… Drawing on Persian, Indian and Greek texts… the scholars accumulated the greatest collection of knowledge in the world, and built on it through their own discoveries.”

Famous scholars like Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Sufi, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Al-Khawarizmi, Al-Kindi, Al-Jahiz, Al-Mahamiliya are but a few names of those who were products of that creative golden age, and whose work has had a lasting impact on generations to come.

(Image Source)

2. Arabic as the Language of the Stars

One of the sciences that had seen huge advancement during Muslim Civilisation is Astronomy. Astronomers made epoch-making discoveries as the first record of a star system outside our own galaxy and the third inequality of the moon’s motion, and they developed instruments that laid the foundation for modern-day astronomy.

When Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated into Arabic in the 9th century, many of the Arabic-language star descriptions came to be used widely as names for stars. Further additions during the golden age and later translations into Latin kept the tradition of giving Arabic names to the stars. And today, many of the prominent stars are of Arabic origin as they bear names given to them during the golden age of Muslim civilisation. Check this link for a list of star names having Arabic origin


image alt text
The depiction of Orion, as seen from Earth (left) and a mirror-image, from a 13th-century copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars. In this version, Orion’s shield has become a long sleeve, typical of Islamic dress. (Source)

3. Arabic as the Language of Art and Beauty

One area where the genius of the Muslim civilisation has been recognised worldwide is that of art. The artists of the Islamic world adapted their creativity to evoke their inner beliefs in a series of abstract forms, producing some amazing works of art.

One of the decorative forms of art widely developed in Islamic culture is calligraphy which consists of the use of artistic lettering, sometimes combined with geometrical and natural forms. The development of calligraphy is attributed by researchers to the importance of the Arabic language in Islam and the considerable importance given to writing by the Arabic tradition.


4. Arabic as the Language of Poetry

Traditionally, poetry had been a strong and eloquent form of expression in Arab heritage. The ensuring intense scientific movement in the golden age of Muslim civilisation entailed no conflict between the humanities and natural sciences. The power of the language was comfortably capable of adapting to new ways of using it to the benefit of humankind.

Concurrent with the revival of various sciences at that time, a new theme of Arabic poetry flourished with the appearance of a tradition of poems, composed by scientific scholars for use in education like the famous physician Ibn Sina, and the famous sailor Ibn Majid to mention a few. Meanwhile, Arabic poetry also dealt with ethical, social and humanitarian aspects of sciences as in the case of medical care…


The first and last pages of an original manuscript of Ibn Sina’s Medical Poem

5. Arabic as the Language of Literature

Arabs have long considered their language a perfect instrument of precision, clarity and eloquence, as evidenced by the Qur’an itself and by subsequent literary masterpieces. Since the Qur’an was adopted as the fixed standard, a surprisingly vast and rich literature has accumulated over a period of fourteen hundred years.

In addition to poetry, prose flourished under the Abbasides. The genuine of Arabic prose at the time was Al Jahiz (lived in 8th/ 9th century Baghdad). He became one of the period’s leading intellectuals. He was famed for his Book Al Bukhara’a (Book of the Misers) which was a witty and insightful study of human psychology. Countless other writers and poets became very famous and wrote influential works that still strongly stands today like Al Mutannabi, Al Ma’arri, Yaqut Al Hamwi, Badi Al Zaman Al Hamathani, Ibn Hazim Al Andalusi, Ibn Tufail and many others…


Books printed at the Ibrahim Müteferrika Press (Source)

Further Information

About UNESCO World Arabic Language Day

During its 190th session the UNESCO Executive Board adopted a decision to celebrate 18 December of every year as World Arabic Language Day. The new initiative, proposed by Morocco and Saudi Arabia, seeks to promote multilingualism and cultural diversity, as well as celebrate Arabic language’s role in and contribution to the safeguarding and dissemination of human civilization and culture. The decision recognizes the need to implement more wide-ranging cooperation between peoples through multilingualism, cultural rapprochement and dialogue among civilizations…


1001 Cures Image Gallery

banner gallery medicine


“The content of many schools’ curricula and popular books of science rarely mention any scientific or technological progress between the fall of the Roman Empire and the European Renaissance. Yet reliable history books tell us of a period lasting nearly 1000 years after 600 CE, where a vast amount of scientific and intellectual activity took place in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, this public amnesia has led to a polarised world. We, at the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), recognise a need for a new language based on the cultural roots of science to discover connections between cultures to foster social cohesion and inter-cultural respect. Looking at world history through the lens of science, we see examples of cooperation, homage and respect throughout humanity. FSTC endeavours to popularize the notion that the development of science, technology and medicine benefitted from all cultures. This is exemplified by the famous saying of Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” Professor Mohamed El-Gomati

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture



Note of the Editor:  This article was first composed by Cem Nizamoglu for 1001 Inventions website and now updated for Muslim Heritage website.


“Keep looking up… that’s the secret of life.” Snoopy

Islamic architecture encompasses a wide range of both secular and religious styles from the early period of Islam to the present day, influencing the design and construction of buildings and structures in Islamic culture and beyond. The principal Islamic architectural types are the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace, the Fort, the School, and urban buildings. For all these types of constructions, Islamic architecture developed a rich vocabulary that was also used for buildings of lesser importance such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture.(*)

These numerous structures: mosques, palaces, mausoleums and shrines all around the world have breathtaking ceilings. Each has a design and a story of its own. Most of them are distinctive and unique in respect to their architecture and they all hold outstanding features. Thus it will not be fair to come up with a list of examples. However, to introduce some of these marvellous monuments, we have chosen ceilings that we found spellbinding. We have arranged them in alphabetical order according to the modern-day country they reside in:

Discover ceilings from buildings inspired by Islamic architecture where looking up is a spellbinding experience! Each has a design and a story of its own. Most of them are distinctive and unique for their architecture and hold outstanding features:


Egypt: Masjid al-Sultan Barquq, Cairo

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Abdelrahman Assem)

On the internet, it is mostly shared as Al Soltan Qalawoon Mosque(*) but some Egyptians claim this is Sultan Barquq Mosque and Madrasa (*).

Opened in 1386. Architect’s name is Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Muhammad al Tuluni. The architectural style is Bahri Mamluk. The Madrasa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq lies in El Muiz Li Din Allah Street next to the Mosque and Madrasa of Kamil Ayyub and the Madrasa of El Nasir. This complex was consisting of a Khanqah or hospice for the Sufi students, a Madrasa or a school that was a place for worship and study of Quran and prophetic instructions, and a mausoleum standing in one of the corners of the Madrasa. It was established by Sultan Barquq who was the first Bahri Mamluk to ascend the throne of Egypt in 1382 and the husband of the widow of Sultan Shaban. The historians expound that he managed to assume power after killing many people and plotting against others. After holding power he worked hard to defend his throne and protect it from the plots of the Syrian Mamluk Emirs. (*)

Read More: archnet.org/sites/2217


India: The Taj Mahal, Agra

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Eburgh)

Opened in 1648, Architects’ names are Ustad Ahmad Lahouri and Ustad Isa. Architectural styles are Mughal Persian. The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum located on the southern bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife of three, Mumtaz Mahal.(*)

Homepage: tajmahal.gov.in


Iran: Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Phillip Maiwald)

Opened in1619. Architects’ names are Bahāʾ al-dīn al-ʿĀmilī and Ustad Mohammad Reza Isfahani. The architectural style is Isfahani. Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is one of the architectural masterpieces of Safavid Iranian architecture, standing on the eastern side of Naghsh-i Jahan Square, Isfahan, Iran. Construction of the mosque started in 1603 and was finished in 1619. It was built by the chief architect Shaykh Bahai, during the reign of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty. (*)

Read More: Stanford.edu – Sheikh-Lotfallah-Mosque.pdf
Also see the story about Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran


Iraq: Jalil Khayat Mosque, Erbil (Arbil) 

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Karam)

Opened in 2007. Built by Jalil Hayat. Architectural styles are Egyptian and Ottoman. Jalil Khayat mosque, which resembles in style the Muhammad Ali mosque in Cairo and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, was inaugurated in Erbil on January 19, 2007, after being under construction for many years. Jalil Khayat, one of the better-known, wealthier people in Erbil, had the mosque built. His sons proudly took over the project after Khayat passed away in 2005. Haji Dara, one of Khayat’s sons, expressed happiness that they could complete this “charity project” and witness the first Mawlood in their new mosque.

Read More: beautifulmosque.com


Jordan: Jabal al-Qal’a (Amman Citadel), Amman

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Erik Coenjaerts)

The Hill of the Citadel (Jabal al-Qal’a) in the middle of Amman was occupied as early as the Neolithic period, and fortified during the Bronze Age (1800 BC). The ruins on the hill today are Roman through early Islamic. The name “Amman” comes from “Rabbath Ammon,” or “Great City of the Ammonites,” who settled in the region sometime after 1200 BC. The Bible records that King David captured the city in the early 10th century BC; Uriah the Hittite, husband of King David’s paramour Bathsheba, was killed here after the king ordered him to the front line of battle.

In ancient times, Amman with its surrounding region was successively ruled by the then-superpowers of the Middle East: Assyria (8th century BC), Babylonia (6th century), the Ptolemies, the Seleucids (third century BC), Rome (1st century BC), and the Umayyads (7th century AD). Renamed “Philadelphia” after himself by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the city was incorporated into Pompey the Great’s province of Syria, and later into the province of Arabia created by Trajan (106 AD). As the southernmost city of the Decapolis, Philadelphia prospered during Imperial times due to its advantageous location alongside Trajan’s new trade and administrative road, the Via Nova Traiana.

When Transjordan passed into Arab rule in the 7th century AD, its Umayyad rulers restored the city’s original name of Amman. Neglected under the Abbasids and abandoned by the Mamlukes, the city’s fortunes did not revive until the late 19th century, under the Ottoman empire. Amman became the capital of the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921, and the newly-created Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1947. Greater Amman (the core city plus suburbs) today remains by far the most important urban area in Jordan, containing over half of the country’s population of about 3 million out of 5 million people.

Text Source: www.art-and-archaeology.com


Morocco: Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture(Photo – possibly – by Souad El-Ouafi)

Opened in 1993, the historical context of the mosque began with the death of King Mohammed V in 1961. King Hassan II had requested for the best of the country’s artisans to come forward and submit plans for a mausoleum to honor the departed king; it should “reflect the fervor and veneration with which this illustrious man was regarded.” In 1980, during his birthday celebrations, Hassan II had made his ambitions very clear for creating a single landmark monument in Casablanca by stating:

“I wish Casablanca to be endowed with a large, fine building of which it can be proud until the end of time … I want to build this mosque on the water, because God’s throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the creator on firm soil, can contemplate God’s sky and ocean.”

The building was commissioned by King Hassan II to be the most ambitious structure ever built in Morocco. It was designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau who had lived in Morocco and was constructed by the civil engineering group Bouygues.

Work commenced on July 12, 1986, and was conducted over seven years. Construction was scheduled to be completed in 1989 ready for Hassan II’s 60th birthday. During the most intense period of construction, 1400 men worked during the day and another 1100 during the night. 10,000 artists and craftsmen participated in building and beautifying the mosque.[2] However, the building was not completed on schedule which delayed inauguration. The formal inauguration was subsequently chosen to be the 11th Rabi’ al-Awwal of the year 1414 of the Hijra, corresponding to 30 August 1993, which also marked the eve of the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s birth. It was dedicated to the Sovereign of Morocco.(*)

Homepage: fmh2.ma/en


Oman: Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muskat, Matrah

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture(Photo by Werner_B)

Opened 2011, Qaboos bin Said al Said, Sultan of Oman, directed that his country should have a Grand Mosque in 1992. A competition for its design took place in 1993 and after a site was chosen at Bausher construction commenced in December 1994. Building work, which was undertaken by Carillion Alawi LLC, took six years and seven months.(*)

Close to the road leading to the heart of the capital Muscat stands the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Wilayat (district) Bawshar, like a radiant lighthouse attracting its visitors to interact with the spirit of Islam as a religion, science, and civilisation. This mosque highlights its role as a scientific and intellectual source of knowledge across the Islamic world… The dome is made up of spherical triangles within a structure of sides and marble columns, crossed with pointed arches and decorated with porcelain panels. Timber panels stretch in a fashion that reflects the architectural development of Omani ceilings.(*)

Homepage: sultanqaboosgrandmosque.com 


Pakistan: Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Salman Arif)

Opened in 1642.  Restored by Muhammad Wali Ullah Khan. Architectural styles are Indo-Islamic and Mughal. The Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, is famous for its extensive faience tile work. It has been described as ‘a mole on the cheek of Lahore’. The mosque was built during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The construction started in 1634 and lasted for 7 years. The mosque was named after Hakim Shaikh Ilm-ud-din Ansari, widely known as Wazir (translated from Farsi – minister) Khan, who was the governor of Lahore and the initiator of the mosque’s construction. (*)

Read More: lahoretourism.net


Palestine: Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture

Opened in 691.  Architects’ names are Raja ibn Haywah and Yazid Ibn Salam. Architectural styles are Islamic and  Byzantine. The Dome of the Rock (Arabic: قبة الصخرة‎, translit.: Qubbat Al-Sakhrah, Hebrew: כיפת הסלע‎, translit.: Kipat Hasela) is a shrine located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was initially completed in 691 CE at the order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik during the Second Fitna. The Dome of the Rock is now one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture. It has been called “Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark”. Its architecture and mosaics were patterned after nearby Byzantine churches and palaces. The octagonal plan of the structure may also have been influenced by the Byzantine Chapel of St Mary (also known as Kathisma and al-Qadismu) built between 451 and 458 on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The site’s significance stems from religious traditions regarding the rock, known as the Foundation Stone, at its heart, which bears great significance for Jews and Muslims.(*)

Homepage: domeoftherock.net


Spain: Alhambra Palace, Granada 

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture

The above photo shows the Honey Comb Dome in Hall of the Abencerages. One cannot discuss Muslim Spain without referring to the famous Al-Hambra Palace in Granada. Its origins are still under debate as most scholars dated it to 13th century Granada, but some indications suggest it was first built in the 11th century – a significant time for both Muslim and European architecture. (Also “the first historical documents known about the Alhambra date from the 9th century and they refer to Sawwar ben Hamdun who, in the year 889, had to seek refuge in the Alcazaba, a fortress, and had to repair it due to the civil rights that were destroying the Caliphate of Cordoba, to which Granada then belonged…”*). The palace complex briefly consists of a series of apartments, halls, and courts organised in a delightful interconnected setting of hierarchy. The palace is an architectural masterpiece in every term. The successions of spaces are clearly defined by boundaries and each space contains identical features enhancing its identity as well as its function.

Read More: muslimheritage.com


Turkey: Selimiye Mosque, Edirne

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by sugraphic.com)

Opened in 1574.  The architect’s name was was Mimar Sinan. Architectural styles are Islamic and Byzantine. The Selimiye Mosque is an Ottoman imperial mosque, which is located in the city of Edirne, Turkey. The mosque was commissioned by Sultan Selim II and was built by architect Mimar Sinan between 1569 and 1575. The interior of the mosque received great recognitions from its clean, spare lines in the structure itself. With the monumental exteriors proclaiming the wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire, the plain symmetrical interiors reminded the sultans should always provide a humble and faithful heart to connect and communicate with God. To enter, it was to forget the power, determination, wealth and technical mastery of the Ottoman Empire. Lights have seeped through a multitude of tiny windows, and the interchanging of the weak light and dark was interpreted as the insignificance of humans. The Selimiye did not only amaze the public with the extravagant symmetrical exterior, but it had also astonished the people with the plain symmetrical interior for it had summarized all Ottoman architectural thinking in one simple pure form. (*)

Homepage: selimiyemosque.org


UAE: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Habib Q

Opened in 2007, Architect’s name is Yusef Abdelki. The architectural style is both Mughal and Moorish. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is located in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates and is considered to be one of the key mosques for worship in the country but is also the number one mosque destination for tourists to the country. It boasts Mughal and Moorish architectural styles.

Homepage: szgmc.ae/en


Uzbekistan: Bahaud-Din Naqshband Mausoleum, Bukhara

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture
(Photo by Zak Whiteman)

Opened in 1544. Built by Khan Abd al-Aziz. Architectural styles are Islamic and Ottoman. “Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari (1318–1389) was the founder of what would become one of the largest and most influential Sufi Muslim orders, the Naqshbandi.”(*)  “Memorial complex of Bahauddin Naqshbandi is located 12 kilometers from Bukhara. Once it was the place of settlement of Kasri Arifon, which was famous for its pagan customs and holidays.”(*) Memorial complex Bahauddin Naqshbandi is a rectangular courtyard where the tomb of Sheikh Bukhari. The modern aivan with wooden columns is decored the central courtyard and near built the great building Khanaka. Later here was formed a vast necropolis – the tomb of Bukhara emirs. Decorated mosques Muzaffarkhan and Hakim Kushbegi are struck by its beauty, which formed the courtyard with a creek around the mausoleum. At the beginning of our century, the Memorial complex Bahauddin Naqshbandi was restored. The arches in national style, blue domes, different gates, and columns were built here. One of the most beautiful of the architectural ensemble of Bukhara, the complex Bahauddin Naqshbandi meets pilgrims with silence and solitude…(*)

Read More: sufiwiki.com


Some Manuscripts and Printing examples from Muslim Civilisations

From Manuscripts and printing in the spread of Muslim science by Geoffrey Roper


Libraries of the Muslim World (859-2000)


“I cannot live without books” –  Thomas Jefferson

Public Libraries were first introduced by the Greeks.

Libraries are considered teacher of the teachers. The word Library is derived from the Latin word liber, meaning book, whereas bibliotheca is a Greek word for library used in German and Romance languages.

The Muslim World acquired the art of paper making in the[1] eight century in Persia, ultimately Muslims brought papermaking to India and Europe. Public libraries appeared in Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba where books were made of paper. As the graven images were forbidden, calligraphy became one of the elegant aspects of Islamic books.

Public Libraries in the Muslim world were known by various names like Bayt al-Hikmah, Khizanat al-Hikmah, or Dar al-Hikmah, or Dar al- ‘ilm, Dar al-KutubKhizanat al-Kutub and Bayt al-Kutub, kitab-khana (Iran), kutuphane (Turkey). There were madrassa libraries, public and private libraries,[2] Palace libraries, Imperial libraries, and libraries attached to hospitals.

First Arab library was founded by Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah ibn abi Sufiyan (602-680) in Damascus.[3] Much of the book industry revolved around the mosque. Most of the small libraries were part of the mosques, whose primary purpose was copying of books from Greek, Pahlavi, Syriac and Sanskrit into Arabic. Lectures, debates and discussions on a wide range of religious, scientific and philosophical issues of the day were debated at mosques, which also served as courts. According to 14th century legendary traveller Ibn Battuta (1368), the Damascus booksellers market was close to the Great Umayyad mosque; in addition to books, the merchants there sold all the tools of the literary trade, from reed pens, inks, leather, hard paper, glue, to fine paper.  Traditionally Muslims bequeathed their book collections to the mosques. [4]

There were three great libraries in the Muslim World: the Abbasid library ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad, the library of Fatimid Caliphs in Cairo and library of Spanish Umayyad Caliphs in Cordoba.

ConstitutionsFigure 1. There are 62 countries in the Muslim World, population 1.6 billion, around 2000 libraries.

Since the 9th century, many more libraries housed books of exact sciences. Some of these libraries were privately owned, while others were established by Caliphs, Emirs (governors), Sultans and Viziers. For instance, in Abbasid Mosul there existed a large library called Khizanat al-Kutub. Similarly, a wealthy textile trader, Ali b. Muhammad al-Bazzaz (942), was said to have possessed a Bayt al-‘ilm (library; lit. house of science or knowledge).

By the 10th century, there was a proliferation of libraries and schools, which had been founded in Basra, Isfahan, Nishapur, Rayy, Damascus and Cairo. Some of the books in similar libraries were listed by Ibn al-Nadim in his bibliographical compilation Kitab al-Fihrist and in Ibn al-Qifti’s biographies of scientists and philosophers, Ta’rikh al-Hukama’, Ibn Abi Usaybiyah’s ‘Uyun al-Anba’ fi-Tabaqat al-Atibba’ and, for Muslim Spain, by Ibn Juljul’s Tabaqat al-Atibba’ wa’l-Hukama’. These works provide biographical and bibliographical information about Muslim scientists and philosophers of all ethnic backgrounds up to the 13th century. Modern historians and bibliographers of Islamic science, including George Sarton (d1956), Carl Brockelmann and Fuat Sezgin, have identified and described manuscripts and printed books on the history of Islamic science. [5]

  1. Al-Qarawiyyan, one of the oldest libraries in the world

The al-Qarawiyyan library was established in 859, in Fez, Morocco, by Fatima El-Fihriya, daughter of a rich immigrant from modern-day Tunisia. Considered to be the oldest library in Africa, the Al-Qarawiyyan also holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest working library, that is, it has been in continuous use since its establishment. El-Fihriya (d880 فاطمة الفهرية) was well-educated; a scholar and devout Muslim woman who decided to dedicate her rich inheritance to the advancement of religious and science education. She established an educational Centre and a library, holding ancient manuscripts in theology, law, astronomy, & grammar that date as far back as the 7th century. [5]

Most notables are Ibn-Khaldun’s 14th century “Muqadimmah”, a 9th century Quran written in Kufic calligraphy, and a manuscript on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence by Spanish jurist and philosopher Ibn Rushd (1198). The Al-Qarawiyyan complex enlarged over the centuries today includes a mosque, library, and a university. According to UNESCO, this is the oldest operational educational institution in the world, with a high-profile role call of alumni.

Mystic poet and philosopher Ibn Al Arabi (1165-1240) studied there in the 12th century, historian and economist Ibn Khaldun attended in the 14th century, while in medieval times, Al-Qarawiyyin played a leading role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans. Over the centuries the building had fallen into disrepair and environmental factors ravaged its contents but the historical manuscripts always remained accessible to the scholars and academics.

Recently, the Moroccan government commissioned a Moroccan-born Canadian architect Prof. Aziza Chaouni, to renovate and rehabilitate the library to its original splendor. Dr. Chaouni who teaches at the University of Toronto, undertook the delicate and ambitious task of restoring the main features of the building such as the courtyard fountains, intricate tile work, and a 12th century cupola, to look as close to original as possible.

The library has been working on digitization of ancient manuscripts to make them available to the world and about 20 percent of them are now available in electronic format. The restored library, which took nearly four years to complete and is climate-controlled for the preservation of manuscripts, re-opened for public in May, 2016. [6]

Read more: http://www.techinsider.io/inside-al-qarawiyyin-the-oldest-library-in-the-world-2016-6


  1. Baytul Hikma (House of Wisdom) Baghdad

“The House of Wisdom was founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid (ruled786–809) and culminated under his son Caliph al-Mamun (r 813–833), who is credited with its formal institution. Al-Mamun is also credited with bringing many well-known scholars to share information, ideas, and culture in the House of Wisdom. Based in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries, besides Muslim scholars, Hindu, Jewish & Christian scholars were allowed to study here. They translated books into Arabic and preserved them, scholars at House of Wisdom made many remarkable original contributions in diverse fields.


Figure 2.

Baytul Hikma consisted of a library, translation bureau, observatories, reading rooms, living quarters for scientists & administration buildings. One of the scholars employed here was Elan al-Sha’oobi, under his supervision ancient manuscripts were copied. Abu Sahal and Abu al-Fazal bin Naubakht were delegated with the task of expanding the library. The influential minister Yahya bin Khalid Barmaki invited Hindu scholars and had Sanskrit books translated into Arabic. Because Yahya Barmaki was Iranian, he had many Persian books translated into Arabic by Abu Sahal and Abul-Fazal. When Haroon al-Rashid received books from his adventures in Rome and Amudiyya, he instructed physician Yohanna ma-Sawiyya to translate these Greek works into Arabic.

Baytul al-Hikma had in its treasures works on almost every subject and in every language. Haroon al-Rashid sent envoys to various countries to procure books.[7] Besides rare manuscripts in Arabic, he acquired manuscripts in Sanskrit, Zend-Avista, Persian, Syriac and Coptic languages by paying top price for each book.

Attached to the library was the translation bureau where famous scholars and eminent translators rendered books into Arabic. There were Hindu, Christian, Jewish and Parsi scholars who were equally deemed estimable. They were paid handsome salaries. Ibn al-Nadeem (990) in his famous Kitab al-Fihrist (Index of books up to 987) and Ottoman scholar Haji Khalifa (Kâtip Çelebi 1657) in his Kasha al-Zanoon have listed all the books that were translated here.

https://qcat.library.queensu.ca/vwebv/holdingsInfo?bibId=424402a copy of Fihrist at Queen’s U. Kingston Canada

After the demise of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (809), his successor Mamun al-Rashid (833) purchased rare manuscripts for the library such as Poems from pre-Islamic era, and eulogies, government documents, letters and agreements between states. For instance there was a loan payment agreement signed by Abdul Muttalib bin Hashim (578), grandfather of Prophet Muhammad (saw). Caliph Mamun requested the ruler of Sicily to send all those books that were locked up in an abandoned house on the Island and no one had access to it. Upon receipt of the books, Mamoon gave this treasure to Sahal bin Haroon for translation as he was director of the library at the time. When Mamoon prevailed in the war against the Byzantines, he stipulated in the peace treaties that certain Greek manuscripts be sent to Baghdad. For this purpose mathematician and translator al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf ibn Matar (833) was nominated to bring this treasure to Baghdad for Bayt al-Hikma. (Fihrist Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim)

Note: Statute of Haroon al-Rashid, 5th Abbasid Caliph was destroyed by ISIL/al-Nusra in 2013 located in al-Rashid Park, city of Raqqa.

Staff of Bayt al-Hikma, included a director, scribes, translators, astronomers, scientists and book binders. Ibn abi al-Hareesh was famous book binder here. People belonging to different faiths like Parsi, Christian, Jews and Hindus were employed here, of which Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Hakim Royani, Yohanna ma-Sawiyya, Qusta ibn Luqa, Sahal bin Haroon and abu Jaafar bin Adi, Musa al-Khawrizmi, al-Fadl ibn Nawbakht, Mashallah are most celebrated.  Instruction here included theology, algebra, geometry, physics, biology, medicine, & logic.

Figure 3. http://muslimphilosophy.com/books/nad-phil.pdf – Kitab al-Fihrist online

Figure 4. Reading room of the world’s oldest library – Al-Qarawiyyin is home to approximately 4,000 manuscripts, NPR reports. There are 9th-century Qurans written in Kufic calligraphy and the oldest known accounts of the life of the prophet Muhammed. (s.a.w.). Ibn Khaldun’s original Muqaddiman from 14th century is store here also. The most treasured work of the library is the original 9th-century Quran. El-Fihriya attended the university she helped to found. The library still has her original diploma: a wooden board.

Figure 5. Modern day Baytul Hikma, Baghdad

  1. Haroon al-Rashid’s vizier, Yahya ibn Khalid Barmaki (806) had a vast personal library which was adorned with Greek, Coptic, Sanskrit and Farsi volumes. There were 3 copies of each book. When a new book came out, it was first showed to Yahya Barmaki as he was the only one who would pay one thousand dirhams for any new book. Under his influence, the Caliph invited to Baghdad many Buddhists scholars from India, who prepared Kitab al-Budd, biography of Buddha. The philosopher of the Arabs, and the first Muslim scholar to reconcile faith and reason, Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (866) had a rich personal library which was confiscated by jealous Banu Musa brothers; it was restored to him subsequently.
  2. Caliph Mutwakkil‘s (822-861) boon companion Fatah ibn Khaqan (861) established a library in Baghdad whose director (sahib khazanatul kutub) was famous scientist Ali ibn Yahya Munajjam. Khaqan was an avid reader and “the greatest bibliophile of his day”. [8] Ali ibn Yahya had his personal library, so he transferred many of his books to Ibn Khaqan library. Many scholars penned books especially for the library, one of whom was prose writer & zoologist Abu Usman ibn Jahiz (869). Doors of this library were open to all. It was pillaged by soldiers of Tughral Beg Saljooki (d1063).
  3. Ali ibn Yahya Munajjam (888) was director of Ibn Khaqan Library. His personal library in Baghdad was called Khizanatul Kutub. People from foreign countries came to see this library, stayed there and benefitted. All expenses were born by Ali Ibn Yahya. It is said that greatest astrologer of Abbasid court Abu Ma’shar al-Falki (886) while going for Hajj from Khurasan especially stopped over in Baghdad to visit this unique library.

Figure 6. Page from a manuscript of the Algebra (Maqālah fi al-jabr wa-‘l muqābalah) of ‘Umar Al-Khayyām (1048-1131). Manuscript on paper, 56 leaves, 13th century. Columbia University Libraries, Smith Oriental MS 45.

  1. Library of Ishaq Mosuli (850) was an accomplished musician and a master of Hadith and grammar. His library in Baghdad housed incomparable books on grammar. Abul Abbas So’alab saw 1000 epistles in the library which had been studied by Mosuli.
  2. Vizier Sabur bin Ardsher (991) established in 894 in Karkh district of Baghdad a library which was called Dar’ul Ilm. Jurji Zaidan says there were ten thousand titles in this library. Every author donated a copy of his book. The library housed 100 hand written copies of the Glorious Quran by famous copyists Khattat Banu Maqla. Leading scholars, philosophers and intellectual of Baghdad gathered here to debate and discuss. Renowned blind writer, philosopher and poet from Aleppo, Abul A’la al-Ma’arri (1057) made use of this library, in fact when he visited Baghdad he spent most of his time here. (Biography of al-Ma’arri, page 34) [9]
  3. Muhammad bin Hussain al-Baghdadi’s library housed rare manuscripts and documents. No one had access to it except few scholars. Ibn Nadim writes that he got permission from the owner with great difficulty. Ibn Nadim has given details of this library in his celebrated book al-Fihrist.

There were numerous libraries in monasteries and colleges of Baghdad. One of the colleges-Madrassa was Nizamiyya, its owner scholar and vizier of Seljuq Empire, Nizam al-Mulk Tusi (1092) had deposited here his valuable collection. The director of this library was Allama Abu Zakaria Tabrizi.

  1. Library of Mustansariyya madrasah was founded by 36th Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir Bi’llah (1242) in 1227 on the left bank of Tigris River. Upon completion its opening ceremony took place with much fanfare. Leading scholars and jurists were appointed to give lectures. All the books from the royal library were loaded on 130 camels, and deposited in the magnificent library. There were 80,000 rare and valuable manuscripts, one of which was handwritten copy of Tarikh-e-Baghdad wa-Madinatul Islam (24 volumes, 7831 biographies, including titles of books and names of authors) by Abi Bakr al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (1071). Building was renovated in 1961.

Figure 7. Madrassa Mustanariyya, main entrance, Baghdad

The library survived the Mongol incursion. It was merged with that of Nizamiyah Madrasah in 1393, although this collection was subsequently dispersed or disappeared. After the Ottomans captured Baghdad in 1534 A.D., books from the palaces and libraries were taken as the spoils of war to become an important part of the royal library in Istanbul, and Al-Mustansiriyah was closed. .. The Mustansriya Madrasah is still functioning in a new building, and is now part of the Al-Mustansiriya University (Wikipedia)    http://www.uomustansiriyah.edu.iq/



  1. Libraries of Cairo Fatimid Caliphs (909-1171) were patrons of scholars and bibliophiles. Caliph Abu Mansur nizar al-Aziz Bi’llah (955-996) was himself a scholar, wrote poetry, copied books and established a library in his palace in Cairo Khazai’n al-Qasoor, consisting of 40 rooms full of books on jurisprudence, grammar, literature, science of Hadith, history, astronomy, and chemistry. There were 200,000 volumes, of which 6000 were on mathematics and astronomy. There were 30 copies of Khalil ibn Ahmad Nahvi’s “Kitab al-Ain”, one volume hand- written by the author. There were 1200 copies of Tarikh-e-Tabari, and 2400 copies of The Glorious Quran. Some books had binding of gold, with silver paintings. There were 2 globes, one made of silver which costed 3000 dinars and another made by Greek astronomer Ptolemy. The doors were open 24 hours for students. After the death of al-Aziz Bi’llah (r975-996), the collection was transferred to his successor al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah’s (996-1021) library.

Figure 8. Quran manuscript possibly from Fatimid royal library

Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah established a library in Cairo Darul Hikma (hall of science and wisdom), its objective was to propagate the Shi’i faith. Renowned scholars, jurists, and physicians took part in its inauguration. Patrons were allowed to not only read books but copy them also if needed. Pen, ink, paper was provided for this purpose. Many physicians, jurists, logicians, astronomers and mathematicians were employed here full time. Once Hakim bi-Amr Allah invited these scholars for a debate, after which everyone was given large sums of money. He had several houses and shops under ‘waqf’ – endowment – so as to look after the expenses of the library. It is estimated there were 100,000 volumes.

Jami’ah al-Azhar was founded in 970 during the time of Caliph Muizz al-din Allah (r953-975). Its library housed more than two hundred thousand volumes. Students from Turkey, Zanzibar, India and Afghanistan would travel to Cairo to study at world’s oldest degree granting University. Students received free housing, uniforms and no fee. There was no other library as al-Azhar in the entire Muslim world.

All the old schools and libraries in Egypt were destroyed except this one. During the time of al-Mustansir bi-Allah (r1021-1036) Turkish soldiers plundered the library, hundreds of books were thrown mercilessly in the river Nile, or burnt. Those that were saved, they formed heap in open space which afterwards was called Tilal al-Kutub (heap of books). Despite this hundreds of books from caliphal libraries survived so much so that Sultan Salah al-Din ibn Ayub (1193) bestowed on his secretary and counselor al-Qadi al-Fadil 120,000 manuscripts for his madrasah Qaf. [10]


Figure 9. al-Azhar library

“Although Al-Azhar University was founded in 1961, its library was established in 1005 by the ruling Fatimids; almost 600 before Oxford’s Bodleian Library and 440 years before the Vatican Library were established, respectively. By some counts, its collection includes 9,062 books and 595,668 manuscripts, dating to at least the 8th century”. https://www.librarything.com/venue/76059/Library-%5BAl-Azhar-University%5D

Mahmudiyya library of Cairo housed hundreds of rare items. Although it had a collection of 4000 volumes, but many were handwritten by the authors. Several prominent scholars were directors of this library, one of whom was Shaykh al-Islam Hafiz ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (r.a. d1449) who prepared two catalogues of this library. One catalogue was alphabetical and the other one according to subject matter. Library was part of madrasah Mahmudiyya which was founded by an Egyptian statesman Jamal al-Din Mahmud, a close advisor of Sultan Malik al-Zahir Sayf al-din Barquq (r1382-1399).

Egypt National Library (Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya) has 3 million printed books, 80,000 manuscripts, great quantity of papyri and coins. It was founded in 1870 and in 2002 was joined by Alexandria library as Egyptian National Library. [11]

  1. Libraries of Iran

Adud al-Daula (r949-982) was emir of Buyid dynasty (934-1062) who at his height of power ruled an empire stretching from Makran as far as to Yemen and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Friday sermon (khutba) was read in his name in Baghdad. He is widely regarded as the greatest monarch of the dynasty. The monarch is credited with sponsoring and patronizing scientific projects during his time. An observatory was built by his orders in Isphahan where astronomer Abd al-Rahman Sufi (903-986) worked. He built a famous public hospital known as the Al-‘Adudi Hospital.

In Shiraz he established a glorious library with books written from the beginnings of Islam to his time. It was located inside the royal palace. There were a large number of tall book shelves; the wood was painted with gold color. There was separate room for each branch of knowledge. The library was looked after by a treasurer, and a director. Only reputable scholars had access to the library.

Figure 10. The Abdus Salam Library at the Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran 2012, named after Prof. Dr. Abdus Salam (1926-1996) Muslim World’s first Nobel Laureate in physics 1979.

  1. Library of Abu’l-Fadl ibn al-‘Amid (970) was also in the city of Shiraz. Its director was Ibn Miskawayh (932-1030) who was chancery official of theBuyid era, philosopherand historian from Rey, Iran. He worked as a secretary and librarian for a number of viziers, including ‘Adud al-Dawla.

One of the secretaries of Adud al-Daula was abul Qasim Isma’el (Sahib ibn al-Abad) who had a stupendous library. He was not only interested in collecting books, but he was accompanied by poets, writers, & debaters. In his youth he was a companion of Abul Fadl ibn al-Amid, therefore he was called Sahib. After the death of ibn al-Amid (970) he was appointed minister of state. When Samanid ruler Nuh ibn Mansur offered him ministerial post, he excused himself by saying that my library is so big, that it could not be loaded on to 400 camels.

  1. Library of Tus – Tus is one of the oldest cities of Iran. It has produced great men like Niazm al-Mulk, Naseer al-Din Tusi and poet laureate Firdausi. The library of Tus was founded by Nizam al-Mulk, founder of madrasah Nizamiyah Baghdad.
  2. Mashhad library was attached to the mausoleum of Hazrat Ali Ibn Musa al-Raza, the 8th Shia Imam (818). The library was established around 974. There are books on Quran, Hadith, philosophy, logic and jurisprudence. The catalogue of the library is “fihrist kutub khana Astana Quds Rizvi”, in several volumes. Currently TheCentral Library of Astan Quds Razaviis a large library in MashhadIran. It holds over 1.1 million volumes. It is an international center for Islamic research, containing numerous manuscripts and rare works of antiquity of Islamic history. Ali ibn Simjour endowed in 974 AD the oldest Quran to the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza (AS). (Wikipedia)
  3. Library of Shiraz

“Islamic libraries were”, says Stuart Murray, “rich in diversity, allowing scholars from other lands to share the facilities. These libraries were known for their attractiveness and comfort, many adorned with the classic Islamic dome, some surrounded by walkways and landscaped by ponds. Among the most legendary library was that of Persian city of Shiraz, where there were more than 300 hundred chambers furnished with plush carpets. The library had thorough catalogs to help in locating texts, which were kept in the storage chambers and organized according to every branch of learning. “[12]

  1. Libraries of Syria

In all the major cities of Syria like Damascus, Aleppo and Tripoli there were libraries. Damascus was center of Islamic learning for many centuries. Umayyad princes Khalid ibn Yazid (704), and Caliphs Abdul al-Malik bin Marwan (705), Hazrat Umar ibn Abd al- Aziz (720), established libraries here. Khalid was a book collector; he facilitated translations into Arabic of the existing Greek literature on alchemy. The Library of Ğāmi’ Banī ‘Umayya al-Kabīr – Umayyad Mosque housed rare & precious manuscripts, as well as a rich collection of documents. This mosque was founded by Caliph Walid I (715) at an immense cost.  Mashaf-e-Osmani (copy of the Quran prepared by Hazrat Osman (r.a) was stored in this library for a long time. Ibn Batuta had seen copy of this Quran which was sent by Hazrat Osman (r.a.) to people of Syria.

Figure 11. Courtyard of Umayyad Mosque Damascus

During the 16th century there were 30 madrasas and 20 libraries in Damascus. Ibn Jubayr Andulasi (1217) says in his Rihla – (travelogue) that of all the madrasas Nur al-Din Zangi madrasah was the most elegant and awe-inspiring. Besides religious studies, physics, mathematics, astronomy and literature was taught. There were 4 medical schools and one engineering school. Each school had its own library.

  1. Library of Tripoli (Lebanon)

During the rule of Shia family of Banu Ammar (Emirs of Tripoli -theoretically vassals of the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo), Tripoli was a major center of learning. The city became a lighthouse of learning, knowledge and literature. The city developed during the rule of Hasan bin Ammar, he founded a school with a stupendous library attached to it. By virtue of this library knowledge spread throughout the city, the city was called Dar al-Ilm. The library employed 180 copyists, of whom 30 copied books day and night. Emissaries were sent to other cities to buy books. It is estimated that there were 130,000 volumes, 50,000 copies of the Glorious Quran, and 20,000 commentaries of the Quran. When crusaders captured Tripoli, this library was plundered and burnt.

  1. Library of Aleppo

Aleppo’s main attraction for a long times was its glorious libraries. It is said Prophet Abraham lived here, had a herd of goats whose milk he used to go to people free. Milking in Arabic is Halab, that is how the city got its name Halab (Aleppo). Different families ruled over the city, one of which was Banu Hamdan whose ruler Saif al-Daula founded a library in the city. Saif al-Dawla was interested in literature; therefore most of the books in the library were on literature. One of the royal scientists of Saif al-Dawla was philosopher, and mathematician Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Farabi (872-950). Director of this library was eminent poet Muhammad ibn Hashem and his brother. (Maqalat-e-Shibli, Volume 6, page 161)


Figure 12. The Travels of ibn Jubayr 1184

Besides public or private libraries there were 80 libraries attached to educational institutions. Ibn Jubayr (1217) says in his famous travelogue (Rihla) that the library of Madrasah Khalifa was elegant and glorious, just like the grand mosque of Halab. There were grape vines in all the surroundings of the school; vines were so much laden with grapes that students could easily pick grapes. One of the rare books in the library was Mujammal al-Lugha ley ibn-al-faris. This rare manuscript was copied by Ibn Maymoon al-Baghdadi (546ah), from Baghdad the manuscript arrived in Aleppo.

  1. Libraries of Samarqand and Bukhara

Samarqand (Uzbekistan) occupies a special place in the history of book collection, dissemination and conservation. Paper mill was established in this city in 751. Later on paper was produced in Baghdad in 793 and Cairo 900. Introduction of paper made it possible to produce books easily, and it was a major factor in the spread of knowledge to far off places. Hulagu Khan (1218-65) established an observatory in Maragheh (Azerbaijan) in 1259 at the behest of his science adviser Khawaja Nasir al-Din Tusi (1274). Hülegü obtained a first-rate library and staffed his institution with notable Muslim and Chinese scholars. Funded by an endowment, research continued at the institution for at least 25 years after al-Ṭūsī’s death. All those books that were saved during the sack of Baghdad (1258) were moved to Samarqand.

Bukhara and Samarkand were the two cultural centers of Samanid Empire (819-999). The city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion. Muhammad al-Bukhari (870), author of Hadith collection Sahih al-Bukhari, was born in this city. Bukhara was home to Prince of Physicians Shaikh Abu Ali Ibn Sena (980-1037).

Figure 13. A splendid view of Bukhara

Samanid ruler, Sultan of Bukhara Emir Nuh ibn Mansur (r976-997) had founded a fabulous library here. Prince of Physicians Ibn Sena (1037) gained much of his knowledge here. It is stated in Ibn Khallikan’s biographical dictionary:

Abu Ali … frequented his library, which was of incomparable richness, as it contained not only all the celebrated works which are found in the hand of the public, but others not to be met anywhere else and of which not only the titles but the contents were unknown. Here Abu Ali discovered treatise on the sciences of the ancients, and other subjects, the essence of which he extracted, and with the greater part of which sciences he became acquainted. It happened some time afterwards that this library was consumed by fire, and Abu Ali remained the sole depository of the knowledge which it contained. Some persons even said that it was he who set fire to the library.” (books.google.ca/ ibn khallikan biographical dictionary)


“In Bukhara there was a public library”, states Ehsan Masood,

“where scholars could simply drop in ask the librarian to get them a particular book from the library stacks off to the sides of the main hall, and then sit down to make notes. [13]

  1. Library of Ghazni (Afghanistan)

During the reign of Sultan Mahmud (r.998-1030) Ghazni’s library was considered one of the best in the world. Sultan Mahmud turned the city of Ghazna into a wealthy capital of an extensive empire by ransacking the riches from wealthy India. Though Mahmud waged ruthless campaigns and terrorized the people who came in his way in India, he patronized scholars, intellectuals, and scientists like al-Biruni and philosopher al-Farabi. An ardent patron of the arts, Mahmud attracted poets from all parts of Central Asia. Among these were Uzari, Asadi Tusi, & Unsuri.  The distinguished poet Ferdowsi (1020), presented the epic poem Shahnameh (book of Kings) to him. It consisted of 60,000 verses, and it took him 27 years to compose it. Two historians Utabi and Bayhaqi were also his royal historians. Though he loved money passionately, he also spent it lavishly. A library, a museum, and a university were endowed at Ghazni.[14] Read more at http://biography.yourdictionary.com/mahmud-of-ghazni#KphhStpj38rQfHJ7.99

  1. Libraries of Islamic Spain

After the establishment of Islamic rule in Spain, Cordoba became the jewel of the Caliphate. The city was 24 miles long and 10 miles wide. Its population was one million. There were 380 mosques, 800   madrasahs and numerous personal and 70 public libraries. It was the center of learning and intellectual life, it was known as city of bibliophiles; people who love books. The people of Cordoba also collected books for their homes.  Those who owned personal libraries were regarded as important figures in Cordovan society. Books were stored in sandalwood cabinets; with a list showing books in each cabinet. Leather was used for book binding; some books had silver or gold lettering. One of its most famous buildings was the Cordoba Mosque. This building housed the largest university in Europe [15]at the time with over four thousand students. In the Dar al-Kitabat there was a flock of scribes engaged in copying books, and an equal number of bookbinders. Librarian was given a salary. There was a market where only books were sold.

Lubna of Cordoba (984) was director of Cordoba library with 400,000 volumes, its catalogue was in 44 registers with 20 sheets each. It was in the palace of Cordoba, managed by eunuch Bakiya. Lubna was responsible to reproduce, write and translate new volumes. She was also palace secretary of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III (961) and his son al-Hakam (976). According to Arab chronicles at the time of al-Hakam II, there could be in some areas of Cordoba more than 170 women copying books, which not only gives the idea of culture, but also the place of women in the reign of enlightened Caliph. [16]


Figure 14. Ibn Rushd (1198), polymath from Islamic Spain holding a book. This statute is in the Jewish quarter of Cordova, which the author visited in 2000.

Dutch Arabic scholar Rheinhart Dozy (1883) opines that every person in Islamic Spain could read and write, while in Europe only priests and some aristocrats knew how to read and write. Rest were all illiterates. [17] According to Jurgi Zaidan there were 137 madrasahs and 70 libraries in Granada. Historian Maqqari said “people of Andalus have excelled in having libraries. There are many wealthy who are illiterate but are proud to have libraries in their houses.”

Caliph Al-Hakam II (A.D. 961-976) library was the most celebrated.

Not only did he patronize scholars”, says Phillip Hitti, “but he was a scholar in his own right. … he is credited with having founding 27 free schools in his capital, endowing chairs in the university started by Abd al-Rahman I in conjunction with the mosque, and enriching it with a library unequaled in content. … in quest of manuscripts his agents ransacked the bookshops of Egypt, Syria and Iraq… The Caliph maintained a private collection in the palace and left in his own hands marginal notes on some of its contents.” [18]

 Books written in Persia were dedicated to him. A descendant of Ummayad Caliph Abul Faraj al-Isfahani was sent one thousand dinar for his book Kitab al-Aghani. Library clerks, many of them women, carefully hand-copied the books while calligraphers and bookbinders created beautiful text and cover designs.  Al-Hakam’s library was said to have contained more than 400,000 books, whose titles filled a 44-volume catalog.   There were universities in major cities Cordoba, Seville, Toledo and Granada equipped with vast libraries. The prestige of the royal library led to a spirit of competition between the viziers, deputies, each wishing to attract scholars and rarest library talents. When al-Hakam was pressured by the local clergy to forbid the wine drinking, however, he was reminded by his chief treasurer that it was largely the sin tax on wine which was paying for a new wing of Cordoba library.

As one historian observes:

Andalusia was, above all, famous as a land of scholars, libraries, book lovers and collectors…in Cordoba books were more eagerly sought than beautiful concubines or jewels…the city’s glory was the Great Library established by al-Hakam II…ultimately it contained four hundred thousand volumes…on the opening page of each book was written the name, date, place of birth and ancestry of the author, together with titles of his works, Forty eight volumes of catalogue incessantly amended, listed and described all titles and contained instructions on where a particular work could befound” Richard Erdoes, 1000AD Berkley, Seastone 1998, pp60-61

The Maliki Judge (Qazi) of Cordoba Abu al-Mu’tarrif ibn Futays Abd al-Rahman (1011) was a great collector books, had six copyists working for him. He never lent a work but would get it copied and make a gift of it. His library had so many valuable works that when it was auctioned, it fetched 40,000 dinars. A poor teacher of Cordoba Allama Muhammad ibn Hazm had his personal library open to the public. He penned several books one of which was Maratab al-Ijm’a, a handwritten manuscript is in Khuda Baksch Library, Rampur, India. There were many women scholars, like daughter of Prince Ahmad. She was an outstanding poet, & a   fine orator. There were women who had forsaken marriage, and dedicated their lives to book-hunting; they were employed by royal libraries in this age.

Libraries of Islamic Spain brought about resurgence in European thought and sciences. “

Over a period of roughly a hundred years (1150-1250) all of Aristotle’s writings were translated and introduced to the West, accompanied by a formidable number of Arabic commentaries… this amounted to a vast new library. The work of assimilating and mastering it occupied the best minds of Christendom and profoundly altered the spiritual and intellectual life of the West… such masterful Arabic commentaries as Avicenna and Averroes- who emphasized the unreligious and unspiritual character of the philosopher’s thought – precipitated a grave crisis for the intellectual leaders of the West. … harmonizing all of it with the Christian faith constituted a tremendous task … it inaugurated a period of unparalleled intellectual activity that reached its climax in the 13th century, especially in Paris and Oxford.” Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church  NY: Doubleday, 1979, 172-173

Figure 15. Ibn Sina encyclopedic book Al Qanun Fi Al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) was translated into Latin at the end of the 12th century CE, and became a reference source for medical studies in the universities of Europe for 500 years.

  1. Library of El Escorial, Spain

The largest collection of Islamic hand written manuscripts is in El Escorial Palace Library, 45 km from Madrid. The Escorial was founded by King Phillip II in 1563 both to serve as a palace and a monastery. A room on the upper floor contains books banned by the Inquisition which had burned 70,000 volumes. This remnant includes more than 1,800 Arabic titles acquired by the expulsion of Muslim form Spain. [19]

  1. Libraries of Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1526)

Before the advent of Mughal period Razia Sultan (r1236-1240) was the ruler of Sultanate of Delhi. In fact she was the first female ruler of India. Razia was a major matron of learning, establishing schools and libraries across northern India. She was conferred the title of Aalem Nawazpatron of scholars by leading religious scholar of the time Maulana Minhaj-e-Siraj Juzjani, author of 23 volume elaborate Islamic history book Tabaqat-e-Nasiri completed in 1260.

During the 13th and 14th centuries all the ruling princes of the time had their own private collections and it was common for them to spend time every day in their personal libraries. No separate building was earmarked for the library; it used to be an integral part of the palace, though it was sometimes attached to the mosque. [20] Founder of Khilji dynasty Sultan Jalal al-Din Khilji (1296) established the Imperial library in Delhi and appointed eminent mystic & scholar Amir Khusraw (1325) as the librarian. The office of the librarian carried much prestige and its occupant was considered a valuable officer. Sufi saint Nizam al-Din Awliya (1325) established a library in his khanqah in Delhi by raising public donations[21]. It was a public library with a large quantity of manuscripts.

  1. Libraries of Mughal India

The Mughal rulers were fond of books and used to take pride in collecting rare manuscripts for their personal libraries.

First library in Mughal India (1526-1857) was founded by King Zaheer al-Din Babur (1483-1531). Although a successful military leader, he was a bibliophile as well. Babur established the Imperial library in his palace in Delhi, which would be supported & enlarged by subsequent emperors. When he invaded India, he brought with him rare volumes some of which were works of painting. His homeland Uzbekistan was home to a galaxy of scholars and intellectuals. Cities like Samarkand, Farkhana, Khurasan & Herat were great centers of learning and knowledge that attracted scholars from far off places. Many famous scholars occupied his royal court. Himself a scholar, he was an expert calligrapher. Whether he was on an expedition, or at home in Dehli, a major portion of library travelled with him.  The Mughals stocked their libraries with Persian books on language, literature, and science.

In January 1526 Babur’s army defeated Ghazi Khan Army in Lahore. In the war booty Babur received lot of valuable things from Ghazi khan’s fort, but the best of all were the precious books some of which he sent to Kabul. Babur’s library contained two types of books, the one he brought with him to India, and others he received during the capture of various India cities.

Babur’s son Emperor Mirza Nasir ud-din Baig Humayun ruled India only one year 1555-56. He had a lifelong passion for collecting fine books. He was interested in astronomy. Inside the Old Fort in Delhi there was a notable building Sher Mandal, on the second floor was Humayun’s personal library with stone shelving, which was his observatory as well. It is one of the first observatories of Delhi. Sher Mandal, a two-storied, octagonal tower, is associated with the death of Humayun as he was watching Venus in the sky; he missed his step on the steep stairs, fell headlong and died in 1556.

Emperor Jalal al-Din Akbar (1543-1605) consolidated the imperial library founded by his grandfather. It consisted of manuscripts written and engraved by skillful penmen. From his Persian mother, he inherited his princely manners, his love of literature and the arts, and a Persian delight in philosophical discussion. He created a separate department for libraries; acquisition, processing, storage, and retrieval were organized on new lines. He established a new library for education of all women in Fatehpur Sikri. The Imperial Library was located in the big hall of the Agra fort.

The volumes in his library numbered 24,000 costing Rupees 6,463,731 or valued at $3,500,000. A translation bureau called Maktab Khana was established in the Diwan Khana of Fatehpur Sikri. Every author was obligated to send a copy of his book to the royal library. Many a works he received during his expeditions, i.e. after the conquest of Gujrat he received all the books belonging to Etimad Khan Gujrati. Some were donated to royal library, and some were gifted to his Navaratnas (9 Jewels) i.e. Allama Abdul Qadir Badau’ni received Mishkat al-Anwar of Ghazali. Akbar took over all of 4,600 books from the library of Shaikh Abul Faiz Faizi, eminent Persian poet & scholar.[22] These books were on medicine, music, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, tafsir, hadith and fiqah. The Jesuits brought European books or books received from western traders were added to the Imperial library.

Figure 16. Sher Mandal, which housed Humayun’s library, and was one of the first observatories of Delhi.

Akbar’s court was included many scholars and talented artists. He fostered a lively literary culture and encouraged translations of all kinds. Massive numbers of classics were rendered into Sanskrit and Hindi. Also, religious literature was translated into Persian from other languages like Chaghatai Turkish, Sanskrit and Arabic. Akbar’s school of translation made a lasting impact on Indian cultural life.

Akbar formed a department for cataloging the library’s 24,000 titles. He did much of the work himself, classifying the books under three main groupings. Bookbinding became a high art, producing beautifully decorated covers. He also established a library exclusively for women. Despite his passion for libraries and education he could not read nor write. [23] He would listen daily to the perusal of books by paid readers. His evenings were spent listening to experts on scientific and literary matters.

Once Prince Saleem (Emperor Jehangir d1627) once went to historian Abu al-Fazl Allami’s house and noticed 40 scribes copying Glorious Quran and its commentary. Akbar was fond of painting; there were top class painters in his court. At his behest 12 volumes of Dastan Ameer Hamza were presented to Akbar, consisting of 1400 illustrations. Similarly Changez Nama, Zafar Nama, Iqbal nama, Razm Nama, Ramayan, Kaleela wa dimna and Ayyra Danish were illustrated at an astronomical cost. There was in his library an illustrated copy of “Tarikh Khandan Taimuriya”with 112 illustrations. This is now in Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library, Patna, India. The chief librarian was Emperor Akbar’s poet laureate Allama Fayzi and Abdul Qadir Bada’uni. Hundreds of madrasah were founded during Akbar reign which needed books. There were 225 courtiers in his royal court; each one had his own personal library.

Emperor Mirza Noor al-Din Jehangir (1569-1627) was educated in mathematics, science and language. He was an illustrious writer who wrote his autobiography in Persian Tuzke Jehangeri (Jahanirnama) giving details about the history of his reign, including his reflections on art, politics, and his family. He collected art for the library. He continued the tradition of his father in expanding madrasahs and libraries. He passed a law that if a rich man dies without heirs, his wealth should be donated to monasteries and madrasahs. His library contained 60,000 works; its chief librarian was Maktoob Khan. Shaikh Abd al-Haq Muhaddith lived during his reign who authored 100 books on various subjects. Allama Shibli Noamani says that Jehangir’s opinion about a book was diligent and authoritative (Ijtehad).  He personally used to instruct his librarians how to catalog the books.

Emperor Mirza Shahab al-din Baig Khurram Shah-jahan (1666) rule was the golden period of Mughal architecture, as well as learning and scholarship. The size of the imperial library grew further. Like his forefathers he patronized scholars. He had gathered a large number of calligraphers at his court. His royal library was decorated with twenty-four thousand finest volumes on mathematics, geography, astrology, medicine, politics, logic, history and agriculture. Lahore, Delhi, Jaunpur, Ahmadabad were major centers of learning. During Shah-Jahan’s rule many scholars had their own personal libraries. For instance library of Mulla Abdul Hakim Sialkoti was famous for its rare volumes.

Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707) preferred the company of scholars and intellectuals. He developed love for books from a young age. His imperial library was a treasure house of Islamic law theology, and jurisprudence. He constituted a board of 50 distinguished religious scholars to formulate a compendium of edicts (fatawa) according Hanafi fiqh. Reference books were provided to them from Imperial library. It was completed in 8 years at a cost of 200,000 rupees. Fatawa Alamgiri was published from Cairo in six volumes, each volume 500 pages. Some of the books are still available in the Sho’aba Habib Ganj- personal library of Maulana Habib al-Rahman Sherwani, AMU, Aligarh. Aurabzeb was an outstanding writer and an excellent calligrapher. He was a Hafiz (memorizer) of the Quran and used to calligraphy the Noble Quran in his free time. His personal letters are a unique form of biography. Sialkot was the hub of paper industry, there was huge library in the city.

Muhammad Taher writes:

“imperial library was greatly improved by the last great Mughal Muhiyaddin Aurangzeb Alamgir. Apart from other languages he knew Hindustani too well and popular sayings in that language in history. Aurangzeb patronized Hindi poets; … hence the imperial library must have had a variety much larger than that of Akbar in major languages of the east and the west. He patronized Hindu scholars of Persian literature. … Which library other than the Imperial library these scholars had access to, if they were really patronized by the emperor of Mughal India. The library added its collection and became the basis for the emperor literary activities.

Fataw’ay Alamgiri the greatest digest of Muslim law in India was compiled by board of eminent jurists under his personal supervision. This compilation would have required accumulation of various books relating to law in the primary Islamic languages. In Deccan trips the Mughal armies could find the library of Mahmud Gawan. This was transferred to Delhi and added to imperial collection on the order of Aurangzeb. His reading tastes were a replica of his own ancestors, and it is reported that his reading hour started at 2 pm every day. … The Nazims of the Imperial library who have been mentioned in history included Muhammad Saleh ibn Isa Khan, Syed Ali Tabrizi, and the muhtamims are named as Muhammad Mansur, Syed Ali al-Hussaini, and Kabir Khan.” [24]


In the Mughal household there were female poets, bibliophiles, & authors like Gul Badan Begum (1603), Salim Sultana Begum   (1612) Maham Anang  (1562), Nur Jehan Begum (1645), Mumtaz Mahal (1631). A book by daughter of Babur ‘ s daughter Princess Gul Badan Begum, who wrote poetry in Persian and Turkish.

Figure 17. above: Islamic calligraphy specimen

  1. Library of Zayb al Nisa / Abd al-Rahim Khane Khana

 Mughal princesses were also deeply engrossed in book reading and collection. Aurangzeb eldest daughter Zaib al-Nisa’s (1638-1702) was trained in the serious study of religious doctrine. She was known as an excellent scholar in several academic areas and as a literary figure and patron of some renown. She sang well and composed songs and planted many of the gardens of her day. Her royal court was an academy (Bait al-Uloom) where scholars in every subject were busy composing and compiling books. Books were dedicated to her. She had a large collection in her library.  Her Diwan-e-Makhfi contained four hundred and twenty-one ghazals and penned the following books: Monis-ul-Roh, Zeb-ul Monsha’at and Zeb-ul-Tafasir. (Wikipedia) – Ziad, Zeenut (2002). The Magnificent Mughals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195794441.

The Mughal era saw an increase in the number of libraries developed by the nobles/elites. Each wished to beat out the other in the building of the library and in increasing the size of its collection. In Delhi Abd al-Rahim Khan-e- Khanan was raised in the household of Emperor Akbar. He was conversant in 5 languages including Portuguese. He developed a fabulous library. He had the privilege of having access to large collections in and outside the kingdom. His collection was used by many scholars and learned men. This bibliophile excelled in patronage of literature. Books from his library have been preserved in Raza Library Rampur, Khuda Bakhsh Library& Asiatic Society Library Calcutta. Mir Baqi was Nazim (director) of his library, and Kitabdar (librarian) was Maulana Ibrahim Naqqash. Library had 95 men on its staff. Muhammad Ameen Naqqash, a book-binder from Mashhad, Iran was a regular on its staff, and was employed on a salary of Rs. 500/- per month. Shuja of Shiraz was one of the scribes (katib) in 1590. Mulla Muhammad Hussain was an expert book-binder at the library.

Similarly Nawab Ibrahim Khan, an influential noble of Delhi, had a rich library. Each book had the seal of library owner. Shaikh Faizi, a Persian scholar had a rich collection on medicine, poetry and philosophy. Khushro (1622) son of Emperor Jehangir regularly purchased books. Dara Shikoh (1659) paintings album is in India Office Library, London. As an erudite scholar, he had a huge collection of notable works. An example of his penmanship is his translations of 50 Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian. The library established by Dara Shikoh in 1643 still exists on the grounds of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha UniversityKashmiri Gateand Delhi. [25]

The scholars of Lucknow, Daryaabad, Murshidabad and Bilgram had large personal libraries. People donated their books to the mosques, whereby places of worship became public libraries.

Personnel of the Imperial library included Nazim, Muhtamim, Sahhaf, Warraq, Jildsaz, Naqqash, Khushnavis, Muqabila Navis, Mussahih (proofreader), Katib (scribe)

  1. Library of Tipu Sultan (1752-1799) Ruler of Kingdom of Mysore, India

Tiger of Mysore had the gift of judging everyone’s talent. He founded a school for liberal education, with a library on a wide array of subjects. There were books brought from Bijapur, Golconda, chittur, Savanur, Kadapa as well as from the Maharajah of Mysore. All of Sultan volumes were bound in leather. There was training college for military officers, with a large library. The college in Sarangapatam Jamee al-Umoor had in its collection volumes on religion, politics and other subjects. In his personal library there were two thousand volumes, some he had authored himself or purchased from Europe. On 29 December 1786 he received a book from Europe containing information on thermometer. He instructed that this should be translated into Persian and presented to him. After reading a book he would stamp the book, so many were thus stamped. Each book was stamped Sultanat-e- Khudadad (Government given by Allah), or with his name Tipu Sultan. His collection had rare copy of the Quran calligraphed by Emperor Aurangzeb, later found its place in British Royal Library in Windsor Castle UK. Upon his defeat in 1799, about two thousand books, some having binding of jewels, were recovered by the English. In 1838 these books were shipped to England.

Library of state of Rampur, India

During the rule of Mohammed Saeed Khan (1840-55) royal library was called Kutub Khana Riyasat-e-Rampur. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan had the library staff compile a list of Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts in 1928. Famous scholars like Ameer Minai, Hakeem Ajmal Khan, Imtiaz Ali Khan Arshi were its chief librarians. Library had in its collection 9347 books in 1889, 24,117 in 1927, and currently 55,000 of which 15,000 are rare manuscripts. (Taher, page 85)

  1. Libraries of Ottoman Empire 1299-1922

Ottomans ruled over Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. New mosques, colleges and libraries were established in the 17th century. Book collection grew by leaps and bounds, mainly on account of waqf – endowments for public good. Libraries had salaried staff. In 1678 a library was established in Istanbul in a dedicated building. Topkapi Palace had built up the largest collection of Arabic manuscripts.

“There are about 14,000 manuscripts in the library. There are close to 18,000 miniatures, most of which are in the Treasury Library, which exhibit the characteristics of the various schools and styles, spread over a broad geography, of Islamic representational art. Albums and books of miniatures representing the finest work of Arabic, Seljuk, Mongol (Ilkhanid), Timurid, Uzbek, Karakoyunlu and Akkoyunlu Turkmen, Safavid, Mamluk and Ottoman palace calligraphers make up the most valuable section of the palace library. With miniatures in some 600 albums and books on science, history, religion and literature, the Topkapi Palace Museum Library has one of the richest collections in the world. The palace collection of illuminated manuscripts produced for prominent patrons of art throughout the Islamic world during its history through gifts, plunders and purchases, was further enriched by works produced by palace artists, not to mention all the Ottoman sultans who devoted to the art of the book.”  [26]

  1. National Library of Pakistan

Library was officially inaugurated in its new building in 1993. It is a depository library, is responsible for the collection, preservation and dissemination of national literary heritage. The collection includes 130,000 volumes, 1000 magazines, and newspapers. A significant part of the collection is made up of manuscripts and rare books. One of the departments is Model Children’s Library with 9000 books in English and Urdu, including titles in Braille. The library has space for a million volumes, and its reading facilities accommodate 500 patrons. There is an auditorium for seminars
workshops and conferences, including for training of librarians. [27]  Major portion of NLP’s vast collection includes publications about Pakistan, its people and culture, and books written by Pakistanis living at home and abroad. www.nlp.gov.pk

Quaid-e-Azam University Library – The Central Library of QAU is named Dr. Raziuddin Siddiqui Memorial Library to recognize services of the first Vice Chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University. In addition to a large multidisciplinary collection with over 230,000 books and audio visual material and 35,000 volumes of research journals, the library is a depository for United Nations Publications for many decades. There are eight seminar libraries in various departments with excellent collection and services. www.qua.edu.pk/libraries [28]

Punjab Public Library -A librarian from New York Asa Dickinson founded the Punjab Library Association in 1915. The training program developed at Punjab was the formal library school in The East. [29] One of Dickinson’s students Khalifa Muhammad Asadullah (1890-1949) was the first qualified librarian of Government College Lahore. Later he rose to become librarian of National Librarian of India.

Punjab library has many sections: technical, acquisition, circulation, reference, Baitul Quran section, children section, oriental, computer section and e-library. Baitu al-Quran section was established in 1968, it has in its treasures several manuscripts of the Holy Quran, some dating back to 500 years. The section houses copies of handwritten and printed Holy Qurans collected from all over Pakistan, e.g., the photocopies of the Quran remained under recitation of Hazrat Usman Ghani, Imam Jaffer Sadiq, Maulana Rome, Tipu Sultan and a hand written Quran by Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir.

Figure 18. Punjab Public Library, Lahore, Pakistan

  1. Bibliotheque de l’institut Islamique (Islamic Institute Library) Dakar, Senegal

Figure 19. Library of the Institut islamique

Created in 1964 and situated in the enceinte of the Grand Mosque, the Institut islamique is a public institution under the direction of the Senegalese Minister of Education, dedicated to Islamic research and teaching. The library of the Institute, named for prince Naef Ben Abdelaziz Al-Saoud was opened 9 October 2004. [30]

McGill Islamic Studies Library, Montreal

The Islamic Studies library was founded, along with the Institute of Islamic Studies by Prof. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in 1952. The library has grown from a modest departmental collection to a very well regarded library of over 100,000 volumes covering the whole of Islamic civilization. This sizable and rich collection is quite unique in Canada. [31] The Islamic Studies collection can be divided into three major categories: printed, manuscript and audio-visual materials in European and Islamic languages.

Through the Islamic Heritage Project (IHP), Harvard University has cataloged, conserved, and digitized hundreds of Islamic manuscripts, maps, and published texts from Harvard’s renowned library and museum collections. These rare—and frequently unique—materials are now freely available to Internet users worldwide. IHP is made possible with the generous support of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ihp/. Under manuscripts one can read entire manuscripts on 17 topics like biography, astronomy, mathematics, logic, philosophy, poetry.

  1. Mama Haidara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu, Mali

Timbuktu was a sprawling city with buildings in elegant shapes and arches. The Grand Mosque of cut stone and mortar had its own library. Timbuktu collections included manuscripts about art, medicine, philosophy, and science, as well as priceless copies of the Quran. The number of manuscripts in the collections has been estimated as high as 700,000.

The majority of manuscripts were written in Arabic, but many were also in local languages. The dates of the manuscripts ranged between the late 13th and the early 20th centuries. Their subject matter ranged from scholarly works to short letters. The manuscripts were passed down in Timbuktu families and were mostly in poor condition. Most of the manuscripts remain unstudied and un-catalogued, and their total number is unknown, amenable only to rough estimates.

Figure 20. The ancient city of Chinguetti, in the west-African nation of Mauritania, is home to around 6,000 ancient manuscripts

A selection of about 160 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu and the Ahmed Baba collection were digitized by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project in the 2000s. With the demise of Arabic education in Mali under French colonial rule, appreciation for the medieval manuscripts declined in Timbuktu, and many were sold off. [32] Time magazine related the account of an Imam who picked up four of them for $50 each. In October 2008 one of the households was flooded, destroying 700 manuscripts. Islamic University in Fez, Morocco contained one of the largest and most valuable Quran collections of the day. [33] Timbuktu’s profit from book trade was lower to trade in gold and salt.

Ahmad Baba Institute, Timbuktu was established in 1970, named after 16th century influential scholar who wrote 40 works in Arabic. There are around 30,000 manuscripts which are being studied and catalogued. In 2013 ISIL recruits set the library on fire and more than 20,000 manuscripts were burnt. [34]

  1. Khuda Baksch Oriental Library, Rampur India

This library was founded in 1891 by Maulvi Muhammad Baksch of Bihar, his son Khan Bahadur  Khuda Baksch (d1908) inherited 1400 manuscripts. Khuda Baksch scoured every nook and corner of India to add more books to the library. His agents in the Middle East searched the book markets of Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Tehran for 18 years. Many wealthy people of Patna donated books for this library in 1904. Work on the cataloguing of books lasted from 1904 to partition of India in 1947. In 1950 complete catalogue was published in 22 volumes. There are more than 340 rare manuscripts, including Timur Nama, containing 112 paintings. [35], Shah Nama, Diwan-e-Hafiz, Safinat-ul-Auliya. There is a page of Noble Quran written on deer skin. There are over 250,000 books in the library.


Virtual Libraries

With the dawn of computers, virtual libraries have become prevalent in the Muslim World. A virtual library is a collection of resources available on one or more computer systems. User does not know where resources are located – virtual. In a digital library[36] a person has access to catalogs to find library materials. There are website where readers can read books in pdf format online in their homes. i.e. Books.google.com, apnaorg.com, iqbalcyberlibrary.com, Urdupdfbooks.com. People who travel long distances listen to audio books in their cars. In short book format has changed, but man’s love for books has not diminished in any way.


  1. Mohamed Taher & D.G. Davis Junior, Librarianship and Library Science in India: India 1994 … – Google.books.ca
  2. Mohamed Makki Sibai, Mosque Libraries, a Historical Study, Mannsell, 1987 -174 pages,
  3. Stuart Murray, The Library an Illustrious History, American Library Association, Chicago 2009
  4. Leila Avrin, Scribes, scripts and books, Chicago, American Library Association, 1991 pages 208-210
  5. Banks, Medieval Manuscript Bookmaking, Meutchen, Scarecrow, 1989, 45
  6. Dr. Mohamed Taher, the Book in the Islamic Civilization. http://taher.freeservers.com/ilm.htm
  7. M. Lesley Wilkins (1994), “Islamic Libraries to 1920”,Encyclopedia of Library History, New York: Garland
    ISBN 978-0-8240-5787-9
  8. Olga Pinto: `The Libraries of the Arabs during the time of the Abbasids,’ inIslamic Culture 3(1929), pp. 211-43.
    As well in Pakistan Library Review 2(1-2):46 March 1959 Translation by F. Krenkow
    (I could not find this article on internet.)
  9. Fred Lerner, Library through the Ages, New York, 1999 books.google.ca
  10. R.K. Bhatt, History and development of libraries in India, Mittal Publications, New Delhi, 1995 books.google.ca
  11. Z. Virk, 111 Muslim Scientists, past and present Urdu, Nia Zamana Publications, Lahore 2014
  12. Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam, a history, London, 2009, page 53
  13. J.L. Breggren, Episodes in the Mathematics of Medieval Islam, 1986, NY books.google.ca
  14. Mohammad Makki Sibai, Mosque Libraries: a historical study, NY 1987. Ph.D. dissertation Indiana U. 1984


[1] Stuart Murray, The Library – an Illustrated History, American Library Association, Chicago, 2009

[2] Shi’i scholar Jarudi Zaydi (944) wanted to move his library, it amounted to 600 loads, cost 100 dinars. Quoted in Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia, Editor Josef W. Meri, Rutledge, London, 2006, volume 1, page 453

https://www.uploady.com/#!/download/fyXEdg5ku4e/iXe183nhp7dc4v4r   pdf file

[3] Caliph Muawiyah (ra) had a personal collection (bayt al-hikmah) that was enlarged by his successors throughout the Umayyad period.… This first major library outside of a mosque was known to include works on astrology, medicine, chemistry, military science, and various practical arts and applied sciences in addition to religion (Wikipedia)

[4] Mosque of Imam Abu Hanifa (767) in Baghdad had a large library. Exegete Al-Zamakhshari (1143) bequeathed his private collection to the mosque. Historian al-Waqidi (822) left 600 bookcases, Imam Ibn Hanbal (855) library amounted to 12 ½ camel loads.

[5] https://muslimheritage.com/article/origins-islamic-science

[6] Contributed by Mrs. Asma Khan, Karachi University Library Science Alumni Association, Canada, online magazine Jan-Jun 2015.

[7] J.L. Berggren, Episodes in the Mathematics of Medieval Islam, 1986, NY, page 4 & 23. There are large collections of Arabic manuscripts at Berlin, Dublin, Leiden, Escorial, London, Oxford, Paris that were procured through purchase, gift, theft, spoils of wars and copying.

[8] Hugh Kennedy, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA 2004, p 252

[9] Quoted by Shafiq Qaisar (1939-1979) Rabwah, Kutub Khanay, Amritsar, India, 2009, p214

[10] Hitti, Capital Cities of Arab Islam, page 124

[11] International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science, page 421   books.google.ca

[12] Stuart Murray, The Libraries, page 56

[13] Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam, a history, London, 2009, page 53

[14] When Mahmud invaded Rayy he had some of the books owned by Sahib ibn al-Abad (995) sent to Ghazna & some burnt. Sahib’s library contained 400 camel loads. Mahmud also plundered all the treasures of Buyid Sultan Majd –al-Daula including 50 loads of books.

[15] At Canterbury (UK) the library, built over the Prior’s Chapel, was 60x 22 feet. In 1508 a number of books were sent to be bound or repaired, that it contained sixteen bookcases, each of which had four shelves, meaning it had 2000 books.  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods

[16] Z. Virk, (Link)

[17] Muhammad Shafiq Qaisar, Kutub Khanay Urdu, Amritsar 2008, page 246

[18] P.K. Hitti, Capital Cities of Arab Islam, Minneapolis, 1973, page 154

[19] Stuart Murray, The Library, page 86. (I visited Escorial in 2000 during my visit to Spain. Pantheon was impressive.)

[20] Dr. Ramesh Kumar Bhatt, History and development of libraries in India, New Delhi, 1995, page 29

[21] I had the pleasure of visiting & praying at the dargah Nizam al-Din Awliya and Amir Khusrow in Nov 2013

[22] Azad Bilgrami, Tarikh-e- Hindustan, Vol. 5, 1918, Aligarh, page 994, www.pdfbooksfree.com

[23] Stuart P. Murray, The Libraries, page 104

[24] Mohamed Taher, Librarianship and library science in India, Delhi 1994, page 94

[25] http://olddelhiheritage.in/dara-shikoh-library/

[26] http://www.turkishculture.org/traditional-arts/handwritten-books-263.htm

[27] Stuart Murray, Chicago, 2009, page 280-281, I studied it in Franklin Public Library, Franklin, WI, 027.009.M984 July 29, 2016

[28] This information was extracted from Karachi University Library Science Alumni Association online magazine, Editor M.H. Shahid. Jan-June 2015, brief description of other libraries in Rawalpindi-Islamabad is given as well.

[29] Stuart Murray, Library an illustrated history, page 210  – circulation in US public libraries was 2.46 billion in 2010

[30] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Mosque_of_Dakar

[31] http://blogs.library.mcgill.ca/islamicstudieslibrary/about-2/

[32] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timbuktu_Manuscripts

[33] Stuart Murray, The Library, 2009, page 100

[34] Zahida Hina, Urdu column daily Express Lahore, July 31, 2016. Zahida has detailed a list of libraries that were destroyed from 1901-2014 during the wars and regional conflicts. www.express.com

[35] M. Shafique Qaisar Rabwah, Kutub Khanay Urdu, India, 2009, pages 310/311

[36] ‘World Digital Library’ has been in operation since 2005 by UNESCO, its aim is to make available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from cultures around the world, including manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical score. As of 2015, it lists more than 12,000 items from nearly 200 countries, dating back to 8,000BCE.

Humoral Pathology


Dioscorides’ Materia Medica lists the humoral qualities of drugs

Dioscorides’ Materia Medica lists the humoral qualities of drugs. Or. 3366, f. 89r (Source)

In turn, the mixture of the humours produces the uniform parts of the body (al-ʾaǧzāʾ al-mutašābiha), such as bones, nerves, muscles or veins. In its normal state, blood is red in colour, has no unpleasant smell, and is sweet to the taste. It is produced in the liver. Phlegm is a whitish discharge that is produced in the liver or in the stomach. The two biles were more hypothetical substances, and generated many disputes about their nature and functions. Yellow bile was generally understood as a foam produced during the formation of blood. It is bright red in colour and is light and pungent. Finally, black bile in its normal state is a sediment of blood, and is refined and bright. Health is understood as a balanced state between the four humours. Disease, on the other hand, can in most cases be explained by the excess of one or several humours, or by the corruption of one or several humours.

Arab physicians inherited the theoretical frame-work of humoral pathology from the Greeks, and especially from Hippocrates’ On the Nature of Man and Galen’s commentary. But they refined this theory in various ways, and also challenged it to a point. Modifications included the potential transformations of the humours into one another as well as the introduction of additional faculties to certain humours. Attempts to challenge humoral pathology remained marginal: for most Arabo-Islamic physicians, humoral pathology should be accepted as a given principle (Gutas 2003, 151). Nonethelesss, these attempts constituted breaches within the overall philosophical framework underlying Islamic medicine…

The Four Humours

Opening page of Ibn al-Tilmīdh’s Treatise on Bloodletting

Opening page of Ibn al-Tilmīdh’s Treatise on Bloodletting. Arundel Or. 10, f. 109v (Source)

According to the prevalent theory of humoral pathology, health results from a balance of the four humours, each of which has two of the four primary qualities, cold or warm, and dry or moist. Yet, there are also contributing factors outside the human body, or, to put it in contemporaneous terms, ‘outside human nature’. These contributing factors are called the six non-naturals (al-ashyāʾ ghayr al-ṭabīʿīya); they are:

1) the ambient air, that is, the environment;
2) food and drink, the things ingested;
3) sleeping and waking;
4) exercise and rest;
5) retention and evacuation, that is, urine, stool, constipation, but also sexual intercourse; and
6) the mental state, such as joy, sadness, fear, elation, apprehension and so on, often influenced by personal interactions.

The mental states, in particular, were the focus of many physicians’ attention. In the case of certain diseases, music, conversation, and light entertainment could be prescribed. Take melancholy as an example. This disease, caused by an excess of black bile and characterised by despondency, fear and delusions, reacted also to mental stimuli. Avicenna, for instance, recommended listing to music, pleasant conversations with friends, and intercourse with slave girls. In this, he followed a long tradition, going back to the Greek medic Rufus of Ephesus (fl. ca. D 100), who advocated a similar course of action.

1001 Cures

Africa Image Gallery

Genetic and paleontological findings have concluded that Africa is the birthplace of the entire human race. Africa is often thought of as a continent rich in natural beauty and culture. However, little is known or understood about the technology and innovation which was present throughout its history and the role in which it contributed to what we have today.

africa banner gallery

Atlas of Africa (Source)