The Petra Fallacy: Early Mosques do face the Sacred Kaaba in Mecca

Figure 1. The Kaaba (literally “The Cube”) in an early photograph.” (Source)


Note of the Editor: This short article is a collection of paragraphs extracted from the full paper that was originally published here by David A. King. The original paper contains explanations of various early mosque orientations, showing that they have nothing to do with Petra. Prof. King has added some remarks dated September 2020, at the end of this shorter version.



For over 1,400 years, Islamic civilization has taken the orientation of sacred space more seriously than any other civilization in human history. The sacred direction towards the sacred Kaaba in Mecca is called qibla in the languages of the Muslim commonwealth. The ways in which Muslims have determined the qibla over the centuries constitute a complicated story, but several facts are known:

  • The Arabs before Islam had an intricate system of what we now call ‘folk astronomy’ based on what one can see in the heavens.
  • The Kaaba has a rectangular base which is astronomically aligned; its major axis points toward the rising of Canopus, the brightest star in the southern sky, and its minor axis is defined by summer sunrise and winter sunset. Its four corners point roughly in the cardinal directions.
  • The Muslims developed a sacred geography in which, over the centuries, various schemes were developed in which segments of the perimeter of the Kaaba corresponded to sectors of the world which had the same qibla, defined in terms of astronomical risings and settings. The first such schemes appear in Baghdad in the 9th century.
  • By the early 9th century, the Muslims had accessed the geographical and mathematical knowledge of their predecessors, which meant that for the first time they could calculate the qibla using (medieval) geographical coordinates and mathematical procedures. (Of course, this would not mean that they could find the MODERN direction of Mecca.)
  • From the 7th to the 9th century and also occasionally thereafter until the 19th century, Muslims used astronomical alignments to layout the qibla. From the 9th century to the present Muslims have also used mathematical methods to calculate the qibla.

Few people know anything about this these days. Indeed, most Muslims think that all mosques face Mecca. Yet if they would investigate just a few historical mosque orientations they would be surprised. For medieval mosques face the Kaaba rather than Mecca. There is a subtle, but highly significant difference. How can they ‘face’ a distant edifice that is not visible? How these mosques actually ‘face’ the Kaaba is something we moderns have to learn. And the matter of the qibla is not only about mosques: it is about every Muslim at home and abroad, in life and in death, who follows the prescriptions relating to the sacred direction of Islam.

* * * 

One of my concerns over the past 50 years has been to attempt to document – mainly for the first time – the ways in which Muslims over many centuries have used astronomy in the service of their religion:

  • to regulate the lunar calendar through the sighting of the crescent;
  • to organize the times of the five daily prayers; and
  • to determine the qibla or sacred direction toward the Kaaba.

To do this I first read what my teachers Karl Schoy (1877-1925) and Ted Kennedy (1912-2010) had written about these subjects using medieval Arabic sources. Particularly important were Kennedy’s translations of and commentaries on the writings of al-Bīrūnī, the greatest scientist in early Islamic history, which dealt with the second and third of these topics.

I spent many years looking at thousands of medieval Arabic manuscripts and hundreds of scientific instruments in libraries and museums around the world. Since nobody had ever looked at most of these manuscripts for centuries, I inevitably found things that were new. Some of my results took some Muslim colleagues by surprise. Western colleagues are, I find, becoming less and less interested in anything to do with classical Islamic Studies. And that field is plagued by revisionists who think that no medieval Arabic texts are trustworthy and who eagerly rewrite a chapter of Islamic history relying instead on the ramblings of some early Christian bishop in Armenia (I exaggerate, but not much).

Some of my publications in the history of Islamic astronomy include studies of the following subjects:

  • the astronomical alignments of the rectangular base of the Kaaba;
  • the methods with which Muslims from the earliest period could have determine the qibla by simple folk astronomy;
  • the notion of a sacred geography about the Kaaba, with sectors of the world having the same qibla defined by astronomical horizon phenomena;
    the methods by which the Muslim scientists could calculate the qibla for a given locality;
  • the geographical tables showing longitudes and latitudes of hundreds of localities from al-Andalus to China together with their qiblas in degrees and minutes;
  • the extraordinarily sophisticated mathematical tables displaying the qibla for any locality with which the user enters its (medieval) longitude and latitude in the table and reads the value of the (medieval) qibla;
  • the remarkable cartographical grids produced by Muslim scientists enabling the user to reading off the (medieval) qibla on a circular scale and the distance to Mecca on a diametrical scale.
  • the medieval Arabic texts discussing the palettes of accepted directions for the qibla and for mosque orientations in specific localities, which partly explains the wide range of mosque orientations in these places (notably Córdoba, Cairo and Samarqand).

Over the past few decades numerous colleagues have published papers on various mathematical procedures proposed by individual Muslim scholars for finding the qibla, and some of my colleagues and former graduate students have written on the procedures involving folk astronomy and astronomical alignments. The interested reader can survey what has been written on historical qibla-determinations in the bibliography appended to this paper.

We have left it to others to write on such controversial topics as the conflict regarding the qibla – is it south-east or north-east? – amongst Muslims in North America. Frequently over the years, other folks have introduced the factor that the Earth is not a sphere into the qibla discussion, which is not helpful.

In 1999 I published a book dealing with the way Muslims have determined the sacred direction over for some 1,400 years. This presented an overview of the earliest procedures of using astronomical alignments to face an astronomically-aligned Kaaba, with different means of calculating the qibla using geographical coordinates and trigonometric or geometric methods. But the book focusses on the mathematical tables that were devised giving the qibla as an angle in degrees and minutes to the local meridian for the whole Muslim world; the geographical tables giving for the principal localities in the Muslim world the qibla and distance to Mecca; and the cartographical Mecca-centred grids which enable the user to read off the qibla and distance to Mecca for any locality in the (classical and medieval) world.

None of these materials was known 50 years ago. And inevitably none of them are mentioned in uninformed popular accounts of the qibla such as one finds in Wikipedia. I never thought while preparing all my research that someday someone would come along and announce that all early mosques are oriented toward a location other than Mecca. No serious scholar, Muslim or non-Muslim, would ever have thought that mosques might have been deliberately oriented toward somewhere other than Mecca. If they had, they would rightly be considered to be deranged.

Figure 2.  The orientation of the Kaaba mentioned in medieval texts and confirmed by satellite images, taking into consideration the surrounding skyline. Canopus (Suhayl) is the brightest star in the southern sky. The direction of the rising of Canopus is conveniently perpendicular to the axis between summer sunrise and winter sunset for the latitude of Mecca. In pre-Islamic folklore the walls of the Kaaba were associated with the four ‘cardinal’ winds. Note that if one standing in front of the SW wall one is facing (istaqbala) the qabūl wind, also called ṣabā’; in this position one is facing summer sunrise with (formerly) fortunate Yemen (al-Yaman) on the right and ominous Syria (al-sha’m) on the left. Some revisionists have claimed that the orientation of the Kaaba (with al-ḥijr!) may have been altered on one of the several occasions when the edifice was rebuilt after destructive floods. Revisionists have to be very innovative when confronted with an edifice that is as ancient as the Kaaba.  Not to scale. (Source)

Revisionist fascination with N. W. Arabia

Some 50 years ago some over-enthusiastic London-based Arabists – John Wansbrough and his students Michael Cook & Patricia Crone – came up with the idea that Islam began not in Mecca but somewhere unspecified in N. W. Arabia. This was a curious idea, not least because there were no obvious potential sites. One of the principal and most convincing arguments for their bold assertion was the ‘fact’ that the earliest mosques in Egypt and Iraq do not face Mecca, but rather some locality in N. W. Arabia. Some 25 years ago I pointed out to Michael Cook the folly of this assertion, explaining that the earliest mosque in Egypt faces winter sunrise and the earliest mosque in Iraq faces winter sunset; so, of course, these mosques do not face (the MODERN direction of) Mecca. Nor were they deliberately aligned towards anywhere in N. W. Arabia. They were deliberately aligned to face toward the Kaaba. Cook reacted to this information by saying, most appropriately: “It’s a bit late”.

Yes, the earliest Muslims in Egypt and Iraq used winter sunset and winter sunrise, respectively, for the qibla, not because they were stupid, but because they were smart. How else to face an edifice they could not see: all savvy ancient peoples have used astronomical alignments for one reason or another. From al-Andalus to Central Asia early mosques were built in astronomical directions later referred to as qiblat al-ṣaḥāba or qiblat al-tābiʿīn, ”the qibla of the first or second generations of Muslims”.

My present intention is simple: it is to warn the unsuspecting reader that the only other person ever to have written generally on the subject of mosque orientations

(a)  has no qualifications to correctly interpret the available data;

(b)  has no understanding of the fact that MODERN directions from one place to another cannot be used to investigate the reasons underlying the orientation of PRE-MODERN architecture;

(c)  seems oblivious to the fact that there is a well-established discipline called archaeoastronomy and has no understanding of astronomical alignments;

(d)  has erred monumentally in his interpretation of mosques that were built on pre-existing religious architecture or to fit with pre-Islamic city plans;

(e)  has no understanding of how mosques were laid out over the centuries;

(f)  has no control over any of the numerous medieval Arabic sources – legal, astronomical, folk astronomical, and mathematical, geographical – relating to the determination of the qibla; and

(g)  prefers to refrain from citing the vast existing bibliography on the subject.

Worse still, he

(h) has settled on a nice-enough locality, Petra, as the focus of early Islam where in the early 7th century there were no Arabs, no Muslims, and no Jews, and, in brief, there was not much going on.

And worse than that,

(i) both his activities in a field which he does not master and his false conclusions have already contributed to somewhat dubious causes.

Figure 3. A schematic representation of the fallacy propounded by Cook & Crone. They observed that the earliest mosques in Egypt and Iraq appeared to be aligned toward a place in N. W. Arabia rather than toward Mecca. This, they wrongly thought, confirmed their theory that the origins of Islam were somewhere in N. W. Arabia rather than in Mecca. In fact, the mosques are aligned with the Kaaba in Mecca by means of astronomical horizon phenomena, namely, winter sunrise in Egypt and winter sunset in Iraq. The first generation of Muslims knew what they were doing with regard to mosque orientations and later generations over many centuries developed remarkable and more sophisticated means for finding the sacred direction. We moderns just have to learn how they dealt with the need to align mosques in the sacred direction toward the sacred Kaaba in Mecca. It is not something one can imitate or investigate with an iPhone, and no Google maps are going to help much.

Accurate mosque orientations towards Petra

To give credence to his Petra theory Gibson needs to rewrite the history of science, a subject about which he is singularly uninformed. He wants us to accept that when the first generation of Muslims expanded out of Petra (!) they knew all about astrolabes (!) and spherical trigonometry (!) and the like. When they wanted to build mosques around the world from al-Andalus to China facing the Kaaba in Petra they used these advanced mathematical techniques to calculate the pibla (my word) toward Petra and they were able to do this to within a degree or two. In fact, the ‘real’ Muslims used simple astronomical alignments to find the direction of the Kaaba, and there was no need for any mathematical system. (However, as part of the Graeco-Roman world, the Nabataeans long before the advent of Islam did have such devices as sundials.)

Mosque orientation before Gibson

Gibson’s claim about Petra deliberately ignores everything that modern scholarship has uncovered about the ways Muslims over the centuries have determined the sacred direction. His first book Qur’ânic Geography (2011) had not a single reference to any serious book or article on the qibla. His later works have been padded with a few references to my works but they deliberately omit any reference to five articles which presented an overview of what was known before Gibson appeared on the scene:

  • “On the astronomical orientation of the Kaaba” (with Gerald S. Hawkins) (1982);
  • “Astronomical alignments in medieval Islamic religious architecture” (1982);
  • “The orientation of medieval Islamic religious architecture and cities” (1995);
  • “The earliest Islamic mathematical methods and tables for finding the direction of Mecca” (1996); and
  • “The sacred geography of Islam” (2005).

For myself, I am fairly confident that Islam started in Mecca and Medina, and that all early mosques were deliberately aligned to face the astronomically- aligned Kaaba in Mecca. These orientations were achieved by the early Muslims with a considerable amount of success within the limits of their capabilities, mainly using astronomical alignments or building on earlier foundations that were inevitably also astronomically aligned. Later mosques were aligned either in qiblas calculated from the available geographical data using mathematical procedures, although the old procedures continued to be used.

In each major centre in the medieval Islamic world there was a palette of several qibla-directions accepted by one interest group or another. There might be a qiblat al-ṣaḥāba, a direction chosen by the first generation of Muslims who settled in that locality, usually an astronomically-defined direction, and favoured thereafter; there might be different directions favoured by the individual legal schools; there might be a different astronomically-defined direction that was favoured by some; and there could be two mathematically-determined qibla-directions, one based on approximate methods and the other based on an exact procedure. The modern qibla, based on accurate geographical data and derived by exact mathematical methods, is irrelevant to the investigation of the motivation behind the orientation of any historical mosque.

I consider it necessary to respond to Dan Gibson’s latest pronouncements for three main reasons:

  • People seem to forget that the sacred direction in Islam is not toward Mecca but toward the Kaaba in Mecca. There is a significant difference between facing an edifice that one cannot see but which one knows is astronomically aligned and facing a distant city. People need to be reminded of this, because what was obvious to a medieval mind is not obvious to us moderns. All of Gibson’s mosques are aligned toward the Kaaba in one way or another. Since the 9th century, when mathematical geography and mathematical methods became available, mosques have generally been aligned toward Mecca, usually, but not always, using mathematical methods. In major centres there was sometimes a palette of qibla-directions – covering as much as a quadrant of the horizon – used by different interest groups.
The Petra Fallacy

Figure 3. A brilliant geometrical construction for finding the qibla proposed by Habash al-Hasib, the leading astronomer of 9th-century Baghdad. The complicated modern formula can be derived directly from Habash’s diagram.

Without knowing this, it is somewhat precarious to try to explain an early mosque orientation.

  • The concept of the qibla is not just about legal scholars splitting hairs or mathematicians performing calculations or architects building mosques, it is about the millions and millions of faithful Muslims who for well over a millennium over a large part of this planet have exercised their utmost to pray towards the physical focus of their religion, a symbol of the presence of their God. This they do or have done in their mosques, but also in their homes and at work and whilst travelling. Also, in death the faithful are laid to rest in the same direction in which they have been praying during their lives. No Muslim needs some ill-informed Besserwisser to announce to them that they and their forefathers have been praying in the wrong direction for over a millennium and that they should have been praying towards a city in Jordan that has absolutely nothing to do with early Islam.
  • There are very few people – Muslims, non-Muslims and independents – who know anything about historical qibla determinations and even fewer who would be able to counter Gibson’s ‘new’, basically absurd theories which appear to rely on ‘scientific evidence’.
  • I am well aware of the potential damage Gibson has done / can do to our field. But more seriously, Gibson’s writings are guaranteed to contribute to Islamophobia amongst those who have no idea about the one and only civilization which really took orientations seriously for over 1,400 years.

Critiques of critiques

Most people are either numerate, which means that they like numbers and know how to handle them, or innumerate, in the sense that they don’t like numbers and shy away from them. Such people shudder when confronted with a direction such as 292°, because they have no idea that modern usage measures directions from 0° clockwise to 360° = 0°; these people might prefer to read 22° N of E. Now Gibson’s book is all about numbers, some real (measurements of mosques) and some irrelevant (MODERN directions of Petra and Mecca). Alas, most reviews of Gibson’s qibla extravaganza have been made by people not well versed in numbers.

In the acknowledgements to his Early Islamic qiblas Gibson thanks two scholars Rick Oakes and Ahmed Amine whom we shall mention below. (He also thanks one of the leading archaeoastronomers of the Near East, and of Petra, my colleague Juan Antonio Belmonte, who was even more surprised than I was to find his name in Gibson’s acknowledgements, for Gibson never mentions ethno- or archaeoastronomy.)

It is important to consider Gibson’s approach to mosque orientations in light of his methodology. For he uses MODERN geographical coordinates to calculate directions of buildings to Petra or Mecca or Jerusalem when those who erected these buildings did not have access to such coordinates. Nor did they have EXACT mathematical procedures for calculating directions of one place to another. So when Gibson writes that a given mosque faces (the MODERN direction of) Petra, not (the MODERN direction of) Mecca, this is not to be taken seriously. If I were to say this or that mosque faces Mecca not Petra, that might be equally absurd. If either of us says that a given mosque faces exactly Petra or Mecca so that those who built it must have had the geographical and mathematical knowledge to determine the pibla / qibla accurately, this would be nonsense. For mosques in the earliest period were laid out in directions that were not calculated at all.

In my first critique of Gibson’s Petra thesis I deliberately stated that I would not demonstrate his error for all of the mosques he had misinterpreted but would present enough examples to demonstrate that not only are his interpretations erroneous, but also that the whole idea of assessing the “errors” of medieval orientations by comparing them with MODERN directions is flawed. Some later commentators didn’t understand this.

Rick Oakes is an American scholar of theology concerned with the history of the Qur’ān and of early Islam. He has posted his evaluation of my critique of Early Islamic Qiblas on the blog of the International Qur’anic Studies Association (IQSA), an outfit based in Atlanta claiming to be “devoted to the study of the Qur’an from a variety of academic disciplines”. Oakes’ focus here is not on the science, mathematics, or astronomy that was (or, rather, was not) available to early Muslims, nor is it with how they could have pointed any of their earliest mosques in any particular direction. But rather, he naïvely focusses on the 17 mosques that Gibson says face (the MODERN direction of) Petra. He does not argue whether or not they were pointed toward (the MODERN direction of) Petra intentionally. He does not argue that Gibson’s mosque orientation measurements are accurate, but that these Gibson’s conclusions based on these orientations deserve confirmation or refutation. He overlooks my refutation of all of them, so he repeats this appeal from his non-critical review of Gibson’s first book.

Oakes begins by omitting that I first published my review of Gibson on my own website and later on the Muslim Heritage site. He writes that I “revised” my review after a petty response by Gibson, when, in fact, I just removed a comment about his missionary connection. Oakes identifies five mosques whose orientations I did not even mention: the Masjid al-qiblatayn in Medina and four other very minor mosques I had never heard of. He seems so convinced about Gibson’s finding that 17 early mosques point toward (the MODERN direction of) Petra that he challenges other scholars to offer better explanations than that this was deliberate. It all becomes a game: who gets it right and who gets it wrong. Oakes correctly observes that my explanations of why the mosques in Amman, Fustat, Jericho, and Khirbat al-Minya (only these!) are preferable to Gibson’s explanation that they point toward (the MODERN direction of) Petra. While he is correct in mentioning that I wrote that the Sanaa Mosque points toward (the MODERN direction of) Petra, he missed the fact that this does not mean that it was deliberately laid out to face Petra: I also said that the axis of the Mosque was ‘parallel’ to the main axis of the Kaaba, so that the qibla-wall is ‘parallel’ to the SE wall of the Kaaba.

In brief, Oakes has unfortunately overlooked what I wrote about the absurdity of using MODERN directions to investigate orientations of buildings that were built well over 1,200 years ago and the folly of ignoring cardinal and solstitial directions in interpreting orientations that were laid out toward astronomical horizon phenomena or on pre-Islamic foundations that were cardinally aligned. He is apparently ready to believe Gibson’s claims about Petra if somebody can confirm them.

Suggestions for future research

Fortunately, nowadays one would not have to travel the length and breadth of the Muslim world to have a new look at mosque orientations. These are not “theories” about early mosque orientations, these are simply suggestions for future research. What concerned investigators might want to do in the future with the major mosques of the medieval period (7th-15th centuries) is the following:

(1)  determine which mosques were built on the authority of the Prophet or his Companions;

(2)  determine which mosques were built on the foundations of, or in line with pre-Islamic religious architecture which happened to be cardinally aligned (such as in Jerusalem and Damascus);

(3)  determine which mosques were built according to the street-plans of pre- Islamic cities which happened to be solstitially aligned (such as Córdoba, Tlemcen, Tunis, Kairouan);

(4)  determine which mosques were built toward winter sunrise (taken as one qibla-direction from Egypt to al-Andalus), and toward winter sunset (taken as one qibla-direction from Iraq to Central Asia), or toward some other astronomical horizon phenomenon;

(5)  determine which mosques face more or less due south in Jordan and Syria;

(6)  determine which mosques face due west in India and due east in N. Africa; and

(7)  determine which mosques more or less due north in Yemen and E. Africa.

Mosques which do not conform to these norms can possibly be explained by means of information on the local qibla in treatises on folk astronomy and sacred geography (astronomically-defined directions) or treatises on mathematical astronomy (qiblas calculated from available medieval geographical data using exact or approximate mathematical methods). Local topography or hydrography may also have played a role. In all such investigations, no conclusions should be drawn based on qibla-directions calculated from MODERN geographical data using some kind of EXACT mathematical procedures. Also, measurements and calculations to the nearest degree are adequate for investigative purposes; any attempt at greater ‘accuracy’ is unrealistic.

To any interested parties, I would recommend looking at the five articles which I mentioned above, not least my article on the earliest mathematical methods and tables for finding the qibla. I am confident that such simple approximate methods had far more influence in mosque alignment than any complicated exact methods and tables. But one cannot use any of these without knowing what geographical coordinates were available over the centuries. The complexity of Islamic geographical tables giving longitudes and latitudes, and the basic reference work by E. S. & M. H. Kennedy, Geographical coordinates of localities from Islamic sources (Frankfurt, 1987), presents 14,000 sets of longitudes and latitudes from some 80 Arabic and Persian astronomical and geographical sources.

In investigating the orientation of a historical mosque it is important to take into consideration the original surrounding street-plan and the various qibla– directions that were favoured in that region at the time. Without such information it is not a little arrogant to suppose that one can make any sensible pronouncement regarding the reason behind the orientation of an edifice that was built over a millennium ago. Woe betides anyone who claims to explain any medieval mosque orientation without realizing how complicated is the subject of orientations.

Notes added in September 2020:

If Dan Gibson had claimed that his investigations revealed that the earliest mosques faced precisely toward Mecca, I would have immediately pronounced that this was absurd, not least because he would have been claiming that they face the modern direction of Mecca for each locality. Besides the sacred direction in Islam is toward the Kaaba, not toward Mecca. Modern directions from one place to another were available only from the 19th century onwards. 

No precision was to be expected in the 7th and 8th centuries, precision of the kind we moderns take for granted. But the first generations of Muslims had all the technical knowledge they needed to face the Kaaba, because the Kaaba is astronomically aligned, that is, the major and minor axes of its rectangular base face significant astronomical horizon phenomena, and its corners roughly face the cardinal directions. So to face the Kaaba in any locality, they had only to face the direction in which they were standing right in front of that part of the Kaaba which was associated with that locality. Modern people would be perplexed if they would be asked to face a building that they cannot see; the first generations did not see this as a problem.

As it is, Gibson’s data show that these mosques face precisely towards Petra, a very nice place which has, however, nothing to do with the history of early Islam. Gibson’s Nabataean Muslims could never have accurately determined the pibla toward Petra from places between al-Andalus and China. We have to look elsewhere in order to investigate the orientations of these mosques. In brief, they do not face Mecca, and they do not face Petra, but they do face the Kaaba, within the limitations of what the Muslims knew in the 7th and 8th century. The orientations of their first mosques are not “careless” or “inaccurate”, as has been claimed by many a historian of Islamic architecture. But they have a lot to teach us, including that they do not face anywhere specific.

Dan Gibson is not to be held back from his claims, to the extent that he has even included mosques built on pre-Islamic foundations and finds that they face Petra too. I am reminded of a certain fellow who measured the orientations of numerous medieval cathedrals in Europe and found that they were facing Mecca and concluded that they must have been built as mosques. On the subject of churches, it is an absurd claim that medieval churches face east or face Jerusalem. If one measures the orientations of French cathedrals, for example, one comes up with a span of 100° on the eastern horizon.

The claims of Dan Gibson have been greeted with enthusiasm by those who seek to denigrate Islam and distort Islamic history. Serious reactions to them from the scholarly world have led to laughable rhetoric on the part of a fundamentalist outfit concerned to attract Muslims away from Islam.

The interested reader may care to consult the following works to gain some control over the subject and to better understand the folly of the claims of Gibson and the perverseness of his advocates. Most of the nonsense they attribute to the present author results from their inability to understand what he wrote to counter Gibson’s claims and their readiness to distort it.

(a) “On the orientation of the Kaaba” (1982). Without an understanding of the layout of this sacred edifice, one cannot begin to explain the orientation of any early historical mosques. For this and other reasons, Gibson does not mention the orientation of the Kaaba ( A new book on many aspects of the historical Kaaba by a well-informed Western scholar, Simon O’Meara, has just been published (

(b) Astronomical orientations were widely used in ancient times, including in Arabia and especially by the Nabataeans in Petra. See J. A. Belmonte et al., “Equinox in Petra: Land‑ and skyscape in the Nabataean capital” (2020 – ( Gibson does not like astronomical orientations, even though they were used by his favourite Nabataeans (long before the advent of Islam). His claims about Petra as the cradle of Islam are not taken seriously by scholars of Nabataean Studies.

(c) “Finding the qibla by the sun and stars – Islamic sacred geography” (2019), a survey of some 50 medieval sources, documenting some 20 different schemes of sectors of the world about the Kaaba together with their qiblas as the same astronomical directions one would be facing if one were standing directly in front of the Kaaba ( Gibson claims that “dumb” people used these astronomical orientations to find “sloppy” orientations without realizing that they were the means used by the first generations of Muslims to carefully find the direction of the astronomically-oriented Kaaba. In fact, they were smart to use these directions.

(d) “The wind-catchers of medieval Cairo and their secrets” (2020), where the ‘secrets’ relate to the layout of the astronomically-aligned Fatimid city alongside the Roman Nile-Red Sea Canal as well as the various qiblas used in the city from the 7th century onwards ( – text) / (– illustrations). Gibson does not realize that there are entire Muslim cities facing the Kaaba, but that this can only be understood if one knows what people thought was the direction of the Kaaba, which was not the modern direction of Mecca, and most certainly not the modern direction of Petra!

(e) “The enigmatic orientation of the Grand Mosque of Córdoba” (2019), on the way in which the Mosque was laid out according to an astronomically-aligned Roman suburban street-plan, the admittedly curious orientation of the Mosque being later confirmed by the astronomical directions proposed in various medieval schemes of sacred geography, that is, divisions of the world around the astronomically-oriented Kaaba ( All major mosques of the Maghrib face the same direction for the same reason ( Gibson in one of his most imaginative moments proposed that these mosques are all parallel to an imaginary line between Petra and Mecca.

(f) “al-Bazdawī on the qibla in early Islamic Transoxania” (1983/2012) on the orientations of mosques in Samarqand by a well-known 11th-century judge ( Contrary to what Gibson thinks, this judge knew what he was talking about.

(g) “Bibliography of books, articles and websites on historical qibla determinations” (2018), listing some 150 items ( Gibson’s first writings on the qibla referred to none of this material. Later he consulted King’s article “Qibla” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam but not King’s article “Mekka as centre of the world”, in which Islamic sacred geography is presented for the very first time (

It is not unfair to say that Gibson has no idea about historical qibla determinations, but he is considerably better informed than the hapless souls who seek in a series of some 18 and more videos to promote his nutty ideas about Petra and to demolish his detractors (

~ Click here for the full article ~

by David A. King,
Professor of the History of Science,
Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main

Video: Why algorithms are called algorithms – BBC Ideas

Why are algorithms called algorithms? It’s thanks to Persian mathematician Muhammad al-Khwarizmi who was born way back in around AD780. (Source)

Please note that Al-Kindi contribution to coding should also be included, Cryptography paved the way for the development of arguably humanity’s greatest achievements yet, Computers, the Internet and the digital world. This article presents Al-Kindi as the originator of the modern method of deciphering:

Al-Kindi, Cryptography, Code Breaking and Ciphers

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Note of the Editor: Just after publishing this article, 1st August 2020, interesting news hit the headlines, 24 August 2020, regarding “Two Israeli teenagers on summer break unearthed a trove of hundreds of Islamic/Arabic gold coins that date from 1,100 years ago in Palestine/Israel:”, please see the Related News below to see these new updates.


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The new Islamic currency that was first coin to carry an Arabic inscription was called a dinar and was similar, in both size and weight, to the Byzantine solidus. On the obverse, there were three standing figures of unknown identities, as on the Byzantine coin, which had on its obverse the figures of Heracles, Heraclias Constantine, and Heraclonas; on the reverse, the Byzantine cross was replaced by a column placed on three steps topped with a sphere. In the margin surrounding the design the testimony of Islam was written in Arabic: “In the name of God, there is no deity but God; He is One; Muhammad is the messenger of God.”:

Umayyad Coins (661-750CE)


The present coin is a very rare survivor from this first year in which a ‘purely Islamic’ coinage was struck. Of striking and beautiful simplicity, and obviously and uncompromisingly Islamic, it was to become the basis of a stable gold coinage whose weight and fineness was carefully maintained in accordance with Qur’anic precepts. The type lasted unchanged until the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in 132h, and it is a remarkable tribute to the enduring power of ‘Abd al-Malik’s design that three of the four inscriptions used on these first Islamic dinars are also found on the last coins of the Abbasids issued nearly six centuries later:

Abbasid Coins (750-1258CE)


In contrast to coins of the first three Fatimid caliphs, the later ones emphasized their Shi’i identity by declaring their bond to Ali. In 953, Caliph al-Mu’izz issued dinars with a clear Shi’i message and a new design: a short, one-line legend was ringed by three concentric circular legends reading from the inner to the outer bands. The wording, which read “And Ali ibn Abi Talib is the Nominee of the Prophet and the Most Excellent Representative and the Husband of the Radiant Chaste One [i.e., Fatima, daughter of the Prophet],” expressed the essence of the Isma’ili doctrines; but as it offended the Sunni population it had to be abandoned:

Fatimid Coins 909-1171CE


What is of interest during the Almohad period (1145-1232) is the coin struck by King Alfonso VIII of Castile, who wanted to challenge the Muslim rulers of Spain. He issued a Christian coin with Arabic script, and instead of copying the coins of the Almohads, he chose those of their rivals, the recently conquered Amirs of Murcia. These remarkable dinars were minted in Toledo, the first Islamic city to fall to the Christians. As we see below, their close resemblance is remarkable:

Andalusian Coins 711-1494CE


In his posthumous classic A History of Economic Reasoning (1983), the late Karl Pribram (1877-1973), while tracing the origins of European Renaissance, mentions “two significant streams” of influence from the Arab-Islamic sources. Thus, “one stream originated in Italian cities, which in the wake of the Crusades had established relations with the traders of the Near East and had adopted various institutions and devices which were at variance with the rigid pattern of medieval social and economic organization. The other, far more important, stream started with the body of Scholastic theologians, who derived their intellectual armory from the works of Arabian philosophers”:

Capitalist Traditions in Early Arab-Islamic Civilization


Viking traders brought Abbasid silver coins in great quantities to Scandinavia; thousands have been found in Russia and the Baltic,” as reported by Timothy F. H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter and Thomas W. Hoekstra in their book, “Supply-Side Sustainability“. Indeed, the excavating of many of the sites in Scandinavian countries at present could be said due to the translation of such accounts made by voyagers and scholars from Muslim lands into European languages. Professor Thomas S. Noonan also highlights that it was a cache of dirhams (Arabic coins) “that helped fuel the Viking Age”. What is more, the dirham was said to be considered to be of such might that in Viking York and Dublin between the 10th and 12th centuries it was used as a common currency:

A Tale of Two Civilisations: The Viking and the Muslim Civilisation


Related News

  • Two Israeli teenagers on summer break unearthed a trove of hundreds of Islamic/Arabic gold coins that date from 1,100 years ago in Palestine/Israel:
    • “Teenagers Find Hoard of Islamic Gold Coins in Israel” by Ed Whelan, 24 Aug 2020 (Archived)
    • “Trove of 1,100-year-old gold coins is unearthed by teenagers volunteering at in excavation site in Israel” by Ian Randall, 24 Aug 2020 (Archived)
    • “Teenagers find ‘treasure’ trove of 1,100-year-old coins in Israel” by Oren Liebermann and Jack Guy, 24 Aug 2020 (Archived)
    • “Trove of 1,000-year-old gold coins unearthed in Israel” Reporting by Rinat Harash; Writing by Maayan Lubell, editing by Ed Osmond, 24 Aug 2020 (Archived)
  • BBC Radio 4: “Mohammed and the Market” by Kamal Ahmed, 21 Jul 2020(Archived)
  • “Were the African coins found in Australia from a wrecked Arab dhow?” by Jonathan Gornall, 29 May 2013 (Archived)
  • “Divers discover a treasure trove of medieval Arabic/Islamic gold coins in Israel/Palestine from mostly Fatimid Dynasty” 18 Feb 2015 (Archived)


Contrary to stereotypes, people would travel from near and far to study at institutions in the Muslim world and the Dirham and Dinar were amongst the most powerful currencies – no different than how the Euro or Dollar is regarded today. This is highlighted by the discovery of King Offa’s coins in the British Museum* engraved with ‘There is no other God but the one God. He has no equal,’ and on the outer margin of the coin “Mahommad is the Apostle of God, who sent him with the doctrine and true faith to prevail over every religion” Cem Nizamoglu
*“The Gold Mancus Of Offa, King Of Mercia” by P. W. P. Carlyon-Britton, British Numismatic Society, no. 5 (1908).

A Tale of Two Civilisations: The Viking and the Muslim Civilisation

National Museum of Finland : Islamic, English, and German coins, latest coin dates from 1006-1029 (Source

Plague and Contagion


Note of the Editor: This article, “Plague and Contagion” written by Justin K. Stearns, is Chapter Eleven, Pages 112-119, extracted from the book “1001 Cures: Contributions in Medicine & Healthcare from Muslim Civilisation” editor Peter Pormann, published by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, UK. The content of this chapter is relevant to the current pandemic environment around the world.


“To abandon an entire community, which one has been called to govern, and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin. It is the kind of disaster that the devil would like to instigate wherever there is no law or order…. Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbour unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead, and nurse them.

Martin Luther, Whether one may Flee from a Deadly Plague (ed. Wiencke 1968, 113-138)

“I wrote down my frank views on this matter and announced in every assembly in which I conversed that caution and care had to be taken in every area where there was an epidemic or plague, and that this was both a revealed ruling and a rational law. I went further and argued that doing so was recommended if not prescribed, and that entering epidemic areas was forbidden according both to revealed law and reason, and that it was not something that was done by either the intelligent or the learned. I also stated that only those afflicted with the malady of insanity or possession would consider themselves above this view.”

Idrīs ibn Ḥusām al-Dīn al-Bidlīsī, Risālat al-ʿibāʾ ʿan mawāqiʾ al-wabāʾ_
(Sulemaniye Esad Efendi MS 275, fols. 102–61, on fol. 103b.)

Introduction to the History of Medieval Islamic Medicine; Medicine of the Medieval Islamic Era

Figure 1. 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)

These two passages, written within a few decades of each other at the beginning of the sixteenth century illustrate well the historiographic perils of addressing the ways in which Muslims responded to the challenge of epidemic disease – especially plague – during the pre-modern period. Several generations of European and American historians of both Europe and the Middle East have argued that Muslim attitudes towards plague were characterised by fatalism, that Muslims believed that to die of the plague was martyrdom, and that Muslims rejected the phenomenon of contagion because the Prophet Muḥammad had denied it. In this chapter, I will show that the case was quite different, and that a rich and complex religious and medical tradition has been distorted. This has happened due to a modern preoccupation with empiricism, rationality, and a widespread belief in the incompatibility of religion and science. Conversely, I will also argue that it would be mistaken to see in individual strands of the pre-modern Islamic tradition precedents for contemporary responses to epidemic disease. The reality is quite distinct: the creativeness of Muslim responses to epidemic diseases and their transmission has been obscured precisely because it took place within a series of frameworks that are quite foreign to us today. These medical and theological frameworks predate both the nineteenth-century laboratory conception of disease and the myth of the irreconcilable relationship of science and religion.

The first of the two passages given above with its stress on a Christian’s responsibility for taking care of his brethren was authored by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (d. 1546). The second with its strident defence of avoiding the plague and of the compatibility of reason and revelation comes from the plague treatise of a Kurdish scholar writing for the Ottoman Sultan Selim II, Ḥusām al-Dīn al-Bidlīsī (d. 926/1520). These examples function to complicate the easy identification of Islam and Christianity with the respective stereotypical responses of fatalism and self-preservation. Instead, they encourage us to look more closely at how people of faith constructed their understandings of plague and contagion.

Early Accounts of Plague and Contagion

Historians traditionally have divided the occurrence of the bubonic plague (Yersinia Pestis) into three pandemics that date roughly to 541–750, 1347–1722, and 1894–present. While this periodisation has increasingly come into question – the evidence for the Middle East suggests that the separation of especially the second and third pandemic may be artificial – it is clear that the Muslim community encountered plague very early on in its development. In c. 638, during the initial expansion of Muslim armies into Syria that led to the conquest of Jerusalem, the plague struck the Muslim forces, killing many of them. This encounter, referred to in Muslim sources as the plague of ʿAmwas, figured prominently in the later materials related to plague and contagion. These accounts were collected in the compendiums of Prophetic tradition (ḥadīth) and chronicles of the history of the Muslim community that were compiled from the eighth to the tenth centuries. In brief, the accounts, many if not most of which took the form of Prophetic traditions, can be summarised as follows: plague had been a punishment for earlier peoples, but was a mercy for Muslims, and if they died from it, they received the reward of martyrdom. Still, Muslims should not enter a land where they knew plague was present, nor should they leave a place where it had broken out. One of the Prophet’s companions related this last tradition to the second caliph ʿUmar (d. 644), who, when approaching Syria from the Ḥijāz during the plague of ʿAmwas, decided to return instead to Madīna. Challenged by other Companions that he was fleeing from what God had decreed for him, ʿUmar responded that he was fleeing from the decree of God to the decree of God.

The Prophet had denied the existence of contagion along with a number of pre-Islamic beliefs. He had also counseled that one should flee lepers as if they were lions, while sometimes eating from the same bowl as lepers, and at other times refusing to accept the oath of allegiance of a leper in person. When questioned by a Bedouin regarding the case of a healthy camel who mixed with mangy camels and then became mangy itself, the Prophet rhetorically asked who had caused the first camel to become mangy.

These traditions and accounts were drawn into ninth-century debates between rationalist critics of Prophetic tradition such as the Muʿtazilī al-Naẓẓām (d. 232/847), and defenders of its authority such as the traditionalist Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889). The Mu’tazila were a theological school that stressed, among other things, the power and efficacy of human reason and who were skeptical of the growing number of accounts Muslims were attributing to the Prophet. Where al-Naẓẓām described many examples of Prophetic tradition being inherently contradictory and at odds with empirical evidence, Ibn Qutayba argued that the body of Prophetic Tradition was coherent when the scope of the individual traditions was properly understood, and that they were compatible with observation. It was this latter position that convinced most Sunni Muslim scholars in subsequent centuries. In the case of plague and contagion it also led to their exploring at length if and why one could flee the plague, while also opening up the thorny issue of what caused diseases to be transmitted.

At the same time in the ninth century that the traditionists were expounding their defence of the Prophet’s and his Companions’ words on plague and contagion, scholars from a variety of religious backgrounds were translating much of the combined medical heritage of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians into Arabic. They were doing this in Baghdad, the new capital of the second major Muslim caliphate, the ʿAbbasids (r. 750–1258). Within the humoral medical tradition that scholars living in the Muslim world appropriated from these translations and subsequently developed, there was a clear number of epidemic diseases – plague and leprosy among them – that they considered to be contagious, although differing on the question of whether they were curable or not. Thus, physicians such as Ibn Sahl ibn Rabban al-Tabari (d. after 855), Qusṭā ibn Lūqā (d. 910 or 920), and Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (d. c. 923) listed a number of contagious diseases in their works, and for al-Rāzī (as for the famous Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1037) a century later), the plague, as one of the epidemic diseases, was one of them.

It is important to emphasise, however, that scholars both of medicine and Prophetic tradition understood something quite different by contagion than we do today. We have been exposed to strong states with programmes of public health that impressed the importance of hygiene and the germ theory on the majority of us from a young age. Operating within a humoral framework, the physicians discussed here believed epidemic diseases to be the result of corrupted air, which, once inhaled, altered the individual’s particular temperament. This temperment was the result of a unique balance of the four humours: black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood – and disturbing this balance could result in illness — if not death – if the initial equilibrium could not be reestablished. Implicit within this model was the necessity for the physician to understand each individual’s particular humoral composition before carrying out a treatment.

All Muslim physicians were conversant with, if not specialised in, the religious sciences, as their introduction to literacy had been through the Qurʾān (Ibn Sīnā famously boasted in his autobiography that he had memorised it by age ten). Still, for many of them the medical and theological discourses seem to have applied to different spheres and they did not often expressly address potential tensions between these. A partial exception can be found with the authors of a discipline known as Prophetic medicine, which explicitly reconciled Prophetic traditions on medical matters within a Galenic humoral framework. This genre did not fully come into its own until the first decades of the fourteenth century, and it is perhaps no coincidence that its main proponents (including Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīya (d. 1350) argued for the phenomenon of contagion, as they had no theological motivation to deny diseases their own natures with associated causal powers. They came from the Ḥanbalī school and were of the minority of Sunni scholars who did not adhere to either the Ashʿarī or Maturidī schools of theology, both of which professed a theory of occasionalism in which God caused each thing to come into being at every moment. The main purpose of the doctrine of occasionalism was to preserve the absolute unity of God as Creator by denying the existence of any other causal actor. In this fashion, theologians of these schools emphasised the radical dependency of all Creation on God. It was possible to argue for disease transmission within an occasionalistic framework by invoking God’s habit of creating specific events in conjunction with each other in a reliable fashion – and one Ashʿarī thinker who did precisely this was the Moroccan Sufi and theologian Ḥasan al-Yūsī (d. 1691) who addressed contagion at length in his Discourses. Yet, rejecting such theological debates in favour of an implicit theory of secondary causality, in which diseases possessed the ability to transmit themelves due to their own natures, allowed the adherents of Prophetic medicine to accept the theory of contagion.


Figure 2. Black Death in Seljuk and Ottoman Era (Source)

The Black Death and the Rise of the Plague Treatise

In the middle of the fourteenth century, plague struck Central Asia and then spread throughout the countries bordering the Mediterranean. In subsequent decades it returned repeatedly, becoming an accepted if not anticipated fact of life for millions of people. The demographic and economic effects were catastrophic for the Muslim as for the Christian world, with some areas possibly suffering as high as fifty percent mortality, although our knowledge of the demographic realities of this period is quite shaky. Our understanding of the broad impact of the plague on Muslim societies is clearer, although attention has been disproportionately directed to specific areas, Egypt most prominently, in direct relation to the quality of available sources. Owing to its agricultural production being based on an elaborate system of irrigation canals and the way land ownership and labour was regulated under the Mamluk dynasty (r. 1260-1517), Egypt’s economy went into a centuries-long decline following the plague. This was in stark contrast to England, where peasants were able to negotiate more favourable working conditions, and the economy and living standards improved substantially in the century following the initial plague outbreak. These different outcomes were the result of disparate social and economic and not religious factors.

The intellectual response of Muslim physicians and religious scholars to the Black Death differed substantially from their response to the first pandemic. Now they could draw on a range of well-developed discourses, including, in addition to those already discussed, jurisprudence (fiqh) and Sufism (taṣawwuf). Faced with the immediacy of the challenge posed by the plague, scholars drew on all of these fields in the plague treatise. This genre addressed not only how one was to behave during the plague, but what medical remedies were available, and the significance of such an affliction. These treatises were structurally similar to a legal opinion (fatwa) in which a legal authority was asked about his views on a given issue. We possess dozens of them from the fourteenth and subsequent centuries, and they display a wide variety of approaches to plague and contagion. Early examples by Andalusian authors Ibn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1374) and Ibn Khātima (d. 1369) stressed the plague’s contagiousness and the importance of fleeing it, while their eastern contemporaries Ibn al-Wardī (d. 1349) and al-Manbijī (d. 1383) rejected contagion and emphasised how dying of the plague resulted in martyrdom. In the following century, Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 1448), the prominent scholar of Prophetic Tradition who himself lost three daughters to the plague, devoted an extended treatise to the subject of the plague. In it he rejected the transmission of the plague between humans (as opposed to leprosy) and explained the theological justifications for Muslims attaining martyrdom through dying of the plague (it depends on your intention). Due to his authoritative reputation, his views were influential in later scholarship. Other scholars, however, such as al-Bidlīsī, ignored the martyrdom aspect of the plague completely. In his treatise on the plague, al-Bidlīsī focused on its contagious nature and the importance of protecting oneself. He also included a long discussion of the proper understanding of God’s decree for mankind (after all, why flee if all is predestined?) and the imaginal world (barzakh) where calamities first appear and to which prophets and advanced mystics have access. The difference between his approach and that of Ibn Ḥajar speaks again to the wide variety of opinions among Muslim scholars on the issue of contagion.

Mysticism, which in an Islamic context often refers to Sufism in all its scholarly and institutional contexts, was most directly relevant to Muslim responses to plague through Sufis’ favourable description of reliance upon God (tawakkul), and the ethical duty of Muslims to help each other in times of difficulty. Authors such as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) in his influential Revival of the Religious Sciences stressed how Muslims should not flee the plague and should tend to the sick. Al-Ghazālī’s opinions continued to inspire Sufis though to the time of the prominent Moroccan Sufi Ibn ʿAjiba (d. 1809), who described how his fellow Sufis stayed with the sick in a time of plague and buried those who died of it without any harm coming to them.

It would be mistaken to evaluate the various opinions presented in these treatises according to modern criteria, or to attempt to divide them, for example, into rational on the one hand and religiously anti-empirical on the other. Ibn Ḥajar, in his rejection of contagion and his argument for jinn being the causative agent of plague laid out empirical evidence for his position: when the plague afflicted a house, only some within it died while others went untouched. The Granadan Ibn al-Khaṭīb, whom many in recent scholarship have seen as extraordinary in his explicit rejection of Prophetic traditions that conflicted with what he believed was empirical proof of contagion, relied in turn on the scriptural authority of Prophetic tradition when it came to traditions that supported his own views. Allowing ourselves to anachronistically evaluate these two positions according to modern medicine, we find Ibn Ḥajar’s position closer to current medical understandings of plague. Bubonic plague, after all, is not contagious, but requires a vector such as a flea to be transmitted, although it is possible that Ibn al-Khaṭīb may have witnessed cases of pneumonic plague, which can be transmitted directly from one person to another. When it came to medical remedies, which were offered both by proponents and opponents of the contagiousness of plague, these varied but involved dietary proscriptions, bloodletting, and at times ointments of violets. A belief in the validity of prayers, magical squares, amulets and talismans was also widespread among Muslims alongside more narrowly medical prescriptions, evidence of the influence of the occult sciences on medical theory and practice.

medicine hospitals

Figure 3. 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)

European Colonialism, Quarantine, and the Malleability of Tradition

As the plague continued to afflict the Muslim Mediterranean world down into the nineteenth century, scholars continued to address the social, medical, and spiritual challenges it posed. They also continued to disagree, and in doing so drew on the opinions of earlier scholars. The Yemeni reformer al-Shawkānī (d. 1836) drew extensively on Ibn Ḥajar in his rejection of the plague’s contagiousness, and the Algerian Ḥamdān Khoja (d. after 1258/1842) found al-Bidlīsī’s arguments useful in his own argument that the Ottoman Empire should adopt the European system of the quarantine. The Ottoman state had isolated travellers coming from epidemic areas since the sixteenth century. Yet, a quarantine involved isolating healthy travellers for a period of time so that it could be ascertained if they were sick or not. Muslims did not employ quarantines until the eighteenth century, and then within the Mediterranean they were generally enforced by European powers, most often in connection with the movement of Muslim pilgrims heading towards or returning from the pilgrimage to Mecca. These same powers routinely violated the quarantine when it suited their economic interests. Drawing in part on Russian policies in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire converted an earlier system of lazarets (tahaffuzhane) into a full-fledged quarantine system at the end of the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, both the Ottoman empire and Muhammad Ali’s Egypt openly acknowledged the contagious nature of the plague. In the latter case, this was against the advice of the anti-contagionist French doctor Antoine Clot (d. 1868), showing that anti-contagionism remaining influential in Europe at this time as well. In both cases the two states adopted the quarantine system as part of a series of comprehensive reforms to address their comparative military and economic disadvantage vis-à-vis European powers. Both states also justified doing so with the selective citation of Prophetic tradition and the example of the second caliph ʿUmar, thereby carrying the premodern debates forward into a new era.

Figure 4. Gilles Le Muisit’s painting depicts the mass burial of plague victims in Belgium. (Source)


In the twentieth century the contagiousness of plague became widely accepted in the Muslim world. As with the Ottoman adoption of quarantine in the nineteenth century, Muslim scholars, such as the former Grand Mufti of Tunis Muḥammad al-Mukhtār, have in recent decades stressed the compatibility of Prophetic Tradition with the proper understanding of contagion. Still, just as it was a distortion of Muslim intellectual heritage for historians to characterise Muslims in the premodern period as fatalistic when facing the plague, so it would also be a mistake to claim that the sum of Islamic thought on the issue was the caliph ʿUmar’s decision to turn back from the plague or the Prophet’s advice to flee lepers. In the last two centuries, Muslims have witnessed many European and American scholars and representatives of colonial and postcolonial empires portray their scholarly inheritance as irrational or characterised by blind imitation. Much of the work of the last two generations of scholars working on Islam and the Middle East has gone towards correcting these depictions by exploring the complexities and creativity of Muslim scholarly works in the formative and now evermore the post-formative period as well. Let us not, however, extend this corrective tendency too far in the understandable but mistaken desire to characterise premodern Islamic heritage as somehow constitutive of modern science or public health policy. Such a move would not only misrepresent classical Islamic scholarship on plague and contagion, which was rooted in a humoral and not a bacterial understanding of disease aetiology, it would also fundamentally cloud our ability to understand the creative and insightful choices Muslim scholars made when faced with epidemic disease, choices that were framed within epistemological paradigms distinct from those found in a world governed by a laboratory model of the disease.

Select Bibliography

  • Borsch, Stuart (2005) The Black Death in Egypt and England, Austin.
  • Conrad, Lawrence (1981), ‘Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises: Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre’, in: Studia Islamica 54, 51–95.
  • Conrad, Lawrence (1998), ‘Umar at Sargh: The evolution of an Umayyad Tradition on Flight from the Plague’, in: Stefan Leder (ed.) Story-Telling in the Framework of Non-Fictional Arabic Literature, Wiesbaden, 488–528.
  • Dols, Michael W. (1977), The Black Death in the Middle East, Princeton.
  • Ess, Josef van (2001), Der Fehlschritt des Gelehrten: Die “Pest von Emmaus” und ihre theologischen Nachspiele, Heidelberg.
  • Kuhnke, LaVerne. (1990) Lives at Risk: Public Health in Nineteenth Century Egypt. Berkeley.
  • Low, Michael (2008), ‘Empire of the Hajj: Pilgrims, Plagues, and Pan-Islam under British Surveillance, 1865-1908’, in: International Journal of Middle East Studies 40, 269-90.
  • Mikhail, Alan (2008), ‘The Nature of Plague in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82, 249–75.
  • Robarts, Andrew (2010) ‘A Plague on Both Houses?: Population Movements and the Spread of Disease Across the Ottoman-Russian Black Sea Frontier, 1768–1830s’, PhD Dissertation in History, Georgetown University, 2010.
  • Stearns, Justin (2011), Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean, Baltimore, MD.
  • Varlik, Nükhet (2013), ‘From “Bête Noire” to “le Mal de Constantinople”: Plagues, Medicine, and the Early Modern Ottoman State’, in: The Journal of World History 24, 741–70.
  • Wilson, David (2002) ‘The Historiography of Science and Religion’, in: Gary B. Ferngren (ed.), Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, London, 13-29.

The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan


Editorial Note: Extracted from “1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th Edition) Annotated”. First published in 1001 Inventions website:


In early 12th-century Muslim Spain, a gifted philosopher, mathematician, poet, and medical doctor was born. Ibn Tufayl, or Abu Bakr ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tufayl al-Qaysi, to give his full name, became known in the West as Abubacer. He held royal posts as an adviser and court physician to Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1135-1184), the Almohad ruler of Al-Andalus, and he is remembered today for the philosophical allegory, Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the original manuscript of which is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Ibn Tufayl took his title from a work by Ibn Sina, which is totally different. A translation of Ibn Tufayl’s story, which was published in English in 1708, may have inspired Daniel Defoe’s book Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.[1]

Stories - The Story Corner: The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
Friday (left) and Robinson Crusoe, lithograph by Currier & Ives, c. 1874.
© Everett Historical/ (Source)

Hayy ibn Yaqzan means “Alive, son of Awake,” so this is “The Story of Alive, son of Awake,” which describes Hayy’s character passing from sleepy childhood to knowledge by means of which he can fully contemplate the world and his surroundings.

Stories - The Story Corner: The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
An illustration by Karima Solberg from Ibn Tufayl’s Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan shows him with his adoptive “mother,” a doe. Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century Robinson Crusoe is very similar to lbn Tufayl’s 12th century Hayy ibn Yaqzan. 

(Source: 1001 inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd eition, page 103)

It begins with Hayy as a child, a princess’s son whose birth was a secret. He is cast upon the shore of an equatorial island where he is suckled by a doe and spends the first 50 years of his life without contact with any other human beings. His isolation is in seven stages of seven years. During each seven-year stage he is his own teacher and learns about himself and his surroundings.

Stories - The Story Corner: The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
The first two pages of a manuscript containing the text of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Ms. Istanbul, Ayasofya 04807-001 – Süleymaniye Manuscript Library Directorate, Istanbul (Source)

The first English translations The Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan appeared in 1708.[2] Eleven years later, Defoe’s famous book was published. Many of Defoe’s contemporaries said his inspiration lay in the experiences of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish mariner who passed more than four years in solitude on one of the Juan Fernández Islands. But the similarities between Robinson Crusoe and Hayy ibn Yaqzan are enough to make it probable that Defoe knew the Muslim work. From the island shipwreck to the anguish of isolation and struggle for survival, Robinson Crusoe bears many similarities to the older work.

Here it is worth noting that the 13th-century scientist Ibn al Nafis, who is known for his work on the lesser circulation of the blood, had also written a fairly similar story, but it differed in the way it presented the relationship between the living and God. Ibn Tufayl’s version is more reflective of the Sufi tradition, while Ibn al Nafis’s is more representative of the Islamic Orthodox tradition. The title of Nafis’s work is Al Seera al Kamiliya, where the central character’s name is Kamil (Perfect) as against Hayy (Alive).[3]

Stories - The Story Corner: The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
Album folio fragment with the scholar in a garden. Attributed to Muhammad Ali 1610-15. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Source)

Get the full story from 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th  Edition) Annotated. 

Stories - The Story Corner: The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
‘The Improvement of Human Reason Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan’ by Ibn Tufayl, 1708 AD. In the frontispiece to this translation of the philosophical story Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd are seen standing in front of a Greek gate to an Islamic building, symbolising the Greek influence on Islamic philosophy. 
(Source: Arabick Roots Exhibition Catalogue 2012, page 61)


[1] R. Fletcher, Moorish Spain (London: Phoenix, 1992), 132.
[2] The Improvement of Human Reason Exhibited in the Life of Hai ebn Yokdhan (London: Printed and sold by E. Powell, 1708). Note: Written in Arabic more than 500 years ago, by Abu Jaafar ebn Tophail, newly translated from the original Arabic, by Simon Ockley, it includes an appendix, in which the possibility of man’s attaining the true knowledge of God, and things necessary to salvation, without instruction, is briefly considered.
[3] Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi, “Ibn Al-Nafis as a Philosopher,” Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (1982). (c.f. Ibn al Nafis as a philosopher in Encyclopaedia of Islamic Word.)
-Nahyan A. G. Famy, Astronomy, Cosmology and Geology, Known in His Time. (His main purpose behind this science fiction work was to explain Islamic religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy through the use of fiction.)

Stories - The Story Corner: The Mystery of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan
Imaginary portrait of Abraham ibn Ezra who composed a poem called Hayy ben Meqitz (Source) Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages.  (Source) Ibn Ezra has left us one writing that undoubtedly fits into a very special medieval philosophical tradition: a visionary recital, or initiatory tale, in rhymed Hebrew prose, Hayy ben Meqitz (Levin 1985, 119–132). The great tenth-century philosopher Ibn Sina wrote a philosophical allegory Hayy bin Yaqzân, and the Andalusian Ibn Tufayl, as well as the Persian expatriate Suhrawardi, penned distinct versions, each tale suited to the message that its author wished to convey. Ibn Ezra’s Hebrew composition fits into this special theme of philosophical allegory. (Source)

The Role of Mathematics and Geometry in Formation of Persian Architecture



Note of the Editor: This article was originally published in Asian Culture and History, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2015. We would like to thank the authors for permitting to republish this article here.


1. Introduction

Research in Persian architecture without knowledge of the geometry is impossible. Muslims considered geometry as an important science, balanced with mathematics, astrology and music. In Iranian architecture, geometrical and abstract patterns were emphasized as a forming factor (of whole structure), a decoration method (of components), alternatives and sense transformer. The development of geometry in Islamic World started during 8th and 9th centuries from Sanskrit and Greek texts to Arabian texts and till 10th century, Muslims achieved great successes in the field. An investigation of reasons of geometry importance in Islamic art and architecture and its reflection forms in these structures’ whole body and components, considering cultures and values governing society and understanding meanings, is important. In the field of g eometry, great changes were occurred as a result of Umar al-Khayyām[1], Abū al-Wafā’ Būzjānī[2], al-Khwārizmī[3] and Ibn al-Haytham’s efforts[4]. It seems that there has been a relationship between geometricians and architects in Islamic World and linguistic description of this relationship can be seen in Arabic sense of Geometry, which is not only based on geometry but also meaning engineering. Muslim mathematicians such as Būzjānī and Al-Kashi[5] provided manuals with the aim of describing fundamental principles of geometry and its applications in architecture. Such manuals are technical, and their aim is to make principles of mathematics easier and comprehensible for non-professionals of the area. It seems that developments in mathematics and consequently, in geometry and advent of new tools during historical dynasties of Iran have influenced developments of Iranian architecture, directly.

2. Method

Present investigation is theoretical-fundamental, carried out in historical-descriptive method. Needed information was gathered through studying valid historical sources and field observations. What we know about relation between architecture, and mathematic is largely based upon interpretive studies that investigate the progress of the Muslims in the Islamic and pre-Islamic historical texts. The study was conducted in the form of a historic- interpretative, with data being gathered via Conformity of history, art and science architecture. In the Islamic era and earlier, using available resources and library information. The aim of present investigation is to compare art, mathematics, geometry and the application of mathematics in architecture to obtain a definition and interpretation of component influencing Persian architecture from geometric point of view, through classifying mathematicians and scientists influencing Persian architecture, considering history and eliciting mathematical and geometric principles governing designs and principles of drawing.

3. Literature Review

Studies of science’s history and architecture indicate two distinguished viewpoints with the issue of relationship between mathematics and geometry with architecture. Scholars like Saliba (Saliba, 1995) and Holod (Renata, 1988) suspect the role of mathematicians and the existence of relationship between mathematic texts and architecture. They considered mathematic knowledge of architecture companion in oral form, seeing insignificant relationship between these two groups. Though, other scholar including Bulatov (1978), Chorbachi (1989), Özdural (2002), and Necipoglu (1995) emphasize the role of sciences, mathematical texts and mathematicians in architecture specially in Islamic era (Chorbachi, 1989). For example Özdural relates the main roles of developments in architecture and related industries to mathematicians (Özdural, 1995). Özdural presents a series of quotations from these two sources, which show that mathematicians taught geometry to artisans by means of cut-and-paste methods and of geometrical Figures that had the potential of being used for ornamental purposes (Özdural, 2000). In a detailed study, Necipoglu also, clearly mentions the share of mathematics in architecture through emphasizing the role of mathematicians in writing mathematical texts which are related to architecture (Denny, Necipoglu, & al-Asad, 1998). Recently Iranian scholars, Such as Taheri and Hejazi also, have proceeded on studying and investigation in this regard, providing contents in the form of books and valid articles (Taheri, 2008). Hejazi shows that A comprehensive utilisation of proportions in Persian architecture, such as in the design of plans, elevations, geometric and architectural patterns, and mechanical and structural features, can be proved through geometrical analysis of Persian historical buildings (Hejazi, 2005). Taheri showed that how the mathematical knowledge of a Persian scientist was utilized in architecture and craftsmanship, he shed some light on the hidden layers of Kâshânî’s architectural life, who until now has been considered only a mathematician and astronomer (Taheri, 2011).

4. History of Employing Geometry before Islam

In order to get familiar with Iranian people’s knowledge of Geometry specially applied geometry in art and investigating geometrical developments used in Iranian Architecture before Islam, we will present several historical eras, here, to show samples indicating achieving developments in applied geometry in architecture, scientists’ knowledge of geometry and its feedback in architecture art of that era.

4.1 Before Achaemenid Empire[6]

Evidence of architecture and urban development in this era indicate that using geometry and architecture was not ineffective in urban design and structures of this era. According to Herodotus[7], Ecbatana[8]  city (contemporary Hamadān or Hamedān), capital city of Medians, was completely in circular form and the city was surrounded by seven concentric walls. Moreover, these walls had been various balanced pathways and structures were constructed in its extension (Zarei, 2000, p. 77). In This period, Iranian architecture makes use of abundant symbolic geometry, using pure forms such as circles and squares, and plans are based on often symmetrical layouts featuring rectangular courtyards and hall.

4.2 Achaemenid Empire

Achaemenian were among the greatest architects and geometers of Iranian History. Here is Shahkarami‘s[9]  note about Persepolis[10]: experts’ investigations on structures of especially its columns and its conical forms indicate that: Achaemenian were using p-value 2500 years before mathematics scientists. They were completely familiar with pure mathematics and engineering. They identified the secret of p-value to build conical masses. Geometry is latent in Achaemenian’s architectural decorations with simple or frequent repetition of natural or abstract motifs, which were based on axial symmetry, motif’s places and their distance of each other with specified geometrical structures (Kharazmi & Sarhangi, 2013). In decoration part related to architecture, Lotus design or vortex curl was administrated using simple geometrical divisions relying on spiral development based on such divisions (Hejazi, 2005, p. 83)  ratios were used in Achaemenian’s places specially in Apadana[11] palace, in a way that hall involves 36 central columns as It’s basic square and its diameters illuminate three sides of palace in width of columned balconies (See Figure 1) (Bemanian, Okhovat, & Baghaei, 2011, p. 175). In Pasargadae complex[12] and royal garden, also, the geometrical network has been used in garden designing which is according to some scholars the origin of advent of Iranian Chaharbagh[13] (Naima, 2006, p. 27). So it can be concluded that geometry was influential from micro scales e.g. decorations to macro scales, urban designing and royal complexes.


Figure 1. Geometric order and proportion in design Persepolis (Takht-e Jamshid or Pārseh), Shiraz, Fars, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran (ca. 550–330 BC)

4.3 Parthian Empire[14]

Part tribes were fully skilled in using various designs, advanced techniques of arch and dome, through applying local materials (Zarei, 2000, p. 106). This requires applying strong geometry. The architecture has major Greek influences, while some Iranian elements from the beginning are observable. Architects of Parthian Empire started new innovations in the field of art especially in architecture, trying to revive Iranian design symbolic features and Iranian art through combining Iranian and Greek elements (Pope, 1971, p. 47). In this Empire art, motifs[15] are more geometric and structures are more complicated due to influences of Greek art (Kharazmi, Afhami, & Tavoosi, 2012). Creating border and placing motifs inside specific cadres are the main influences Greek art on Iranian art of Parthian Empire (Godard, 1965). For example the architectural decorations in Nisa are usually purely Greek. There were Ionic and Corinthian capitals proportion with acanthus leaves. Nisa‘s battlements and fortifications, however, have their origin in a more Iranian fashion. Moreover through developments in urban fields of Sassanid and Parthian Empire, the tradition of making circular cities in monuments of Darabgerd, City of Goor and Khoreh Ardeshir[16] cities continued. This indicated applied usage of geometry in large scales (See Figure 2 & 3).


Figure 2. The use of Euclidean geometry in the Parthian Empire urbanism, ancient round city of Darabgerd, Iran (Kermani, 2012)

4.4 Sasanian Empire[17]

On the rise of Sassanid dynasty, a national government was established, which provided the bed for great artistic changes through taking Achaemenian’s art as their model and using experiences obtained from influences of Rome and Greek civilizations on Iran (Ghirshman, 1954). In Sassanid art change in method is from employing geometry from latent state to elaborate geometrical structures, increase in rhythms from frequent repetition to elaborate rhythms with various motifs and utilizing central symmetry, which provided the bed for great changes in architectural changes of next Empire specially changes in geometrical motifs of Islamic Architecture (Kharazmi, Afhami, & Tavoosi, 2012). In this Empire, geometric feature far from former art is eliminated, gradually, and we come across with free motifs. With such organizing, all motifs rely on using geometric infrastructure (Ibid). Dome has been established on square base in dome structures of Sassanid Empire with specific techniques of Iranian architecture, which starts with tightening four conical three-corner on four corners of square to convert it to octagon ( ratios) and sixteen-gone till at final phase this main tetrahedron transfer converts to be multilateral with corners highly close to circle (Bemanian, Okhovat, & Baghaei, 2011, p. 172). Moreover, central porch of Kasra palace follows  ratios. In a way that mentioned saloon with length and width of 60.34 and 30.25 has the ratios (Ibid, p. 176). The unique characteristic of Sassanid architecture, was its distinctive use of space. The Sassanid architect conceived his building in terms of geometric masses and surfaces; hence the use of massive walls of brick decorated with molded or carved stucco. All of these samples from the essence of the hypothesis which are emphasizing the issue of geometry in Iranian Architecture.


Figure 3. The use of Euclidean geometry in the Sasanian Empire urbanism, Ancient City of Goor, Firuzabad, Fars, Iran (Farnam, 2012)

5. History of Employing Geometry after Islam

Islamic era architect one of whose condition to step into this profession is being familiar with principles of mathematics and geometry, is completely familiar with principles of employing scales in structure and using a scale, he could use ratios of scientific geometry artistically, depending on environmental conditions (Sadeghi & Ahmadi, 2011, p. 107). Doing so he could start unique creativities, through using his interest, genius on one hand, and employing geometrical component one the other hands who are generally considered as support of his work appropriateness.

5.1 Since an arrival of Islam till the Ghaznavid dynasty[18]

In early Islam’s era, with gradual development in mathematics, the art of architecture developed too. The reason for reliability of this issue can be investigated with environmental evidence of Topkapı Scroll[19] and relating his geometrical language to historical developments of mathematics. Unlike Latin West, Islamic World achieved the book of principles of Greek mathematicians at early 2nd century. At that time, this was had been translated for Caliph Harun al-Rashid. (Denny, Necipoglu, & al-Asad, 1998). New writings have been published in different fields of mathematics, astronomy, geometry, optics, algebra, and trigonometry. These publications lead geometry to the world which was unknown earlier, resulting in employing it in new affairs, including architecture and decoration arts (such as dome and arch form, geometrical and Muqarnas motifs (Ibid). Doing so with an increase in Muslim’s knowledge and development and progress in geometry, especially in applied and theoretical sections, an appropriate ground was appeared and formed for using theoretical knowledge, mathematics and geometry in applied fields of architecture.

In 4th century, an unprecedented emphasis of Baghdad school[20] on balancing theoretical sciences with practical work has had an undeniable effect on visual culture of Islam. One of the most important and the oldest book which was written about close relationship between theoretical and applied sciences, is the book Ihsa’ al-‘ulum written by Al-Farabi[21] in 4th century. This book is a pseudo- encyclopedia of theology and sciences, explaining all sciences in a fluent and simple word, mentioning branches of each science (al-Farabi, 2005). Moreover the books Nejārat and geometrical acts were written by Abū al-Wafā’ Būzjān[22]. Būzjānī had a prominent place in applied geometry and architecture. Especially he is of higher position due to his issue of dividing a planet with the aid of grand circles, which requires higher understanding of spatial imagination and its application in architecture (Tavassoli, 2004, p. 25). On the other hand, geometry has stepped into the decorative fields of architectural monuments in a way that the origin of views limited to geometry in Iranian architecture i.e. 4th century brickwork school is related to North and North East of Iran (Bemanian, Okhovat, & Baghaei, 2011, p. 194). Renata Hold, master of art history, Islamic Architecture and town history, points to the book “Iranian geometry: Application of Geometry in practice[23]” when investigating applied geometry and Islamic Architecture. He considers it as one kind of works, which can come in handy for most craftsmen (Renata, 1988, pp. 3-4). In this dynasty, valuable monuments, including the Samanid Mausoleum[24] and Gonbad-e Qabus (tower)[25] were built which according to Pirnia have geometry relying on creative ratios and compounds (Pirnia, 2004) (Table. 1). The craftsmanship of the ornamentation and the refinement of the patterns, combined with their rhythm for geometrical contours, produce an excellent technique for fretwork on alabaster. Side by side with this, some ornaments are preserved which date back to the early middle ages: a roller with scaly ornament and strips of intertwined vine stems (See Figure 4).


Figure 4. The rightness of the geometric patterns and the construction of their intersections indicate a knowledge of applied geometry, The Samanid Mausoleum, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (Sergeev, 2012)

In first half of 5th century AH, the most brilliant period of Islamic Architecture began in Iran. In this dynasty, we can see the culmination of an architectural style (sabk) called “Razi[26]. Pope relates the advent of geometrical school to after this century in Grand Iran. Moreover, he, undoubtedly, considers geometrical decoration in Iran as a result of direct employment of mathematical systems (Pope, 1971). In 5th century mathematics and consequently, geometry and its application in architecture developed and found a place that some rulers were proud of being skillful in it. Among these kings and rulers, we can point to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who was not only skillful at geometry, but also in architectural drawings. Regarding royal palaces build by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in Ġaznīn, Abul-Fazl Bayhaqī[27]  sees him as a knowledgeable man of architecture, writing so: all people built and drew lines with their own magnificent, hands based on their knowledge. There are signs in such tools, especially in geometry. (Beyhaqi, 2011). Moreover, Abdillah Ahmed Ibn Yusuf Ibn Hud, the ruler of Saragossa (Zaragoza) in Andalusia compiled a textbook of geometry, using a huge set of mathematic books gathered in his library (Denny, Necipoglu, & al-Asad, 1998) (See table2).

Table 1. Scientists and scholars of 4th and 5th centuries


Table 2. Introducing 5th century scientists and effects of their works on architecture


5.2 From Seljuk[28] to Ilkhanate[29] Dynasty

On the rise of Seljuk dynasty paying attention to sciences, especially applied sciences boomed drastically. In Seljuk dynasty, the presence of Viziers[30] such as Amidolmolk Kondori[31] and Khawja Nizam Al-Mulk Tusi[32], and knowledge training thoughts and establishing Al-Nizamiyya Schools caused a drastic boom in developing Islamic culture. The evolution and development of Elm Al-Hiyal (Science of Contrivances) especially geometry and architecture occurred in this dynasty. In references of 6th century, the place of practical geometry of previous centuries is considered when training craftsmen and architectures. Beyhaqi narrates a quote of Esfazari[33], which indicates that he considers geometry as basis and foundation of architecture, architect and requires bricklayer to follow it (Neyestani, 2005, p. 45). Similarly, at that time, the main parts of a node were substantiated and developed in different forms in various local rulings, which employed geometry. “Under these conditions, it was one of the tradition revivers of Seljuk dynasty who revived sudden node style…” (Denny, Necipoglu, & al-Asad, 1998). The rulers support of scientists, and artists caused great, architectural and scientific appear in this dynasty through a corporation of these two groups (Table 3) (See Figure 5).

Table 3. Introducing scientist of 6th century and effect of their works on architecture


During early 7th AH century, with the establishment of Ilkhanate dynasty y, Mongols adapted the culture and traditions of defeated countries, becoming one of the supporters of art and Islamic artists. One of the main features of this dynasty is more employment of geometry in architectural design. The variety of designs in this method is more than others. Using geometry and variety can be seen in building’s tint, and its Nahāz and Nakhīr[34] house (Pirnia, 2004, p. 214). In this dynasty, geometry was used as a tool for balancing and generating pattern for construction of monuments with maximum speed and minimum error, in a way that modular enables architect to build several monuments in different parts of a country simultaneously without fearing of error, even in smallest components. In this dynasty, Khawja Nizam Al-Mulk Tusi was among updated scientists who made Maragheh observatory. (Taheri, 2011, p. 48) Maragheh observatory, was an institutionalized astronomical observatory which was established in 1259 CE under the patronage of the Ilkhanid Hulagu Khan and the directorship of Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī, an Iranian scientist and astronomer.


Figure 5. Beautiful brick dome in harmony with geometric proportions, Taj-ol-molk Dome, Jamé Mosque of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran (1088-1089) (Alagheband, 2012)

5.3 From Timurid[35] to Safavid[36] Dynasty

Ibn Khaldūn[37] in 8th AH century, in his famous introduction of describing masonry artifacts, points to the importance of recognizing geometry among architects, believing that it is the knowledge of geometrical problems and thinking about it along with relying on accurate calculations that make craftsmen successful in establishing huge monuments (Ibn Khaldûn, 1989). In this era, plans were sent from Shiraz to Yazd for amir Ghiyāth al-Dīn’s school construction (Afshar & Jafari, 2005, p. 119). Moreover, Muhammad ibn Mahmud Amuli[38], the author of the book “Nafa’is al-funun fi ‘ara’is al-‘uyun[39]” believes that mathematics is composed of techniques involving Architect. 9th century and Timurid dynasty is the most brilliant historical dynasties of Iranian art and architecture, which obtained more progresses using fundamental thoughts and culture of past architecture. One of the main features of this dynasty is more employment of geometry in architectural designs, which are substantiated in Nahāz and Nakhīr of plans, brickwork girih-chīnī in the form of modular in view decorations and geometrical motifs forming muqarnas and diaphoretic tiling (See Figure 6). Ghiyāth al-Dīn Jamshīd al-Kāshī[40] is one of the most prominent scientists and mathematics of this dynasty who has proceeded on different aspects of mathematics and geometry application in architecture (table 4).

Table 4. Introducing scientists of 9th century and their effects on architecture


Figure 6. Kharghard Madrasa is accomplished by the energy of the brick floral patterns and brick geometrical schemes; by the emphatic rhythm of the arcades, open galleries and deep recesses; and especially by the contrast of the light and shadow. Ghavam-al-Din and Ghiyas-al-Din Shirazi , Ghiyathiyeh Kharghard School, Khaf, Iran (Mehrabiani, 2011)

5.4 From Safavid to Qajar[41] Dynasty

On the rise of Safavid dynasty in the early 10th century, we can see a culmination of Iranian architecture art, generated by that time exulting and art lover kings, i.e. “Shah Tahmasp, I[42] and Shāh ‘Abbās I [43]“. Scientists like Bahāʾ al-dīn al-ʿĀmilī[44] was living at that dynasty presenting important writings in architecture, mathematics and geometry, taking valuable action in Isfahan in the field of architecture. Moreover, during these years handbooks of Meftah ol Saadah and Meftah ol-Siyadah were published by an unknown author in the field of mathematics and architecture (table5). Following Eric Schroeder, Oleg Grabar in his book “The Great Mosque of Isfahan“, believes that Khayyām [45] played a role in drawings resulted in creation of the north dome of Grand Mosque of Isfahan. He sees him as its inventor (Graber, 1990). Since using Pentagon and five headed stars on the outer surface of the dome requires scientific domination and proficiency on round triangles to be able to convert direct to deviant lines, so this confirms the probability of idea design by Khayyām. Moreover, according to article entitled: “Jamé Mosque of Isfahan” it was identified in Aerial Photography of historical monument’s summit (Athena1974) that north dome ratio of this mosque is exactly equal to Khayyām‘s triangle ratios (Ghazali, 1975). Chorbachi [46] in his article of Bible Tower considers the asymmetries in Islamic designs of photos of Khayyām‘s handbook of indiscrete shapes, more complicated than Abū al-Wafā‘s polygons and shapes version, knowing Khayyām as the main criteria of decorative geometry and developments in that dynasty applied geometry (Chorbachi, 1989). Reports of the handbook of indiscrete shapes indicate that triangle explored by Khayyām was used, in fact, as a decorative design by craftsmen (Özdural, 2000). This indicates the fact that principles and rules of geometry are not only used in architecture, but also geometrical shapes are used to prove scientific problems. They can be, moreover, used as decorative geometrical shapes due to having specific logic (See Figure 7).


Figure 7. Prolific and impressing by the geometry of the pattern and plan, Geometric Analysis of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Ustad Mohammad Reza Isfahani architect, Isfahan, Iran

Table 5. Introducing 11th century scientists and effect of their works on architecture


Table 6. Introducing 12th century scientists and effect of their works on architecture


5.5 From Qajar Dynasty to Contemporary Era

Studying educational mathematics of Dar ul-Fonun can be carried out in two forms:

5.5.1 Safavid dynasty and investigating handbook of Khulasat al-hisab (based on a manuscript, compiled in 1114 AH) (al-ʿĀmilī) compiled by Bahāʾ al-dīn al-ʿĀmilī, surnamed Shaykh‐i Bahāʾī.

The reason for importance of this handbook is that it is the only handbook used as a textbook for the introductory mathematics course to train students of Safavid dynasty in the school house. In Qajar dynasty this book was translated, corrected and reviewed by several famous mathematicians, and then it was available for students with the name of Kanz Al-Hisab[47]. Mathematic books authored in Dar ul-Fonun[48] presented issues, which had not been seen in Islamic era and according to western and theoretical methods, these books caused Iran to develop in this field. In this era, mathematics goes far from issues of practical geometry, tending toward pure and proving issues (Pasandideh, 2007). In this era, some conditions that generated the ideas leading to the Dar al-Funun, the pivotal Iranian educational institution in the nineteenth century, as well as the people and the cultural and political environment that nurtured it.

Qajar decoration is usually unmistakable. Simple, rather strident tiled geometric or epigraphic designs in small glazed bricks were especially popular. Reflecting glass now complemented polychrome tilework, adding play of light to play of color (See Figure 8). The facetted surface of muqarnas vaults was the ideal vehicle for this late but still novel expression of a classic preoccupation of Iranian architecture. The dissolution of surface by resplendent ornament.


Figure 8. 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), The Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran.

5.5.2 Books Authored in Qajar dynasty

Mathematics text books before establishing Dar ul-Fonun involved the book entitled Kanz Al-Hisab (manuscript 1256 AH) which a translation and the description for Handbook of Khulasat al-hisab, written by Shaykh‐i Bahāʾī, compiled by Farhad Mirza[49] Qajar, reviewed by Ali Mohammad Isfahani. The author mentions that the book was compiled to teach students and learn rudimentary issues of mathematics during Mohammad Shah Qajar kingship. Vajed Ali Khan, in his Matla-i ul-Ulum which was compiled in 13th AH century, has dedicated one chapter to techniques of an architect, mentioning that: those who are aware of principles of geometry, they’d better know that this technique can be finished in the best way possible (Ali Khan, 1998). The Dar al-Funun as a channel for the flow of scientific, cultural and intellectual innovation imported from Western Europe to Qajar society and as an experimental space in which long-established ideas and practices were challenged. It also sheds new light on the secularization of education in Iran, which led to the Ulama’s loss of control over educational affairs.

6. Conclusion

Comprehensive studies of relationship between architecture, mathematics and geometry indicated that there has been a close relation between these two fields. With changes occurred in mathematics, we can observe developments in architecture. This issue confirms theories of scientists, including Özdural and Necipoglu who believed in relationship between mathematics and architecture. Although for different reasons, this relation can be pale, it was never vanished and no one can deny it. During some dynasties, unprecedented progresses in mathematics, compiling books and mathematical achievements related to architecture strengthened this relation due to reasons such as rulers’ support of mathematicians. Though, in some eras, this relation became weaker and pale due to social and political reasons and even people’s different attitude toward time sciences and kind of science employment.

Evidence remained from pre-Islam era indicates that some traces of geometry can be seen in designing cities, palaces and royal gardens. The relationship between Islamic era mathematicians and architecture field was substantiated through first Abbasid caliphs for urban construction and development. Meanwhile due to need for mathematics and lack of knowledge of craftsmen and architects, a bed was provided to entrance of mathematicians to architecture and eminent mathematicians, and scientists took the most important seats of construction affairs. The 4th century is considered as a turning point of relationship between mathematics and architecture area due to Abū al-Wafā’ Būzjānī‘s works in geometry and practical arithmetic. In this century emphasis of Baghdad school on balancing theoretical sciences and practical works had drastic effects on architectural works. On the rise of Seljuk government, in 6th century, paying attention to applied sciences boomed more and more. The presence of experienced and resourceful Viziers, including Khawja Nizam Al-Mulk Tusi caused geometry influence architecture in this era. On the rise of Ilkhanate ruling, 7th century, using geometry in building affairs increased due to need for acceleration and accuracy in designs. Concurrent with Timurid ruling, 9th century, is the peak of art history and architecture boom, since in this era the more employment of geometry and mathematics can be seen architectural designs. Scientists including al-Kāshī it proceeded on theoretical application of mathematics in architecture in form of practical and simple solutions through writings about application of geometry in building and authoring theoretical expression. On the rise of Safavid dynasty, the peak of geometry application in decoration of monuments can be seen. Actions, including using Khayyām‘s triangle proportions in Nizam Al-Mulk dome of Isfahan’s Grand Mosque[50] and using it in order to decorate this monument are samples of such actions. In dynasties after Safavid and especially in Qajar dynasty mathematics receded from practical geometry issues due to stepping Western and theoretical methods, tending toward positivist and pure issues. Doing so, the connection chain of mathematics and architecture, which was close in different historical dynasties, disconnected gradually.


Figure 9. The relationship of mathematics and geometry with art and architecture



Figure 10. Diagram of the conclusion

According to various studies in the field, it can be concluded that during history development and promotion of mathematics and geometry had direct relationship with art and architecture, in a way that with development in theoretical sciences, mathematics, geometry and architecture developed. Another consequential finding was that many mathematicians such as Khayyām themselves have directly supervised the construction of consequential government buildings in their era. Consequently, and cadence in these sciences caused recession and remission in architecture. Since the peak boom of mathematics, geometry from 4th century to 9th century is concurrent with peak of architecture in Iran (Figure 9, 10). According to the findings of the theoretical and practical aspects of research, this paper can be the basis for future studies on the roots of Persian architecture, a strong relationship between Persian architecture progression and evolution of mathematic geometry has been reported in this literature. However Future studies on the current topic are therefore recommended. More research on this topic needs to be undertaken to an association between Architecture, and mathematic geometry is more clearly understood.


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[1] Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī (18 May 1048 – 4 December 1131; Persian, was a Persian polymath, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and poet. He also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, and Islamic theology.
[2] Būzjānī was one of the leading astronomers and mathematicians of the Middle Ages, with significant contributions in observational astronomy? His achievements in trigonometry paved the way for more precise astronomical calculations (2 (Moussa, 2011, p. 188).
[3] Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī Earlier transliterated as Algoritmi or Algaurizin, (c. 780 – c. 850) was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer during the Abbasid Empire, a scholar in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
[4] Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, scientist, polymath, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who made significant contributions to the principles of optics, astronomy, mathematics, meteorology, visual perception and the scientific method (Selin, 1997).
[5] Ghiyāth al-Dīn Jamshīd al-Kāshī was one of the best Persian astronomers and mathematicians in the Islamic world. He was born in 1380, in Kashan, in central Iran (Azarian, 1998).
[6] The Achaemenid Empire was first Persian Empire, an empire based in Western Asia, founded in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great.
[7] Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was lived in the fifth-century BC (c. 484–425 BC). Widely referred to as “The Father of History” (first conferred by Cicero), he was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically and critically, and then to arrange them into a historiography narrative.
[8]  According to Herodotus, Ecbatana was chosen as the Medes capital in the late 8th century B.C.E. by Deioces.
[9] Dr Abdolazim-Amir Shah-Karami the advisor to the Office of Conservation, Revitalisation and Registration of Historical Buildings of the Iranian Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organisation (ICHTI).
[10] Persepolis (New Persian: Takht-e Jamshid or Pārseh) literal meaning “city of Persians,” was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BC) (Michael Woods, 2008).
[11] An apadana is a large hypostyle hall, the best-known examples being the great audience hall and portico at Persepolis and the palace of Susa. The Persepolis Apadana belongs to the oldest building phase of the city of Persepolis, the first half of the 5th century BC, as part of the original design by Darius the Great. Its construction completed by Xerxes I (Cool Root, 1985).
[12] Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC) and also his last resting place, was a city in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran), located near the city of Shiraz (in Pasargad County) and is today an archaeological site and one of Iran’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
[13] Charbagh or Chahar Bagh is a Persian-style garden layout. The quadrilateral garden is divided by walkways or flowing water into four smaller parts. In Persian, “Chār” means ‘four’ and “bāgh” means ‘garden’ (Ruggles, 2008).
[14] Also known as the Arsacid Empire was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Iran.
[15] Motif is an element of a pattern, image or part of one, or theme. A motif may be repeated in a design or composition, often many times, or may just occur once in a work.
[16] Sasanian palace at Buzpar (say Boshpar), close to the achemenid tomb aka Gur Dokhtar.
[17] Sasanid Empire was the last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam, ruled by the Sasanian dynasty from 224 CE to 651 CE.
[18] The Ghaznavid dynasty (Persian: غزنویان) was a Turko-Persian Muslim dynasty of Turkic slave origin at their greatest extent ruling large parts of Persia, and much of Transoxania, and the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent from 977 to 1186.
[19] The Topkapı Scroll (Turkish: Topkapı Parşömeni) is a Timurid dynasty pattern scroll in the collection of the Topkapı Palace museum. The scroll is a valuable source of information, consisting of 114 patterns that may have been used both indirectly and directly by architects to create the tiling patterns in many mosques around the world, including the quasicrystal Girih tilings from Darb-e Imam (Necipoglu, 1992).
[20] The Baghdad School was a relatively short-lived yet influential school of Islamic art developed during the late 12th century in the capital Baghdad of the ruling Abbasid Caliphate.[21
Abū Naṣr Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Fārābī was a renowned scientist and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age. He was also a cosmologist, logician, and musician. Through his commentaries and treatises, Al-Farabi became well-known among medieval Muslim intellectuals as “The Second Teacher,” that is, the successor to Aristotle, “The First Teacher.”
[22] He was a Persian mathematician and astronomer who worked in Baghdad. He made important innovations in spherical trigonometry, and his work on arithmetics for businessmen contains the first instance of using negative numbers in a medieval Islamic text.
[23] In Arabic: “فیما یحتاج الیه العمال والصناع من الاشکال الهندسیه
[24] Samanid amir, Ismail Samani’s tomb, one of the most esteemed sights of Central Asian architecture, was built in the 9th (10th) century (between 892 and 943).
his tall monument for the Prince Shams ul-Ma’ali, Amir Qabus ibn Wushmgir ordered to build during his life, in the year 397 the lunar Hegira, and the year 375 the solar Hegira.
[26] A style of architecture dating from the 11th century to the Mongol invasion period, which includes the methods and devices of The Samanids, Ghaznavids, and Seljukids (Fallahfar, 1999, p. 106).
[27] He was a Persian historian and author. He wrote the famous work of Persian literature Tarikh-e Mas’oudi (“Masoudian History,” also known as “Tārīkh-e Bayhaqī”).
[28] Was a Turkish Sunni Muslim dynasty. (10th century)
[29] Was a breakaway state of the Mongol Empire, which was ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu. (1256–1335)
[30] The Abbasid Caliphs give the name title wazir to a minister formerly called Katib (secretary) who was at first merely a helper, afterwards became the representative and successor of the Dapir (official scribe or secretary) of the Sassanian kings (Nicholson, 1998, p. 257).
[31] The minister of Toghrol and Alp Arsalān Sāmānid Dynasty.
[32] Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi (1018 – 1092), better known by his honorific title of Nizam al-Mulk (Persian: نظام‌الملک, “Order of the Realm”) was a Persian scholar and vizier of the Seljuk Empire.
[33] Muzaffer Esfazari, the author in 12th century.
[34] Protrusion and Niche of the plan
[35] This dynasty was founded by Timur (Tamerlane) in the 14th century. The Timurids lost control of most of Persia to the Safavid dynasty in 1501, but members of the dynasty continued to rule parts of Central Asia and parts of India.
[36] Safavid was one of the most significant ruling dynasties of Persia. They ruled one of the greatest Persian empires after the Muslim conquest of Persia (1501–1736).
[37] Ibn Khaldūn (1332 AD–1406 AD) was an Arab Muslim historiographer and historian, regarded to be among the founding fathers of the modern sociology, and historiography and economics.
[38] He was a medieval Persian physician from Amol, Iran.
[39] Between 1335 and 1342 Amoli also composed a large and widely read Persian encyclopedia on the classification of knowledge titled (Nafa’is al-funun fi ‘ara’is al-‘uyun)
[40] Ghiyāth al-Dīn Jamshīd Masʿūd al-Kāshī was a Persian astronomer and mathematician.
[41] The Qajar dynasty was a Persianized native Iranian royal family of Turkic origin, which ruled Persia (Iran) from 1785 to 1925.
[42] Tahmasp I (1514 – 1576) was an influential Shah of Iran, who enjoyed the longest reign of any member of the Safavid dynasty.
[43] Shāh ‘Abbās the Great (1571 –1629) was the 5th
Safavid Shah Emperor of Iran, and generally considered the greatest ruler of the Safavid dynasty.[44] Shaykh‐i Bahāʾī (1547 – 1 1621) was a scholar, philosopher, architect, mathematician, astronomer and a poet in 16th-century Iran.
[45] Umar al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī (1048 –1131) was a Persian polymath, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and poet. He also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, and Islamic theology.
[46] Wasma’a Khalid Chorbachi is an American artist.
[47] Written by Farhad Mirza bin Waliahad.
[48] Established in 1851, was the first university and modern institution of higher learning in Persia.
[49] Farhād mīrzā Moʿtamad-al-dawla (1818-1888), Qajar prince-governor and bibliophile.
[50] Jamé Mosque of Isfahan

by Ahad Nejad Ebrahimi* & Morteza Aliabadi*
*Architecture and Urbanism Faculty, Tabriz Islamic Art University, Iran.

Astronomy as a global science: The case of Islamic astronomy

Prof Rüdiger Lohlker (Source)

When scholars reflect on the history of astronomy, they tend to restrict themselves to well-defined geographical areas. So far, scholars of science studies have not devoted sufficient attention to examining the intersections of scientific relations on a global level, especially as far as the history of astronomy is concerned.[1]

Western or European historians tend to ignore that an important—maybe even the most important—part of the history of astronomy was written outside the confines of Eurocentric worldviews. In fact, China, South Asia, and various Islamic countries had their own traditions of astronomy.

Leaving Europe at the margins, this study will focus on premodern Islamic traditions and their relations to other traditions in China and South Asia. Taking cues from Abu-Lughod’s analysis of  the non-European world system from 1250 to 1350,[2] the history of this science therefore has to be reconceived as a global system of scientific exchange.

Linguistic Aspects

The main languages of cultural and scientific exchange in the period discussed here were Arabic, Chinese, and Persian.[3] Other languages were of lesser importance. The Islamic contribution to astronomical knowledge in the period under discussion is framed through the lens of the dominant Persian contribution[4] to Islamic knowledge production in the post-classical period of Islamic history after the twelfth century CE.

Architecture as a Space of Astronomy

Contemporary science studies has shown that laboratories[5], instruments, and buildings[6]—all of them institutional aspects of the sciences—are integral to scientific knowledge production. An analysis of the history of astronomy in the Islamic world and beyond therefore best begins with a closer examination of the history of observatories.

After having established the multi-lingual heritage of Islamic astronomy, we can trace the first planned and programmed astronomic projects—built astronomy—to the reign of al-Ma‘mūn (ca. 813-833 CE). He initiated a program of astronomical observations in Baghdad, which subsequently continued in Damascus. Astronomical observations continued throughout the following centuries. The city of Marāgha[7] in Azerbaijan was home to the most famous observatory in Islamic history, an edifice built under the patronage of the Ilkhan Hulagu  (ca. 1217-1265 CE). Its director was Nāsir al-Dīn al-Tūsi (d. 1274 CE), one of the most brilliant scholars of his time: Nāsir al-Dīn al-Tūsi went down in history as a theologian, architect, philosopher, and physician. A mathematician, he was instrumental in establishing trigonometry as a discipline in its own right. In his challenge of Ptolemaic astronomy, he conceived the famous Tūsi couple.[8]


Diagram of the famous Tusi couple as depicted in the 13th-century Arabic MS 319 (folio 28v) held at the Vatican Library (Source)

A paragon among observatories in the new Mongol empire, Marāgha attracted scholars from near and far. Various sources mention a number of eminent Chinese astronomers and scholars working in Marāgha. It is therefore safe to assume that these scholars contributed to the famous Ilkhanate astronomical tables.

Throughout 14th and 15th century CE, scholars made great strides in producing astronomical and mathematical knowledge. The Timurid ruler Ulugh Begh (d. 1449 CE), a renowned astronomer and mathematician, founded an observatory in Samarqand. Its adjacent madrasa became a center for mathematical studies. Several directors of the Samarqand observatory also made a name for themselves for their mathematical skills.

Mathematics was a discipline fundamental to Islamic astronomy.[9] If we want to compare the role of mathematics in Islamic astronomy to European astronomy, we should turn to Galileo Galilei’s (d. 1642 CE) work Il saggiatore, which was published in 1632 CE. In it, Galileo claims that the book of the world [nature??] only can be understood through the language of natural philosophy, i.e. mathematics. The letters of this language are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures—all of them mathematical symbols.[10]  It may be well worth reconsidering the role of mathematics in astronomy to gain new insights into astronomy, which after all is a discipline of applied mathematics. Thus, astronomy and mathematics were of importance in the Islamic world and in the early modern European world. Hence there is no priority of Europe in this respect.

The Ulugh Beg observatory inspired another observatory construction project. In the 18th century CE, the emblematic building of Jantar Mantar was created under the rule of the Hindu Rajput ruler Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688-1743 CE). This project gave rise to an entire network of observatories. Islamic astronomy in South Asia was in turn influenced by older Indian traditions.[11] The observatories Jai Singh II built, however, point to other influences from earlier non-Islamic Indian astronomy, which goes to show that the history of astronomy is truly an entangled one.

Throughout history, we also find other points of exchange between Islamic and non-Islamic scholars. I have already highlighted the Marāgha observatory, where Islamic and Chinese astronomers collaborated. At this location, Jamāl al-Dīn ibn Tāhir al-Bukhārī (d. around 1301 CE) may have inspired the renowned Chinese engineer, astronomer, and mathematician Guo Shoujing (d. 1316) to subsequently build the Gaocheng observatory.

Further in the West, Byzantium also stands out as a contact zone between the Islamic world and Europe. Byzantine scholars translated the works of Islamic astronomy into Greek and then transferred this knowledge to Europe. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, this relation was to a certain extent reinforced when Taqī al-Dīn[12] (d. 1585 CE), head of the new observatory in Istanbul, directly competed with Tycho Brahe (d. 1601 CE) in his scientific efforts.

These short remarks on the history of built astronomy may lead us to investigate the lives and careers of individual scholars who played a vital role in furthering astronomical knowledge. Within the scope of this article, we will content ourselves with considering the historical role of leading astronomers and mathematicians who headed the Samarqand observatory and left for Iran and the Ottoman Empire after the observatory was destroyed in the wake of political unrest.[13]

Astronomical knowledge was also passed on through instruments. Today, many museums and collections feature astronomical instruments from the Islamic world that shaped the design of other astronomical tools around the world.[14] Even European literature bears testament to the influence of Islamic astronomy and instruments on the European intellectual world.[15] These instruments and their specialized use in naval and maritime contexts could inspire scholars to explore the role of astronomy in maritime handbooks—in verse and prose form—in  the Islamic world and beyond. Within the scope of this study, we will not further elaborate on this subject.[16]


Another node in the history of Islamic astronomy awaiting exploration is the history of astronomical manuscripts.[17] I have already mentioned the collaboration between Mongol and Chinese astronomers at the Marāgha observatory. The Islamic Astronomical Bureau held a large number of books on astronomy in its collection, which were translated from Arabic and Persian. We already noted the linguistic contact with Greek Byzantium and South Asia.  Buyers of books written in Oriental languages brought manuscripts on Islamic astronomy to Western Europe. A prominent example is Guillaume Postel (d. 1581 CE), a polymath, professor of Semitic languages, and translator for French diplomatic missions in the Ottoman empire.[18] This may count as another node in the sub-network of European astronomy and serve as a proof of the European ideational debt to non-European sources.

So far, scholars have also neglected to consider the interconnections between the aesthetic agenda and intellectual concerns exhibited in manuscripts on Islamic astronomy, even though they are inextricably linked with each other. The illustrations in the lavishly illustrated Kitāb Ṣuwar al-kawākib by al-Ṣūfī (d. 986 CE) have been understood as mnemonic star maps. Scholars also created abstract mental maps[19] of the visual ideas of the constellations, hence producing a new way of seeing and knowing.[20]


Two pages from a 12th-century Iraqi illustrated manuscript of Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi’s Book of Fixed Stars (Kitāb Ṣuwar al-kawākib by al-Ṣūfī). The left hand page describes Corona Borealis (The Northern Crown), while the right hand page tabulates the stars in the preceding constellation Boötes (The Herdsman). (Source)

Another way of seeing emerged through the Islamic astronomical network and its link to philosophy and theology, especially in the post-classical period, connecting astronomical ideas with the built astronomy of observatories and instruments.

The ideational framework in which Islamic astronomy evolved also highlights transformations in the interconnected fields of Islamic theology, philosophy, mysticism[21] and even Islamic law into a post-classical configuration still awaiting exploration.[22]

Islamic Theology and Astronomy in Post-Classical Islam

Contrary to commonly held assumptions, the above-mentioned disciplines and the sciences did not an have antagonistic relationship. We may even speak of an ongoing dialogue of Islamic religious disciplines and the sciences, which liberated the sciences and opened religious thought to new dimensions. Morrison describes this dialogue as follows:  “Kalām texts associated with the Marāgha astronomers begin with the format of a philosophical text,”[23] following along the lines of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī‘s (d. 1210 CE) al-Mulakhkhaṣ fī al-ḥikma.[24] This dialogue continued until the fourteenth century CE. “More advanced science texts might have been produced in dialogue with kalām and would have more sophisticated arguments for the religious value of scientific theories contained within.”[25] More scientifically-informed religious scholars continued this dialogue in the following centuries.

For the sake of the arguments proposed in this study, we have to introduce the debate of kalām and other disciplines into the history of Islamic astronomy. By using the data collected in the observatories through astronomical instruments and by including the scholar-scientists working in these contexts, we would therefore be able to integrate ideational constructions with the built astronomy showcased in observatories and astronomical manuscripts. 

Muslim Heritage Astronomy Image Gallery


  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. (1989), Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press
  • Berggren, J. Lennart (1997), “Mathematics and Her Sisters in Medieval Islam: A Selective Review of Work Done from 1985 to 1995,” in Historia Mathematica 24, pp. 407-440
  • Berlekamp, Persis (2013), “Visible Art, Invisible Knowledge,” contribution to the “Roundtable: Studying Visual Culture,” in International Journal of Middle East Studies 45iii, pp. 563-565
  • Brown, Neil/Ackermann, Silke/Günergun, Feza (eds.) (2019), Scientific Instruments between East and West, Leiden/Boston: Brill
  • Burnett, Charles/Juste, David (2016), “A New Catalogue of Medieval Translations into Latin of Texts on Astronomy and Astrology,” in Faith Wallis/Robert Wisnovsky (eds.), Medieval Textual Cultures: Agents of Transmission, Translation and Transformation, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 63-76
  • Chism, Christine (2016), “Transmitting the Astrolabe: Chaucer, Islamic Astronomy, and the Astrolabic Text,” in Faith Wallis/Robert Wisnovsky (eds.), Medieval Textual Cultures: Agents of Transmission, Translation and Transformation, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 85-120
  • Damir-Geilsdorf, Sabine/Hartmann, Angelika/Hendrich, Béatrice (eds.) (2005), Mental Maps—raum—Erinnerung: Kulturwissenschaftliche  Zugänge zum Verhältnis von Raum und Erinnerung, Münster: LIT Verlag
  • Dizer, Muammar (2001), “Observatories and Astronomical Instruments,” in A. Y. al-Hasan/Maqbul Ahmed/A. Z. Iskandar (eds.), The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture, Vol. 4: Science and Technology in Islam, Part 1: The Exact and Natural Sciences, Paris: UNESCO, pp. 235-265
  • Galilei, Galileo (1978), La prosa, Firenze: Sansoni
  • King, David A. (1986), Islamic Mathematical Astronomy, London: Variorum Reprints
  • Latour, Bruno/Woolgar, Steve (1979), Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Lohlker, Rüdiger (2019),  “Global History:  Understanding Islamic Astronomy,” in Acta Via Serica 4ii, pp. 97-118
  • Lohlker, Rüdiger  (2019a), “Reflection on Science and Religion in Islam,” in Mohammad H. Faghfoory/Katherine O‘Brien (eds.), Voices of Three Generations: Essays in Honor of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Chicago, IL: Kazi Publications, pp. 217-224
  • Medzlumbeyova, V. F./Babayev, A. (2020), New Results in the Research on Some Mathematical Works of Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi ( (retrieved July 7, 2020)
  • Pingree, David (2003), “The Sarvasiddhāntarāja of Nityānanda,” in Jan P. Hogendijk/Abdelhamid I. Sabra (eds.), The Enterprise of Science in Islam: New Perspectives, Cambridge, Mass./London: The MIT Press,  pp. 269-284
  • Ragep, F. Jamil (1993), Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī’s Memoir on Astronomy (al-Tadhkira fi ʿIlm al-Hayʾa), Volume 1, New York: Springer
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  • Rheinberger,  Hans-Jörg (2010), On Historicizing Epistemology: An Essay,  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
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  • Sabra, Abdelhamid I. (1994), “Science and Philosophy in Medieval Islamic Philosophy: The Evidence of the Fourteenth Century,” in Zeitschrift für Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften 9, pp. 1-42
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  • MA: MIT Press
  • Saliba, George (1987), “The Role of Maragha in the Development of Islamic Astronomy: A Scientific Revolution before the Renaissance,” in Revue de Synthèse IVe S. 3-4 (1987), pp. 361-373


[1]     A first attempt by the author is Lohlker 2019.
[2]     Abu-Lughod 1991.
[3]     We are not referring to ethnicized, homogenous identities, but to a world of multi-layered discourses expressed in different languages.
[4]     Cf. Fragner 1999 with the idea of persophony and Green 2019 using persianate world.
[5]     Cf. Latour/Woolgar 1979.
[6]     Cf. Rheinberger 2010.
[7]     Saliba 1987.
[8]     Cf. Saliba 2007, 188 and Ragep 1993 on one of his major astronomical works. For his mathematical works, cf. Medzlumbeyova/Babayev 2020.
[9]     Cf. the most interesting articles in King 1986. Cf. an excellent overview in Bergren 1997 and for the example of Ibn al-Haytham, cf. Rashed 2006.
[10]   Galilei 1978, p. 261.
[11]   Cf. Pingree 2003.
[12]   Of Egyptian origin, which would allow for researching the link into North Africa.
[13]   For more details, cf. Lohlker 2019.
[14]   Cf. the contributions in Brown et al. 2019.
[15]   For the case of Chaucer and his Treatise on the Astrolabe, cf. Chism 2016. The author speaks of the “multicentric pattern of astronomic knowledge transmission within” the  Islamic world (p. 85) and mentions the “different archives of knowledge” created by the explorations of the use of the astrolabe around the world and the agency of this tool.
[16]   For an overview of observatories and astronomical instruments, cf. Dizer 2001.
[17]   For this aspect, cf. Lohlker 2019, pp.107-109.
[18]   Translations into Latin served as a tool to introduce Islamic astronomical knowledge into the Western European world of ideas (cf. Burnett/Juste 2016).
[19]   Cf. the articles in Damir-Geilsdorf et al. 2005.
[20]   Cf. Berlekamp 2013.
[21]   Cf. Dagli 2016 and Griffel 2018.
[22]   For a first attempt, cf. Lohlker 2019 and Lohlker 2019a.
[23]   Morrison 2014, p. 226.
[24]   Following the argument in Morrison 2014 based on Heidrun Eichner’s position.
[25]   Morrison 2014, p. 226.

By Rüdiger Lohlker,
Professor of Islamic Studies since 2003 at the University of Vienna (Austria).

Music Therapy and Mental Health


Painting by Nil Sari depicting the treatment of insane patients by musical therapy. (Source)

One glaring lacuna in even the most recent studies on the histories of hospitals is the scarce number of pages dedicated to Islamic hospitals.[1] A thorough study of Islamic hospitals as an integral part of a global hospital and health care history therefore merits long overdue attention. Even though hospitals went by a variety of names in Islamic times, this study will use the term bīmāristān to identify these institutions. I will especially focus on mental health and bīmāristāns, another field that still lacks scholarly attention.[2]In recent studies, scholars have called for an integration of the study of medicine in Islamic societies into the field of science studies.[3] They have urged their colleagues to go beyond the classical studies of medicine and leave the old paradigms of Islamic exceptionalism behind. In doing so, the academic community would gain a better understanding of the institutional contexts of medical practice.[4] If we want to understand the history of Islamic hospitals, we have to turn to pre-Islamic times,[5] such as pre-Islamic Arabia.[6] It may even be more useful to study the Eastern part of what was to become the Islamic world. As a result, we will be able to analyze the institutional contexts of Islamic medicine[7]—and especially all the aspects related to mental health.[8]

 On the History of bīmāristāns 

A historical overview will have to assume the existence of pre-Islamic precursors to the bīmāristān and not consider these hospitals a genuine Islamic invention. The most important pre-Islamic hospital probably was the Gundishapur hospital of Iranian and Syriac origin.[9]

Earlier scholarship and studies based on the older research literature have claimed that “[w]ithout doubt it is on Hārūn al-Rashīd (170/786-193/809) that the merit falls for having founded the first hospital to have functioned in the Islamic world.“[10] But there is another (hi)story to be told.

As Michael W. Dols and others wrote, the conventional history of bīmāristāns “bristles with difficulties.”[11] This article does not allow for a detailed analysis of Dols’ argument on the pre-history of the bīmāristān and, especially, the Syriac influence. Dols sets the date for the foundation of the first Islamic hospital in the first decade of the ninth century CE.[12]

Based on earlier research, one might also wonder whether a description of Gundishapur as a “provincial backwater” is fitting.[13] Historical evidence suggests that Gundishapur may have indeed played a critical role in the history of medicine.[14] Even if we accept that Gundishapur was not as important as some researchers[15] suggest, we may interpret discussions about the historical importance of institutions as part of a dialogue among physicians about which tradition to prioritize: the Graeco-Arabic, Syro-Arabic, the Iranian, or even Indian school of thought.[16] Thus, Gundishapur may be understood as a stake in a game for symbolic capital by Syriac physicians and not discussed in terms of its historical truth.[17] al-Jāḥiẓ seems to support this argument:

“The kings of the Persians (ʿajam) used to divert the melancholic (maḥzūn) by listening to music (samāʿ), to distract the sick (marīḍ) and to keep him away from negative thoughts”.[18]

If we therefore assume the existence of an ancient tradition of music therapy (see below) in Iran, we may consider Gundishapur as a prime symbol in the mythology[19] of medical expertise. A passage from a literary work illustrates how much Gundishapur physicians were allegedly sought after[20] and what kind of intercommunal tensions existed amongst practitioners:

“He [sc. Asad ibn Ǧānī] was a physician. Once business was slow, so someone said to him: ‘It is a plague year, disease rampant everywhere, and you are a knowledgeable man with steadfastness, experience, and clear understanding. How does it come about that you have this dearth [of patients]?’ To which he replied: ‘For one thing, people know me to be a Muslim, and have held the belief, even before I began to practice medicine, no indeed before I was born, that Muslims are not successful in medicine. Then, my name is Asad, when it ought to have been Ṣalīb, Ǧibrāʾīl, Yuḥannā, and Bīrā [i. e., Christian or Jewish names]. My surname is Abū l-Ḥāriṯ, but it ought to have been Abū ʿĪsā, Abū Zakarīya, and Abū Ibrāhīm [i. e., Christian or Jewish surnames]. I wear a shoulder mantle of white cotton, yet my shoulder mantle ought to be of black silk. My pronunciation is that of an Arab, when my dialect ought to be that of the people of Ǧundaisābūr [i.e., Christian physicians].’”[21]

It is not clear why the death of the last eminent physician of the Gundishapur bīmāristān, Sābūr ibn Sahl (d. 869)[22]—who moved from Gundishapur to Baghdad to join the circle of medical advisers to the Abbasid caliph—also meant the demise of the institution.[23]

What is the origin of the name of the institution? It derives from the Persian for sick—bīmār—and the suffix, –stān, denoting place; the short form is māristān.

Savage-Smith describes the role of the bīmāristān:

“The Islamic hospital served several purposes: a centre for medical treatment, a convalescent home for those recovering from illness or accidents, an insane asylum and a retirement home giving basic maintenance needs for the aged and infirm who lacked a family to care for them. In the first two instances, admission would be for a limited period of time, with the view of curing a particular disorder. In the last category, it is unclear how many, if any, were of the truly indigent and uneducated classes. […] It is most unlikely that any true wealthy person would have gone to a hospital for any purpose, unless they were taken ill while travelling far from home. Except under very unusual circumstances all the medical needs of the wealthy and powerful would have been administered in the home or through outpatient clinics dispensing drugs. […] The care for the insane in hospitals was unprecedented and an important part of even the earliest Islamic hospitals.”[24]

Even if I cannot provide a comprehensive narrative of the history of the bīmāristān as an institution within the scope of this article,[25] I would like to mention just one important type of bīmāristān, the bīmāristān for the care of mentally afflicted patients. This type of care may have been an important purpose of these hospitals. Big bīmāristāns frequently featured isolated spaces for physically aggressive patients. Other patients and visitors were protected from them by iron bars (see below). Knowing the etiology of the diseases from which these patients suffered, physicians must have inferred special care requirements.

Other types of bīmāristāns included leprosy, road-side, prison, and mobile bīmāristāns,[26] the last two of which date back to the tenth century CE:

“According to some accounts, directions were given by a wazīr in the early fourth/tenth century to provide medical care to prisons on a daily basis and visits to doctors with a travelling dispensary to villages in lower Iraq.”[27]

Treatment of sick people in bīmāristāns

Renowned author and traveler al-Ḥasan b. Muḥammad al-Wazzān al-Fāsī (d. around 1540) – known in Europe as Leo Africanus[28] – gives a vivid description of a hospital in the city of Fez, today located in Morocco. After working there for a prolonged period of time, he writes[29]:

“Howbeit there is another hospital for the releefe of sick & diseased strangers, who haue their diet onely allowed them, but no phisition or medicine: certaine women there are which attend vpon them, till they recouer their former health, or die. In this hospitall likewise there is a place for franticke or distraught persons, where they are bound in strong iron chaines ; whereof the part next vnto their walks is strengthened with mighty beames of wood and iron. The gouernour of these distraught persons, when he bringeth them any sustenance, hath a whip of purpose to chastise those that offer to bite, strike, or play any mad part. Sometimes it falleth out that these franticke people will call vnto them such as passe by; declaring how vniustly they are there detained, and how cruelly they are handled by the officers, when as notwithstanding they affirme themselues to bee restored vnto their right minde. And hauing thus perswaded the commers-by, approching neerer and neerer vnto them, at length they take hold with one hand on their garments, and (like villans) with the other hand they shamefully defile their faces and apparell with dung. And though all of them haue their priuies and close stooles, yet would they be poysoned in their owne filth, if the seruants did not often wash their lodgings : so that their abhominable and continuall stinke is the cause why citizens neuer visite them. Likewise this hospitall hath many roomes for the purueiors, notaries, cookes, and other officers belonging to the sicke persons; who each of them haue some small yeerely stipend. Being a yoong man I my selfe was in his notarie heere for two yeeres, which office is woorth three duckats a moneth.”[30]

A miniature painting shows a caricature of the insane in the hospital showing insane inmates with chains around their necks and restrained.[31]

This less idyllic presentation of life in bīmāristāns may give a more balanced view of the situation of – some – patients, preventing an apologetic view that portrays all of the bīmāristāns as a paradise on earth inhabited by – alas! – sick persons.

Dols also compares wards for the mentally ill in the Islamic world with insane asylums in Europe:

“Despite the unpleasantness of the hospital conditions described by Leo Africanus, the quarters for the insane were accessible to visitors, and the conditions of the insane appear to have been accepted matter-of-factly. These circumstances do not appear to reflect medieval bedlams offering public entertainment. The sources only mention the visits of men to male patients, and there is no evidence of a prurient interest. The Islamic hospital in general does not fit Michel Foucault’s popular interpretation of the function of the hospital movement in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe as the ‘great confinement’ of the socially undesirable. The Islamic hospital was certainly not intended for the indiscriminate incarceration of the disadvantaged poor, as in pre-revolutionary France. Some patients were neither poor nor disreputable, and the supervision of admissions to a hospital by the local judge in the later Middle Ages would suggest discrimination in the provision of communal welfare. Nor was the confinement great. It is impossible to estimate precisely the numbers of insane patients in the hospitals, but even the greatest institutions, such as the Manṣuri Hospital in Cairo, probably contained only a few dozen insane patients at one time—a very small number in relation to the entire population of Cairo.”[32]

Having avoided idealizing misinterpretations based on Dols’ precautionary judgment, I would now like to focus on the description of the treatment in bīmāristāns.

Staffed by physicians[33] as well as male and female nurses, every bīmāristān pursued its mission of treating each and every patient, regardless of their origin. Bīmāristāns often included a garden[34], water fountains, and places of worship on their premises.

Waqf documents and eyewitness accounts point to the trail of paperwork produced in bīmāristāns.

“Physicians were expected to write down descriptions of patients’ conditions and to keep these records close to patients’ beds. They likewise had to write down the recipes of medication that they prescribed to patients confined in the bīmāristān.”[35]

Outpatients were probably able to obtain written prescriptions.

There were separate wards for male and female patients who were cared for by persons of the same sex; there were wards for contagious and noncontagious diseases and ones dedicated to ophthalmology, general medicine, surgery, and mental illness. Physicians— including those who treated mental illness—had to pass examinations.[36]

In order to determine the right diagnosis for mental conditions, physician needed to conduct “unbiased clinical observations.”[37]

Body and Soul[38]

Pauline Koetschet 2018 gives an excellent summary of the medical views on the relation of body[39] and soul:

“According to Arabo-Islamic physicians, the overall functioning of the body demonstrated the reciprocity of the humours[40] on one side and psychological events on the other. This is the reason that primary qualities […] were thought to have a strong influence on an individual’s moral character […] Conversely, the state of the soul was believed to have an impact on the bodily balance […] Soul-body reciprocity was the reason that physicians [were to] always pay particular attention to [their] patients’ emotional and spiritual state.”[41]

This approach, which sounds like a “holistic” method to our modern ears, greatly impacted the concept of mental health at the time.

“The reciprocity between soul and body becomes crucial in the case of mental illness, where [it] is both crucial and problematic. To my knowledge, maladies of the soul do not correspond to any distinct category found in medieval medical encyclopedias written in Arabic.[42] For most authors of these encyclopedias, the direct causes of all maladies were physical.”[43]

In order to better understand the body and its mental aspects, we will therefore have to find a new epistemological approach to the mental-physical dichotomy inherited from historical and modern Western thought.

Mental Health and the View of Physicians

There is an Arab saying al-junūn funūn, which, for our purposes, can be translated as: “there are many forms of mental disease.” Medical literature indicates that depression and melancholy seem to have been wide-spread psychological problems in the non-modern Islamic world.

“Arab physicians’ accounts of the close correlation between melancholy and other psychosomatic diseases differ substantially from those given by Rufus and Galen.”[44]

Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. 925) was a court physician in Baghdad, who practiced medicine in the new ʿAḍudī bīmāristān. He went down in history for placing experience at the center of his medical methodology and penning many case studies.

“Even though his understanding of the different kinds of mental patients relies on Greek sources such as Rufus and Galen, Abū Bakr al-Rāzī [established] further distinctions in the categories of mental illness and mental patients found in these sources. In his Comprehensive Book on Medicine, which gathers the lecture notes that al-Rāzī made on his Greek, Syriac and Arabic sources, he argues against the ‘common people’s (al-ʿāmma) tendency to characterise any person showing a confused state of mind or behaviour as ‘mad’.”[45]

Contrary to Galen and Rufus, Al-Rāzī stressed the difference between melancholy and delirium, arguing for a

“more limited conception of melancholy that would not include other kinds of mental diseases such as φρενίτις or μανία. In the third chapter of the first book of The Comprehensive Book on Medicine, al-Rāzī denies that melancholy can be provoked by dark yellow bile, [which] can [induce] a form of delirium, but this should not be considered as a type of melancholy, as he explains in his Introduction to the Art of Medicine. In the thirteenth chapter of the same book, al-Rāzī deals with the affections of the faculties of the rational soul. In the part devoted to the affections of thought, he uses the term waswās in the general sense of ‘delirium,’ or ‘confusion of the mind.’ Different forms of delirium include melancholy, φρενίτις, or μανία. When the [affliction originates] in the brain (as opposed to the whole body) and is produced by yellow bile, this is a case of φρενίτις (sirsām). Black bile, on the other hand, causes ‘bestial madness’ (al-junūn al-sabuʿī).”[46]

Al-Majūsī (d. 982-95 CE), a representative of Galenism before Ibn Sīnā, lists different types of melancholia. Black-bile melancholia, for example, is regarded as a confusion of reason (ikhtilāṭ al-ʿaql) without fever. According to al-Majūsī, melancholia originates in the stomach, the brain, or other parts of the body, with each kind of melancholia showing its own symptoms. Al-Majūsī talks about mental confusion, serious delirium, love-madness, anxiety, sadness, fear, terror, suspicion, hallucinations, etc.[47] He mentions a very special type of melancholia:

“One kind of melancholia is said to be lycanthropy. Its victim behaves like a rooster and cries like a dog. He wanders among the tombs at night and stays there until morning. His complexion is yellow; his eyes are dark, brutish, and hollow; his tongue and mouth are dry and lack saliva; and his thirst increases. There are lesions or sores on his body. [Those afflicted] hardly ever recover, and the disease is hereditary.”[48]

Isḥāq ibn ʿImrān’s (d. 932) interpretation

“produces roughly the same result, by extending the scope of melancholy to many mental plights. Isḥāq lived in Kairouan (in modern Tunisia) at the court of the Aghlabid sultan Ziyādat Allah III, and is the author of the only surviving monograph on melancholy produced in the Islamic medieval world, the Treatise on Melancholy. In this treatise, melancholy covers an extremely wide variety of symptoms, ranging from excessive sadness and fear—the two traditional symptoms attached to melancholy in the sixth book of the Hippocratic Aphorisms—to extreme forms of madness, including bestial madness.”[49]

We should remember, however, that Isḥāq ibn ʿImrān was given the nickname “instant poison” because he often did not succeed with his treatments. A critical study of his theories may be in order.[50]

Abū Zayd al-Balkhī (d. 934 CE) addressed mental problems in an early treatise in which he tried to present a comprehensive approach to preventive measures that created a new balance between body and soul.[51]

Renowned physicians such as Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037 CE) also contributed to conceptions about mental conditions, yet a discussion of their ideas would go beyond the scope of this article. Distinctions were made between melancholy and madness, as becomes evident in diverse case histories.[52]

Various authors describe different bīmāristāns and their wards for the mentally ill until the 1700s. We have to bear in mind, however, that these institutions only housed patients with severe diseases; less severe cases were treated within the home. We also have be aware that some ways of behaving beyond what was perceived as “normal” were considered mere eccentricities that did not need to be treated by psychiatric invention. The renowned lexicographer and author of the Ṣiḥāḥ: Tāj al-lugha wa-ṣiḥāḥ al-ʿarabiyya[53], Ismāʿīl ibn Ḥammād al-Jawharī (d. 1002 or 1008 CE), describes the following scene:

“[al-Jawharī] stood atop the old Friday mosque in the Northeastern Iranian city of Nishāpūr and looked down [on] the astonished and bewildered faces of the crowd below him. A moment later, to the utter amazement and horror of his fellow townsmen, he leaped into the sky with artificial wings attached to his arms.”[54]

After his failed attempt at flying, al-Jawharī fell to his death. A closer look at how his fall was interpreted renders interesting results. While some sources suggest that al-Jawharī acted in a fit of sudden madness, other sources wager that he unsuccessfully tried to fly. al-Jawharī’s condition was not understood as madness in and of itself.[55]

There are many stories about eccentric behavior of Sufis, for example, who were regarded as “holy men or women,” not as mentally insane.[56] Although the behavior of these people may nowadays be regarded as symptoms of schizophrenia, it was respected and tolerated because of its religious underpinnings.[57]

“This acceptance was enforced by one of the most influential Sufis, Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240 CE[58]), who wrote, ‘the mystical experience assails a person suddenly and he loses his mind; God speaks through the lunatics. The mad people are God’s people, the madness is not caused by natural process, it is caused by divine revelation’.”[59]

But there were women, too. In a biographical lexicon, we read about a “woman in Giza, Egypt, who stood for a long period in a field without any protection from the sun or the wind. She was fed from time to time, eating whatever was given to her.”[60]

The Abbasid caliph al-Muʿtaḍid bi‘llāh (d. 902) we are told,

“was afflicted by a visual experience that manifested itself in several forms. He ordered the gates of the palace to be guarded and locked from all quarters to protect him from his visual experience. […] It seems also that the Caliph had persecutory delusions. […] Surprisingly, he even brought mentally ill patients from a nearby mental hospital, so that he could trace the source of his illness by calling upon the Jinn of one of the lunatics.”[61]

Treating Mental Illness

Caliph al-Muʿtaḍid’s approach to curing his illness was not usual practice. A more adequate way of treating mental diseases will be described below.

The treatment of insanity and of what was regarded as “possession” in South West Asia dates back to Byzantine times. Mental illnesses were not always diagnosed as possessions, as some researchers claim. Rather, physicians were able to distinguish between insanity and illness.[62] The bīmāristān tradition may claim to be a genuine heir of this tradition.

Creating an atmosphere and environment[63] supportive of the successful cure of mental illnesses was a core element of treatment in bīmāristāns. Some

therapies were water-based treatments. [The] [l]ife-giving strength of water [has] always attracted the attention of mankind and all its possible usage methods were developed with great inventiveness during different periods in history. [They] […] always received a vital consideration in Muslim countries. At an early stage, Muslim engineers were exploring new methods for increasing the effectiveness of water-wheels. The 13th century mechanical engineer Badi’ Al-Zaman Al-Jazari was responsible for the design of five of these machines. One such machine was located in Damascus in [the] Nahr Yazid [canal] and is thought to have supplied the needs of the nearby Al-Qaymari bimaristan. Praying five times a day is an important pillar of Islam. It is an Islamic obligation both for [sick] and for healthy [people]. [B]efore praying, where[ever] possible, one must wash face, head, hands, and feet. So generally, the bimaristan provided patients and employees with water reserves and bathing facilities.
Water treatment was used by Arabic physicians as a means in order to modify bodily equilibrium. [G]reat importance was [attached] to the temperature of the water as well as to the duration of the bath. Essential oils and aromatic and fragrant essences added to bathwater were also considered beneficial, […] to eliminate melancholy, [for example]. The sound of the water was considered therapeutic too […].  [The look and smell] of plants were considered treatments too and it was believed in particular that the scent of plants reached the brain and influenced it.
The medical treatments used in the bimaristans also included fomentations (especially to the head), baths, bloodletting, cupping, bandaging, and massages with different oils, compresses, particular personalized diets. It seems that ergotherapy was also largely utilized and that dancing, theatrical performances, as well as poems and Qu’ran recitations were part of the therapy.”[64]

Following the evidence from medical texts, drugs were also used to treat mental illness. They were

“usually of vegetable origin [and] comprised purgatives, sedatives (especially opium), digestives, and emetics. They were used both [in their simple forms and as compounds] […] to stimulate the apathetic, soothe the violent […] and […] support depressed [patients].”[65]

A topic of discussion in handbooks, flowers also played an important role in Islamic medical therapy.[66] Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī‘s (d. 1210 CE), for example, writes that violets  (banafshe) are integral to curing several health problems and preserving bodily health[67]:

“It opens warm[68] growths, a sore breast is cured, cough and warm and dry headache are eased, conjunctivitis and stomach inflammation are cured. Drinking it eases pleurisy, pneumonia, nephritis or dysuria.
The waterlily is like the violet. Smelling and drinking it reduces the virility and the sperms, especially, used for the genitals.
Narcissus is balanced. Its fragrance eases problems of the brain. Its oil strengthens the tendons. Its seeds close wounds and heal tendon injuries. Eating one or two of its bulbs helps vomiting. If the skin of alopecia is ground with it, hair will grow again.“[69]

The list of flowers discussed by Fakhr al-al-Dīn al-Rāzī starts with roses and ends with cypress flowers.

Another important method for treating mental diseases or the imbalance of body and soul causing psychosomatic disorders[70] was music.[71]

Music Therapy

One of the most important methods to cure mental problems was music therapy.[72] Scholars have extensively discussed the philosophical[73] preconditions of music therapy.[74] Some examples may illustrate various positions in this discursive process:

“Both al-Kindi and the Brethren of Purity refer to music therapy as one aspect of the broad philosophical-metaphorical approach that considers harmony in the widest sense as a power involved in mastery of all arts. Originally conceived as such by the (Greek) philosophers, its proper manipulation for purposes of therapy implies a keen knowledge of the laws of universal harmony as well as their reflection in the music made by man. Therefore, this capacity belongs first and foremost to the musician-philosopher, because, as the Brethren say, the science of music is the principal wisdom leading to philosophical thought, and because harmony, wherever it is found in nature, cannot be described without being subordinated to the ideal laws of music.
It can be inferred from [the aforementioned quote] by al-Kindi that the musician should also have some knowledge of medicine. What about the physician?“[75] […]

In his encylopedic work Miftāḥ al-ṭibb wa-minhāj al-ṭullāb,[76] Ibn al-Hindū (d. ca. 1019 CE) described the disciplines a physician should learn in order to perfect his trade—physics (ʿilm al-ṭabīʿiyyāt), mathematics (ʿilm al-riyāḍiyyāt) (including the subdisciplines of arithmetic and geometry), astronomy and music, metaphysics and theology (ʿilm al-ilāhiyyāt). Logic is excluded since he discussed it earlier on.[77]

In regards to music, Ibn al-Hindū refers to a saying attributed to Hippocrates (buqrāṭ) that the “ancients” cured the ill (bīmārān) with music.[78] Another author suggested that physicians be familiar with the theory and practice of music, especially with touching the strings of the musical instrument. This might aid them in their practice of pulse diagnosis.[79]

In his seminal article on Arabic handbooks for music therapy, Eckard Neubauer determined lacunae in the selection of modi to be chosen by a musician for the treatment of certain diseases.[80] Neubauer stated that an integrated concept of music therapy such as this one was unique in the history of music and medicine.[81]

The oldest textual evidence of practical approaches to a music theory[82] of affects dates back to the 9th century CE. It took several hundred years until a practical system was fully developed. In his Kitāb al-adwār (Book of Cycles),[83] Ṣafiyy al-Dīn al-Urmawī (d. 1294 CE) presented an integrated tonal system and a series of twelve main modi (called šadd, pl. šudūd).[84] These modi (also called anghām or maqām) were associated with the signs of the zodiac and formed an integrated therapeutic system based on astrological-medical considerations. To give an example from an anonymous manuscript:

Iṣfahān stimulates the intellect (yuwarrith al-fiṭna), sharpens the thoughts (yuḥidd al-khawāṭir), makes [people focus on their] studying (yuʿayin ʿala ‘d-dirāsa) and cures diseases due to cold and dryness.”[85]

The selections of the appropriate modi (Arab. maqām) was very important, since every maqām influenced the mood of the patients differently. One made patients laugh, others helped them fall asleep, soothed their senses, or drove fear away. The maqām Iṣfahān, for example, helped patients with memory problems. Equally important was the time of day the maqām was played, be it in the morning, at noon, or in the evening.[86]


Maqām Isfahān

Solutions for specific mental diseases had to be aligned with a patient’s individual dispositions.[87]

Music therapy developed throughout pre-modern Islamic history. The classification system of mental diseases in Ottoman manuscripts provides insights into theoretical considerations of music therapy in Ottoman times. According to Nil Sari, most of these diseases were classified as illnesses residing in the head. Others were regarded as physical illnesses, especially psychosomatic diseases such as hysteria, anxiety, or lack of appetite or sexual diseases resulting from mental disorders. Other mental illnesses, in turn, were attributed to alcohol or opium use. Additional mental or personal disorders were studied separately.[88]

Based on this knowledge, we will now turn to Ottoman music therapy.[89]

“It was during the Ottoman Empire that music as therapy reached its culmination (Terzioğlu 1985, 16). Evliya Chelebi mentions that in Edirne, Sultan Bayazid II built the state hospital (darüşşifa – the houses of healing) in 1488, where water sound and music therapy were regular prescriptions in the treatment of diseases, particularly in the treatment of mental illnesses. On different days of the week, the music therapy team of the hospital performed for the patients. Doctors who were also well trained in the effects of music on human health observed how different melodies (maqams) affected the heartbeat or which melody was suitable for various illnesses. It was generally accepted that the maqam Isfahan benefited patients who suffered from memory problems; the maqam Rehavi was [beneficial for] the treatment of anxiety; and the maqam Kuchi was good in the treatment of depressive thoughts and dysthymia. Chelebi also reports that another famous ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid Veli established his own charity hospital and appointed ten musicians who played the flute (ney) and string instruments such as santur, keman, çengi, and ud for patients at least three times a week. Chelebi claimed that patients benefited from various maqams, especially from the maqams Zengule and Buselik.“[90]

Several Ottoman authors in the tradition of al-Fārābī, Abū Bakr al-Rāzī or Ibn Sīnā have studied the use of music for therapeutic means. All of them refer, however, to ancient Turkish ideas about the role of sound and melodies in day-to-day practice.[91]  As mentioned before, music therapy was used in Ottoman times in a framework informed by theoretical, practical, and empirical considerations.[92]

“The aims of Ottoman music therapy by playing specific modes prescribed for certain physiognomies and nations can be classified as: treatment of mental diseases; treatment of organic diseases; maintaining/re-establishing the harmony of the person—a healthy balance between body, mind and emotions by pleasing him/her; leading the way to emotions, such as [making] people laugh or […] cry etc., preventing vicious feelings and attracting good ones, training the self and thus reaching perfection.“[93]

A specific way of treating mental diseases similar to music therapy is the use of the recitation of the Qur‘an[94] to ease tensions.

Some other aspects

One important way of curing diseases in bīmāristāns was based on the Arabic medico-culinary-dietetic tradition.

“In early Islamic times, inherited Greek dietetic theory was wedded to indigenous Middle Eastern culinary traditions, textual evidence for which may be traced to Babylonian times. A dialogue between medical professionals and laymen emerged, each group to some extent informing and being informed by the other. The culinary manuals provide a clue to the nature of this relationship. They point to the central place of the domestic household in the life of the leisured urban class in Islamic societies, where not only proper nourishment could be provided to its members but also remedies for minor ailments or disorders which did not initially, at least, require, the physician’s expert knowledge of drugs to combat more serious disorders. Healthy food habits were a primary concern of both physicians and household managers, yet the daily supervision of such management was possible with minimum intervention from the physician.“[95]

The reference to the role of household managers in proper dietetics[96] points to the importance of private healthcare—even in the case of mental illness. Sometimes vegetarian dishes are noted as an important part of the treatment.[97]

Court physicians noted the importance of a personal relationship between patients and their physicians in bīmāristāns, even though it often was hampered by the bureaucratic apparatus of the hospital because every prescription and medical action had to be documented in written form.[98]

An important section of the bīmāristān was dedicated to the dispensary—sometimes called sharābkhāna, which roughly translates as “room for medical potions.” Dispensaries also served as a storage room for drugs,[99] precious instruments, and glass, metal, and porcelain vessels. Regarded as technicians, pharmacists administered drugs according to physicians’ prescriptions.[100] The story described below shows that pharmacists’ duties went beyond merely handling drugs in the bīmāristān. It also illustrates that the hospital granted open access to visitors:

“The reason al-Rāzī began to study the medical art was that when he first came to the City of Peace—Baghdad—he visited the ʿAḍudī hospital so that he could see it for himself. There, he was fortunate enough to meet the hospital’s pharmacist, a venerable man, whom al-Rāzī questioned about drugs and who had first discovered them. […]  When al-Rāzī heard this, he was impressed and visited the hospital another time, where he saw a child who had been born with two faces in a single head. Al-Rāzī asked the physicians about the cause of this, and when he was informed, he was impressed again with what he had heard and continued to enquire about one thing after another, remembering everything he was told until he decided to learn the medical art and eventually became the ‘Galen of the Arabs’.”[101]

Referring among others to al-Rāzī again, a short remark about the relation between physicians and alternative practitioners is in order:

“Al-Rāzī complained that women were credited with successfully treating patients while he himself—at least if we are to believe his own account—was really responsible for effecting the cure. Al-Kaskarī displayed a patronizing attitude toward women, whom he perceived to be gullible and ignorant. It is a fair surmise to say that women—whether as midwives, healers, or carers—catered to the medical needs of a substantial part of the community, and were therefore in competition with male practitioners—which could account for al-Rāzī’s prejudices. However, it is difficult to make general assertions about women in medical and paramedical professions in the period and region discussed here, owing to the dearth of research on the topic; female practitioners in the classical period of Islam seem to be one of the blind spots of scholarly attention. In the absence of more sophisticated research, suffice it here to point out that gender was important when physicians demarcated themselves from alternative practitioners.“[102]

This aspect of Islamic medical history therefore awaits further investigation. Another minor of the history of bīmāristāns: We encounter yet another narrative in the Fez bīmāristān, where storks were treated mostly for bone fractures. Traditionally, in pre-Islamic traditions storks were considered sacred animals.  This narrative on storks and their veneration in the regions of the Western Mediterranean has to be contexualized in another setting. At the beginning of the 19th century, a traveler described charitable foundations for hospitals in Fez dedicated to the care, treatment and even burial of dead cranes and storks. Men from very distant islands were supposedly incarnated in the shape of storks (or cranes) so they could fly back to their homes and return to their human form.[103] The regular migration of these birds made them an object of special veneration.

My overview of bīmāristāns will conclude another act with religious undertones.

Politics[104] and Hospitals

A final remark may shed some light on the intersection of politico-military efforts and the founding of a bīmāristān. Under the rule of the Mamluk Qalāwūn (d. 1290), intense warfare against the Il-Khans of Iran took place. This group of people was suspected of having Shi’ite or pagan leanings. Mamluk Qalāwūn also attacked the crusader kingdoms in Palestine and Syria because he considered them potential allies of the Il-Khan enemy. These heightened tensions led to attempts to islamicize even the bīmāristāns.[105] The construction of a bīmāristān could therefore be regarded as an act of jihād.[106]


Re-reading the history of hospitals as a history including bīmāristāns will enable medical history to draw a rich picture of the human endeavour to maintain health including one of the most important traditions of health care and medicine: Islamic medicine. A specific dimension of this tradition is mental health care and, esp., music therapy. Integrating the preventive and holistic dimensions of Islamic medical history in a new global idea of health care will enrich the human idea of health and medicine.


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[1] Risse includes a mere four pages, therefore excluding Islamic institutions from a general history of hospitals (Risse 1999).
[2] I am indebted to Margareta Wetchy for her invaluable comments. I am also grateful to the organizers of the 2019 Maimonides Lectures at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which took place in the Austrian city of Krems at the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences. My hosts afforded me the opportunity to present a first version of the ideas described in this article, the Karl Landsteiner University afforded their generous hospitality to the Maimonides Lectures. Many thanks to Salim al-Hassani for helping me refine my argument.
[3] Brömer 2010 and Northrup 2013. cf. Gran 1998, pp. 165ff. for a—seldom referred to—first attempt at an advanced analysis of medical literature.
[4] At present, we still lack a reconstruction of patient perspectives.
[5] For a recent conceptualization of this period, cf. Al-Azmeh 2014a and Al-Azmeh 2014b.
[6] Female physicians and healers in pre-Islamic times in Arabia have been well documented (Shehata 2007-2008: 10-11). A comprehensive history of female physicians in Islamic healthcare still needs to be written. For male physicians in pre-Islamic times we would have to turn to the chapter on the Classes of Physicians in the time of the rise of Islam in Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa’s famous history of physicians. However, it includes some seminal material (Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa 1965 and Ibn Abi Usaibia 2020).
[7] For an overview cf. Savage-Smith 2007. For older works including additional aspects, cf. Ullmann 1997. For one treatise from Egypt, cf. Dols/Gamal 1984. Pormann 2011 is a highly valuable volume with many interesting chapters.
[8] Mental health may be contextualized within recent discussions on “embodied experience” (körperliche Erkenntnis) to inscribe into broader philosophical discussions; cf. the contributions in Bockrath/Boschert/Franke 2008. For a recent overview of research on mental health and religion, cf. Classen 2014.
[9] For later hospitals in Iran often called dār al-shifāʾ, cf. Tadjbakhsh 2012 and Floor 2012.
[10] Micheau 1996: 991.
[11] Dols 1987: 369.
[12] Dols 1987: 382.
[13] Vivian Nutton quoted in Nayernouri 2017.
[14] Following Nayernouri 2017, cf. especially, Shahbazi/Richter-Bernburg 2012.
[15] Some of them even misquote other research literature. Cf. Miller 2006 quoting Dols 1987 (leaving aside some other mistakes including numbers, etc.).
[16] Speziale 2018 analyzed the Indian influence on Persian medicine in Islamic times.
[17] It may therefore be interesting to follow the idea of Tabaa reading the Abbasid support for hospitals as an attempt to “outshine the glory of the Sassanian kings” (Tabaa: 98) and to claim the heritage of the previous dynasty by tracing a genealogy back to Gundishapur.
[18] al-Jāḥiẓ 1965: 286.
[19] Evidently, I am referring to Ragab’s excellent chapter (Ragab 2018: 140). Cf. Pormann/Savage-Smith 2007: 20.
[20] For the distinction between professional physicians, cf. Pormann 2005.
[21] Pormann 2005: 221. The translation from Jahiz‘ Kitab al-Bukhala‘ by Serjeant was slightly adapted by Pormann; cf. Taylor 2010: 1 and Dols 1987: 381ff for the context of the story in Jahiz‘ book.
[22] For him, cf. Kahl 2009 and Lev/Chipman 2007.
[23] Shabazi/Richter-Bernburg 2012.
[24] Savage-Smith, Medicine, 933ff.
[25] Important insights may be gained from Ragab 2015.
[26] Al-Ghazal 2007: 6ff.; cf. Weisser 1991: 6.
[27] Savage-Smith 1996: 934
[28] Cf. Davies 2008.
[29] Quote in older English; I have refrained from translating it into standard English because I did not want to distort the atmospheric quality of this description.
[30] Leo Africanus 2010: 425-426.
[31] Dols 1995: 130. Similar representations can be found in plays for puppet theatres (cf. Dols 1995: 131).
[32] Dols 1995: 128-129.
[33] Some early reports indicate that 24 physicians worked at the important ʿAḍudī hospital in Baghdad in ca. 981 CE (Ibn al-Qifṭī 1908: 438, biography of Ibn Mandawayh).
[34] For the importance of horticultural therapy, cf. Bascands 2015.
[35] Ragab 2015: 176.
[36] Cf. Weisser 1991 for examinations and other training for physicians.
[37] Meyerhof 1935: 322 with several clinical observations by Abū Bakr al-Rāzī.
[38] I intentionally inverted the title of the chapter of Koetschet 2018— as mental diseases were explained by physical ailments, we will “treat” the body before the soul in this paragraph.
[39] This new field of research has been opened by the contributions in Annales Islamologiques 48 (2014).
[40] For a critical view of the assumption of the dominance of humoral theory for medical practice, cf. Savage-Smith 2013 (footnote RL).
[41] Koetschet 2018: 60-61; cf. ibid. 2008.
[42] Although it may be true in terms of quantity, the literature in Persian and Hebrew is an important element of non-modern medical discourses (footnote RL).
[43] Koutschet 2018: 63.
[44] Koutschet 2015: 227; cf. Koutschet 2019 for an overview of the position of Abū Bakr al-Rāzī towards Galen.
[45] Koutschet 2015: 228.
[46] Koutschet 2015: 229.
[47] Dols 1995: 64-65.
[48] Dols 1995: 65.
[49] Koutschet 2015: 230-231.
[50] Ibn Abi Usaibia 2020 13.1.1.
[51] al-Balkhī 2005; for partial translation and some introductory chapters cf. Badri 2013. I have to thank Salim al-Hassani for reminding me to include the approach of al-Balkh.
[52] Cf. Koutschet 2015: 238ff.
[53] al-Jawharī 1979.
[54] Leiser 1988: 173; Youssef/Youssef 1996 list a wrong name (Hamad instead of Hammad).
[55] Leiser 1988: 173-174
[56] See interesting stories in Gramlich 1987.
[57] For the spiritual dimensions of health following Sufi views, cf. Cecere 2014.
[58] Chronology adopted by the author (RL).
[59] Youssef/Youssef 1996: 60; the references to the Futuḥāt in this article are inaccurate.
[60] Youssef/Youssef 1996: 60.
[61] Youssef/Youssef 1996: 61.
[62] See Horden 1993 challenging conventional views.
[63] For a study of the thermal and ventilation systems of a hospital in Damascus, cf. Maraqa/Van Moeseke/De Herde 2014.
[64] Gorini 2007-2008: 17. In Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī‘s handbook for the preservation of bodily health, we find a similar holistic approach (al-Rāzī 1390h).
[65] Gorini 2002: 41.
[66] For the role of scents and fragrances in the Islamic world, cf. Bonnéric 2016.
[67] For an overview of the positive and negative effects of scents, cf. the fifth chapter in al-Rāzī 1390h, pp. 49ff.
[68] Referring to the categories accorded to humoral pathology used by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī we cannot discuss here.
[69] al-Rāzī 1390h, pp. 53-54.
[70] Cf. Quintern 2017: 55-56; being aware of the problems of a distinction between psyche and soma.
[71] Cf. Neubauer 2012-2014, Farmer 1930.
[72] For a general, cross-cultural overview, cf. Horden 2000; Bates/Bleakley/Goodman 2014; Ka‘bān/Qatāya s. d. for an Arabic language overview.
[73] For links to Islamic mysticism/Sufism, cf. Shiloah 2000: 244.
[74] We cannot follow this line of thought here.
[75] Shiloah 2000: 81.
[76] For a short overview, cf. Nasser/Tibi 2007.
[77] Ibn Hindū 1422/2002, pp. 81-86; I am following Bürgel/Käs 2016, pp. 134-137.
[78] Following Moḥaqqeqī 1988, pp. 239-240, cf. Bürgel/Käs 2016, p. 136.
[79] Bürgel/Käs 2016, p. 134. For the special case of the new discipline of Islamic music theory on musical meters (īqāʿ), cf. Neubauer 2008-2009.
[80] Neubauer 2009: 233-234. Cf. Wright 2004/2005 and Neubauer 2004/2005.
[81] Neubauer 1990: 233.
[82] For the modern practice of music therapy spreading from Turkey to Austria and other European countries, cf. Güvenç/Güvenç 2009. For some empirical data on the effects of this therapy, cf. Gutjahr et al. 1994.
[83] Al-Urmawī 1986; on him, also cf. Arslan 2007.
[84] Neubauer 1990: 235.
[85] Neubauer 1990: 257 (translation by the author).
[86] For a general overview, cf. Isgandarova 2015.
[87] Sufie/Sidik 2017.
[88] Sari 2005.
[89] The role of women in health care and medical therapy in Ottoman times was aptly described by Sari 2009a.
[90] Isgandarova 2015: 110-111.
[91] For a better understanding of a global history of medicine, possible links to East Asian (and South Asian) ideas on health care or music should also be investigated. Sari 2009b addresses this lacuna.
[92] For Ottoman music therapy, cf. the excellent article by Sari 2009b.
[93] Sari 2009b.
[94] Nelson 2001 and for a more recent study Babamohamadi et al. 2015; in contemporary Iran, especially, there are many studies on the effect of Qur‘an recitation.
[95] Waines 1999: 240.
[96] Cf. Pitchon 2016.
[97] Ibn Abi Usaibia 2020 15.42.
[98] Ragab 2015: 221ff.
[99] For the drugs used, cf. Kahl 2009 and Kahl 2007; cf. Saad/Said 2011.
[100] For an excellent overview of pharmacology, cf. Chipman 2018. For the role of pharmacies in Mamluk and Mongol times, cf. Chipman 2007 and for examples of prescriptions, cf. Chipman/Lev 2010-11 and Lev/Chipman 2012; how to read prescriptions, cf. Chipman 2019a and 2019b.
[101] Ibn Abi Usaibia 2020 11.5.2.
[102] Pormann 2005: 226.
[103] Roque n. d.: 104.
[104] I am aware that “politics” may not be the appropriate term for this period.
[105] Northrup 2013: 14-15.
[106] Northrup 2013: 14.

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, 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.

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Memory and Erasure in the Story of the West: Or, Where have All the Muslims Gone?


I would like to share with you some insights about Western cultural and intellectual history that are drawn from a current book project that brings together several strands of my research in Islamic, Byzantine, and Medieval European history. As I hope you’ll see, although on the surface these remarks concern the distant past, there is an urgent need to discuss them in the present. [I’d like to thank the Kennedy Center for featuring me in this lecture series.]

I’m going to talk about identity, history, and memory. Identity—whether white, black, Asian, European, Muslim, Jewish, or Mormon—not only colors our perceptions and determines what we notice—i.e. what stands out for us—from the mass of stimuli in the world, but it also shapes what we remember of the past, and how we remember the past, from both our own experiences and the experiences of others, which we call history. One of the goals of education, we hope, is that you will learn how to step out of the narrow concerns of your own identity, and learn how to practice empathy—to try to see things from others’ points of view. To see others as more than just non-belongers to your group, who do not share your identity. The Western identity is my main concern, that group to which most if not all of us here present claim membership.

The story the West tells itself about its origins is fundamentally flawed, I claim. How often have we been told how the glorious, classical West fell into the Dark Ages, when the medieval Church controlled the hearts and minds of the people, until the heroic humanists of the Renaissance recovered our Greco-Roman heritage, liberating us from superstition so that progress could continue, making the modern enlightened world possible? Or, how the Founding Fathers based our American government on Greek and Roman institutions and classical history? Our civic buildings recall that story: classical columns and arches evoke republican Rome (although sometimes it feels more like the Roman Empire). These are powerful stories: Aren’t they obviously true?

They aren’t completely wrong, but they omit a great deal in their eagerness to claim the classical heritage as the exclusive heritage of the West. In the latter case, what about the Germanic traditions of democratic councils? The parliamentary system? Trial by jury? These and other elements of our political system had no precedents in the classical world. In the former case, what about the vast influx of ideas and technology from the Islamic world, that began in the 10th Century, and continued through the Middle Ages? The legacy of the Islamic World to the West is the main topic of my presentation today, which is still largely unknown or misunderstood. There are ghostly reminders of this mostly forgotten legacy in everyday things: from the Arabic numerals (which are actually from India: let’s talk about forgotten legacies!) to the algorithms that have made the computerized world possible (from the Latin form of the name of the 9th C. Muslim mathematician, al-Khwarizmi, who introduced both the numerals and the powerful tool called algebra—there’s another ghostly word—as well as the systematic procedures, or algorithms, required to solve equations. I hope I didn’t alienate any of you, whose memories of algebra may be unpleasant). There are a host of other Arabic words in chemistry, astronomy, and other disciplines.

Memory and Erasure in the Story of the West – Or, Where have All the Muslims Gone? by Glen M. Cooper

The problem becomes clear when we consider that 500 years ago the names of Avicenna, Averroes, Rhazes, Algorismi, Albumasar, Alhazen and many others were known to every educated person in the West. And they were discussed along with Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and the rest of the Greco-Romans. Why is it that today one needs to take specialized college courses or do graduate work to know who these people were and what they contributed to global, let alone to Western civilization? We are content with the simple, mythologized account of Western civilization as being a continuous entity extending directly from Athens and Rome to the present. How did this erasure and distortion happen, and why is it significant for us today?

In answering this question, I adopt a two-fold approach. First, I shall briefly recount some of the ideas and inventions that Western civilization derived from the Islamic world, so that you can appreciate the magnitude of this debt. Then, I shall explain how this has been forgotten. The key to this problem is Western identity and how it developed historically. I shall consider Western encounters with three civilizations, and show how each encounter shaped Western self-conception. They are: Judaism, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic World. The first two will be briefly covered, to show how identity shaped memory, as preparation to consider the main problem of where have all the Muslims gone from Western intellectual history. In brief, Islamic civilization was written out of the story during the Renaissance, because a Greco-Roman heritage was a more appealing story than one that acknowledged any debts to Islam, which at the time was a religious, political, and ideological rival to the West. And that may be why this debt is hard for many to accept today, because Islam is once again held to be diametrically opposed to all of our enlightened Western values: reason, liberalism, freedom, etc.

I shall then conclude by considering the ethical implications of Western identity and the cost of holding on to a distorted history. Noting how identity is a moral and ethical issue that concerns how we treat others, I shall call for an honest re-assessment of the non-Western origins of our modern Western civilization, and show how a genuine acceptance and gratitude for the diverse roots of modern society might contribute to a more peaceful and cooperative world. Wildly romantic, you say? Just wait.

Contributions from Islam

Conditions favoring Science In Islam

To begin with, I know of no other civilization that acquired the sciences as quickly and produced such brilliant work of its own in so short a time—within a mere few centuries of its founding. The fact that Islam was a religious society makes this all the more surprising (at least to moderns).

Some of the factors that made this possible were: The zeal and vigor of a new and comprehensive religious vision; A rational faith, with intellectual curiosity and systematic investigation of nature enshrined as a core ethic; A sense of competition with earlier civilizations, especially with its chief rival, Christian Byzantium; A vast surplus of wealth, to be spent on translations, research and development, and technology for prestige. Furthermore, there was the religious need for specific sciences: cartography for determining the direction of prayer (mosque orientation), which also drove the invention of spherical trigonometry; and the determining of prayer times, encouraged astronomical investigation. Additionally, there were many practical needs of a rapidly growing empire: mathematics for accounting, geometry for surveying; engineering for building bridges and roads; hydrology for irrigation projects, etc.

All of these factors converged in the Caliphate at Baghdad, beginning in the 8th Century, and lasting several centuries. Wealthy bureaucrats sponsored the translations of Greek works, which gave them an edge at court and helped them with their own research. After some time required to assimilate Greek thought, original works in Arabic began to flow. All of these Arabic works used the tools of the Greek legacy, to master, critique, and extend that very legacy.

Islamic civilization also produced the first true scientific community.  The Islamic world extended from Spain to India, with Arabic as the language of scholarship, which enabled thinkers to share their ideas over a vast space. Not since the Hellenistic world after the death of Alexander the Great, when Greek was the language of culture in this region, had such a condition existed, which united the Mediterranean with the Central Asian and Indian worlds. Islam actually created a much more stable and longer lasting empire than had the heirs of Alexander. This stability over generations enabled thinkers to build upon their predecessors’ achievements, one of the essential features of a scientific culture. Additionally, Islamic law encouraged the wealthy to make bequests in the form of pious endowments, which supported mosques, hospitals, libraries, or observatories.


Medicine especially flourished. Improving upon the Christian institution of the hospital, which had been more like a hospice than a modern hospital, Muslim rulers created an institution of healing that more resembled its modern descendant. There, medical research and education took place in addition to healing, and medicine advanced beyond Hippocrates and Galen. Avicenna, a 10th C. polymath, and one of the brightest thinkers of all time, published a systematic approach to medical theory and practice, the Canon of Medicine. This work was so useful that it became the main medical textbook in Western universities for about six centuries—a publishing success story if there ever was one. Another thinker, the 13th C. Ibn al-Nafis, discovered the pulmonary circulation centuries before William Harvey described the general circulation of the blood.


Colleges (madrasas) also took shape across the Caliphate, which supported faculty and students, and promoted standard curricula. These institutions resembled the somewhat later colleges of medieval Europe, to such a degree that I suspect there was some connection.


Lastly, astronomical observatories were established, whose primary purpose was to determine the behavior of the planets through observation, in order to improve the mathematical models used to calculate planetary positions. This knowledge was needed for both astrology and medicine. The models required numerical parameters derived from observation. Once all of these parameters had been determined for each planet, the observatory became obsolete. A larger facility with the capacity to make more precise observations, and improved mathematical models were the only way to improve practical astronomy.

The most important of these observatories was established in 1259 at Maragha in NW Iran, under the sponsorship of a grandson of the fearsome conqueror Genghiz Khan. There, a team of scientists and mathematicians, some even from China, labored to improve both observations and models. Islamic astronomers had realized that Ptolemy’s models, though accurate for predicting, were physically impossible. A model should accurately describe and conform to reality in every way.

Technology and Other Tools

The technologies and other tools developed in Islam and appropriated by the West are too many to enumerate. But they include: water wheels for mechanized labor; astronomical observatories; navigational technology; improved aqueducts and underground irrigation channels; a monetary economy—coins, rather than barter and exchange; advanced clocks and timekeeping; mechanical devices; the decimal number system, including decimal fractions; algebra, mathematics, and trigonometry. The decimal system is much more convenient than Roman numerals or other alphabet based number systems, such as the Greeks used.

But perhaps the most important contribution to the West from Islam was not one thing or a single idea. Rather, Muslim and Jewish thinkers had already sifted though the relics of Greek learning and created a new kind of science that was compatible with the monotheistic worldview of the Abrahamic faiths. All that groundwork had been already accomplished (I.e. The conflicts and obstacles had been removed, or reconciled) before medieval Christians began to study the Greco-Arabic tradition. Muslims had assembled fragments of Greek thought into a powerful tool for investigating nature—improving on Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen.


I hope I’ve given you a sense of the volume of intellectual activity going on in the Islamic world, when Europe was struggling to define itself. And so, it’s that self-definition, or identity, that I’d like to address next.

Humans define themselves as members of groups by adopting a group’s identity, and being accepted by the group—both are necessary. One of the basic binary distinctions humans make is “Us vs. Them”, or “My Group vs. The Others”, and this goes back to the earliest of human times. Now we have “The West and the Rest”. All people have multiple overlapping identities and groups to which they correspond. Group identity is often determined by blood relations, but what made civilizations possible was the capacity of humans to adopt identities that were much more inclusive, based on imagined rather than biological connections. The great empires or the modern nation states would not have been possible without most of their citizens feeling that they belonged to some pan tribal identity, such as the Roman Empire, or the Islamic Caliphate, or Christendom, or the American republic—or, for the present company, the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS, which has brought people from every ethnic origin together into a “family” of God’s children.

One of the most important features features of identity is the use of stories to explain who the group is and where they came from. These are usually mythologized—not false, but simplified, for easy teaching, memorizing, or even re-enacting. They are based in truth, just a highly selective truth. For example, the simplified version of the American Revolution, with the virtuous, freedom-loving Yankees pitted against the evil, decadent, and oppressive British Empire. Or, the tale of the Pilgrim Fathers founding the first American colony at Plymouth [rather than Jamestown, which was founded several years earlier, or the Spanish and Portuguese who had been here much longer: but the latter were Catholic, and so they didn’t count in our Protestant story], or the myth of the Greco-Roman origins of Western Civilization, which concerns us here.

Such stories help to define one’s identity. What does it mean to belong to Group X, and to be a part of its history? And how does Group X see others, the non-X-ers? If the group feels threatened, the others are characterized or even demonized as evil and dangerous. Some examples are: The Roman “barbarians at the gate”, Aryan Germans vs. Jewish pestilence in need of eradication in early 20th C. Nazism, and the West vs. Islam in our day.

So, the Muslims were erased and forgotten from the story of the West, because an origin story that described Greece and Rome as the cultural ancestors of Western Europe was more politically correct at that time.

Western Identity

Identity is tied to specific times, peoples, and places, and must be examined historically within those contexts. To claim that our Western identity has been a continuity that originated in the ancient Greek world and has persisted since then, is flawed. Some authors see the supposedly fundamental East/West division that exists today as having originated during the Greco-Persian Wars, as described by Herodotus. The freedom-loving, virtuous Greeks were victorious against an evil, grasping, corrupt, and despotic Persian Empire. Rather, Western identity is useful to us today for reasons that are very much a product of our own time. Yes, we may trace the origins of this identity, and claim Greece and Rome as contributors to it, but if we do that then we must also acknowledge Islam and all the other sources of our culture, or at least admit to why we would choose to exclude them from our story—which would be itself part of that story: “We don’t want Muslims in our intellectual genealogy, because they’re not how we see ourselves”. Or, “their civilization is religiously fundamentalist, anti-reason, the breeding grounds for terrorism, etc., so they have nothing to do with us.” Perhaps you can see the anachronism here: using our present dislike of Muslims or Islam and projecting backwards, as if Islam were some static unchanging essence. In reality, medieval Islam was perhaps the most rational and literate society on earth during its heyday. The great English historian of the fall of Rome, Edward Gibbon, even though as a typical Enlightenment thinker he disliked religion as superstitious and dangerous—he blamed the fall of the Roman Empire on Christianity, after all—still, he respected Islam for its rationality. Please note that Gibbon dated the fall of the Roman Empire to 1453, when Constantinople fell, and not 476, when Rome fell.

Excluding the Jews

One major distinction between groups that served to define the evolving Western identity was to exclude the Jews. A major change occurred to the classical form of the Western identity when the Empire became Christian in the 4th Century, with the conversion of Constantine. Now, to be a Roman was to be a Christian. To be a Christian meant to be a non-Jew, in the sense that Jews had failed to accept Jesus as Messiah, but remained stubborn in their ways.

However, many Christians did not accept the official policy of separation from Jews, with whom they lived and did business. There are medieval reports of Christians hiring Jews to bless their crops, or of Christians attending Jewish services and festivals, because of their beauty, and of intermarriage. And, there was the ever present danger of Christians being seduced by Jews, and converting to Judaism, leaving the “truth” behind. Back then, apostasy was considered treason against the state, punishable by death, because one’s religious and political identities were so closely linked. Justinian’s 5th Century Code of Law prescribed death to Judaizing Christians, for example. Today we think that capital punishment in Islam for apostasy is barbaric, but we ought to know that Christendom followed a similar practice for much of our history.

For the Church, the Jews should be converted like everyone else, but if they refuse, they must be forced to remain in a state of squalor, as a reminder of the consequences of rejecting Jesus. And, they must be separated from Christians, in order to prevent mixing of peoples, and thus confusing identities. This led to the ghettos. One of the main reasons for the tragic expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, as stated in the Alhambra Decree, was the fear that Jews were seducing good Christians away from the truth to indulge in Jewish practices.

So, Jews were a part of the West’s narrative, and necessary for the West’s self-definition, in a negative way: they are what we are not, what we have rejected or superseded.

Excluding the Byzantines

Now let’s consider another parting of the ways in the course of the developing Western identity: the Byzantines. These people were the continuation of the Roman Empire in the East, in unbroken succession from Augustus down to 1204, when the empire was conquered by Venetians and crusaders, with a coda from 1261 to 1461. Why then do we not refer to them as “Romans” as they did themselves? No Byzantine would have recognized the term “Byzantine” applied to them. It would seem that, if the West is so keen to claim Rome as its ancestor, then the Eastern Roman Empire should be held in high regard, and yet, we don’t even use its proper name. The problem is that the Byzantines were rejected because their form of Christianity was considered to be heretical, their people too “Eastern”, and they didn’t follow the Pope in Rome. The term “Byzantine”, which is also a negative term for a complex and devious bureaucracy, was promoted by French scholars three centuries ago, who thought that the subjects of their study were too foreign, having deviated from classical Rome. However, the Byzantines were just what the West had been: a Christianized heir of the classical Roman Empire. But, in terms of Western identity, they were what we are not.

In the Middle Ages, the rift between West and East grew greater, with the Crusades spelling the end of Byzantium. The Byzantines were too sophisticated to be trusted by barely literate, provincial Westerners. They were demonized and abandoned to the Turks by the West. Yet, Renaissance Humanists profited from their Greek manuscripts, and the fact that there had always been a living tradition of Greek scholarship in the Byzantine world. The West needed the Byzantines to teach them Greek, and so Western attitudes toward the Byzantines were a paradoxical mixture of hatred and envy.

This rift between East and West has had important implications for our day. The Russian Empire was the self-proclaimed heir of Orthodox Byzantium—Moscow as the Third Rome. Much of the mutual antagonism and distrust that began in the Middle Ages still persists, and was manifested in the Cold War, and in the present. This in spite of Pope St. John Paul II’s good-hearted efforts to apologize for the destruction of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire at the hands of the Christian Crusaders in 1204.

Enter the Muslims

The previous two cases have concerned the religious dimensions of the Western identity. The West has thought of itself as representing the only true form of Christianity, and the only true heir of the Hebrew prophets and patriarchs, as well as the heir of Greece and Rome. Likewise, the clash with Islam and its effects on the Western identity concerned religious legitimacy. As in the Jewish case, both Christendom and Islam competed to be the legitimate heir of the Abrahamic prophetic and monotheistic tradition. However, Islam presented a far more serious threat than Judaism ever could, involving vast armies, conquest, and superior culture.

When Islam first appeared on the scene in the 7th Century, Christian observers could not grasp it, and some of them considered the Prophet Muhammad to be a Christian heretic and schismatic—even Dante in the 14th C. held the latter view. When the Islamic conquests were in full sway, Christian armies facing the seemingly invincible Muslims wondered why God was favoring these infidels who had perverted the truth. Some concluded that God had sent Muslims to punish Christians for their lack of faithfulness to the Church, or, as in the case of the Byzantines, for their veneration of icons, condemned as idolatry by many.

The rapid conquest and the subjugation of millions of Christians from lands formerly under Roman Christian control created great fear. In the East, the Byzantines were largely the cultural equal of Islam. In the lands of the Catholic West, however, much of the Roman civilization had been lost: no access to Greek literature and philosophy, loss of Roman technology, and the descent into the chaos of the early middle ages, when survival against new barbarian foes, like the Vikings and the Magyars , as well as poverty resulted in a comparatively low level of civilization. To them, Islamic civilization must have seemed almost superhuman. We now understand, of course, that Islamic civilization was a cultural and technological beneficiary of the Roman Empire, and that much of its technology was inherited from Rome, and improved, i.e. that Islam was also a rival for the Classical Legacy, which included political rule. This may be seen in the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, Mehmet II’s, assumption of the title “Emperor of Rome” on his capture of Constantinople.

Comparative backwardness

Having earlier recounted the high level of Islamic civilization, you may now appreciate how, comparatively speaking, 10th Century Europe was vastly inferior to it on nearly all counts, but especially where science and technology were concerned. By then, the Islamic Caliphate was in decline, however. What had been a vast empire stretching from the Atlantic to India, was fragmenting. Islamic identity and institutions still prevailed in these territories, but the centrality of Baghdad was mostly ceremonial. In spite of that, however, science and technology still flourished in the regions governed by Islam and Arabic literary culture.

Pope Sylvester

By the late 10th Century, fantastic reports reached Europe of libraries with books of math, astronomy, and other sciences in the lands of Islam. Arabic astrolabes began to make their appearance in the West, but no one knew how to use them. The young Frenchman Gerbert d’Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II, was sent by his ecclesiastical superior into a part of Spain that had been until recently under Muslim control, in order to get the mathematical and astronomical knowledge that could help the Church refine the calculation of Easter, since the liturgical calendar depended on that anchor date. What he found exceeded the fabulous reports. Books on every branch of the sciences, both translations of Greek authors, but also more recent original works by Arabic authors. Gerbert brought back some translations and knowledge, but more importantly he inspired a movement of European scholars to travel to Spain and searched through captured Muslim libraries (especially in Toledo) for whatever science they could find. Eventually this grew into organized translation efforts, in Toledo and later in Palermo, Sicily.

When Gerbert returned home, however, his vast knowledge was so far above his benighted contemporaries that rumors spread to the effect that he was in league with demons, since how could any mortal person have acquired such knowledge? After his death, there were reports of ghostly and demonic sounds near his tomb.

Efforts to get the fruits of Islam

As more Arabic texts became known, European thinkers were increasingly aware of the intellectual poverty of their own culture, while simultaneously coveting the intellectual wealth of their Muslim rivals. The “abundance of the Arabs”[1] compared with the “poverty of the Latins”[2] is a recurrent theme in the prefaces to their translations.[3] Several 12th C. Latin thinkers expressed their views on this issue. Plato of Tivoli (d. 1146) stated that the Arabs have all the great authors, both Ancient Greeks, but also their own thinkers. Moreover, not only do we Christians not have a single author to match these Arabs, but instead of books, we have nonsense, foolish dreams, and old wives tales. In astronomy, Petrus Alfonsi (d. 1130), a Jewish convert, urged his fellow Christians to abandon the old Latin astronomy,[4] and welcome the new doctrines from the East, which were based on fresh observations. The Englishman Adelard of Bath (d.c. 1152), who traveled to the East in search of Arabic knowledge, wrote that it was the new logic and the emphasis on personal observation that made Arabic authors superior.[5] He compared the rational and progressive Muslim culture to his own, which he says is led by authority like dumb beasts wearing a halter.[6]

Gradually, however, Latin thinkers gained confidence, and were able to engage with and critique the Arabic authors, even as they employed their ideas in their own projects. {This confidence was aided by Peter the Venerable’s sponsoring translations of the Qur’an and other essential Muslim religious literature, for the purpose of engaging with Muslims intellectually on their own terms, in order to refute their arguments and convert them to Christianity, as well as to discourage potential renegade Christians, by showing the superiority of the Christian faith.

Eventually Aristotle, and then Galen became available in Latin, and this revolutionized higher learning in Europe—although Avicenna’s compendium of Greek medicine in his Canon was much easier to use. I hasten to point out that the reception of these authors was mediated by Islamic authors, whose commentaries were crucial for the understanding of their complex ideas. We note here the connections between the famous 12th Century Renaissance and the influx of translations from Arabic. A strong case can be made that the more famous Italian renaissance of the 15th-16th centuries would have been very different in character, if it had ever occurred at all, without the foundation of learning built on translations from Arabic.

Renaissance Humanism

Arabic authors were very much being read at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. Along with these Greek authors, Arabic thinkers were also translated and some became even more popular than the Greeks. Three fields in which Arabic authors were especially popular, were astronomy/astrology, medicine, and philosophy, and these were avidly studied in the Renaissance.

Nicholas Copernicus you probably know as the thinker whose Sun-centered planetary system destroyed the ancient cosmos and inaugurated the Scientific Revolution. To some, he has been almost a secular prophet of Western rationalism against the darkness of tradition. Mainly true, but a bit more complicated. To those who claim that the move from an earth to a sun centered system simplified Greek astronomy, getting rid of the complicated epicycles and eccentrics—circles on circles, nothing could be further from the truth. Copernicus was the first to present a detailed working out of a Sun-centered system, but he used all the mathematical models of Ptolemy, and introduced a few more. These additional models were developed by Muslim astronomers working at the Maragha Observatory in NW Iran in the mid 13th Century, mentioned earlier. So, just as with the general thesis of this presentation that much has been left out of the story of the heritage of the West, which can be traced to Islam, so it is also with the contributions of Copernicus. And, just as this restored genealogy of ideas does not detract one bit from the achievements either of the West or of Copernicus, it does present a more honest, and ethical view of the Western intellectual heritage. Without this and the other Arabic contributions to astronomy and the practice of astrology, there might have been no Kepler nor Galileo, both of whom, as mathematicians, were obliged to cast horoscopes for their patrons. I find arrogance and a superior attitude among some of my co-Westerners/ An honest acknowledgement of debts and gratitude are excellent antidotes to such arrogance.

It was my learning of this very hole in Western intellectual history that completely changed my career focus as a student, and shaped my professional career. I knew that recovery of this obscured, forgotten, or erased history was something really important, with potentially huge implications for Western self-understanding, and for our relations with the Islamic world.

Renaissance Attitudes toward Arabic Authors

The special conditions of the Renaissance, especially printing, made it possible to study the received intellectual tradition like never before. Attitudes toward Arabic authors in the Renaissance were varied.

There gradually developed two camps regarding the large body of Arabic texts. One group recognized the value of Arabic authors, and consulted them for their discoveries and insights, to advance knowledge beyond the Greeks and Romans. The Frenchman Guillaume Postel, for example, knew the value of the Arabic tradition, and traveled widely in the Islamic world in search of the latest astronomical knowledge from Arabic authors. He wrote: “What you can see lucidly and clearly explained in Avicenna on only one or two pages, Galen in his Asiatic manner hardly manages to comprise in five or six major volumes”. Another group of philosophers read Arabic works, seeking solutions to philosophical problems, such as those about the soul that were left unresolved by Aristotle, but about which the Muslim Averroes had intriguing insights, even though the Church later condemned those views.

The other group, generally identified with the Humanists, sought to get back to the pure Greek sources of the three disciplines mentioned earlier. One of them, Leonhart Fuchs (1535), expressed his opinion of “the Arabs”: “One cannot find anything in the Greeks which is not pure and learned, which is not refined and created with the highest perspicacity, but one will encounter almost nothing in the Arabs which is not rancid and foul”.  Another, Niccolo Leoniceno sought to purify the medical tradition of Arabic corruption, which meant discarding the Latin translations of the Arabic translations of the Greek—which he dismissed as utterly corrupt, as well as the Arabic commentaries, and reading the unmediated Greek instead. [Ironically, most educated people couldn’t read Greek, so the Greek editions prepared by the Humanists had to be translated into Latin for them anyway]. All of these layers of translation would seem to have a high chance of muddying the waters. However, in the course of transmission, new insights and discoveries were made—those which the first group avidly sought after—which the Humanists wanted to discard as junk, and thus throw away nearly a millennium of potentially useful scientific insights. Additionally, the Humanists promoted the story that Western civilization has its true roots in the Classical world, and that the backwardness of the previous Middle Ages—by which they meant mainly the Scholasticism of thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas (who asked “trivial” questions like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”)—was caused by uncritical reliance on corrupt translations and misguided Arabic commentators.

By that point, Islam was mostly represented in the Christian experience by the Ottoman Empire, which had conquered the remnants of the Byzantine Empire with alarming rapidity, establishing its imperial capital at Constantinople after conquering it in 1453, an event within the memory of early Humanists. Once again, Islam was regarded with fear in the West, but not this time with envy of its technology and science. For one thing, the Ottomans had very little of cutting edge science and technology, unlike earlier Muslims, and they, like the Romans before them, were a practical people, outstanding in legislation and administration. The West, enjoying a booming economy, widespread education, and literacy, etc. had the self-confidence to dismiss Islam as a serious intellectual rival, while feeling the need to defend itself militarily. Identity again: We Westerners are the people of progress, Islam is backward and has produced the despotism and arbitrariness of Ottoman rule.


I’ve made a case that our modern Western identity is flawed because of major holes in its origin story. So, what? I can almost hear some say. What does that matter, isn’t the Western story, even if mythologized, a more productive one for our world, because it promotes progress, control of the environment, capitalism and profit, etc.?

My answer is that adopting and living an identity is an ethical matter, because identities tend to divide people rather than bring them together. There is nothing inherently wrong with identity per se, which seems to be a necessary part of human existence. But we should wear our identities responsibly, because they profoundly affect the way we treat other people. In fact, I think that the only way that we can have our Western identity and still reach out to others, or be a part of a larger world community, is if we don’t take that identity too seriously. I mean, we must allow ourselves to be at least slightly vulnerable, to admit that we owe to others some of the greatness of our cultural and intellectual traditions. Remember, identity is not something we’re born with, and it has no biological basis, but is a product of time, place, society, and even political concerns.

Let me consider a case close to home for many here today. How should members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints view non-members, i.e. those without the Latter-day Saint identity? If we look at nonmembers as potential converts and see nothing else, then we miss the richness of their lives, and fail to become true friends with other people. There is something manipulative about the former view. I suppose that everyone is a potential convert in a trivial sense. But people are so much more than members of any particular religions sect.

One important step would be to educate people without omitting the Muslims from our story. We Westerners would be healthier and more robust if we accepted the full and diverse history of our origins. Many psychotherapy approaches encourage patients to discover and accept the truth about themselves, whatever they may have done or had done to them. The greatest Therapist of them all said “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. That is the surest step toward a free, responsible, and mature approach to living. To hide the truth or not to confront it squarely leads to unresolved issues, and unhealthy relationships.

Edward Said and Orientalism

The recognition of a problem with the Western narratives about the Islamic East is not new. A generation ago, Edward Said in his ultra-influential, Orientalism (1978), presented a case that the West has systematically understood the East in distorted and manipulative ways, for its own pleasure and profit, which he called “orientalism”, from the time of the Greco-Persian Wars, and extending into modern colonialism and even current policies toward Islamic countries. However, it is difficult to see how Greeks fighting for their freedom against Persian invaders in the 5th Century BCE has anything to do with 20th Century European colonial rulers administering Palestine or India. The work has come under severe criticism for making sweeping generalizations, and missing important historical data that disproves his grand theory. Whatever one may think of Said the literary critic who played fast and loose with historical facts, he did open a serious discussion, which invites us to consider the people of the East on their own terms, and invites us to re-assess our own identity commitments, insofar as they are connected with our conception of the East.

1001 Inventions?

A more recent attempt to educate the public about Muslim contributions to world science is the traveling exhibition, called 1001 Inventions.  This show presents visitors with a host of inventors, scientists, inventions, and discoveries in a very user-friendly environment. Much or all of what they see there is new to most people. While this effort is laudable, some have criticized it for its superficial discussion and treatment of history and for exaggerating Muslim contributions, as well as pleading its case too loudly. (I am an advisor to this project, based in Manchester, UK). However, 1001 Inventions has responded to constructive criticism, and remains a useful way to inform the Western public about this part of their heritage. It may be the best way to reach a public, most of whom may never read a book about Islam, let alone about the transfer of Islamic knowledge to the West in the Middle Ages.

I’ve introduced you to a part of our Western heritage that you may not have known much about, and I hope I’ve been persuasive about how urgent it is for us today to understand it honestly. What you will you with this knowledge now is up to you.


[1] “overflowing (intellectual wealth) of the Arabs”
[2] “lack” / “ignorance” / “(intellectual) poverty” of the Latins
[3] Gázquez, 12.
[4] **describe the primitive character of Macrobius. Much worse than Ptolemy, the Almagest being completely unknown in Europe.
[5] G, 41-42.
[6] G, 43.

by Glen M. Cooper, David M. Kennedy Center, November 13, 2018

Shining light upon light

Figure 1. Front covers of two recently published books on the scientific legacy of the Islamic tradition and its impact on modern science: Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Knopf, 2009) and Science and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood (Icon Books, 2009).


Note of the editor

First published 3rd April 2009 in Muslim Heritage old website. This article is based on Yasmin Khan “Shining light upon light” published in Nature, vol. 458, 12 March 2009, pp. 149-150; doi:10.1038/458149a. See the article online at the website of Nature: Full Text and PDF version. The article is a review of Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Alfred Knopf, 2009) and Science and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood (Icon Books, 2009). We publish an extract from the original article (as allowed by Nature graciously), with slight editorial changes, and add further materials and resources. We thank Yasmin Khan and the editorial board of Nature for allowing partial republishing.


Figure 2. Ottoman astronomers at work around Taqī al-Dīn at the Istanbul Observatory. Source: Istanbul University Library, F 1404, fol. 57a.

It has been widely accepted that the Islamic civilization had merely a bridging role in preserving the wealth of inherited ancient Greek knowledge ready for future consumption by the West. This pervasive belief, now known to be a damaging distortion of history, is explored in two new books. In Aladdin’s Lamp, John Freely writes a captivating account of the transfer of scientific ideas between these civilizations.

Interlacing historical events with finesse, his story has a nostalgic quality that makes for escapism but falls short of convincing. At first glance, we assume that Freely will offer us an exposé of the central part the Islamic world played in the pursuit of science, and the key contributions it made. Instead, it quickly transpires that Freely’s handling of Islamic discoveries could be construed as damning with faint praise in comparison with his treatment of Greek knowledge.

Freely introduces his book by declaring that “Modern Science traces its origins back to ancient Greece”, arousing suspicion that his motive is to venerate the ancient Greeks as the progenitors of scientific ideas, and to suggest that later civilizations should be viewed as being in their shadow. By the end of the book it becomes apparent that this suspicion is founded. Yet Freely’s thesis raises the question of whether the emergence of modern science, as practised today, really was spearheaded by the ancient Greeks.

Figure 3-4.  (Left) Nasir al-Din al-Tusi pictured at his writing desk at Maragha observatory that he founded in 1259. © The British Library (Source). (Right) Ottoman astronomers studying the moon and the stars in a miniature dating from the 17th century held in a manuscript owned by Istanbul University Library. (Source).

Old-school historians were adamant that the scientific revolution emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the original sources of classical Greek thinking were ‘rediscovered’ by Europe. Others, such as Ehsan Masood, beg to differ.

In Science and Islam — the accompanying book to a BBC television and radio series that focuses on science in the Muslim world — he shows that the information flowed in two directions. Through a translation movement that began in the early 9th century, the Islamic world built extensively on Greek ideas, as well as on knowledge from other civilizations, to develop new theories. A golden age for the Islamic civilization, this prolific period spanned more than 800 years. Scientific, technological and engineering endeavour was cultivated to such an extent that it attracted interest in Europe, which was supposedly languishing in the Dark Ages.

Figure 6. 3D Construction of the Third Water Raising Device.

Both books are opportune and contribute to the long-overdue popularization of the multicultural history of science. No doubt a flurry of similar books will shortly appear, especially given the current political climate coupled with the underpinning role that science has in modern society and the possibilities for development it offers in reviving the Middle East. Yet what is still needed is an updated popular historiography that can span the full breadth of world history and position the outputs of Islamic science into a wider context. That is worth waiting for.


Figure 6. Diagram of the famous Tusi couple as depicted in the 13th-century Arabic MS 319 (folio 28v) held at the Vatican Library; click here for an animation. The Tusi couple, as it was called by Edward Kennedy in 1966, is a device created by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274) based on a theorem that converts uniform circular motion into linear motion. It was a key ingredient in several models that eliminated the eccentric and/or the equant introduced by Ptolemy. It is one of several late Islamic astronomical devices bearing a striking similarity to models in Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543). Historians suspect that Copernicus had access to an Islamic astronomical text. See George Saliba, “Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?” for a thorough discussion of Al-Tusi’s model and the interactions of Arabic and Latin astronomers, and Eric W. Weisstein on Tusi Couple.


Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely. Random House, Inc./Knopf Publishing Group, 2009. Hardcover, 320 pp. ISBN: 9780307271327.

About the Author

John Freely was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up there and in Ireland before joining the U.S. Navy at seventeen for the last two years of World War II. Since 1960 he has taught physics and the history of science at Bosphorus University in Istanbul, with intervals in New York, Boston, London, Athens, and Venice. He is the author of more than forty books. He lives with his wife in Istanbul.

Table of contents

List of Illustrations – ix
Introduction – 3
1. Ionia: The First Physicists – 5
2. Classical Athens: The School of Hellas – 23
3. Hellenistic Alexandria: The Museum and the Library – 38
4. From Athens to Rome, Constantinople, and Jundishapur – 61
5. Baghdad’s House of Wisdom: Greek into Arabic – 72
6. The Islamic Renaissance – 83
7. Cairo and Damascus – 95
8. Al-Andalus, Moorish Spain – 106
9. From Toledo to Palermo: Arabic into Latin – 120
10. Paris and Oxford I: Reinterpreting Aristotle – 137
11. Paris and Oxford II: The Emergence of European Science – 149
12. From Byzantium to Italy: Greek into Latin – 164
13. The Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres – 178
14. The Debate over the Two World Systems – 191
15. The Scientific Revolution – 211
16. Samarkand to Istanbul: The Long Twilight of Islamic Science – 226
17. Science Lost and Found – 237
18. Harran: The Road to Baghdad – 249
Acknowledgments – 257
Illustration Credits – 259
Notes – 261
Bibliography – 275


Science and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood. Icon Books: 2009. Hardcover: 256 pp. ages. ISBN-10: 1848310404. Read a sample chapter and see the book’s blog site here.

About the author

Ehsan Masood is Acting Chief Commissioning Editor at Nature and teaches international science policy at Imperial College London. He also writes for Prospect and and is a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Home Planet.

Table of contents

List of illustrations – vii
A note on language – x
Prologue – iii

1 The Dark Age Myth – 1

Part I: The Islamic Quest 15

2. The Coming of the Prophet – 17
3. Building Islam – 29
4. Baghdad’s Splendour – 39
5. The Caliph of Science – 55
6. The Flowering of Andalusia – 65
7. Beyond the Abbasids – 81

Part II: Branches of Learning 93

8. The Best Gift From God – 95
9. Astronomy: The Structured Heaven – 117
10. Number: The Living Universe of Islam – 139
11. At Home in the Elements – 153
12. Ingenious Devices – 161

Part III: Second Thoughts 167

13. An Endless Frontier – 169
14. One Chapter Closes, Another Begins – 187
15. Science and Islam: Lessons From History – 207

Timeline – 217
Acknowledgements – 223
Bibliography – 227
Index – 233

Other articles by Yasmin Khan

Resources and further reading

  • 1001 Inventions: a groundbreaking global educational initiative exploring the Muslim contributions to building the foundations of modern civilisation. It is a unique UK based educational project that reveals the rich heritage that the Muslim community share with other communities in the UK, Europe and across the World. 1001 Inventions is a non-religious and non-political project seeking to allow the positive aspects of progress in science and technology to act as a bridge in understanding the interdependence of communities throughout human history. The global initiative consists of a UK and world wide travelling exhibition, a colourful easy to read book, a dedicated website and a themed collection of educational posters complementing a secondary school teachers’ pack and a curriculum enrichment programme. The comprehensiveness of the initiative is revealed in seven conveniently organised zones: home, school, market, hospital, town, world and universe. Other components include: 1001 Inventions Book, Touring Exhibition, Poster Sets, Teachers’ Pack, Online Shop, City 1250, Press Coverage, Latest News, Video.
  • Multimedia selected online resources on 1001 Inventions Global Initiative:

1. BBC – Yasmin Khan Interview on “1001 Inventions” (RealPlayer) 09/03/2006.

2. Broadcast about the 1001 Inventions exhibition presented by Vincent Doud, BBC World Service (08/03/2006).

  • (since 2002): visit FSTC academic web portal to learn about the scientific, technological, historical and cultural aspects of Muslim Heritage.
  • Muslim Heritage Newsletter. A Quarterly Publication issued by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), Manchester, UK. Issue 1: November 2007; Issue 2: March 2008 ; Issue 3: July 2008; 4th Issue: online on
  • Al-Hassani, Salim, chief editor, 1001 inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World. Manchester: FSTC, 2006, Hardcover: 372 pages. ISBN-10: 0955242606 – ISBN-13: 978-0955242601.
  • Brought to Life: This website draws on the Science Museum’s medical history collections, including the great Wellcome collection, to portray the history of medicine, primarily for school students and undergraduates but potentially for all those interested in history of medicine. The site has just launched in March 2009 with 2,500 new images, and this will grow over the next year to 4000. Each is linked to an interpretative framework as well as having its own specially written caption. Interactives and teacher tools help the site provide not just individual records but also an integrated learning resource. Click here to see a time line of some Islamic discoveries (select: ‘Islamic Empire’).
  • FSTC Conference: Science and Islam: Past, Present and Future (part of the BA Festival of Science, University of Salford 8-12 September, 2003). Organised by Yasmin Khan on behalf of FSTC.
  • Ball, Philip, Science & Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood plus The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons [The Sunday Times review]. The Sunday Times, February 1, 2009.
  • Lyons, Jonathan, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009. Hardcover, 272 pp.
  • Marchant, Jo, Time to acknowledge science’s debt to Islam?, New Scientist, 25 February 2009, Magazine issue 2696.

Ground breaking achievements in Islamic technology: Al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din

1. A Special section on Al-Jazari: 800 Years Later: In Memory of Al-Jazari, A Genius Mechanical Engineer

2. A Special Section on Taqi al-Din Ibn Ma’ruf

  • The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din
  • A Bio-Bibliographical Essay
  • Bibliography on Taqi al-Din
  • Taqi al-Din Ibn Ma’ruf: Survey on his Works and Scientific Method
  • The Astronomical Clock of Taqi al-Din: Virtual Reconstruction
  • The Six-Cylinder Water Pump of Taqi al-Din: Its Mathematics, Operation and Virtual Design.
  • Taqi al-Din Ibn Ma’ruf ‘s Work on Extracting the Cord 2° and Sin 1°
  • Taqi al-Din ibn Ma’ruf and the Science of Optics: The Nature of Light and the Mechanism of Vision
  • The Instruments of Istanbul Observatory

Yasmin Khan is Curator Team Manager at the Science Museum, London SW7 2DD, UK, part of the National Museum of Science and Industry. She is also a key associate of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) and member of its consulting body Muslim Heritage Awareness Group. Yasmin Khan was previously the project manager for the 1001 Inventions exhibition until its inaugural launch in 2006.

Travellers and Explorers from a Golden Age

From left. Imaginary potrait of Zheng He, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Majid from 1001 Inventions’ ‘Journeys from a Golden Age’ (Source)


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


A 13th-century manuscript shows a caravan en route (Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 247)

Al-Biruni, in the 11th century, wrote in his book the Demarcation of the Limits of the Areas that Islam has already penetrated from the Eastern countries of the earth to the Western.

It spread westward to Spain [Al-Andalus], eastward to the borderland of China and to the middle of India, southward to Abyssinia and the countries of Zanj Zanj [meaning black Africa from Mali to Kilwa (Tanzania) and Mauritania to Ghana], eastward to the Malay Archipelago and Java, and northward to the countries of the Turks and Slavs. Individual Muslim sultans ruled, and although there was conflict at times between them, an ordinary traveller could pass through the various regions.

Since the Quran said every able-bodied person should make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, thousands travelled from the farthest reaches of the Islamic empire to Mecca, beginning in the seventh century.

As they travelled, they made descriptions of the lands that they passed through. Some of the most famous include:

AlYaqubi, 8th Century

A 13th-century miniature depicts an eastern Muslim boat from the classical Arabic work of literature Maqamat al- Hariri. The Arabic writing refers to a sea voyage, and mentions a verse from the Quran referring to Noah’s ark. This is usually used as a blessing: “In the name of Allah, the one who protects the ship’s sailing, seafaring and berthing.” (Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 248)

He wrote the Book of Countries, which he completed in 891 after a long time spent traveling, and he gave the names of towns and countries, their people, rulers, distances between cities and towns, taxes, topography, and water resources.[1]

Al-Ya’qubi wrote that “China is an immense country that can be reached by crossing seven seas; each of these with its own color, wind, fish, and breeze, which could not be found in another, the seventh of such, the Sea of Cankhay [which surrounds the Malay Archipelago] only sailable by a southern wind.”

Abu Zayd Hasan, 9th Century

He was a Muslim from Siraf, and told about boats that were sailing for China from Basra in Iraq and from Siraf on the Gulf. Chinese boats, much larger than Muslim boats, also visited Siraf, where they loaded merchandise bought from Basra. Abu Zayd also deals with the Khmer land and its vast population, a land in which indecency, he notes, is absent.

Ibn Wahhab, 9th Century

He was a trader from Basra who sailed to China and described the Chinese capital as divided into two halves, separated by a long, wide road. On one side the emperor, his entourage, and administration resided, and on the other lived the merchants and ordinary people. Early in the day, officials and servants from the emperor’s side entered the other, bought goods, left, and did not mingle again.[2]

AlMuqaddasi, (ca 9451000)

He was a geographer who set off from his home in Jerusalem many centuries before Ibn Battuta. He also visited nearly every part of the Muslim world and wrote a book called Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, completed around 985.[3]


One of the accurate drawing based on personal observation is the sketch of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria by the Andalusian traveller, Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati . He visited Alexandria first in 1110 and again in 1117. (Source)

Ibn Khurradadhbih, 10th Century

He wrote the Book of Roads and Provinces, which gave a description of the main trade routes of the Muslim world, referring to China, Korea, and Japan, and describing the southern Asian coast as far as the Brahmaputra River, the Andaman Islands, Malaya, and Java.[4] Ibn Khurradadhabih died in 912.

Ibn Fadlan, 10th Century

Ibn Fadlan was an Arab chronicler, and in 921 the caliph of Baghdad sent him with a diplomatic mission to the king of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga. He wrote an account of his journey, and this was called Risalah. Like Ibn Battuta’s Rihla, the Risalah is of great value because it describes the places and people of northern Europe, in particular a people called the Rus from Sweden.[5]

I have seen the Rus[/Vikings]as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free.” Ibn Fadlan, 10th Century

A Tale of Two Civilisations: The Viking and the Muslim Civilisation
Remembering ‪‎Omar Sharif (On the Left)‬ as he appeared in the 1999 film “The 13th Warrior” which tells the story of 10th-century Arab traveller Ahmed‪ Ibn Fadlan‬, played by ‪‎Antonio Banderas (On the Right) and here you can watch Omar Sharif’s final film “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham”, which has been dedicated to his legacy. (Source)

Yaqut al-Hamawi, 13th Century

Leave your country in search of loftiness and travel! For in travel there are 5 benefits: Relief of adversity and earning of livelihood and knowledge and etiquette and noble companionship If it is said that travelling brings humiliation and difficulty and long journeys across deserts and toil and trouble, Then death is better for a person than him remaining in a humiliating land between traitors and enviers.
Imam Al-Shâfi, (767-820)

He was a geographer who wrote the Dictionary of Countries about countries, regions, towns, and cities that he visited, all in alphabetical order, giving their exact location, and describing monuments, resources, history, population, and leading figures.[6]

Zakariyaibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, 13th Century

He left accounts of the marvellous creatures that thrive in the China Sea, notably very large fish (possibly whales), giant tortoises, and monstrous snakes, which land on the shores to swallow whole buffaloes and elephants.[7]

Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi, 13th Century

He gave the latitude and longitude of each place he visited, and wrote much on the Indian Ocean islands and Indian coastal towns and cities.

Al-Dimashqi, A 14th Century

He gives very detailed accounts of the island of Al-Qumr, also called Malay Island or Malay Archipelago. He says there are many towns and cities; rich, dense forests with huge, tall trees; and white elephants. Also there lives the giant bird called the Rukh, a bird whose eggs are like cupolas. The Rukh is featured in a story about some sailors breaking and eating the contents of its egg; the giant bird chased after them on the sea, carrying huge rocks, which it hurled at them relentlessly. The sailors only escaped with their lives under the cover of night.[8]

This story, like other accounts by travellers, formed the basis of many of the tales that enrich Islamic literature, such as The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor and The Thousand and One Nights. The richness of these thousand-year-old accounts has inspired many writers and filmmakers.

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments
Pages from Ibn Fadhlan’s and al-Idrisi travel accounts about Rus/Vikings and a drawing of Oleg of Novgorod by Viktor Vasnetsov  (Source)

Ibn Battuta, 14th Century

travel places

Imaginary Painting of Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta was only 21 on June 13, 1325, when he set out alone on his donkey at the beginning of a 3,000-mile overland journey to Mecca from Tangier in Morocco. He left his family, friends, and hometown, and would not see them again for 29 years. Some he never saw, because the plague reached them before he returned. He journeyed by walking, riding, and sailing more than 75,000 miles, through more than 40 modern countries..[9]

His accounts have placed the medieval world before us, so we know that gold traveled from south of the African Sahara into Egypt and Syria; pilgrims continuously flowed to and from Mecca; shells from the Maldives went to West Africa; pottery and paper money came west from China. Ibn Battuta also flowed along with the wool and the wax, gold and melons, ivory and silk, sheikhs and sultans, wise men and fellow pilgrims.[10] He worked as a qadi, a judge, for sultans and emperors, his journey a grand tour, mixing prayer, business, adventure, and the pursuit of knowledge. He returned to his native city three decades later and recounted stories of distant, exotic lands.[11] The sultan of Fez (Fes), Abu ’Inan, asked him to write down his experiences in a Rihla, a travel book, and with a royal scribe, Ibn Juzayy, he completed the task in two years. His account of medieval Mali in West Africa is the only record we have of it today.[12]

travel places

The Traveling Man: the Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354 by James Rumford (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). (Source)

Other travellers from the ninth and tenth centuries include Ibn al-Faqih, who compares the customs, food diets, codes of dress, rituals, and also some of the flora and fauna of China and India.[13] Ibn Rustah focuses on a Khmer king, surrounded by 80 judges, and his ferocious treatment of his subjects while indulging himself in drinking alcohol and wine, but also his kind and generous treatment of the Muslim.[14] Abu al-Faraj dwells on India and its people, customs, and religious observations. He also talks of China, saying it has 300 cities, and that whoever travels in China has to register his name, the date of his journey, his genealogy, his description, age, what he carries with him, and his attendants. Such a register is kept until the journey is safely completed. The reasoning behind this was a fear that something might harm the traveller and thereby bring shame to the ruler.

An artist’s rendering shows Ibn Battuta dictating his Rihla, passing through a dangerous gorge, and walking with his camel.  (Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 250)


Get the full story from 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th  Edition) Annotated. 



[1] The Kitab al-buldan appears in Bibliotheca ceocraphorum arabicorum Vll, M. J. de Goeje, ed. (1892); ed and trans into French by G. Wiet, Les Pays (1937).
[2] Carra de Vaux, Les Penseurs, op. cit., 57-58.
[3]  Al Muqadassi, op. cit.
[4] S. M. Z. Alavi, Arabic Geography, op. cit., 27.
[5] On Muslim accounts of Scandinavia, see Harris Birkeland, Nordens hidstorie I middelalderen etter arabiskenkilder, Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, Skrifter, Hist.-Filos. Klasse, 2 Scriffer, 1954, 2 (1954).
[6] Ibn Abd Allah al-Hamawi Yaqut, Jacut’s Geographisches Worterbuch, F. Wustenfeld, ed., 6 Vols. (Leipzig, 1866-70).
-C. Bouamrane and L. Gardet, Panorama de la Pensee Islamique (Paris: Sindbad, 1984), 260.
[7]  Ibid, 302-04.
[8] The work was edited by A. F. Mehren, Quarto (St. Petersburg, 1866), 375 pages.
– G. Sarton, Introduction, op. cit., Vol. 3, 800.
– G. Ferrand, Relations de Voyages, 363-93.
[9] Ibn Battuta, Voyages d’Ibn Battuta, Arabic text accompanied by French trans. by C. Defremery and B. R. Sanguinetti, preface and notes by Vincent Monteil, I-IV (Paris, 1968, reprint of the 1854 ed.).
[10]  Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, trans. and selected by H. A. R. Gibb (London: Routledge, 1929).
[11]  F. Rosenthal, Ibn Battuta, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, op. cit., Vol. 1, 517.
– R. B. Winder, Ibn Battuta, in The Genius of Arab Civilisation, J. R. Hayes, ed., op. cit., 210.
[12]  Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, Gibb, op cit.
[13]  Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani, auctore, Kitab al-buldan, M. J. De Goeje, ed., Bibliotheca geographorum arabicorum, 5 (Leiden, 1885).
[14]  G. Sarton, Introduction, op. cit., Vol. 1, 635.
– G. Ferrand, Relations de Voyages, op. cit., 54-66.

Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution

Al-Ǧāḥiẓ/Jahiz, Kitāb al-ḥayawān (Book of the animals), Syria, 15th C. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Ms. arab. B 54, f. 36 (Source)

Contributions of Scholars from the Muslim Civilisation to Pharmacology


The culmination of scholars and scientists from the Medieval Muslim world has led in many ways to the development of modern pharmacy as a profession. The Al-Mamun’s caliphate (813-833) in Baghdad encouraged scholars to translate and generate data on natural product-based drugs. Pharmacists, of the time were otherwise referred to as ‘saydalaneh’. They searched herbal-derived ingredients and extracts for use as remedies and went as far as explaining their physicochemical properties. That eventually led to unprecedented growth within the field.

A large number of new drugs were introduced for use in clinical practice, including preparations from senna, camphor, sandalwood, musk, myrrh, cassia, tamarind, nutmeg, cloves, aconite, ambergris, and mercury. Drugs were divided according to their medicinal effects into hypnotics, sedatives, antipyretics, laxatives, demulcents, diuretics, emetics, emollients, astringents, and digestants. Baghdad early pharmacy shops most likely were first to manufacture and distribute medicines commercial. Medicines were dispensed by physicians and pharmacists in a variety of forms including ointments, pills, elixirs, confections, tinctures, suppositories, and inhalants [1–3]. Pharmacists were required both to pass examinations and be licensed. They were monitored by the state.

This paper provides an overview of innovations introduced by Arab and Muslim scholars in the field of pharmacology.

Historical Background

Pharmacy has always existed as a science, but not so as a profession. Medicine and pharmacy were practiced together, so the physician making the diagnosis would also provide the remedy. The medication could be herbs, animal product or an amulet or even a prayer. Occasionally, a physician would hire an assistant to collect herbs and prepare the prescribed medicine.

Many similarities exist between the techniques and the materials used in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. The most relevant to pharmacy was the Ebers Papyrus, written around 1500 BC. It contains prescriptions and medical uses of over 700 different remedies. The preparation and the application of these remedies were rooted firmly in magic and religious practices of the time. A skilled healer chose the correct materials and combined them with the right magic to bring about a desirable therapeutic effect. There were many people who practiced related health care services, such as gathering medicinal plants or preparing drugs, under the supervision of the physician.

The Greco-Roman era saw advances in pharmaceutical knowledge; changing towards a rational and empirical approach to a disease and its cause. Things were thought to be derived from four primary elements (water, air fire and earth). This became the foundation of humoral theory and pharmacotherapy. The theory suggests a correspondence of the four elements to phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile which must be in balance in order to maintain health. In order to restore balance, physicians aim to use a variety of natural products in the form of poultices, gargles, pills, and ointments.

In the writing of De Materia Medica, Pedanius Dioscorides describes origin; properties; type of action; medicinal usage and possible side effects; instructions on harvesting; preparation, and storage; and magical and nonmedical uses, of over 600 plants, 35 animal products, and 90 minerals. Later, Galen not only honoured the great advances made at the time, but also organized the drug data under the framework of humoral pathology. The considerable contribution of Galen to the practice of medicine and pharmacy gave to new medicinal preparations with a system of rules and procedures for using them.

Knowledge in medicine and pharmacy in Europe remained stagnant for centuries (Dark Ages) until the advent of Islam. A new paradigm had arisen giving reverence and heavenly reward to seeking of knowledge and its implementation to the benefit of society. This triggered rapid development within various fields including science, technology and medicine. It became apparent that people who dealt with the health of others should acquire a solid education, both professionally and ethically. The simultaneous practice of medicine and pharmacy was seen incompatible. In fact, it was felt that by having mutual control between physician and pharmacist provided a much higher degree of safety. This in turn gave rise to the development to Baghdad’s first official pharmacy in the ninth century.  A new discipline spread through the Muslim domain where those who prepared the medicines are professionally independent. A new specialist, the pharmacist, had control over the ever increasing number of drugs, and complexity of preparations. This separation of pharmacy from medicine and alchemy, created a class of formally educated pharmacists. Outnumbered by native drug and spice dealers, proper pharmacy licenses became mandatory and the rule is for the physician to write the prescription and the pharmacy to dispense the drug. This new discipline was sustained over the centuries till the present day.

State-sponsored hospitals had their own dispensaries attached to manufacturing laboratories where syrups, electuaries, ointments, and other pharmaceutical preparations were prepared on a relatively large scale. A periodic inspection by a government appointed official called  Al-Muhtasib ( Today’s Health and Safety Officer) and his/her aides, ensured that the pharmacist must be complying with the highest of standards at all times.

In fact, the pharmacist was called to “have deep religious convictions, consideration for others, a general sense of responsibility and be careful and God-fearing.”

The shop had to be clean and well stocked, and profits were to be kept moderate [1–20]. The role of the aides was mainly for checking weights and measures, as well as the purity and adulteration of the medicines sold. Such supervision was intended to prevent the use of deteriorated compounded drugs and syrups and to safeguard the public. Furthermore, a code of ethics was formulated and accepted at this time, an important step in the development of any profession. It is worth noting that the first Muhtasib (Health and Safety Officer) in Islam is reported to have been a lady “medic’ by the name of Al-Shifa bin Abdullah, who was a companion of Prophet Muhammad. When Omar bin Al-Khattab became second Caliph, he appointed her as the Muhtasib of Medina (the first capital of Islam) [26].

“Physician Preparing an Elixir”, Folio from a Materia Medica of Dioscorides dated A.H. 621/ A.D. 1224 Figural book painting started in the Islamic world as an art form in the late Abbasid Iraq of the 13th century. The translation of a Greek manuscript shows a Physician preparing an elixir. (Source)

Valuable Contributions from Muslim Civilisation to the Development of Pharmacy

Rhazes (Al-Razi 864–930) was one of the greatest physicians of Muslim civilization. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of alchemy. To a great extent, he influenced the development of pharmacy and alchemy throughout the medieval period. His interest in alchemy and his strong belief in the possibility of transmutation of lesser metals to silver and gold is observable in his two-best known alchemical texts al-Asrar (The Secrets) and Sirr al-Asrar (Secret of the Secrets). In both the books, he discussed the following three topics:

(1) Knowledge and identification of plant-, animal-, and mineral-based drugs and the choicest type of each for utilization in treatment.

(2) Knowledge of tools used that are of interest to both the alchemist and the pharmacist. He classifies these tools into those used for the dissolving and melting of bodies such as the furnace, bellows, crucible, holder, macerator, pot, stirring rod, cutter, and grinder, as well as utensils used in the transmutation procedure, such as the retort, alembic, receiver, other parts of the distilling apparatus, oven, cups, bottles, jars, and blowers.

(3) Knowledge of the seven alchemical techniques such as sublimation and condensation of mercury, precipitation of sulphur and arsenic, calcination of minerals, salts, glass, talc, shells, and waxing.

Rhazes believed that because of the continuous discovery of new data and new truths, present-day knowledge must, by necessity, surpass that of previous generations. Thus, contemporary scholars, because of the accumulated knowledge at their disposal, are better equipped, more knowledgeable, and more competent than the ancient ones. Indeed, what Rhazes did in attempting to criticize the unchallenged authority of ancient knowledge was, by itself, a great step in the right direction. This impulse stimulated research and advances in medicine, pharmacy, and natural sciences. On the practical level, Rhazes warned that even highly educated physicians could not treat all diseases. Nonetheless, he encouraged physicians to continually study medical books and expose themselves to new information in order to keep up with advanced knowledge.

Rhazes was the first in the Muslim world to write a book for the general public, entitled Man la Yahduruhu Tab. He dedicated it to the poor, the traveller, and the ordinary citizen who could consult it for treatment of diseases, such as headaches, colds, coughing, melancholy, and diseases of the eye, ear, and stomach. In its 36 chapters, he described diets and drugs that were practically available everywhere, in apothecary shops, in the marketplace, and in military camps. For a feverish headache, for example, he prescribed:

“two parts of the duhn (oily extract) of rose, to be mixed with part of vinegar, in which a piece of linen cloth is dipped and compressed on the forehead.”

For a laxative, he recommended:

“27 grams of dried violet flowers with twenty pears, macerated and mixed well, then strained. To the filtrate, twenty drams of sugar is added for a draf.”

On completing his encyclopedia, al-Mansuri, on the diagnoses and treatment of bodily diseases, he added a volume at-Tibb ar-Ruhani, on the medicine of the soul. In his famous al-Mansuri, however, Rhazes devoted 4 out of 10 treatises to diets and drugs, medicated cosmetics, toxicology and antidotes, amelioration of laxatives, and compounded remedies, all of which are of pharmaceutical interest. Rhazes’s last and the largest medical encyclopedia is his al-Hawi fi-Tibb, which embraces all areas of medical knowledge of the time. It included sections related to pharmacy in the healing art, Materia Medica arranged in alphabetical order, compounded drugs, pharmaceutical dosage forms, and toxicology. It also included numerous medical recipes and tested prescriptions that influenced medical therapy in the Muslim world and in Europe during the medieval period. Rhazes stated 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.”

Medicines were divided into two groups, simple and compound drugs. Physicians seemed to be aware of the interaction between drugs; thus, they used simple drugs first. If these failed, compound drugs were used. If these conservative measures failed, surgery was carried out [1–12,16,17].

Ibn al-Ash’ath (died 975 CE). Like Rhazes and Avicenna, attention to diet and drug therapy was also emphasized by Ibn al-Ash’ath in his two books Quwa al-Adwiyyah and Al-Ghadhi wal-Mughtadhi. In his Quwa, in three treatises, he discusses general principles and regulations for treatment, as well as the properties of plant-, animal-, and mineral-based medicines. In addition, he explained that the five principles concerned with conditions of sickness and health, the air we breathe that surrounds us, sleep and wakefulness, rest and motion, infusion and evacuation, and psychic manifestations, all generate and evolve within our bodies. In addition to these internal factors, he paid attention to what comes into our bodies and affects us from the outside, for example, what we eat and drink as well as the drugs we use to restore health or cure illness. Like Rhazes, he warned against charlatans and ignorant doctors and encouraged practical and theoretical education for healers and continued medical training for hospital internship, residency, and beyond. He concluded:

“For those who collect money are always afraid of losing it, but those (like physicians) who accumulate knowledge endeavor to increase it.”

Al-Majusi. Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi (died 994), also known as Masoudi, or Latinized as Haly Abbas, is most famous for the Kitab al-Maliki (Complete Book of the Medical Art), consisting of 20 treatises on theatrical and practical aspects of medicine. He encouraged the use of native medicinal plants, as well as animal- and mineral-based products. Al-Majusi divided drugs according to their pharmacological properties into hypnotics, sedatives, antipyretics, laxatives, demulcents, diuretics, emetics, emollients, astringents, and digestants. He described medicinal plants and their parts used as remedial agents, such as seeds, leaves, flowers, fruits, and roots. Concerning the preparation of compounded remedies, he advised physicians to increase or decrease the amount of each included ingredient according to need. Quantities for dosage in each case, Al-Majusi confirmed, should be determined only by the practitioner himself. Finally, he offered a classification system for drugs based on their properties and also described methods of preparing pills, syrups, powders, ointments, and so forth. Other chapters of the book discuss diet, exercise, and even bathing as they relate to health.

In his Al-Maliki, Al-Majusi states that the best way to determine the effects of a drug is to test it on healthy people as well as the sick and to keep careful records of the results. Al-Maliki was first translated in part by Constantine Africanus under the title Pantegno. A complete and much better translation, however, was made in 1127 by Stephen of Antioch. It was first printed in Venice in 1492 by Bernard Rici de Novaria and in 1523 in Venice and Lyons. This work, as that of Rhazes, Avicenna, and Al-Zahrawi (Albucasis), continued to circulate and influence medicine and pharmacy in Europe for over five centuries [1–12]. 

Abu ar-Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1050). Important contributions to pharmacy were also made by Al-Biruni, who studied drugs, physical properties, and their symptoms both in books and by examining available specimens. Among Al-Biruni’s works, his as-Saydanah fit-Tib on pharmacy and materia medica are the most notable. It comprises two important, distinct, and separate sections. The first, and the most original, contains authentic definitions of pharmacology, therapeutics, and related fields of the healing arts, lexicology and lexicography, toxicology, omissions and substitutions of drugs, and their synonyms. It also contains important historical and biographical information not found anywhere else in the medieval literature. The second section of as-Saydanah is devoted to materia medica. In this, Al-Biruni explains over 700 natural remedies, conveniently and scrupulously arranged in alphabetical order.

In addition, in his as-Saydanah fit-Tib, Al-Biruni defines the pharmacist as the person who is specialized in the collection of all remedies. It is the responsibility of the pharmacist to choose the best of each simple or compound remedy and prepare good drugs from them, following the most accurate techniques as recommended by skilled physicians. He strongly supported the separation of pharmacy from medicine. He postulated that pharmacy must provide the tools to help in the healing process, but is not a part of medicine. Al-Biruni claimed that many so-called pharmacists were not worthy of the name and that all their knowledge was rooted in hearsay concerning the preparation of drugs. He emphasized that pharmaceutical progress resulted only from academic training and day-to-day practical experiences with remedies. As a result, these trainees would become more and more familiar with the identification of remedies, for example, shapes, physical properties, and kinds of drugs, and would possess skilled and technical knowledge.

According to Al-Biruni, the word saydanani is originated from the Indian jandanani. In India sandalwood (or jandan) was used extensively, more than other aromatic woods. In Arabic, the person who deals with sandalwood or jandan was called sandalani and later saydalaneh. In general, the Arab apothecaries (al-‘attar), who sold perfumes and aromatics, did not use sandalwood as often as the Indians.


Abu ar-Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1050): Al-Biruni gave in his as-Saydanah fit-Tib on pharmacy and materia medica one of the finest definitions of the pharmacist, pharmacy, drugs, and their action. This book represents one of the finest contributions to pharmaceutical science during the medieval period and a great masterpiece of all times. Indeed, it stands as one of the most original texts in Arabic on the subject. The book is republished on the on the occasion of a conference celebrating a 1000 years after Al-Biruni, in Pakistan. See picture of the book cover and a postage stamp in his memory. (Source)

They excluded sandalwood, primarily, because it was not a popular wood in Arab world. The word drug (‘uqqar), Al-Biruni stated, comes from the Syriac word for the stump of a tree (root and Greek rizoma). This word (uqqar) was later applied to all the parts of the tree and was taken by the Arabs to mean a materia medica.

In his as-Saydanah fit-Tib, Al-Biruni classified the substances taken internally into three classes: The first class includes foods that are digested and assimilated to replace what has been lost. Thus, foods were first affected by the body and then they affected it for its own nourishment. The second class includes poisons that negatively affect the body’s activities, inducing diseases or death depending on their potency, as well as the body’s resistance. The third class includes drugs that fall between class one and class two and their effectiveness as remedies depends on the capability and qualifications of the physician who prescribes them.

As-Saydanah fit-Tib represents one of the finest contributions to pharmaceutical science during the medieval period and a great masterpiece of all times. Indeed, it stands as one of the most original texts in Arabic on the subject. how to compound them into drugs according to physician’s prescriptions. Therefore, a qualified pharmacist should also be able to substitute or discard one drug for another. The theoretical knowledge of how drugs affect the body, however, is more important than the mere skill of preparing them. In substituting one drug for another, the various actions of each should be considered and accounted for. Cure can be sought through a draft, ointment, anointing oils, or by fumigation. Therefore, in seeking a substitute, all these and other applications should be taken into account. Without this knowledge, one falls short of professional goals. According to Al-Biruni, enthusiasm for the search for new remedies and their actions was much stronger in the Maghreb (North Africa) and Andalusia than in the Eastern Caliphate. Still greater activities are known to exist in India, but these follow different principles and approaches from those practiced in the Muslim world. These differences have limited the contact and dissemination of knowledge with India [1–12].

Ibn al-Baitar (Died 1248) was one of the greatest scholars of Andalusia and was the greatest botanist and pharmacist of the medieval time. His search for medicinal plants extended over a vast area including Arabia and Palestine that he either visited or managed to collect plants from. Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al- Mufrada, the major contribution of Ibn al-Baitar, is one of the greatest botanical compilations dealing with medicinal plants in Arabic. It enjoyed a high status among botanists up to the sixteenth century and is a systematic work that embodies earlier works, with due criticism, and adds a great part of original contribution. It comprises some 1400 different items, largely medicinal plants and vegetables, of which about 200 plants were not known earlier. The book refers to the work of some 150 authors, mostly of Arab origin, and it also quotes about 20 early Greek scientists. Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada was translated into Latin and published in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Kitab al-Mlughni fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada is an encyclopedia of medicine in which he lists the drugs in accordance with their therapeutic value. Thus, its 20 different chapters deal with the plants bearing significance to diseases of the head, ear, eye, and so on. On surgical issues, he has frequently quoted the famous Muslim surgeon, Abul Qasim Zahrawi. Besides Arabic, Baitar has given Greek and Latin names of the plants, thus, facilitating the transfer of knowledge. Ibn al-Baitar’s contributions are characterized by observation, analysis, and classification and have exerted a profound influence on both Eastern and Western botany and medicine [1–12,15].

Al-Kindi (Alkindus, 800–873). A few books related to pharmacy were written by Al-Kindi, known as the philosopher of the Arabs. He became a prominent figure in the House of Wisdom, and a number of Abbasid Caliphs appointed him to oversee the translation of Greek texts into the Arabic. This contact with “the philosophy of the ancients” had a profound effect on his intellectual development and led him to write original treatises on subjects ranging from Islamic ethics and metaphysics to Islamic mathematics and pharmacology. Al-Kindi was the first to systematically determine the doses to be administered of all the drugs known at his time. This resolved the conflicting views prevailing among physicians on the dosage that caused difficulties in writing recipes [1,2].


Development of Arab–Islamic pharmacy. Chemists such as Jaber ibn Hayan started to search for methods to extract and purify different compounds. Avicenna devoted a whole volume to simple drugs in Canon. He described about 700 preparations and introduced systematic experimentation and quantification into pharmacology. Rhazes promoted the medical uses of chemical compounds. Al-Zahrawi described a large number of recipes and explained how to prepare both simple and complex drugs. Shapur ibn Sahl, was, however, the first physician to initiate pharmacopoeia, describing a large variety of drugs and remedies for ailments. Al-Biruni gave in his as-Saydanah fit-Tib a detailed knowledge of the properties of drugs and outlined the role of pharmacy and the functions and duties of the pharmacist. Al-Kindi introduced the application of mathematics into medicine.

Drug Discovery Methods of Pharmacy used in Muslim Civilisation

The selection of potential natural products was based on knowledge acquired by traditional healers in the pre-Islamic period through a long history of trial and error and then by theoretical and practical knowledge introduced by the Holy Quran or by the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), for example, honey, milk, dates, black seeds, olive leaf, and olive oil. Furthermore, the vastness of the Arab empire and the fact that Arabs and Muslims from the farthest corners met each other while on pilgrimage to Mecca provided the exchange of both ideas and goods between people from India and China as well as from Spain. Thus, a lot of new medicines were introduced, such as acajou wood, amber, amomum, ammonia gum, areca, berberis, nux vomica, cassia fistula, cubeba, dragonblood, galenga, ginger, jasmin, jujubae, camphor, clove, manna, nutmeg, mace, musk, myrobalanes, oranges, rhubarb, sandalwood, sarcocolla, senna leaves, refined sugar, tamarind, turbith, zedoaria, and so on [3,4,13–20].

Herbal-Based Remedies. Complex pharmaceutical literature on medicinal plants and their preparation and applications was introduced by physicians and pharmacists of Muslim civilisation. These works combined theoretical and practical aspects of medicine, pharmacy, and botany with highly accurate precision and detail. They introduced many new concepts and upgraded knowledge about herbs and their potential medical properties. In pharmacy, books on materia medica and for instructing the pharmacist concerning the work and management of his shop circulated in increasing numbers. To keep within the scope of this paper, only a few authors and their important works will be briefly discussed.

Al-Kindi (Alkindus) introduced for the first time a scale to define the drug degrees in order to allow physicians to quantify the potency of their prescriptions. In addition, he wrote numerous encyclopedias on herbs and their pharmaceutical properties, with highly accuate precision. Al-Dinawari (828–896) is considered to be the founder of Arabic botany for his Book of Plants, in which he described about 640 plants and their growth phases. In 1161, Ibn Abil-Bayan of Spain published The Bimaristan Law in Pharmacopoeia, Materitenses containing 607 detailed medications. Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), who lived in Seville (1091–1161), wrote the Al Kitab Al Jami, about liquids and creams. This book includes 230 medications that are mostly herbal, with a few of animal and mineral origin. This book gives a full description of the uses of herbs, including roots, seeds, or leaves. In the early thirteenth century, the Andalusian-Arabian biologist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati published several books and dictionaries on the use of medicinal plants describing each plant species, the plant parts used, the preparation procedure used for each remedy, and the treatment procedure of certain diseases. Ibn al-Baitar (1197–1248) published The Book on Drinks and Foods, containing 260 references, and it is the most prestigious book in the Arabic pharmacopeia.

Al-Antaki characterized in his Tadhkirat Uli l-al-Bab wa l-Jami li-L-‘Ajab al-‘Ujab 57 plants that were used as sources for simple and complex drugs. These included birthwort (Aristolochia sp.), carob (Ceratonia siliqua), castor oil plant (Ricinus communis), common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), common myrtle (Myrtus communis), Egyptian balsam (Balanites aegyptiaca), great horsetail (Equisetum telmateia), Leopardus-bane (Doronicum scorpioides), autumnmandrake (Mandragora autumnalis), paper reed (Cyperus papyrus), Persian cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), saffron (Colchicum sp.), serapias (Polypodium sp.), sycamore fig (Ficus sycamorus), and Syrian bryony (Bryonia certica). Furthermore, Al-Antaki mentioned nonindigenous plants that were brought to the area specifically for their medicinal applications, such as Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), purging croton (Croton tiglium), and gardenia (Gardenia sp.). He also described pharmacological uses of typical agricultural crops, such as caraway (Bunium pauciflorum), carrot (Daucus carota), wild coriander (Coriandrum sativum), pear (Pyrus communis), quince (Cydonia oblonga), sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and walnut (Juglans regia). The traditional and medicinal uses of many of these plants are described in several recent publications [21-25].

Abu Hasan al-Tabari (808–870), a younger colleague of Ibn Masawayh, wrote several medical books, the most famous of which is his Paradise of Wisdom. It discusses the nature of man, cosmology, embryology, temperaments, psychotherapy, hygiene, diet, and diseases, both acute and chronic, and their treatments. In addition, the book contains several chapters on materia medica, diets, utilities, and therapeutic uses of animal and bird organs, as well as of drugs and methods of preparation.

Al-Tabari urged the physicians to choose the best of remedies in accordance with the particular case. He was also precise in describing his therapeutics. He said:

I have tried a very useful remedy for swelling of the stomach; the juices of the liverwort (water hemp) and the absinthium after being boiled on fire and strained to be taken for several days. Also powdered seeds of celery (marsh parsley) mixed with giant fennel made into troches and taken with a suitable liquid release the wind in the stomach, joints and back (arthritis).” To strengthen the stomach and to ensure good health, he prescribed “black myrobalan powdered in butter, mixed with dissolved plant sugar extracted from the licorice and that this remedy should be taken daily.

He recommended glass or ceramic vessels for storage purposes of liquid drugs, special small jars for storage of eye liquid salves, and lead containers for storage of fatty substances. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of the origin of the used remedies. For example, black myrobalan comes from Kabul, clover dodder from Crete, aloes from Socotra, and aromatic spices from India. It is likely that Al-Tabari’s recommendations built the basis for the current WHO guidelines. These WHO guidelines include botanical identity, scientific name, including genus, species, subspecies, or variety and family of the potential plant, and, if available, the local name should also be verified. Furthermore, WHO guidelines highlight the importance of obtaining data regarding environmental conditions, such as soil, climate, and vegetation at the collection site.

Al-Aqrabadhin book, by Sabur ibn Sahl (died 869) represents one of the earliest pharmacopoeias in Arabic. It contains details of pharmaceutical recipes, including methods and techniques of compounding drugs, their actions, dosages, and means of administration. The recipes are organized in accordance with their administration form, for example, tablets, powders, ointments, electuaries, or syrups. Each class of preparation is represented along with a variety of recipes made in a specific form; however, they vary in the ingredients used and their recommended uses and therapeutic effects. Many of these remedies are remindful of similar formulas given in ancient documents from ancient civilizations.

In his Ten Treatises on the Eye, Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) devoted one treatise to compounded drugs for the eye. He extracted some recipes from earlier treatises and added more prescriptions recommended by Greek physicians. As one example of the uses and therapeutic values of using compounded drugs, Hunayn gave that of the theriac, the universal antidote against poisoning. Hunayn defined the Greek word theriake as an animal that bites or snaps. Since these antidotes were used against animal bites, the word eventually was applied to all antidotes, especially when snake flesh was incorporated. 

Animal-Based Remedies. A wide range of animals and their products were used as a source for drugs to treat skin diseases, bleeding, wounds, internal disease, hemorrhoids, animal bites, and sex-related diseases. These substances were divided into wild animals, domesticated animals, parasites of humans or domesticated animals, rare animal substances, and exotic animal substances, such as common beaver, musk, pearl, Spanish fly, and spermwhale that were imported from distant lands via the trade routes and therefore were “exotic.”

Al-Antaki described in his Tadhkirat Uli l-al-Bab wa l-Jami li- L-‘Ajab al-‘Ujab the therapeutic effects of many animal-based drugs. For instance, cow cheese was used to treat scabies, to relieve burning sensations in the urinary tract, to treat kidney problems, and as an aphrodisiac. The internal organs of the mule were used as painkillers and to prevent inflammation of the joints. Many of the animals that were mentioned in historical texts of the Greco-Arab and Islamic world currently remain in use in traditional medicine in the Muslim world. For instance, in Iraq 12 kinds of animals are described as medicinal sources, including sea sponge, cow, camel, bee, fish, squid, sheep, nacre, and silkworm.

Minerals and Metals. Like many other early writers, Al-Antaki describes the use of asphalt in medicine. Asphalt was used medicinally to stop a racing heartbeat, strengthen the stomach, treat infections in the spleen and liver, and stop diarrhea. It was also taken as an aphrodisiac. An additional mineral mentioned is the Jew’s stone, also called Zaitun bani Israil, which Al-Antaki identified as a stone found in Jerusalem and Bilad al-Sham. It dissolves kidney and bladder stones, its powder treats wounds, and when mixed with honey, it softens calluses and hard skin. Iron rust was used to treat skin and eye conditions and was used as a cosmetic. Rust was also used as a contraceptive, as well as to eliminate hemorrhoids and treat diarrhea.

Al-Antaki mentioned the medicinal use of dry earth, particularly the Sidon earth, which comes from a cave outside the city of Sidon in Lebanon. This earth was known for its efficacy in knitting together fractured bones. Another type of earth or clay is the mineral hematite, identified by its red–yellow hues, which was used to stop haemorrhage and diarrhea, to treat skin diseases and high fever, to reduce swellings, and to clean infected sores. Petrified spines of sea urchin were used to open obstructions in the renal system and dissolve renal stones (bladder as well as kidney stones). Other uses included treating stings, bites, and wounds and the softening of hard skin [1–3,14].

Pharmaceutical Regulation 

Throughout the Islamic Golden Age, from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries, there were many regulations that were highly regarded and strictly followed by educated pharmacists. These pharmacists were highly esteemed in their communities. In centers of science and culture, such as Baghdad, rulers issued decrees regulating pharmacy practice, whenever the situation demanded it. There were also government officials, such as Al-Muhtasib and his aides, who supervised markets, sales of commodities, weights and measures, and the professions, including pharmacy and medicine, to curb adulteration and social violations and safeguard the public. Both rulers and patrons of learning gave support and protection to health practitioners.

Physicians and pharmacists gained great fame and trust among the public. Furthermore, expanding trade in the vast Muslim world and the great demand for medicines brought added prestige to the profession. Under these circumstances, Arab pharmacy developed and matured. Literary contributions of practitioners were noteworthy. These commendable developments influenced the rise of professional pharmacy in Europe and enriched available literature in pharmacy and related fields [1–12].


  1. Tschanz D W. Arab roots of European medicine. Heart Views 2003; 4:69–80.
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  4. Saad B, Azaizeh H, Said O. Tradition and perspectives of Arab herbal medicine: a review. eCAM 2005; 2:475–479.
  5. Esposito, John L. The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  6. Hitti P K. History of the Arab. St. Martin’s Press, 1970.
  7. Durant W. The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization—Christian, Islamic, and Judaic—from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300. Simon &Schuster, New York, 1950.
  8. Pormann PE, Savage-Smith E. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
  9. Morgan M H. Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists. National Geographic Society, 2007.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Saad B, JadAllah R, Daraghmeh H, Said O. Medicines and method of therapy in the Arab and Islamic medicine. Int. J. Biosci. Biotechnol. Res. Commun. 2009; 2:123–132.
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  15. Ibn Albitar. Aljamea Limufradat Aladwiya Walaghdiya. Dar Bulaaq, Cairo (manuscript from twelfth century), 1974.
  16. Ar-Razi. Kitab al-Hawi Fi Al-Tibb li-Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya ar Ra-Razi, Vol. 1. Al-Osmanya, Hyderabad, 1956.
  17. Ar-Razi. In: Al-Bakry Al-Siddiky H. (Eds.), Al-Mansuri Fi At-Tibb (The Book of Medicine for Mansur) Institute of Arab Manuscripts, Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization, Kuwait, 1987 (in Arabic).
  18. West JB. Ibn al-Nafis, the pulmonary circulation, and the Islamic Golden Age. J. Appl. Physiol. 2008; 105:1877–1880.
  19. Hajar R. The Greco-Islamic pulse. Heart Views 1999;1(4):136–140.
  20. Albucasis. On Surgery and Instruments. English translation and commentary by M. S. Spink and G. L. Lewis, 1973.
  21. Said O, Khamaysi I, Kmail A, Fulder S, AboFarekh B, Amin R, Daraghmeh J, and B. Saad (2020) “In vitro and a randomized, double‐blind, placebo‐controlled trial to determine the efficacy and safety of nine anti-acne medicinal plants,” Evidence based complementary and alternative medicine Volume 2020, Article ID 3231413
  22. 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)
  23. Saad B, (2014) Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal medicine: a review, European Journal of Medicinal Plants 4 (3), 249
  24. Saad B, (2015) Integrating traditional Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal medicine in research and clinical practice. In Phytotherapies: safety, efficacy, and regulation, 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
  26. Salim T S Al-Hassani, Editor, “1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization”, 4th Edition Annotated, Text only. Kindle Edition, (3 Nov. 2017). This referencenotes that:  “Sources on Al-Shifa bin Abdullah Al-‘Adawiyya may be found in early authentic reports on the lives of companions of Prophet Muhammad, such as Al-Mawatta of Ibn Malik and numerous others such as Al-Maqrizi: Imta’a Al-Asma’a, edited by Md Abdul Hamid Al-Namisi, Dar Al-Kutub, Beirut, 1999, pp395-6. It must add that there are some vehement advocates of gender segregation, who try to prove that she was actually assisting her son who was the real Muhtasib appointed by Omar”.



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.

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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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:


  • [1] Ali Sevim, Suriye ve Filistin Seljuklulari Tarihi, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1983, p. XI.
  • [2] Osman Turan, Seljuklular Tarihi ve Turk-Islam Medeniyeti, Turk Kulturunu Arastirma Enstitusu, Ankara, 1965, pp. 243-244.
  • [3] Nihat Keklik, Türkler ve Felsefe, Istanbul, 1986, p. 76.
  • [4] Ibrahim Kafesoglu, Sultan Meliksah, Istanbul, 1973, p. 172.
  • [5] A. Süheyl Ünver, ” Selçuklular Zamaninda Seyyar Hastahanenin Müessisi”, Turk Tip Tarihi Arkivi, vol. 18, Istanbul, 1940, pp. 70-71.
  • [6] Bedi’ullah Debiri Nejad, “Seljuklular Devrinde Kültürel Durum”, Erdem, III, 8, Ankara, 1987, p. 489.
  • [7] Nasruddin Kirmani, Nesaimu’l-Eshar (edited by. Celaleddin Urmevi), Tehran, 1338, p. 65; Osman Turan, Seljuklular Tarihi ve Turk-Islam Medeniyeti, Turk Kulturunu Arastirma Enstitüsü, Ankara, 1965, p. 250.
  • [8] Erdogan Mercil, Kirman Seljuklulari, Ministry of Culture, Ankara, 1980, pp. 235, 354-355, 362-363.
  • [9] Mehmet Altay Koymen, Tugrul Bey ve Zamani, Ministry of Culture, Ankara, 1976, p. 121.
  • [10] Imad ad-Din Katib al-Isfahani, Irak ve Horasan Seljuklulan Tarihi (translated by Kivameddin Burslan), Turk Tarih Kurumu, Istanbul 1943, pp. 129-230; A. Süheyl Unver, “Seljuklular Zamaninda Seyyar Hastahanenin Muessisi”, Turk Tip Tarihi Arkivi, vol. 5, No. 18, Istanbul, 1940, pp. 70-71.
  • [11] Osman Turan, Seljuklular Zamaninda Türkiye, Turan Nesriyat Yurdu, Istanbul, 1971, p. XXVI.
  • [12] Osman Turan, Seljuklular Tarihi ve Türk-islam Medeniyeti, Türk Kulturunu Arastirma Enstitüsu, Ankara, 1965, p. 276.
  • [13] Ramazan Sesen, Islam Cografyacilarina Gore Turkler ve Türk Ulkeleri, Turk Kulturunu Arastirma Enstitusü, Ankara, 1985, p. 209.
  • [14] Ibn Batuta, Seyahatname-i ibn Batuta (translated by Mehmed Serif), Matbaa-i Amire, Istanbul, 1322 H, p. 310.
  • [15] Claude Cahen, Osmanlilardan önce Anadolu’da Türkler (translated by Y. Moran), E. Yayinlari, Istanbul, 1979, p. 169.
  • [16] Osman Turan, “Celaleddin Karatay, Vakiflari ve Vakfiyeleri”, Belleten, vol. XII, No. 45, Ankara, 1948, p. 58.
  • [17] Ali Haydar Bayat, “Anadolu Seljuklu Hastane Vakfiyelerinin Tek Ornegi Olarak Sivas Darüssifasi Vakfiyesi”, Turk Kulturü, vol. XXIX, No. 333, 1991, pp. 5-19.
  • [18] Ali Haydar Bayat, “Anadolu Seljuklu Donemi Darussifalari Uzerine Toplu Bir Degerlendirme”, I. Uluslararasi Seljuklu Kültür ve Medeniyeti Kongresi, Bildiriler, I, Seljuk University, Seljuklu Arastirmalari Merkezi, Konya, 2001, pp. 121-148.
  • [19] Bedi Sehsuvaroglu, “Anadolu Kaplicalari ve Seljuklular”, I. U. Tip Fakultesi Mecmuasi, 1957, 2, pp. 305-325; A. Süheyl Unver, “Kutahya’da Seljuklulardan Kalma Yoncali Ilicasi 631 [1233]”, Turk Tip Tarihi Arkivi, VI, 21, Istanbul 1943, p. 29-34; A. Süheyl Unver, “Seljuklular Zamaninda ve Sonra Anadolu Kaplicalari Tarihi Uzerine”, CHP Konferanslan Serisi, Kitap 8, Ankara, 1939, pp. 89-109; Riza Reman, Balneoloji ve sifali Kaynaklarimiz, Istanbul, 1942; Enis Karakaya, “Kaphca”, Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi Islam Ansiklopedisi, XXIV, Istanbul, 2002, pp. 351-352.
  • [20] A. Süheyl Unver, “Konya’da Seljuklular Zamanindaki Hamamlara Dair”, Turk Tip Tarihi Arkivi, V, 17, Istanbul, 1940, pp. 83-86.
  • [21] Abdullah Kuran, Anadolu Medreseleri, I, Ankara, 1969, p. 4; Osman Turan, “Seljuklu Devri Vakfiyeleri III”, Belleten, XII, 45, Ankara, 1948, p. 75.
  • [22] Ismail Yigit, “Memluklar Donemi (1250-1517) Ilmî Hareketine Genel Bir Bakis”, Turkler, V, Yeni Turkiye Yayinlari, Ankara, 2002, pp. 750, 751, 752; Nuaymî, ed-Daris fi Tarihi’l-Medaris, edited by Ja’far el-Hashem, vol. 1, Beirut 1405 H, p. 54.
  • [23] Osman Turan, Seljuklular Tarihi ve Turk-Islam Medeniyeti, Turk Kulturunu Arastirma Enstitüsu, Ankara, 1965, p. 241; Dogu Anadolu, Turk Devletleri Tarihi, Turan Nesriyat Yurdu, Istanbul, 1973, p. 220; Turkiye Seljuklulari Hakkinda Resmi Vesikalar, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1958, p. 54.
  • [24] Osman Turan, Turkiye Seljuklulan Hakkinda Resmi Vesikalar, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1958, pp. 51-52, 53, 67-68; Osman Turan, Seljuklular Tarihi ve Turk islam Medeniyeti, Turk Kulturunu Arastirma Enstitüsü, Ankara, 1965, p. 251.
  • [25] Ali Haydar Bayat, Osmanli Devletinde Hekimbasilik Kurumu ve Hekirnbasilar, Ataturk Kultür Merkezi Baskanligi, Ankara, 1999, p. 3; same author, “Mevlânâ’nin Dostlarindan Tabib Ekmeleddin Mueyyed el-Nahcuvani”, III. Millî Mevlana Kongresi, 12-14 Dec. 1988 (Tebligler), Seljuk University, Konya 1988, p. 233.
  • [26] Kamal al-Din ibn al-Adim, Bughyat at-Talab fi Tarikh Halab, edited by Ali Sevim, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1976, p. 94.
  • [27] Mikail Bayram, “Anadolu Seljuklulari Donemi Tababeti ile ilgili bazi Notlar”, Yeni Tip Tarihi Arastirmalari, vol. 4, Istanbul, 1994, p. 151.
  • [28] Hasan b. ‘Abdi’l-Mu’min el-Hoyi, Ghunyetu ‘l-Katib ve Munyetu at-Talib Rusumu ar-Resail ve Nucümu’l-Faza’il, by Adnan Erzi, Ankara University Faculty of Theology, Ankara, 1963, p. 13.
  • [29] Cevat izgi, “Anadolu Seljuklu Tabibleri”, III. Turk Tip Tarihi Kongresi, Istanbul 20-23 Sept. 1993, Bildiriler, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1999, p. 220-221.
  • [30] Ali Haydar Bayat, “Mevlând’nin Dostlarindan Tabip Ekmeleddin Mueyyed el-Nahcuvâni”, III. Millî Mevlana Kongresi [Konya, 12-14 Dec. 1988] (Tebligiler), Konya 1988, pp. 231-262.
  • [31] Feridun Nafiz Uzluk, “Anadolu Seljuklulari Hekimlerinden Zeki Oglu Ebubekir ‘Sadr-i Kunevi'”, Ankara Tip Fakultesi Mecmuasi, vol. 1, No. 3, 1947, pp. 91-99; German version: “Ebubekr der Sohn des Zeki, Gennant Sadri Kunevi ein Ariz aus Zeit des Anatolischen Seldhukkenmiches”, Acta Medica Turcica, vol. I, No. 2, Ankara, 1949, pp. 29-37; Abu Bakr ibn al-Zaki, Rawzat al-Kuttab wa Hadikat al-Albab, editd by Ali Sevim, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1972, pp. 51-52 (139-149); Feridun Nafiz Uzluk (pub.), Mevlana’nin Mektuplari, Sebat Basimevi, Istanbul, 1937, pp. 21-25; A. Suheyl Unver, “Turk Tip Tarihi Hakkinda M. Cevdetin Bibliyografyasi”, Muallim M. Cevdet’in Hayati, Eserleri ve Kütüphanesi (by. Osman Ergin), Bozkurt Matbaasi, Istanbul, 1937, p. 632; Cevat Izgi, “Anadolu Seljuklu Tabibleri”, III. Turk Tip Tarihi Kongresi (Istanbul 20-23 Sept 1993), Bildirileri, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1999, p. 229.
  • [32] Cevat Izgi, “Anadolu Seljuklu Tabibleri”, III. Turk Tip Tarihi Kongresi (Istanbul 20-23 Sept. 1993, Bildirileri, Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1999, pp. 225-226; Cevat Izgi, “Gazanfer et-Tebrizi”, Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi Islam Ansiklopedisi, XII, Istanbul, 1996, pp. 433-434.
  • [33] Cevat Izgi, “Anadolu Seljuklu Tabibleri”, III. Turk Tip Tarihi Kongresi (Istanbul 20-23 Sept. 1993), Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, 1999, s. 212-219; Cevat Izgi, “Hubeys et-Tiflisi”, Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi islam Ansiklopedisi, XVIII, Istanbul, 1999, pp.. 268-270; Mikail Bayram, Baciyan-i Rum, Konya, 1987, p. 40; Claude Cahen, Osmanlilardan Once Anadolu’da Turkler, translated by Yildiz Moran, E Yayinlari, Istanbul, 1979, p. 248.
  • [34] Cevat Izgi, “Anadolu Seljuklu Tabibleri”, op. cit., pp. 224-225.
  • [35] Idem, p. 228.
  • [36] Idem, p. 229.
  • [37] Idem, pp. 219-220; Emine Uyumaz, “Sultan I. Aldeddin Keykubad Döneminde Anadolu ‘da Hekimlik Yapan Bazi Tabibler”, Yeni Tip Tarihi Arastirmalari, vol. 4, Istanbul, 1998, pp. 153-156.
  • [38] Ibn Abi ‘Usaybi’a, ‘Uyun al-Anba fi Tabakat al-atibba’, al-Dar al-thaqafiya, Beirut, 1987, vol. II, pp. 334-336; Osman Turan, Dogu Anadolu Turk Devletleri Tarihi, Turan Nesriyat Yurdu, Istanbul, 1973, p. 120.
  • [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].


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  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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“In our post-9/11 world, a greater understanding across cultures is more important than ever before, yet the purpose of this program is not simply to provide political or historical context. Rather it is to explore and celebrate the great richness of Islamic art and architecture throughout the world to peer into extraordinary palaces and mosques, decorated with exquisite gardens, ceramics and paintings, to watch the play of light and space, and to sense the sheen of delicate textiles, of gold and silver work, and of rock crystal and precious gems.”

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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.

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)…

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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.

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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. Please also note that – to avoid misunderstanding the title – we believe a better term to use is Arabick instead of  Arab, to include all people and nations whose language used Arabic script.

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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 Islamic Roots of the Modern Hospital

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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.

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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.

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)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)


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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)


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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.

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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.”

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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 –

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:

(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.

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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”.] – 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:

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

Medicine banner


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


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 notio