Geography Image Gallery


“Everywhere’s been where it is ever since it was first put there. It’s called geography.” ― Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters

Images are taken from the following articles: 

Manuscript Review: ‘The Indica’ or ‘Al-bayruni’s India,’ by Al-Bayruniby N.A. Baloch

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation by Cem Nizamoglu, Khaleel Shaikh

The Oldest Map of Japan Drawn by Mahmud of Kashgar by Sevim Tekeli

Earliest maps of America by Sevim Tekeli


“Can you see the sunset real good on the West side? You can see it on the East side too.” ― S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

New Results In The Research On Some Mathematical Works Of Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi


by A. Babayev and V. F. Medzlumbeyova*

Table of contents 

1. Al-Tusi’s Tahrir of Euclid’s Elements

2. Trigonometry in the Shakl al-Qatta’

3. The parallels problem

4. The treatise of arithmetic Jami’ al-hisab

5. Notes and references



This work was supported by the Science Development Foundation, The President of the Republic of Azerbaijan-Grant, EIF-2011-1(3)-82/19/1.

The bibliographic work of G.P. Matvievskaya and B.A. Rosenfeld[1] contains the titles and storage locations of 29 manuscripts of Nasir al-Din Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Hasan Abu Bakr al-Tusi (1201-1274: see more on his life and work in Nasir al-Din al-Tusi): 4 on mathematics, 22 on astronomy, as well as 4 in physics, 5 in logic and philosophy, and one manuscript in economics, music, mineralogy, and poetry. We will focus hereafter on the four mathematical works of Al-Tusi.


1. Al-Tusi’s Tahrir of Euclid‘s Elements

Fig 1. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi is pictured at his writing desk at the Maragha observatory, which opened in 1259. (Source)

One of the most famous works of Al-Tusi is his “Exposition of Euclid’s Elements” (Tahrir al-Usul al-Handasiya li-Uqlidis). There are two versions of this treatise. The first version was published in 1594 in Arabic in Rome, and then in 1657 in Latin in London. The second version was published in Arabic in Tehran in 1881.

In the fifties of the last century, Azerbaijani researchers H. Zarinazade and G. Mammadbeyli translated the second version of the Exposition into Azerbaijani language, but for various reasons they did not finish the work of editing and publishing. Finally, in 2001, this work has been completed by A. Guliyev, E. Babaev and A. Babaev.[2]

The style of Al-Tusi’s Tahrir of Euclid’s Elements is characterized by citing the text of Euclid and producing comments on them, starting with the words: “I’m talking about.” In this process, Al-Tusi gives different proofs of the theorems than those produced by in the the Euclidean text.

The study of Al-Tusi’s comments, in terms of geometric concepts, terminology and demonstrations of theorems leads us to the conclusion that, at the time of writing the Tahrir, the nature and conception of of geometry has changed.

If the geometry of Euclid, as defined by the words of S.A.Yanovsky, was “the geometry of compass and ruler, but idealized ruler and compass,”[3] and according to the translator and commentator of the Elements D. Mordukhai-Boltovsky had a “constructive” nature, the “geometry of Al-Tusi” is the geometry of ideal entities. If the “existence” of Euclid is the ability to “build” even with “idealized compasses and rulers,” the “existence” of Al-Tusi has logically inferred an ideal character.

This is indicated by the following postulates, which Al-Tusi formulates before the Euclidean ones:

1. “Point, line, plane and surface by the most important way exist, and a circle exists.”

2. “On any line and on a surface we can take a point.”

3. “On any surface we can assume a line.”

4. “No matter how the point is, we can assume the line passing through this point.”

5. “Any point, line segment and a planar surface on the applicability of its similarity.”

Fig 2. Al-Tusi’s record of Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem. (Source)

In the XIth book of the Elements on solid geometry, Euclid gives no stereometric axioms. It was thought that the first stereometric axioms were formulated only in the 17th century. Nasir al-Tusi formulated three stereometric axioms:

1. “Through a straight line can be drawn a plane.”

2. “Through a straight line and a point lying outside of it can be drawn (only one) plane.”

3. “Two straight lines do not include space.”

As it is known, up to the 15th century, the number “one” (the unit) was not considered as a number, because it was presented as a quantitative expression of the monad, and the number was defined aa a set of units (in the Greek tradition). Numerical characteristic of the units are not detected. In his commentary on the VIIth book of the Elements, Al-Tusi wrote:

“I say, the number is called something that takes place in a row of account. By this definition, the “unit” should be a number.”[4]

So, the property of the numbers (starting with one) is to be in the row of the account (i.e., to be a characteristic of factoring in one-to-one correspondence). 

2. Trigonometry in the Shakl al-Qatta’

Fig 3. Front cover of Contemplation and Action: The Spiritual Autobiography of a Muslim Scholar: Nasir al-Din Tusi. Translated by Seyyed Jalal Hosseini Badakhchani. London: I. B. Tauris, 1999.

The work of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi Treatise on the Complete Quadrilateral (Shakl al-Qatta’)[5] is in essence the first mathematical work on trigonometry as a distinct science. Until Al-Tusi, trigonometry was considered as part of astronomy. In this treatise, Al-Tusi introduced the concept of the polar triangle and gives the calculations for it. In addition, he developed the theory of ratios of Eudoxus for incommensurable quantities and introduced the numerical characteristic of one ratio (the “measure” of ratio).

This treatise was known to European scholars, particularly to Regiomontanus (15th century), and in 1952 it was translated into Russian by G.D. Mammadbeyli and B.A.Rozenfeld.

V.N. Molodshy,[6]referring to the Shakl al-Qatta’, wrote: “In the 13th century, Azerbaijani astronomer and mathematician Nasir al-Din al-Tusi defined the concept of a positive real number, just like Newton (i.e., Al-Tusi defined that 400 years before Newton).” We must recall that the number in Newton’s definition is the relation of one quantity to another of the same kind, taken as a unit.

The new in Al-Tusi’s discovery in this work is that we could trace how he developed the notion of “measure” of ratio, what led him to the extension of the notion of rational number. 

3. The parallels problem

The development of the theme of parallel lines was ongoing for two thousand years. The theory of parallels was substantially advanced in the works of the 9th-14th-centuries scholars of the Islamic world. Al-Tusi’s treatise on parallels is called Al-Risala al-shafiya ‘an al-shak fi al-khutut mutawaziyya (Treatise healing the doubt about the parallel lines). This is a very known work of Al-Tusi. The new in the investigation of this treatise is the possibility to study the Tusi view on axioms and postulates, because this logical problem was reduced to the question of “Y Postulate”. The translation into Russian of the treatise, carried by B. A. Rosenfeld and A. P. Yushkevich, was published in The Historico-Mathematical Investigation.”[7]

In this treatise, in addition to his theory of parallel, Al-Tusi produced also some of the results of ‘Umar al-Khayyam, Al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham and others. 

4. The treatise of arithmetic Jami’ al-hisab

Fig 4. Tashkent manuscript of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s treatise The Collection of Arithmetic (Jami’ al-hisab bi-‘l-Takht wa-‘l-turab), folio 120.

The treatise of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi The Collection of Arithmetic (Jami’ al-hisab bi-‘l-Takht wa-‘l-turab) was written in 1265. A fragment of this treatise (the 11th section of the first part) was translated into Russian in the 1960’s by S. A. Akhmedov and B. A. Rosenfeld.[8] The treatise was translated in full into Azerbaijani by scholars of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan A. Amirahmedov, E. Mamedov and A.Babayev (the author of this paper), from Tashkent and St. Petersburg manuscripts, and was published in 2008.[9]

Then the treatise was translated into Russian and completed with Azerbaijani translation, but verified against  the Arabic original by the scientific workers of the Institute of Mathematics and Mechanics of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan A. A. Babaev, E. M. Mamedov, and V. F. Medzhlumbekova.[10]

Let us explain, first of all, the name of the treatise. In the East, a board covered with dust was used, from antiquity to the Middle Ages, as a means of calculation. On this board, with the pointy sticks (as a handle) arithmetic operations are recorded. Intermediate results were erased and replaced by others, so as to define the algorithmic character of the arithmetic operations. Thus a set of algorithms turned the board into a kind of computing device. Thus the Collection text was an excellent textbook lacking of methodological omissions.

The treatise consists of three parts. The first part is devoted to whole numbers and operations on them; the second part studies fractions and calculations over them; the third part is devoted to the operations on the fractions in the sexagesimal system of calculation, which was used by astronomers.

In the study of the treatise we found marvelous facts, previously unknown and changing the dating of some mathematical statements. Thus, in the 8th section, Part 1, Al-Tusi puts the table to denote the degrees (Table 1). In this table the letter designations of degrees are given. We compared this table with the table of Chapter 11 of John Wallis’ The Historical and Practical Treatise on Algebra (Table 2).[11]

This table shows the designations used by mathematicians in the 16th and 17th centuries, to denote the root, square, cube, from the 4th to the 16th degrees. In Table 1, the second column is the designation of Wyeth, the third column is the designation of Outred, the forth column is the designation of Garriot and the fifth column is the designation of Descartes. We compared the designations of Outred (1574-1660) and those of Tusi (Table 1).

In Table 1 r, l, b are the last letters of the Arabic words judhur (root), mal (square), ka’b (cube) respectively. Outred’s letters q, c are the first letters of words Quadratum, Cubus (square and cube). The designation A is not correlated with any word.

Table 1. Translation of Tusi’s table

Table 2: The table from Wallis work

Taking into consideration the fact that the Arabic words are written from right to left, the principle of designation of Al-Tusi and Outred are the same. In the Tusi’s table there are the designations of “negative” power – the sheaves of degrees.

Note that it is not known any use of such symbols, not only by the predecessors of Al-Tusi, but also by Arab mathematicians of the later period. For example, there is nothing like it in the famous work The Key to Arithmetic” of Al-Kashi, who lived two centuries later.

Table 3: The table of the comparison (Tusi-Outred)

Fig 5. TFolio From The Akhlaq-i Nasiri of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi: School courtyard with boys reading and writing. Lahore, Mughal period, circa 1595 CE. (Source)

Another impressive fact is Al-Tusi’s remark about the “criterion” in the first part of the 12th chapter of his treatise. Here we present a validation of the results of arithmetic operations with the help of this “criterion.” The method of “criterions” involves comparing the remainders, obtained by dividing by 9, 7, 11, etc. of the result of operation on digits of terms of arithmetic action and of number of the resulting of arithmetic operation. These remainders are called “criterions”. In the case of the division by 9 (“criterion” on 9) this operation on digits is the summation of the digits of the number. This method was known to the Greeks and to the Indians.

It was thought that the coincidence of those “criterions” of the initial numbers and of the result is the necessary and sufficient condition for conviction in the correctness of the calculation. This is indicated in the works of such great medieval mathematicians as Abu ‘l-Hasan ibn Ahmad al-Nasawi (10th century)[12] and Ahmad ibn al-Banna (13th-14th centuries).[13] However, this condition is necessary, but not sufficient. In the history of mathematics the first indication of insufficiency of that condition dates back to the 15th century.

In the twelfth chapter of the Collection, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi wrote:

“Calculators have a way to check, known as a” criterion.” If the calculation was carried out correctly, the “criterions” also coincide; if the “criterions” are not equal, then the computation was also carried correctly. We can not say that if the “criterions” are equal, then the calculation was carried correctly, (or) if the calculation was carried out correctly, the “criterions” do not coincide.”

Thus, the assertion that the condition of coincidence of criterions is insufficient appeared in the 11th century.[14]

In the 9th section of the first part, Al-Tusi gives the algorithm to extract the square root, in the 10th section – algorithm for cube root, and in the 11th – algorithm for root of any degree.

Fig 6. Page from Sharh Usul Ashkal Kitab Uqlidis fi ‘Ilm al-Handasa dated Sha’ban 1074/March 1664.

It can be argued that the algorithms for extracting the root of fourth and higher degrees have been found in this work of Al-Tusi. However, ‘Umar al-Khayyam[15] indicates that in his own book Problems of Arithmetic he gave the method of extracting the root of the fourth and higher.

In the 3rd section, there is a table compiled for the binomial coefficients and algorithm to determine them. Although it is believed that the author of the table of the binomial coefficients (triangle of Pascal) was a famous French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). In support of this, we give a quote from the Encyclopædia of Mathematics published in 1998 in Moscow: “to calculate the binomial coefficients, Pascal developed a method (“Pascal’s triangle”).[16] However, such table is found in the work of al-Samaw’al (12th century).[17]

Another interesting fact contained in the 3rd section-Part II is the method of finding a common denominator as the least common multiple. All previous mathematicians and even Ahmad ibn al-Banna,[18] sixty years younger than Al-Tusi, in order to find a common denominator, they simply multiply the denominators of the terms. Finding a common denominator as the least common multiple dates from the second half of the 16th century (Tartaglia and Clavius).[19]

The scientific work of Al-Tusi is an invaluable source for the study of mathematical thought in the Eastern Middle Ages and for rethinking of many mathematical ideas. The works of Al-Tusi as well as those of his great predecessors – Ibn Sina, al-Khwarizmi, ‘Umar al-Khayyam, etc. – refute the perception among some researchers that the mathematics of the Eastern Middle Ages was purely practical, and that there was a regression in mathematical theoretical thought in comparison with the Ancient period.

5. Notes and references   

[1] G. P. Matviyevskaya, B. A. Rosenfeld, Mathematicians and Astronomers of Medieval Islam and their Works (VIII-XVII centuries), vol. 2, Moscow 1983.

[2] Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Tahriri oglidis. Baku 2001.

[3] S. A. Yanovski, “About the Axioms”, Historico-Mathematical Investigations. Moscow, No XIII, 1959.

[4] Al-Tusi, Tahriri oglidis, Baku 2001.

[5] Al-Tusi, The Treatise on the complete quadrilateral (Shyaklul Gita). Baku 1952. See also the reprint of this text in A Collection of mathematical and astronomical Treatises as revised by Nasiraddin al-Tusi, Frankfurt: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, 1998, pp. 363-434.

[6] V. N. Molodshy, Foundations of the number’s doctrine in the XVIII and early XIX century. Moscow 1963.

[7] Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, “Treatise healing doubts about parallel lines” Historico-mathematical investigations, No. XIII, Moscow 1960.

[8] Al-Tusi, “Collection of arithmetic with the help of the board and the dust, 1st part,” Historico-mathematical investigations, Moscow 1999.

[9] Al-Tusi, Collection of arithmetic with the help of the board and the dust. Baku 2008 (Azeri), 2011( Russian).

[10] Ibidem.

[11] T. A. Tokareva, “On the John Wallis historical and practical treatise on algebra”, Historical-mathematical investigations, No. XXVII, Moskow 1983.

[12]Ali ibn Ahmad al-Nasawi, “Enough about Indian arithmetic,” Historical-mathematical investigations, No. XV, Moscow 1963.

[13] Ahmad ibn al-Banna, “Summary of arithmetic,” Historical-mathematical investigations, Series II, Vol. 9 (44), Moscow, 2005.

[14] Ahmad ibn al-Banna, “Summary of arithmetic,” op. cit.

[15] Omar Khayyam, “On the evidence of problems of algebra and almukabaly,” Historical-mathematical investigations, No. 6, Moscow 1953.

[16] Great Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mathematics, Moscow 1998, p. 175.

[17] B. A. Rosenfeld, “Algebraic treatise of al-Samaw’al,” Historical-mathematical investigations, No XX, 1975.

[18] Ahmad ibn al-Banna. “Summary of arithmetic,” op. cit.

[19] N.A. Aleksandrov, Mathematical terms, Moscow 1978

*Institute Mathematics and Mechanics of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan.

First published on 18 Jul 2013

Ibn al-Haytham and Psychophysics


Dr. Craig Aaen-Stockdale*

Note of the editor

This article was first published in Perception vol. 37(4), 2008: pp. 636 – 638 (electronic version: Abstract and Full-text PDF ). We are grateful to the author Dr. Craig Aaen-Stockdale for accepting that we republish it and to Pion Ltd, London, the publisher of Perception, for granting us permission to reproduce it on our web portal.


1. Introduction

Ibn al-Haytham or ‘Alhazen’ (965-1039 CE) outlined many of the principles of optics and visual perception, anticipating sometimes by centuries their re-discovery by ‘Western’ scholars. His Book of Optics (Sabra 1989), written between 1011 and 1021 while under house arrest in Cairo, pioneered the psychology of perception and argued that vision occurred in the brain, rather than the eyes. He made important contributions to the study of peripheral vision and ditched the emission theory. Ibn al-Haytham’s contributions to optics, visual perception, and the scientific method (Steffens 2006) have been recognised only retroactively and have remained largely unknown to European academia.

image alt text
Figure 1: Imaginary portrait of Ibn al-Haytham. (Source).

An encouraging revisionist trend in Western (European and American) scholarship is giving long-overdue and rightful acknowledgment to non-European scholars, especially those of the “Islamic Golden Age” of the 8th to 13th centuries. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between belated revision of the history of science to correct Western bias, and boosterism [1].

2. Reappraisal of Ibn al-Haytham’s work

Ibn al-Haytham is credited with many discoveries in binocularity, but he translated, and was therefore very familiar with, the work of Ptolemy (83-161) on this subject. Although he corrected some of Ptolemy’s errors (Sabra 1966), one of those corrections was unnecessary (Howard and Wade 1996), and Wade (1998) argues that “remarkably little’ (page 237) was added to Ptolemy’s account of binocular vision until the 17th century. Ibn al-Haytham is credited with the discovery of what came to be known as Hering’s law of equal innervation (Howard 1996), but Aristotle (384-322 BC) had previously remarked upon this, and Ptolemy had even taken a stab at a functional explanation (Wade 1998). Euclid (300-275 BC), Lucretius (99-55 BC), and Ptolemy had remarked upon induced motion, although Ibn al-Haytham was the first to utilise the now-standard example of the moon behind clouds. Scholarly types take stabs at explaining things that they don’t quite understand and therefore science generally proceeds incrementally. All of which makes it difficult to pin down the moment of “discovery” or determine the “discoverer.”

image alt text
Figure 2: Diagram of the eye from Risner’s edition of Opticae thesaurus. Alhazeni Arabis libri septem Opticae thesaurus… (Basilea, 1572), the first edition of the Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitab al-manazir, the most important and most influential Arabic treatise on physics, that exercised profound influence on Western science in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sarton calls Ibn al-Haytham “the greatest Muslim physicist and one of the greatest students of optics of all times.” (Source). See Dr. Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg, The Origins of Islamic Science, section 9 Medicine.

Khaleefa (1999), however, made the eyebrow-raising claim that Ibn al-Haytham should be considered the “founder” of both experimental psychology and psychophysics. Both these claims have been repeated incessantly on the internet (a minute’s Googling or a glance at Wikipedia will verify this) but the propagators of this claim only provide Khaleefa’s paper as evidence. Does his argument stack up? Should we consider Ibn al-Haytham to be the founder of psychophysics and experimental psychology?

The arguments presented by Khaleefa for Ibn al-Hayman’s adherence to (and advancement of) the scientific method and his important contributions to the study of vision (and experimental psychology) are quite cogent, and have been made by others (eg Howard 1996; Steffens 2006) but his paper oversteps those bounds.

3. Ibn al-Haytham and psychophysics

Khaleefa asserts that Ibn al-Haytham is also the true “founder” of psychophysics, but his arguments on this point are much weaker. They revolve around the semantics of what it is to “found” a movement or field, and a misunderstanding of psychophysics.

On the matter of what it is to “found” a field of study, Khaleefa quotes the rather cynical definition of E G Boring (1950) from his History of Experimental Psychology [2], but then rejects this definition in favour of his own:

“It is our conclusion that Ibn al-Haytham deserves the full title of Founder of Psychophysics as well as Founder of Experimental Psychology. The Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham in the first half of the eleventh century, and not the Elements of Psychophysics by Fechner in the nineteenth century, marks the official “founding” of psychology because it provides not only new concepts and theories, but new methods of measurement in psychology‘ (Khaleefa 1999, page 23; italics mine).

The terms “psychophysics” and “psychology” are conflated both in the course of this paragraph and throughout the article. Psychophysics is not psychology as anybody who has attempted to teach it to psychology undergraduates will testify. Psychophysics is “the scientific study of the relation between stimulus and sensation’ (Gescheider 1997, page ix) or, as Bruce et al (1996) put it: “The analysis of perceptual processes by studying the effect on a subject’s experience or behaviour of systematically varying the properties of a stimulus along one or more physical dimensions.’ Fechner (1860) provided a battery of techniques designed to measure that relationship. Khaleefa’s confusion of the two disciplines is clear:

Figure 3: A stamp issued by Qatar representing Ibn al-Haytham and his scientific achievements. (Source).

“The area into which psychologists study the link between variation in physical dimension and psychological dimension is called psychophysics, and the methodology used to describe this link is termed experimental psychology‘ (Khaleefa 1999, page 9, italics in original).

4. Critical assessment

Khaleefa attempts to claim psychophysics for Ibn al-Haytham by showing that he used the techniques of experimental psychology. Which he does, quite admirably. But psychophysics does not simply apply experimental psychology to the study of sensation.

Psychophysics is a set of statistical, mathematical, and methodological tools for relating stimulus to perception. It is both the field of study and the tools to investigate it. There is no indication in the available sources (e.g. Sabra 1966, 1989) that Ibn al-Haytham used psychophysics in the sense of making quantitative judgments as a function of stimulus variables, although he certainly made qualitative judgments of a variety of psychological phenomena such as the moon illusion or induced motion.

Khaleefa argues: “If Ibn al-Haytham had lived for another ten years, he may have written an eighth and ninth chapter of The Book of Optics titled “Psychophysics and Experimental Psychology’ (page 22). Indeed, Ibn al-Haytham “may have” done so, but crucially, he didn’t. Weber, Fechner, and Wundt, among others, did.

In final support of his thesis, Khaleefa quotes Taha (1990): “It can safely be said that Ibn al-Haytham is the founder of the psychology of vision (page 273) [and] modern psychophysics (page 262).’

This composite of two statements, the page numbers of which are out of order, is a bold conclusion and I would love to read the argument that leads up to it. Unfortunately, this source (Taha 1990) is a book review from The Arab Journal of Psychiatry, and despite repeated e-mails and inter-library loan requests I have so far only been able to obtain the abstract.

In the quotation from Taha, “psychophysics” and “vision” are again conflated. Ibn al-Haytham made great contributions to vision, but the Joy of Psychophysics (© Julie Harris) is that it is a general-purpose method for investigating any sensory system. The classical psychophysical methods and modern contributions such as signal detection theory (Green and Swets 1966) can be applied to any sensory system, and it belittles somewhat the remarkable contribution of Fechner and others to suggest that, because of Ibn al-Haytham’s contributions to vision, he “founded” psychophysics.

Figure 4: First page of the article ‘Ibn al-Haytham – The Optical Scientist‘ in the February 2010 issue of Discovery Channel Magazine about Ibn al-Haytham by Bradley Steffens, author of Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist. The article describes how Ibn al-Haytham used the scientific method to solve the mystery of vision and investigate the properties of light. Click here to read “The Optical Scientist” by Bradley Steffens.

Curiously, Taha also claims that al-Haytham ‘‘was able to identify the eye layers with great precision and … identified the neural components of the visual system including the retina, the optic path and the optic chiasma’. However, Howard (1996) reports that “Alhazen’s ideas of visual anatomy were derived from the Greeks, and in particular from Galen, since dissection was not allowed in Arabic lands’. I can only assume that Taha has read Ibn al-Haytham’s work as if it was entirely original.

We have much for which we have long neglected to thank al-Haytham and other Muslim scholars of what is referred to as the “Islamic Golden Age [3].” For example, we have Thabit ibn Qurra al-Harrani (836- 901) to thank for suggesting occlusion of the good eye as a treatment for amblyopia (Loudon and Simonsz 2005), a procedure that remains the standard to this day. However, there is a difference between giving non-Western scientists their dues and the boosterism evident in some sources.

5. Acknowledgments

Thanks to Behzad Mansouri for information pertaining to Thabit ibn Qurrah ibn Marwan al-Harrani. Thanks also to Ian Howard, Nick Wade, and Anna Aaen-Stockdale for their comments.

6. References

  • Boring E G, 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts).
  • Bruce V, Green P R, Georgeson M A, 1996 Visual Perception third edition (Hove, E. Sussex: Psychology Press).
  • Fechner G T, 1860 Elemente der Psychophysik (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härterl).
  • Gescheider G, 1997 Psychophysics: The Fundamentals third edition (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).
  • Green D M, Swets J A, 1966 Signal Detection Theory and Psychophysics (New York: Wiley).
  • Howard I P, 1996 “Alhazen’s neglected discoveries of visual phenomena” Perception 25: 1203 – 1217 [Perception abstract link], doi:10.1068/p251203.
  • Howard I P, Wade N J, 1996 “Ptolemy’s contributions to the geometry of binocular vision” Perception 25: 1189 – 1201 [Perception abstract link], doi:10.1068/p251189.
  • Khaleefa O, 1999 “Who is the founder of psychophysics and experimental psychology?” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 16(2): 1 – 26.
  • Loudon S E, Simonsz H J, 2005 “The history of the treatment of amblyopia” Strabismus 13: 93 – 106, doi:10.1080/09273970590949818.
  • Sabra A I, 1966 “Ibn al-Haytham’s criticisms of Ptolemy’s Optics” Journal of the History of Philosophy 4: 145 – 149.
  • Sabra A I, 1989 The Optics of Ibn al-Haytham (London: Warburg Institute).
  • Said E W, 1979 Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books).
  • Steffens B, 2006 Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist (Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing).
  • Taha A, 1990 “Psychophysics according to Ibn al-Haytham (abstract only)” Arab Journal of Psychiatry 1: 3.
  • Wade N J, 1998 A Natural History of Vision (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).


[1] “Boosterism” is a term applied to the practice of inflating the importance of a subject. It was rampant in the 1950s, when mediocre US towns and business interests produced infomercials to sell themselves to the outside world, a practice brilliantly satirised in The Simpsons cartoon with the short films Springfield: a City on the Grow! and The World Without Zinc!

[2] “When the central ideas are all born, some promoter takes them in hand, organizes them, adding whatever else seems to be essential, publishes and advertises them [and] insists upon them’ (Boring 1950, page 194).

[3] A term beloved of Orientalists (Said 1979), since it defines the achievements of scholars and scientists in Muslim lands (and the scientists and scholars themselves) in terms of their religion rather than their research.

*Bradford School of Optometry and Vision Sciences, University of Bradford, UK.

First published on 10 Jun 2011

Muslim Roots, U.S. Blues



Note of the Editor: First published in Saudi Aramco World. July / August 2006. Then published in Muslim Heritage also (17 Nov 2006 and 2014).


Sylviane Diouf knows her audience might be skeptical, so to demonstrate the connection between Muslim traditions and American blues music, she’ll play two recordings: The adhan, the Muslim call to prayer that’s heard from minarets around the world, and “Levee Camp Holler,” an early type of blues song that first sprang up in the Mississippi Delta more than 100 years ago.


Figure 2. W. C. Handy, “Father of the Blues” and a son of former slaves, recorded a 1903 encounter with a man playing an instrument that was evolving from an African zither into an American slide guitar.

“Levee Camp Holler” is no ordinary song. It’s the product of formerly enslaved people who worked moving earth all day in post-Civil War America. The version that Diouf uses in presentations has lyrics that, like the call to prayer, speak about a glorious God. But it’s the song’s melody and note changes that closely resemble one of Islam’s best-known refrains. Like the call to prayer, “Levee Camp Holler” emphasises words that seem to quiver and shake in the reciter’s vocal chords. Dramatic changes in musical scales punctuate both “Levee Camp Holler” and the adhan. A nasal intonation is evident in both.

“I did a talk a few years ago at Harvard where I played those two things, and the room absolutely exploded in clapping, because [the connection] was obvious,” says Diouf, an author and scholar who is also a researcher at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “People were saying, ‘Wow. That’s really audible. It’s really there.” It’s really there thanks to all the enslaved Muslims from West Africa who were taken by force to the United States for three centuries, from the 1600’s to the mid-1800’s. Upward of 30 percent of the enslaved Africans in the United States were Muslim, and historians now say an untold number of them spoke and wrote Arabic. Despite being pressured by slave owners to adopt Christianity and give up their old ways, many of these slaves continued to practice their religion and customs, or otherwise melded traditions from Africa into their new environment in the antebellum South. Forced to do menial, backbreaking work on plantations, for example, they still managed, throughout their days, to voice a belief in God and the revelation of the Qur’an. The practice of these enslaved peoples’ eventually evolved — decades and decades later, parallel with different singing traditions from Africa — into the shouts and hollers that begat blues music, Diouf and other historians believe.


Figure 2. “History changes things,” says author Cornelia Walker Bailey, (above) who lives on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Her surname started out as Bilali, the given name of her ancestor Bilali Mohammed. Trained as a Muslim prayer leader in his native Guinea, he was enslaved in 1803 and brought to Sapelo Island, where a small community of his descendants still lives. Bailey grew up saying Christian prayers facing east, the direction of Makkah—the same direction in which her Muslim ancestor prayed


African Muslim slaves influenced later blues both through their musical style and through their instruments, which, in late-18th-century Suriname, included percussion, wind and string devices. Among the latter were a one-string benta (top left), and a Creole-bania (top right), an ancestor of the American banjo.

Another way that Muslim slaves had an indirect influence on blues music is the instruments they played. Drumming, which was common among slaves from the Congo and other non-Muslim regions of Africa, was banned by white slave owners, who felt threatened by its ability to let enslaved people communicate with each other and by the way it inspired large gatherings of them.

Stringed instruments, however — favored by enslaved peoples from the Muslim regions of Africa, where there’s a long tradition of musical storytelling — were generally allowed because slave owners considered them akin to European instruments such as the violin. Hence, the enslaved people who managed to cobble together a banjo or other instrument — the American banjo originated with enslaved Africans — could play more widely in public. This solo-oriented slave music featured elements of an Arabic–Muslim song style that had been imprinted by centuries of Islam’s presence in West Africa, says Gerhard Kubik, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Mainz in Germany. Kubik has written the most comprehensive book on Africa’s connection to blues music, Africa and the Blues (1999, University Press of Mississippi).

Kubik believes that many of today’s blues singers unconsciously echo these Arabic–Muslim patterns in their music. Using academic language to describe this habit, Kubik writes in Africa and the Blues that:

“the vocal style of many blues singers using melisma, wavy intonation, and so forth is a heritage of that large region of West Africa that had been in contact with the Arabic–Islamic world of the Maghreb since the seventh and eighth centuries.”

(Melisma is the use of many notes in one syllable; wavy intonation refers to a series of notes that veer from major to minor scale and back again, something that’s common in both blues music and in the Muslim call to prayer as well as recitation of the Qur’an. The Maghreb is the Arab–Muslim region of North Africa.)

Kubik summarises his thesis this way:

“Many traits that have been considered unusual, strange and difficult to interpret by earlier blues researchers can now be better understood as a thoroughly processed and transformed Arabic–Islamic stylistic component.”

Figure 3. “Bayad plays the oud to the lady”,Arabic manuscript for Qissat Bayad wa Reyad tale (late 12th century) (Source)

The extent of this link between Muslim culture and American blues music is still being debated. Some scholars insist there is no connection, and many of today’s best-known blues musicians would say their music has little to do with Muslim culture. Yet a growing body of evidence — gathered by academics such as Kubik and by others such as Cornelia Walker Bailey, a Georgia author whose great-great-great-great-grandfather was enslaved prayed toward Makkah — suggesting a deep relationship between enslaved people of Islamic descent and US culture. While enslaved Muslims from West Africa were just one factor in the formation of American blues music, they were a factor, says Barry Danielian, a trumpeter who’s performed with Paul Simon, Natalie Cole and Tower of Power.


Figure 4. The largest of the banjo ancestors is the kora of the Mandinka people in today’s Senegal, Guinea-Conakry and Gambia. It traditionally uses 21 strings and a large calabash-gourd body.

Danielian, who is Muslim, says non-Muslims find this connection hard to believe because they don’t know enough about Arabic or Muslim music. The call to prayer and other Muslim recitations that were practiced by enslaved Americans had a musicality to them, just as these recitations still do, even if they aren’t thought of as music by westerners, Danielian says, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“In my congregation, when we get together, especially when the shaykhs [leaders] come and there are hundreds of people and we do the litanies, they’re very musical. You hear what we as Americans would call soulfulness or blues. That’s definitely in there.”

What people now think of as blues music developed in the 1890’s and early 1900’s, in Southern US states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Blues music was an outgrowth of all the different music that was then being performed in the South, from minstrels to street shows. Early blues performers didn’t recognize the music’s African or Muslim roots because, by then, the songs had more fully merged with white, European music and had lost their obvious connections to a continent that was 4000 miles away. Also, by the turn of the 20th century, the progeny of America’s enslaved Muslims had generally converted to Christianity, either by force or circumstance. Among Southern Blacks in that period, there were few exponents of Islam. But as more scholars research that period in history, they see plenty of signs that weren’t obvious 100 years ago.

Take the case of W. C. Handy, who earned the moniker “Father of the Blues” for the way he formalised blues music over a 40-year career of writing songs and playing the cornet. In his autobiography, Handy, whose parents were enslaved, writes about a life-changing moment that happened to him around 1903. Handy was sleeping at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi when:

“a lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar…. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly…. The singer repeated the line (“Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog”) three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”

The song was about a nearby train station where different train lines intersected. As Handy noted in the autobiography, published in 1941:

“Southern Negroes sang about everything. Trains, steamboats, steam whistles, sledgehammers, fast women, mean bosses, stubborn mules—all became subjects for their songs. They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect, anything from a harmonica to a washboard. In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call the blues.”


Figure 5. The West African lute known as the ngoni is played in the “clawhammer style” formerly popular for playing today’s banjos. For almost every note of the scale, there is a different tuning for the ngoni and a different pattern of playing.

While washboards, in fact, became popular among later blues musicians such as Robert Brown (known as “Washboard Sam”), the technique that Handy witnessed — that of pressing the back of a knife blade on guitar strings — can be traced to Central and West Africa, where, as Kubik points out in Africa and the Blues, people play one-string zithers that way. Handy assumed that the technique, now called “slide guitar,” was borrowed from Hawaiian guitar playing, but it’s more likely that the itinerant guitar player that Handy met in Tutwiler was manifesting his African roots. Kubik has traveled to Africa many times for his research and has lived there.

Bailey, who visited West Africa in 1989, says the African and Muslim roots of Southern US traditions are often mistaken for something else.

Bailey lives on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, where some blacks can trace their ancestry to Bilali Mohammed, an enslaved Muslim who was born and raised in what is now the African nation of Guinea. Visitors to Sapelo Island are always struck by the fact that churches there face east. In fact, as a child, Bailey learned to say her prayers facing east—the same direction that her great-great-great-great-grandfather faced when he prayed toward Makkah.

Bilali was an educated man. He spoke and wrote Arabic, carried a Qur’an and a prayer rug, and wore a fez that likely signified his religious devotion. Bilali had been trained in Africa to be a Muslim leader; on Sapelo Island, he was appointed by his slave master to be an overseer of other enslaved people. Although Bilali’s descendents adopted Christianity, they incorporated Muslim traditions that are still evident today.


Figure 6. To trumpeter Barry Danielian, Muslim prayers are “very musical. You hear what we as Americans would call soulfulness or blues. That’s definitely in there.

The name Bailey, in fact, is a reworking of the name Bilali, which became a popular Muslim name in Africa because one of Islam’s first converts — and the religion’s first muezzin — was a former Abyssinian slave named Bilal (Muezzins are those who call Muslims to prayer.) One historian believes that abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who changed his name from Frederick Bailey, may also have had Muslim roots, who chronicled the history of Sapelo Island in her memoir God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man (2001, Anchor):

“History changes things, Things become something different from what they started out as.”

A good example is the song “Little Sally Walker.” It’s been recorded by many blues artists, but it’s also been recorded as “Little Sally Saucer” because the lyrics describe a girl “sittin’ in a saucer.” Frankie Quimby, a relative of Bailey’s who also traces her roots to Bilali Mohammed, says the song originated during slavery on the Georgia coast, written by song writing slaves who took their slaveholder’s last name, Walker, as their own. “I’ve seen [people] take the song and use different words,” says Quimby, who sings songs about enslaved people with her husband in a group called the Georgia Sea Island Singers.


Figure 7. The Banjo Lesson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893 (Source)

Due to there being little documentation about these slave-time origins, it’s easy to argue about what can be unequivocally linked to Africa and Muslim culture. Muslim and Arab culture have certainly been influences on other music around the world, including flamenco, which is rooted in seven centuries of Muslim rule in Spain, and Renaissance music. So far, knowledge of Muslim culture’s association with blues music seems limited to a select group of academics and musicians. Books such as Kubik’s Africa and the Blues and Diouf’s Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (1998, New York University Press) are more geared toward university audiences.

In terms of popular culture, it’s hard to find a single work — whether it’s a novel, movie, song or other art form — that covers the intersection of Muslim culture, music and enslaved Africans. “Daughters of the Dust,” Julie Dash’s 1991 film about life on the Sea Islands of Georgia, features a Muslim man who portrays Bilali Mohammed, but a scene that shows him in prayer lasts just a few moments, and the movie received limited release.

Roots, Alex Haley’s novel that was made into a historic television series in the 1970’s, featured a main character (Kunte Kinte) who is Muslim, although novelist James Michener and others doubted the authenticity of Haley’s work.

The trading of ensalved Africans led to a diaspora unlike any other in human history, with at least 10 million Africans bought and sold into bondage in the Americas. The pain felt by those slaves is evident in American blues music — a music that’s often about cruel treatment, sad times and a yearning to break free. Blues music is a unique American art form that went around the world and, in turn, influenced history. Without the blues, there wouldn’t be jazz and there wouldn’t be the bluesy music of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.


Figure 8. In the Memphis city park that carries his name, a statue of W. C. Handy commemorates his introduction of the blues along the city’s famously musical Beale Street.

In his book Black Music of Two Worlds (1998, Schirmer), author John Storm Roberts says he can hear patterns of African Muslim music in the songs of Billie Holiday. Roberts refers to the “bending of notes” that is evident in Holiday’s sad, soulful ballads, as it is in the call to prayer. This same note-bending can be heard in the music of B. B. King and John Lee Hooker.

Blues music, with its strong tempos and many lyrical references to relationships, has been described as “the devil’s music” by those outside it. Many conservative Muslims think of blues music as decadent and indicative of permissive western morals. But people such as Diouf, Kubik and Moustafa Bayoumi, an Associate Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, who has researched Muslim culture’s connection to American music, are trying to correct the public record. Bayoumi wrote a paper several years ago that examined African Muslim history in the United States. In it, he argues that John Coltrane’s best-known album, “A Love Supreme,” features Coltrane saying, “Allah supreme” in addition to the many refrains of “a love supreme.”. Bayoumi, asked about the spate of new scholarship on the subject of Islam and African–Americans, says:

“It’s about uncovering a hidden past, You can hear [influences of Muslim culture] in even the earliest days of American blues music. What you’ve gotten lately is an ethnomusicology that’s trying to reconstruct that. These are deliberate attempts to rebuild a bridge, as it were.”

Written by Jonathan Curiel, ‘Muslim Roots, U.S. Blues,’ Saudi Aramco World. July / August 2006

Figure 9. (Left) A Muslim and a Christian playing a duet on the lute in 13th-century Spain. This work was dedicated to Alfonso the Wise, the Christian ruler of Castile, Leon, and Galicia (Right) Imaginary Potrait of Ziryab – An Anonymous Personality in European history (Source)

Architecture Image Gallery

“Architecture is the learned game correct and
magnificent of forms assembled in the light”
– Le Corbusier


Images are taken from the following articles: 

Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture by Cem Nizamoglu

The Back-Road Historic Mosques of China by Sheila Blair, Jonathan Bloom, Nancy Steinhardt

Lighthouse of Alexandria in the sources from Islamic Civilisation by Cem Nizamoglu

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

The Courtyard Houses of Syria by Mahmoud Zein Alabidin

Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil or the Triumph of the Islamic Architectural Style by El Sayed Foundation

Sinan: A Great Ottoman Architect and Urban Designer by Rabah Saoud

West African Mosque Architecture – A Brief Introduction by Cleo Cantone

The Seljuk Mausoleum by Rabah Saoud

Al-Hambra Palace and the river of paradise by Rabah Saoud

The Classification of Mental Diseases in the Ottoman Medical Manuscripts

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Note of the Editor: This article was first published in the Turkish review History of Medicine Studies (ed. Hasan Âli Göksoy, Hüsrev Hatemi, Nil Sari), Istanbul 1986, No. 1, pp. 105-112. We are grateful to Nil Sari, author of the article, for allowing its publication.  First time published on Muslim Heritage was 12th July, 2005 (Archived).



Figure 1. A miniature picture that illustrate Ibn Sînâ examining a patient suffering from the “love sickness”

Here we are going to present the classification of mental and neurological diseases found in Turkish medical manuscripts between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Although there are some variations in detail among different manuscripts, I do not intend to go into the description of these details, nor am I going to compare them, for the general overview is the same. Therefore I am going to give the classification of Mukbilzâde (Zahîre-i Muradiye, 1437), whose writing on mental illness is one of the best. Also, I am going to give briefly the descriptions and symptoms of the diseases, so that it will be easier to understand the classic classification of mental diseases found in Ottoman medical manuscripts.

Before giving the classic list, I must state that, although mental diseases are studied under the title of the illnesses of the head, a few illnesses such as “ihtinak-i rahm” (hysteria), “hafakan” or “yurek oynamasi” (anxiety), ‘sehvetu’l kelbiyye” or “kopekgibi istahli olmak” (obesity), “noksanu’l-sehvet” (lack of appetite) and some other psychosomatic illnesses and sexual diseases due to mental disorders are mentioned amongst the group of related physical diseases.

Still other mental illnesses are given under independent titles, one of which is alcohol (sûcîye muptela olanlar), opium (afyonkesler ve berse muptelâ olanlar) and tobacco addicts. Another illness studied separately is “teza’zu-i dimag” which means traumatic head injuries, such as falling from a height, a hard blow to the head and fighting. Gevrekzâde describes the organic changes resulting in the brain following this shock and the consequent motor and sensorial disturbances. Still, another disturbance studied separately is “infiâlât-i nefsâniye” which means emotional and personality disorders.

I am sure that if the Turkish medical manuscripts are studied more thoroughly other mental illnesses will be discovered and in this way a complete and correct classification will be accomplished.

Here we are going to deal with those mental diseases studied under the illnesses of the head of which “ser-sâm” is usually mentioned first. “Ser-sâm”, supposed to be originally Persian, is composed of two words, “ser” meaning “head” and “sâm” meaning “swell”. The main symptoms of “sersâm” are confusion of the mind, talking nonsense, fever and trembling.

There are different types of “sersâm”. One is “feranitis” (sersâm-i safravî), also called “tîz sersâm”, which is swelling of the brain membranes. We believe it to be meningitis.

Another type of sersâm is “flegmoni” (demevi verem), which is the inflammation of the brain itself. We suppose it to be encephalitis. It has five types of symptoms. These are: the face and eyes of the patient turn quite red, the eyes protrude from their sockets, intense headache, patient is continuously disturbed and  has spasm (küzâz), drowsiness and vomiting.

Still another type of “sersâm” is “subârî” (sersâm-i sevdâvî), which is the worst type of “sersâm”, said in Turkish to be “ifratla olan sersâm-i tîz”. Its main symptoms are madness (divânelik) and agitation (asuftelik).

The other symptoms are briefly the following: the patient cannot sleep well, sees complicated dreams, wakes up in fear, his eyes are bloodshot, sometimes the whites of the eyes turn yellow, the eye movements are slow and involuntary, tears flow as if there were something  in the eye; he speaks non-sense in bewilderment; at the beginning he is very restless, but later slows down so much that he can hardly open his eyes; he has a high fever, his tongue is swollen, his mouth is dry; his pulse is fast and strongly at the beginning, but later on it changes and becomes weak and slow. His breath is also strong in the beginning but later it weakens; he feels such a pain on his neck that it seems as though his veins are being strung.

In Mukbilzâde’s writings “humre” and “demregu” are said to be diseases of the brain itself. But I am not sure whether it is a type of “sersâm” or not. In the Redhouse dictionary and Tarama Sozlugu “humre” is erysipelas and in Turkish “yilancik, alazlama”. “Demregu” (temriye) is a skin disease, lichen or eczema (Tarama Sozlugu). It has three different symptoms. These are, briefly, headache, a strong feeling of heat; coolness of the skin of the face, the colour of the eyes is yellowish; later, from time to time the face heats up and the eyes grow red. The fever and trembling (sitma) it causes are much higher than that of the flegmoni. But most of those who suffer this illness die within three days. If they survive three days they may expect to live on. I wonder if these diseases are mentioned under the title of head diseases, because they might have caused complications when left without effective treatment.


Figure 2.  A room in a mental hospital. Lunatics and physicians trying to pacify them.

The last type of “sersâm” is the cold sersâm (soguk sersâm or sersâm-i balgâmî), “sersâm” without fever, “lijergis” in Greek. The Arabic-Turkish terms for it are “nisyan” and “unutsaguluk” (forgetfulness), respectively, for its main symptom is forgetfulness. It has twelve particular symptoms. These are: a slight headache, a very slight or no fever, a strong feeling of sleepiness, extreme forgetfulness, extreme slowness in movement, pulse slow and light, labored breathing, frequent gaping, a white tongue, profusion of saliva, confusion and inability to distinguish good from bad . Lijergis is said to be lethargy but it may also be dementia.

Seher subati” and “subât-i seherî” are two different illnesses, “Subat” (nevm-i mufrit) seems to have various meanings, such as hypersomnia, absent-mindedness and lethargy. The Turkish term for it is “ogunmak”, meaning, to be overcome by sleep, to lose consciousness, feeling sleepy or doze. “Seher” is sleeplessness or insomnia. One who suffers “seher subati” wants to go to sleep, but no sooner than he goes to sleep, he wakes up again. They talk nonsense just as an insane person and some symptoms of frenitis can be observed. Here the humour “safra” (bile) is dominant. Those who suffer “subat-i seheri” sleep much more than “seher subati”; although they can be woken up, they soon go to sleep again. They show symptoms like those of lisergos. If the illness is severe, then there is difficulty in swallowing and urinating and inability to defecate and also asthma. In “subat-i seheri”, the humour balgam is dominant.

“Ahze” (catalepsy or catatonia) is a sudden paralysis of all the senses and motor activities. One who suffers from “ahze”, suddenly becomes rigid in the posture he is in, sitting or standing. If the attack comes while sleeping eyes remain closed, if one is awake eyes remain wide open. The terms such as “suhus”, “cumud” and “dutmak” are said to be synonymous.

“Mal-i hulyâ” is attached to a great importance and it is not a single illness but a group of illnesses appearing with various symptoms. “Merâkî” and “Kutrub” and sometimes even “Ashk” (Emir Celebi: Enmuzec) are said to be different kinds of “mâl-i hulyâ”. Although the main symptoms of “mâl-i hulyâ” are fear, obsession and sadness, they seem to have a great variety. For example, delirium and talking nonsense is an important symptom. In “merâkî” (hypochondriacal attitudes) disorders of the digestive system; in “kutrub”, continuous fugitiveness are the main characteristic symptoms.

Under the title of “envâ-i dîvânelikler” (different kinds of madness) we find “mania”, “dau’l-kelb”, “subara” and “kutrub”. I suppose they were mentioned under the same title because they have similar symptoms, mainly aggressiveness.

Those who suffer from “mania” are in a state of excitation and attack anyone they come across, like beasts of prey. Both their anger and love are always excessive. They usually talk franticly and they have the looks of beasts of prey. They are skinny.

“Dau’l-kelb” is a kind of “mania”. Sometimes patients are in a bad temper and then sometimes they are cheerful and compassionate.

An old dictionary defines “subara” as a disease between “frenitis” and “cilnun” (madness) (Hayrullah Efendi: Lugat-i Tibbiye). We have already described “subara”.

“Ashk” (love) is an illness. Here the victim causes himself to be ill. When the feeling of love is too deep an illness such as “mal-i hulya” and anxiety will develop. The patient becomes afflicted with this illness when he comes across someone beautiful; he falls in love and becomes fond of his beloved. One who falls in love begins to be thinking of the beloved day and night. This is a widespread story. The main symptoms are: dry and sunken eyes, when he cries he sheds tears profusely, when he hears a poem or a couplet describing separation from the beloved, he feels sad and cries. When his beloved is spoken about his pulse speeds up and becomes irregular.


Figure 3.  Sultan Bayezid II’s mental illnesses patients’ hospital and medical madrasa in Edirne, Turkey.

“Unutsaguluk” or “unutsaligi” (fasâdu’s-zikr) means forgetfulness (amnesia). The senses of the patients suffering from this illness are all sound. Whatever they see, they see correctly, whatever they hear, they hear correctly, but as soon as they hear or see, they forget. If the illness has begun with forgetfulness and dysfunction of the mind has resulted from it, it is easier to cure it. But if the illness begins with the disfunction of thought and discrimination, then treatment is difficult.

“Eblehlik” (“humk”, “ru’unet”, “ahmaklik”) or “gaflet” is a hereditary disease. It is a kind of feeblemindedness, and imbecility. Sufferers act like little children or old people.

“Ihtilât-i zihn”, meaning the confusion of the mind, is an extremely troublesome disease. The functions of thought and discrimination are harmed. Patients will not speak, do, hear or care as they are expected to. In this illness there may be “tahayyul fesadi” (illusion), so that the person suffering from this illness perceives images of men, animals and objects distortedly; or he has hallucinations, perceiving images that, in fact, do not exist.

“Uykusuzluk (insomnia) and uyaniklik (vigilance): “Uyaniklik” is a state of perceiving and acting deliberately and as he wills. Insomnia is the opposite of vigilance. Among the different causes of insomnia are various anxieties, sorrows, pain, indigestion, tumours like cancer and old age. Among the symptoms of insomnia are: sleeplessness, dryness of eyes, nose, gums and tongue.

Suban: “Kafatasinin (bas, canaginin) icinde toplanan su(liquid collecting in the skull: Hydrocephalus): It is often observed that liquid is collected in the skull around the hard membrane (gisâ-sulb). Symptoms: Heaviness in the head, difficulty in closing the eyes. It is incurable. Mostly children suffer from this illness. The parts where the water is collected seem to be pulled down. When touched by hand, it moves softly.

“Dawwar” (bas cigzinmek, dolab marazi) and “sedere” (gozu kararmak): This is an illness where the world seems to be circling around the patient. As a result, he is unable to stand up and if he tries to stand up feels dizzy and almost fainting falls down again. Objects before his eyes move about.

“Kabus” (Agir basmag; nightmare, sleep apnea): While asleep the patient feels as if something or someone such as a heavy man has fallen on him; that heaviness weights upon him. As a result, he breathes with difficulty, tries to shout and move, but he cannot. He nearly goes mad. As soon as the “kabus” has gone, he wakes up. This disease is the beginning of three serious illnesses: “sar’a” (epilepsy), “sekte” (apoplexy) and the insanity called mania.

“Sar’a” (Tutanik: epilepsy): Sensorial and motor functions are both irregular and inefficient. While the epileptic attack lasts, the organs of the patient fail to function properly. There are contractions all over the body (tesennuc-i kullî). The cause of the foam in the patient’s mouth is spasm (tesennuc). Several types of “sar’a” are mentioned, such as the “sar’a” of the brain (sar’a-i dimag); “sar’a” starting in the stomach (sar’a-i midevî); “sar’a” which is caused by the sting of scorpions, bees etc.; and “sar’a” seen in women undergoing menopause (ihtinaki’r-rahm: Hysteria).

Sekte” (Can kasilmasi; apoplexy): “Sekte” comes suddenly and as a single attack. “Sekte” begins with vertigo (dewar) and ringing in the ears (tanîn). Sensorial and motor transmission from the brain to the body fails. When sekte comes all the organs and senses cease functioning. The main cause of “sekte” is the excess of blood in the blood vessels; too much blood collects in the cavities of the brain and prevents connection with organs. All the organs grow cold. Some doctors call this illness “ihtinâk-i dîl” or “kalbin nefes alamamasi”, meaning failure of the heart to breath, suffocation. It is hard to decide whether the patient with an attack of “sekte” is dead or alive, but the patient may revive in spite of this condition. Therefore the patient supposed to be dead should not be buried until after a certain time. In “subat” there may also be a failure of the sensorial and motor functions, but this condition develops slowly in contrast with “sekte”.


Figure 4.  A miniature picture of the insane, illustrating musical therapy at the Bayezid II’s Hospital, composed by Nil Sari.

“ihtilac”: (convulsion) is the involuntary convulsion of the muscles. This convulsion is temporary and passes away rapidly. Besides cold, anger, happiness and anxiety also may cause “ihtilac”. It may sometimes be the beginning of “sekte” or “guzaz” (tetanus); or, if it develops in the abdominal muscles it may be the beginning of “mal-i hulya” or “sar’a”. If it occurs in the facial muscles, it may be the beginning of “lâkve” (facial paralysis).

“Lâkve” (Yuz-goz egilmek: facial paralysis): It is a disease occurring in the eye muscles. The eye, eyebrow, skin of the forehead, lips, chin are distorted from their natural condition and undergo change. Lâkve may be the beginning of “sekte”. A patient suffering from this illness is unable to spit properly or chew easily. He dribbles saliva from one side of his mouth. Two different kinds of facial paralysis are dealt with. One is “lâkve tesennucu” (spasmodic facial paralysis) and the other is “lâkve-i istirha” (loosening facial paralysis) and in this type the senses are weakened, the upper eyelid drops down, the gum loosens and fails to hold saliva.

“Hadr” (to get numb) is an Arabian term, which means in Turkish (archaic) “tutulmaklik, tutmakhk, a’za uyusmasi “that is, the failure of the senses. This illness occurs in sensorial and motor organs. First the sensorial organs function poorly or fail to function altogether; consequently, motor ability also loses its natural capacity. “Hadr” has seven causes, some of which are opium eating, too much cold affecting the organs, the bite or sting of poisonous animals or insects such as a snake or scorpion and wrenching of the nerves. If the cause of the illness is in the brain, all the motor and sensorial functions cease. If it is in the spinal marrow, weakening of the sensorial and motor functions spreads either all over the body or only in one half, proportionately with the effectiveness of the cause. The senses in the face are sound. Sometimes a vertebra is dislocated, and “hadr” develops. When a nerve of the neck or the vertebra is damaged, the organ which it serves is affected and the symptom can be observed there. Sometimes “hadr” may result in “felg” (paralysis), “sar’a” (epilepsy), “sekte” (apoplexy) or “tesennuc” (spasm).

“Ra’se” (tremor, trembling): Ra’se is a disease affecting the organs that are the means of movement. When the sufferer tries to move his hand to do something, involuntary movement intervenes and hinders voluntary movement and from the combination of them ra’se results. It mostly appears in hands or head (bas titremek) and sometimes in all organs. “Ra’se” is incurable in the elderly.

“Falic” (paralysis, hemiplegia) is the complete failure and paralysis of muscles and tendons (“mutlak istirha”). Although it is sometimes described as hemiplegia affecting half the ‘body, it should be noted that in Turkish manuscripts “falic” has a wider meaning, including paraplegia, in which the head is not affected and sometimes in “falic” all the body is affected, while sometimes a single finger is paralyzed.

“Tesennuc” (Sinir cekilmek: spasmodic contraction of a muscle; spasm, cramp, convulsion). There are three types of “tesennuc”, in one of which there is congestion of the nerves and muscles (tesennuc-i imtilayî), where the muscles are in spasm. In Arabic it is called “tekallus” (shrink). The cause is generally humidity. In the sanguine type muscles swell and enlarge. When the cause is cold, the patient recovers fast. In “kuru tesennuc” muscles get contracted both in length and width. In “tesennuc” of extreme dryness (yubûset galebesi), the muscles contract. Other causes of “tesennuc” are, sting of scorpions, extreme cold, anxiety and fear, sleeplessness, too much crying, extreme fever, fever and tremor (issi isitma) in children.

“Kuzaz” (spasm, tetanus, shivering: spastic paralysis): There are several meanings of “kuzâz”. One is related to “tesennuc”. The other meanings are: the “tesennuc” of the neck (“ense gekilmesi”). In this illness the neck must be put straight so that it will not move forward or backward; “kuzaz” caused by cold and freezing in which muscles shrink. Nerves and muscles become rigid, cannot move, organs are shrunk in every way. But in “tesennuc” the organ shrinks in one way, nerves and muscles expand and contract. Both usually cause ache. “Kuzaz-i dimagî” or “kuzaz” of the brain is the worst. In children’s “kuzaz” all the muscles in the back of the head stiffen, they can eat and drink with difficulty, there are convulsions in all extremities, they speak with difficulty etc. In some types of “kuzaz” the muscles of the face are spastic; in others suffering from “kuzaz”, the head and neck are turned to one side. There are different kinds of “kuzaz”, such as “ku’zaz-i imtilai” and “ku’zaz-i veremi”.


Figure 5. An Ottoman vehicle to carry patients.

“Levi”, supposed to be Persian or a’ya in Arabic is a state in which the suffered eats and drinks too much for a couple of days, becomes tired and is unwilling to move. He, also feels weak. His veins and muscles contract, he tends to stretch himself. This state is called “levi” meaning to have a bad stomach from overeating.

“Suda” (headache) and “sakîka” (migraine) are important headings in medical manuscripts. For instance in “Zahîre-i Murâdiye” 21 and in “Nuzhetu’l-ebdân” 14 types of headaches are mentioned and these main types of headache are classified into other minor groups. Headaches are classified according to their aetiology which depends generally on the four humours and temperaments. “Sakîka” (migraine) or “yarim basagrisi” is described as an illness which comes for a couple of days and then passes away. Pain is felt while the attack (nobet tutmak) lasts. Several factors are mentioned as the cause of headaches. Some of them are: walking too long in the sun, sitting before the fire, taking a long bath, taking hot food, cold, sitting too long without movement, anger, shouting too much, sleeplessness, thinking too much, sleeping too long, fear, crying too much, sorrow, exhaustive reading, and anxiety.

Discussion and conclusion:

— The majority of the mental and neurological illnesses are mentioned under the title of “the diseases of the head”. Most of the illnesses due to the disorders of the central and peripheral nervous systems are dealt with in one comprehensive title.

— The relations between these diseases are always discussed.

— Some of the diseases are more like syndromes, while others are only symptoms. For instance while “mal-i hulya”, “ask” are a group of illnesses, “ra’se”, “unutsaguluk”, “devvar” are symptoms. Some others such as “eblehlik”, “kafatasi icinde toplanan su” and “Iâkve” obviously seem to be single illnesses.

— Although the names of these illnesses are specific and are classified in a similar way in different medical manuscripts, variations can be noted.

— Under the title of one major illness there is usually sub-classifications of which I gave a few examples here. Thus we have seen four sub-types of “sersâm”. For instance there are several types of “sar’a”, “sekte”, “tesennuc” etc.

— Although this classification is very different from todays, it is also based on symptoms and organic factors.

— Classification depends usually on organic symptoms. I did not come across a tendency to subjective speculation.

— The Ottoman physicians knew that such illnesses were disorders of the central and peripheral nervous systems.

— The sub-types of some diseases are classified according to their etiology which depends generally on the four humours and temperaments.

— We find some of the Turkish terminology quite interesting and absolutely to the point. For example, “unutsaguluk”, “bas cigzinmek”, “agirbasma”, “dutarik”, “can kasilmasi”, “yuz-goz egilmek” etc. We expect others to be discovered in the course of study and research.

— I conclude from my studies that Ottoman doctors had an advantage in having the heritage of the earlier Islamic medicine, to which they made their own contributions and so could build up a good knowledge of psychiatry and neurology.


Emir Celebi: Enmuzecu’t-tib. Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Tip Tarihi Ktp. No. 96.

Emir Celebi: Neticetu’t-tib. Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Tip Tarihi Ktp. No. 59.

Esref bin Muhammed: Hazâ’inu’s-Saâ’dat. By. Bedi N. Sehsuvaroglu. TTK,. XI. No: 9, Ank. 1961.

Hayrullah Ef.: Kamus-i- tib, Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Tip Tarihi Ktp. No. 581.

Ibn-i Serif: Yadigar. Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Tip Tarihi Ktp. No. 311.

Koptagel -Ilal, G. ve Kazancigil: A.: Ortadogu ve Islam Dunyasinda Bilimsel Dusunce ve Psikosomatik Hekimlik Kavraminin Tarihsel Temeli. I. Uluslararasi Turk-Islam Bilim ve Teknoloji Tarihi Kongresi. Bildiriler II., s. 71-86, Istanbul 1981.

Mukbilzâde Mu’min: Zahîre-i Muradiye. Suleymaniye Ktp. H. Mahmud No. 5507.

Nidâî: Menâfiu’n-nâs: Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Tip Tarihi Ktp. No. 133.

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Sâlih b. Nasrullah: Nuzhetu’l-ebdân fî tercumet gayetu’l-itkan. Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Tip Tarihi Ktp. No. 551.

Sari (Akdeniz), Nil: Gevrekzâde Hafiz Hasan Efendi ve Kafa Travmalan Hakkindaki Bilgisi. I. Uluslararasi Turk-Islam Bilim ve Teknoloji Kongresi, 14-18 Eylul 1981.

Sari (Akdeniz), Nil: “Osmanli Tibbinda Beden ve Nefis Terbiyesi” “IV. Milli Turkoloji Kongresi Bildirisi, 19-23 Ekim 1981 Ist.

Sari (Akdeniz), Nil: “Nidaîye Gore ‘Keyif ve ‘Afyonkes’ Tedavisi”. Yeni Symposium, Yil: 19, Sayi: 1, Ocak 1981, Ist. S. 19-25.

Sari (Akdeniz), Nil: “Halk Hekimliginde ve Osmanlica Tip Yazmalarinda Akil ve Sinir Hastaliklarinin Tedavisi” II. Milletlerarasi Turk Folklor Kongresi Bildirileri, C. IV, 1982, Ank.

Sari (Akdeniz), Nil: Osmanlica Tip Yazmalarinda Mâl-i hulya ve Tedavisi (XV.-XVIII. yy.) Ist. Uni. Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Deontoloji Anabilim Dah, 1982, Ist.

Suleyman b. Abdulmennân: Cem-ul mucerrebât (1176) Cerrahpasa Tip Fak. Tip Tarihi Ktp. No. 166.

Sehsuvaroglu, Bedi N.: Sair ve Hekim Ahmedî, Ist. Tip Fak. Mec. C. 16, Sayi: 4, 1953.

Astronomy Image Gallery


Images are taken from the following articles: 

Islamic Sacred Geography and Finding the Qibla by the Sun and Stars by David A King

The Birth of Modern Astronomy by The Editorial Team

White Supremacism and Islamic Astronomy in History of Astronomy Texts from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day by Joe Lockard

Development of Astronomy in Ottomans by Yavuz Unat

The Science of Al-Biruni by Amelia Carolina Sparavigna

Astronomy in Medieval Jerusalem by David A King

Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables by Glen M. Cooper

Star-finders Astrolabes by Cem Nizamoglu

Islamic Astronomy by David A King

The Instruments of Istanbul Observatory by Sevim Tekeli

Video: History of the Mezquita

History of the Mezquita.

Animals Image Gallery


Images are taken from the following articles: 

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation by Cem Nizamoglu, Khaleel Shaikh

Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution by Paul S. Braterman

Kalila wa-Dimna by Paul Lunde

Cats in Islamic Culture by Cem Nizamoglu

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


Note: First published on Muslim Heritage, 14th April 2010, republished today, 11 February 2020 for International Day of Women and Girls in Science


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Women in the historiography: A problem of methodology

3. Recent scholarship

3.1. The Muhaddithat project
3.2. Dictionary of women

4. General overview

5. Medical care

5.1. Rufayda al-Aslamiyyah
5.2. Al-Shifa bint Abduallah
5.3. Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari
5.4. Women surgeons in 15th-century Turkey

6. Mathematics

6.1. Sutayta Al-Mahāmali
6.2. Labana of Cordoba

7. Making of astronomical instruments

8. Patronage

8.1. Zubayda bint Abu Ja’far al-Mansur
8.2. Fatima al-Fihriyya
8.3. Dhayfa Khatun
8.4. Hürrem Sultan

9. Rulers and political leaders

9.1. Sitt al-Mulk
9.2. Shajarat al-Durr
9.3. Sultana Raziya
9.4. Amina of Zaria
9.5. Ottoman women

10. Miscellania

11. Conclusion

12. Acknowledgement

13. References


1. Introduction

While several studies have investigated the contribution of Muslim women in various fields of the classical civilisation of Islam, such as in hadith transmission, jurisprudence (fiqh), literature, and education, until now few sources mention the role of women in the development of science, technology, and medicine in the Islamic tradition.

In scholarship, there are isolated and scattered references to the famous women who had a role in advancing science and who established charitable, educational and religious institutions. Some examples include Zubayda bint Ja’far al-Mansur who pioneered a most ambitious project of digging wells and building service stations all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca, Sutayta who was a mathematician and an expert witness in the courts, Dhayfa Khatun who excelled in management and statesmanship, Fatima al-Fihriyya who founded the Qarawiyin mosque in Fez, Morocco, which is said to be the first university in the world, and the engineer Al-‘Ijlia who made astrolabes in Aleppo.

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Figure 1: A famous signed sketch of Hypatia, included as an insert in Elbert Hubbard’s pamphlet Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, vol. 23, no 4, 1908.

In view of the scant information on such women and the growing importance of the subject of gender and women in society, this report presents what is currently known about their lives and works. Our aim is twofold: to present the available information and to initiate a process of investigation to unearth what could be a most significant find about the roles played by hundreds of women in various fields during different periods of Islamic history.

2. Women in the historiography: A problem of methodology

Over thousands of years, many women have left a mark on their societies, changing the course of history and influencing significant spheres of life. Since ancient times, women have excelled in the areas of poetry, literature, medicine, philosophy and mathematics. A famous example is Hypatia (ca. 370-415), a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who lived in Alexandria, in Hellenistic Egypt, and who participated in that city’s educational community [1].

In the same vein, it is interesting to note the Islamic view of Cleopatra of Egypt (b. 69 BCE). Arabic sources referred to her as a strong and able monarch who was very protective of Egypt. These sources focused on her talents but made no reference to her morals or seductive power. They focused instead on her learning and talents in management. This Arabic image of Cleopatra is in direct contrast to that presented by the Greco-Roman sources which presented her as a hedonist and seductive woman [2].

From the early years of Islam, women had crucial roles in their society. They contributed substantially to the prominence of Islamic civilisation. For example, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, had special skills in administration. She became a scholar in hadith, jurisprudence, an educator, and an orator [3]. There are also many references which point to Muslim women who excelled in areas such as medicine, literature, and jurisprudence. This long tradition found its counterpart in modern times. For example, Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001) was the first female combat pilot in the world. She was appointed as chief trainer at the Turkish Aviation Institution [4].

In contrast, we find little information on Muslim women’s contributions in the classical books of history. New light might arise from the study of not yet edited manuscripts. There are around 5 million manuscripts in archives around the world. Only about 50,000 of them are edited and most of these are not about science [5]. This points to the challenging task lying ahead for researchers into the subject.

Figure 2: A Turkish banknote dated 30 August 1995 to celebrate Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001), the first female combat pilot in the world and the first Turkish aviatrix: (Source). (Source).

3. Recent scholarship

However, this traditional tendency is changing in recent scholarship. Some recent works endeavour to rehabilitate the role of women in Islamic history. Two examples of such works are presented below.

3.1. The Muhaddithat project

For several years, Dr Mohammed Akram Nadwi conducted a long term and large scale project to unearth the biographies of thousands of women who participated in the hadith tradition throughout Islamic history. In Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam [6], Dr Nadwi summarised his 40-volume biographical dictionary (in Arabic) of the Muslim women who studied and taught hadith. Even in this short text, he demonstrates the central role women had in preserving the Prophet’s teaching, which remains the master-guide to understanding the Qur’an as rules and norms for life. Within the bounds of their religion, women routinely attended and gave classes in the major mosques and madrasas, travelled intensively for ‘knowledge’, transmitted and critiqued hadith, issued fatwas (rulings), and so on. Some of the most renowned male scholars have depended on, and praised, the scholarship of their female teachers. The women scholars enjoyed considerable public authority in society, not as the exception, but as the norm.

The huge body of information reviewed in Al-Muhaddithat is essential to understanding the role of women in Islamic society, their past achievements and future potential. Hitherto it has been so dispersed as to be ‘hidden’. The information in Dr Nadwi’s dictionary will greatly facilitate further study, contextualisation and analysis [7].

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Figure 3: From an adjacent room, women attend the preaching of Shaykh Baha’al-Din Veled in Balkh, Afghanistan. Miniature in Jami’ al-Siyar, 1600. MS Hazine 1230, folio 112a, Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul. (Source).

3.2. Dictionary of women

Expanding on her work, Islam: The Empowering of Women, Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley published Muslim Women: A Biographical Dictionary. This most timely work in dictionary form is a comprehensive reference source of Muslim women throughout Islamic history from the first century AH (After Hijri) to roughly the middle of the 13th century AH. A perusal of the entries demonstrate that Muslim women have been successful, for example, as scholars and businesswomen for the past fourteen centuries [8].

The author wrote that her book originally came about as a response to frequent requests to provide some sources about women scholars:

“When I went through my biographical references, I was surprised by the number of references to women, and the great number of women represented in all areas of life, from scholars to rulers, whether regents or women who ruled in their own right, or women who wielded substantial political influence. This led to the decision to compile a larger source of reference of Muslim women, and, given modern views of women in Islam, it gives us a surprising picture of just how active women have been in the history of Islam from the very beginning up until the present time.

“The dictionary covers the period from the time of the Prophet to roughly the middle of the 13th-19th century. (…) As we can see by a perusal of the entries, the role of Muslim women was by no means confined to house and home. They were active in many fields. This is not a question of either/or. It is a question of many roles, all intermeshed and interlocking, rather than separate categories. A business woman is still a mother and a scholar is still a wife. Women simply learn to juggle things more, but that is something women are very good at doing, as can be seen by the entries.

The entries are compiled from a number of sources. Many of the biographical collections devote a section to women, like volume eight of the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa’d and al-Sakhawi’s Kitab an-Nisa’. Sometimes references are found within biographies of other references. A number of notable scholars mention their teachers, who included a number of women. Ibn Hajar studied with 53 women, as-Sakhawi had ijazas from 68 women, and as-Suyuti studied with 33 women – a quarter of his shaykhs. Al-Aghani by Abu’l-Faraj al-Isbahani is the major source for singers. An excellent modern source is A’lam an-Nisa’ by ‘Umar Rida Kahhala, which consists of five volumes dealing with notable women, and is by no means inclusive[9].

Figure 4a-b: Two views of the Firdaws Mosque and Madrasa in Aleppo built by Dayfa Khatun in 1235-36 CE. (Source).

4. General overview

The eminence attained by many women during Islamic civilisation begins to be unveiled in recent scholarship. The female relatives of the Caliphs and courtiers vied with each other in the patronage and cultivation of letters. Ayesha, the daughter of Prince Ahmed in the Andalus, excelled in rhyme and oratory; her speeches aroused the tumultuous enthusiasm of the grave philosophers of Cordoba; and her library was one of the finest and most complete in the kingdom.

Wallada (known as Valada in Western scholarship), a princess of the Almohads, whose personal charms were not inferior to her talents, was renowned for her knowledge of poetry and rhetoric; her conversation was remarkable for its depth and brilliancy; and, in the academic contests of Cordoba, the capital which attracted the learned and the eloquent from every quarter of the Iberian Peninsula, she never failed, whether in prose or in poetical composition, to out-distance all competitors.

Al-Ghassania and Safia, both of Seville, were also distinguished for poetical and oratorical genius; the latter was unsurpassed for the beauty and perfection of her calligraphy; the splendid illuminations of her manuscripts were the despair of the most accomplished artists of the age. The literary attainments of Miriam, the gifted daughter of Al-Faisuli, were famous throughout the Andalus, the caustic wit and satire of her epigrams were said to have been unrivalled.

Umm al-Sa’d was famous for her familiarity with Muslim tradition. Labana of Cordoba was thoroughly versed in the exact sciences; her talents were equal to the solution of the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems, and her vast acquaintance with general literature obtained her the important employment of private secretary to the Caliph Al-Hakam II.

In AI-Fihrist, Ibn al-Nadim names women with a varied range of skills. Two are grammarians — a much respected branch of knowledge, related to the use of the full range of excellence of the Arabic language. There was a woman scholar of Arab dialects, “whose origin was among the tribes”, and another “acquainted with tribal legends and colloquialisms”. A third wrote a book entitled “Rare forms and sources of verbal nouns”. Aspiring poets, like Abu Nuwas, used to spend time with the desert tribes to perfect their knowledge of pure Arabic. In a different field, Arwa, “a woman known for her wise sayings”, wrote a book about “sermons, morals and wisdom”.

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Figure 5: Anonymous oil painting portrait, now located at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, of Hürrem Sultan or Roxelana (c. 1510 – April 18, 1558), the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, known for her charities and engagement in several major works of public building, from Mecca to Jerusalem and in Istanbul. (Source).

The making of astrolabes, a branch of applied science of great status, was practiced by Al-‘Ijliyah bint al-‘Ijli al-Asturlabi, who followed her father’s profession in Aleppo and was employed at the court of Sayf al-Dawlah (333 H/944 CE-357/967), one of the powerful Hamdanid rulers in northern Syria who guarded the frontier with the Byzantine empire in the tenth century CE.

In the development of the art of calligraphy, one woman at least took part. Thana’ was a slave in the household of the tutor to one of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur’s sons. This tutor, Ibn Qayyuma, seems to have been a dedicated teacher, for the young slaves in his household benefited as well as his royal pupil. Of the two whom he sent to be trained by the leading calligraphist of the day, Ishaq ibn Hammad, one was the girl Thana’. His pupils, says Ibn al-Nadim, “wrote the original measured scripts never since equaled [10].”

We now present brief information on women who excelled in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, instrument making and patronage, as examples for future research and further investigation.

5. Medical care

Throughout history and even as early as the time of the Prophet Muhammad, there are examples of Muslim women making significant contributions to the improvement of the quality of the social and economic life of their societies. They actively participated in management, education, religious jurisprudence, medicine and health as they were motivated by their concern for the affairs of the people. The Sharia (Islamic law) requires Muslims to have great concern for society in all spheres of life. Thus, throughout Islamic history the search for scientific knowledge was considered as an act of worship. With the arrival of Islam, women were able to practice as physicians and treat both women and men particularly on the battlefields. However, the strict segregation between men and women meant that women had little or no contact with men outside their immediate family. Hence, the healthcare of Muslim women was mainly handled by other women. The following are some examples of some of Muslim women who contributed to the advancement of medicine.

The title of the first nurse of Islam is credited to Rufayda Bint Saad Al Aslamiyya. But names of other women were recorded as nurses and practitioners of medicine in early Islam: Nusayba Bint Kaab Al-Mazeneya, one of the Muslim women who provided nursing services to warriors at the battle of Uhud (625 H), Umm Sinan Al-Islami (known also as Umm Imara), who became a Muslim and asked permission of the Prophet Muhammad to go out with the warriors to nurse the injured and provide water to the thirsty, Umm Matawe’ Al-Aslamiyya, who volunteered to be a nurse in the army after the opening of Khaybar, Umm Waraqa Bint Hareth, who participated in gathering the Quran and providing her nursing services to the warriors at the battle of Badr.

5.1. Rufayda al-Aslamiyyah

Rufayda bint Sa’ad, also known as Rufayda al-Aslamiyyah, considered the first nurse in Islamic history, lived at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. She nursed the wounded and dying in the wars with the Prophet Muhammed in the battle of Badr on 13 March 624 H.

Rufayda learnt most of her medical knowledge by assisting her father, Saad Al-Aslamy, who was a physician. Rufayda devoted herself to nursing and taking care of sick people and she became an expert healer. She practiced her skills in field hospitals in her tent during many battles as the Prophet used to order all casualties to be carried to her tent so that she might treat them with her medical expertise.

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Figure 6: Two Andalusian Arab women playing chess, with a girl playing lute (Chess Problem #19, F18R) , from Alphonso X’s Book of Games (Libro de los Juegos). The book was commissioned between 1251 and 1282 CE by Alphonso X, King of Leon and Castile. It reflects the presence of the Islamic legacy in Christian Spain. It is now housed at the monastery library of St. Lorenze del Escorial. (Source).

Rufayda is depicted as a kind, empathetic nurse and a good organiser. With her clinical skills, she trained other women to be nurses and to work in the area of health care. She also worked as a social worker, helping to solve social problems associated with disease. In addition, she helped children in need and took care of orphans, the disabled and poor [11].

5.2. Al-Shifa bint Abduallah

The companion Al-Shifa bint Abduallah al-Qurashiyah al-‘Adawiyah had a strong presence in early Muslim history as she was one of the wise women of that time. She was literate at a time of illiteracy. She was involved in public administration and skilled in medicine. Her real name was Laila, however “al-Shifa”, which means “the healing”, is partly derived from her profession as a nurse and medical practitioner. Al-Shifa used to use a preventative treatment against ant bites and the Prophet approved of her method and requested her to train other Muslim women [12].

5.3. Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari

Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari, also called Umm ‘Atia, took care of casualties on the battlefields and provided them with water, food and first aid. In addition, she performed circumcisions [13].

5.4. Women surgeons in 15th-century Turkey

Between those first names of early Islamic history other women practiced medicine and nursery. Few of them were recorded. However, a serious investigation in books of history, of medicine and literature writings will certainly provide precise data about their lives and achievements.

In the 15th century, a Turkish surgeon, Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu (1385-1468), author of the famous manual of surgery Cerrahiyyetu’l-Haniyye, did not hesitate to illustrate the details of obstetric and gynaecologic procedures or to depict women treating and performing procedures on female patients. He also worked with female surgeons, while his male colleaques in the West reported against the female healers.

Female surgeons in Anatolia, generally performed some gynaecological procedures like surgical managements of fleshy grows of the clitoris in the female genitalia, imperforated female pudenda, warts and red pustules arising in the female pudenda, perforations and eruptions of the uterus, abnormal labours, and extractions of the abnormal foetus or placenta. Interestingly in the Cerrahiyyetu’l-Haniyye, we find illustrations in the forms of miniatures indicating female surgeons. It can therefore be speculated that they reflect the early recognition (15th century) of female surgeons with paediatric neurosurgical diseases like foetal hydrocephalus and macrocephalus.

The attitude towards women in the history of medicine reflect the general view that society held of women during the period. It is interesting that in the treatise of Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu we find an open minded view of women, including female practitioners in the complex field of surgery [14].

6. Mathematics

In the field of mathematics, names of female scholars featured in Islamic history such as Amat-Al-Wahid Sutaita Al-Mahamli from Baghdad and Labana of Cordoba, both from the 10th century. Systematic investigation, with the methodology of history of science, will certainly yield more information on other women scholars who practiced mathematics in Islamic history. We know of many women who practiced fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Now, calculations and arithmetic were intertwined with successoral calculations (fara’idh and mawarith), a branch of applied mathematics devoted to performing calculatations of inheritance according to the rules of Islamic law.

6.1. Sutayta Al-Mahāmali

Sutayta, who lived in the second half of the 10th century, came from an educated family from Baghdad. Her father was the judge Abu Abdallah al-Hussein, author of several books including Kitab fi al-fiqh, Salat al-‘idayn [15]. Her uncle was a Hadith scholar and her son was the judge Abu-Hussein Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Ismail al-Mahamli who was known for his judgements and his talents.

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Figure 7: View into the courtyard towards the prayer hall of the Qarawiyyin mosque and university in Fez (photograph date 1990, copyright Aga Khan Visual Archive, MIT). (Source).

Sutayta was taught and guided by several scholars including her father. Other scholars who taught her were Abu Hamza b. Qasim, Omar b. Abdul-‘Aziz al-Hashimi, Ismail b. Al-Abbas al-Warraq and Abdul-Alghafir b. Salamah al-Homsi. Sutayta was known for her good reputation, morality and modesty. She was praised by historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi and Ibn Kathīr [16]. She died in the year 377H/987CE.

Sutayta did not specialise in just one subject but excelled in many fields such as Arabic literature, hadith, and jurisprudence as well as mathematics. It is said that she was an expert in hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics which were well developed in her time. It is said also that she invented solutions to equations which have been cited by other mathematicians, these include equations which denote aptitude in algebra. Although these equations were few, they demonstrated that her skills in mathematics went beyond a simple aptitude to perform calculations.

6.2. Labana of Cordoba

Labana of Cordoba (Spain, ca. 10th century) was one of the few Islamic female mathematicians known by name. She was said to be well-versed in the exact sciences, and could solve the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems known in her time.

Her vast acquaintance with general literature obtained her the important employment of private secretary to the Umayyad Caliph of Islamic Spain, al-Hakam II. [17].

7. Making of astronomical instruments

In astronomy and related fields, the historical records kept just one name, that of Al-‘Ijliya, apparently an astrolabe maker. Little information is available about her, and we know of only one source in which she is mentioned, the famous bio-bibliographical work Al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim.

In section VII.2 (information on mathematicians, engineers, practitioners of arithmetic, musicians, calculators, astrologers, makers of instruments, machines, and automata), Ibn al-Nadim presents a list of 16 names of engineers, craftsmen and artisans of astronomical instruments and other machines. Al-‘Ijliya, of whom Ibn al-Nadim did not mention the first name, is the only female in the list. Several of the experts thus named are from Harran, in Northern Mesopotamia, and probably Sabians, whilst others may be Christians, as it can be concluded from their names. At the end of the list, two entries mentioned Al-‘Ijli al-Usturlabi, pupil of Betolus, “and his daughter Al-‘Ijliya, who was with [meaning she worked in the court of] Sayf al-Dawla; she was the pupil of Bitolus” (Al-‘Ijli al-Usturlabi ghulâm Bitolus; Al-‘Ijliya ibnatuhu ma’a Sayf al-Dawla tilmidhat Bitolus) [18].

The name of Al-‘Ijli and his daughter is derived from Banu ‘Ijl, a tribe which was part of Banu Bakr, an Arabian tribe belonging to the large Rabi’ah branch of Adnanite tribes. Bakr’s original lands were in Nejd, in central Arabia, but most of the tribe’s bedouin sections migrated northwards immediately before Islam, and settled in the area of Al-Jazirah, on the upper Euphrates. The city of Diyarbakir in southern Turkey takes its name from this tribe. The Banu ‘Ijl, mostly Bedouin, located in al-Yamama and the southern borders of Mesopotamia [19].

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Figure 8: Front cover of The Forgotten Queens of Islam by Fatima Mernissi, translated from French by Mary Jo Lakeland (University of Minnesota Press, 1993, hardcover).

From this, albeit too brief, quotation of Ibn al-Nadim, it turns out that Al-‘Ijliya, of whom Ibn al-Nadim did not specify the first name, was the daughter of an instrument maker, and like her father, they were members of a rich tradition of engineers and astronomical instrument makers who flourished in the 9th-10th century. Ibn al-Nadim mentioned her in a section on “machines” but in it on astronomical instruments only. Therefore, we do not know if Al-‘Ijliya was solely expert in this field. She worked in the court of Sayf al-Dawla in Aleppo (reigned from 944 CE to 967 CE) and was the pupil of a certain Bitolus, who taught her the secrets of the profession. Her father, and several scholars mentioned by Ibn al-Nadim, were apprentices to the same master, who seems to have been a famous astrolabe-maker. We do not know where she was born nor if she learned instrument making in Aleppo or elsewhere. Among the few extant Islamic astrolabes, none bears her name, and as far as the available classical sources can allow us to judge, she is the only woman mentioned in connection with instrument making or engineering work.

8. Patronage

Muslim women have played a major role in promoting civilisation and science in the Islamic world. Some have built schools, mosques and hospitals. The following are some examples of these women and their crucial impact on Islamic civilization.

8.1. Zubayda bint Abu Ja’far al-Mansur

Zubayda bint Abu Ja’far, the wife of Harun ar-Rashid, was the wealthiest and most powerful woman in the world of her time. She was a noblewoman of great generosity and munificence. She developed many buildings in different cities. She was known to have embarked upon a gigantic project to build service stations with water wells all along the Pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca. The famous Zubayda water spring in the outskirts of Mecca still carries her name. She was also a patron of the arts and poetry [20].

8.2. Fatima al-Fihriyya

Fatima al-Fehri has played a great role in the civilisation and culture of her community. She migrated with her father Mohamed al-Fihriyya from Qayrawan, Tunisia to Fez. She grew up with her sister in an educated family and learnt Fiqh and Hadith. Fatima inherited a considerable amount of money from her father which she used to build a mosque for her community. Established in the year 859 CE, the Qarawiyyin mosque had the oldest, and possibly the first university in the world. Students travelled there from all over the world to study Islamic studies, astronomy, languages, and sciences. It is held by some historians that Arabic numbers became known and used in Europe through this university. This is one important example of the role of women in the advancement of education and civilisation [21].

8.3. Dhayfa Khatun

Dhayfa Khatun, the powerful wife of the Ayyubid ruler of Aleppo al-Zahir Ghazi, was the Queen of Aleppo for six years. She was born in Aleppo in 1186 CE. Her father was King al-Adel, the brother of Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi and her brother was King al-Kamel. She was married to King al-Zahir, the son of Salah al-Din. Her son was King Abdul-Aziz. After her son’s death, she became the Queen of Aleppo as her grandson was only 7 years of age. During her 6-year rule, she faced threats from Mongols, Seljuks, Crusaders and Khuarzmein. Dhayfa was a popular queen; she removed injustices and unfair taxes throughout Aleppo. She favored the poor and scientists and founded many charities to support them. Dhayfa was a prominent architectural patron. She established large endowments for the maintenance and operation of her charitable foundations [22].

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Figure 9: Front cover of Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam by Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi (Interface Publications, 2007). This book is an adaptation of the Muqaddimah or Preface to M. A. Nadwi’s multi-volume biographical dictionary in Arabic of the Muslim women who studied and taught hadith. The huge body of information reviewed in Al-Muhaddithat is essential to understanding the role of women in Islamic society, their past achievements and future potential.

In addition to her political and social roles, Dhayfa sponsored learning in Aleppo where she founded two schools. The first was al-Firdaous School which specialised in Islamic studies and Islamic law, specially the Shafi’i doctrine. Al-Firdaous School was located close to Bab al-Makam in Aleppo and had a teacher, an Imam and twenty scholars, according to the structure of the educational system at that time. Its campus consisted of several buildings, including the school, a residential hall for students and a mosque. The second school, the Khankah School, specialised in both Sharia and other fields. It was located in Mahalat al-Frafera. Dhayfa died in 1242 at the age 59 and was buried in the Aleppo citadel [23].

8.4. Hürrem Sultan

Hürrem Sultan, also called Roxelana, was born in year 1500 to an Ukrainian father. She was enslaved during the Crimean Turks raids on Ukraine during the reign of Yavuz Sultan Selim, and presented to the Ottoman palace. She was the most beloved concubine of Süleyman the Magnificent and became his wife. During her lifetime, Hürrem Sultan was concerned with charitable works and founded a number of institutions. These include a mosque complex in Istanbul and the Haseki Külliye complex, which consists of a mosque, medrese, school and imaret (public kitchen). She also built çifte hamam (double bathhouse with sections for both men and women), two schools and a women’s hospital. In addition to this, she also commissioned the building of four schools in Mecca and a mosque in Jerusalem. Hürrem Sultan died in April 1558 and lies buried in the graveyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque [24].

9. Rulers and political leaders

In addition to the roles played by women in Islamic history, as surveyed in the previous sections, we can not finish this introductory article without pointing out the role of some Muslim women as rulers and political leaders in various regions and phases of Islamic civilisation. We have already referred to Queen Dhayfa Khatun and Princess Hurrem Sultan as patrons of great buildings and institutions in the previous section. In the following, we refer to a few outstanding women in management and governance.

9.1. Sitt al-Mulk

In Muslim Civilisation, no woman who had held power had borne the title of caliph or imam. Caliph has been a title exclusively reserved to a minority of men. However, although no woman ever became a caliph, as such, there have been women who became Sultanas and Malikas (Queens). Sitt al-Mulk, the Fatimid Princess in Egypt, was one of them. Intelligent and careful enough not to violate any of the rules and requirements that govern politics in the Islamic society, and while she carried out virtually all the functions of caliph, she directed the affairs of the empire quite effectively as Regent (for her nephew who was too young to rule) for few years (1021-1023). She had the title of ‘Naib as-Sultan‘ (Vice Sultan).

Sitt al-Mulk (970–1023), was the elder sister of Caliph Al-Hakim. After the death of her father Al-Aziz (975-996), she tried with the help of a cousin to force her brother from the throne, and she became Regent for his son and successor Al-Zahir. She continued to wield influence as an advisor after he came of age, as evidenced by the very generous apanages that came her way.

After the assumption of power, she abolished many of the strange rules that Al-Hakim had promulgated in his reign, and worked to reduce tensions with the Byzantine Empire over the control of Aleppo, but before negotiations could be completed she died on 5 February 1023 at the age of fifty-two.

9.2. Shajarat al-Durr

Another Queen bearing the title of Sultana was Shajarat al-Durr, who gained power in Cairo in 1250 CE. In fact, she brought the Muslims to victory during the Crusades and captured Louis IX, the then King of France.

Shajarat al-Durr (whose name means in Arabic ‘string of pearls’), bore the royal name al-Malikah Ismat ad-Din Umm-Khalil Shajarat al-Durr. She was the widow of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub who played a crucial role after his death during the Seventh Crusade against Egypt (1249-1250). She was regarded by Muslim historians and chroniclers of the Mamluk time as being of Turkic origin. She became the Sultana of Egypt on May 2, 1250, marking the end of the Ayyubid reign and the starting of the Mamluk era. She died in Cairo in 1257.

In the course of her life and political career, Shajarat al-Durr, played many roles and held great influence within the court system that she inhabited. She was a military leader, a mother, and a sultana at various points throughout her career with great success until her fall from power in 1257. Her political importance comes from the period in which she reigned, which included many important events in Egyptian and Middle Eastern history. The Egyptian sultanate shifted from the Ayyubids to the Mamluks in the 1250s. Louis IX of France led the Sixth Crusade into Egypt, took Damietta and advanced down the Nile before the Mamluks stopped this army at Mansura. In the midst of this hectic environment, Shajarat al-Durr rose to pre-eminence, reestablished political stability and held on to political power for seven years in one form or another [25].

9.3. Sultana Razia

On the other extremity of the Muslim world and almost in the same time as Shajarat al-Durr, another woman held power, but this time in India. Razia (or Raziyya) Sultana of Delhi took power in Delhi for four years (1236-1240 CE). She was the only woman ever to sit on the throne of Delhi. Razia’s ancestors were Muslims of Turkish descent who came to India during the 11th century. Contrary to custom, her father selected her, over her brothers, to be his successor. After her father’s death, she was persuaded to step down from the throne in favour of her stepbrother Ruknuddin, but, opposed to his rule, the people demanded that she become Sultana in 1236.

She established peace and order, encouraged trade, built roads, planted trees, dug wells, supported poets, painters, and musicians, constructed schools and libraries, appeared in public without the veil, wore tunic and headdress of a man. State meetings were often open to the people. Yet, she made enemies when she tried to eliminate some of the discriminations against her Hindu subjects.

Jealous of her attention to one of her advisors, Jamal Uddin Yaqut (not of Turkish blood), her governor, Altunia, rebelled. Razia’s troops were defeated, Jamal was killed in battle, Razia was captured and married to her conqueror in 1240. One of her brothers claimed the throne for himself, Razia and her new husband were defeated in battle where both died [26].

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Figure 10: Front cover of Al-Mu’allifat min al-nisa’ wa-mu’allataftuhunna fi al-tarikh al-islami by Muhammad Khayr Ramadhan Yusuf (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 1412 H).

Firishta, a 16th-century historian of Muslim rule in India, wrote about her: “The Princess was adorned with every qualification required in the ablest kings and the strictest scrutinizers of her actions could find in her no fault, but that she was a woman. In the time of her father, she entered deeply into the affairs of government, which disposition he encouraged, finding she had a remarkable talent in politics. He once appointed her regent (the one in control) in his absence. When the emirs (military advisors) asked him why he appointed his daughter to such an office in preference to so many of his sons, he replied that he saw his sons giving themselves up to wine, women, gaming and the worship of the wind (flattery); that therefore he thought the government too weighty for their shoulders to bear and that Raziya, though a woman, had a man’s head and heart and was better than twenty such sons [27].”

9.4. Amina of Zaria

During Muslim Civilisation in Subsaharan Africa, several women excelled in various fields. Among them, was Queen Amina of Zaria. Amina of Zaria, the Queen of Zazzua, a province of Nigeria now known as Zaria, was born around 1533 during the reign of Sarkin (king) Zazzau Nohir. She was probably his granddaughter. Zazzua was one of a number of Hausa city-states which dominated the trans-Saharan trade after the collapse of the Songhai empire to the west. Its wealth was due to trade of mainly leather goods, cloth, kola, salt, horses and imported metals.

At the age of sixteen, Amina became the heir apparent (Magajiya) to her mother, Bakwa of Turunku, the ruling queen of Zazzua. With the title came the responsibility for a ward in the city and daily councils with other officials. Although her mother’s reign was known for peace and prosperity, Amina also chose to learn military skills from the warriors.

Queen Bakwa died around 1566 and the reign of Zazzua passed to her younger brother Karama. At this time Amina emerged as the leading warrior of Zazzua cavalry. Her military achievements brought her great wealth and power. When Karama died after a ten-year rule, Amina became Queen of Zazzua.

She set off on her first military expedition three months after coming to power and continued fighting until her death. In her thirty-four year reign, she expanded the domain of Zazzua to its largest size ever. Her main focus, however, was not on annexation of neighbouring lands, but on forcing local rulers to accept vassal status and permit Hausa traders safe passage.

She is credited with popularising the earthen city wall fortifications, which became characteristic of Hausa city-states since then. She ordered the building of a defensive wall around each military camp that she established. Later, towns grew within these protective walls, many of which are still in existence. They are known as “ganuwar Amina“, or Amina’s walls [28].

Figure 11: Painting of Queen Amina of Zaria by Floyd Cooper. (Source).

9.5. Ottoman women.

We finish this section with a note on Ottoman women, a field of investigation that began to attract the attention of scholars. In the 16th and 17th century, harems played an important role in the government of the Ottoman Empire [29]. Unlike the common perception, the Harem was an administrative centre of government, run by women only [30]. This is a field of research in which a systematic investigation will be rewarded by great results.

10. Miscellania

In addition to the specialties and social roles mentioned above, other fields knew the contribution of Muslim women. Two examples show how much a serious investigation will progress our knowledge of their contribution. In chemistry, historical sources quote the name of Maryam Al-Zinyani. Some scholars suggested that Maryam Al-Zinyani is Maryam bint Abdullah al-Hawary who died in year 758 CE in Qayrawan. In addition to writing poetry, Maryam was skilled in chemistry [31].

11. Conclusion

Muslim women participated with men in constructing Islamic culture and civilisation, excelling in poetry, literature and the arts. In addition, Muslim women have demonstrated tangible contributions in mathematics, astronomy, medicine and in the profession of health care. However, the study of the role of Muslim women in the advancement of science, technology, medicine and governance is difficult to document as there are only scant mentions of it. New light might arise from the study of not yet edited manuscripts. There are around 5 million manuscripts in archives around the world. Only about 50,000 of them are edited and most of these are not about science. Editing relevant manuscripts is indeed a strategic issue for discovering the role of Muslim women in science and civilisation.

12. Acknowledgement

This work would have not been completed without the assistance of a number of colleagues, amongst whom I particularly like to thank Prof. Mohammed Abattouy, Dr Mehrunisha Suleman, Professor Nabila Dawood, Mohammed Kujja, Dr Suhair Al-Qurashi, Dr Rim Turkmani, Arwa Abde-Aal, Margaret Morris and Sundoss Al-Hassani.

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[1] See Michael A. B. Deakin, “Hypatia and Her Mathematics”, The American Mathematical Monthly, March 1994, vol. 101, No. 3, pp. 234-243; L. Cameron, “Isidore of Miletus and Hypatia of Alexandria: On the Editing of Mathematical Texts”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies vol. 31 (1990), pp. 103-127; I. Mueller, “Hypatia (370?-415)”, in L. S. Grinstein and P. J. Campbell (eds.), Women of Mathematics (Westport, Conn., 1987), pp. 74-79; Bryan J. Whitfield, The Beauty of Reasoning: A Reexamination of Hypatia of Alexandra; O’Connor, John J. & Robertson, Edmund F., “Hypatia of Alexandria”, from MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive; Hypatia of Alexandria: A woman before her time, The Woman Astronomer, 11 November 2007 (accessed 12.05.2008); “Hypatia of Alexandria” (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) Resources on Hypatia (booklist and classroom activities).

[2] Okasha El-Daly, Egyptology: the Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. London: UCL Press, 2005.

[3] See the biography of Aishah bint Abi Bakr (University of Southern California: USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts); Montgomery Watt, “Ā’isha Bint Abī Bakr”, Encyclopedia of Islam, Brill, vol. 1, p. 307; Amira Sonbol, “Period 500-800, Women, Gender and Islamic Cultures (6th-9th Centuries)”, in Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures, General Editor: Suad Joseph, 6 vols. Leiden-Boston: E. J. Brill, 6 vols., 2003. See an online preview here.

[4] Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk’le Bir Ömür (A Life with Atatürk) (in Turkish), Istanbul: Altin Kitaplar, 2000. See also Sabiha Gokcen (1913-2001), Pioneer Aviatrix.

[5] Private communications with Qassim Al-Samarrai, Professor of Palaeography, Leiden, Holland.

[6] Oxford: Interface Publications, 2007 (hardcover and paperback).

[7] Over the last few years Dr. Nadwi has, on several occasions and in different cities, given an introductory talk on the public authority and achievements of the women scholars of hadîth. One of those talks was given in New York. Carla Power, a London-based journalist attended that occasion, and has since reflected upon Akram Nadwi’s work in a magazine article published by the New York Times (25 February 2007): see A Secret History. A follow-up article, done after an interview with the author in Oxford, was published in the London Times, 14 April 2007. For another article, also after an interview with Akram Nadwi, this one in Arabic, go here. Read also a PDF file (17 pp.) of Akram Nadwi’s introductory talk on the women scholars in Islam, click here.

[8] Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley, Muslim Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Ta-Ha Publishers, 2004.

[9] Ibid, introduction.

[10] Waddy Charis, Women in Muslim History, London and New York: Longman Group, 1980, p. 72.

[11] R. Jan, “Rufaida Al-Asalmiy, The first Muslim nurse”, Image: The Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 1996 28(3), 267-268; G. Hussein Rassool, “The Crescent and Islam: Healing, Nursing and the Spiritual Dimension. Some Considerations towards an Understanding of the Islamic Perspectives on Caring”, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 2000, 32 (6), 1476-84; Omar Hasan Kasule, “Rufaidah bint Sa’ad: Historical Roots of the Nursing Profession in Islam; History of Nursing in Islam (compiled by Sarah Miller); Rufaidah bint Sa’ad Founder of the Nursing Profession in Islam.

[12] See the articles Muslim Women in History and Al-Shifaa bint Abdullah al Qurashiyah al Adawiyah.

[13] Abdel-Hamid ‘Abd Rahman Al-Sahibani, Suwar min Siyar al-Sahābiyāt, Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khazima, 1414 H, p. 211; ‘Umar Kahala, A’lam al-nisa’, Damascus, 1959, vol. 5, p. 171.

[14] G. Bademci Gulsah, “First illustrations of female “Neurosurgeons” in the fifteenth century by Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu, Neurocirugía (Sociedad Española de Neurocirugía, Murcia, Spain), April 2006, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 162-165. The book was edited several times, see Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu, Kitabul Cerrahiyei Ilhaniye, Istanbul, Kenan Basimevi, 1992, and Ankara, Turk Tarih Kurumu Yayinlari, 1992.

[15] Al-Khatib Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad, Cairo: Happiness Press, 1931, vol. 6, p. 370. To read this section online: click here.

[16] Abu ‘l-Faraj Abdurahman b. Ali ibn al-Jawzi, Al-muntazam fi ‘l-tarikh, Haydarabad: Da’irat al-ma’arif al-uthmaniya, 1359, vol. 14, pp. 161-202; this section is online at: click here; Haji Khalifa, Kashf al-Zunun an ‘Asami al-Kutub wa al-Funun, Istanbul: al-Ma’aref, 1941.

[17] Samuel P. Scott, The History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, Philadelphia & London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904, vol. 3, p.447; quoted in [FSTC], Women and learning in Islam.

[18] Ibn al-Nadim, Kitab al-Fihrist, edited by Risha Tajaddud, Tehran, Maktabat al-Aasadi, 1971, p. 342-343.

[19] R. Khanam (editor), Encyclopaedic ethnography of Middle-East and Central Asia, New Delhi: Global Vision Publishing, 2005, vol. 1, p. 291. See also on the Banu ‘Ijl tribe Fred McGraw Donner, “The Bakr B. Wā’il Tribes and Politics in Northeastern Arabia on the Eve of Islam”, Studia Islamica, No. 51 (1980), pp. 5-38.

[20] See Eric J.Hanne, “Women, Power, and the Eleventh and Twelfth Century Abbasid Court”, Source: Hawwa (Brill), vol. 3, No. 1, 2005, pp. 80-110; Sa’d ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Rashid, Darb Zubaydah: the pilgrim road from Kufa to Mecca. Riyad, Saudi Arabia: Riyad University Libraries, 1980; Women Building Masjids; and Zubaydah the Empress.

[21] FSTC, Wed 20 October, 2004, “Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University“; Abdeladi Tazi, Al-Mar’a fi tarikh al-gharb al-islami, Casablanca: Le Fennec, 1992; “University of Al-Karaouine“, in Wikipedia.

[22] Ibn al-‘Adīm, Zubdat Al-Halab fi Tareekh Halab, Dar al-kutub al-‘ilmiya, 1996; Terry Allen, Madrasah al-Firdaus, in Ayyubid Architecture, Occidental, CA: Solipsist Press, 2003 [accessed 12.05.2008]; Yasser Tabbaa (1997), Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo. The Pennsylvania State University Press, pp. 46-48,142,168-171; Abdul Qader Rihawi (1979), Arabic Islamic Architecture in Syria, Damascus: Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, p. 138; Manar Hammad, (2003), “Madrasat al-Firdaws: Paradis Ayyubide de Dayfat Khatun” (Unpublished paper). Available online: click here.

[23] Yasser Tabbaa, “Dayfa Khatun: Regent Queen and Architectural Patron,” in Ruggles, Women, Patronage, and Self-Representation, 17-34; Taef Kamal el-Azhari, “: Dayfa Khatun, Ayyubid Queen of Aleppo 634-640”, Annals of Japan Association for Middle East Studies No. 15 2000.

[24] Thomas M. Prymak, “Roxolana: Wife of Suleiman the Magnificent,” Nashe zhyttia/Our Life, LII, 10 (New York, 1995), 15-20; Galina Yermolenko, “Roxolana: The Greatest Empresse of the East,” The Muslim World, 95, 2 (2005), 231-48; “The Islamic World to 1600: Roxelana” (University of Calgary); Amy Singer 1997. “The Mülknames of Hürrem Sultan’s Waqf in Jerusalem”, in Muqarnas XIV: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World. Edited by Gülru Necipoglu. Leiden: E.J. Brill, pp. 96-102. Online here. See also “Roxelana” in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

[25] See on Shajarat al-Durr the classic work of Götz Schregle Die Sultanin von Ägypten: Sagarat ad-Durr in der arabischen Geschichtsschreibung und Literatur (Wiesbaden, O. Harrasowitz, 1961) and the recent articles by David J. Duncan, “Scholarly Views of Shajarat Al-Durr: A Need for a Consensus” published in Chronicon vol. 2 (1998), no. 4: pp. 1-35 and in Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), vol. 22, January 2000. Read also Amira Nowaira, Shajarat Al-Durr, From the Harem to Highest Office (9 Jun 2009).

[26] Sultana Razia by Lyn Reese in Her Story: Women Who Changed the World, edited by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, Viking, 1995, pp. 34-36.,

[27] Quoted in “Muslim Women Through the Centuries” by Kamran Scot Aghaie, Nat’l Center for History in the Schools, University of California at Los Angeles,1998, p. 32.

[28] Danuta Bois, Amina Sarauniya Zazzua (1998). See also Amina Zazzua profile by Denise Clay in Heroines. Remarkable and Inspiring Women/An Illustrated Anthology of Essays by Women Writers (New York: Crescent Books, 1995) and Queen Amina – Queen of Zaria.

[29] Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. Hardcover: 704 pages. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

[30] Leslie P. Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (Studies in Middle Eastern History), Oxford University Press, 1993.

[31] Hasan Hosni ‘Abd-Wahab, Shahīrāt Tūnusiyāt, Tunis, 1934.

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* Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester and Chairman of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), Manchester, UK.

Arts Image Gallery


Images are taken from the following articles: 

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times by Sairah Yassir-Deane

Introduction to Islamic Art by Rabah Saoud

New Discoveries in the Islamic Complex of Mathematics, Architecture and Art by Salim Al-Hassani

Beauty and Aesthetics in Islam by Wijdan Ali

The Art of Calligraphy in the Ottoman Empire by Ugur Derman

Andalusia’s New Golden Pottery by Tor Eigeland

Ebru: The Art of Paper Marbling by The Editorial Team

Vikings Trading with Muslims

Vikings Trading with Muslims

Music Image Gallery



Images are taken from the following articles: 

Manuscript Review: The Book of Musical Modes by Al-Urmawi

The Sound Rules in Reading the Quran (Tajwid) in Qutb Al-Din al-Shirazi’s Music Notation by Fazli Arslan

Ottoman Music Therapy by Nil Sari

Literature and Music in Muslim Civilisation by The Editorial Team

Safi al-Din al-Urmawi and the Theory of Music by Fazli Arslan

Muslim Roots, U.S. Blues by Jonathan Curiel

The Great Turk Genius Amir Khusraw and his Accomplishments in Music by N.A. Baloch


Vikings in Al-Andalus

Vikings in Al-Andalus

Water innovations in the Muslim world: past glories and future outlook


By Dr. Rizwan Nawaz, University of Leeds

From the eighth century onwards, Muslim societies extending from Cordoba in Spain to Damascus, Baghdad, Fez and through to Marrakech, relied on the world’s most advanced water technologies at the time to serve their communities. Curved dams, de-silting sluices and hydropower were amongst the innovations at the time at the disposal of Muslim engineers [1,2].

One prominent inventor who left a lasting legacy was Al-Jazari, born in the twelfth century. In Diyarbakir in upper Mesopotamia (now present-day Turkey), Al-Jazari invented a splendid array of water-raising machines, five of which are described in his great book on machines [4] completed in 1206 and regarded as a groundbreaking text in the history of technology [5].

tions in the Muslim world-01

Figure 1. Diagram of a hydropowered perpetual flute from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Al-Jazari in 1206.

One of Al-Jazari’s water-raising machines known as the na’ura (noria) is a historically very significant machine. It consists of a large wheel made of timber and provided with paddles. The large-scale use of norias was introduced to Spain by Muslim farmers and engineers. The noria of Albolafia in Cordoba, which still stands today served to elevate the water of the river up to the palace of the Caliphs. Its construction was commissioned by Abd Al-Rahman I, and it has been reconstructed several times.


Figure 2. The noria in present-day Cordoba, Spain.

Perhaps the most astonishing of Al-Jazari’s inventions was the water-driven twin-cylinder pump. An important feature was its double-acting principle, the conversion of rotary into reciprocating motion, and the use of true suction pipes. Al-Jazari’s twin-cylinder pump could be considered as the origin of the suction pump, and not that of Taccola (c.1450) as is commonly thought [6]. Corn-milling using water power was an essential part of economic life and some Muslim technologists are known to have looked upon a river in terms of the number of mills it could turn [3].

Places noted for the number of water mills included Nishapur in Khurasan (Iran), Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Fez (Morocco), Tlemcen (Algeria) and the Caspian province of Tabaristan. In tenth century Palermo, then under Muslim rule, the banks of the river below the city were lined with mills and there are also many references to mills in the Iberian Peninsula [3] (e.g. at Jaen and Merida).

A variety of methods were used to increase stream flow rates that powered the mills and thus increasing productivity. Where feasible, water wheels were often installed between the piers of bridges where streamflow was accelerated due to partial damming of the river.

A particularly impressive innovation was the ship-mill, used widely in the Islamic world to harness the power of the faster currents at midstream, which also avoided the problem of low water levels facing fixed mills during dry seasons. It is known ship-mills were used in Murcia and Zaragoza in Spain, Tiblis in Georgia and in Upper Mesopotamia where they were quite formidable. Writing in 988, the geographer Ibn Hawqal reports [7] that the ship-mills on the Tigris at Mosul had no equal anywhere. They were very large, constructed of teak and iron and positioned in very fast currents, moored to the river bank by iron chains. Similar mills were also located at other places on the Tigris and on the Euphrates. The average mill had the capacity to grind around 10 tonnes of grain over 24 hours, enough to feed 25,000 people [3]. Innovation did not cease there, there are accounts of tidal power being harnessed in tenth century Basra which is at least a century before their adoption in Europe [3].

Both surface water and groundwater resources were utilized to establish some of the most sophisticated irrigation systems known at the time. For example, Muslim irrigation systems, with their associated hydraulic works and water-raising machines remained the basis for Spanish agriculture and were transferred to the New World. After the 15th Century, Muslim inspired techniques were adapted in the Canary Islands and as far away as Texas and Louisiana, partly to irrigate thirsty sugarcane fields. In France, Provencal engineers in the 11th to 13th centuries copied Islamic irrigation networks, and some of them are still in use today [3]. The qanat, a gravity fed water supply system consisting of an underground tunnel connected to the surface by a series of shafts, was widely adopted across the arid parts of the Muslim world and as far a field as Xianging province in China [8].

Despite increasing knowledge of the achievements of Muslim water innovators, it is likely that much remains unexplored and it is speculated that amongst the thousands of Arabic manuscripts lying untranslated and often uncatalogued in libraries across the Middle East, Europe and North America, there may be countless examples of water management practices and technologies implemented in the Muslim world up until the 16th Century and possibly beyond [3].

Future Outlook

The future of water supply in the Middle East and beyond is set to become transformational if the curiosity, ambitions and enthusiasm of some of the early innovators are embraced. Looking to the sea, as had the engineers of Basra a millennia ago, will be the key to a region faced with the prospect of crippling water scarcity in future years.

Many parts of the world (including the Muslim world) currently facing water shortages that are likely to become exacerbated in future, are also blessed with coastlines and ample sunshine. This is a perfect recipe for some truly remarkable desalination methods to be developed that could harness the power of renewable energy including solar and tidal. Seas are a generally a reliable and sustainable source of water; they are vast, do not dry up, are less polluted than rivers, and have built-in circulation systems, which make them a more attractive source of water than inland, saline aquifers.

Desalination usually involves removal of salt from seawater using either thermal distillation or membrane separation. The most widely-used desalination techniques are: Reverse Osmosis (RO) and Multistage-Flash (MSF) distillation. Although the capital and operating costs of these techniques have been significantly reduced during the last 40 years, due to innovations and advancement in technologies, these techniques still have major practical limitations, resulting in high operating and capital costs, which make their use less affordable by many nations.

The most widely-used desalination processes are driven almost entirely by the combustion of fossil fuels, i.e., direct, thermal methods, such as MSF, and/or indirect, membrane-based methods, such as RO (using electricity generated by fuel-fired power plants).

Current desalination costs are estimated to be between $1.0-2.0 per cubic meter of produced fresh water for large-scale applications, though actual costs are higher for older plants and fuel-powered plants. The breakdown of these costs shows that about 50% of the operating cost is accounted for by energy [9].

Current world efforts in the area of desalination are focusing on increasing the energy efficiency of desalination processes, and significantly reducing the dependence on an energy- short world, by using alternative energy sources [10,11]. Alternative energy sources, including solar, wind, tidal and osmotic types of energy, could provide secure, sustainable, adequate and affordable energy sources to drive desalination technologies.

A world pioneer in this field is demonstrating that a re-emergence of Muslim innovators is already underway. Adel Sharif, winner of the prestigious British Royal Society Brian Mercer Award in 2005 [12] is leading the way. An academic at the University of Surrey (UK), he has written extensively on the topic [13-19].

He points out that the Muslim World, including many other parts of the world that have or may have water shortages, are known to have dry climates and long, sunny days throughout the year. Therefore, the use of solar energy and, in particular, its direct use in desalination and water treatment should be strongly encouraged. He also goes onto state that on the humanitarian dimension, UN Statistics indicate that around 1 billion people today lack sufficient, clean water. If just a small proportion of the three million lives lost each year can be prevented, then something of global importance will have been achieved.


Figure 3. Current global distribution of physical water scarcity by major river basin (source: Desdemona Despair, 2012).


  1. Atilla Bir, “Kitâb al-Hiyal” of Banû Mûsâ bin Shâkir Interpreted in Sense of Modern System and Control Engineering (1990). Preface and edition by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (Studies and Sources on the History of Science, 4), Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture IRCICA.
  2. Al-Hassan, A. and Hill, D. (1986) Islamic Technology: An illustrated history, Cambridge University Press.
  3. Hill, D. (1993) Islamic Science and Engineering, Edinburgh University Press Ltd.
  4. Al-Jazari (1206) Al jami’ bayn al ‘ilm wa ‘l’amal al nafi’ fi sina’at al hiyal [Compendium on the theory of useful practice of the mechanical arts].
  5. Abbattouy, M. (2012) The Arabic-Latin intercultural transmission of scientific knowledge in pre-modern Europe: Histroical context and case studies, in the role of the Arab-Islamic World in the Rise of the West, ed. Al- Rodhan, Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Shapiro, S, The Origin of the Suction Pump, in Technology and Culture, 5(4), 566-74.
  7. Kitāb Ṣūrat al-arḍ by Abu l- Qasim Ibn Hawqal, Viae et regna: descriptio ditionis Moslemicae / auctore Abu’l- Kasim Ibn Haukal. M.J. de Goeje’s Classic Edition (1873).
  8. Chinese Hydraulic Engineering Society (1991). A Concise History of Irrigation in China (on occasion of the 42nd International Executive Council Meeting of ICID, Beijing), 29-30).
  9. National Research Council of the National Academies, The Desalination and Water Purification Technology Roadmap, The National Academic Press, Washington, D.C. (2004).
  10. Ali Altaee, Adel O. Sharif, Pressure Retarded Osmosis: Advancement in the Process Applications of Power Generation and Desalination, Desalination; 356m 31-46, (2015).
  11. Ahmed Al-Zuhairi, Ali A. Merdaw, Sami Al-Aibi, Malak Hamdan, Peter Nicoll, Alireza Abbassi Monjezi, Saleh Al-Aswad, Hameed B. Mahood, Maryam Aryafar and Adel O. Sharif (2015), Forward Osmosis from Lab to Market, In Press, Water Science and Technology: Water Supply Journal, doi:10.2166/ws.2015.038.
  12. The British Royal Society Brian Mercer Award for Innovation
  1. A.O.Sharif (2010), How to provide water for all? The desalination option. Arab Water World, Vol. XXXIV Issue 10.
  2. A.O. Sharif, Z. Rahal, and A.A. Merdaw (2010). Power from salty water- is the salt going to be the World’s new oil?, Arab Water World XXXIV (2)) 6-9.
  3. Sharif, A. O. (2009). How to Address the World’s Water Shortage? The Desalination Option, Water & Sewerage Journal, McMillan-Scott Publishing, May.
  4. Sharif, A.O. (2006). Water Scarcity and the Reliance of Water Technologies on Fossil Fuels, Arab Water World Magazine, Chatila Publishing House, Lebanon, Vol. XXX Issue 2.
  5. Sharif, A.O (2006). Tapping into the Seas: A Role for Desalination in Addressing the World’s Water Shortages, Water & Sewerage Journal, McMillan-Scott Publishing, Issue 7.
  6. Sharif, A.O. and Al-Mayahi, A. (2005). A novel manipulated osmosis desalination process, Arab Water World Magazine, Chatila Publishing House, Lebanon, Vol. XXIX, Issue 5, 29-31.
  7. Sharif, A.O. (2005). Tapping into the Seas, Arab Water World Magazine, Chatila Publishing House, Lebanon, Vol. XX1X, Issue 7, 96.
  8. Adel. O. Sharif and A.K. Al-Mayahi (2011). Solvent Removal Method, US Patent No. US 7,879,243; Date of Patent: Feb. 1, 2011; European Patent No. EP 1,651,570 Date of Issue: June 8, 2011.

Jabir bin Hayyan- The Mystic who created Chemistry

Jabir bin Hayyan is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of science. Why? Because not only is he the pioneer of the experimental approach to science, but he is also the Father of Chemistry. Moreover, there is another dimension to his personality that is even more fascinating. He is a mystic and the student of Imam Jafar Sadiq (rh)- the great great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). This is a prologue to our upcoming episode on Transhumanism and Artificial Intelligence. Now what has Jabir bin Hayyan got to do with these ?

The Muslim behind Modern Science – Sabreen Syeed

Modern Science ? Muslim? What’s one got to do with the other? Short answer….. A lot ! 🙂

The Golden Age of Islam | Official Documentary

Presenting our ground breaking documentary – Flat Earth and the Golden Age of Islam. What if we told you that the world that you see around- a world of cutting edge technology, development, information and modernity- owes its origin, its existence to one book, one man and one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever see. Join us on a journey to unveil the “Quranic” roots of one of the greatest scientific revolution in history. One that went on to create modern science and then our modern world. This is the first ever documentary that unravels the strategic role of the Quran in building modern science.

The Muslim who mastered the Mind – Al Balkhi

The Human mind is an enigma, a mystery for the modern world ! What is the mind? Why do we have an inner experience ? What is the relationship between the mind and body? All of these questions are still relevant in our world today ! But did you know that a Muslim Genius from the Golden Age of Islamic Science addressed all of these in a remarkable manner. It was inspiration from the Quran that made Al Balkhi the pioneer of entire branches of psychology.

What does Islam say about the Flat earth?- Sabreen Syeed

In today’s age of advanced science and technology, archaic questions like the shape of the Earth have gained popular attention again. Ironic right? Is the earth spherical or flat? We don’t need to ask NASA. Even ancient Greeks, Indians and Muslims in the Golden Age of Islam discussed it in great detail. Not only that ! Be prepared for a surprise in the video…Something that wil close the debate on the Flat Earth in the Quran. Did you know that the most important requirement for our five daily prayers verifies a particular shape of the earth. Not going to let out the surprise so easily. You will have to watch the video. Special thanks to 1971 Media for producing the documentary.

The GOLDEN AGE of ISLAM? – Rise of Muslims Episode 2 – KJ VIDS

Welcome to Episode 2 of our Rise of Muslims Documentary based on a book called Muslims by Ali Mahmood. In the first episode we talked about how the Prophet Muhammed led the Muslims to the conquest of Makkah and the reigns of the first four caliphs. In the second episode, we discuss the rise and fall of the Umayyad dynasty and the Abbasid dynasty. The Umayyad dynasty was significant for the following reasons; It established a monarchy and dynasty over the Islamic Caliphate. It replaced passionate religious fervour with worldly values, ambition for power and wealth, and the love of luxury. It converted the empire of Islam into the empire of the Arabs It expanded the Muslim empire to the Atlantic in the West and China in the East. Based entirely on the book by Ali Mahmood titled “Muslims”

Fatima al Fihri- The woman behind Modern University education

You may have seen the poster of the Second Golden Age. Let’s introduce one of the shining lights of the Golden Age of Islam. Presenting the Founder of Modern education, the woman behind the concept of a University- Fatima al Fihri.

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham


1001 Inventions is organising “Ibn Al-Haytham: Mysteries of How We See” family event at the iconic Manchester Central Library as part of the Manchester Science Festival.

The event to be held on October 23, 24, 26 and 27 will take children on a wondrous journey to fascinating ancient times through the eyes of Ibn al-Haytham, the 11th century pioneer from Arabia, who made remarkable contributions to the understanding of light, optics and vision.

Visitors will be introduced to the principles of light and vision through many exciting activities; walking into a giant turban-shaped camera obscura, watching demonstrations of live optical illusions, learning how 3D glasses work with the opportunity to make their own pair, and much more. Children will leave understanding the secrets of optics, knowing why and how light travels in straight lines, and with new knowledge on the contributions of ancient civilisations to our understanding of vision.

Children and their families will also have the opportunity to watch the exciting short film starring late legendary actor Omar Sharif following the story of the brave young scientist from 11th century Arabia.

Families are invited to join the Ibn Al-Haytham event at Manchester Central Library for a fun-filled journey of learning through seeing, exploring and doing. Educators are also encouraged to visit and learn about grants for a new science programme inspired by 1001 Inventions award-winning exhibitions.

1001 Inventions led tribute events for Ibn al-Haytham at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, New York Academy of Sciences and the United Nations in New York, the China Science Festival in Beijing, the Royal Society in London, the Jordan Museum in Amman and in many other cities around the world.

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham


Dates and Location

Ibn Al-Haytham: Mysteries of How We See

Tuesday 23 October, Wednesday 24 October and Friday 26 October 2018
11.00am – 8.00pm

Saturday 27 October 2018 – 11.00am – 5.00pm

Central Library, St Peters Square, Manchester, M2 5PD

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

About Manchester Science Festival

Produced by the Museum of Science and Industry, which is part of the Science Museum Group, Manchester Science Festival is a creative, playful and surprising science festival taking place across Greater Manchester. Having launched in 2007, Manchester Science Festival is now the largest science festival in England and the North’s premier cultural celebration of all things related to science and innovation.

Dubbed part laboratory, part playground, the Festival invites over 130,000 visitors to extraordinary events every year, ranging from art installations and theatre to comedy, debates and workshops.

About 1001 Inventions

1001 Inventions is an award-winning, British based organization that creates international educational campaigns and engaging transmedia productions aiming to raise awareness of the contributions to science, technology and culture from the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation.

1001 Inventions has engaged with over 350 million people across the globe working with a network of international partners, including UNESCO, National Geographic and leading academics to produce interactive exhibits, short films, live shows, books and classroom learning materials that are being used by hundreds of thousands of educators around the world.

About Manchester Central Library

Central Library is the city’s main library and information service. Situated just off St Peter’s Square, this iconic city venue, designed by E. Vincent Harris, was first opened in 1934. Following a £50m refurbishment in 2010, taking four years, the Grade II listed building has been brought into the 21st century by combining historic features with cutting-edge design. Most of our events take place in the Archives+ area on the ground floor and the performance space on the ground floor.

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham





Berlin Science Week to Feature Public Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

1001 Inventions Presents Ibn Al-Haytham Show For The First Time In Germany

1001 Inventions is organising “Ibn Al Haytham: The Man Who Discovered How We See” educational experience for the first time in Germany as an anchor event of the Berlin Science Week. The event to be held at the Boulevard Berlin shopping center from 1-11 November 2017 will present the extraordinary work of Ibn al-Haytham, the 11th-century pioneering scientific thinker from Arabia, who made remarkable contributions to the understanding of light, optics and vision.

1001 Inventions launches at the China Science Festival

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Ibn Al-Haytham mascot and anchor attraction at the 2015 China Science Festival, Beijing

Beijing, 17th July, 2015: China’s largest science festival launched today with the new production “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” as an anchor exhibition. 11th century Arab scholar Ibn al-Haytham was also unveiled as the official mascot of the 2015 China Science Festival.


Ibn Al-Haytham Celebrated in Ar-Rass in KSA

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

1001 completes another full year of Ibn Al-Haytham global tour events with big turnout in Al Qassim province.

Ar-Rass, Al-Qassim, 22 December 2017: “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” exhibition completes a one-week residency at Ar-Rass in Al Qassim province in central Saudi Arabia. Held at the Prince Sultan Cultural Centre in Ar-Rass, the exhibition was organised in partnership between the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, 1001 Inventions and Benchmark Events.

Michigan Science Center to host 1001 Inventions

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

International Award-Winning Exhibition Returns to North America

Detroit, August 31, 2017 – This fall, the Michigan Science Center (MiSci) is celebrating untold stories of innovation – 1,000 years of innovation to be exact! The award-winning exhibition, 1001 Inventions: Untold Stories from a Golden Age of Innovation, will open on Saturday, October 7.

Ibn Al-Haytham Celebrated in Al-Baha in KSA

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’ exhibition completes its residency in south western Saudi Arabia.

Al-Baha, 5 December 2017: “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” exhibition completed a one-week residency at the mountainous town of Al-Baha in south western Saudi Arabia. Held at the King AbdulAziz Cultural Centre at the top of one of the mountains of Al-Baha region, the exhibition was organised in partnership between the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, 1001 Inventions and Benchmark Events.

1001 Inventions Collaborates with New York Academy Of Sciences

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Ibn Al-Haytham activities featured at the STEM Bonanza

New York, 21 April 2017: 1001 Inventions today joined the seventh edition of the STEM Bonanza organised at the New York Academy of Sciences. The annual event aims to inspire students to become the engineers, scientists and STEM leaders of tomorrow.

Ibn Al-Haytham book in Arabic now available in the UAE

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

1001 Inventions and the KFAS begin UAE distribution of popular children’s book with National Geographic

Abu Dhabi, 26 April 2016: 1001 Inventions in partnership with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS) introduced in the UAE the Arabic version of the Children’s Book “Ibn Al-Haytham: The Man Who Discovered How We See” at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF).

Ibn al-Haytham Honoured at Kuwait Book Fair

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

KFAS and 1001 Inventions launch new Arabic children’s book on Arab scientist from National Geographic.

Kuwait, 16 November 2016: 1001 Inventions and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS), in partnership with the National Council for Culture, Art and Literature, organised a special show at the Kuwait International Book Fair to honour 11th century enlightened scientist Ibn al-Haytham. The Show was inaurgurated by His Excellency Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Hamoud Al-Sabah, Minister of Information and Youth Affairs in Kuwait.

Ibn Al-Haytham honoured with 1001 Inventions at Abu Dhabi Book Fair

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

New children’s book with National Geographic Kids showcased

Abu Dhabi, 27 April 2016: 1001 Inventions introduced at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) a newly published children’s book with National Geographic Kids about 11th century enlightened Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham. This launch comes as part of a special show organised by 1001 Inventions in partnership with ADIBF to honour Ibn al-Haytham at this year’s edition in celebration of its main theme ‘Reading the Past to Define the Future’.


1001 Inventions New Children’s Book Selected as Best Biography

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

KFAS and 1001 Inventions present the Arabic book on the inspiring life of Ibn al-Haytham

Cairo, 26 January 2017: As part of its 40th anniversary, the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS) and 1001 Inventions launched today “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” show at the Cairo International Book Fair.

Record visitor numbers attend 1001 Inventions exhibition in Jordan

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

2,500% increase in visitor numbers to Jordan Museum for Ibn Al-Haytham Exhibition

AMMAN — As part of Jordan’s Year of Science 2017 (JYS), more than 24,000 pupils from public and private schools across the Kingdom visited the Ibn Al Haytham Exhibition, held at Ras Al Ain’s Jordan Museum last month, museum officials said. The exhibition, inaugurated by Education Minister Omar Razzaz in the presence of HRH Princess Sumaya, was organised by the Royal Scientific Society, the Jordan Museum, and 1001 Inventions.

1001 Inventions Returns to Maker Faire Cairo

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Thousands engaged through activities themed on an inspirational maker from the Golden Age

Cairo, 8 April 2017: For the second year in a row 1001 Inventions participated at Maker Faire Cairo to engage young people through exciting and educational activities themed on Ibn al-Haytham, considered by many as the ‘Father of Optics’ for his important contributions to the understanding of vision, optics and light.

Ibn Al-Haytham celebrated across Egypt in National Science Week

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Thousands participate in 1001 Inventions films and activities

Aswan, 11 March 2017: 1001 Inventions joined Egypt’s National Science Week to celebrate science across the country and honour the 11th century scientist Ibn al-Haytham. The National Science Week, held from March 2-11, attracted thousands of people from all over Egypt including children, families, university students, scientists, researchers, academics and policy makers. 1001 Inventions participated at the Science Week key events organised at Al-Azhar Conference Centre in Cairo, Alexandria University as well as in the city of Aswan.

Royal Launch for Ibn Al-Haytham in Jordan

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

“1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” opens in Amman

Amman, 8 March 2017: Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint Al-Hassan, President of the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan, launched at The Jordan Museum ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’ exhibition as part of a national celebration of the life and work of 11th century pioneering Arab thinker Al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham.

Children Celebrate Ibn al-Haytham at the Cairo Book Fair

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

KFAS and 1001 Inventions present the Arabic book on the inspiring life of Ibn al-Haytham

Cairo, 26 January 2017: As part of its 40th anniversary, the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS) and 1001 Inventions launched today “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” show at the Cairo International Book Fair

UN’s Year of Light reports on 1001 Inventions engaging 25 million people

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

International Year of Light final report presented to UNESCO

Paris, 3 October 2016: The Final Report of the United Nations proclaimed International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015) was presented at a special event at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris today. The report declares that 1001 Inventions, a Founding Partner of IYL 2015, engaged more than 25 million people around the world through ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’ global educational campaign celebrating the achievements of the 11th century pioneer who was a key focus of the International Year of Light.

1001 Inventions Launches ‘House of Wisdom Challenge’ in Dubai

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Huge attendance for Think Science Fair 2016

Dubai, 17 April 2016: 1001 Inventions and Emirates Foundation revealed a new knowledge-based ‘House of Wisdom Challenge’ at this year’s annual Think Science Fair taking place from 17 to 19 April at the Dubai World Trade Centre.

1001 Inventions Film Premiers in Egypt at Maker Faire Cairo

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Omar Sharif final film on Ibn al-Haytham inspires young Egyptians

Cairo, 26 March 2016: 1001 Inventions participated at Maker Faire Cairo to honour the 11th century scientist Ibn al-Haytham while continuing to celebrate the United Nations proclaimed International Year of Light (IYL2015).

United Nations tribute to Ibn Al-Haytham and 1001 Inventions film screening

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

International Year of Light celebration and tribute to Ibn Al-Haytham held at UN in New York

New York, 2 February 2016: The United Nations hosted today an event to celebrate the International Year of Light (IYL2015) with a special 1001 Inventions tribute to the remarkable 11th century scientist Ibn al-Haytham. The celebration was organised as a side event to the 2016 ECOSOC Youth Forum held at the United Nations headquarters on February 1-2.

HRH Duke of York honours International Year of Light and tribute to Ibn al-Haytham

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

The Royal Society and 1001 Inventions host London schools

London, 27 January 2016: 1001 Inventions, the Royal Society and the Institute of Physics partnered to organise a full day of educational events and celebrations in London today. Hundreds of people including school children and students gathered at the Royal Society to mark the closure of the 2015 International Year of Light (IYL2015) that included a special tribute to the 11th century scientist Ibn al-Haytham. An evening gala event was honoured with the presence of the Duke of York, HRH Prince Andrew, the UK Patron of the International Year of Light.

Muscat Festival Celebrates year of light with “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham”

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

“Ibn Al-Haytham: A Journey of Science from Darkness into Light” to showcase at Al-Amerat Park during Muscat Festival”

The organising committee of the Muscat Festival 2016announced that it will host, from 14 January to 13 February, a new 1001 Inventions production ‘Ibn Al-Haytham: A Journey of Science from Darkness into Light&rsquo celebrating 11th century scientist Al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham and his work on optics.

National Geographic and 1001 Inventions Publish “Ibn Al-Haytham” Children’s Book

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

“Ibn al-Haytham: The Man Who Discovered How We See” introduces young readers to 11th century Arabia’s most enlightened scientist

Washington DC, 19th January 2016National Geographic Kids and 1001 Inventions announced today a new partnership to publish the book “Ibn al-Haytham: The Man Who Discovered How We See” as part of the highly successful National Geographic Kids Readers Series.

Ibn Al-Haytham Show Launches at Muscat Festival

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

“Ibn Al-Haytham: A Journey of Science from Darkness into Light” to showcase at Al-Amerat Park during Muscat Festival”

The organising committee of the Muscat Festival 2016 announced that it will host, from 14 January to 13 February, a new 1001 Inventions production ‘Ibn Al-Haytham: A Journey of Science from Darkness into Light&rsquo celebrating 11th century scientist Al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham and his work on optics.

Sami Yusuf releases music score for 1001 Inventions film

Film soundtrack produced in partnership with 1001 Inventions to ‘shine’ light on harmony and cohesion

London, 20 December 2015: Sami Yusuf, the internationally acclaimed singer, songwriter and composer, and award-winning producer Ahmed Salim announced today the release of the original motion picture soundtrack for the short film ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’.

The Album

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Sami Yusuf releases music album for 1001 Inventions film

The album supports a global Ibn al-Haytham awareness campaign launched by British organisation 1001 Inventions in partnership with UNESCO that is part of United Nations proclaimed ‘International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies’ (IYL2015).

New 1001 Inventions Short Film to World Premiere in Dubai 2015

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Ibn Al-Haytham film staring Omar Sharif ready for Dubai World Premier

Dubai – November 10, 2015: The legacy of renowned Egyptian actor Omar Sharif will be celebrated at the 12th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) this December through the world premiere screening of his last film, ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’. Sharif, whose passing in July saddened the world of film and beyond, came out of retirement to support the short film from award-winning director and producer Ahmed Salim, which will be screened twice at this year’s DIFF. It forms the final part of the 15-strong line-up of films in the Muhr Gulf Shorts category at the Festival.

Educational Resources

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

The educational resources are designed to support teachers within the classroom environment. is part of 1001 Inventions, which is a science and cultural heritage brand that’s loved and trusted by all audiences around the world. Simillar educational properties such as exhibits, books, characters, image library, school materials, activities, workshops, toys and much more educational and enjoyable products are presented in through this website, and more to follow…

Cairo University Celebrates!

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Cairo University Celebrates the International Year of Light in Partnership with 1001 Inventions

On 17 November, the Science Heritage Center at Cairo University in collaboration with 1001 Inventions organised a seminar to celebrate International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 (IYL 2015) and pay tribute to the contributions of Ibn al-Haytham in the field of optics and light.

Library of Alexandria Celebrates!

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

In Partnership with 1001 Inventions the Library of Alexandria Celebrates the International Year of Light

On 12 November, the Library of Alexandria hosted an International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 (IYL 2015) celebration. The event was organised in partnership with 1001 Inventions and the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology.


Omar Sharif’s final film dedicated to his legacy

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Actor Omar Sharif’s final film “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” has been dedicated to his legacy.

Legendary Oscar-nominated actor Omar Sharif, who died on Friday 10 July 2015 in a Cairo hospital following a heart attack, still has one more film to be released later this year. British organisation 1001 Inventions is producing a short film that will be the last film for the late actor. Sharif’s leading role in the educational short film “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” was his final performance.

1001 Inventions To Partner With China’s Biggest Science Festival

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

China Science Festival to host “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham”

Beijing, 26th May 2015: The organizing committee of China’s biggest national Science Festival announced today that it will host “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham”, as an anchor attraction of the 2015 China Science Festival, from 17 July to 2 August 2015 at the Beijing Exhibition Center.

Bahrain celebrates!

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Bahrain celebrates ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’

Zedni Ilman, Bahrain Exhibition and Convention Centre, 1 and 2 May 2015

4pm till 10pm on Friday and 12 till 10pm on Saturday. Families in Bahrain are welcomed to join a fun weekend of theatre and science celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of Ibn Al-Haytham’s work in science. Known to many as the ‘father of optics’, he helped revolutionise experimental science and our understanding of light and vision.

Kuwait Celebrates!

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

Kuwait Celebrates ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al Haytham’

Families and children are welcomed to join a fun weekend event celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of Ibn Al-Haytham’s work in science. Known to many as the “father of optics”, he helped revolutionise experimental science and our understanding of light and vision.

The Trailer

‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al Haytham’ Trailer

Trailer for the short film launching later this year: ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’ The creators of 1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets bring you a new short film on the work of 11th century scientist Ibn Al-Haytham. “A journey of Science from Darkness into Light”. This trailer is for a short film by producer Ahmed Salim, starring legendary actor Omar Sharif, voice by Khalid Abdalla and music composed by Sami Yusuf. The film will be launched as part of the United Nations proclaimed International Year of Light 2015 and is produced by 1001 Inventions and the King Abdulaziz Center for World culture in partnership with UNESCO and the International Year of Light 2015.

1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham launches at UNESCO

Opening Ceremony 2015 International Year of Light celebrates 11th century scientist Ibn al-Haytham with global campaign

Paris, 19th January 2015: Nobel laureates, international dignitaries, leading scientists and representatives from governments, industry and academia were part of the 2,000 guests at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris that witnessed the launch of a global campaign titled “1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham” to celebrate the scientific achievements of the renowned 11th century scientist Ibn al-Haytham and his work in optics.

Ibn Al-Haytham to be the focus of the International Year of Light 2015

Manchester Science Festival to Feature Family Event on Ibn Al-Haytham

UNESCO and the International Year of Light 2015 partners with 1001 Inventions for 2015 campaign for Ibn Al-Haytham

The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL2015) is delighted to welcome as Founding Partner the award-winning educational organization 1001 Inventions. British-based 1001 Inventions has the specific mission to raise awareness of the contributions to science, technology and culture from the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, and will play a key role during IYL2015 to promote and celebrate the 10th century pioneer Ibn Al-Haytham. Ibn Al-Haytham’s seminal work on optics Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics) was written around 1015, and its 1000th anniversary is listed explicitly in the United Nations resolution on IYL2015 as a focal point of celebration.

UNESCO Announces 1001 Inventions Partnership

1000 Years of Arabic Optics to be a focus of the United Nations proclaimed ‘International Year of Light’ in 2015

Ibn Al-Haytham was a pioneering polymath from Basra (in modern-day Iraq) who lived in the 10th century and is often referred to as the ‘father of modern optics’. He made significant advancements in optics, mathematics and astronomy, and helped lay the foundations of the present day scientific experimental method.

Damascus – Oldest City in the World?

Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world and has an amazing story!


In this video we take a look at the muslim who cracked one of history’s most famous codes! the Egyptian hieroglyphics, how did he do this and what was his motivation?

Isfahan – Half of the World

The peaks and valleys of Isfahan’s history!

Alchemy: History of Science #10

In fantasy stories, charlatans in fancy robes promise to turn lead into gold. But real alchemists weren’t just mystical misers. They were skilled experimentalists, backed by theories of matter. And they played a huge role in the development of knowledge about one of our fundamental questions: “what is stuff?

Ancient & Medieval Medicine: Crash Course History of Science #9

The history of medicine is about two of our big questions: one, what is life? What makes it so special, so fragile, so… goopy!?

Two, how do we know what we know? Why should I take my doctor’s advice? Why are deep-fried Oreos bad for me?

It may be tempting to look at medicine as a science that has simply progressed over time—that medicine used to be bad, and its history is a story of how it got better.

History of Dome of the Rock

Few monuments can boast of being so religiously important to three of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. It has stood the test of time for more than a thousand years and has been viewed by many historical figures with awe. One of which, the 14th century travel write Ibn Battuta provides us with a fitting description:

“The Dome of the Rock is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of shape… Both outside and inside, the decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description. The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.”

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

bannerArticle Image Bannner


1. Introduction 6. Science 10. Art
2. Religion 7. Myths 11. Architecture
3. Transportation 8. Breeding and Racing 12. Conclusion
4. Flight 9. Falconry and Hunting 13. References
5. Literature

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 1. Al Noor Mosque, Sharjah Corniche, by Utsav Verma (Source

1. Introduction

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation
Figure 2. “Horus is one of the most significant ancient Egyptian deities” (Source)

There are only a few animals that live harmoniously alongside humans in urban habitats. One of these animals are birds. Like cats,[1] birds have been treated in extremes throughout the history; either worshipped as gods or persecuted as pestilence. For example, “ancient Egyptians, personified many of their major gods as birds”[2] but in modern times birds, such as pigeons and crows, increasingly became a nuisance to city dwellers. Industrialisation[3] and deforestation also became a significant threat to their existence.

There were times when city councils tried, and still try, to find unorthodox ways to get rid of them.[4] For example, one Ukrainian city council produced “radical plans to get the birds drunk on wine before deporting them”[5] the idea being to disorientate the birds from finding their ‘home’. In other cities, crows or hawks were called upon to scare certain birds away.[6] Birds are still being hunted,[7] poisoned,[8] and killed[9] openly in their thousands. Pigeons were simply labelled as “rats with wings”[10] despite being proven scientifically, that pigeons do not carry diseases[11] as they were commonly blamed. It was and is still just an urban superstition. It became so problematic that most places put razor sharp wires in front of their windows, no wonder there are lots of birds missing their limbs on the streets.[12] All of these horrific practices seem to be medieval in their approaches in today’s world.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 3. A must-read article:  “Feral pigeon: flying rat or urban hero?” by Steve Harris (Source)

However, there was a time in medieval history when birds were openly welcomed, not worshipped nor treated badly. To create a complete list of references for birds in Muslim Civilisation would mean creating an entire encyclopaedia, but let’s just name a few examples here: 

2. Religion

Let’s take the Caliph, Umar II (682-720), who ruled just 75 years after the Prophet Muhammed (D632). He said:

Spread wheat on the tops of mountains so it cannot be said that a bird went hungry in the land of the Muslims… Just a reminder to have respect for all. Even the smallest of deeds could be our saving grace!” Umayyad caliph Umar bin Abdulaziz

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 4. “In Turkey, they throw wheat grain on top of mountains when snow falls so that birds don’t die of hunger in the winter cold.” (Source)

This kind of respect and dedication comes directly from the teachings of Islam, for example in one of the many hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammed) regarding the treatment of animals, his followers asked:

O Allah’s Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving (the) animals?” He replied: ‘Yes, there is a reward for serving any animate (living being).’” Narrated by Abu Huraira Volume 3, Book 40, Number 551

Fundamentally the life and characteristics of the Prophet Mohammed is routed in the Quran. There are some verses associated with animals and references regarding the responsibility of human-animal interaction in the world. Prophet Mohammed taught people to have mercy to all of God’s creation, after all it was thanks to a nesting bird that saved his and the life of his best companion while they were hiding in a cave from the Meccans who were trying to kill them.[13]  There is even a well-known narrative that God says:

the animals are my silent servants. They are now quiet against the oppressions but on the day of reckoning they will talk about that..”

Interestingly the Qur’an even mentions the flocking of birds, were a group of birds collectively fly together in a syncronised manner:

Do they not see the birds above them with wings outspread and [sometimes] folded in? None holds them [aloft] except the Most Merciful. Indeed He is, of all things, Seeing.” Quran: 67:19

Perhaps, this is why people from the Muslim Civilisation loved and respected birds. Traces of this admiration can still be found today. Birds were, and still are, found in the most sacred of spaces; such as mosques.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 5. Bird seed sellers next to a mosque in Istanbul (Source). Like cats, pigeons are part of Istanbul, street cats are even called “the pigeons of Istanbul” (Source)

These cultures are rooted in Muslim heritage throughout the Islamic history. From artistic Arabic calligraphy to scientific manuscripts like the clock-designs from the ingenious engineer Al-Jazari (1136–1206)[14] or even in peoples’ names; for example Ali ibn Nafi, known as Ziryab, who was an 8th century Andalusian polymath. Cultured in everything from philosophy to fashion, he was commonly known in the Spanish language as Pájaro Negro, or Black Bird.[15]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figures 6-7. Modern Arabic Zoomorphic Calligraphy (Source). al-Jazari’s “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices: a Peacock Basin”, 1354 (Source)

Their importance is reflected by their presence alongside the prophets Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus.  To put his heart at rest, Abraham was shown a divine miracle using birds. In the story of David, it is revealed to the Muslims that birds frequently praise God in their communication. Solomon had the ability to speak to birds and appointed the Hoopoe bird as his messenger. And Jesus was commanded to demonstrate God’s omnipotence by breathing life into clay birds.[16]

And We subjugated the mountains and the birds to give glory along with David” Quran, 27:79

… Do they not see the birds above them spreading and contracting (their wings)?” Quran 67:19

…Seest thou not that Allah is He, Whom do glorify all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the birds with wings outspread?…” Quran, 24:41

In the traditions of the prophet, known as the Hadith, birds like cats were respected and protected because animals were loved by the Prophet Mohammed.[17] For example:

During a journey the Prophet left his companion for a while. During his absence, his companion saw a bird called hummara and took two young ones away from the mother bird. The mother bird was circling above in the air, beating its wings in grief, when the Prophet came back and said: “Who has hurt the feelings of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her”. The Prophet companion then replaced the offspring in the same bush.”  Hamayun Khan[18]

The Prophet also mentioned “To catch birds and imprison them in cages without any special purpose is considered abominable.”  This means if you have birds living in cages, set them free.” Sayyid Abu A’la Mawdidi[19]  

As mentioned in the Cats in Islamic Cultures article, animals also set an example for Muslims like in the story of sons of Adam, or popularlay known as the story of “Cain Murders Abel”, a crow plays an eye opener lesson in the Quran:

Then Allah sent a raven [crow] scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother’s naked corpse. He said: ‘Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother’s naked corpse?’ And he became repentant.” Quran, 5:31

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 8-9. Crows can be seen in these depictions of Cain burying Abel from an illuminated manuscript version of Stories of the Prophets (Source)

3. Transportation

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation
Figure 10. Pigeon keeping was a “popular Mughal passtime” (Source)

Due to the airborne nature of birds, humans have always been inspired, intrigued and in pursuit of flight. It is thanks to their exceptional flying abilities and their innate sense of geographical location that birds played a central role in transportation and flight in Muslim civilisation.

Birds were commonly used as couriers to send and receive important messages from different locations, cities and nations.[20]  In some cases, birds were even used to deliver ‘packages’. Al-Nuwayri, a Muslim chronicler, tells the story of a tenth-century Fatimid Caliph where “600 pigeons were released, each with one cherry in a silk bag tied to each leg… [The] Caliph was [then] served a large bowl containing 1,200 fresh cherries from Lebanon, which had arrived by special air mail delivery…” This ingenious ‘food delivery’ service was accomplished by the use of homing pigeons.[21]

There are many more tales like this in history of Muslim Civilisation. In many places throughout the Middle East and Eurasia, on the top of the buildings, you can still find sanctuaries for birds, which is a long tradition in Muslim civilisation. For example, “In a book about carrier pigeons, the Mamluk historian Ibn ʿAbd al-Ẓahir (1223-1292) wrote that normally there would be about 1,900 pigeons in the lofts of the citadel of Cairo, the communication nerve centre of the time.”[22]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 11. “The Kabūtarnāmah, an illustrated pigeon manual copied in 1788, here showing a training session and some different types of pigeon” (Source

4. Flight

An interesting example of an inspiration originating from bird’s flight can be seen in the works of Ibn Firnas. Well before the 19th century’s Wright Brothers, Ibn Firnas was experimenting with aviation by studying the flight of birds. It is well recorded that in 852 CE he jumped from the top of the Grand Mosque’s minaret in Cordoba. The flying device he created was based on the anatomy of birds. However, unsurprisingly this contraption failed to glide but it did slow down his fall leaving him with minimal injuries. Some might assume that this could have been the first display of an early parachute.[23] There is not much information about Ibn Firnas’s life, but there are some claims for example, before he jumped, with his bird contraption for his flight attempt, Ibn Firnas may have said:

Presently I shall take leave of you.
By guiding these wings up and down,
I should ascend like the birds.
If all goes well, after soaring for a time,
I should be able to return safely to your side.”

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 12-13. Abbas ibn Firnas’ flight attempt. 1001 Inventions & Awesome Facts from Muslim Civilization, National Geographic Kids (Source) ©1001inventions 

Another attempt was done in 17th Century by Hezarfen-Ahmed Celebi. As the story goes, he studied the birds in admiration for many years. Their flight inspired him to design his own aeronautical apparatus, which was made from eagle feathers to make it look like a bird. After many failed attempts, in 1640 C.E he summoned the courage to jump from the Galata Tower in Istanbul. From an altitude of 100 meters he jumped and – believed it be – he successfully glided across the Bosphorus Sea, ending with a safe landing. If all this is true then, this could also be the first self-propelled intercontinental flight. The event was documented by the Ottoman traveller and writer Evliya Celebi (1611 – 1682) and according to him it was witnessed by Sultan Murad IV (1612-1640).

First, he practiced by flying over the pulpit of Okmeydanı eight or nine times with eagle wings, using the force of the wind. Then, as Sultan Murad Khan (Murad IV) was watching from the Sinan Pasha mansion at Sarayburnu, he flew from the very top of the Galata Tower (in contemporary Karaköy) and landed in the Doğancılar Square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind. Then Murad Khan granted him a sack of golden coins, and said: ‘This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people…’ and thus sent him to Algeria on exile. He died there.” Evliyâ Çelebi (from Seyahatname), 17th Cent.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 14. An artistic impression Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi’s flight Galata Tower, Istanbul (Source)

5. Literature

Figure 15. A story in Kalila wa Dimna, where different animals are used to convey a message of ‘learning to trust one another’ (Source)

Birds were also frequently used in the literal tradition of Muslim Civilisation.  Featured in many poems, stories and myths, they were a common literary device often used as metaphors to convey spiritual, aspirational and motivational themes.

Bird of my soul,
be patient of thy cage,
This body, lo!
how fast it wastes with age…”

Sultan Cem, 15th Cent.

There are many poems that feature birds, as if words flying from one branch of a poem to the next…

The heart is like a bird:
love as its head
and its two wings are
hope and fear.”

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya,14th Cent.

Another example is this Folio from al-Mu’nis al-abrar fi daqa’iq al-ash’ar (Free Man’s Guide to the Subtleties of Poetry) by Badr al-Din Jajarmi (d. 1287)

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 16-17. Manuscript pages from the “Free Man’s Guide to the Subtleties of Poetry” by Badr al-Din Jajarmi 

“This unusual composition [above] is one of six found in a unique, illustrated copy of an anthology of Persian poetry devoted to poetic artifice. The top register prescribes the ideal astrological time for carrying out certain tasks. It reads:

With the moon in Pisces,
study learning and theology,
Make requests from ministers and judges,
Wear whatever new clothes you possess,
Abstain from bleeding.
The tale is ended.”

The accompanying illustration shows the personification of the moon with a large fish, representing the zodiac sign of Pisces. In the lower inscription band, the author explores the rhetoric possibilities of “enumeration” by listing a series of birds. These are portrayed in two registers, creating an unusual and non-narrative correlation between word and image. Wiles of francolin, spirit of hawk, quickness of magpie, Music of nightingale, splendor of huma [mythical bird], glance of partridge, Breast of duck, wrath of eagle, beauty of peacock, Cheek-down like parrot, hair like raven, attainable as simurgh [mythical bird].”[25] 

6. Science

Birds were not only used as literary devices but were also recorded in the scientific literature that was produced by the Muslim civilisation. Their presence can be witnessed in many manuscripts that range in subject from zoology to astronomy.

Some of these scientific works were also translations and transmission of texts from different civilisations. A good example of this is found in the Arabic translation of the Greek encyclopaedia, Materia medica, by Pedanius Dioscorides. This work is a pharmacopeia (related to medicinal substances) which also describes the medicinal benefits of certain animals. It was through translations such as this, that the knowledge from the Greeks and Romans and other ancient Civilisations, transmitted through the Muslim Civilisation to Europeans; paved the way to Renaissance.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 18-19. from 1224 an Arabic translation of the Materia medica by Dioscorides (Source) (Source)

Al-Jahiz, the 9th century polymath and ‘father of zoology’[26] had portrayed his admiration for birds in his scientific work. Before Darwin, Al-Jahiz was studying and documenting natural selection related to animals in his book ‘Kitab al-Haywaan’ (Book of Animals). Interestingly, he also mentions birds when it comes to “natural music” in his many works studying the art of music.[27]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 20-21. Page from the Book of Animals by African Arab naturalist and evolutionist al Jahiz. Kitab al Hayawan (Book of Animals). Ninth Century. Basra. by Abu Uthman Al-Jaahiz (Source) “1001 Inventions and the Book of Animals” launch at Al Ain Zoo, Abu Dhabi (Source)

There are other scholarst followed Al-Jahiz, “The Kitab Al-Hayawan was the object of many studies, and had great influence upon later Muslim scientists, and via them upon European thinkers (especially upon Lamarck and Darwin). And it became the source for later books on zoology. Al-Jahiz’s many sentences are quoted by Ikhwan al-Safa and Ibn Miskawayh, and many passages are quoted by Zakariyya’ al-Qazwini (1203-1282) in his ‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat, and by Mustawfi al-Qazwini (1281- ?) in his Nuzkat al-Qulub; and al-Damiri in his Hayat al-Hayawan’, and still continues to inspire the scientists today.”[28] Other scholars who followed his footsteps like Ibn Bakhtishu (d. 1058) with his book ‘Manafi-I-Hayawan’ (Description of Animals) continued to give more information about birds in the book of animals:

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 22-23. From Kitāb al-Manāfi‘ al-Ḥayawān (The Book on the Usefulness of Animals) by Ibn Bakhtishu’ (Source)

Scientist and scholars from Muslim Civilisation did not just translate works from ancient civilisations; they also corrected some of the information and contributed with additional information. For example, Al-Jazari was one of most outstanding mechanical engineer of the Islamic tradition of technology. He is mostly known with his discovery of converting rotary motion into linear motion and also known with his robots. He used animal figures in his works, and birds, from peacocks to legendary phoenix, birds can be found in his most works.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 24-25. From the Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari (Source) (Source)

‘Abd al-Rahman ibn’ Omar al-Sufi (903-986) known also by his Latinized name of Azophi, was one of the famous astronomers from Muslim Civilisation. His “Catalogue of Stars” ,”Heavenly Figures” and “The Book of Fixed Stars” were published several times over the centuries with the addition of different animal figures, especially birds.[29]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 26-27. Some examples from Al-Sufi’s manuscripts

Another example is as mentioned above is the llustration and Persian text from a Manuscript of the Mu’nis al-Ahrar fi Daqa’iq al-Ash’ar (The Free Men’s Companion to the Subtleties of Poems) of Muhammad Ibn Badr al-Din Jajarmi, 1341: [30]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 28. “The Zodiac constellation of Pisces, the moon, and two registers of birds; reverse: text: verses of poem. Il-Khanid dynasty, Mongol period, 1341″ 

7. Myth

Apart from the scientific study of birds, Muslim scholars were also interested in featuring them in many writings dedicated to religious and spiritual works. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr:

…in Sufism the art of mastery over the language of the birds, a science taught to Solomon, implies both the power to penetrate into the meaning of alien forms and the capability to know the meaning of the spiritual states and stations through which the seeker of the Truth must Journey.” Sayyed H Nasr[31]

Birds, as literary devices, were often at the centre of Islamic stories, teaching moral lessons to adults and children. Some of the most well-known Muslim literature such as ‘Kalila and Demna’ (Kalila wa-Dimna, 1210)[32], Farid al-Din Attar’s ‘The Conference of the Birds’ (Mantiq al-Tayr ,1437, also known as Language of the Birds) and Ibn Hazm’s ‘The Ring of the Dove’ (Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah, 1022) all feature birds in their stories.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 29. “A page from the Arabic version of Kalila wa dimna, dated 1210, illustrating the King of the Crows conferring with his political advisors.” (Source)

If Simorgh [Simurgh] unveils its face to you, you will find
that all the birds, be they thirty or forty or more,
are but the shadows cast by that unveiling.
What shadow is ever separated from its maker?
Do you see?
The shadow and its maker are one and the same,
so get over surfaces and delve into mysteries”

The Conference of the Birds by Attar, translated by Sholeh Wolpe[33]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 30-31. Zal, the albino, on the simurg. Shahnamah Firdaws (Book of Kings of Firdaws, The Royal Asiatic society, MS. 239). © Nil Sari and Ulker Erke. Source: 38th International Congress on History of Medicine, Turkish Medical History Through Miniature Pictures Exhibition (Istanbul, 2002). (Source)

Belief in a divine healing energy from higher metaphysical planes into the physical body, that is, the religious interpretation of the holistic healing process, had its symbolic myths in history. Man, throughout history, feeling helpless against the difficulties he came across, and being unable to reach the Creator, hoped for imaginary help from supernatural creatures, whether they are represented by God, a human being or an animal. These imaginary and strange creatures, designed with different organs of animals, appeared within the frame of social beliefs and ideas, used in literature and works of art as a means to describe the supernatural. Referring to fantastic creatures that over rule his destiny, the human being gave meaning to some of them as symbols of medicine such as immortality, miraculous treatment, revival and rebirth, etc. One of these fantastic creatures is the simurgh, which was imagined to be a huge bird of prey, which did not exist, yet had a name. It was believed that those who obtained the feather of this bird could reach the greatest secret of the universe and immortality.” Prof. Nil Sari [34]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 32-33. The Conference of the Birds (Source) and The Ring of the Dove (Source)

The “Kitab al-Bulhan” or “Book of Wonders”, is an Arabic manuscript dating mainly from the late 14th century A.D. and was probably bound together in Baghdad during the reign of Jalayirid Sultan Ahmad (1382-1410). The manuscript is made up of astrological, astronomical and geomantic texts compiled by Abd al-Hasan Al-Isfahani, as well as a dedicated section of full-page illustrations, with each plate titled with “A discourse on….”, followed by the subject of the discourse (a folktale, a sign of the zodiac, a prophet, etc.).[37] There are other mythical birds in Islamic literature,[35] maybe one of the most popular ones can be found in the Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing by al-Qazwīnī (d. 1283)[36]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 34-35. From Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing) by al-Qazwīnī (d. 1283) (Source

8. Breeding and Racing

Pigeon keeping has been a popular pastime in Muslim civilisation. They were kept for a variety of reasons, including breeding purposes and racing. This culture is still commonly practiced today in Muslim countries despite the controversy that surrounds the legal aspect when it comes to racing and wagering. Evidence of racing pigeons and its controversy can be found during the beginnings of the Muslim civilisation.

According to a narration of Abu Hurayrah, (a companion of the Prophet) someone came to him and asked, “We want to wager on two pigeons, but we do not want to use a muhalil for fear that he might take away (the prize).” To which Abu Hurayrah advised them not to race them, stating that this was a common practice among children.[38] Although gambling is strictly prohibited in Islam, many Muslims practiced the art of pigeon breeding and racing for the sole purpose of bragging rights.[39]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 36. “Arabian Trumpeter”, a fancy breed of pigeon developed over many years of selective breeding (Source

9. Falconry and Hunting

The art of falconry was practised throughout the Muslim civilisation and still is today. Although the practice of training birds is said to have originated in Central Asia, it also has a substantial history in the Middle East and in other Muslim regions. In fact, using birds of prey for hunting can be traced back to 3500 BCE in the al-Rafidein region of Iraq.[40] Falconry and the training of other birds of prey were practiced for many reasons. Although the most common being hunting, it also was a form of pastime for the nobility of that time, where owners would lovingly raise the birds from hatchlings to fully grown adult hunters.[41] Interestingly the first book or manual composed on the art of falconry was called “The Advantage of Birds” by Adham Bin Mehrez al-Baheli, an 8th century scholar who was most probably surrounded by the Umayyad high culture of falconry.[42] Due to the modern world we are now living in, the art of training birds is now redundant for hunting purposes. However, there is a resurgence of training birds of prey for pest control in some of the world’s major cities.[43]

Although Falconry is seeing a revival for both practice and cultural purposes some animal rights observers have raised an issue with the resurgence of this art. An excess concentration of predatory birds in one area can lead to other vulnerable species’ extinction. The effect of which can be seen today in the Arabian peninsula when it comes to the near extinction of the houbara bustard bird and throughout the entire world when wealthy individuals pursuit foreign birds of prey to sustain their hobbies.[44]

…Lawful for you are [all] good foods and [game caught by] what you have trained of hunting animals which you train as Allah has taught you. So eat of what they catch for you, and mention the name of Allah upon it, and fear Allah…” (Quran, 5:4)

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 37. Traditional Arabian falconer (Source 

10. Art

As we mentioned in the beginning of this article, the presence of birds in Arabic calligraphy is visible in abundance. There are many examples of calligraphic spiritual words fashioned in the figure of various birds. But interestingly, birds do not only contribute to calligraphy with their figure but also it is common that a master calligrapher will teach his students to examine a bird and its motion, and then apply it to specific Arabic letters. Different letters can be used to depict a bird’s head, wings, back or tail.[45]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 38-40. Tughra style of calligraphy (Source) (Source) and you can find more Arabic “zoomorphic” calligraphy on internet (Source)

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Calligraphy was the main art of Islam, but artists and craftsmen from Muslim Civilisation didn’t just stop there, they carried artistry in every part of their life, from their carpets to tiles, even to their scientific tools.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 41-42. Carpet with bird couples in a landscape, Lahore, c. 1600, cotton, wool, 233 x 158 cm (The Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna) (Source) A Kirman pictorial carpet. Southeast Persia, circa 1900. 8 ft 1 in x 5 ft 2 in (245 cm x 156 cm). This piece was offered in Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 19 April 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £18,750 (Source)

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 43. Islamic Bronze Bird Incense Burner with Calligraphic [Could be from Turkic Seljuk (Seljuq) period, Khorasan, eastern Iran, 1181-1182] (Source

11. Architecture

One important aspect of a culture is the architecture it produces. As birds were seen as noble animals, they were most definitely featured in much of the architecture that sprung out from Muslim civilisation.

Birdhouses were a common sight in the Muslim world and can still be seen till this day. Birds were so welcome that bird houses and sanctuaries became an Ottoman architectural art form. Some may simply refer to them as birdhouses, however; “’with their pronounced eaves, corbelled bay windows and what appears to be the remains of grand staircases, [these] deserve to be called BIRD CASTLES…”[46] The Ottomans rightly called them palaces or pavilions,[47] revealing its importance to their culture.

The stunning birdhouses speak to the overall attitude that the Ottoman Turks had towards animals. Structures built during this time—between the 15th and 19th century—were designed with the care and protection of creatures in mind. The avian homes, with nicknames like “kuş köşkü” (bird pavilions) and “serçe saray” (sparrow palace), are fantastic examples of this. While some stunningly detailed homes were simply for refuge, other birdhouses fed the winged creatures in times of cold weather or could help take care of them while they were sick.”  Sara Barnes[48]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 44. “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)

There were also many baths created for birds, and towers; “Farming innovations included using pigeon manure for fertilization, a technique mastered in Iran where towers 18 to 21 meters high (60 to 70 feet) were dotted around the fields to house the birds”.[49]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 45. Bird Towers of Iran, Safavid Isfahan had an estimated 3,000 pigeon towers covering all over their city (Source

12. Conclusion

The above are only a few examples of how birds have impacted Muslim civilisation. It is clear that Muslims and others living under the Muslim civilisation revered birds and respected their elegant presence. This admiration is clear in Muslim culture and perhaps we should make extended efforts to preserve their presence so that future generation have the opportunity to seek inspirations in the many variations of our winged friends.

Sunny days are spent cutting the grass while hoping it does not rain too much. Insects are dealt with, moles are moved on, and birds are made to feel welcome…” [50]

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation

Figure 46-47. The Calendar of Cordoba of 961 had tasks and timetables for each month. March noted that roses bloomed and quails appeared:” ©1001inventions, V3 Page 115 

13. References

[1] Nizamoglu, C. (2007). Cats in Islamic Culture. [Online]. Available at:

[2] Hoaryredpoll. (2008). The Bird Gods of Ancient Egypt. [Online]. Available at:

[3] Zhang, S. (2014). How the Railroad Wiped Out Passenger Pigeons. GIZMONDO [Online]. Available at:

[4] PETA. (2009). Victory! Pigeon Massacre Canceled. [Online]. Available at:

[6] METRO (2014). Hawk scares off pigeons… [Online]. Available at:

[7] Wildlife-removal (2014-18) How to Kill a Pigeon. [Online] Available at:

[8] 247wildlife. How to Kill Pigeons with Rice… [Online] Available at:

[9] Sharkonline. Video of Children Caught… [Online] Available at:

[10] BBC (2008). Is it Legal to Shoot Pigeons? [Online] Available at:

[11] DiscoverWildlife. (2010). Feral Pigeon: flying rat or urban hero? [Online].  Available at:

[12] Palomacy. How do Pigeons’ Feet get Injured? Palomacy. [Online]. Available at:

[13] op. cit.  C Nizamoglu, Cats…

[14] Al-Hassani, S. (2008). 800 Years Later: In Memory of Al-Jazari… [Online]. Available at:

[15] Gill, J. (2008). Andalusia: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press. p.81

[16] Birds of the Quran. Mosque Foundation. [online]. Available at:

[17] Elias, A.E. Selected Articles. [online]. Available at:

[18] Khan, H. “An Assignment On Life Of Holy Prophet (PBUH) in perspective of ethics” P. 6. [Online]. Available at:

[19] Brown P. G., Timmerman P. (2015) Ecological Economics for the Anthropocene: An Emerging Paradigm, Columbia University Press, P. 51

[20] Levinson, H. (2000). In Jordan, the gentle art of keeping pigeons… Independent. [online]. Available at:

[21] Ltd, FSTC. 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization: Reference (4th) Edition Annotated, Text only. (Kindle Location 4325). FSTC. Kindle Edition.

[22] ibid.

[23] Independent. (2006). How Islamic Inventors… Independent. [online]. Available at:

[24] First Flights, Saudi Aramco World Magazine, January/February 1964, Volume 15, Number 1, Available at:

[26] Kéchichian, J.A. (2012). The father of the theory of evolution. Gulf News. [online]. Available at:

[27] Heinemann, A. Et al. (2009). Al-Jahiz. Ergon Verlag in Kommission. P.29

[28] op. cit. Nizamoglu, C. Cats…

[29] Gent, R. H. van “Al-Sūfī’s Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars and its Influence on Islamic and European Celestial Cartography”

[31] Nasr, S. H. (1990) Islamic Art and Spirituality. SUNY Press, 1990, Notes 2, P.111

[32] Lunde, P. (2011). Kalila wa-Dimna. [Online]. Available at:

[33] Attar. translated by Wolpe S. (2017) The Conference of the Birds. W. W. Norton & Co.

[34] Sari, N. (2009). The Simurgh: A Symbol. [online]. Available at:

[35] Birds of the Quran. Mosque Foundation. [online]. Available at:

[36] Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine.

[37] PD Worldwide: Kitab al-Bulhan or Book of Wonders (late 14thC.)

[38] Rosenthal, F. (1975). Gambling in Islam. Brill. P.53

[39] Independent. (2006). How Islamic Inventors… Independent. [online]. Available at:

[40] Discovering More Dubai. History of Falconry. Discovering More Dubai. [online]. Available at:

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ghazal, R. (2014). Dubai’s Falcon museum… The National. [online]. Available at:

[43] Barras, C. (2016). Why cities are unleashing birds of prey… BBC Earth. [online]. Available at:

[44] Kinsella, P. (2016). Arabian falconry is killing two birds with one stone. Medium. [online]. Available at:

[45] Schimmel, A. et. al. (1992). Islamic Calligraphy. New York: Brill Archive. P.9

[46] Dagdeviren, S. (1989). Castles in the Air. Aramco World. [online]. Available at:

[47] Barnes, S. (2017). Elaborate Birdhouses… My Modern Met. [online]. Available at:

[48] Ibid.

[49] op. cit. Ltd, FSTC. 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy… (Kindle Locations 1721-1723)

[50] 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 2nd Edition, Page 228

6th International Congress on History of Medicine in Muslim Heritage


It is with great pleasure to announce the above event which will be held during the period from 3-6 October 2018 in Fez, Morocco under the theme “History of surgery in Muslim Heritage”.

Founded in 1975, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University (USMBA) is named after the 18th century Sultan of Morocco. The main campus is located in the northern city of Fez, a World Heritage Site and historically the last stop on the famous gold trading route from Timbuktu. The close-by University of Al Quaraouiyine was founded in 859CE and is often considered the oldest continuously running university in the world today.

There are active cultural activities taking place at USMBA, and the institution has hosted an annual Theatre Festival since 2005. The university is also dedicated to outreach in the local community, and will often host programmes for the elderly. In 2016 there were two forums held discussing on the subject of energy supply in Morocco, hosting lively and active debate from both outside experts and the student body.

USMBA is an active participant of international partnership programme Erasmus Mundus Al-Idrisi, co-ordinating exchange programmes with universities in Europe and North Africa. In 2016, head of Geography at the University of Rennes II, Adeline Cotonnec, met with faculty from USMBA. The two teams discussed a strengthened relationship between the two institutions for research and teaching, and for the introduction of the 2017 TOUBKAL Programme of Scientific Endeavour involving institutions in both France and Morocco.

For more information and abstract submission, please visit the conference website:

6th International Congress on History of Medicine in Muslim Heritage

Al-Jazari and the Castle Clock

Video regarding a brief biography of Al-Jazari and the explanation of his Castle Clock.

The Medieval Islamicate World: Crash Course History of Science #7

The religion of Islam significantly influenced knowledge-making in the greater Mediterranean and western Asian world. Islamicate scholars—meaning people influenced by Islamic civilization, regardless of their religious views—gave us terms such as “algebra,” “azimuth,” “algorithm,” “alcohol,” “alkali,” and “alembic.” We’ll dive into Islamic medicine and philosophers such as the great Persian polymath Ibn Sina in future episodes. For now, let’s explore the beginnings of Islamicate natural philosophy.

Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation: A lecture for U3A


Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A
Welcome and registration
Image: Khaleel Shaikh
 © All Rights Reserved
Khaleel Shaikh and Sairah Yassir-Deane
Image: Sam © All Rights Reserved

On Wednesday 25 April 2018, The University of the Third Age (U3A)[1], hosted an event at Leamington Spa Town Hall to explore Islam through a day of interactive talks, performing arts and an exhibition[2].

The event featured Dr. Abdullah Sahin, Reader in Islamic Education, University of Warwick, Sairah Yassir-Deane, Project Officer at the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation UK and the Khayaal Theatre Company.

Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A
Dr Abdullah Sahin delivering his talk
Image: Sam © All Rights Reserved
Chris Forse, U3A Chair, opens up the event
Image: Sam © All Rights Reserved 
Dr Abdullah Sahin delivering his talk
Image: Sam © All Rights Reserved

Dr. Abdullah Sahin gave a talk on Islam, its theology and some diverse contemporary issues around the topic. Sairah Yassir-Deane discussed contributions to science, technology and civilisation during Muslim heritage. The session opened up with highlighting the current ellipsis in the history of science and civilisation, the audience was welcomed to share their thoughts on why exploring the historical roots of science and technology is important along with how sharing this knowledge can create a more equitable world.

Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A
Sairah Yassir-Deane delivering a presentation on the contributions to science, technology and civilisation during Muslim heritage
Image: Khaleel Shaikh © All Rights Reserved

This followed Sairah exploring some of the negative stereotypes that have been perpetuated throughout the history of Muslim Civilisation as a result of the dissemination of single story narratives. Sairah subsequently shared various figures from Muslim Civilisation who help counter single story narratives. The figures she mentioned includes Ibn al-Haytham who discovered the correct model of vision, Fatima al-Fihriyya who is said to have been the founder of one of the first universities in the world, Al-Jazari, a polymath who made noteworthy mechanical engineering contributions, Sutayta al-Mahmali, a mathematician and Al-Ijiliya, an astrolabe maker. The session closed with drawing audience member’s opinions on why this session and work that FSTC UK wishes to publicise is imperative along with a brief Question and Answer session.

Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A  Contributions to Science, Technology and Civilisation A lecture for U3A
Audience members listening to the talk and enjoying Khayaal Theatre’s performance
Images: Khaleel Shaikh © All Rights Reserved

The aforementioned scholars and interactive presentation was well received and the audience left positive feedback including:

“[The presentation] broadened my knowledge & inspired me to further research. Positive & inspirational.”

“[…] Interesting to hear of so many scientists I hadn’t heard of,” “very enlightening [presentation] re: scientific achievement! Mathematics, the first university etc. etc. Mutual understanding must contribute to world peace.”

“We need to be reminded that discovery and scholarship exist in all cultures.”

The event closed with a performance from the Khayaal Theatre Company eloquently portraying stories from Rumi’s Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī and was well received by the audience.

[1] UK-wide movement which brings together people in their ‘third age’ to develop their interests and continue their learning in a friendly and informal environment

[2] U3A. “About Us.” U3A. Accessed May 10, 2018.

History of the Islamic Golden Age | Religion, Science, & Culture in the Abbasid Empire

This free lecture comes from the course The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age. You can learn more about this course and The Great Courses Plus and start your FREE trial here

Al Kindi- The Father of Cryptography and the Scientific Method

You must be aware of Bitcoins? How many of your devices have Bluetooth? When last did you use the ATM? Web Banking? Emails? All of these have one thing in common- Encryption Technology and Cryptography. Presenting to you the man, who along with being a Muslim Theologian, Philosopher, Pharmacologist, Chemist invented Cryptography- Al Kindi (rh) All web technology including mobile communication and other wireless communication and the internet require the use of encryption. The most sophisticated armies in the world today became powerful by means of improving their encryption technology. There is a narrative out there that Islam along with other religions is not relevant to our modern world. How shallow does that sound when you study the roots of all modern technology ! And this is our goal at the Second Golden Age.

FSTC Launch of 1001 Cures Book


Join an enlightening panel with Professor Peter Pormann, Dr Aarathi Prasad, Professor Peter Frankopan and Bettany Hughes. Inspiring talks will present the long medical traditions from the East including Muslim and Indian Civilisations as well as along the Silk Road. Speakers will discuss the fascinating legacy of healthcare from the Eastern world, how it drew on ancient cultures and influenced European thought.

FSTC Launch of 1001 Cures Book


History of Marrakesh

Born out of the Sahara Desert, Marrakesh has become the cultural hub of Morocco!

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance

Figure 1. Article Image Banner

The worst thing ethically and politically is to let [Eurocentric] separatism simply go on, without understanding the opposite of separatism, which is connectedness…. What I am interested in is how all these things work together. That seems to me to be the great task – to connect them all together – to understand wholes rather than bits of wholes…. In a wonderful phrase, Disraeli asks, ‘Arabs, what are they?” and answers: “they’re just Jews on horseback.’ So underlying this separation is also an amalgamation of some kind.” Edward Said 2004.


Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 2. The Bab al-Ghuri gate in Khan el-Khalili, a famous market in Cairo from the times of the Fatimids (Source)

Under the reign of Eurocentrism, the Western mind imagines that even if Islam came up with all manner of new ideas and technologies – ideas in engineering, art, mathematics and at a big push, science – even if this were all true we know that Islam is antithetical to capitalism. Wasting time praying 5 times a day makes disciplined capitalist activity a near-impossibility. And in any case, all this ‘irrational’ religious behaviour is the counterpoint to the cold hard rationality of capitalism. Indeed we know that Islam rejects usury and so the possibility of banking and making profits from capitalist activity is ruled out tout court.

Given all this, even if the Muslims came up with all manner of ideas in the aforementioned areas, Europe and the West could have gained nothing from Islam in terms of developing capitalism. So what have the Muslims ever done in terms of enabling capitalism in general as well as contributing to the development of early capitalism in Europe?  Obviously nothing, we are told in the West, which is precisely why in Western histories of the rise of capitalism it makes perfect and logical sense for us to focus solely on what went on in Europe as the Europeans pioneered capitalism and the institutions upon which it rests without any help from the non-Western world. Notable here is that our standard histories of the long rise of capitalism in Europe sometimes begin with the Italian commercial and financial revolution after about 1000; so it is to this that I shall now focus upon.

Islam and the first phase of ‘Afro-Eurasian regionalization’, c.650–1000

The notion that it was Venice that we should turn to rather than the Islamic Middle east and North Africa is problematic for at least four main reasons, all of which reveal that European commerce post-dated that of Islam and that without Islam there might never have been a Venetian trading hub at the centre of European commerce.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 3. 15th century Ottoman maps of Venice (left) and the Mediteranean (right) (Source)

First, Islam had a high propensity for commercial trade and capitalistic activity. I can think of no better illustration of this than reminding ourselves that The Prophet Mohammed had been a commenda (qirād or mudaraba) trader. Moreover, in his twenties he married a rich Qurayshi woman (the Quraysh had grown rich from the caravan trade as well as banking). Interestingly ‘the Meccans – the tribe of Quaraysh – caused their capital to fructify through trade and loans at interest in a way that Weber would call rational…. The merchants of the Muslim Empire conformed perfectly to Weber’s criteria for capitalist activity. They seized every and any opportunity for profit and calculated their outlays, their encashments and their profits in money terms’ (Rodinson 1978: 14).

Second, many linkages between Islam and capitalism can be found in the Qu’rān. Thus the Qu’rān, ‘[d]oes not merely say that one must not forget one’s portion of the world, it also says that it is proper to combine the practice of religion and material life, carrying on trade even during pilgrimages and goes so far as to maintain commercial profit under the name of “God’s Bounty”’ (Rodinson 1978: 16–17).

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 4. 19th century depiction of a caravanserai, Richard Dadd (Source)

Islam prescribed that businessmen could more effectively conduct a pilgrimage than those who did only physical labour. Indeed the Qu’rān states that:

If thou profit by doing what is permitted, thy deed is a djihād…. And if thou invest it for thy family and kindred, this will be a Sadaqa [that is, a pious work of charity]; and truly, a dhiram [drachma, silver coin] lawfully gained from trade is worth more than ten dhirams gained in any other way (cited in Rodinson 1978: 29).

And The Prophet Mohammed’s saying that ‘Poverty is almost like an apostasy’, implies that the true servant of God should be affluent or at least economically independent. The booths of the money-changers in the great mosque of the camp-town Kufa illustrate the fact that there was no necessary conflict between business and religion in Islam. (Goitein 1968: 228–9).

It is also significant to note that the Qu’rān stipulates the importance of investment. And while many in the West associate the Sharīa (the Islamic sacred law) with despotism and economic backwardness, it was in fact created as a means to prevent the abuse of the rulers’ or caliphs’ power and moreover, it set out clear provisions for contract law. Not surprisingly there was a rational reason why the Islamic merchants were strong supporters of the Sharīa.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 5. Umayyad Caliphate. Silver dirham of Hisham ibn Abdel Malik, Wasit mint (Iraq), dated  AH 123 (741 AD) (Source)

Third, the picture of a dense Islamic urban trading network counters the traditional Eurocentric vision of Islam as a desert populated by nomads. Towns sprang up throughout the Middle East and rapidly formed the major sinews of the Afro-Eurasian trading network. Maxime Rodinson reinforces the general claim being made here:

The density of commercial relations within the Muslim world constituted a sort of world market… of unprecedented dimensions. The development of exchange had made possible regional specialisation in industry and agriculture…. Not only did the Muslim world know a capitalistic sector, but this sector was apparently the most extensive and highly developed in history before the [modern period] (Rodinson 1978: 56).

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 6. 1787 Ottoman Turkish map of the Masjid al-Haram and related religious sites (Source)

This naturally flows into the fourth counterpoint to the Eurocentric dismissal of Islam: that ultimately Islam’s comparative advantage lay in its considerable ‘extensive’ power. That is, Islam was able to conquer horizontal space, realised most fully in its ability to spread and diffuse across large parts of the globe, of which the expansion of commercial capitalism was but a symptom.

The centre of Islam, Mecca, was not some kind of irrational pilgrimage terminus, but it was one of the centres of the Afro-Eurasian trading network. Islam’s power spread rapidly after the seventh century so that the Mediterranean became in effect a Muslim Lake, and ‘Western Europe’ a tiny promontory lying on the far western tip of a vast Afro-Asian economy. Islam spread not only westwards into Christendom – most especially into Spain (al-Andalus) between 711 and 1492 as well as Sicily in 902 – but also eastwards right across to India, Southeast Asia and China, as well as southwards into Africa particularly through commercial influence.

Its economic reach was so extraordinary that by the ninth century there was one long, continuous line of transcontinental trade pioneered by Islamic merchants, reaching from China to the Mediterranean.[2] The key point here is that between about 600 and 1492 what we witness is what I call Afro-Eurasian regionalization, which was subsequently upgraded into the world’s first global economy after 1492. And throughout this period, the Muslims were the principal architects of the Afro-Eurasian trans-continental economy.

The Middle Eastern Ummayads (661–750 ce), Abbasids (750–1258 ce) and North African Fatimids (909–1171 ce) were especially important, serving to unite various arteries of long-distance trade known in antiquity between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. These included the Red Sea and Persian Gulf routes. The Abbasid capital, Baghdad, was linked to the Persian Gulf route, which in turn fanned out through the Indian Ocean and beyond into the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea. This route has been termed the Middle Route by Janet Abu-Lughod.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 7. Medieval Muslim trade routes, Copyright © 1995-2005, Pearson Education, Inc. (Source)

Al-Ya’qūbi (c. 875), described Baghdad as the ‘water-front to the world’, while al-Mansūr proclaimed that ‘there is no obstacle to us and China; everything on the sea can come to us on it’. And there were numerous other Islamic ports that were important, especially Sīrāf on the Persian Gulf (on the coast of Iran south of Shīrāz), which was the major terminus for goods from China and Southeast Asia. The Red Sea route (guarded over by Egypt) was also of special importance.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 8. Marco Polo wearing traditional Tartar attire (Source)

In addition to the sea routes, perhaps the most famous was the overland route to China, along which caravans passed through the Iranian cities of Tabriz, Hamadan and Nishapur to Bukhara and Samarkand in Transoxiana, and then on to either China or India. Marco Polo (the ‘Ibn Battūta of Europe’?) was particularly impressed by Tabriz:

The people of Tabriz live by trade and industry…. The city is so favorably situated that it is a market for merchandise from India and Baghdad, from Mosul and Hormuz, and from many other places; and many Latin merchants come here to buy the merchandise imported from foreign lands. It is also a market for precious stones, which are found here in great abundance. It is a city where good profits are made by travelling merchants (cited in Bloom and Blair 2001: 164).

The Muslims were particularly dependent on trade with many parts of Africa (not just North Africa). This was so for a number of reasons including first, that Egypt presided over one of the vital trade routes that linked the Far East and West (or the Southern Route in which Cairo was the terminus at the head of the Red Sea; and second, African markets constituted probably the most profitable branch of Islam’s foreign trade.

Islamic dhows carrying cargo plied the route down the East African coast as far south as Sufālah in Mozambique and Qanbalu (Madagascar). Gold was mined in various places including Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, while Kilwa (present day southern Tanzania) was the principal entrepôt. The most intense commercial relations experienced by the East African ports were with Aden, Suhār and Sīrāf. And this long-distance trade also helped stimulate trade into the African hinterland.

So it would be wrong to assume that West Africa was commercially isolated from the east coast and was ‘brought to life’ by the Europeans after 1492 (see Wolf 1982: 37–44). For it was the much earlier Islamic arrival at western entrepôts such as Sijilmassa (in Morocco) and Awdaghast that enabled the inter-linking of the eastern and western coasts both in the northern and sub-Saharan regions (Bovill 1933: chs. 5–6).

All in all, even before the turn of the second millennium, on the very eve of the ‘European commercial revolution’ the Muslims in particular had woven together vast swathes of Afro-Asia into an increasingly singular economic unit. And it was into this wider circuit of trade that Europe became, albeit indirectly, inserted into when it turned to commerce after about 1000.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 9. A 1937 Yemeni stamp depicting a typical Dhow (Source)

Islam and Europe, c.1000–1517: Commerce, Finance and the transmission of Eastern resource portfolios via the Islamic ‘bridge of the world’

Eurocentric world history, as already noted, assumes that the rise of commerce was given its decisive thrust by the Europeans, most especially the Italians, after about 1000 ce. This date, of course, conventionally signifies the end of the Dark Ages. But the period after about 500 and especially after 650 could be called the period of the Eastern ‘Bright Dark Age’, especially the Middle Eastern Dark bright Age (Bala et al 2010). While Afro-Asian trade accelerated after about 1000 this owes its primary thrust to the growing interconnections between the Islamic Middle East and Africa in the west, as well as India, Southeast Asia and especially China in the east. The Middle East in effect constituted the Bridge of the World.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 10. Traders en route via the Gulf of Akaba, 1839 (Source)

And as noted above, it was into this vast system of commerce that the Europeans inserted themselves. Thus before I describe this wider system, it is necessary to begin this discussion by considering how Europe in general and Italy in particular benefited from the growing Eastern trade in general and the role of Islamic West Asia in particular.

The East not only lay at the other end of the European long distance trading circuit but it also played a crucial role in the rise of European trade itself. For the fact is that European trade was ultimately made possible only by the flow of Eastern goods which entered Europe, mainly via Italy. Nevertheless, this is not to say that Italy was unimportant to the fortunes of European commerce, finance and production. For it was in fact pivotal, constituting the heart of European trade thereby pumping goods all round the ‘continent’ and feeding them into the many intra-regional trading systems (such as the Hanse and the French Champagne Fairs). But it was only able to play this central role because Italy was one of the major conduits through which Eastern ‘resources’ and trade entered and reshaped Europe. Indeed, the vast majority of this trade entered Italy courtesy of the North African Muslims in Egypt, who were supplied by the Southern trade route (based in the Red Sea).[3]

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 11. Caravan on the Silk Road (Source)

I now want to sketch the role of the Muslims in shaping Afro-Eurasian regionalization in the 1000–1492/1517 era. While the Middle Route became particularly important after the sixth century, it became extremely influential when Baghdad was the prime Muslim centre of trade after 750. But when Baghdad was plundered by the Mongols in 1258, the route underwent a temporary decline. However, with Iraq being subsequently ruled from Persia, the Gulf route revived. This Middle Route was also important because it enabled a ‘deeply symbiotic’ trading relationship between the Crusader kingdoms and the Muslim merchants who brought goods from as far away as the Orient.

The chief Crusader port in the Middle East – Acre – was controlled upto 1291 by the Venetians, and there they excluded their Pisan and Genoese rivals. Nevertheless, although the Venetians dominated the European trading system, they always entered the global system on terms dictated by the Middle Eastern Muslims and especially the North African Mulsims. Then with the Fall of Acre in 1291, the Venetians had no choice but to rely on the Southern route which was dominated by the Egyptians.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 12. A map of Venice, c. 1000 AD (Source)

The Southern route linked the Alexandria-Cairo-Red Sea complex with the Arabian Sea and then the Indian Ocean and beyond. After the 13th century Egypt constituted the major gateway to the East. Importantly, ‘[w]hoever controlled the sea-route to Asia could set the terms of trade for a Europe now in retreat. From the thirteenth century and upto the sixteenth that power was Egypt’ (Abu-Lughod 1989: 149). Indeed between 1291–1517 about 80 per cent of all trade that passed to the East by sea was controlled by the Egyptians. But when Baghdad fell, Al-Qahirah – later Europeanised to Cairo – became the capital of the Islamic world and the pivotal centre of global trade (though this latter process had begun under the Fatimids in the tenth century).

Eurocentric scholars emphasise that European international trade with the East dried up after 1291 (with the Fall of Acre) as Egypt dominated the Red Sea trade to the East at the expense of the Christian Europeans. And it is this that supposedly prompted the Portuguese Vivaldi brothers to search for the more southerly route to the Indies via the Cape in 1291. But despite the proclamation of various papal prohibitions on trade with the ‘infidel’, the Venetians managed to circumvent the ban and secured new treaties with the Sultan in 1355 and 1361. And right down to 1517, Venice survived because Egypt played such an important role within the global economy.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 13. Venetian traders and vessels (Source)

Moreover, Venice and Genoa were not the ‘pioneers’ of global trade but adaptors, inserting themselves into the interstices of the Afro-Asian-led global economy and entering the global economy very much on terms laid down by the Middle Eastern Muslims and especially the Egyptians.

In particular, European merchants were blocked from passing through Egypt. When they arrived in Alexandria they were met by customs officials, who stayed on board and supervised the unloading of the goods. Christians in particular required a special permit or visa and paid a higher tax than did their Muslim counterparts. The Europeans then retired to their own quarters which were governed by their own laws.

However, they were not allowed to leave their quarters in Alexandria and became wholly dependent upon the Egyptian merchants and government officials. Nevertheless, the Venetians and other Europeans accepted this regime because it was there whence they gained access to the many goods produced throughout the East. Indeed the fortunes of Venice were only made possible by its access to Eastern trade via North Africa.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 14. Venetian traders and vessels (Source)

But in the end the most important function of Italy’s trading links with the Middle East and later Egypt lay in the fact that these commercial routes constituted important avenues along which many of the vital Eastern ‘resource portfolios’ diffused across to fertilise the backward West. And these resource portfolios enabled the various ‘Italian’ commercial, financial, and navigational revolutions for which they have become unjustifiably famous.

It is generally assumed that a whole series of financial institutions were pioneered by the Italians. The most important innovation we are told was the commenda (or collegantia), that the Italians allegedly invented around the eleventh century (e.g., North and Thomas 1973: 53). This was a contractual agreement in which an investor financed the trip of a merchant. Not only did it support international trade through the bringing together of capital and ‘trading labour’, but it had similar effects to a stock exchange in that it provided a market for savings which thereby fanned the flames of economic development.

The only problem, though, is that the commenda was invented in the Middle East. And although its roots stem back to pre-Islamic times (Kister 1965: 117ff), it was developed furthest by the early Islamic merchants. Indeed as Abraham Udovitch notes, ‘it is the Islamic form of this contract (qirād, muqārada, mudāraba) which is the earliest example of a commercial arrangement identical with that economic and legal institution which [much later] became known in Europe as the commenda’ (or Collegantzia) (Udovitch 1970a: 48).

Nevertheless this should hardly be a ‘revelation’ given that The Prophet Mohammed himself had been a commenda merchant. Nor should it be altogether surprising that the Italians came to use this institution given that Italy was linked directly into the Islamic trading system. It is also noteworthy that from the eighth century the qirād was applied in Islam to credit and manufacturing, not just to trade (Udovitch 1970b: 78; Kunitzsch 1967: 362–7).

The Italians are also wrongly accredited the discovery of a range of other financial institutions including the bill of exchange, credit institutions, insurance, and banking.

Islamic economic institutions

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 15. Jiaozi, the world’s first paper-printed currency, an innovation of the Song era (960-1279) (Source)

Turning therefore to the creation of economic institutions, while Rajat Kanta Ray claims that it is likely ‘that the use of bills of exchange and the art of banking evolved in China before any other civilization’,[4] it is more likely that these originated in Islam and the pre-Islamic Middle East. However, one of the principal reasons laid down by Eurocentrism for the so-called ‘impossibility’ of rational Islamic economic institutions and hence the absence of Islamic trade lies in its emphasis on Islam’s prohibition of usury or lending at interest (though Eurocentrism brushes over the fact that the Catholic Church no less prohibited usury).

But this Eurocentric dismissal is problematic in every respect for the irony is that Muslim traders found all manner of ingenious ways to circumvent this ban not least by creating various rational institutions that supported long-distance trade. As Abraham Udovitch explains:

The restrictions in the area of trade and exchange, as well as in other areas of life, placed certain areas of [mercantile] practice on an inevitable collision course with [Islamic] legal theory. This situation gave rise to a special branch of legal writings, the hiyal (legal devices) literature, in which the lawyers attempted to narrow down the area in which actions would be in violation of the law by making them conform to the law formally while in reality circumventing it.[5]

Of the three forms of hiyal it was those of the Hanafī School – Shaybānī and al-Khassāf – that applied to commercial practice. Thus, for example, to circumvent the religious ban on usury, payment was frequently delayed by several months;

or arrangements were made that entailed a higher price if credit rather than cash was extended in order to conceal the interest paid;

or again, qirād investments were deployed which allowed for a return on the capital advanced that exceeded the original amount that was offered.

‘All these satisfied the same needs as interest-bearing loans by realizing a profitable return for the investor, and providing a flow of capital for the trader’.[6]

Critically, Islamic bankers – known as hawaladars and sarāffs – were a common-place feature of Islamic trade. The hawaladars, operating in the bazaars, were a vital conduit for international trade, transferring funds from one place to another.[7]

The Islamic bankers issued credit notes – the ‘demand note’ or bill of exchange at a distant location (suftaja) and the ‘order to pay’ (hawāla) which was identical to a modern cheque: ‘[a]t the upper left corner was the amount to be paid (in numbers), and in the lower left corner was the date and then the name of the payer’.[8]

Equally, though, it would be wrong to presume that rational mercantile and capitalist activity occurred despite the role played by Islam or that it happened purely behind the backs of the religious authorities. For Islam became a virtual synonym for trans-continental commerce and profit.[9] Indeed, contra our Eurocentric imagination, Islam could lay fair claim to the pursuit of rational commercial and profit-making activity throughout the period when Europe languished under Catholic rule.[10]

In addition, the Italians are usually attributed the discovery of advanced accounting systems. But various Eastern accounting systems were also well developed, especially in the Middle East, India and most notably in China. Indeed some of these were probably as efficient as Weber’s celebrated Occidental ‘double-entry’ method. It is true that the Pisan, Leonardo Fibonacci, living in Tunis, was an important figure within Europe, serving to advance the Italian accounting system. But he only was so because he had learned of the Eastern knowledge while living in Tunis.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 16. A Yuan dynasty printing plate and banknote with Chinese and Mongol words, 1287 CE (Source)

All in all, Fernand Braudel described the economic activity of Islam after 800 in the following terms:

‘Capitalist’ is not too anachronistic a word. From one end of Islam’s world connections to the other, speculators unstintingly gambled on trade. One Arab author, Hariri had a merchant declare: ‘I want to send Persian saffron to China, where I hear that it fetches a high price, and then ship Chinese porcelain to Greece, Greek brocade to India, Indian iron to Aleppo, Aleppo glass to the Yemen and Yemeni striped material to Persia’. In Basra, settlements between merchants were made by what we would now call a clearing system.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 17. This illustration of sugar cane is from an Arabic manuscript on natural history (Source)

A string of Islamic intensive (productive) innovations and technological/ideational refinements was crucial here. These comprised, inter alia, paper manufacturing, which began after 751, and textile-manufacturing with both Syria and Iraq being famous for their silk manufactures, while Egypt led the way in linen and woollen fabrics. Moreover, Islamic production extended to sugar-refinement, construction, furniture manufacture, glass, leather tanning, pottery and stone cutting and of course Yemeni steel.

Interestingly, Egyptian sugar-cane production was a leading global industry and extensively exported its refined ‘sukkar’ across much of the world (hence the term ‘sugar’). Indeed, when the Spanish developed sugar production they borrowed the ideas and technologies of the Muslims, as did the British later in Barbados after the 1640s. Muslims also used impressive dyes. Added to this list of Islamic gifts that were bequeathed to Europe were the Gothic arch and other architectural developments, developments in music, agriculture, and foods such as oranges, lemons, apricots, bananas, courgettes, artichokes and, last but not least, coffee.

The “Bala proof theorem of technological transmission”

However, so fraught in methodological terms is this transmission issue that the whole question of the transmission of non-Western resource portfolios in the context of the rise of Western modernity has been marginalised and often ignored or rejected by world economic-historians on the grounds that there is not always in place a paper trail of relics that such disciplinary scholars view as the cardinal criterion of proof of transmission.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 18. The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science by Arun Bala (Source)

Where there is no clear evidence of transmission for the modern period under discussion then we find ourselves in the realm of ‘plausible conjecture’. Of what does this comprise? Here I offer up what I call the ‘Bala proof’ theorem of transmission (after Arun Bala’s argument that he made in his book The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science): that it is not enough to assert cross-civilizational transfer in those cases where an idea that appeared in Europe was invented previously elsewhere, nor is it enough to offer up only circumstantial evidence (though this can constitute part of what constitutes ‘plausible conjecture’).

Rather, Arun Bala argues that we can reasonably infer transmission in those situations where a particular culture, in this case Italy, is interested in understanding an earlier invention in various non-Western civilizations, in this case the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, and when the non-Western invention then soon after that interest is displayed becomes adopted (and adapted) within Europe.[11]

It is obviously the case that from at least 1000 onwards Italian merchants were engaged in looking for ways to tap into long distance trade that emanated beyond Europe’s boundaries. They would surely have been aware of the advanced institutions that existed in the Middle East as they would have encountered these in their dealings with them. Moreover, the Europeans learned not only about Islamic economic institutions but also their ideas on science, mathematics, philosophy, geography, engineering, astronomy and many others too numerous to list here.

In the early ninth century CE the seventh Abbasid caliph, al-Ma’mūn, founded the ‘House of Wisdom’ (Bayt al-Hikmah) in Baghdad where inter alia Greek works – especially those of Ptolemy, Archimedes and Euclid – were translated into Arabic. But Arab scholars also drew heavily on Persian and Indian (as well as Chinese) texts on medicine, mathematics, philosophy, theology, literature and poetry.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 19. Scholars at an Abbasid library in Baghdad (Source)

They then crafted a new corpus of knowledge – with the help of Jewish scientists and translators – that was not only more than simply an amalgam of Greek thought but one that was often not only critical of Greek ideas but also took them much further, if not in new directions.

This process was aided by the fact that Baghdad stood at the centre of the Afro-Eurasian economy and not only received new Asian ideas but, having reworked them, transmitted them across to Islamic Spain. Increasingly after 1000, Europeans translated the Islamic scientific texts into Latin.

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 20. A 13th century French translation of Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Aristotle’s Book of the Soul (Source)

The fall of Spanish Toledo in 1085 was especially significant, for it was here where many European intellectuals gained access to Islamic technical books. Learning from Islam was continued on by the Spanish King Alfonso X (1252-1284), largely through Jewish intermediaries (as did the Portuguese kings). Of the many examples on offer, notable here is that in 1266 Ibn Khalaf al-Murādī’s important text, The Book of Secrets about the Results of Thoughts, was translated at the Toledan Court. This text and many others would have furnished the Iberians with a great deal of Islam’s innovations. Finally, the Italians also directly learned of these ideas both through their trading links with the Middle East and during the Crusades.

So to return to the point being made earlier: we can see that after about 1000 the Europeans demonstrated a strong and keen interest in learning from the Islamic Middle East and North Africa: Which means that this ticks the key box concerning the Bala Proof theorem of the transmission of Islamic economic institutions.

There is much more that could be said here regarding the influence of Islam on the development of a global economy – a story which continues on through to the 18th century. But the last point I want to make is that it was across the commercial sinews of the Afro-Eurasian economy that many ideas, techniques and technologies flowed across to Europe which in turn promoted, not least:

  • The Renaissance
  • The scientific revolution
  • The European voyages of discovery
  • The European military revolution
  • The European energy revolution
  • The early European cotton and sugar industries

Rather than go through all of these in detail since space has got the better of me, let me close with the following vignette.

Conclusion: What have the Muslims ever done for us?

Islam’s Historical Contribution to Commerce and Finance
Figure 21. Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ Theatrical release poster (Source)

Finally I want to conclude this piece by drawing from the scene in Monty Python’s famous film ‘The Life of Brian’, in which Reg, the ‘inspirational’ leader of the revolutionary party – the PFJ (Peoples’ Front of Judea)… or was it the PPFJ (the Popular Peoples’ Front of Judea)?… oh never mind… convenes a secret meeting to rally his revolutionary comrades to overthrow the ‘oppressive and much reviled’ Roman Empire. Here I shall modify that whole scene by substituting the Muslims for the Romans. In this alternative scene Reg obviously now stands for an anti-Muslim Western organization (though I shall leave it to your imagination as to which one that might be).

What follows is the transcript of the video that i have made (see the video clip at the bottom of this article)

Please note that Reg’s speech is presented without quotation marks, while the comments made by the audience members are placed in quotation marks.

Thus, Reg opens the scene by asking rhetorically:

The Muslims… have taken EVERTHING from us. And not just from us, but also from our fathers and fathers’ fathers

“and our fathers’ fathers’ fathers” interjects Stan, one of the revolutionary comrades…

Yeah OK…

“and our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers”, Stan continues…

Yeah alright Stan, don’t labour the point… And WHAT have the Muslims ever given us in return?


“The noria?”…

What? Regs demands in a scathing tone.

“The noria… you know Reg, the huge water wheels that lift water up into the aqueducts”.

Oh, yeah… Yeah they did give us that, it’s true…

“And the sanitation…”

“Oh yeah, the sanitation Reg. You know what Europe used to be like…”

In increasingly exasperating tone Reg replies:

Yeah, alright, I grant you the noria and sanitation are two things that the Muslims have given us…

“And don’t forget astronomy Reg…”

Yeah, well obviously astronomy… I mean the Muslims are always plotting the position of the stars so as to carry on their incessant praying to Allah… But apart from the noria, sanitation and astronomy… What have…

“Windmills and water-mills”, another audience member interjects.

“Yeah, don’t forget all the new irrigation techniques that the Muslims pioneered. For they’ve been a positive boon here in the heat of al-Andalusian Spain”.

Another audience member then chimes in with:

“And mathematics… Remember Reg… it was the Muslims who developed trigonometry, geometry and algebra – with the term algebra being the translation of the title of al-Khwarizmi’s book  Al-Jebr W’almuqalah (given that al-jabr was translated as algebra) and that al-Khwārizmī’s name was translated as ‘Algorithmi’ (hence the term ‘algorithm’). And his work in turn was taken further by the likes of al-Buzajānī and al-Kindī…”

Reg replies in a somewhat resigned tone:

Yeah OK, the Muslims did bring all of this to Europe when we were busy messing around with the abacus. Gee, I never did like the abacus.

“And what about mercantile capitalism Reg? Don’t forget that the Prophet Muhammad had been a trader for much of his life and that his wife was rich. She came from the Meccan tribe of the Quaraysh which had grown rich from caravan trade and banking…Without all of this and the institutions that went with Islamic long distance trade, we’d all still be in the Dark Ages here in Europe”…

In a now increasingly resigned tone Reg replies:

Yeah OK… fair enough… can’t argue with that one…

“Law and order”, comes another interjection…

“Yeah, you’ve gotta admit Reg, the Muslims certainly know how to keep order… they’re the only ones who could in a place like this.”

“And let’s be honest Reg, it’s been a whole lot more peaceful since the Muslims arrived here in Spain in 711. You can walk the streets safe at night now… And under Muslim rule here in Andalusian Spain us Christians can get along just fine with the Muslims and the Jews…”

“Yeah, yeah yeah” (they all say in rousing unison).

Thus after a whole series of similarly awkward and increasingly rowdy interventions, Reg might have finished his rallying speech with the words:

Alright, apart from the noria, windmills, water-mills, irrigation techniques that spurred on agriculture and manufacturing, as well as commenda (qirād) partnerships, bills of exchange and cheques, credit institutions, insurance and banking, all of which stimulated early capitalism in Europe and Afro-Eurasian regionalization…

as well as trigonometry, geometry and algebra, medicine and anaesthetics, public health and hygiene, philosophy and theology, literature and poetry, an optical revolution, engineering, astrology, astronomy and geography, all of which helped shape the European Renaissance…

not to mention science and the experimental method that helped shape the European scientific revolution…

as well as cartography, navigational techniques including the astrolabe, lunar and solar calendars, longitude and latitude tables, the lateen sail, all of which helped make  possible the European Voyages of Discovery, in the absence of which the Europeans would have been confined to sailing within the Islamic Mediterranean…

and… last but not least… the creation of an Afro-Eurasian economy after 650 ce that linked Europe into the mainstream of Afro-Asian trade and later the Eastern creation of the first global economy after 1492 that delivered not only a vibrant stream of Eastern trade but more importantly the many Asian inventions, institutions, ideas, technologies, production techniques and a list of foods and agricultural and manufacturing products far too numerous to list here… apart from all of this, WHAT have the Muslims ever done for us?


[1] Please note that rather than supply a bibliography I refer my reader to three of my writings which provide all of these: The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); ‘Islamic Commerce and Finance in the Rise of the West’, in Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan (ed.), The Role of the Arab-Islamic World in the Rise of the West (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2012), 84–115; ‘What have the Muslims ever done for us?’, in Rajani K. Kanth (ed.) The Challenge of Eurocentrism (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009): 217–35.
[2] Hourani (1963: 62); Abu-Lughod (1989: 199): Chittick (1970: 98).
[3] Though this is not to ignore the considerable production of manufactured goods that occurred in the Islamic world.
[4] Ray (1996: 458).
[5] Udovitch (1970a: 11).
[6] Goitein (1967: 197–9) Udovitch (1970a: 80, 1970b: 61-2).
[7] Thompson (2011: ch.4).
[8] Abu-Lughod (1989: 223).
[9] See especially: Rodinson (1978); Hodgson (1974, 1993).
[10] Cf. Rodinson (1974: 14, 16–17, 29).
[11] Bala (2006: 50).

Also listen BBC Radio 4: Mohammed and the Market, by Kamal Ahmed (Archived)

Malika VI: Sayyida Al-Hurra

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Note of the Editor: This article was originally published in We are grateful to Tom Verde for permitting republishing on the Muslim Heritage website. Some images added as indicated in their captions. Although as a policy, we do not publish articles delving in political or religious topics, this series on Women includes extensive content relating to the contribution of women to science, engineering, and management; a subject of importance and much interest.


Ruler and defender of Morocco’s coastal city-state of Tétouan, Sayyida al-Hurra was a woman of many identities. Her name—really a title—loosely translates “an independent noble lady,” but to her detractors, she was a “pirate queen.” Hasna Lebbady, author of Feminist Traditions in Andalusi-Moroccan Oral Narratives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), counts her among the Andalusi-Moroccan heroines who populate the nation’s history and folklore.

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
Coastal city of Tetouan today (Source)

Sayyida al-Hurra’s life was charted in large part by the crises of her era. These began most dramatically in 1492 with the expulsion of her family and fellow Muslim and Jewish countrymen from their beloved city of Granada in Al-Andalus (now southern Spain) by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella. The event signaled the end of nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
The Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492. This is a depiction of one of the battles which took place (Source)

The “many thousands of the unfortunate emigrants,” lamented Algerian-born historian al-Maqqari a century later, were absorbed by major North African urban centers such as Fez, Oran and Tunis. Others, al-Maqqari observed, “peopled the desert towns and districts of the country [including] Tetwán (Tétouan), Salé, and the plains of Metidja, near Algiers.”

Among the wave of refugees was qaid (tribal chief) Moulay Ali ibn Rashid, his wife, Lalla (Lady) Zohra Fernandez, a Christian convert to Islam, his son Moulay Ibrahim and his daughter—the future Sayyida al-Hurra, whose birth name was probably Aisha, and who was likely born sometime between 1485 and 1495. The Rashids were a noble clan that claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad through Idrisi I, founder in the eighth century of Morocco’s first Islamic dynasty. Soon after the family’s exile from Al-Andalus, they settled in the Rif Mountains southeast of Tangier, where Moulay Ali founded and led the city-state of Chefchaouen, near Morocco’s northern coast. As a refugee himself, Moulay Ali opened Chefchaouen’s gates to waves of fellow Andalusis fleeing the Spanish Reconquista.

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
Medieval empire of the Moors (Source)

Aisha would have been a young witness to all this upheaval while, as a girl, she received a first-class education. She excelled in languages, including Castilian and Portuguese, as well as theology. Among her teachers was famed Moroccan scholar Abdallah al-Ghazwani, whose father, the equally celebrated shaykh Oudjal, supposedly once put his hand to Aisha’s head and declared, “This girl will rise high in rank.”

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
A caricature of Sayyida Al-Hurra (

​In 1510 she took her first steps towards fulfilling Oudjal’s prediction by marrying Abu Hassan al-Mandari, governor of Tétouan since 1505. Roughly 55 kilometers north of Chefchaouen, at the mouth of the Martil River, Tétouan was Morocco’s major port, an entrepot for goods from the interior and beyond. The fortified town was also a tactical base for maritime raids against the northern port of Ceuta, which at various times was held by rival Muslim (Nasrid) and Christian (Portuguese) powers. In 1400, fearing Tétouan’s position, the Portuguese had attacked it and left it in rubble.

“For 80 years it remained abandoned, until a Granadan captain decided to restore the city,” reported the 16th-century historian Al Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, later known as Leo Africanus—who, like Aisha, was a refugee from Al-Andalus. The captain he referred to was Al- Mandari, one of Granada’s last military defenders and, by tradition, modern Tétouan’s founding father. “He was given the authority to restore the city and collect taxes,” Al Hasan wrote. “He rebuilt the city walls, erected a fort and … waged many a war with the Portuguese, often attacking Ceuta, Ksar and Tangiers.”

There is disagreement among historians over whether the man Aisha married was this particular Al-Mandari or another, younger member of the family of the same name who had succeeded him—perhaps a son (possibly Mohammad al-Mandari) or a nephew. In either case, her education, strength of character and presence of mind established her as a political leader, independent of male supervision, instruction or approval.

“She was trusted by her male relatives, and this seemed to be a feature of Andalusian-Moroccan women in general,” Lebbady observes. “She knew what needed to be done under different circumstances and these are the kinds of qualities that would have made her a leader.”

The al-Mandari marriage alliance was a wise move. With Aisha serving as co-regent of Tétouan, and the concurrent appointment of her brother Moulay Ibrahim as vizier to Ahmed al-Wattasi, Sultan of Fez, the Rashids positioned themselves as major players in the effort to unify Morocco against the fast-growing powers of Spain and Portugal.

The need for unity was genuine.

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
Detail of the Fra Mauro Map describing the construction of the junks that navigate in the Indian Ocean (Source)

In 1488 the Portuguese circumnavigated the southern tip of Africa and established their own direct sea route to Arabia, India and Southeast Asia. The gambit cut into the profits of North African merchants who for centuries had acted as middlemen between Western Europe and Asia. The Portuguese also established colonies along the African coasts, linking them to the interior. At the same time, the Spanish, gazing hungrily across the Strait of Gibraltar and warily at Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean, clung stubbornly to their own outposts along the North African coast: Tripoli, Algiers, Santa Cruz and others.

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
Portrait of Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad (Ahmed al-Wattassi) (Source)

Meanwhile, south of Fez, in what is now north-central Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi sought an alliance with Portugal to help him fend off rebellious Saadi tribesmen supported by England. The Mediterranean, once known as a Roman lake, had become an international and internecine stew.

Al-Mandari, Aisha’s husband, died sometime between 1515 and 1519, and Aisha became Tétouan’s sole ruler. It was at this time she took on the formal title sayyida al-hurra, hakimat titwan—Sovereign Lady, Governor of Tétouan. (Europeans wondered if “Sayyida al-Hurra” was her actual name since it appears in contemporary Spanish records as Sida el-Horra; what seems most likely is that, unaware of her given name, they confused it with her title.) Nonetheless, as Sayyida al-Hurra, she effectively governed Tétouan for the next quarter-century or so, during which time “the city soon reached an unheard of level of prosperity,” as Spanish historian Germán Vázsquez Chamorro writes in his recent study, Mujeres Piratas (Women Pirates) (Edaf Antillas, 2004). Much of this prosperity derived from one obvious source: attacks on Spanish and Portuguese ships laden with goods, gold and other treasures.

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
Oruç Reis, AKA Barbarossa, was the 15th C. Ottoman Bey of Algiers, later formed an alliance with Sayyida Al-Hurra (Source)

It was Sayyida al-Hurra’s association with the famed privateer Oruç Reis—known to the West as Barbarossa—that helped cement her “pirate queen” reputation. Born in Lesbos around 1474, Oruç and his older brother, Hayreddin, were among the most notorious of the so-called Barbary corsairs. As they moved their base around the Mediterranean as nominal servants of the Ottoman sultan, their exploits included raids on Spanish colonies, battles with Knights Hospitalers and even a daring attack on the (much larger) flagship of Pope Julius II in 1504. A fearsome figure, Oruç sported a silver prosthetic arm. Despite the handicap, according to eyewitnesses, he “fought to the very last gasp, like a lion,” Yet he had a soft side: between 1504 and 1510, he helped transport Muslim refugees from Spain to North Africa. This earned him the affectionate nickname Baba Oruç (Father Oruç), which, to the European ear, was misheard as “Barbarossa,” which happened to mean “Redbeard” in Italian.

Whatever the actual color of his whiskers, Oruç’s politics and sympathies attracted Sayyida al-Hurra’s attention and admiration. Joining forces, the two soon dominated the waters of the Mediterranean, raiding both ships and towns and taking Christian captives. Spanish sources from 1540 tell of attacks on Gibraltar and the loss of “much booty and many prisoners” for whom Sayyida al-Hurra negotiated ransom. The Portuguese, meanwhile, “prayed for God to allow them to see her hanged from a ship’s mast,” as Chamorro notes. Sébastien de Vargas, royal Portuguese envoy to the court of Fez at the time, characterized her as “a very aggressive and bad-tempered woman about everything.”

But whether or not Sayyida al-Hurra and Oruç were “pirates” really depended upon which end of the cannon one was facing. “Piracy was rampant in the 16th century and by no means limited to the southern coast of the Mediterranean,” says Lebbady. “English pirates used to intercept the Spanish galleys coming back from the Americas, and what they took as booty was a major source of income for the government of Queen Elizabeth I.”

In contrast, during the time of Sayidda al-Hurra, Morocco did not have a navy, and it depended on “privateers”—as Lebbady calls them—to defend the coast.

“Many of these privateers were Andalusis who settled in places like Salé and Tétouan. Under the command of Sayidda al-Hurra, they helped her to fend off the aggressive Iberians who were colonizing Morocco and at times enslaving most of the populations,” Lebbady says. “So Sayidda al-Hurra was doing the same thing to the Iberians as they we doing to the Moroccans. I wouldn’t call her a pirate. To refer to her as pirate is to put the blame on those who were defending their land from aggressive colonial powers.”

Malika VI Sayyida Al-Hurra
An example of Iberian Naval technology (Source)

As her power grew, so did her reputation. In 1541, during a whistle-stop tour through the region to help drum up support for his beleaguered dynasty, Ahmed al-Wattasi asked for her hand in marriage. She accepted, but refused to travel to Fez for the wedding, insisting instead that it take place in Tétouan. It was the only time in Moroccan history that a sultan married outside the capital. News of the wedding traveled as far as Madrid, where it troubled Philip II and was viewed by some as the Muslim equivalent of the power marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.

But Sayyida al-Hurra’s power was not to endure. Her on-again-off-again diplomacy and spats with the Portuguese in Ceuta prompted its governor to cut off commercial ties with Tétouan, and local merchants grumbled that her temper and pride had become bad for business. Meanwhile, her son-in-law Moulay Ahmed al-Hassan al-Mandari (Abu Hassan’s grandson), anticipating the downfall of the Wattasids, allied with their tribal foes, the Saadis. He arrived in Tétouan in 1542 with a small army and usurped his mother-in-law. Accepting her fate, she retired to Chefchaouen, where she lived nearly 20 years more, until July 14, 1561.

Historians say she was the last Islamic woman ruler to hold the title “al-Hurra.” Though she left no known writing of her own, the words of her fellow Andalusian, the 11th-century poet Wallada, daughter of Al-Mustakfi, ruler of Córdoba, elegantly summarize her poise and power, not to mention those of all women leaders who distinguished themselves throughout history:

Worthy I am, by God of the highest, and Proudly I walk with head aloft.”


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

Astronomy in Medieval Jerusalem

Figure 1. Article Banner

Astronomy in Medieval Jerusalem
Figure 2. The plan of the city of Jerusalem from a manuscript collection of various religious, astronomical and historical works dated 1589 (Source)

This activity was contemporaneous with cultural renewal after the devastating Crusades and with large-scale architectural developments, much of which has survived and is still visible in the city.

The main figures in this astronomical activity are the Cairo astronomer al-Rashīdī and his Jerusalem contemporary al-Karakī. There can be no comparison with the established sophisticated astronomical traditions in Mamlūk Cairo and Damascus and Aleppo, with substantial numbers of capable astronomers, but since the Jerusalem tradition is virtually unknown, it is surely worth documenting separately, and for this the time is perhaps ripe.

The manuscripts are concerned with an important branch of Islamic astronomy, namely, astronomical timekeeping and the regulation of the astronomically-defined times of the five daily prayers, as well as the determination of the qibla or sacred direction toward the sacred Kaʿba in Mecca. Most of the astronomers associated with mosques who practiced such applied astronomy for religious purposes were called muwaqqits, literally “those concerned with time-keeping”, others simply mīs, specialists in the discipline ʿilm al-mīt, “the science of astronomical timekeeping”. In the central lands of Islam this activity is attested in Cairo from the 13th century onwards, and in Damascus from the 14th. Prior to that similar tables were compiled all over the Islamic world (except al-Andalus) but on a less organized basis.

Astronomy in Medieval JerusalemFigure 3. An employee works on a restoration of an old manuscript at the al-Aqsa mosque compound library in Jerusalem (Source)

Our manuscripts present a corpus of tables, containing over 20,000 entries for finding the time of day from the altitude of the sun throughout the year and for regulating the astronomically-defined times of prayer. Thus the muwaqqits associated with mosques in Jerusalem were involved in the same colourful activities as their colleagues in the better-known astronomical centres as Cairo and Damascus. More modest tables are attested for Ramla and Nablus, and the most sophisticated treatise that we have come across was copied by in the early 14th century by a muwaqqit at the Sacred Mosque in Hebron who was clearly conversant with the finer points of the astronomical tradition in Cairo.

Astronomy in Medieval Jerusalem
Figure 4. Old manuscripts laid out at the al-Aqsa mosque compound library in Jerusalem (Source)

More specifically, the Leipzig manuscript (Universitätsbibliothek 808, copied 1402) contains extensive tables for Jerusalem by the 14th-century Jerusalem muwaqqit al-Karakī. These tables display for each degree of solar longitude (corresponding roughly to each day of the year) and for each degree of solar altitude above the horizon, (1) the time since rising (morning) or the time until sunset (afternoon), and (2) the time before or after midday. Values are expressed in degrees and minutes of time, where 1° equals 4 minutes (since 360° corresponds to 24 hours). There are 20,000 entries in the table, mainly accurately computed.

In addition, the Princeton manuscript (University Library, Special Collections, Yahuda 861,1, copied ca. 1600), contains a set of individual tables for Jerusalem, probably also by al-Karakī, displaying for each degree of solar longitude the following functions (in degrees and minutes):

  • half the length of daylight; half the length of night;
  • altitude of the sun at midday;
  • altitude of the sun at the ʿasr prayer and the time after midday;
  • solar altitude and time remaining to midday when the sun is in the direction of Mecca;
  • duration of morning twilight and evening twilight;
  • duration of darkness of night.

This corpus of tables was used by Jerusalem muwaqqits over the centuries. Late copies in Cairo manuscripts are datable as late as ca. 1900.

With these tables an astronomer would have control over the time of day and the times of the five prayers: sunset, nightfall, daybreak, midday and mid afternoon. He could instruct the muezzin when to announce to call to prayer. In this way in medieval Jerusalem the faithful were served by the muwaqqits.

Other means of regulating the passage of time were available. As for sundials, attention has already been drawn to a vertical sundial on the wall of a mosque in Jerusalem and a remarkable polar sundial in the courtyard of a mosque in Acre. Islamic astrolabes often included Jerusalem in their lists of localities, and some medieval European astrolabes included the city as the goal for pilgrims. One 14th-century Syrian astrolabe was deliberately designed to serve the major Mamlūk cities of Mecca, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo. There is no evidence that instruments were constructed in Jerusalem.


Please click here for the long version: “Astronomical timekeeping in Mamlûk Jerusalem” by Prof David A. King

The English and Arabic versions of the same original article on timekeeping in Syria and beyond, published in 1979 when, as the author says, “Aleppo was the centre of the world for the history of Arabic and Islamic science”.

Click here for the English version and here for the Arabic version

Astronomy in Medieval Jerusalem
Figure 5. An Ottoman illustration of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem 18th century (Source)

Obituary: Professor Cesare Rossi, Naples


One of the last scholarly tasks he did was reviewing the sections related to engineering of the 4th Edition of the 1001 Inventions Book which is now published as an eBook.

Synopsis on His life

Obituary Professor Cesare Rossi, NaplesCesare Rossi was born in Naples, Italy on 26 July 1955 and died on 10 March 2017.

In1979, he graduated with Mechanical Engineering Degree cum Laude at the University of Napoli – “Federico II”. He worked as a Technical Manager in the textile industry and in the  Aerospace industry. In 2000, he was full Professor of Mechanics for Machines and Mechanical Systems at the university of Naples. He taught Mechanics and Robotics and supervised numerous Master and Ph.D. theses. He developed strong interest in the History of Mechanism and Machine Science and has published more than 150 publications in international journals including books. He had assumed various managerial posts at the university and was consultant to a number of industries.

Cesare was married to Irma Pagliara, and they lived in Naples. He was proud of Naples and enthusiastic of its history. He was a keen scholar in history in general and in history of machines and mechanisms science in particular. Cesare was passionate about learning, but he was always modest with his expertise and extensive knowledge.

Cesare had a broad interpretation of the character of the engineer, as one certainly not related to the merely technical sphere, but able to grasp the most interesting and, in some ways, stranger aspects of life. This character of the engineer was the protagonist of a book that Cesare wrote, in which, he conveys his views using a series of small stories.

Among his many interests, he was keen on weapon sports. This lead him to compete in the Italian national championship in different categories achieving the title of Italian national champion with Moschetto of 18th century.

His family and friends remember him to be always available, cooperative, and keen to encourage, guide and assist younger people. He had no children of his own.

Obituary Professor Cesare Rossi, Naples
Da Vinci’s design for a flying machine with wings based closely upon the structure of a bat’s wings.(Source)

The Paper that was to be presented

It is prudent to publish the abstract of his intended paper for the London Symposium that his death prevented him from presenting.

Examples of the Sources of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Studies through his Designs

Obituary Professor Cesare Rossi, Naplesby Cesare Rossi
D.I.I. Università di Napoli “Federico II”
Via  Claudio, 21 – 80122 Naples, Italy

Leonardo Da Vinci is commonly considered as a “know-all” man who conceived inventions in quite all the fields of the science and the technique. This fame comes from the discovery of  his lots of drawings. These reveal the skillful hand of great painter of a wide number of devices. The latter, quite in almost field of the knowledge: from the human anatomy to the mechanics, from the hydraulics to the fortifications, from the submarine works to the flying.

In reality, Da Vinci had never presented himself as “inventor”. This is especially manifest in his letter to Lodovico il Moro (Duke of Milan) when he proposes himself mainly as a painter, then as military architect and finally he tells that he was capable of making some military machines. We should take notice that making doesn’t necessarily mean inventing. In addition, we also know that Leonardo clearly declared that the machines he invented were very few.

In the this presentation, I shall give  several examples of cases where designs of various mechanical devices and other studies by Da Vinci can be linked to other historical mechanisms and studies invented or made before him.  The main fields of the Da Vinci’s studies that will be considered are:

Obituary Professor Cesare Rossi, Naples

Human Anatomy: the foetus, the blood circulation, the Vitruvian Man and the spinal column.
Mechanics: Self-propelled carts, Gears, Weapons, Lifting machines, Hydraulic saws, Robots and Cranes.
Ships: Dredgers and Paddle boats.
Flight: Flying machines and Parachute.

From all the examples above, it comes that the consideration of Leonardo as inventor may get into different perspective to what it is commonly thought. But, in the same way, his image as scholar of practically any field of the knowledge becomes consolidated.  Through his drawings, in fact, Leonardo Da Vinci demonstrates he had deeply studied almost any discipline known in his times.

But perhaps even more interesting is that Da Vinci’s studies are mainly based on the Hellenistic knowledge and on the study of treatises by Muslim scientists. So, a road seams to appear in the knowledge that starts from the very wide cultural patrimony that was represented by the treatises by the scientists and engineers of the Hellenistic Age and goes on with the Arabic culture of the Middle Ages.

Selected Publications on History of Engineerng

Obituary Professor Cesare Rossi, NaplesBelow is a list of some of his works related to history of engineering selected from his long list of publications:

1. RUSSO F., ROSSI C., CECCARELLI M., RUSSO F – “Devices for Distance and Time Measurement at the time of the Roman Empire.” – International Symposium on History of Machines and Mechanisms: Proceedings of Hmm 2008, Tainan, Taiwan, November 10-14, 2008, pp. 101-114.

2. C. ROSSI, F. RUSSO, F. RUSSO (2009) – Ancient Engineers’ Inventions, Precursors of the present. Springer ISBN: 978-90-481-2252-3 (Print).

3. C. ROSSI, F. RUSSO (2010) – A Reconstruction of the Greek-Roman Repeating Catapult. Mechanism and Machine Theory. Vol. 45, Issue 1, January 2010, Pages 36–45  ISSN:0094-114X

4. C. Rossi, M. Ceccarelli, M. Cigola (2011). The Groma, the Surveyor’s Cross and the Chorobates. In-Depth Notes on the Design of Old Instruments and Their Use.. DISEGNARE IDEE IMMAGINI (ISSN:1123-9247) pp.22- 33 Vol.42,

5. C. Rossi, S. Pagano (2011). A Study on Possible Motors for Siege Towers. JOURNAL OF MECHANICAL DESIGN (ISSN:1050-0472) pp.1- 8 Vol. Volume 133,

Obituary Professor Cesare Rossi, Naples6. Cesare Rossi (2012). Ancient Throwing Machines: a Method to Compute Their Performances. MECHANISM AND MACHINE THEORY, pp.1- 13 Vol. 51, ISSN:0094-114X

7. Cesare Rossi (2012) “Some Ancient Automatic Devices: the Precursors of Automation” Proc. RAAD 2012 21th International Workshop on Robotics in Alpe-Adria-Danube Region, September 10-13, 2012, Napoli, Italy, pp 21-34

8. C. Rossi, A. Unich (2013) A Study on Possible Archimede’s Cannon. Rivista Storica dell’Antichità. Vol. XLIII. ISSN 0300-340X

9. C. Rossi, M. Ceccarelli (2014) From Legends to Early Designs of Flying machines: From Ancient Egypt to Renaissance, IFToMM Workshop on History of MMS, CD Proceedings, Tianjin 2014, July 6-10, 2014, paper WHMMS-1.

10. Cesare Rossi (2014) “Some Examples of the Hellenistic Surprising Knowledge: its Possible Origin from the East and its Influence on Later Arab and European Engineers” Rivista Storica dell’Antichità, XLIV, 2014, pp. 61-84. ISSN 0300-340X.

11. C. Rossi, A. Messina, S. Savino, G. Reina (2015) “Performance of Greek-Roman Artillery”. Arms and Armour, Journal of the Royal Armouries.  Volume 12 Number 1, pp. 66-88, ISSN: 1741-6124, Online ISSN: 1749-6268

12. C. Rossi, T. G. Chondros, K. Milidonis, S. Savino, F. Russo (2015) Ancient Road Transport Devices: Developments from the Bronze Age to the Roman Empire. Frontiers of Mechanical Engineering DOI 10.1007/s11465-000-0000-0

13. Rossi, C., The precursors of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies, (2015) 2015 IFToMM World Congress Proceedings, IFToMM 2015, DOI: 10.6567/IFToMM.14TH.WC.OS7.005.

14. Rossi, C., Savino, S., Messina, A., Reina, G.,Performance of Greek–Roman artillery,(2015) Arms and Armour, 12 (1), pp. 67-89, DOI: 10.1179/1741612415Z.00000000050.

15. Rossi, C., Russo, F.Dew ponds and air wells: An ancient source of drinking water at no cost [Gli stagni di rugiada ed I pozzi d’aria: UNA antica fonte di acqua potabile a costo nullo], (2016) Rivista Storica dell’Antichita, 46, pp. 253-260.

16. Rossi, C., Ceccarelli, M., Science, technology and industry in Southern Italy before the unification, (2016) History of Mechanism and Machine Science, 31, pp. 159-179, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-22680-4_10.

17. Rossi, C. The beginning of the automation a brief review on the automatic devices in the Hellenistic age, (2016) Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, 371, pp. 59-67, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-21290-6_6

18. Rossi, C., Some inventions by engineers of the hellenistic age, (2016) History of Mechanism and Machine Science, 32, pp. 151-164, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-31184-5_14.

19. Rossi, C., Chondros, T.G., Milidonis, K.F., Savino, S., Russo, F., Ancient road transport devices: Developments from the Bronze Age to the Roman Empire, (2016) Frontiers of Mechanical Engineering, 11 (1), pp. 12-25, DOI: 10.1007/s11465-015-0358-6.

20. Rossi, C., Precursors of the automation in the Hellenistic Age, (2016) International Journal of Mechanics and Control, 17 (1), pp. 31-36.

21. Rossi C., Russo F., (2017) Ancient Engineers’ Inventions, History of Mechanism and Machine Science, vol 33. Springer, Cham.

22. Rossi, C., Russo, F., Savino, S., Windmills: Ancestors of the wind power generation, (2017) Frontiers of Mechanical Engineering, 12 (3), pp. 389-396, DOI: 10.1007/s11465-017-0414-5.

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times

bannerFigure 1. Image collage from the weekend course ©Sairah

On 13 and 14 January 2018 Ashfia Ashrif, Manchester based Artist and Student of Traditional Arts, delivered a two day course named “Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times” at FSTC House.

This course aimed to outline and celebrate the diversity of art contributions from Muslim Civilisation, in particular during Ottoman Times through learning and application. It further intended to inspire and enthuse attendees to promote material and knowledge learnt whilst enabling understanding of Muslim and specifically Ottoman contributions to encourage intercultural respect and appreciation.

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times
Figure 2-3. Some previous works of artist Ashfia Ashrif and attendee listening attentively ©Sairah

Attendees were made aware of various art, design and architecture contributions that were made during Muslim Civilisation and Ottoman rule including intricate carpets, geometrical art, horseshoe arches, honeycomb vaults and rose windows. The type of art that was discussed in particular was Turkish Motifs. Three ways in particular those Islamic art motifs were disseminated included, direct imitations, transposition of source or media or using inspired motifs to develop a particular style or fashion of art[[1]].

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times
Figure 4-6. Turkish Motif examples, attendees imitating patterns of their choosing and applying gold leaf to their motifs ©Sairah

With the Ottomans granting trade rights to the Dutch in 1612 CE, the tulip became the most popular decorative motif in not only Ottoman governed land but in the Netherlands, also. Books were written about this flower and the tulip became a part of daily life and in a short period of time, the passion for tulips, or “tulipomania”, made the flower a popular theme for Dutch painters. What is more, floral patterns were favoured for the decoration of interiors in Ottoman Architecture; they were also widely used on wall tiles. I.e. Iznik tiles (particularly during 16th and late 17th century) were used to adorn the walls of mosques, tombs and palace buildings. Traditional Turkish Motifs have played an important role in Ottoman Arts due to their symbolic meanings and styles[[2]].

Figure 7-8. Artist Ashfia Ashrif demonstrating how to get rid off excess gold leaf and course attendee choosing her colour scheme ©Sairah

Ashfia introduced some of these motifs, focusing particularly on Rumi styled shapes e.g. Hatayi, penc, cloud, crescent, star, tulips, carnations and hyacinths.

Attendees seemed to be happy with the outcome of the course and their motifs and shared comments such as:

I would love to attend other such workshops”, “it made me want to pick up painting again and look more into Ottoman paintings/motifs”, “the session was amazing, I really enjoyed it, I didn’t want it to finish. It was easy to follow and at the end I have a lovely piece of work” and “learning about history via art has been a beautiful journey so far, one which I would love to never end.”

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times
Figure 9. An attendee painting his motif ©Sairah

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times
Figure 10. Attendees working on their motifs ©Sairah

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times
Figure 11. One of the attendees finished motifs ©Sairah

Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times Introduction to Turkish Motifs in Ottoman Times
Figure 11-12. Attendees work ©Sairah

Further Reading

Ali, W., (2007). Beauty and Aesthetics in Islam: Last accessed 25th January 2018.

Ali, W., (2006). Islamic Art as a Means of Cultural Exchange. Available: Last accessed 24th January 2018.

Argit, B. I. & Ayduz, S., (2012). Jewels of Muslim Calligraphy: Book Review of “Female Calligraphers: Past & Present by Hilal Kazan”. Available: Last accessed 25th January 2018.

Derman, U., (2007). The Art of Calligraphy in the Ottoman Empire. Available: Last accessed 25th January 2018.

Saoud, R., (2008). Sheikh Zayed Great Mosque in Abu Dhabi: Islamic Architecture in the 21st Century. Available: Last accessed 24th January 2018.


[1] Rabah Saoud. 2010. Introduction to Islamic Art. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 January 2018].

[2] Prof. Dr. Gunsel Renda. 2006. The Ottoman Empire and Europe: Cultural Encounters. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 January 2018].

The Weird Truth About Arabic Numerals

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Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List



Traditional Muslim scholarship in West Africa, as elsewhere, used to involve fields of knowledge outside the scope of narrowly defined Islamic studies. For example, West African Muslim scholars produced a number of Arabic works relating to medicine, philosophy, economic studies, political thought, geography, architecture, town planning and public administration. Some of these manuscripts are housed in the personal collections of the families of the authors. In addition, some organizations have taken custody of these manuscripts, from time to time, and have preserved them in different forms for public use.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 1. View of Timbuktu, drawn by Martin Bernatz (1802–1878) after a sketch by Heinrich Barth (1821-1865) (Source)

These organizations include some research and documentation centers in Nigeria, such as the Waziri Junaidu Personal Library (WJPL, Darul Buhuth), Sokoto; The Center for Islamic Studies (CIS), Specialist Library, Sokoto; the Sokoto State History Bureau (SSHB), Sokoto; National Archives Kaduna (NAK); the Arewa House Archives, Kaduna, and the Graduate Documents Center, Bayero University, Kano. This paper presents a brief overview of some northern Nigerian manuscripts, focusing on those that deal with different aspects of medical sciences such as pharmacology, ophthalmology, hygiene and general medicine. The aim of this paper is to show the continuing relevance of such manuscripts for African scholarship in the twenty-first century.[1]

An outline of some medicinal manuscripts

Figure 2. A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises, etc. (Paris, 1853). British Library, 10096.h.9. (Source)

1. Masalih al-insan al-muta’alliq bi-l-adyan wal-abdan

Author: ‘Abd Allah b. Fudi (1768-1827).

Location: Manuscript obtained from Bashir Osman personal library, Sokoto.

Content: The book is in two parts. The first part discusses spiritual aspects of Muslim life. The main emphasis of the second part is on medicine. ‘Abd Allah recognises the influence of environmental factors on health and wellbeing and so he dedicates the first portion of the second part of the book to a discussion of those factors and the role they play in causing illness or, conversely, promoting health. Following the Galenic medical philosophy inherited by Arab, Indian and African medieval thinkers, he identifies the principal cause of sickness as an imbalance between heat, cold, dryness and moisture in the body. Any such imbalance results in bodily malfunction, which in turn leads to illness. The manuscript also discusses the ethics of medical practice. In this respect it touches on issues such as respecting patient confidentiality, treating patients with kindness and hospitality, and not practicing medicine only for the sake of profit, but rather because of a genuine concern to assist the helpless and sick.


2. Diya’ al-umma fi adillat al-a’imma

Author: ‘Abd Allah b. Fudi (1768-1827).

Location: Printed (no date) by Alhaji Dan Ige Sokoto.

Content: The book specifically discusses ibadat (acts of worship). However, ‘Abd Allah also provides a chapter on medicine. Here, he explains the fundamental causes of sickness. According to him, one of the root causes of all sicknesses is excessive and frequent eating, especially eating solid food before an earlier meal has been digested. He further recommends light eating habits and maintaining a balanced diet; in other words, avoid eating only one type of food. Similarly, he strongly recommends fruit and milk as being part of the diet for everyone wishing to preserve their health. For the treatment of poisons such as scorpion stings and snakebite, he recommends the use of salt and water. He also provides a verdict (fatwa) prohibiting the use of wine and other unlawful substances in medication. Finally, he explains that one must not enter a town or place where there is a plague or similar disease, and he prohibits the use of black magic, divination and charms.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 3. Illuminated pages from a loose leaf Qur’an, kept in a leather bag, on display in the British Library’s exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ (16.10.15-16.2.16). Late 18th/19th century  (British Library Or.16,751) (Source)


3. Kitab al-rahma fi -l-tibb wa-l-hikma.

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: CIS, ACC. NO. 315/63.

Content: The manuscript is specifically on materia medica, with more than one hundred medical cases reviewed. It is a compilation of Bello’s personal experimentation and observations on disease causation, symptoms and cure. He tested the materials he recommends, and established their medicinal efficacy. For this reason, at the end of every entry, prescription or treatment he concludes with: mujarrab al-sahih; in other words ‘tested and found effective’. In the book, as with ‘Abd Allah’s Masalih al-insan, Bello provides a chapter on natural sciences, that is ‘ilm al-tabi’a. In the text and especially in chapter three, he also recommends some precautions that help to maintain one’s health; these include regular cleaning of the body, clothes and environment, sexual satisfaction and protection from excessive heat and cold. There are different manuscripts or books with the same title in several collections in Nigeria. Some are written by the Yandoto ‘ulama of Zamfara and are in ajami (Hausa in Arabic script). Others are famous compilations on medicine by non-Nigerian authors, such as the one written by Abu Zayd ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Nadr al-Shirazi and the one by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505).

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 4. Different types of leaves and roots sold at a market in Mali (Source)


4. Al-mawarid al-nabawiyya fi al-masa’il altibbiyya

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: Graduate Documents Center, BUK, Doc no. 566.

Content: This is a general treatise on Prophetic medicine and accounts for the properties of a variety of minerals and materials, and describes special supplications recommended by the Prophet for the treatment of illnesses.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 5. West African manuscripts on a range of subjects (Source)


5. Ujalat al-rakib fi al-tibb al-sa’ib

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: CIS, 3/8/107.

Content: The book also examines Prophetic medicine. The first part of the book presents the position of the study of medical sciences in Islam. According to Bello, it is compulsory for the Muslim community to train experts in medical sciences who will take charge of health at the individual and communal level. This, according to Bello, will make Muslims independent of the non-Muslim practitioners among whom they live. In the book, Bello also laments the neglect of this science by Muslims; this neglect led them to follow superstitions and sorcery. He also discusses preventive medicine as well as public health. He strongly recommends the medicinal use of honey, milk and garlic to treat a variety of medical issues.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figures 6-8. Pages from a Hausa Ajami manuscript by Husaini Bukar Salihu on subjects ranging from celestial positions to medical treatments. © Boston University Libraries (Source)


6. Kitab al-tibb al-nabawi

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: SSHB 3/30/109.

Content: The author, Sultan Muhammad Bello, follows the example of other reputed scholars such as the Syrian Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350) and the Egyptian Jalal al-Din al Suyuti (d. 1505), who also wrote on prophetic medicine. Bello was familiar with these works. As the title indicates, this text is another general treatise on prophetic medicine. As with Bello’s other texts, the introductory part is dedicated to examining the position and significance of medicine in human society and it appeals to Muslims to study that science. He mentions that the study of medicine is a specifi c obligation, in certain cases falling upon the individual (fard ‘ayn) and in other cases upon the community (fard kifaya).

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 9. A manuscript, though to be Syrian, titled Kitab al-tibb al-nabawi (Source)


7. Kitab al-tibb al-mu‘in al-musamma bi-tibb al-‘ayn

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: NAK, SOKPROF, item no.12/ref. no. A/AR9.

Content: The main subject of this manuscript is the treatment of eye diseases. Bello starts by identifying eye problems including diseases that cause dryness, redness, and discharge from the eye as well as some causes of blindness, short-sightedness and night blindness. This is followed by prescriptions for drugs and descriptions of how to prepare eye lotions and eye drops for treatment. It is interesting to note that some of the prescriptions in this text are mentioned in local languages such as Hausa, Fulfulde and Tamashek.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figures 10-12. Arabic manuscripts detailing the anatomy of the human eye (Source)


8. Kitab al-adwiyat lil-‘uyun

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: NAK, SOKPROF. item no. 2. Ref. no. A/AR2.

Content: This manuscript is another treatise on eye diseases. Bello places emphasis on the diet to be followed by patients suffering from those diseases. He recommends milk and eggs in addition to some prescribed drugs for medication.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 13. Room full of manuscripts, National Archives Kaduna, Nigeria (Source)


9. Musuj al-lijayn al-musamma bi-tibb al‘ayn

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: SSHB. ACC NO.150.

Content: This manuscript also reviews eye diseases and mentions several ways of treating eye problems. It focuses on the preparation of antimony and its application to the eye for treatment. In the case of a person undergoing serious eye treatment, Bello recommends avoidance of hard labour and strong body movement including sexual intercourse.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figures 14-15. Left: Prunus africana with stripped medicinal bark, Right: Preparing and drying out freshly dug traditional medicines (Source)


10. Risalat al-amrad al-kilyah wa ‘ilajiha

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 16. Arabic manuscript detailing the medicinal properties of the Cinnamon tree, used for treating a variety of illnesses including kidney diseases (Source)

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: WJPL, in a collection of correspondence by Gidado bin Laima.

Content: This is an epistle contained in Wazir Gidado b. Laima’s compilation of the correspondence of Muhammad Bello. This epistle was an answer to a letter sent to Muhammad Bello by the then Emir of Zazzau (Zaria). In his letter, the Emir complained of suffering from an illness and outlined the symptoms. Muhammad Bello replied: “From the description and symptoms of your ailment as contained in the letter, I think you suffer from a kidney problem.” Bello identified three main problems associated with the kidney: wind in the kidney, swelling of the kidney, and blockage (lit.: stones) in the kidney. For each of these, Bello prescribed the drugs to be taken and the methods of administration. The Emir followed the prescription that Bello sent him and duly responded to indicate that he was cured of the ailment.


11. Al-qawl al-manthur fi adwiyat illat albathur

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: CIS, 3/9/122.

Content: This subject of this book is the causes and treatment of piles. It details different aspects of treatment such as fumigation, and the diets that the patient should maintain in order to recover. In the last part of the book, Bello identifies some causes of liver problems and prescribes medication with a mixture of garlic, honey and other ingredients. The treatise is one of Muhammad Bello’s more scientifically detailed analyses of a specific illness.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figures 17-18. Manuscripts from the Muslim civilisation detailing diagrams of individual organs in the human body (Source)


12. Kitab al-qawl al-sinna [i.e.: cassia senna]

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: SSHB ACC. N. 263.

Content: Bello’s text covers treatment involving the use of a single plant: cassia senna. He provides the plant’s names in Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamashek. He then traces the origin of the plant from the Arabian Peninsula and discusses its medicinal uses and efficacy, identifying six different ways of administering it. The leaves of the plant, according to Bello, can be used in different ways; these include drying and grinding them to make a powder, boiling the fresh leaves and grinding them to be administered with honey, tamarind or milk, or adding the leaves to natron or salt. Various methods of administration are described by Bello for the treatment of ailments including excessive phlegm, bile disease, diabetes, constipation and stomach problems. The scientific nature of this work is further strengthened by Bello’s description of doses, especially in the case of mothers who are breastfeeding. This text also describes how the quantity of the dosage changes depending on when the leaves were plucked.[2]

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figures 19-21. Left to right; Aloe vera, Neem leaves and Lemongrass, are commonly used in traditional West African medicine (Source


13. Nubdha fi adwiyat al-didan

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figure 22. A manuscript by Ibn Fadlan were he decribes the problem of parasites in the human body (Source)

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: WJPL 31/13.

Content: This treatise by Bello basically addresses a single problem: the diseases associated with worms in human beings. Bello identifies the types of worms prevalent in humans and describes the symptoms associated with their presence, stressing that these diseases are more common among children than adults. Bello estimates the length of a tape worm at maturity to be approximately 35 cm. His work adopts a scientific approach in its investigation and prescription of treatments.[3]


14. Qira’ at al-ahibba’ fi ‘ilm al-atibba’. An alternative title for the same book (Qira’at alahibba’ fi bayan sirr al-asma’) is used in Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack, The Collected works of Nana Asma’u, Michigan State University Press, 1997

Author: Muhammad Tukur. Location: CIS.

Content: Muhammad Tukur explains that he was requested by Muhammad Bello to compile the work, which is a general compilation concerning the medicine of the Prophet.

Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List
Figures 23-24. Arabic manuscripts detailing the practice of exorcism (Source)



A turning point in the intellectual history of West Africa was reached when Arabic manuscripts became widely used in documentation, such as recordings of courts proceedings, and correspondence generally. Indigenous Muslim scholars emerged as result of the intellectual activities that gained ground in that region, from the fifteenth century.[4] The nineteenth century, with the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, was the golden period for Islamic scholarship in what is today northern Nigeria.[5] John O. Hunwick has described the role of the Arabic Language as a language of scholarship in the region as the “Latin of West Africa”.[6] Just as European people wrote in Latin or borrowed the Latin scripts to write in their own languages, West African people for centuries produced scholarship in the Arabic Language and wrote in Arabic script in preference to writing in their own languages. The level of scientific experimentation and discovery evident in these manuscripts attests beyond any doubt to the level of intellectual development in that part of Africa, and discredits the popular notion that Africa did not contribute to the field of science and technology, as with other parts of the world in the pre-colonial period. The study of this legacy of preserved medicinal manuscripts could help to rejuvenate medical scholarship in the region. Thus, people would come to recognise the achievements of earlier generations, rekindling the spirit of scientific curiosity and medical experimentation. Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, these documents are based on herbal knowledge and on a holistic approach towards illness and well-being: as such, their teachings can contribute towards a medical system which would be a viable alternative to contemporary ‘Western’ commercial medicine with its symptom-centered and reductionist approach towards illness and well-being.


  • Akinwumi, O. et al. (eds.). 2007. African Indigenous Science and Knowledge Systems: Triumphs and Tribulations: Essays in Honor of Prof. Gloria Thomas Emeagwali, Roots Publishers.
  • Augi, A. R. 1993. “The literary contributions of the Sokoto Jihad Movement to material development in Nigeria,” in Culture and the Book Industry in Nigeria, edited by S. Bello and A. R. Augi, pp. 33-58. Abuja: NCAC.
  • Bello, S. 2000. “Africa’s culture as a basis for its technological development,” in Essays in Culture, Creativity and Development, edited by S, Bello. Abuja: NCAC.
  • Blyden, E. W. 1974. “Arabic Manuscripts in West Africa,” in The People of Africa, edited by M. S. Henry. Ibadan: University of Ibadan Press.
  • Boyd, Jean and Beverly Mack. 1997. The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Shehu Usman Dan Fodiyo (1793-1864). Ibadan: Sam Bookman Publishers.
  • Bunza, M. U. 1995. “The contribution of Sultan Muhammad Bello to the development of Medical Sciences in 19th Century Hausaland,” MA Thesis, Department of History. Sokoto: Usmanu Danfodiyo University.
  • Bunza, M. U. 1999. “Science in the history of the Sokoto Caliphate: A study of Nubdhah fi adwiyat al-Dedan of Sultan Muhammad Bello,” Degel: Journal of FAIS, Usmanu Danfodio University, 2: 37-41.
  • Bunza, M. U. and S. Muhammad, “The Role of Islamic scholars in preservation and utilization of medicinal plants in Northern Nigeria: A study of Qaul al-Senna of Sultan Muhammad Bello,” Degel: Journal of FAIS, Usmanu Danfodio University, 6: 73-80.
  • El-Miskin, I. et al. (eds.). 2009. Nigeria’s Scholarly and Literary Traditions and the Arabic/Ajami Manuscripts Heritage. Kaduna: Arewa House.
  • Galadanci, S. A. S. 2008. “Scope and signifi cance of Arabic Ajami manuscripts in Northern Nigeria,” Paper presented at the International Conference on Arabic Ajami Manuscripts in Nigeria, Arewa House and the US Embassy, Abuja, June 2008.
  • Gwandu, A. A. 1977. Abdullahi Fodiyo as a Muslim Jurist. Ph.D thesis. Durham.
  • Hiskett, Mervyn. 1973. The Sword of Truth: The Life And Times Of The Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hunwick, John O. 2008. “Islam and Arabic into Western Africa,” Paper presented at the University of Ibadan, 14th Exchange Lecture Series, March 2008.
  • Kea, R. A. 2003. “Science and technology and learning: Eighteenth Century Moliyili (Dagomba) and the Timbuctu intellectual tradition,” in History and Philosophy of Science for African Undergraduate, edited by Helen Lever. Ibadan: Hope Publishers.
  • Minna, M. T. 1983. Sultan Muhammad Bello and his intellectual contribution to the Sokoto Caliphate. Ph.D Thesis. London: University of London.


[1] For a collection of papers on African indigenous science, see Akinwumi et al. 2007. See also Bello 2000. Some case-studies on the extent of medicinal knowledge held by the authors of the Sokoto Caliphate include: Bunza 1995; Bunza 1999; Bunza & Muhammad 2003. On the case-study of eighteenth century Dagomba (northern Ghana), see Kea 2003.

[2] The manuscript has been reviewed in detail in Bunza & Muhammad 2003.

[3] The treatise has been reviewed in Bunza 1999.

[4] See Blyden 1974. On the Nigerian case study on the development of Arabic manuscripts potentials, see El-Miskin 2009; Galadanchi 2008

[5] The most prolific writers of the Sokoto leadership were the leader of the Caliphate Shehu Usmanu Danfodio, his brother Abdullahi, his daughter Asma’u, and his son and successor Muhammad Bello. On Shehu Usmanu, see Hiskett 1973. On Abdullahi, Gwandu 1977. On Asma’u, Boyd & Mack 1999. On Bello, Minna 1983. For some reflections on the contribution of the Sokoto scholars to material and scientific development, see Augi 1993.

[6] Hunwik 2008.

Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak

Figure 1. Article Image Banner

Dental care in Islamic history

Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak
Figure 2. An illustration of Salvadora persica (Source)

Among the corpus of Islamic medical texts there are few which specially connect medicine and religious law (fiqh). These are the forms of treatment mentioned in basic Islamic texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah. One of them is the usage of Siwak or Miswak, a teeth cleaning twig usually made from the arak tree (Salvadora Persica). “The toothstick is cleansing for the mouth and pleasing to the Lord”, says one of the ahadeeth from the al-Bukhari collection. As a rule, it was used before going to congregational prayer, just after the ritual abolition. Today, Siwak can be purchased in almost every market, amongst Muslims, in the Middle East or the West. The texts providing rules for general dental care already existed in the “Golden Age” of Islamic medical scholarship, which there are a few treatises dedicated specially to the issue of Siwak, virtues of its usage and other benefits. Among the oldest texts, addressing the subject, there is one by Yuhanna ibn Masawayh (d. 854) and Hunayn b. Ishaq (d. 873).[1] Numerous contemporary studies confirm that the Salvadora Persica plant and its extracts exert beneficial effects on oral tissues and help to maintain good oral hygiene.[2]

Most of the oldest Muslim treatises on Siwak remain in a manuscript form. However, similar works on this issue have also appeared in later periods. The newest manuscript (still unpublished), which is going to be analyzed in this article, is written by the great Ottoman encyclopedist, Muhammad bin Mustafa al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760).


Not so much is known about this scholar, but nevertheless more than 40 texts produced by him are preserved (and few of them even published, mostly dedicated to Islamic theology and logic). He was born in the city of Aqkirman (or Akkerman), now known as Bilhorod-Dnistrovs’kyi in the Odessa region of Ukraine. In the time between 1484 and 1812, this part of present-day Ukraine was under the rule of the Ottomans with an ethnically mixed population (Ukrainians, Romanians, Tatars, Nogais, Armenian, Jews and others). Born around 1700, Muhammad bin Mustafa al-Aqkirmani started his career in his homeland and then traveled to Istanbul. We do not know exactly where he studied, but since 1737 he was in office as a judge, starting from Izmir, and then going to Cairo, and finally, Makkah. He died in Makkah, in 1760, having been a chief Hanafi judge in the Holy City.[3]

Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak
Figure 3-4. Left, opening page from one of al-Aqkirmani’s manuscripts devoted to the used of Siwak, 18th C. (Source). Right, 18th century hand-illustrated page from an Ottoman Turk dental book (Source)

Most of the works written by Muhammad al-Aqkirmani are glosses and commentaries to the treatises of the past (hawwashi and shuruh, as it was typical for his time); however, he authored few “independent” treatises like the work on the infinity of divine knowledge (Al-’Iqd al-Laali fi bayan ‘an ‘ilmuhu Ta’ala gayra mutanahi)[4] and copious bio-bibliographical work “Definitions of the Sciences and Descriptions of the Authors” (Ta’arifat al-Funun wa Manakib al-Musannifin).[5]

Treatise on Dental Care

Among other texts, there is a small treatise entitled “Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak”. One of the copies preserved, is located in the National Library of Medicine (Washington D. C., USA).[6] Written in Arabic, it contains just 4 leaves with dimensions 20.5 x 12.8 (text area 14 x 5.7) cm and 19 lines per page. The title is given on fol. 1b line 6 as Risalah fi hukm al-siwak. The author’s name given on line 5 of fol. 1b as Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (fa-yaqul Muḥammad al-Āqkirmānī…). Unfortunately, the copy is undated and unsigned, but the appearance of the paper, ink, and script suggests late of 18th century.

Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak
Figure 5-6. Left, Siwak seller, Pakistan (SourceRight, Siwak seller, Ethiopia (Source)

There are some marginal annotations, possibly in the same hand as the unnamed copyist. The volume consists of 4 leaves. Fol. 1a is blank except for an owner’s stamp and signature for al-Sayyid Muhammad ‘Ata’ Allah and one signature for another owner. The catalogue description says that the treatise is a “small tract on the use and the social, physical and religious benefits of the toothbrush (Siwak) was composed by one Muhammad al-Aqkirmani and preserved in a unique copy”.[7]

The treatise consists of five parts. The first is about hukm al-siwak, meaning the statements of Shariah concerning it. Among the two main positions (the one is that it is “preferable” to use it and the second that it is Sunnah, meaning a very desirable action to follow what Prophet Muhammad did), the author supports the last one, also provided in the past by well-known Hanafi scholar Yusuf al-Qaduri (d. 1037).[8] When hukm is established, Muhammad al-Aqkirmani goes to the discussion of what Siwak essentially is (aslu-hu). “It is favorable for al-Siwak to be made from some bitter tree which will delete bad breath from the mouth and teeth with a subsequent fragrance, with the only exception of pomegranate and sugarcane”.[9] The author does not explain why it is prohibited to use these trees, but other authorities of Hanafi school (like well-known Ibn ‘Abidin, d. 1784) were explaining that these threes are “harmful for the mouth”.[10] The best one, as continues Muhammad al-Aqkirmani, is arak, because this is the one mentioned in “prophetic medicine” (al-tibb al-nabi).[11] According to Abu Hanifa, says Muhammad al-Aqkirmani, “arak makes the speech eloquent, the appetite stimulated and the brain clear”; similar words are really attributed to Abu Hanifa but the real source of them is not mentioned.[12]

Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak
Figure 7. A popular toothpaste with Siwak extract (Source)

For the next two chapters, Muhammad al-Aqkirmani mostly outlines, how to use Siwak and in which places, coming to the idea (after mentioning ahadeeth and saying of the scholars like Kamal al-Din bin al-Hammam, d. 1457) that it is better to use in all the times and not merely before prayers. Going to the last chapter, “Benefits of Siwak”, he counts both spiritual and material sides of it: for example, Siwak discourages the shaytans and attracts the angels, makes the body stronger and the sight powerful. What is interesting here, is that Muhammad al-Aqkirmani discusses the influence of Siwak on the brain, saying that it keeps the mind remembering Islamic creed la ilaha illa Llah (“there is not God but Allah”) before going to die. Thus, Siwak stimulates proper thinking, in contrast to opium, hyoscyamus and hashish. All of them (and first of all, hashish) are prohibited since they divert people from the remembrance of Allah.[13]

Concluding remarks

It may be stated that Muhammad al-Aqkirmani as one of the Islamic scholars from the “Post-Classical Period” of Islamic intellectual history (i.e. between 13th and 18th) addresses the issue of Siwak in two perspectives, the first being legal and the second, medical. Of course, he was not the first one to discuss this issue (many times legal status and benefits of siwak were argued before him), but even his brief contribution seems to be significant. On the one hand, Muhammad al-Aqkirmani could be seen as an Ottoman Sunnah revivalist (being among the followers of so-called Kadizadeli puritan movement),[14] but on the other hand he tended to evaluate Islamic tradition in more rational and pragmatic way, in this case, the medical science.

Dental Care in Islamic Medical Science: Muhammad al-Aqkirmani (d. 1760) and his Risalah fi hukm al-Siwak
Figure 8. Salvadora Persica, Siwak tree (Source)


[1] Boss, Gerrit, The miswãk, an aspect of dental care in Islam, Medical History, 1993, Vol. 37, p. 68-79..

[2] Halawany, Hassan, A review on miswak (Salvadora persica) and its effect on various aspects of oral health, The Saudi Dental Journal, Volume 24, Issue 2, April 2012, p. 63-69.

[3] See: Sâkıb Yıldız, Akkirmani, TDV İslâm Ansiklopedisi, Vol. 2 (Ankara: TDV, 1989), p. 270.

[4] See analysis: Yakubovych, Mykhaylo M.Muhammad al-Aqkirmânî and his ‘Iqd al-La’âlî: The Reception of Ibn Sînâ in Early Modern Ottoman Empire”,  Journal for Ottoman Studies, 2013, Vol. 41, pp. 197-217.

[5] See  anlysis: H. Toksöz, Muhammed Akkirmânî’nin Ta’rîfâtü’l-fünûn ve menâkıbü’l-musannifîn Adlı Eserinde Felsefî İlimler Algısı, Journal for Ottoman Studies, 2013, Vol. 41, pp. 177-205.

[6] Al-Aqkirmani, Muhammad, Risalah fi hukm al-siwak, National Library of Medicine, MS A 19.1, f. 1b-4b.

[7] Catalogue: Dietetics and Regimen,

[8] Risalah fi hukm al-siwak, f. 2a.

[9] Risalah fi hukm al-siwak, f. 2b.

[10] Ibn ‘Abidin, Radd al-Mukhtar ’ala al-Durr al-Mukhtar, Vol. 1 (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1423/2003), p. 235.

[11] Risalah fi hukm al-siwak, f. 2b.

[12] Al-Qahtani, Jabeer bin Saleem, Mawsuah Jabeer li-l-Tibb al-Ashshab, Vol. 2 (Riyadh: Maktabah al-‘Ubeykan, 1429/2008), p. 32.

[13] Risalah fi hukm al-siwak, f. 4a.

[14] Yakubovych, Mykhaylo, Crimean Scholars and the Kadizadeli tradition in 18th Century, Journal of Ottoman Studies, 2017, Vol. 49, pp. 155-171.

The work of the ‘father of optics’ Alhazen | Primary Science – SciTube

Suitable for teaching 7 to 11s. This vlog style film introduces the work of Alhazen, and the scientific discoveries that he made about optics and the eye…

Abbas Ibn Firnas – Father of Aviation

The first man to fly? In the 9th century!?

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation


Figure 1. Article Image Banner


Note of the Editor:  This article was first composed by Cem Nizamoglu in the 1001 Inventions website. It has been later edited and updated by Cem Nizamoglu and Khaleel Shaikh.


A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.” Reif Larsen[1]

In today’s digital world, it appears as if every square inch of our planet has been mapped and recorded. Due to significant progressions in communication and travel, we tend to take much for granted. We would only have to look back to a time before the 20th century, when the cartographic tradition represented countless possibilities and inspired a curiosity of the unknown. Although many animals can mark and identify their territory, humans are the only species capable of cognitive mapping.[2] It is for this reason that cartography represents more than a means of location, but also a sense of human existence.[3]

People began to significantly explore the world 1000 years ago for reasons of commerce, exploration and for religion. As a result, the demand for increasingly accurate maps and locations of unknown continents arose. It is from this period of exploration, in our shared history, that some of the world’s most precious maps were created by scholars, cartographers, geographers and travellers. It is due to this curiosity, of the unknown, that detailed mathematical analysis was conducted to measure our land and seas, constructing what we now consider to be the early roots of cartography in Muslim Civilisation. Interestingly cartographers from the Muslim Civilisation often portrayed the world upside down, with south positioned at the top.

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 2. The Tabula Rogeriana, by Al-Idrisi in 1154, is one of the most detailed maps of the ancient world. This map has been rotated to show its similarity with modern maps (Source)

Across the Mediterranean Sea, both Muslims and Christians were making portolan charts, navigational maps with no agenda other than ensuring a safe voyage. Usually unadorned and concentrating on drawing and naming coastlines, these maps were used by merchants and pilots whose livelihoods and future prosperity depended on them getting from one place to another quickly and safely.” Jerry Brotton[4]

Much later, with the New World discoveries on the rise by the end of the 15th Century, maps from the Muslim Civilisation began to follow the modern cartographic traditions, of which we are familiar with today. There is no definitive reason why the old maps placed south on the top, but from a spatial perspective, what is traditionally seen as north or south is all relative. Nick Danforth states that “Europeans made the maps [because] they wanted to be on top”.[5]  This may be due to similar reasons why the Muslims placed themselves at the top of maps. Jerry Brotton implies “It can be assumed that Muslim cartographers living south of Mecca wished the Kaaba to be at the top”.[6] Another plausible reason could be that Muslims were simply following a previous ancient cartographic tradition. There is no exact evidence to suggest any of this, but the Muslims were known to use the ancient lore and in many cases improved upon and even corrected them. Whether they portrayed north or south on the top, with an agenda in mind or not, the Muslim Civilisation was flush with important and interesting maps.

When the observer looks at these maps and these countries explained, he sees a true description and pleasing form” Al-Idirisi, 12th Cent.[7]

Here we introduce a few key examples of maps from the Muslim civilisation:


1. Al-Balkhi Map, 9th Century

2. Al-Istakhri Maps, 10th Century

3. Ibn Hawqal Map, 10th Century

4. Al-Masudi’s Map, 10th Century

5. The Book of Curiosities Map, 11th Century

6. Mahmûd El Kaşgari Map, 11th Century

7. Al-Idrisi Map, 12th Century

8. al-Qazwini Map, 13th Century

9. Ibn al-Wardi Map, 14th Century

10. Piri Reis Map, 16th Century

11. Ali Macar Map, 16th Century

12. Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi Map, 16th Century

13. Kâtip Çelebi Map, 17th Century

14. Erzurumlu Ibrahim Hakki Map, 18th Century

15. Appendix I – Other Maps
15.1 Taqwim-i ta’rikhi (Historical Calendar), 15th Century
15.2 Matrakci Map, 16th Century
15.3 Al-Rudani’ Astrolobe

16. Appendix II – Further Contributions

17. Further Reading (Bibliography)

18. References 


1. Al-Balkhi Map, 9th Century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 3. A map by Abu Zaid Ahmed ibn Sahl al-Balkhi (850-934), a Persian geographer who was a disciple of al-Kindi and also the founder of the “Balkhī school” of terrestrial mapping in Baghdad. Picture displayed on “Old Manuscripts and Maps from Khorasan” (Source)

Abu Zaid Ahmed ibn Sahl al-Balkhi was born in 850 CE. Originally from the Balkh province of Khorasan, he went on to travel extensively throughout the Muslim world. He founded the Balkhi School of terrestrial mapping in Baghdad, but also specialised in mathematics, physics, phycology and other general sciences. Although he was born and died in Khorasan, he spent much of his life in Baghdad where he was known amongst the literary community. The Balkhi School maps may appear to be simplistic in representation, however this was intentional, similar to the purpose of the simplified lines that make up the London Underground Map.[8]

The image of the world consists of five parts: the head, two wings, breast, and tail of a bird. The world’s head is China. Behind China is [a place] people called Wakwak. Behind this [country called] Wakwak are people whom no one except God counts [as one of his creatures]. The right wing is India, and behind India is the sea; behind this sea there are no creatures at all. The left wing represents Khazar [of the Caspian], and behind Khazar are two nations each of which is called Manshak and Mashak. Behind Manshak and Mashak are Gog and Magog, both of which are nations whom only God knows. The breast of the world represents Mecca, Hijaz [the western shore of the Arabian Peninsula], Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. The tail represents the land from dhat al-Plumdm [the frontier of Egypt] to the Maghreb [Northwest Africa]. The tail is the worst part of the bird.” Ibn al-Faqih, 10th Cent.[9]

Although al-Balkhi is highly regarded as the originator of this cartographic school, some scholars hold their reservations due to the lack of surviving manuscripts that are actually from the time of al-Balkhi.[10] In fact, to this day, there is no existing map crafted directly from any of the four authors of the Balkhi school. The oldest surviving manuscript of this tradition dates back to the 11th century which is much later than the last of the Balkhi school’s authors. It is for this reason that some scholars hold their reservations on the origins of these maps. These cartographic manuscripts started to adopt the Balkhi name by scholars from the 18th,19th and 20th centuries. However, despite the origin of the al-Balkhi map being subjected to question, it is still popularly known as the “Balkhi World Map“.


2. Al-Istakhri Maps, 10th century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 4. A world map by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al-Istakhri (934 CE) aka Estakhri. The map is oriented with South at the top, a common feature of maps at the time. Picture displayed on “Old Manuscripts and Maps from Khorasan” (Source)

Finally, I admit to having used Estakhri’s maps because of the personal allure they hold for me. In my opinion they are the most abstract paintings of Islamic Iran.” Parvis Tanavoli[11]

Al-Istakhri was a traveller and scholar from the 10th century, who was born in Fars (Persia). His work is known to have been largely influenced by Al-Balkhi’s tradition and is seen as an extension of his work. Subsequently Al-Istakhri’s work had intrigued Ibn Hawqal and was a source for his inspiration and travels.[12] Al-Istakhri’s most notable geographic work is the Kitab al-Masalik al-Mamalik. What little information we do have about him derives from a meeting between Al-Istakhri and Ibn Hawqal.[13] After his initial world map, al-Istakhri went on to author a series of twenty smaller, regional maps. These maps focused on different regions of the Muslim Civilisation.[14] Al-Istakhri is believed to have travelled through a number of Muslim nations including; parts of Arabia, Khuzistan, Daylam and the Indian sub-continent.[15] Interestingly, al-Istakhri is one of the first to record the existence of windmills, which were built by al-Masudi in Sijistan, 10th century.[16]

Al-Istakhri is similar to al-Muqaddisi in his treatment of the west, but to Ibn Hawqwal in his treatment of the east.” Zayde Antrim[17]

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figures 5-7. Left: South Caucasus (Armenia) (Source), Centre: From Al-aqalim (Source), Right: Persian Gulf’s coast (Source


3. Ibn Hawqal Map, 10th century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 8. World map by Abu al-Qasim Muhammad b. Hawqal, commentated by Shiva Balaghi. This map is oriented with the South at the top (Source)

Abu al-Qasim Muhammad Ibn Hawqal was an enthusiastic traveller from the region of al-Jazira in modern day Turkey. It is thought that the inspiration for his largely nomadic lifestyle is accredited to al-Istakhri and Ibn Khordadbeh, both of which, are well respected geographers and cartographers. It is also believed that the Hanbali Jurist, Ibn Qudamah, was also a pivotal figure in Ibn Hawqal’s life.[18]

Unlike his predecessors, Ibn Hawqal was open to recording his biography in his works. He spent many years as a traveller, roaming extensively in the Muslim world from 943 to 973 CE. His works have a tendency to include economic details and this has led some scholars to assume that he was a Da`i or a travelling Muslim preacher.[19]

They [Ibn Hawqal, al-Istakhri & al-Muqaddasi] produced many geographic works in the free academic atmosphere that flourished during the reign of the Buyid Rulers of the Abbasid dynasty.” Hyunhee Park[20]

It is through Ibn Hawqal’s encounters with reputable and influential figures in the Muslim Civilisation, that we can derive additional information about his life. The most reliable of these encounters was with the Vizier of ‘Abd al-Rahman III, a Jewish physician by the name of Hasday Ibn Shaprut. It is said that Ibn Hawqal had given the physician information on the Jews of the Orient in return for knowledge on the northern European nations of that time.[21]

Ibn Hawqal’s most notable works are Surat al-Ard and Kitab al-Masalik wa’l Mamalik (the Books of Routes and Kingdoms).

He (Istakhri) showed me the geographical maps in his work, and, when I had commented on them, he gave me his work with the words, ‘I can see that you were born under a lucky star, therefore take my work and make such improvements as you think fit’. I took it, altered it in several particulars, and returned it to him.” Ibn Hawqal[22]


4. Al-Masudi’s Map, 10th Century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 9. al-Masudi was an Arab historian and geographer. The image above is a recreation of his map orientated with south at the top (Source)

Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Masudi was a direct descendant of Abdullah ibn Masud, a companion of the Prophet (PBUH). In his hometown of Baghdad, Al-Masudi was known as a great historian and geographer. He had travelled extensively throughout Persia, the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, China and lastly the island of Madagascar in Africa. In 922, Al-Masudi returned to Baghdad where he composed his first summary of his travels; Muruj-al-Zahab wa al-Ma-adin al-Jawahir (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Stones).[23]

His world map found in the Muruj-al-Zahab wa al-Ma-adin al-Jawahir, is a significant piece of geographical work, as it was more accurate compared to other maps of that time. Interestingly the map reveals a large piece of land past the “ocean of darkness and fog” which is thought to be the contour of South America.

Al-Masudi was also a geologist and mineralogist. He frequently studied earthquakes and even proposed a theory of life mutating from minerals to plant matter.

There can be no comparison between one who lingers among his kinsmen and is satisfied with whatever information reaches him about his part of the world, and another who spends a lifetime in travelling the world, carried to and fro by his journeys, extracting every fine nugget from its mine and every valuable object from its place of seclusion.” al-Masudi[24]


5. The Book of Curiosities Map, 11th Century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 10. World map from the Book of Curiosities manuscript held at the Bodley Library (Source)

The rhyming title of the volume, Kitāb Gharāʾib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn, loosely translates as The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes. For convenience, the treatise is referred to simply as The Book of Curiosities…” Y. Rapoport & E. Savage-Smith[25]

The Book of Curiosities, is a highly illustrated treatise on astronomy and geography. The manuscript consists of five books and includes a number of diagrams depicting the Heavens and mapping the Earth. Of these five books, only the first two, were purchased by the Bodley Library, while the other three are thought to be about horses, camels and hunting. The remaining books are preserved in Damascus. This manuscript is thought to have been composed in Egypt during the first half of the 11th century and was discovered recently by Emilie Savage-Smith, an expert in the field of Islamic Manuscripts.

The first book is devoted to describing the Heavens and its impact and relationship to the Earth. It also includes an illustrated discourse on celestial matters concerning comets and various stars. The Second book is divided into 25 chapters and is concerned with depicting and describing the Earth. Two different world maps are revealed in this manuscript, one being circular in shape and the other rectangular.

The Book of Curiosities, however, differs from the other Muslim medieval cartography popular at that time.[26] However, the Book of Curiosities maps still hold its place in the Muslim cartographic tradition, with its artistry and knowledge that it gives to the reader.

A rectangular map of the world unlike any other recorded ancient or medieval world map has been preserved in a recently discovered Arabic treatise dating from around 1200 and containing a total of seventeen maps and cartographic designs…” Y. Rapoport & E. Savage-Smith[27]

Figures 11-13. Mediterranean Sea (Source), Sicily (Source) and the Indian Ocean (Source)


6. Mahmûd El Kaşgari Map, 11th century

Figure 14. World map from Mahmud el-Kashgari’s Diwan, 11th century (Source)

Mahmûd bin Hüseyin bin Muhammed El Kaşgari was originaly from Barskhan, which today, is in the country of Kyrgyzstan. Alhough El Kaşgari is believed to have been an Muslim Scholar, his recognised speciality was in the field of linguistics, specifically in Turkic Dialects. His extensive travels throughout central Asia exposed him to the varying spoken Turkic dialects and caused him to compose his most prestigious work, Divanu lugat it-Türk.[28]

In his world map from the Divanu lugat it-Türk, El Kaşgari intricately depicts the locations of different Turkic tribes from Europe all the way through to China. The map reveals just how diverse the Turkik speaking people really are and the extent to which they travelled across the world. Prof Sevim Tekeli has mentioned in her article “This book was written in order to teach the Arabs Turkish and to prove that the Turkish language was as important as Arabic.”[29] Today only one copy remains of the Divan, dating back to the 13th century by al-Sâvî, a Persian polymath who claims he copied the Divan from the original manuscript.[30]

This map is unique as it is colour and shape coded for distinguishing different aspects. For example, the Turkish tribes in this map are marked and represented by yellow dots. El Kaşgari’s map is set apart from other maps of this period due to the fact that it focuses on mapping the locations of different tribes and their languages. Although this map may not be a typical map used for navigation it surely is a unique piece of early linguistic thought.[31]

Today, the Divanu lugat it-Türk is a priceless document for the linguistic and anthropological study of Inner Asia’s Turkic populations in Qarakhanid times.” Svat Soucek[32]


7. Al-Idrisi’s World Map, 12th Century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 15. Al-Idrisi’s 12th century world map (Source)

One of the most remarkable products or medieval mapmaking…
…Perhaps the most striking feature is its orientation: south is at the top.” Jerry Brotton

Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani as-Sabti, or simply Al-Idrisi, was a well-known 12th century Muslim geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist. He is responsible for one of the most famous maps appearing in the history of Muslim civilisation. Born in Ceuta, Morocco, he later moved to Palermo, Sicily.

Al-Idrisi was a distinguished guest of the Sicilian Monarch Roger II, and spent much of his working life in Sicily. After completing his studies in Córdoba, he went on to travel extensively throughout the Mediterranean from Lisbon to Damascus. It was Roger II who had requested a group of geographers, with Al-Idrisi as the permanent secretary, to collate all available resources and compose an accurate world map. Of the twelve scholars commissioned to this cartographic project, ten of them were of the Muslim civilisation. The research required for this map took fifteen years after which the actual map making process began. This resulted in the creation of Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fiikhtiraq al-afaq (Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World”). The manuscript consists of 70 maps with its world map featured first in the collection. Al-Idrisi’s maps are some of the most mimetic works of the Middle Ages. His maps also portray a detailed grasp of the topography of the Mediterranean region.[34]

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 16. The original world map by al-Idrisi. On the left, shows how the map is supposed to be viewed with Makkah (Mecca) centred north of Arabia. On the right, the map has been flipped upside-down to show the modern approach when viewing the world map (Source)


8. al-Qazwini Map, 13th Century

Figure 17. Al-Qazwini’s world map of the inhabited world, from cosmography (Source)

Zakariya Ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini (1203-1283) was a Persian encyclopaedist known for his treatise on cosmography, Kitab ‘aja’ib al-makhluqat wa-ghara’ib al-mawjudat (Marvels of things created and miraculous aspects of things existing) and his geographical work, Athar al-bilad (Monuments of the lands). Both of these works were composed in Arabic and included maps of the world and of his hometown in Persia, the ancient city of Qazwin.

His maps follow the standard Muslim tradition portraying the southern parts of the world at the top. Interestingly he depicts the Indian Ocean to be enclosed by a section of Africa. This idea is thought to have been derived from Ptolemy. His world map (above) is decorated with gold leaf and silver, making this map one of the more aesthetic works from Muslim civilisation. This map is not only aesthetically beautiful, but also very informative as it even represents the seven climate zones, signified by paralleled red lines.

Best known of this genre [‘aja’ib or wondrous literary tradition of mapping] is the work of the thirteenth-century Iranian writer Zakariya ibn Muhammad ibn Mahmud Abu Yahya al-Qazwini, whose work ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat wa-ghara’ib al-mawjudat (The Wonders of Creatures and the Marvels of Creation) focuses on the wonders of the world – real and imaginary.” Karen C. Pinto[35]

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figures 18-20. left: 16th century copy of Al-Qazwini’s world map from his “Marvels of Regions” (Source), centre: 15th century version of Al-Qazwini’s world map, oriented with South at the top (Source), right: 14th century copy of Al-Qazwini’s zonal world map from his Athar-al Bilad wa Akhbar al Ibad (Source)


9. Ibn al-Wardi Map, 14th Century

Figure 21. Ibn al-Wardi World Map 1001 AD orientated with south at the top (Source)

…it’s darkness [Bahr al-Muhit-Atlantic Ocean] is caused by the great distance from the place of sunrise and sunset… A sea to which no coast is known. Its depths are not known to anyone but God.” Ibn al-Wardi[36]

Abū Ḥafs Zayn al-Dīn ʻUmar ibn al-Muẓaffar Ibn al-Wardī, also known as Ibn al-Wardi, was a 13th century Arabian historian. His most notable work is the book entitled, Kharîdat al-‘Ajâ’ib wa farîdat al-gharâib, or The Pearl of Wonders and the Uniqueness of Strange Things. This book contained one of his world maps and also included a picture of the Kaaba. Differentiating aspects such as climate, terrain, flora and fauna, population, lifestyle, states and government, Ibn al-Wardi describes in detail the characteristics of the Muslim World of that time. His depictions of the Nile are shockingly accurate as well as the boundary lines drawn to distinguish different counties.

The first of a series of maps by Ibn al-Wardi is found in a genealogical manuscript called the Cream of Histories, Zübdetü’t-tevarih, by Seyyid Loqman ibn Hüseyin ibn el-’Asuri el-Urmevi.

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figures 22-25. A copy of Ibn al-Wardi’s world map (Source), $140,000 Girard-Perregaux watch with al-Wardi’s map (Source), a copy of al-Wardi’s world map (Source) and a Czech National Library copy of al-Wardi’s map, MS XVIII (Source)   


10. Piri Reis Map, 16th Century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 26. Piri Reis’s World map, 16th century (Source)

The Piri Reis map of 1513 is one of the most beautiful, most interesting, and most mysterious maps to have survived the Great Age of Discoveries. Yet it is one of the least understood maps of this momentous and remarkable period in the history of cartography and geographic explorations.” Gregory C. McIntosh[37]

One of the most controversial and enigmatic maps in the history of cartography…” Norman J. W. Thrower[38]

Piri Reis is perhaps the most well-known Ottoman-Turkish cartographer and admiral from the 16th century. His famous world map compiled in 1513 and discovered in 1929 at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, is the oldest known map showing the Americas. Despite being the earliest map showing the New World, it is also subjected to controversy according to some scholars.[39] His map is unique in the sense that it has drawn the attention of both mainstream and alternative scholars.

Piri Reis composed this map by using around twenty other maps from the likes of Columbus and some maps thought to have been passed down from Alexander the Great. Another thought-provoking feature of this map is that it accurately depicts the Antarctic continent attached to South America and interestingly reveals a section of the Antarctic continent without ice, which according to Captain Lorenzo W. Burroughs, a U.S. Air Force captain, is surprisingly accurate. More rational and conservative scholars suggest that these mysterious depictions are mere inaccuracies, a commonality in the cartographic traditions of that time.

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figures 27-30. Piri Reis’ depiction of the Mediteranean (Source), Cyprus (Source), Venice (Source), Granada/Spain and its surrounding areas (Source)


11. Ali Macar Map, 16th century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 31. Ali Macar’s world map (Source)

The “Ali Macar Reis Atlas” is housed in the Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul. As a work of art, this atlas certainly ranks among the most successful. Composed in 1567, they are drawn on parchment leaves and bound in leather, forming an appealing small volume.

The artist-cartographer who drew these charts must have been professionally connected to those who drew other similar maps in Europe; and the perfection of this atlas strongly argues against it being the isolated work of a captain who would only have been imitating such models; the author must have been a craftsman with a sound grasp of cartographic know-how.

As Macar means Hungarian in Turkish, it seems that its [‘Ali Macar Reis atlas] author, ‘Ali Macar, was in fact a Hungarian geographer working for the Ottoman authorities, whose charts drew on his experience of both Ottoman and European regions to create a comprehensive atlas focused primarily on the Mediterranean.” Jerry Brotton[40]


12. Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi Map, 16th century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 32. Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi map, 16th Century (Source)

The book entitled Tārih-i Hind-i Garbī (History of the West Indies), probably written by Muhammad b. Amir al-Suûdī al-Niksarī (d. 1591) in the 16th century, contains information about geographical discoveries and the New World (America). This work, based on Spanish and Italian geographical sources, was presented to Sultan Murād III in 1573.

The book tells many amazing stories of the explorations and conquests of Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, and others, and it also endeavours to incorporate the new geographic information into the body of Islamic knowledge. It presents a major effort from an Ottoman Muslim scholar. It is quite unique for the 16th century; firstly, in transmitting by translation, information from one culture (European Christendom) to another (Ottoman Islam), and secondly, to correct and expand Islamic geography and cartography.

One of the major attractions of the Tarih-i Hind-i garbi is the visual material that many of its copies contain. Some of the manuscripts are illustrated with maps including the American continent…
…Of special interest is the anonymous author of the Tarih-i Hind-i garbi, or ‘history of the western Indies’, who hoped to encourage the Sultan of his time, presumably Selim II and/or Murad III to conquer at least a part of this remote continent [meaning West Indies].” Suraiya Faroqhi


13. Kâtip Çelebi Map, 17th century

Figure 33. Kâtip Çelebi World Map (Source)


A Jewel of Ottoman Naval History: The Book of Kâtib Çelebi on Naval Campaigns (Source)

Tuhfat Al-Kibâr fî Asfâr Al-Bihâr (The Gift to the Great Ones on Naval Campaigns) was written by Kâtib Çelebi in 1657 and emphasises the importance of the [Ottoman] activities in the seas and the Ottoman contribution to navigational history.

Kâtib Çelebi emphasised the importance of science in geography in the introduction of Tuhfat al-kibâr. He explained that the rulers of the state should know the frontiers and borders of the Ottoman State and the states in this region even if they do not know the whole of the Earth.

Katip Çelebi was clearly aiming at educating the Ottoman court and helping to formulate its imperial policies. But his work definitely found a larger audience both within and outside the Ottoman Empire in the following centuries.” Pinar Emiralioglu[42]

Çelebi valued history and asserted that most people overlook the value of this branch of knowledge and thus viewed history as if it were a tale. He expressed his complaint about this saying “who reads and listens to a letter of love and faithfulness?“.

Figure 34. another World Map, Müteferrika edition of Tuhfat al-Kibar (Source)


14. Erzurumlu Ibrahim Hakki Map, 18th Century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 35. Erzurumlu Ibrahim Hakki’s World Map in his Marifetname book (Source)

Ibrahim Hakkı Erzurumi was born 18 May 1703 and died on 22 June 1780. He was an internationally renowned Turkish Sufi, philosopher and encyclopaedist.[43] He published his work Marifetname (Book of Gnosis) in 1756. It was a compilation and commentary on astronomy, mathematics, anatomy, psychology, philosophy, and mysticism. It is known for containing the first treatment of post-Copernican astronomy by a Muslim scholar.

Ibrahim Hakki would commonly incorporate latitude and longitudinal lines in his maps, where he used the district of Tillo as ground zero. He also presumed that the Earth was geodic in shape and reveals this in a globe which he built with slightly flattened poles to point out that the Earth is not perfectly spherical. Atomic structures, gravity and the Earth’s atmosphere and hydrosphere were other subject areas he touched upon.

His book Marifetname, similar to an encyclopaedia, is a work that encompasses diverse subjects and many areas; religion, literature, Sufism, geography, history, cosmography, biology, fashion, and much, much more.” Şefik Can[44]


15. Appendix I – Other Maps

Here are some other maps that do not fit the description of ‘World maps’, but are worthwhile mentioning:

15.1 Taqwim-I ta’rikhi (Historical Calendar), 15th Century

Figure 36. Taqwim-I ta’rikhi (Historical Calendar), this map dates back to the time of Murad II, 15th Century.  (Source)

This map, Taqwim-I ta’rikhi (Historical Calendar), is possibly the oldest existent Ottoman map. Interestingly, this map, as well as the other Ottoman maps, does not follow the typical medieval al-Balkhi or al-Istakhri cartographic tradition. The Ottomans were not familiar with these cartographic schools, rather, they drew their influence from a manuscript gifted to them from the east. This manuscript is still in existence and located in the Topkapi Saray Library in Istanbul, Ahmet 2830.[45]


15.2 Matrakci Map, 16th Century

When the World was Upside Down: Maps from Muslim Civilisation

Figure 37. City of Istanbul and Develi illumination from Matrakçi’s Beyân-i Menâzil-i Sefer-i ‘Irakeyn (Source)

This aesthetic map would have been included in the list above, however Matrakci’s maps were designed for the single purpose of mapping cities and marking the locations of important civic buildings. Matrakci Nasuh was a famous Ottoman polymath, writer and knight who produced important books in several fields. He made contributions in the fields of mathematics, geography, history and calligraphy. Although little is known about Matrakci, he is thought to be of Bosnian origin because of his name. Although most of Matrakci’s works are considered to be pieces of art, some of his painting fall under the category of cartography because of their accuracy in depicting city roads, infrastructure and buildings.[46]  

The idea of incorporating topographic imagery into the illustrated manuscript tradition was carried even farther by Matrakci Nasuh who, upon commission of Suleyman, produced the lavishly illustrated Beyan-i Menazil in 1537 to commemorate Suleyman’s 1534-35 campain to the eastern frontier…” Bruce Alan Masters[47]

Read More

  • Muslim HeritageNasuh Al-Matrakci, A Noteworthy Ottoman Artist-Mathmetician of the Sixteenth Century, by Salim Ayduz
  • MATRAKÇI NASUH ‘’Nasuh bin Karagöz bin Abdullah el Bosnavi’’, by Beste Gürsu

Figures 38-40. Matrakci’s Baghdad, Tebriz, Diyarbakir


15.3 Al-Rudani’ Astrolobe 17th Century

Figure 41. Al-Rudani astrolabe, 17th century (Source)

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān (Muḥammad) alFāsī ibn Ṭāhir alRudānī alSūsī alMālikī [alMaghribī], better known as al-Rudani, was a 17th century astronomer and scholar who was born in Morocco and died in Syria. He was known as a poet, mathematician, Hadith specialist, Quran Interpreter and an Arabic Grammar specialist.

The image above is one of only three known Al-Rudani spherical astrolabes. Sold at an auction for close to $1 million[48], the astrolabe was beautifully made by the 17th century astronomer who put his inscription on the surface of the sphere in Medina. Known for his work on astronomical instruments, Al-Rudani, was also a poet and wrote on mathematics and grammar.

Read More

  • McGill UniversityRudānī: Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān (Muḥammad) al‐Fāsī ibn Ṭāhir al‐Rudānī al‐Sūsī al‐Mālikī [al‐Maghribī], by Salim Ayduz


16. Appendix II – Further Contributions

It was during the Abbasid Caliphate when Muslim Civilisation was said to have reached its peak. The Caliphs commissioned reports on roads to help their postmasters deliver messages to addresses within their empire. These accounts which initially resulted in the Book of Routes, laid the foundation for more intensive information gathering about far-away places and foreign lands with their physical landscape, production capabilities and commercial activities. With the development of more accurate astronomy and mathematics, map plotting became a respected branch of science.

Geography became an important field of study especially with the work of Al-Khwarizmi, one of the earliest scientific descriptive geographers and a highly talented mathematician. His famous book, The Form of the Earth, inspired a generation of writers in Baghdad and Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus). It became a major source of inspiration to unearth, analyse and record geographical data among many well-known scholars after him.

There are many more names that contributed to the geography field from Muslim Civilisation to the Modern World such as:

  • al-Muqaddisiborn in 946 CE, was a medieval Arab geographer from Jerusalem. He had a privileged education and travelled throughout much of the Muslim world. In 985 CE, he settled down to write his book Aḥsan al-taqāsim fī maʿrifat al-aqālīm (The Best Divisions in the Knowledge of the Regions). His book gives us a detailed account of the different regions and places in which he spent time.
  • Al-Razi, known in Europe as Rhazes. He compiled a basic geography of the Iberian Peninsula
  • Mohammed Ibn Yousef Al-Warraq committed to paper the topography of North Africa.
  • Al-Bakri who was an accomplished scholar and litterateur, wrote an important geographical work devoted to the Arabian Peninsula and the names of various places.
  • Ibn Baitar of Malaga was driven by his genuine interest in pharmaceutical herbs and flowers to explore every nook and cranny of the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb (Morocco).
  • Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian adventurer, university professor and diplomat, is known for his works of sociology, economics, commerce, history, philosophy, political science and anthropology. He wrote his famous History of the World during a period of enforced exile.
  • Ahmad ibn Majid, a poet and a navigator, also known for assisting Vasco da Gama in his quest of South Africa and for his Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation.
  • In addition to other travellers like famous Ibn Battuta, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, Ibn Jubair, Zheng He or other know or unknown geographers from different backgrounds such as Miskawayh, Ibn Rustahal-Tartushi, Ahmad al-Ya’qubi, Ibn Qutiya, al-Maqqari, Ibn al-Athir, Yaqut al-Hamawi, Abu al-Fidaand, ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhari and many more…

Read More

  • Related Muslim Heritage Articles (Link)


17. Further Reading (Bibliography) 


To put a city in a book, to put the world on one sheet of paper — maps are the most condensed humanized spaces of all…They make the landscape fit indoors, make us masters of sights we can’t see and spaces we can’t cover.” Robert Harbison[49]


18. References

[1] “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” by Reif Larsen, Random House, 1 Mar 2014, Page 138.

[2] Cognitive Mapping: Definitions, Examples, and Resources. (Link)

[3] “Great Maps” by Jerry Brotton, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 1 Sep 2014, Preface Page 7.

[4] ibid.

[5] “How the north ended up on top of the map” by Nick Danforth (Link) [Archived]

[6] op. cit. Jerry Brotton, Page 47

[7] op. cit. Jerry Brotton, Page 7

[8] “Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries” by Marlia Mundell Mango, Routledge, 5 Dec 2016. Page 18.

[9] Balkhi World Map: “Some contemporaries continued to follow much earlier traditional methods of geography that portrayed the world as a landmass in the shape of a bird with China as its head. For example, the 10th century writer Ibn al-Faqih (flourished 902.)” (Link) [Archived]

[10] “Medieval Islamic Maps: An Exploration” by Karen C. Pinto, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016, Page 55.

[11] “Persian Flatweaves: A Survey of Flatwoven Floor Covers and Hangings and Royal Masnads” by Parviz Tanavoli, Antique Collectors’ Club, 2002, Page 333

[12] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 56.

[13] World Map of al-Istakhri. (Link) [Archived]

[14] “Religion, Learning and Science in the ‘Abbasid Period” by M. J. L. Young, J. D. Latham & R. B. Serjeant Cambridge University Press, 2 Nov 2006, Page 314.

[15] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 55.

[16] “History of The Arabs” by Philip K. HittiPalgrave Macmillan, 26 Sep 2002, Page 385.

[17] “Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World” by Zayde Antrim, Oxford University Press, 15 Jan 2015, Notes 18, Page 176

[18] Ibn Hawqal. (Link) [Archived].

[19] World Map of Ibn Hawqal – “Ibn Hawqal’s treatise, The Book of Roads and Provinces, is a documented derivative.  While traveling in the valley of the Indus, Ibn Hawqal met al-Istakhri and this is a description of that fateful meeting” (Link)

[20] “Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange in Pre-Modern Asia” by Hyunhee Park, Cambridge University Press, 27 Aug 2012, Page 75.

[21] Ibn Hawqal AB. (Link) [Archived].

[22] World Map of Ibn Hawqal – “Ibn Hawqal’s treatise, The Book of Roads and Provinces, is a documented derivative.  While traveling in the valley of the Indus, Ibn Hawqal met al-Istakhri and this is a description of that fateful meeting.” (Link)

[23] “Al Masudi” by Prof. Ahmed, N. (Link)

[24] Quote by Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Masudi; op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 153.

[25] “An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities, Edited with an Annotated Translation” by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, BRILL, 25 Oct 2013, Introduction, Page 1

[26] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 22.

[27] “Cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Fresh Perspectives, New Methods” by Richard J. A. Talbert, and Richard Watson, BRILL, 2008, Page 121.

[28] “A History of Inner Asia” by Svat Soucek, Cambridge University Press, 17 Feb 2000. Cambridge University Press. p. 88.

[29]  “The Oldest Map of Japan Drawn by Mahmud of Kashgar” by Seyim Tekeli (Link)

[30] Ibid.

[31] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 54.

[32] op. cit. Svat Soucek, Page 88.

[33] op. cit. Jerry Brotton, Page 47, Preface Page 47.

[34] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 25.

[35] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 27.

[36] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto Page 157.

[37] “Piri Reis Map of 1513” by Gregory C. McIntosh, University of Georgia Press, 15 Mar 2012, Introduction, Page 1.

[38]  ibid. Page xi

[39] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 25.

[40] “Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World” by Jerry Brotton, Reaktion Books, 1997, Page 115.

[41] “The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It” by Suraiya Faroqhi, I.B.Tauris, 3 Mar 2006, Page 198.

[42] “Geographical Knowledge and Imperial Culture in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire” by Pinar Emiralioglu, Routledge, 5 Dec 2016, Page 150.

[43] “Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought: A Mevlevi Sufi Perspective” by Şefik Can, Tughra Books, 2004, Page 251

[44] ibid. Page 251

[45] op. cit. Karen C. Pinto, Page 249-50

[46] “The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It” by Suraiya Faroqhi, I.B.Tauris, 3 Mar 2006, Page 197.

[47] “Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire” by Gábor Ágoston and Bruce Alan Masters, Infobase Publishing, 21 May 2010 – Turkey, Page 267

[48] A Rare and Important Spherical Astrolabe (Link) (Archived)

[49] “Eccentric Spaces” by Robert Harbison, MIT Press, 1977, Forward Page.

Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition

Figure 1. Aticle Banner (Source)

During 2010-2011, the Oxford Museum of the History of Science launched an online Al-Mizan[1] Exhibition. According to the Museum’s website, this exhibition explores the connections between the sciences and arts in societies from Muslim Civilisation. It presents highlights from the Museum’s collection of Islamic scientific instruments alongside medieval manuscripts, metalwork and ceramics on loan from other major collections. The links between scientific inquiry and artistic beauty are vividly revealed through the decorative and practical work of the craftsman.

Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition
Figures 2-3. Astrolabe, by Muhammad Mahdi al-Yazdi, Persian, c. 1660; MHS inv. 45581 and Astrolabe, by Muhammad Muqim al-Yazdi, Persian, 1647/8; MHS inv. 45747 (Source)

The exhibition was staged by the Museum of the History of Science in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. It celebrates the Centre’s 25th anniversary and ran from 26 October 2010 to 20 March 2011.

It features various subsections including “Finding the balance”, “Geography of Islam”, “Science and craft”, “Courtly Culture”, “The Art of metalwork”, “Materials”, “Calligraphy”, “Zodiac Signs”, “Inscriptions”, “Al-ankabut As Art”, “Image Gallery”, “Astrolabe animation”, “Lectures”, “Outreach” and “Events”.

Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition
Figure 4. Only surviving individual illuminated horoscope from medieval Islam. Al-Mizan (Libra) is at 3 o’clock in the circle of zodiac signs. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, Or MS PER 474, fols. 70v-70r (ff. 18b-19a) (Source)

Curate Adult Workshops

As a continuation of the online Al-Mizan Exhibition, the Oxford Museum of the History of Science has invited adults and young people to share ideas, thoughts and reflections and help shape the display of the collection of early scientific instruments from the Islamic world from 22 November 2017 13:00 – 22 November 2017 13:45 and 25 November 2017 10:00 – 25 November 2017 12:00[2].

This will enable workshop goers to view the objects in close proximity, learn about their unique collection and develop their creative curatorial skills.

If you are interested, please email the following representative:

Further Reading

Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition

Oliver Hoare once said “The ability of Islamic civilization to perfect what it inherited, and to endow what it made with beauty, is nowhere better expressed than in the astrolabe”. Over a thousand-year period in Muslim Civilisation, epoch-making discoveries and contributions, such as the first record of a star system outside our own galaxy were made. Also astronomical instruments including celestial globes, armillary spheres, sextants and especially astrolabes were developed laying the foundation for modern-day astronomy.

Learn More >>>

Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition

Islamic geographical texts are not only valuable in terms of geographical research, they also constitute an essential resource in the study of Arab-Islamic civilisation – its literature, history, learning and economics. This chapter will attempt a classification of the major achievements of Arabic geography, introducing the reader to the principal protagonists in each field and summarising their works, many of which would benefit from further study based on the original manuscripts.

Learn More >>>

Ottoman Turks produced and perfected several varieties of Arabic script. All the various branches of the art of calligraphy, an art greatly loved and respected by the Ottoman Turks, were flourished particularly in the city of Istanbul.

Learn More >>>

Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition

Islamic manuscripts form a significant part of the collection, including Al-Karaji’s Inbat al-miyah al-khafiya, Al-Khazini’s Kitab mizan al-hikma, and various manuscripts of medicine, logic, mathematics, literature and several copies of the Quran. The following article presents the Schoenberg Collection, with a focus on some selected Islamic manuscripts of science and medicine.

Learn More >>>

Based on manuscript evidence, the article presents a study of the historical and textual traditions of a fragment of Arabic mechanics which is also edited in Arabic and translated into English. This fragment, entitled Nutaf min al-hiyal, presents an Arabic translation of the theoretical part of the Probelama mechanica, a famous treatise of ancient mechanics attributed to Aristotle.

Learn More >>> 

Oxford Museum of the History of Science Online Al-Mizan Exhibition

Al-Khazini is better known for his book Kitab Mizan al-Hikma (The Book of the Balance of Wisdom), completed in 1121. This encyclopaedic treatise has remained a centrepiece of Muslim physics. Kitab Mizan al-Hikma was written for Sultan Sanjar’s treasury by Al-Khazini, and has survived in four manuscripts, of which three are independent. It studies the hydrostatic balance, its construction and uses and the theories of statics and hydrostatics that lie behind it and other topics. It was partly translated and edited by the Russian envoy Khanikoff in the mid-19th century.

Learn More >>>

[1] Al-Mizan: Arabic word for balance – both the familiar measuring instrument and the metaphorical pursuit of justice and harmony in all human endeavours. See:

[2] Curate: Adult Workshops,

Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables



Note of the Editor: This article was originally published in Viewpoint: The British Society for the History of Science, No. 113 (June 2017). We are grateful to Glen M. Cooper for permitting republishing on the Muslim Heritage website. Some images may be added in addition to the original publication images.


Astronomy had a long and fruitful life in the Islamic world, where ancient Greek astronomy was transformed into a fully institutionalised endeavour employing a comprehensive and predictive theory that was consistent with physical principles as then understood. Astronomy in the ancient world was motivated by different concerns than what drives the science today. Its principal aim was to divine the future from planetary positions, which eventually could be calculated using past data and theoretical models. Astrologers have been associated with imperial courts since ancient Mesopotamian times. There, in a kind of ancient “star wars”, they vied with each other for the most accurate predictions. Mesopotamian stargazers accumulated centuries of observational data, and invented mathematical methods for predicting astrologically significant planetary configurations.

Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables
Left: Babylonian tablet recording Halley’s comet in 164 BCE, the comet was last witnessed in 1986 (Source), Right: Map showing the extent of Mesopotamia (Source

While the Mesopotamian cultures provided incentive and data for astronomy, the Greeks were more concerned with integrating this knowledge into a cosmology, with geometrical models and a physics. The culmination of these efforts was the work of the 2nd Century mathematical astronomer, Ptolemy, who, using the Mesopotamian data, produced the most powerful system of predictive astronomy yet known, the Almagest. He also developed a comprehensive astrology, which, because of its being firmly grounded in Aristotelian natural philosophy, and because of the mathematical precision of the Almagest, acquired the air of genuine science. The Almagest showed how to derive mathematical models of the planets from observational data.

Ptolemy’s methods were the foundation of Islamic astronomy. Prior to Islam, the rulers of the Sasanian Persian Empire (224-651 CE) fostered a dynamic astrological tradition, which they employed for a variety of purposes. For example, the state religion, Zoroastrianism, espoused a chiliastic/millennialist view of history, and thus invited astrological activity. Astrological histories rationalised significant events and rulers in terms of a grand cosmological scheme written in the stars, which both justified the current dynasty and permitted knowledge of the political future. These interests in political and historical astrology were inherited by the Muslim Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE).

The most obvious difference between modern and Islamic astronomy is that the latter is primarily mathematical and predictive, and the former has other observational goals, such as describing the physics of other worlds. As noted earlier, the predictive character of astronomy derived from its use in astrological forecasting. The Ptolemaic models were to an extent instrumentalist, namely, useful for generating planetary positions rather than being strictly physically consistent.

Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables
Nasir al-Din al-Tusi at the observatory in Maragha, Persia. Image courtesy of the British Library.

There were some thinkers, however, such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, who desired to present a unified physics and cosmology of the heavens. Through his efforts and those of his followers, several of Ptolemy’s models that contained physically absurd elements were replaced with physically consistent ones. For example, in order to explain some planets’ varying speeds, Ptolemy had postulated that one of the spheres responsible for moving these planets rotated uniformly around a pole that did not coincide with its own centre, which, although this model gives good mathematical results, is physically impossible. Muslim astronomers invented new mathematical devices that produced the same effects without violating physical principles.

Observatories as institutions that housed a collective effort to gather positional data about the stars and planets were an Islamic invention. Programs of observation began under the 9th-century Abbasid rulers, but culminated in the grand observatories of Maragha (13th C.) under the Ilkhanids, and Samarkand (15th C.) under the Timurids. The main goal of these observatories was to improve the planetary tables (zijes; sing. zij) used to calculate planetary positions.

Unlike modern observatories, their Islamic antecedents were useful only until all the data had been gathered over a period of decades at most. The main structural feature of the Islamic observatory was the meridian quadrant, which measured the planets’ elevations as they crossed the meridian. (See above). In addition, there were more portable instruments, including armillary spheres, quadrants, and other devices for measuring celestial positions by hand. The way to improve upon data from earlier observatories was to build a larger meridian quadrant in order to obtain more precise observations, which in turn improved the accuracy of the zij tables. For example, the meridian quadrant of Ulugh Begh’s Samarkand observatory was significantly larger than that of Maragha.

This basic design persisted for centuries, and even found its way into Tycho Brahe’s 16th Century Uraniborg. (The main difference there was that, whereas the Ptolemaic tradition had astronomers taking observations at major conjunctions or at other significant times of the planetary cycles in order to extrapolate the rest using the model, Tycho observed the planets on the days between, and thus had a far more precise set of data). The Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun (r.813-833) founded two observatories at Baghdad and Damascus, respectively, where some of the initial updates to the Almagest were accomplished. However, the most famous observatory was established at Maragha in northwestern Iran by the Mongol Ilkhanid ruler Hulegu (d.1265) in 1259, under the direction of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d.1274). The first observatory to be supported by a religious endowment (waqf), it not only produced an improved zij (Zij-i Ilkhani), but also began a major reform of Ptolemaic astronomy. This resulted in a new tradition of planetary theory that culminated in the models of Ibn al-Shatir (d.1375), elements of whose contributions Copernicus incorporated in his own revolutionary treatise, On the Revolutions (1543). The Samarkand observatory, established and supervised by the Timurid ruler and astronomer Ulugh Begh (d.1449), produced a new zij (Zij-i Sultani), and supported a flowering of the mathematical sciences.

Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables
Left: An Arabic translation of the astronomical tables of Ulugh Beg. (Library of Congress). Right: Ulugh Beg observatory. This trech was lined with marble in Ulugh Beg’s time (Source

The majority of those who used astronomical information did so in the form of tables, and so did not require advanced mathematics. Along with planetary models, Ptolemy had also shown how to use tables for the relatively easy calculation of planetary positions. Only basic arithmetic was needed, since the tables of various functions already had complex trigonometry built into them. In the Islamic tradition, such tables were called “zijes”, from a Persian word that means “thread”, because their crosshatched appearance, with numbers in the spaces, resembles a woven cloth (see illustration, above). Zijes were typically a collection of such tables along with instructions for their use, including tables for converting between calendars, for Islamic  prayer times, and for determining planetary longitudes, based on the number of elapsed days and hours since a known position, or “epoch”. Zijes were calculated using mathematical models of the planetary motions, which in turn were based on observational parameters that were determined at the observatories. So, advances in astronomy were expressed in new zijes, which were the result of more accurate parameters or better models, or both. To simplify the process further for the everyday practitioner, yearly almanacks were produced, which used the zijes to determine all of the celestial data for the upcoming year on a daily basis, much like a modern ephemeris. Islamic astronomy was interconnected with all of the other sciences, in a comprehensive cosmology inherited from Aristotle. Through their unrelenting critique of ancient astronomy and natural philosophy, Islamic astronomers laid the groundwork for the scientific advances of both the European Late Middle Ages the Scientific Revolution. Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and many others used methods developed in Islamic astronomy to critique and eventually replace the ancient cosmology.

Islamic Astronomy from “Star Wars” to Star Tables
Illustration by al-Bīrūnī of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-tafhim. Source: Seyyed Hossein Nasr,Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, London: World of Islam Festival, 1976. (Source)

Ibn BATTUTA – The Greatest EXPLORER of All time – KJ Vids

Born in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta came of age in a family of Islamic judges. In 1325, at age 21, he left his homeland for the Middle East. He intended to complete his hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca—but he also wished to study Islamic law along the way. Battuta began his journey riding solo on a donkey, but soon linked up with a pilgrim caravan as it snaked its way east across North Africa. In Egypt, Battuta studied Islamic law and toured Alexandria and the metropolis of Cairo, which he called “peerless in beauty and splendor.” He then continued on to Mecca, where he took part in the hajj. Having completed his pilgrimage, he decided to continue wandering the Muslim world, or “Dar al-Islam.” Battuta claimed to be driven by a dream in which a large bird took him on its wing and “made a long flight towards the east…and left me there.” Battuta’s next few years were a whirlwind of travel. He joined a caravan and toured Persia and Iraq, and ventured north to what is now Azerbaijan. Following a sojourn in Mecca, he trekked across Yemen and made a sea voyage to the Horn of Africa. From there, he visited the Somali city of Mogadishu before dipping below the equator and exploring the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania. Upon leaving Africa, Battuta hatched a plan to travel to India, where he hoped to secure a lucrative post as a “qadi,” or Islamic judge. He followed a winding route east, first cutting through Egypt and Syria before sailing for Turkey. From Turkey, Battuta crossed the Black Sea and entered the domain of a Golden Horde Khan known as Uzbeg. Battuta next traveled east across the Eurasian steppe before entering India via Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. Muhammad Tughluq, a Sultan in Delhi, made Battuta as his envoy to the Mongol court of China. After making a stopover in Sri Lanka, he rode merchant vessels through Southeast Asia. In 1345, four years after first leaving India, he arrived at the bustling Chinese port of Quanzhou. He finally turned around and journeyed home to Morocco, arriving back in Tangier in 1349. He then embarked on a multi-year excursion across the Sahara to the Mali Empire, where he visited Timbuktu. Battuta had never kept journals during his adventures, but when he returned to Morocco for good in 1354, the country’s sultan ordered him to compile a travelogue. He spent the next year dictating his story to a writer named Ibn Juzayy. The result was an oral history called A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, better known as the Rihla (or “travels”). Following the completion of the Rihla, Ibn Battuta all but vanished from the historical record. He is believed to have worked as a judge in Morocco and died sometime around 1368, but little else is known about him. It appears that after a lifetime spent on the road, the great wanderer was finally content to stay in one place.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper

Figure 1.
Image Banner

Note of Editor: This Podcast was first published and broadcasted at Later, it was published by 1001 Inventions. The transcript, however, is published first at Muslim Heritage. We thank Khaleel Shaikh for transcribing the interview.


The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 2. Guest Prof Glen M. Cooper 

The West Owes a Debt to Islam

Host: Julie Rose (J.R), broadcast journalist and interviewer

Guest: Prof Glen Cooper (G.C), PhD, Adjunct Professor of History, Pitzer College

Description: During the European Dark Ages, when science, art and literature seemed to flounder for several centuries, there actually was a lot of discover and insight going on – but in places like Iraq, Persia and Syria. The science of medicine, mathematics and astronomy flourished among scholars and would help catalyze the European Renaissance. But those contributions have been largely forgotten today.

Podcast: Click here to listen the interview (

Below is the Transcript of this interview >>>

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 3. 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) 

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 4. The overview of the astronomical instruments and staff of the Istanbul Observatory with Taqi Al-Din Rasid at work from Shahinshahnāme manuscript (Source)

J.R. Intro: To understand why and what’s lost when we ignore the debt we owe to Islam? I’m joined by Glen Cooper, he’s an Adjunct Professor of History at Pitzer Collage and also a BYU alum. He has built a career on studying ancient Islamic science.

J.R: Welcome Professor Cooper it’s good to have you.

G.C: Thank you Julian.

J.R: Can you point to anything in our modern scientific or medical world, that we can look at and say, Islamic Scholars made that what it is today?

G.C: Well there is numerous examples of things that we use every day. For example, the numeral system, the Arabic numeral system that we use, which actually comes from India. But the decimal fractions that the Muslim mathematicians invented, in 15th C. Samarqand, which simplified astronomical calculations. And also Spherical Trigonometry, which they developed to help them investigate the heavens. But more pervasively, and this is often overlooked, is that the mediaeval Muslims shaped the way that we think about and do science to this day. Their greatest innovations were scientific institutions, they came up with the idea of private, endowed research institutions. They pioneered in colleges, hospitals and observatories.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper

Figure 5. Samarkand (Source)

J.R: Prior to the Islamic world doing this, how would that kind of pursuit be done? Would it have been done more individually rather than in a professional setting?

G.C: Well there were things like the library of Alexandria and other places. But they were usually endowed by the ruler and were subjected to his whim, whereas these [Muslim scientific] endowments were protected by the religious institutions.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 6. Turning a fistula into in rhinophyma treatment by a Muslim surgeon. Miniature in Sharaf al-Din Sabuncuoglu’s book Cerrahiyat al-Hâniyya (Source)

J.R: Give me an example of one of these institutions that you have studied

G.C: Let me start with the hospitals. Hospitals as we understand them were originally invented by Christians as places of charity for the dying and this is what we see as hospice care today. But in the mediaeval Islamic world they took that idea and turned the hospitals into research institutions that were privately endowed by a pious benefactor. This was to improve medication towards the sick rather than just the dying.

J.R: So when we go to the hospital today to get better and not to die, that was an idea that the Islamic scientists came up with?

G.C: Yes. Plus the knowledge that accumulated in such places.

J.R: But did they advance medical treatment during this period? In the dark ages medicine was pretty rough compared with what we know today! What kind of contributions did the Islamic scholars make?

G.C: They improved medical treatment, they built upon the Greek physicians and improved all of their techniques and all of their theories. They made remarkable discoveries. For example, Ibn al-Nafis, a 13th century Syrian physician, discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood, which prefigured Harvey’s great discovery three centuries later. Ibn al-Haytham, in the 11th century, investigated the anatomy and physiology of vision.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 7.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 8. A parade of surgeons, on the left side from Surnâme-i Vehbî (Source)

J.R: Were they surgeons? Were they advancing the treatment? Or were they mostly advancing the basic knowledge and writing anatomical texts which other scientist could then build upon?

G.C: physicians usually did many things. They in many different things that we would separate today. But in the place of the hospital, were they worked, they had the opportunity to do a variety of investigations.

J.R: Were there political or cultural reasons why the Islamic world was experiencing this golden age of science when we had the dark ages going on in Europe?

G.C: Yes there is. The dynasty of the Caliphate that was established in Baghdad in 750 A.D. had political reasons in its rivalry with Byzantium to appropriate ancient Greek thought. Which was useful for things like astrology, mathematics and medicine. So all these Greek works were translated into Arabic and became a part of an imperial/political ideology of knowledge and advancing everything.

J.R: Advancing what exactly? Was it a part of this idea of world domination? Were they translating to claim all the wisdom of the Greeks?

G.C: Yes it was a part of asserting the legitimacy of the Islamic ruler as opposed to the Christian emperor. And to assert that Islam was the legitimate successor of all the ancient empires that had gone before, from whom they based their knowledge and their discoveries.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 9. Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation sent by Charlemagne at his court (Source)

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 10. Spain’s Islamic heritage Al-Andalus

J.R: But how far did the Islamic world span at this particular moment in time?

G.C: From Spain, the Iberian Peninsula, all the way to India.

J.R: And this is truly the largest it had ever been? This was at its peak and the ruler had political reasons for wanting to be the world leader in science and thought right?

G.C: Yes. And with astrology, the ability to predict the future, or supposedly to predict the future, was important politically.

J.R: Was there any influence of Islam itself and the religious principles of Islam, that is evident in the scientific work that was done by these scholars?

G.C: Yes the Quran has many verses that encourage the seeking of knowledge, to understand God’s creation and to understand His existence. This was also seen as a religious responsibility.

J.R: So there wasn’t any concern about man usurping the power of Allah and usurping the Majesty of Allah in some way by trying to understand the heavens or understand in detail how the human body works?

G.C: For the most part, astrology got into trouble because it claims knowledge that only God is thought to have. But if you could set the claims of astrology aside, then you could have predictive astronomy which was useful for the calendar and useful for the Islamic religion regarding prayer times and other things which are related to the stars.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 11. The depiction of Orion, as seen from Earth (left) and a mirror-image, from a 13th-century copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars.In this version, Orion’s shield has become a long sleeve, typical of Islamic dress. (Source).

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 12. The picture depicts al-Razi stained on a glass window in Princeton University Chapel. (Source)

G.C: Absolutely, the same applies to Christianity for the date of Easter and so on. This was actually the impetus which drove the popes to seek knowledge from Islam in the 11th and 12th centuries.

J.R: Well so many religious holidays are based on accurate measurements of astronomy. So it would have been important for both religion and science to understand how this works and when these different moments were thriving.

J.R: What do you mean the popes were seeking knowledge from Islam?

G.C: Well the pope, understood that in Spain, when it was reconquered by the Christians, had libraries which had repositories of astronomy and mathematics that went way beyond the ancient Greeks. So the popes encouraged scholars from France to go there to translate and learn the mathematics and astronomy so that they could come back and fix the calendars and mathematics and so on. What they found was a trove which was bigger than they could possibly imagine.

J.R: Was it not known across the western world that Islam and the Islamic caliphate had such advanced scientists and researchers in their midst?

G.C: Well it was known but the rivalry between the states, that was a military conflict, for most of their existence, sort of precluded that and they did not have access to these libraries until they were conquered from those territories that the Christians got back.

J.R: So they conquered those libraries and found these Arabic texts which had borrowed heavily and built upon what the Greeks had done right? Did the Europeans and the Christians then translate them into Latin and then sort of pretend that the Islamic scholars never contributed?

G.C: No, not right away. The translations of these texts took over a century. They came in waves to. Aristotle and Galen were among the last of the waves. All through the European ages these texts fostered what we now know as the early renaissance. During the renaissance that we know of, the Italian renaissance, this is when people began to deny the Arabic contribution. During that time, you had parallel strands, you had scholars that were studying Arabic. They were trying to learn the contributions that Muslim scholars were still making in things like astronomy and mathematics. But then you have the humanists that were emphasising the pure Greek, and they thought of these translations, in the middle ages, from Arabic, as having corrupted the pure Greek. Even though with science, as we know, it is accumulative so what they took as corruptions were actually improvements that the mediaeval Islamic scientists and physicians had made in these texts. So the humanists actually set the clock back, scientifically in some ways, and they also began to obscure the Islamic contribution.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 13. Aristotle teaching astronomy while using an astrolabe on a Arabic Manuscript… (Source)

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 14. Frontispiece of the Latin Version of the Canon of Medicine, printed in Venice (Source)

J.R: Was that out of xenophobia? I mean why would they obscure the Islamic contribution?

G.C: Well there’s the rivalry between religions. Which religion is the true faith? Both Christianity and Islam felt that they were the one true faith and that says a lot for how they related to one another on an ideological level.

J.R: When did you realise that there was this whole rich world of Islamic scientific thought and inquiry that had been obscured.

G.C: Well I studied philosophy at oxford and I began to notice that there was this gap in the history of philosophy, from late antiquity till the 11th century. It was almost as if ancient, classical philosophy suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I poked around a bit and discovered that this wasn’t the case, there was this vast body of Arabic commentary and translations of these ancient works that were avidly studied by the very people that were using them in the middle ages to revive philosophy and science. So that is when I became aware of it and I decided to study that subject in graduate school where I completed my PHD.

J.R: How accessible are the records and the resources and do they still live in some of these places that remain majority Muslim to this day? Are some of these individuals, that you mentioned, known and appreciated in places like Syria and Iraq today?

G.C: Yes, they are. However, some of these scientists that were rediscovered in the 20th century, by western scholars primarily, had been forgotten in the Islamic world. For example, Ibn al-Nafis’ contribution, the pulmonary circulation, had actually been forgotten exclusively. So Western scholars are actually contributing the reawakening and contribution of Islamic pride and their own history.

J.R: Is there today this same kind of energy and interest in scientific pursuits in Islam?

G.C: I think the desire is there and I think that the vision is there. There are numerous efforts, for example, the 1001 Inventions international exhibition, is designed to show the vast contributions of the Islamic world in technology and the sciences. Both to make the west aware of these thing but also to encourage young Muslim youth to do the STEM subjects?

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 15. 

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 16.  15th-century European portrait of “Geber”, the Latin name of Jabir ibn Hayyan: in Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166 (Source)

J.R: Why is this important to you? what do you hope is the result of your efforts to raise awareness about what really does plug this gap between the Greeks and the Europeans?

G.C: Well, personally I don’t like to be lied to about the way history goes. But my broader vision is to encourage my fellow westerners to appreciate the contributions of the Islamic world. I don’t mean necessarily to love Islam, but to appreciate that the history of science is a global thing with many strands, many contributions and I would also like to see western arrogance hum down a little bit. We didn’t invent everything and the Greeks didn’t invent everything. We are not the only heirs of the Greeks the Muslims were to.

J.R: Glen Cooper is an adjunct assistant professor of history at Pitzer College a former professor of history here at BYU and a graduate of the University. Thank you for coming in today I really appreciate it.

G.C: Thank you very much.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 17. © 1001 inventions House of Wisdom Sketch

Buried Evidence: Islamic Viking Burial Garments

Figure 1. Article Banner

I have seen the ‘Vikings’…”
Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab traveler

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments
Figure 2. Enlarging the patterns and looking at the reflection in a mirror revealed the word ‘Allah’ (God) in Arabic (Source)

After a discovery of Arabic characters on Viking burial garments went viral, the Viking woman who was found wearing an Islamic silver ring is hitting the headlines again. As stated and predicted in our previous article dating back to May 2015, additional studies and research revealed “more artefacts signifying European and Islamic Civilisation interconnectivity”[1]. Additional discoveries “indicate the vast multicultural wealth which lies in overlooked places as it does in overlooked languages.”[2]

The news of researchers in Sweden finding patterns woven with silk and silver thread spelling the words Allah and Ali[3] shocked readers and led them to question: “were Vikings Muslim?”[4] It is interesting to observe that these discoveries are receiving wider media attention. On the other hand, the discovery itself should not be received as surprising.

Trade, battles and many other interactions between Muslims and Vikings are reported to have been intertwined to such an extent that discovered artefacts from their day to day lifestyle – whether Vikings converted to Islam or not – should be perceived as commonplace.  One wonders if they were indeed “kept in storage for more than 100 years, dismissed as typical examples of Viking Age funeral clothes”[5], what else may have been missed.

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments
Figure 3. 
 A museum display gives a sense of what the Viking woman’s boat grave in Gamla Uppsala may have looked like – similar to the tombs the fragments were found in. (Source) ​

Here are some highlights from our previous article[6]:

  • Battles/Raids: Though the Vikings had sacked several cities in Western and Eastern Europe, historians outlined that it was in Muslim ruled lands, such as those governed by the Abbasids, that the Vikings found “emporiums beyond their wildest dreams”[7].
  • Arabic Currency: It was a cache of dirhams (Arabic coins) that helped fuel the Viking Age: “Viking traders brought Abbasid silver coins in great quantities to Scandinavia…”[8] Contrary to stereotypes, people would travel from near and far to study at institutions in the Muslim ruled world with the Dirham and Dinar being amongst the most powerful currencies – not different to how the Euro or Dollar is regarded today. This is highlighted by the discovery of King Offa’s coins in the British Museum[9]. What is more, the dirham was of such might that between the 10th and 12th centuries in Viking York and Dublin it was used as common currency[10].  In addition, historian Wijdan Ali wrote: “during the Fatimid Dynasty, Islamic coins were of such high quality and so abundant that they became the most wide-spread trade coins of the Mediterranean world”[11].
  • Vikings, Merchant Warriors: “Vikings left the Muslim world alone, preferring instead to serve as mercenaries in its armies, or trade with it in valuable commodities such as slaves – they may have been raiders at the European end of trade route, but at the Middle Eastern end they were merchants. The texts mainly show how powerful the Turks were. The Rus couldn’t just come in swinging their swords and takeover.”[12]
  • Accounts of People from Muslim Civilisation: One account in particular was written and narrated by 10th century traveller from Muslim Civilisation, Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (b.877),[13]. His account seems to be most widespread and extensive in terms of content. However, other scholars such as Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1165), Ibn Khurradadhbih/Ibn Khordadbeh (820-910), al-Tartushi (1059-1127), al-Mas’udi (896-956), al-Muqaddasi (940-991), Ibn Rustah (10th Century), Miskawayh (932-1030), Ibn Hawqal (10th Century), Ahmad al-Ya’qubi (897-898), Ibn Qutiya (10th Century), Yaqut al-Rumi (1179-1229, Yahya Ibn Hakam al-Bakri (772-866), al-Maqqari (1578-1632) and Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) also share their observations of these saqalibah, a term first employed in the 10th century translated as: “fair-haired, ruddy-complexioned population of Central, Eastern and North-Eastern Europe.”[14]

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments
Figure 4. Pages from Ibn Fadhlan’s and al-Idrisi travel accounts about Rus/Vikings and a drawing of Oleg of Novgorod by Viktor Vasnetsov  (Source)

Even though the discussion surrounding Vikings being Muslim appears to be controversial for some[15], there were already records Vikings converted to Islam long before this news came to light. Our previous article on this subject mentions “Muslim Vikings” where “a community of settled Vikings, who converted to Islam in southeast Seville, would be famous for supplying cheese to Cordoba and Seville.[16] Another memoir states that sixteenth century Muslim geographer Amin Razi mentioned that: “…They [the Vikings] highly valued pork. Even those who had converted to Islam aspired to it and were very fond of pork.”[17]

Perhaps a more substantial question should have been ‘were those Vikings, whose burial clothes had Arabic inscriptions, Muslim?’ The answer being of course, why not… Islam was as prevalent at the time of the Vikings as it is today. An indicator of this is the impact of the transmission of Science from the East to the West during and prior to the Renaissance. In addition to science, there were also cultural influences, for example Europeans employing fashions such as carpets with the example of “England’s King Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547), is known to have owned more than 400 Islamic carpets”[18]. From coffee to Algebra, more evidence can be found of these historical influences.

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments
Figure 5. “The boss from a Viking shield (pictured) was recently found to contain Islamic coins in a leather purse. This evidence strengthens the theory that the Vikings traded with Islamic civilisations, or came into contact with the culture in Spain” (Source

How did these artefacts come to be discovered in Sweden? Or Vikings being Muslim or not?[19] Or, was there a Shia connection?[20] These discussions are indeed more attractive subjects because of being more speculative. As we have already stated, the reason underlying this “surprise” and “awe” may originate from the unawareness of how influential Muslim Civilisation was. For example, the news about the ‘Vikings purchasing silk from Persia’ was already long known before the recent discovery of the Arabic letters on Viking burial garments. The existing connection between the Viking and Muslim civilisations are more evident and important then the claim that ‘they were Muslim’.  This may lead one to believe that their love for Persian silk led the Vikings to use these silks even for their burial garments.

What is more, the Volga-trade route[21], Viking mercenaries in Muslim ruled Armies[22], Persian silk and the Arabic dirhams found with the Vikings further testify to a frequent and lucrative collaboration between the two civilisations. Their love of fortune is what may have led them towards the East in the first instance, for example, the 9th Century geographer, Ibn Khurdadhbih mentioned “Vikings were even seen on camel-back in Baghdad…”[23] may not be ‘exaggeration’ or ‘far-fetched.’

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments
Figure 6. “In the Oseberg ship, which was excavated nearly a hundred years ago, more than one hundred small silk fragments were found. This is the oldest find of Viking Age silk in Norway.” (Source)

Nevertheless, findings of the funeral clothes inscribed with “Ali” or “Allah” may not provide sufficient evidence to conclude that that these Vikings were Muslim, similar to the Arabic ring with the word “Allah” inscribed may not being sufficient proof that the Viking woman was Muslim.[24] Historian Amin Razi’s statement on “their love of pork”[25] seems further proof of this. To add, Andrew Marr, TV presenter, also commented on how the Vikings in Russia “came very close to converting to Islam with their king being unable to decide”[26] due to their love of wine they are then believed to have chosen Christianity.

Moreover, some academics hold that these burial clothes are completely unrelated to Islam. Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas, Stephennie Mulder, claims: “there is a serious problem of dating.” According to Mulder the Kufic script did not exist at the time of the Vikings and that even if it did: “the inscription still doesn’t mean anything in Arabic”.[27]

That being said, news of such findings is positive, as it reinforces that social cohesion and a shared legacy between diverse cultures did and can exist.

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments

Figure 7. One of the excavated fragments made from fine silk and silver thread discovered at the two Swedish sites, Birka and Gamla Uppsalan (Source)

Annika Larsson[28], textile archaeologist of Uppsala University who discovered this breakthrough on the Viking garments, states:

Now that I am looking at Viking patterns differently, I am convinced I will find more Islamic inscriptions in the remaining fragments from these excavations, and other Viking era textiles… Who knows? Maybe they appear in non-textile artefacts too.”[29]

As we previously concluded two years ago:

…It makes you wonder, how many other artifacts are available that remain undiscovered? There are thousands if not millions of manuscripts waiting to be translated and studied – what gems, what precious information, what insights into history are hidden within them? Europe is inundated with links to Islamic culture, yet many still see the two as worlds apart…”

Although the Vikings and Muslims were indeed two different cultures, they had much in common. Withstanding the aforementioned discoveries, this included the manner in which they are often presented by historians, the mainstream media and academia. Stereotypes of the Vikings being as if like barbarians from the icy cold moors of west whilst those from Muslim Civilisation are at times stereotypes as if like barbarians from the burning desert sands of east. We hope these types of discoveries and articles will help us draw more objectionable perceptions of the Viking and Muslim Civilisations in future…

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial GarmentsFigure 8. Image Banner of “A Tale of Two Civilisations: The Viking and the Muslim Civilisation” by Cem Nizamoglu and Sairah Yassir-Deane, May 2015 (Source)

News items regarding this discovery

  • “Researchers find ‘Allah’ embroidered on Viking burial textiles” by Geobeats
  • “Why did Vikings have ‘Allah’ embroidered into funeral clothes?” by Tharik Hussain
  • “Were Vikings influenced by ISLAM? Arabic embroidery bearing the name ‘Allah’ is uncovered on 10th Century Norse burial clothes” by Tim Collins
  • “Viking burial clothes woven with ‘Allah’ discovered in Sweden” by Martin Belam
  • “Why Are These Viking Burial Clothes Inscribed with Arabic Script?” by Becky Little
  • “Researchers find name of Allah woven into ancient Viking burial fabrics” by Jon Sharman
  • “Why these Viking burial clothes had inscriptions to Allah and Ali” by Catherine Edwards
  • “Were Vikings Muslim? New research finds ‘Allah’ woven into burial clothes” by Tom Herbert
  • “Name of Allah woven into ancient Viking burial fabrics”
  • “Muslim Vikings: Warrior Burial Clothes Uncovered With ‘Allah’ Embroidery” by Callum Paton
  • “‘Allah’ Is Found on Viking Funeral Clothes” By Christina Anderson
  • “White supremacists fly into white-hot rage at news some Vikings may have been Muslim” by David Ferguson
  •  “Were Vikings Muslims?”
  • “These Vikings Buried Their Dead in Clothing Bearing the Arabic Word for “Allah”” by Marissa Fessenden
  • “The Word ‘Allah’ Has Been Discovered Woven into Viking Burial Clothes” by Michelle Starr
  • ‘Allah’, ‘Ali’ engraved in Vikings burial costumes
  • “The Viking Graves ‘ Allah ‘ and ‘ Ali ‘ written…”
  • “Vikings Had ‘Allah’ Written on Their Clothes” by Julia Banim

Buried Evidence Islamic Viking Burial Garments

Figure 9. Largest burial site in Scandinavia has over 600 graves dating back to the Germanic Iron Age and the Viking period. Each circle of stones designates a burial site for man who had merit in the community. North of Alborg, Denmark. (Credit: Ted Spiegel/Getty Images) (Source)

Further Reading

  • “Fluctuations in Islamic Trade with Eastern Europe during the Viking Age” by Thomas S. Noonan, Harvard Ukrainian Studies,Vol. 16, No. 3/4 (December 1992), (pp. 237-259)
  • “Islam and Scandinavia during the Viking Age” by Egil Mikkelsen
  • “The Moor’s First Sight: An Arab Poet in a Ninth-Century Viking Court” by Nizar F. Hermes Historic Engagements with Occidental Cultures, Religions, Powers, pp.57-69
  •  “From Raiders to Traders: The Viking-Arab Trade Exchange” by Susanne Watts, American Public University System, Saber and Scroll, Volume 4,  Issue 2 Spring/Summer 2015 Article 11, August 2015
  • “Note about the Muslim conquest of the 7th-8th centuries: the Basque, Berber, Norse Viking, Norman and Briton ‘magicians’ by Epalza, Míkel de, Universitat de Lleida. Grup de Recerca Consolidat en Estudis Medievals “Espai, Poder i Cultura”, Imago temporis. Medium Aevum. 2007, 1: 61-69
  • “Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveller from Baghdad to the Volga.” by Richard N. Frye
  • “Viking Expansion Westwards” by Magnus Magnusson
  • “The Vikings in Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean.” by Stefan Brink and Neil Price, In The Viking World, 465.
  • “The Vikings in History” by Logan F. Donald
  • “A Brief History of the Vikings” by Jonathan Clements
  • “A History of the Middle Ages, 300–1500” by John M. Riddle
  • “The Islamic World, Russia and the Vikings, 750-900: The Numismatic Evidence” by Thomas Schaub Noonan
  • “Silver Economy in The Viking Age” by James Graham-Campbell and Gareth Williams
  • Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah’s “Early Islamic Spain: The History of Ibn Al-Qūṭīya” – “A Study of the Unique Arabic Manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, with a Translation, Notes, and Comments” by David James
  • “A History of Early Al-Andalus: The Akhbar Majmu’a” by David James
  • “Viking Rus: Studies on the Presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe” by Wladyslaw Duczko
  • “Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe AD 700–1100” by P.H. Sawyer
  • “Viking Trade and Settlement in Continental/Western Europe” by Iben Skibsted Klaesoe
  • “The world of the Vikings” by Ole Klindt-Jensen
  • “A History of the Middle Ages, 300–1500” by John M. Riddle
  • “The Age of the Vikings” by Anders Winroth
  • The Emergence of Rus 750-1200” by Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard
  • “A History of the Vikings” by Gwyn Jones
  • The Viking Age” by Robert Ferguson
  • “Exploring Ancient Skies: A Survey of Ancient and Cultural Astronomy” by David H. Kelley and Eugene F. Miloneshows
  • “Confronting the Borders of Medieval Art” by Jill Caskey, Adam S. Cohen and Linda Safra
  • “Among the Norse Tribes: The Remarkable Account of Ibn Fadlan” article by Judith Gabriel (Archived)
  • Muslim Heritage: “The Abbasids’ House of Wisdom in Baghdad” by Subhi Al-Azzawi (Archived)
  • Muslim Heritage“Transfer of Islamic Science to the West” Muslim Heritage by Ahmed Y. Al-Hassan (Archived)
  • “Towns and Trading in the Viking Age.” by William R Short (Archived)
  • Muslim Heritage: “Ahmad Ibn Fadhlan in Northern Europe: A Survey of His Account of Russian Vikings in the 10th Century.”
  • Muslim Heritage: “Scandinavia and Ibn Fadlan”
  • “Vikings and Muslims: Possible Trade Between Scandinavia and Islamic Caliphate”
  • “Ibn al-Athīr’s Accounts of the Rūs: A Commentary and Translation” by William E. Watson
  • Muslim Heritage: Mubaidin, Oma