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

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


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.

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.


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

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.





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

Berlin Science Week to Feature Public 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

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

Ibn Al-Haytham Celebrated in Ar-Rass in KSA

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

Michigan Science Center to Host 1001 Inventions

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

‘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

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

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

KFAS and 1001 Inventions launch new Arabic children’s book

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

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

1001 Inventions New Children’s Book Selected as Best Biography

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

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

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

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

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HRH Duke of York honours International Year of Light & tribute to 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”

“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

“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


“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

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

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


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!

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!

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


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

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!

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!


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

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.

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

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

1. Introduction

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.

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

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.

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]

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

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

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]

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.”

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.

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)

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.

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]

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:

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.

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]

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]

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.

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]

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]

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]

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]

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)

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]

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

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.

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)

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]

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]

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]

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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]

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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:


Malika V: Nur Jahan

by Tom Verde Published on: 7th September 2018

From Bangladesh to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state.…

Malika IV: Hurrem Sultan (Roxolana)

by Tom Verde Published on: 3rd June 2018

From Bangladesh to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state.…

Malika VI: Sayyida Al-Hurra

by Tom Verde Published on: 8th February 2018

From Bangladesh to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state.…

Malika III: Shajarat Al-Durr

by Tom Verde Published on: 11th August 2016

Our third story is that of Shajarat al-Durr, the first woman to sit upon an Egyptian throne since Cleopatra, nearly 1,300 years before.

Malika II: Radiyya bint Iltutmish

by Tom Verde Published on: 13th May 2016

Popularly referred to as Razia Sultana, this is the story of Radiyya bint Iltutmish written by Tom Verde. Born in 1205, Budaun, Radiyya bint Iltutmish, also known as Raziya al-Din, was the first female ruler…

Malika I: Khayzuran & Zubayda

by Tom Verde Published on: 14th March 2015

From Indonesia to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state.…