Remembering the Language of History and Science: When the World Spoke Arabic

by The Editorial Team Published on: 1st January 2009

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Two shows are expected to be broadcast on BBC Four in January 2009: An Islamic History of Europe by Rageh Omaar and Science and Islam by Jim Al-Khalili. As a gift for the Hijri 1430 and Gregorian 2009 New Years, and to celebrate this event, we take this opportunity to alert our readers to the wealth of research published on on the Islamic science, technology, history and culture.

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Figure 1: Professor Jim Al-Khalili, British Theoretical Nuclear Physicist, Academic, Author and Broadcaster, browsing through the book 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in our World (FSTC, 2006) (Source).

Starting from 5 January 2009, BBC Four will show two series on Islamic history and Islam and science, presented respectively by Rageh Omaar and Jim Al-Khalili (read story here).

The programme on Science and Islam is presented by Jim Al-Khalili, a well known scientist himself. It is a one hour program following Rageh Omaar’s documentary; it will be repeated same night on 5 January 2009 and after midnight. The show deals more specifically with the Islamic contribution to the progress of science and technology and shows how the Islamic world increased scientific knowledge between the 8th and 14th centuries.

Physicist Jim Al-Khalili travels through Syria, Iran, Tunisia and Spain to tell the story of the great leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries.

Its legacy is tangible, with terms like algebra, algorithm and alkali all being Arabic in origin and at the very heart of modern science –there would be no modern mathematics or physics without algebra, no computers without algorithms and no chemistry without alkalis.

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Figure 2: Poster of the BBC Four series Science and Islam presented by Jim Al-Khalili.

For Baghdad-born Al-Khalili this is also a personal journey and on his travels he uncovers a diverse and outward-looking culture, fascinated by learning and obsessed with science. From the great mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, who did much to establish the mathematical tradition we now know as algebra, to Ibn Sina, a pioneer of early medicine whose Canon of Medicine was still in use as recently as the 19th century. He tells also the story of Al-Razi, who improved medical diagnosis and even attempted medical trials, and he finds out how cataract operations were done and visits one of the world’s first hospitals in Damascus.

When the Islamic Empire established itself, from the 7th century CE onwards, its rulers made gathering the world’s knowledge a top priority. Islamic scholars travelled the known world in search of mathematical, medical, astronomical and philosophical texts.

By the 8th and 9th centuries, the ruling elite of Baghdad organised regular debates between scholars. At these vibrant events, all kinds of ideas, often from other civilisations and cultural traditions, were debated, discussed and even radically improved.

The scientific legacy of this extraordinary time lives on. Terms like algebra, algorithm and alkali, are all Arabic in origin and are at the heart of modern science.

The story thus told pieced together a remarkable story of the often-overlooked achievements of the early medieval Islamic scientists.


  • 05 Jan 2009 at 21:00: BBC Four
  • 05 Jan 2009 at 23:00: BBC Four
  • 06 Jan 2009 at 03:00 : BBC Four
  • 06 Jan 2009 at 19:30 : BBC Four
  • 06 Jan 2009 at 20:00 : BBC HD
  • 07 Jan 2009 at 00:45 : BBC Four
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Figure 3: Rageh Omaar, British television news presenter and writer, in Granada, Spain (© BBC) (Source).

The documentary, An Islamic History of Europe presents Rageh Omaar’s search for the history of Islam in Europe. Rageh Omaar visits Spain, Sicily and France in a fascinating journey in search of the story of Islam in Europe. He uncovers a tale of scientific advance and rich cultural influences that have had a profound impact on the way we are today, reveals how a flourishing Islamic culture was finally destroyed in Europe by ambition, betrayal and oppression and shows how the fall-out still resonates today.

In this documentary, Rageh Omaar seeks to reconstruct the hidden story of Europe’s Islamic past and looks back to a golden age when European civilisation was enriched by Islamic learning.

Beginning in Spain, where the brilliant Andalusian civilisation flourished, Rageh travels across medieval Muslim Europe to reveal the vibrant civilisation that Muslims brought to the West.

This evocative film brings to life a time when emirs and caliphs dominated Spain and Sicily and Islamic scholarship swept into the major cities of Europe. His journey reveals the debt owed to Islam for its vital contribution to the European Renaissance.


  • 05 Jan 2009 at 20:30: BBC Four
  • 06 Jan 2009 at 02:30: BBC Four

Figure 4: 3D Construction of the Third Water Raising Device.

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Further reading

Easily read articles published on on Islam and science and the Islamic scientific tradition.

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