When TheWorld Spoke Arabic:The Forgotten Legacy of Arabic Science


I’d like to spend the next 30 minutes not looking into the future so much but looking back into the past. So, I want to talk about an age when the international language
of science was Arabic. We often forget,
not just in the West, but in the Arab
and Muslim World as well, that for many centuries while Europe was in the Dark Ages there was a thriving civilization
and thriving scholarship in the Islamic Empire. Last year was designated
by the United Nations as International Year of Light. Now, there are probably
other international years of because there are so many things
we would like to celebrate. But in science, we were celebrating how much technology that relies
on the properties of light have affected our lives today. And one of the reasons for choosing 2015 was because the world decided
to celebrate the achievements of a scientist who wrote a book
one thousand years ago on optics. And I want to tell you a little bit
about that man in a few minutes time. Now, my interest in the subject… I am a professor of theoretical physics
in the UK, but I was born in Baghdad. I have an English mother,
an Iraqi father, and so, on my father’s side
I have this heritage of these great scholars
from a golden age that I feel passionate
about sharing with the world. I wrote a book a few years ago,
called “Path Finders”. It was translated into many languages. In America, it came out under the title,
“The House of Wisdom”, “Bayt al-Hikma”, the great, almost mythical center
of learning in Baghdad during the Abbasid period. Now, thankfully,
of the books that I’ve written, it’s the only one that’s been
translated into Arabic. In that book, I describe
many of the great achievements of this golden age of science. A golden age that began in the middle of the 9th century, centered around the capital
of the Islamic Empire, Baghdad, and it was an age which began
with a great translation movement of many of the texts from Greece;
from India; from Persia, into the then language
of the empire, Arabic. Today, historians of science
refer to this age as the golden age of Arabic science. Now, not all the scholars were Arabs;
many were Persian, not all the scholars were Muslims;
many were Christians and Jews. This was a period when scholarship was encouraged for the sake
of scholarship and learning. And it shows that scientific achievement doesn’t depend on which part
of the world you’re in, what civilization you’re part of,
what language, what culture, what religion you follow. Science is about asking questions
about the world around us. I think it’s important to remind the
Arab World and the wider Muslim World that science wasn’t
a construct of the West, even though that is the narrative that we are even taught in schools
in the Arab World today. That science really goes back
as a continuum, all the way from the ancient Greeks, through this golden age
of Arabic science, through to the Renaissance
and the scientific revolution in Europe. I want to run through a list of a few of my favorites. I remember giving a lecture
to students in which I depicted a football match, a soccer match between the great
scholars of the Islamic World and the great scholars
of ancient Greece. I had Aristotle and Plato in midfield
for the Greeks. I had Ibn al-Haytham and Ibn Sina, I had Al-Khwarizmi as the striker
upfront, it was fun. But the list of these great scholars is more than just 11. Many of them were Arabs,
many were Persians. Let me just give you
an example of a few. In the top-left is probably the first scientist of the
golden age, Jabir ibn Hayyan. He lived in the 8th century, before the translation movement
even began. He grew up and worked
in the city of Kufa in Iraq. He is now regarded
by historians of science as the first true chemist. Today, we see a distinction
in that field between chemistry, an exact science, and alchemy, which is a philosophical idea
wrapped up in mysticism and magic and superstition. And we think the two are very different, and many would say, “oh, yes, but Jabir
ibn Hayyan, he was just an alchemist” “he wasn’t a real scientist.” They forget that the Arabic word
for chemistry is “Al-Keemya'”, from which the word “alchemy” derives. So, yes, Jabir ibn Hayyan
was practicing alchemy, but he was also doing chemistry,
proper science. He was mixing chemicals
in exact amounts, he was learning about the properties
of acids and alkalis. And, by the way, we know now
that English words like “alkali” and “alcohol”, derive from their Arabic origins. Hunayn ibn Ishaq
was a Christian scholar in Baghdad. I put his name under that picture
of the eye, because he… one of the things he did was translate
the works of the ancient Greeks, in particular the great Greek
physician, Galen, who talked about the eye. Jabir ibn Hayyan
gave the first diagram of the structure of the eye
in his book. He was also
a wonderful mathematician. I list him to stress, to emphasize,
that not all these scholars were Muslim scientists, because this was a period
of tolerance, of inclusivity. Baghdad was then
the place to be. Today, the greatest scholars
might want to go to Harvard or MIT in America. There, if you had an idea,
if you were a philosopher, a scientist, a theologian, a mathematician,
a musician, any sort of scholar,
Baghdad was the place to go. And all creeds, all cultures,
all religions were tolerated, because there was this spirit
of free and rational inquiry. Al-Kindi, an Arab philosopher, he understood… he studied the work
of the great Greek philosophers and linked it with Islamic theology
for the first time. He was a thinker who would influence
many other philosophers during medieval times, all the way up to people
like Ibn Sina, who then, of course, went on to
influence many European philosophers. Ibn Sina is probably the greatest
and most famous of the scholars
of the Islamic period. He was the Einstein
of a medieval world. He wrote a book on a medicine, The Canon of Medicine,
which was so influential it was THE standard text
on medicine for six or seven centuries
around the world. In the Middle Ages,
if you went to a library in Paris, if you wanted to study medicine, you read the Latin translation
of Ibn Sina’s Canon. “Avicenna”, he was known in the West. And, of course, one of the most
celebrated books in the history of the world is Al-Khwarizmi’s book on algebra. Another word, algebra, deriving
from the Arabic “al-jabr”. “Kitab al-Jabr”,
“The Book of Completion”. This was the first book that gave us the field of algebra as a new subfield of mathematics. The Greeks were very good
at geometry, but algebra, the way we use equations, X and Y,
to solve problems today can all be traced back
to Al Khwarizmi’s book, written in the 9th century. I have another slide to show
you a list of a few more. Al-Razi, another Persian physician, and a great chemist. Today, in any school in the world,
you see the periodic table of elements laid out. Well, Al-Razi was probably
the first scientist who began to classify
the elements correctly according to their physical
and chemical properties. The Greeks believed
there were just four elements: earth, air, water and fire that everything was derived from those. Al Razi went way beyond that
in classifying salts and minerals and metals, and understanding
their properties. He was also one of the people who built
the first hospitals in the world. A hospital as we understand it today. As a place where the sick go
and treated by doctors. Were there will be medicines,
were there’s care. A lot of those advances came about
because of the importance of looking after the sick,
the importance of cleanliness… which is taught by Islam. So, the new religion, as was then, of Islam
helped encourage and push many of these fields of knowledge
and scholarship forward. Al Zahrawi was an Andalusian physician
and surgeon in Spain. Again, part of the Islamic empire. He developed and invented
many instruments of surgery:
the forceps, the syringe. Instruments that we still use
to this day. Ibn Al Nafees was an anatomist from Syria. He gave the first explanation
of blood circulation. He was the first person to understand
that the heart has a partition, the blood doesn’t transfer
from one side to the other, but has to go around the body. Why isn’t he taught at school
when we learn about anatomy? In astronomy,
and I just list a few names here, Al Tusi, Al Battani, Ibn Al Shatir. These were all great philosophers
in the golden age who went home to influence people
like Copernicus. Now, any history or science book… maybe until recently as we now
start to understand a little bit more about these contributions, any book would say Copernicus
was the first scientist. Copernicus kicked off
the scientific revolution. It was Copernicus who said
“The earth goes around the sun, not the sun around the earth.” But Copernicus was influenced
by these scholars. If you look at Copernicus’s book,
De revolutionibus, His great text on astronomy
and look through it towards the back, there are pages and pages
in Arabic of star charts going back to the time of Al Battani. The mathematics Copernicus used
to develop his model, he took from the work
of Al Tusi and Ibn Al Shatir. At the time, scholars in Europe
acknowledged and understood the contributions of these scholars. Their work was translated to Latin
and disseminated around Europe. Any scholars in the middle ages
who wanted to learn about astronomy or medicine or Algebra or chemistry, would have to travel to the Muslim world
to find out latest in research. They would go to Andalusia, to Toledo, to Granada, to Cordoba.
They would go to Baghdad. The great Italian mathematician
Fibonacci learned Arabic. He went and studied the work
of Al Khwarizmi. And in his book, his great text
on mathematics he acknowledges the contributions
of Al Khwarizmi. And in engineering, we shouldn’t forget
the contributions of Al Jazari. This picture…
those of you who live in Dubai will be very familiar
with the Elephant Clock, because it has pride of place
in Ibn Battuta shopping mall In the center of the city. A great work,
not only of scientific creativity but artistic creativity as well. Al Jazari developed many
different instruments that helped with the pumping of water.
He developed levers and… intricate devices which advanced way
beyond anything else that had been seen before. I recently had the privilege of looking
at Al Jazari’s original book in the Sulaymaniyah library in Istanbul. And to just look through
those colored diagrams and see the detail and care
and ingenuity of this great inventor was owe-inspiring. These are just a few examples of some
of the great scholars of that period. Even in Geography,
maps of the world were redrawn. So, Al Idrisi developed a map… You would not think that this map was
a particularly good depiction of the world until you appreciate that at that time
north was at the bottom of the page and south was at the top. So, thank you power point. Now you recognize a map of the world. Far greater detail, far more accurate than anything the Greeks,
like Ptolemy, had provided. The Islamic world and the scholars there were first driven by a need to…
by need from their religion to understand the world. After all, no Greek text had depicted on
them Mecca or Baghdad for instance. Muslims need to know, need to develop
quite sophisticated geometry to understand that you know which
direction to face to pray wherever you are in this vast empire. That requires sophisticated mathematics. Even the scientific method itself
I can trace back to this golden age. Traditionally, we think of the fathers
of the scientific method as people like Galileo or Francis Bacon
or Rene Descartes. Well, here is an interesting quote.
Let me read it to you. “We should distinguish the properties
of particulars and gather by induction what pertains to the eye to be
uniform, unchanging, manifest, and not subject to doubt. After which, we should ascend
in our inquiry and reasoning gradually and orderly, criticizing
premises and exercising caution in regard to conclusions. Our aim in all that we make subject
to inspection and review being to employ justice,
not to follow prejudice and to take care
in all that we judge and criticize that we seek the truth
and not to be swayed by opinion.” That is the definition
of the scientific method. That is how we do science today. That is a quote from Ibn Al Haitham
a thousand years ago. We forget this, and we shouldn’t. So, what about science
in the Arab Muslim world today? Now, the next speaker Neil Tyson
will say more about… were science is heading
and some of the statistics. But let me just give you
a brief introduction. “We all Acknowledge
there is still a problem. Over a billion Muslims,
extensive material resources, Why is the Islamic world
disengaged from science and the process
of creating new knowledge? Common sense and the principles
of logic and reason are our only reasonable choice
for governance and progress. Being scientists, we understand this. the task is to persuade
those who do not.” This is from a physicist in Pakistan,
Pervez Hoodbhoy. He is highlighting a problem.
Is there a problem? After all, we see here
in this wonderful arena and we look at some of the technological
advances in this part of the world and we wonder, maybe,
is he being prejudiced himself against the achievements in the 21
century in the Arab Muslim world. But I believe there is a problem
that we need to address. Many people still treat science
with a degree of suspicion. That somehow it’s a western construct
imposed on us by outside. Now, the leaders, the governments
in this region certainly understand this, they understand you need
science and technology for technological advances. Statistics though
tell us another story. Less than a half percent of the GDP
of many Muslim countries are spent on R & D. That is woefully low compared
to the rest of the developed world. The number of scientists
in the Arab world for example, or in the Muslim world is far fewer than the average number Per Capita
in the developed world. For me as a practicing
research scientist, what’s more important
isn’t just numbers, it’s the quality of the research. We’re starting to see advances,
but they’re still a long way to go. But it’s not a bleak picture entirely. Let me tell you about
one or two great successes. We can think of examples,
the research university Kaust in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. It’s up there among the top universities
in the world today. And that happened very quickly. If you think about Education City
in Doha, or the Knowledge Village
here in the Emirates. If you think about
the International Academic City, or indeed my favorite,
something you may not have heard of, This is a research laboratory
called Sesame, It’s being built outside Amman
in Jordan. It’s a particle accelerator, not as big as the large
Hadron Collider in Cern, in Geneva, but never the less
a cutting edge research. It’s a synchrotron facility,
it sends particles around in a ring close to the speed of light. And they emit light which then is used for all sorts
of different research areas: in medicine, in physics,
in chemistry, in biology… And that’s being built in Jordan and It’s a collaboration
between many countries countries that include
Palestine and Israel and Iran many countries in the region. A friend of mine is the chair
of the committee overseeing the development of this project,
and he says this is the only occasion
outside the United Nations were you will see delegates from Iran
and Israel in the same room being civilized towards each other. Because science crosses
those political and cultural boundaries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *