Islam is seen in the modern world from many angles, but rarely is it viewed as a source of inspiration and enlightenment.
It is a force of enlightenment and many verses of the Holy Quran testify to that fact.
It is also inspiration, as shown by the great body of scholarship produced during the Middle Ages.
While Europe was in the midst of darkness, it was the Muslims, spurred on by the light of their new ‘deen’ (religion) picked up the torch of scholarship and science.
Unlike Christianity, where deen and science are two separate elements, the study of science has always been compatible with Islam.
Muslims preserved the knowledge of antiquity, elaborated upon it, and finally passed it on to Europe.
For more than 1000 years, the Islamic empire remained the most advanced and civilised nation in the world. This is because Islam stressed the importance and respect of learning, forbade destruction, and developed in Muslims the respect for authority, discipline, and tolerance for other religions.
Although all people learn from what they do and pass on, it is important for us to learn about and appreciate the contributions of early Muslims to Islamic civilisation.
Colonialism, the institution of the Western educational model, along with Euro-centrism, often portrays Islam as backwards, incompatible with science and technology, and anti-education.
Muslim schoolchildren never learn of their glorious past and often the only thing passed on to them is the inferiority complex of the generation before them.
From the past, we can learn from our mistakes and use the analysis of those great examples before us as role models to enrich us in the future.
Abu Ali Al Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina, universally known as Avicenna (980-1037), wrote 246 books, including ‘Kitab Al Shifa (The Book of Healing), consisting of 20 volumes, and ‘Al Qanun Fit Tibb (The Canons of Medicine). The Qanun was the chief guide for medical science in the West from the 12th to the 17th century.
Dr William Osler, who wrote The Evolution of Modern Science, remarks, “The Qanun has remained a Medical Bible for a longer period than any other work.”
Containing over a million words, it surveyed the entire medical knowledge available from ancient and Muslim sources, and included his own contributions.
Ibn Sina’s original contributions included such advances as recognition of the contagious nature of phthisis and tuberculosis; distribution of diseases by water and soil; and the interaction between psychology and health.
In addition, the book described over 760 drugs and became the most authentic reference work of its era. Ibn Sina was also the first to describe meningitis and made rich contributions to anatomy, gynaecology and child health.
This interest in medicine went back to the time of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), who once said that there existed a cure for every disease.
With this spirit, there were hospitals and clinics built all over the Muslim world, the earliest of which was in 707 by Caliph Walid Ibn Abd Al Malik in Damascus.
Muslims made many advances such as the idea of circulation of blood, quarantine, and the foundation of the first apothecary shops and the earliest school of pharmacy.
Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, a philosopher and physician, made advances in medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, veterinary science, and ophthalmology. He was the head of the famous school of translators founded by Caliph Mamun at Baghdad, and wrote the first systematic textbook on ophthalmology.
Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al Razi (865-925), known as Rhazes, was one of the most prolific Muslim doctors and probably second only to Ibn Sina in his accomplishments.
Born at Ray, Iran, he became a student of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq and later a student of Ali Ibn Rabban. He wrote over 200 books, including Kitab Al Mansuri, ten volumes on Greek medicine, and Al Hawi, an Encyclopaedia of medicine in 20 volumes.
In Al Hawi, he included information on each medical subject available from Greek and Arab sources, and then added his own remarks based on his experience and views.
He classified substances as vegetable, animal or mineral, while other alchemists divided them into ‘bodies,’ ‘souls’ and ‘spirits.’
Cure for diseases
Al Razi was placed in charge of the first Royal Hospital at Ray, from where he soon moved to a similar position in Baghdad, and remained the head of its famous Muqtadari Hospital for a long time.
He found a treatment for kidney and bladder stones, and explained the nature of various infectious diseases. He also conducted research on smallpox and measles, and was the first to introduce the use of alcohol for medical purposes.
A unique feature of his medical system was that he greatly favoured cure through correct and regulated food intake.
This was combined with his emphasis on the influence of psychological factors on health. He also tested proposed remedies first on animals in order to evaluate their effects and side effects. He was also an expert surgeon and the first to use opium for anaesthesia.
The above article was sourced from ‘Rocket Science,’ the monthly Newsletter of Mt Albert Islamic Centre in Auckland. Another article about other Islamic physicists will appear in our next issue.