The oldest surviving map of the Americas, by Piri Reis, 1513 CE
Image courtesy of FSTC
Yasmin Khan from the Science Museum in London, UK, reveals how deeply our modern civilisation has been enriched by previous Muslim civilisations – and argues for a more balanced approach to the history of science.
Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. The chances are that if you try to remember which scientists you were taught about at school, these names will be on your list. But how many students will learn about scholars from non-Western civilisations, such as Ibn al-Haitham, a Muslim scholar of optics who first developed the laws of light reflection and invented the pinhole camera in the 11th century? Or Ibn Nafis, who first recorded observations on pulmonary blood circulation, a theory attributed to William Harvey 300 years later? How about Abbas ibn Firnas, who made the first attempt of human flight in the 9th century, using adjustable wings covered with feathers? And how many would know of Zeng He, the Chinese Muslim admiral who used refined technology to construct fleets of massive non-metal ship vessels five centuries ago?
Many are unaware of the extent to which our modern civilisation has been enriched by a series of past great civilisations, which include a largely unacknowledged and untaught Muslim heritage. This heritage has become part of European mainstream culture over the centuries and is manifest, for example, in our treasured architectural icons such as the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, UK, and in the horseshoe arches and gothic ribs of Al-Hambra in Granada, Spain.
The discoveries described above were made during a period commonly misconstrued in history textbooks as the Dark Ages. In fact, in the Muslim world, the period from circa 600-1600 CE was a prolific era of creative enquiry into science, technology and engineering and a time of advancement in civilisation, which would later act as a catalyst for the Western Renaissance. Amongst European scholars who were profoundly influenced and inspired by Muslim scholars were Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Andreas Veselius and Galileo.
There has been much study of Muslim contributions to science and civilisation, yet research findings have until recently been confined to academia, a major barrier for teachers and students who seek easy-to-understand material. Four years ago, the UK-based Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), began a mission to popularise the Muslim contributions to civilisation through its Muslim heritage websitew1. For the first time, thanks to the Internet, information about this neglected period of history was readily and freely accessible to the wider public. The website has rapidly become a popular source for information on the Muslim contribution to science and a key resource for teachers and educators who wish to incorporate links to the history of science in their lessons.
After the launch of the website, the demand for more materials and resources on the subject increased rapidly. To address this gap, a touring, interactive educational exhibition was developed on Muslim scientific and technological discoveries, contributions and inventions. This exhibition, entitled 1001 Inventionsw2, was launched in the UK at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchesterw3 earlier this year.
Such was the degree of altruism and philanthropy that the golden age of Islamic science lasted for more than 1000 years. There is much debate about what caused the decline of this period in the 17th century, but we would benefit from encouraging students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to draw inspiration from this rich civilisation and heritage.
I once overheard a science teacher describing the complaints of her students: they were bored with being taught about scientists who were mostly men and of Anglo origin. This is symptomatic of the existing orthodoxy, which views history and science with a Eurocentric lens, ignoring contributions from other civilisations. Teachers recognise the importance to a student’s development of accessible role models to identify with and relate to. Young female students who aspire to careers in science, particularly those of ethnic origins, could find inspiration from unsung heroines of the past. For instance, Miriam al-Ijli al-Astrulabi, who hand-crafted intricate astrolabes, an early type of global positioning system, or entrepreneur Fatima al-Fihri, who in the 9th century founded the world’s oldest university in Morocco.
Initiatives such as the 1001 Inventions project can encourage young people to participate in and contribute to society. These programmes can have a lasting and positive impact on this and the next generation of entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and doctors from all communities. The current exhibition has already shown the positive outcomes of constructive representations of historical Muslim achievement. In June 2006, journalist David Bocking, who shadowed a school group visit to the 1001 Inventions exhibition, reported in the UK’s Times Educational Supplement the poignant comments of a young Muslim boy:
“This has taught us a lot,” said Hassan Zaffar. “I’m a Muslim and it gives me inspiration. It makes you look up to these people, and feel proud of them. It makes you want to go and do something like that yourself.”
w1 – The Muslim Heritage website is an online education community that brings together Muslims and non-Muslims seeking to advance civilisation through the study of our Muslim heritage
w2 – An extensive website containing much of the information from the 1001 Inventions exhibition is available here: www.1001inventions.com
w3 – Information about the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester is available here: www.msim.org.uk
The Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation is a not-for-profit organisation which seeks to popularise the Muslim contribution to the West
1001 Inventions was displayed at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester until 3 September 2006 and will tour the UK and Europe. For more information and to download a free teacher’s pack, endorsed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, visit: www.1001inventions.com
A supporting book is also available for purchase:
Al-Hassani S (2006) 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World. Manchester, UK: FSTC. ISBN: 09555242606
This article is interesting to and appropriate for science teachers working with students of all ages. There is little of the history of science integrated into science lessons (certainly in the UK), and it is an area in which many teachers have limited subject knowledge. This article helps teachers think beyond the regular scientists that most students will have come across.
Further information, and interesting stories about these Muslim scientists would be a great help. The 1001 Inventions website has an excellent teacher’s pack allowing discussion of Muslim scientists to be brought into everyday science topics, such as acids and alkalis, light and pressure, through a series of lesson plans. As the lesson plans include such regularly used science topics, it will be easy to fit these into a busy timetable. However, don’t try to download the resources if you don’t have a broadband Internet connection.
Sam Hollis, UK
Yasmin Khan was the project manager for the 1001 Inventions exhibition.