Long before the Renaissance in Europe, the Golden Age of Islam gave the world the brightest minds history has ever seen.
When one thinks of history’s greatest scholars, most of us first look to the likes of Da Vinci, Copernicus and many other famous European scientists, mathematicians and inventors. But what’s less well-known is that many of these famous scholars from ancient Greece and Rome also built several of their findings on the wealth of knowledge brought by the Islamic World throughout the Middle Ages in time referred to as the Islamic Golden Age.
Within the Islamic Golden Age, the greatest Muslim minds were individuals who not only lived scholarly and pious lives, but also excelled in the fields of mathematics, geography, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and medicine. At a time where there was great emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge, Islam was not just a set of religious beliefs, but a set of ideas, ethics and ideals encompassing all aspects of human life.
Among the abundance of historical Muslim Scholars to explore in detail, this article chooses to highlight the best of inventors and experts in finance and in science. From Baghdad to Persia, Egypt to Spain these are the scholars whom truly understand the importance of knowledge as emphasised by the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), who stated:
“Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim” (Sunan Ibn Majah)
1. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi
Al-Khwarizmi (c.780-850) was a Persian polymath and a scholar in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Within his lifetime, he translated many major Greek and Indian mathematical and astronomy works into Arabic, and produced original work which had a lasting influence on Muslim and later European mathematics, inspiring the likes of Fibonacci, Alberd and Roger Bacon.
One of Al-Khwarizmi’s main contributions to mathematics was the concept of algebra. The term algebra was derived from al-jabr, as found within title of his major mathematical text, Al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing), which made its way to Europe in the 12th Century via Latin translations. The text was revolutionary in its exhaustive account of how to solve polynomial equations up to the second degree, and introduced for the first time a multitude of fundamental algebraic methods, laying down the foundations for modern algebra.
In addition to algebra, Al-Khwarizmi’s text also introduced the concept of algorithms as found within modern computer science. The term algorithm was likewise derived from Al-Khwarizmi’s Latinised name, Algorithmi. Al-Khwarizmi’s other notable contributions to mathematics also includes the mainstream implementation of Hindu-Arabic numbers in both in the Muslim World and in the West, and the development of the lattice multiplication method of multiplying large numbers, which is still widely used by many mathematicians today.
Aside from mathematics, Al-Khwarizmi also made vast contributions to astronomy and geography. Some of his most notable achievements in astronomy include his invention of apparatuses which would better determine the time of observing the Sun or stars — the first quadrant (which he based off previous methods from India) and the Zīj al-Sindhind (Astronomical tables of Siddhanta) — and his improvement on the theory and construction of sundials, contributing to its common use in Mosques at the time. For geography, Al-Khwarizmi’s Kitab Surat al-ard (The Image of the Earth) revised and expanded on Ptolemy’s earlier work on geography by recording the coordinates of 2400 places throughout the world, particularly around the Mediterranean Sea and cities in Africa and Asia. He also assisted in the construction of a map of the world for the caliph Al-Ma’mun and was part of a project to determine the most accurate measurement of Earth’s circumference yet.
Al-Kindi (801-873) was the first Arab philosopher, establishing a tradition of demonstrating the compatibility between philosophy and orthodox Islam, a tradition which was later continued by Islamic scholars Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Based in Iraq, Al-Kindi, much like other Muslim Scholars such as Al-Khwarizmi and the Banu Musa brothers, also worked in the Baghdad House of Wisdom, where he translated works by Greek mathematicians, scientists and philosophers such as Aristotle into Arabic and provided commentaries on them.
In addition to being considered the “Father of Arab Philosophy”, Al-Kindi was also adept in the fields of science, mathematics and music. One of his most notable achievements in science was being the first pharmacologist to determine and apply a correct dosage for most of the drugs available at the time. For mathematics, he wrote manuscripts on Indian numbers, the harmony of numbers, relative quantities, measuring proportion and time, and numerical procedures and cancellation. He also popularised Hindu-Arabic numerals among the Arabs. In music, Al-Kindī applied his scientific knowledge to determine pitch by measuring the frequency of the specific notes and harmonies and also demonstrated how sound was able to travel through waves.
3. Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was an Arab sociologist, philosopher and historian famous for his study of the nature of society, culture and social change, and his contributions in providing the most accurate and definitive history of Muslim North Africa. Widely considered as one of the most original thinkers in Medieval Islam, his work draws influence from and expands on theories and ideologies of similarly revolutionary Muslim scholars – such as Averroes, Avicenna and Al-Razi – before him.
Ibn Khaldun’s most notable studies are contained within his magnum opus, the Muqaddimah (Introduction) in which he set forth the earliest general theory of the nature of civilisation and the conditions for its development, intending it as a tool for understanding and writing history. The work also made him a founder of the first iterations of what would later be known as historiography, sociology, economics, and demography. His theorisation of the political economy in particular revolutionised social studies, and his understanding of key concepts such as of the division of labor, the law of supply and demand, and trade still remain relevant to today’s economy.
4. Abbas Ibn Firnas
Ibn Firnas (810-887) was an Andalusian polymath and engineer who was the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine and live to tell the tale, a thousand years before motorised aeroplanes were invented. His first prototype was created when he was between the age of 65 and 70, and was able to stay in flight for at least 10 minutes.
Following his first test flight, Ibn Firnas improved on the design through fine-tuning the prototype’s landing mechanics, proving the groundwork for the ornithopter, an aircraft that mimics birds and flies by flapping its wings. His flying machine diagrams likewise went on to revolutionise aviation engineering in the late 20th century.
In addition to being the first human to fly, Ibn Firnas’ was also talented in other fields of science, inventing water-powered clocks and developing a process for cutting rock crystals during a time where it could be done in Egypt. His notable scientific advances, along with his extensive knowledge of poetry and history, allowed Ibn Firnas to be known as Hakim Al-Andalus (the Wiseman of Al-Andalus) during the 9th century.
5. Hasan Ibn al-Haytham
Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040), known in the West as Alhazen, was an Arab pioneering scientific thinker based in Basra, Iraq and Cairo, Egypt who made significant contributions to the understanding of vision, optics and light. These studies, compiled in his greatest work, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), lead him to become a pivotal figure in the history of optics, influencing 13th-century thinkers such as Roger Bacon, as well as later European scientists during the Renaissance.
In addition to being considered as the “Father of modern Optics”, Ibn al-Haytham made other great contributions to science and mathematics. These include: implementing the common use of experiments within the modern scientific method, revising and expanding on Euclid’s theorems, writing treatises on the area and volume of crescent or paraboloid shapes, and presenting a philosophical discussion of Ptolemy’s Almagest (along with, to a lesser extent, his Planetary Hypotheses and Optics).
6. Thabit ibn Qurra
Ibn Qurra (c.836-901), also known as Thebit in Latin, was an Arab mathematician, astronomer, physician, and philosopher of the 9th century. Regarded as one of the two greatest translators in Islamic history (along with Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibad), he was most famous for translating works by major Greek mathematicians such as Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius of Perga, and Ptolemy into Arabic.
In addition to his translation work, which helped preserve a number of Greek texts into modern times, Ibn Qurra also wrote original works on mathematics, science, music, astronomy, and philosophy. His work on integral calculus, some theorems of spherical trigonometry, analytic geometry, and non-Euclidean geometry, in particular, left a lasting impact on modern mathematics, especially in the expansion of the concept of numbers to include positive real numbers. Other notable achievements are his contributions to astronomy, which include his treatises on the movement of the sun and moon, sundials, visibility of the new moon, and celestial spheres, and his theory of “trepidation” to explain the precession of the equinoxes.
Al-Battani (c.858-929), known in the West as Albategnius, was an Arab astronomer and mathematician from Syria. He was most famous for his great contributions to astronomy, which included refining existing values for the length of the year and the seasons at the time and the annual precession of the equinoxes. Al-Battani also was the one to prove how the position of the Sun’s apogee, or farthest point from the Earth, is variable and that annular (central but incomplete) eclipses of the Sun are possible. Within this discovery, he likewise improved on Ptolemy’s astronomical calculations by replacing geometrical methods with trigonometry. For these advancements to the field of astronomy, he is widely regarded today as the greatest astronomer of his time and from the Middle Ages and was a large influence on later scientists such as Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Copernicus.
8. Omar Khayyam
Khayyam (1048-1131) was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet. In science, following the likes of Al-Battani, he was best known for his documentation of the most accurate year length ever calculated – a figure still accurate enough to be used for most purposes in the modern world. Aside from his revolutionary contributions to calendar reform, Khayyam also made outstanding contributions to algebra in his discovery of the geometrical method of intersecting a parabola with a circle to solve cubic equations, which previously could not be solved accurately using traditional Ancient Greek geometrical tools (i.e. with a ruler or compass). As a poet, Khayyam’s poetry, namely his collection of Rubáiyát (“quatrains”), is better known in the West than any other non-Western poet.
9. Sutayta Al-Mahamali
Sutayta al-Mahamali (d. 987) was a renowned woman of genius from 10th Century Baghdad, who excelled in the field of Arabic literature, hadith, jurisprudence, and mathematics, a full two hundred years before Europe produced women of comparably broad education and fame in the form of Heloise of Argenteuil and Trota of Salerno. During her time she was likewise widely consulted for her legal and mathematical insight and was best known for her ability to solve problems of inheritance through her expertise in hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations).
10. Lubna of Cordoba
Lubna was an Andalusian intellectual and mathematician of the second half of the 10th century famous for her knowledge of grammar and the quality of her poetry and was also one of the few Islamic female mathematicians known by name. She was said to be well-versed in the exact sciences and could solve the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems known in her time. While she was originally a slave-girl of Spanish origin, through her prowess of general literature, she rose to become one of the most important figures in the Umayyad palace in Cordoba –– the palace secretary of the caliphs Abd al-Rahman III and his son Al-Hakam I.
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Ethical Finance and Innovation
Dr. Sayd Farook is the Executive Director of Crescent Foundation. He is Group Chief Operating Officer of Crescent Wealth and Managing Director of Crescent Finance. He previously served as Advisor to the Executive Office of the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. In this capacity, he envisioned and executed strategic / transformation initiatives for Dubai and the UAE. Prior to that, he was the Global Head Islamic Capital Markets at Thomson Reuters, where he advised and served large corporates, multilaterals and governments in the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia.