The Modern World’s Debt to Islām
Part 3: How the Qur’an led to the iPhone
This series explores the astronomical impact that Islām had on the world. In the previous article we explore how the proliferation of Islām heralded a new era in human civilisation and development in many fields. Before the coming of Islām, the world was in a state of oppression and injustice. In this article the consequences of this justice, tolerance and peaceful co-existence is brought to light. We learn of the revolutions in philosophy and science that still hold fast today and of Islām’s role in producing generations of scholars.
The consequences of justice, tolerance and peaceful co-existence
Much of Western philosophy and science finds its basis in the thoughts and teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers. In the 6th century BCE the ancient Greeks broke away from a mythological approach to understanding the world, and initiated an approach based on reason and evidence – what is today called “rational thinking”. It is defined largely by three great thinkers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In c.387 BCE Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, which helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. The Academy endured for nearly 1,000 years as a beacon of higher learning. It was closed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 529 CE in an effort by the Catholic Church to suppress the heresy of pagan thought. The Greek ancient chronicler John Malalas recorded: “During the consulship of Decius [529 CE], the Emperor issued a decree and sent it to Athens ordering that no one should teach philosophy nor interpret the laws.”
Following the closure of the Greek schools of philosophy, Europe entered into a 1,000 year period of intellectual slumber. Thus the “lights went out” on rational thinking and Europe entered the Dark Ages. Indeed, Europe’s creative energies and inventiveness are acknowledged much later, only from the dawn of the “scientific revolution” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A good example that is characteristic of this era is that of the astronomer Galileo. In 1610 he published a work which promoted heliocentrism, the idea that the Earth and planets revolve around a relatively stationary Sun at the centre of the Solar System. Today science has confirmed that this model of the universe is correct, however at that time it conflicted with the prevailing theological belief of geocentrism. Due to its literal interpretation of the Bible, the Catholic Church held that the Earth was the centre of the universe and that all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth. Galileo’s discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Church formally declared heliocentrism to be heretical. Heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas. Later the Church found him “gravely suspect of heresy”, sentencing him to indefinite imprisonment. Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death in 1642.
There is a stark contrast between this intellectual slumber of Europe and activity in the Islamic world. The coming of the Qur’ān in the seventh century not only transformed Arabia but also the lands that were under the control of the Muslims. The peace and sense of security that Islamic rule brought about consequently produced one of the most successful civilisations in the history of the world. While Europe was in the Dark Ages it was the Muslims that produced some of the best known scholars. Victor Robinson, a historian of science, eloquently summed up the contrast between medieval Europe and Islamic Spain:
Europe was darkened at sunset, Cordova shone with public lamps; Europe was dirty, Cordova built a thousand baths; Europe was covered with vermin, Cordova changed its undergarments daily; Europe lay in mud, Cordova’s streets were paved; Europe’s palaces had smoke-holes in the ceiling, Cordova’s arabesques were exquisite; Europe’s nobility could not sign its name, Cordova’s children went to school; Europe’s monks could not read the baptismal service, Cordova’s teachers created a library of Alexandrian dimensions. 
Some examples of Muslim advances in science are the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who played a significant role in the development of algebra. He also came up with the concept of algorithms which is why he is called the grandfather of computer science. The physician Az-Zahrawi is considered the greatest medieval surgeon and is described by many as the father of modern surgery. He made pioneering discoveries in surgical procedures and instruments, for example the material he utilised for internal stitching is still used in surgery today. The astronomer Al-Sufi made the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy. This was the first galaxy other than the Milky Way to be observed from Earth. The philosopher Ibn Sina is considered one of the greatest thinkers and scholars in history. He provided the first descriptions of bacterial and viral organisms. He also discovered the contagious nature of infectious diseases and introduced the concept of quarantine to limit the spread of disease. He has been so influential in medicine that he is referred to as the father of modern medicine.
You may be surprised to learn that many of the scientific words and terms we use today are taken from the Arabic language; this is a legacy of the discoveries of Muslim scientists. For example, the word “algebra” comes from the Arabic word “al-jabr”, taken from the title of one of the books by the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi. The word “algorithm” is taken from al-Khwarizmi’s name itself. The word “alchemy” comes almost unchanged from the Arabic “al-kimya”. One of the greatest contributions made by Arab scholars was their development of the science of astronomy. If you look at a modern star chart, you’ll find hundreds of stars whose names derive from Arabic: Altair, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Vega, Rigel and Algol, to name a few. Finally, we owe the decimal number system that we use for counting to Arab mathematicians. In fact the most common symbolic representation of numbers in the world today (1, 2, 3 etc.) are actually taken from Arabic numerals.
You may be wondering, what is it about the Qur’ān that inspired Muslims to go from the depths of ignorance of the pre-Islamic era to being leaders of the world in the sciences? Many of these scientists were excellent Islamic theologians and it was the Qur’ān which drew their attention to inquire into the natural world and showed them the path to knowledge and enlightenment:
Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know. 
These verses make up the first passage revealed to Prophet Muḥammad (peace and blessings be upon him). It is interesting that of all the things which God could have begun His revelation with, the actions of reading and writing were chosen. Notice how the very first word revealed was a commandment to “read”. Thus the Qurān attaches great importance to knowledge and education.
It is God who brought you out of your mothers’ wombs knowing nothing, and gave you hearing and sight and minds, so that you might be thankful.
God created man and provided him with the tools for acquiring knowledge, namely hearing, sight and minds. Thus the Qur’ān reminds us that we should be grateful to God for these tools which give us the means to obtain knowledge.
How can those who know be equal to those who do not know? Only those who have understanding will take heed.
Here the Qur’ān highlights the noble status of the one who has knowledge; they are superior to those who lack knowledge, as one who is knowledgeable has greater understanding. This encourages Muslims to continually seek knowledge.
Then do they not look at the camels – how they are created? And at the sky – how it is raised? And at the mountains – how they are erected? And at the earth – how it is spread out?
The Qur’ān draws our attention to many natural phenomena by encouraging us to observe the world around us.
There truly are signs in the creation of the heavens and earth, and in the alternation of night and day, for those with understanding, who remember God standing, sitting, and lying down, who reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth… 
Moreover this observation of the world around us should not be aimless but rather we should ponder and reflect on what we see.
If you have doubts about the revelation We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a single chapter like it– enlist whatever witnesses you have other than God– if you truly [think you can]. 
The concept of putting ideas to the test is encouraged by the Qur’ān. So is the use of witnesses in order to validate conclusions. It must be noted that no other religious text challenges its reader in such ways. The use of falsification tests is unique to the Qur’ān.
Let us summarise these concepts that the Qur’ān puts forward with regards to knowledge: using our senses to observe the world around us, thinking and reflecting on what we observe, putting ideas to the test, and providing witnesses to validate our conclusions. If these concepts seem familiar to you it is because they resemble the modern scientific method. Modern students of science understand that everything must be proven. You cannot make claims about scientific theories based on assumption without experimentation. The scientific method is the process by which science is carried out. It involves observing a natural phenomenon, making a hypothesis based on the observations and verifying the hypothesis by carrying out experiments. If the hypothesis turns out to be correct then it becomes a theory (a proven hypothesis). If it is not correct then further observation will be performed, the original hypothesis will be updated and the whole process will repeat itself. For example, a fun anecdote we are taught in school is that an apple fell onto the head of the scientist Sir Isaac Newton when he was sitting under a tree. Based on this observation he then came up with the hypothesis that there must be some force or attraction that makes the apple fall to the ground. He tested his hypothesis and this is how he devised the law of gravity.
Now whether or not an apple really did fall onto Sir Isaac Newton’s head is not important. What matters is that it is the scientific method which allowed him to validate his ideas about how gravity works. Now you can appreciate why this experimental approach to science is perhaps one of the greatest ideas ever conceived of. It is the basis of all scientific progress and without it we would not have devised laws of physics such as gravity. It is theories such as this that have allowed mankind to create the automobile, computer and travel into space.
You may be wondering, who came up with such an important idea? Before Islām, the ancient Greek philosophies of science were predominant in Western civilisation. The Greeks believed that knowledge should be advanced through deduction, which means that you rely on reason alone without taking evidence into consideration. The development of a scientific process resembling the modern method was developed by the 10th century Muslim scholar Ibn al-Haytham. He is regarded as the father of the scientific method and was the first scientist in history to insist that everything be proven through induction, which uses observations and experimentation to challenge previously held theories. His process involved the following stages:
- Observation of the natural world.
- Stating a definite problem.
- Formulating a robust hypothesis.
- Test the hypothesis through experimentation.
- Analyse the results.
- Interpret the data and draw conclusions.
- Publish the findings.
Ibn al-Haytham first studied theology, the Qur’ān, and he stated that it was the Qur’ān that inspired him to study philosophy and science: “I decided to discover what it is that brings us closer to God, what pleases Him most, and what makes us submissive to His ineluctable Will.”
Using his revolutionary scientific method, Ibn al-Haytham made leaps and bounds in the field of optics. In his book, The Book of Optics, he was the first to disprove the ancient Greek idea that light comes out of the eye, bounces off objects, and comes back to the eye. He delved further into the way the eye itself works. Using dissections he was able to begin to explain how light enters the eye, is focused and is projected to the back of the eye.
The translation of The Book of Optics had a huge impact on Europe. From it, later European scholars were able to understand the way light works and devices such as eyeglasses, magnifying lenses, telescopes and cameras were developed. Without Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific method, we might still be living in a time when speculation, superstition, and unproven myths are the basis of science. It is not a stretch to say that without his ideas, the modern world of science that we know today would not exist.
The origins of European Enlightenment and Renaissance
In the thirteenth century the seeds of Muslim learning began to germinate in Europe. Thus Europe awoke from the Dark Ages and entered a new era of enlightenment known as the Renaissance. Translations of Arabic works on science were made for almost three centuries, starting from the tenth to the thirteenth century and gradually spread throughout Europe. Professor George Saliba penned a book on this very topic and stated that:
There is hardly a book on Islamic civilization, or on the general history of science, that does not at least pretend to recognize the importance of the Islamic scientific tradition and the role this tradition played in the development of human civilisation in general.
Professor Thomas Arnold was of the opinion that the European Renaissance originated in Islamic Spain:
Muslim Spain had written one of the brightest pages in the history of Medieval Europe. Her influence had passed through Provence into the other countries of Europe, bringing into birth a new poetry and a new culture, and it was from here that Christian scholars received what of Greek philosophy and science they had to stimulate their mental activity up to the time of the Renaissance.
The classical Greek works referenced in the above quote were lost to Europe during its Dark Ages. It was Muslim scholars who rescued these works by translating and preserving them in the Arabic language. They subsequently found their way back into Europe when they were translated from Arabic into Latin. Moreover Muslims did not just preserve them; they built upon them by studying the ancient Greek works in detail. They carried out experiments, wrote commentaries on them and corrected the theories where necessary in the form of their own independent works. A few such examples are Al-Biruni’s criticism and correction of Aristotle’s philosophy in a work called Questions and Answers; Al-Khwarizmi’s correction of Ptolemy’s geography in his work Face of the Earth; Ibn al-Haytham’s correction and refutation of Galen’s optics based upon practical experiments; Al-Khazini’s work on measures of weights and densities surpassed his Greek predecessors.
In fact Europe took far more from the Muslim world than this article can do justice. Among other things: windmills, soap, perfume, sugar, irrigation, spices, universities, street lights, the paper industry, mass literacy, freedom of thought, architecture, poetry, hygiene, libraries and ceramics. New Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…) in particular revolutionised the mathematics of Medieval Europe and consequently had a lasting effect on architecture. Cathedrals, castles, palaces, gardens and many more structures were built in medieval Europe by the help of Islamic Spain’s architectural techniques.
Finally, let us perform a thought experiment: if the Qur’ān had never been revealed, then what would be the likely state of the world today? Let us think this through step by step. From the Qur’ān emerged the justice of Islamic law; from that justice came peace and co-existence; with that peaceful co-existence came free intellectual activity in Muslim lands and from this freedom of literacy originated the knowledge that took Europe out of the Dark Ages and ushered in the Renaissance. Thus is it not reasonable to conclude that the modern world, with its advanced technology like the internet and mobile phones, is a direct consequence of the revelation of the Qur’ān?
This article has been taken from the book “The Eternal Challenge: A Journey Through The Miraculous Qur’an” which can be ordered and downloaded here.
Much of the source material for the book was based on research done by Adnan Rashid. His original essay, “Islam’s War on Terror”, can be accessed as a PDF here.
Notes: John Malalas’s Chronicle 18.47.  Victor Robinson, The Story of Medicine, New York, 1936, p. 164.  George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Washington, 1927-48, 3 volumes.  Al-Qur’ān, 96:1-5  Al-Qur’ān, 16:78  Al-Qur’ān, 39:9  Al-Qur’ān, 88:17-20  Al-Qur’ān, 3:190-191  Al-Qur’ān, 2:23  Steffens, B., Ibn al-Haytham: first scientist, 2007  George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Massachusetts, 2007, p. 1.  Arnold, Preaching, p. 131.  S. E. Al-Djazairi, The Hidden Debt to Islamic Civilisation, Oxford, 2005. Also, George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Massachusetts, 2007.
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.