For those that have recently been to some of the museums in London and Washington DC, there is an exhibition about the contributions to the sciences and culture from a variety of figures from the medieval period under Arab influence. Called 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in our World, the exhibit tries to showcase how in its history, Islam was not a religion of anti-intellectual barbarians that kept the Dark Ages blindingly dim, but instead it was a faith that helped the sciences prosper, from astronomy to chemistry to mathematics. It also means that, if true, there is nothing in Islam itself that would prevent Muslim nations from being scientific powerhouses. It would be a stark change from what we see today; Muslims make up about quarter of the world’s population, yet only a tiny fraction of research comes from Islamic countries. Even accounting for economic factors, there is a discrepancy that needs to be understood. (This is discussed in Tader Edis’ book An Illusion of Harmony as well as in Pervez Hoodboy’s Islam and Science.)
Now, the exhibit in question will not change the world, but it does present an interesting history. But in do that, it seems to have gotten significant criticism. This is because the claims made by the exhibit as well as it’s textual counterpart, makes hard to substantiate claims of the greatness of Muslim scientific innovation. For example, Taner Edis mentioned above, along with historian of science Sonja Brentjes, have a critical article in Skeptical Inquirer (Nov/Dec 2012, pp. 49-53), and a few folks on YouTube that have studied Islam in an academic fashion also have their own responses, especially notable being that of Klinschor (video channel here, blog here).
Also from YouTube, StopSpamming1 went through the history of the book, which is in its 3rd edition and now published by National Geographic (link to the 2nd edition).
Now, don’t just takes these people’s word for it. For example, I don’t think the authors of the book and exhibit are saying that, for example, fine dining was invented by Muslims (though the title of the book and exhibit give that impression), so the attack on that is a bit of a scuffle with a straw man. Also, the criticism about flight by a medieval Muslim by Edis and Brentjes has itself received competent criticism by Jason Colavito (see here and some back-and-forth between Brentjes and Colavito here). So, I’m going to have my own take on this, particularly with the book since that should be expected to be the most scholarly. After all, I don’t expect an exhibit to have footnotes.
But before getting into the book, there is really a misnomer in the entire premise. All the innovations mentioned are called “Muslim” or “Islamic”, but that is rather odd. For one thing, there is very little cited to show that it was the religion of these inventors/discoverers that made their work possible. Moreover, a fair number of the people in question were not Muslim, nor were many of the scientists working under the various caliphates. It would be much more accurate to not talk about an Islamic Golden Age of science, but of an Arab Golden Age. The language was Arabic, used by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans, which binds together all this work. Similarly, we talk of Greco-Roman science from antiquity because of the common use of Latin or Greek (mostly Greek), even if the people were pagans, Christians, Jews, or non-believers. Also, no one argues that it was belief in Zeus that made the research of Hipparchus possible or the cult of Isis that ensured Galen would work in medicine. And under the caliphates, especially in Persian areas, there was a considerable amount of religious diversity, and here most of the interesting science would be done; similarly in Spain which had a large Jewish population. So making all the innovations done during a time when Islam was dominant rather confuses the issue.
But another thing that should be done before getting to the facts of the matter is to run a comparison. We may not expect medieval Arab scientists to innovate at a rate we see today or after the scientific revolution in Europe since there isn’t the huge push for it among educators and governments, but we could compare it to cultures concurrent or earlier. If, for example, the Romans were innovating greater works on a faster time scale, that will make Arab (or Muslim) inventiveness seem less impressive. So, here I will compare a particular aspect, I will look primarily at the astronomical parts of the book about the 1001 Muslim inventions, in part because I have studied this in its ancient Greco-Roman forms. I will also look at comparable time frames. The 1001 Inventions book and exhibit have a time period from 800 to 1600, though earlier versions of the book put that period back to the death of Muhammad (632 CE). 800 years is a pretty long time, but the period of greatest innovation and before the rebirth of scientific research in Western Europe should be about 1300. So I will look at the 500 year time span (800 to 1300) and compare it to 500 years in ancient Greece and Rome (300 BCE to 200 CE). For Greco-Roman science, this is basically the period from the death of Aristotle (322 BCE) to zenith of Rome (with the Empire going to Hell in a hand basket in the 3rd century, though in some ways the trouble began with the death of Marcus Aurelius and making his son the next emperor instead of the most competent man as earlier emperors had done (basically, what you see in the movie Gladiator)). I’ll also look a bit at China, but not as much other than to belie a few points made by the authors of the book on the 1001 inventions.
First off, the book has a really bad way of making its case. In its section about lunar formations, it does not talk about Arab discussion about the moon and its features, but instead about the various features on the moon named after Arab scientists by Europeans that discovered those formations. The Muslim invention here is actually European! Almost as bad is the section on constellations; many star names are Arabic, therefore… Islam is the one true religion? Naming objects already known by the Greeks (such as in Ptolemy’s work from the 2nd century) and those names later becoming official is hardly an innovation. Also, some of the names used today for the stars are not Arabic (such as Regulus), and most constellations hold their pagan names (Perseus, Hercules, Ursa Major, etc.) One thing noted that is true is that the first observation of the Andromeda Galaxy was done in the 10th century by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, so we can give the Arab astronomers that credit; however, Andromeda would not be noted by Europeans until the the invention of the telescope, so that heritage did not translate into modern advances but can only be a footnote. If a discovery is forgotten and nothing worked on it, it is hardly a great advance.
However, nothing in the above is factually wrong, so the interpretation of the evidence is another point. But some things are clearly wrong. This is noticeable when discussing the armillary sphere. This is an astronomical device that models the heavens while also being useful as a measuring instrument of the sky. Here is what 1001 Inventions says (p. 286):
The construction and use of the armillary sphere started in the eighth century when they were first written about in Baghdad in the treatise of The Instrument with the Rings by Al-Fazari.
This sentence is very much wrong. The invention of the armillary sphere goes back centuries. Hipparchus of Rhodes, a 2nd century BCE astronomer had such tools and credited it to Eratosthenes. And Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (2nd century CE) wrote about how to build them in his book on astronomy, the Syntaxis mathematica. For these researchers, the sphere was useful as a teaching tool as well as an observational instrument. The spheres made by Arab scientists later were not necessarily the same as those of their Roman and Greek counterparts in antiquity, but they certainly didn’t invent them either.
This also leads us to another supposed Arab/Muslim invention, the astrolabe. This instrument is not only good for observations, but it was also a sort of calculator; its principles are on par with those for a slide rule, though geared for astronomical and chronological needs rather than general mathematical calculations Here the 1001 Inventions does note that astronomers from the 4th century and later, in particular Theon of Alexandria, wrote about the astrolabe, so it cannot be claimed to be a Muslim/Arab creation. But the book (p. 280) isn’t coming clean on all we know. For example, the word “astrolabe” is itself derived from Greek, but it treats that as a speculation; well, considering the Greek word for ‘star’ is aster (αστηρ), but the Arabic word is kawkab (similar in Hebrew and Aramaic), and you can see who borrowed terms from whom (also compare the Arabic word najma). Moreover, the astrolabe was definitely in use well before the 4th century CE. Hipparchus is thought to have used one, and Ptolemy is also considered to have used an astrolabe; in particular in his book on astrology, the Tetrabiblos (3.2), he talks about the best observations being done with an astrolabe. So we have the early use of such a tool. However, the medieval Arab version of the astrolabe was improved without a doubt, and it is those versions of the astrolabe with stereographic projection that make up what we think of as the astrolabe. Still, one must give the credit for the invention to the Greeks, not the Arabs/Muslims.
The astrolabe also leads us to a particular figure, the astronomer and astrologer Masha’allah, known in the West under his Latinized name Messahala. He is mentioned multiple times and was quite influential. He wrote a major treatise on the astrolabe and he also compiled much on astrology that had been developed in Persia before the rise of Islam. But 1001 Inventions gets so much about Masha’allah wrong (pp. 280, 292). First, he was Persian and not Egyptian, he was active before 809 (he helped in the founding of Baghdad in 762) leaving me to guess that year was chosen because it was the year of the last extant horoscope he casted which we have (preserved by Ibn Hibinta). But what is egregious is that the book states Masha’allah was a convert to Islam. I cannot find any evidence for this, and all sources state that he was Jewish. And even if he converted, that can well be for political rather than theological issues. Nonetheless, he was brought up Jewish and that had more influence on him that Islam even assuming he converted, of which I find nothing in support. Considering how many other facts about him the book gets wrong, perhaps they have confused him with another Jewish astronomer such as Sanad ibn ‘Ali who did convert to get into the good graces of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun who started the inquisition institute, the mihna. So the while Masha’allah was a respected astronomer in his time and his works were influential across time and continents, he was not a Muslim or so influenced in his scientific works by Islam. This is just bad history on the part of the authors of 1001 Inventions.
If instead we follow the work of Masha’allah, we can see what did allow a flourishing of scientific progress in the Arab world. The astrological works of Masha’allah are preserved by others, and our best representative of this is from Ibn Hibinta, a 9th century Christian astrologer from Baghdad. Ibn Hibinta reproduced much of Masha’allah’s work on the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions, which were from Zoroastrian astrology developed in Sassinid Persia before the rise of Islam (see Kennedy and Pingree, The Astrological History of Masha’allah). This work would then be incorporated into other works by authors such as Abu Ma’shar who was Muslim. So you see here: Zoroastrian thoughts, reworked by a Jew, preserved by a Christian, and incorporated by a Muslim. There is no one religion behind this, but there is a great spreading of ideas. We see openness, especially in Persian territories that had the greatest level of heterogeneity. The only uniting force is political (who is funding the research) and the language for communication (Arabic). It isn’t about Islam being the totalizing force; heck it is because of the diversity that allowed the sciences to thrive.
Continuing, we find another bad claim about who did what. According to 1001 Inventions (p. 291), it was Al-Kindi who “was the first to develop spherical geometry” which was needed to predict the first crescent of the Moon, something important in the Islamic calendar. That claim is famously wrong, and so is the idea that there wasn’t a way to predict first lunar crescent until his time. For one, we know that Menelaus’ theorem was known by the 1st century CE, and Ptolemy used this theorem in his own work on spherical geometry. Moreover, Jews already had to make calculations for first lunar crescent for the same reasons as Muslims, and so would Christians that wanted to know when to celebrate Easter (the lunar aspect is why Easter isn’t always the same day). Babylonian astronomers already had methods of determining the phases of the Moon (their calendar was lunar-dependent), and Greek models were improved. In fact, the Greeks figured out that the Moon doesn’t go around the Earth in a circular orbit, which accounts for why sometimes the Moon is larger or smaller than the apparent size of the Sun during eclipses (the difference between a total and annular eclipse). With the Metonic (and Saros) cylce determined, it was possible to get the length of the synodic month. Also, calendar reforms under Julius Caesar incorporated leap year for a more accurate calendar. All this well before Al-Kindi. So again, we see rather poor research on the part of the authors, crediting Muslims for things discovered centuries earlier by pagans.
So, let’s do some comparison between what has been offered for advances in the astronomical sciences during the Arab Golden Age and the Greco-Roman period of scientific advancement. First we can point to the development of the best model for the solar system until Copernicus. Though geocentric, the model first incorperating epicycles and other features was codified by Ptolemy and was highly predictive of the planets. Using the epicycles developed by Apollonius of Perga in the third century BCE, it could explain the apparent stopping and retrograde motion of the planets, and it had much greater accuracy over the earlier model created by Eudoxus, a student of Plato. With the addition of the deferent and equant, Ptolemy’s model could predict the position of Mars decades in advance with great accuracy. Moreover, the model was simulated by astronomical computers such as the Antikythera mechanism. That’s right, the Greeks made mechanical computers which could estimate astronomical body positions, phases of the moon, eclipses, as well as convert different calendars, all applying the sorts of gearing that was the model for the solar system. The Arab scientists had astrolabes, but there was nothing of the sophistication of the Antikythera device until centuries later.
It’s also hard to talk about solar system models without talking about the heliocentric model first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos (3rd century BCE). From what we can tell, it was seriously considered by Greek astronomers, and Ptolemy argues against it in his astronomical treatise. From what we can tell, the model had no significant discussion among the Arab world astronomers. However, Arab scientists did try to critique Ptolemy’s model, largely because in that solar system the Earth is not the true center. This seemed in contradiction to Aristotelian ideas of physics, and various mathematical tools were created to try to explain the observations of the planets while still having the Earth in place. Nonetheless, it was only outside the Arab/Muslim world that the heliocentric model was first proposed and then argued favorably by astronomers (starting again with Copernicus). (There was also the idea of dynamic geocentricism where the Earth rotates to explain some of the motion, but all else revolves around it, and this was discussed by both Greek and Arab scientists.)
With more astronomical research came some of the astounding discoveries by Hipparchus. He was the first to observe a supernova in the Ancient Near East (Chinese records also note ‘guests stars’), and he used this to disprove Aristotle’s belief that outer space was unchanging. Because of the change in the sky, Hipparchus then worked on making the first complete catalog of the stars. And in that process using Babylonian records, he discovered the precession of the equinoxes, the wobbling of the Earth itself on a ~26,000 year cycle. We learn all this from the records of Ptolemy and Pliny the Elder. So while Arab scientists in the Middle Ages did have good catalogs of the stars, Hipparchus is the father of the complete listing, which Ptolemy updated because of precession.
We also had advances in figuring out other transients such as comets. Aristotle, for example, believed that comets were atmospheric phenomena, but Seneca the Younger (1st century CE) pointed out how the tails of comets did not follow the winds, so he argued that they were heavenly bodies. The historical record indicates that Seneca did not overturn Aristotle, but his reasoning is scientific and now we know it is far more correct than what Aristotle thought.
Returning to Aristarchus, he was the first that we know of to make measurements of the size of the solar system. He calculated the size of the Sun and Moon and their distance away from the Earth, all calculated in Earth radii. His observations were flawed as they were hard to make, but his mathematical approach was a great effort to first figure out the size of things. At around the same time, Eratoshenes determined the size of the Earth within about 15% accuracy (there is uncertainty in the unit he used, so some claim he had accuracy down to 2%, but this is hard to know). This was a first, and later Arab scientists would improve on the measurement using better methods, However, it was a Greek that first did it, and with Aristarchus’ work there was the first estimates of the size of the solar system.
At this point you can begin to see how much Greek and Roman scientists advanced the field of astronomy in ~500 years, while in the Arab world there were improvements but nothing in magnitude in accomplishment nor in speed in making those accomplishments. To be fair, there were very useful improvements to the astronomical sciences by Arab and Muslim astronomers, especially in the observatories of the Middle Ages, and the critical work on Ptolemy’s model may have been of help to Copernicus (though this connection is not certain). The tables of planetary positions used improved mathematical techniques, and this was useful to Western Europeans later on in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. And very importantly, it was Arab scientists and scholars that preserved the knowledge gained by the Greeks and Romans that helped keep the sciences moving forward when this knowledge was lost to Western Europe until its rediscovery in the Crusader period. But those accomplishments are simply not as great as those from earlier times, and the accomplishments have little to do with Islam being the dominant religion of the time and region.
In fact, there is only one thing 1001 Inventions points to that has anything to connect astronomy and Islam. The Qu’ran talks about natural phenomena in the sky, therefore… science? The verses cited are not any advance in knowledge, and they aren’t even more informative than what is said in the Old Testament. Heck, one of the verses cited shows how unscientific the Qu’ran is. Sura 55:33 speaks of zones and Jinns, magical beings. In Sura 15:8, we are told that Allah sends meteors after these Jinn who try to go up too high to listen in on the angels in heaven (cf. Bukhari 7.657). The Qu’ran has a mystical cosmology which also seems to have in mind the sky dome of Babylonian and Hebrew cosmogony, a model that was known to be false centuries before the time of Muhammad. So not only is there no invention here, there are things that are more likely to be anti-science or superstitious.
As such, the book 1001 Inventions deserves to be criticized. In the astronomy section alone it is factually wrong in many places, and it fails to show that the Arab world was advancing in science at a significant pace compared to the Greek and Roman scientists of yesteryear. Would it be fair to call the book and exhibit propaganda? Well, propaganda is defined as a use of communication giving a slanted view of things to some end, and that certainly seems to be the case here. Using bad information and less informative context, indeed the exhibit and book should not be getting scholastic praise. Some reviews have pointed out some issues with the scholarship, but there had not been too many debunkings of this exhibit. If you do go to this exhibit, remember this. There is much to appreciate from the medieval Arab world, but credit for science is definitely overblown, and the importance of Islam in this appears to be a bait-and-switch (Arab == Muslim) even when the facts are not an issue.
If you want to accurately learn about Arab contributions to science and modern society, you had best look someplace else.