Islam, Jan - Mar 2010

Science and Scholarship in Al-Andalus

The Message International
November-December 2005, pg 17

Maslamah al-Majriti wrote a number of works on mathematics and astronomy, studied and elaborated the Arabic translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest, and enlarged and corrected the astronomical tables of the famous al-Khwarizmi. He also compiled conversion tables in which the dates of the Persian calendar were related to Hijrah dates, so that for the first time the events of Persia’s past could be dated with precision.

Al-Zarqali, known to the West as Arzachel, combined theoretical knowledge with technical skill. He built a water clock capable of determining the hours of the day and night and indicating the days of the lunar months. He also contributed to the famous Toledan Tables, a highly accurate compilation of astronomical data. He also compiled valuable tables of latitude and longitude.

Al-Bitruji developed a new theory of stellar movement, based on Aristotle’s thinking, in his Book of Form, a work that was later popular in the West. The names of many stars are still those given them by Muslim astronomers, such as Altair (from al-tair, “the flier”), Deneb (from dhanab, “tail”), and Betelgeuse (from bayt al-jawza, “the house of the twins” or “Gemini”). Other terms still in use today such as zenith, nadir, and azimuth are also derived from Arabic and so reflect the work of the Muslim astronomers of al-Andalus.

Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi was the most famous surgeon of the Middle Ages. Known in the West as Abulcasis and Albucasis, he was the author of the Tasrif, a book that, translated into Latin, became the leading medical text European universities used during the Middle Ages. It has a section on surgical instruments of elegant, functional design and great precision.

Ibn Zuhr, known as Avenzoar, was the first to describe pericardial abscesses and to recommend tracheotomy when necessary.

*Islamic Spain also made contributions to medical ethics and hygiene as well.

Ibn Hazm insisted that moral qualities were mandatory in a physician. A doctor, he wrote, should be kind, understanding, friendly, and able to endure insults and adverse criticism. Furthermore, he went on, a doctor should keep his hair and fingernails short, wear clean clothes, and behave with dignity.

Ibn al-Baytar, the most famous Andalusian botanist, wrote a book called Simple Drugs and Food, an alphabetically arranged compendium of medicinal plants.

Ibn al-‘Awwam listed hundreds of species of plants and gives precise instructions regarding their cultivation and use. He wrote of how to graft trees, produce hybrids, stop blights and insect pests, and also, how to make perfumes.

In the study of geography, Ibn Battutah, made important contributions. Born in North Africa, then in the cultural orbit of Islamic Spain, Ibn Battutah travelled extensively for twenty-eight years and produced a travel book that proved to be a rich source for both historians and geographers.

Ibn Khaldun, the first historian to develop and explicate general laws governing the rise and decline of civilizations. He was the first to give rise to sociology and in a sense, he was the first modern philosopher of history.