Luminaries from Al-Andalus
Verily, I have spoken of several brilliant minds of Al-Andalus in the previous articles, but the excellence and brilliance of the Andalusians that originated from this land cannot be contained within mere mentions. For that matter, let us delve deeper into the rich history of some of the most remarkable Andalusian innovations, for the glory and legacy of its intellectual heritage deserve to be remembered and celebrated.
The land of Andalusia was mostly renowned for its scientific achievements in the fields of botany and agriculture, astronomy, and medicine (among many other fields such as theology, sociology, and so on). Since I wrote about the innovations of medicine in the previous two articles, let’s move on to the realms of agriculture and other non-medicinal matters.
Among the foremost experts in botany and agriculture during the 10th century were Abu ‘Ubaid al-Bakri and ibn Hajjaj. The 11th century was marked by the contributions of al-Ghafiqi and ibn al-Awwam, and the 12th century saw the works of Abu’l-‘Abbas al-Nabati and Abu Marwan ibn Zuhr. Yet, between these illustrious figures lay dozens of other agriculturalists that spread the knowledge and wisdom of their respective fields.
The 13th century saw the outstanding contributions of ibn al-Baytar, who is considered among the greatest botanists of the Middle Ages, and whose works on botany and agriculture remain unmatched in their depth and accuracy. Since ibn al-Baytar’s works were highly relevant to the realm of pharmacology, I took the liberty to write his account in the previous article alongside other notable pharmacologists from the Muslim world. To honor this great man, I shall start this section by sharing a summary of his most-renowned book.
In ibn al-Baytar’s al-Mughni fi al-Tibb, the great Muslim physician delves into the benefits of simple drugs for various ailments affecting the head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, throat, chest, stomach, liver, spleen, intestines, rectum, kidneys, and bladder. He cites information from various sources, including al-Zahrawy, al-Razi, ibn Sina, Maimonides, and many others. Ibn al-Baytar also gives a great deal of attention to the role of nutrition in the healing process, as well as the drugs that may cause or heal their afflictions. In each chapter, he focuses on a specific area of the body and provides a thorough analysis of the symptoms and treatments of the related ailments.
For example, in chapter ten, ibn al-Baytar mentions the use of the al-͗Ibzin (bathtub) as a method for healing kidney stones, which is a tradition from Iranian medical practices that later became popular in Ottoman civilization. Another notable aspect of the book is the focus on simple drugs, which are more accessible and affordable for many people than more complex remedies.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the book is written in an engaging and enlightening style, capturing the tone and style of an early Muslim historian. Throughout this treatise, ibn al-Bayṭār demonstrates his vast knowledge and expertise in the field of medicine and provides valuable insights for practitioners and scholars alike. This book will surely be of great interest to anyone interested in the history of medicine and early Muslim civilization.
The Kitab al-Falahah (Book of Agriculture) by ibn al-Awwam is considered the most important work on the subject during the Middle Ages. Its 34 chapters dealt with the intricacies of agriculture and animal husbandry, and the book treated no fewer than 580 plants and discussed 50 fruit trees for cultivation. Its treatment of plant diseases and remedies, as well as its pioneering attempt to establish a new soil science, set it apart from other works in the field.
Al-Ghafiqi was a renowned collector of plants in both Iberia and Africa, and his works on drugs and plants stand out as the most accurate in the history of Islam. Al-Ghafiqi was the greatest expert of his time on simples (mufradat), and his descriptions of plants were the most precise ever made in Islam. He named each plant in Arabic, Latin, and Berber, making his works a treasure trove of knowledge for generations to come.
Verily, the land of Andalusia was blessed with a rich tradition of botanical knowledge, a legacy cultivated by the wise and learned minds of its inhabitants. For the people of Al-Andalus, the study of botany was not just an academic pursuit, but a means to enhance the practical applications of their knowledge. They sought to understand the mysteries of the plant kingdom and apply this knowledge to the fields of agriculture and medicine.
The irrigation systems introduced by the Arabs transformed Andalusian agriculture into a marvel during their times (and after as well), as fields and gardens were blessed with a steady supply of water. This innovation, combined with the advanced practice of horticulture and agriculture, led to the creation of the “Spanish garden”, a unique form of the Persian garden that survives to this day.
Next, we have ibn Razīn al-Tujibi, a 13th-century Muslim-Andalusían scholar who left a lasting legacy in the culinary arts. He was the author of one of the only two cookbooks to have survived from the era, Fiḍālat al-Khiwān fī Ṭayyibāt al-Ṭaʿām wal-Alwān, a collection of delectable recipes and culinary delights from the Andalusian and Maghribi regions. Composed in Tunis around 1260 CE, this cookbook serves as a testament to the gastronomic prowess of the Andalusian people and continues to be a source of inspiration for cooks and food lovers alike.
Verily, the scholarly legacy of the esteemed physician and mathematician, Abu Abd Allah Mohammed ibn Abdun al-Jabali al-Adadi, who lived in the glorious era of Al-Andalus, ought to be remembered as well. His invaluable contribution to the field of mathematics is embodied in his seminal work, the Risala fi al-Taksir (Treatise on Measurements), which stands as the oldest existing mathematical text from the Andalusian lands, to this day.
It is known that in the years following 958 CE, the esteemed physician embarked on a journey to the centers of learning in the lands of Arabia and Egypt, where he had the opportunity to hone his knowledge and expand his understanding. He spent time in the great city of Basra, before making his way to the bustling metropolis of al-Fustat in Egypt. There, he was appointed as the head of the renowned hospital, a testament to his expertise and skill.
Al-Jabali was influenced by the ideas of the celebrated scholar, Abu Sulayman Sijistani, and it is said that he even had the privilege of meeting him in person during his stay in Basra. After honing his knowledge and expertise, the physician returned to Cordoba in 971 CE, where he was appointed to serve the revered Caliph al-Mustansir, and later his son Hisham II al-Mu’ayad. He was also the revered teacher of the renowned physician, ibn al-Kattani.
Let’s also not forget the illustrious Abū’l-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Qurashī al-Qalaṣādī, who also hailed from the magnificent Al-Andalus; he shone as a brilliant star in the realm of mathematics, particularly in the domain of Islamic inheritance jurisprudence. This learned scholar was held in high esteem by his peers and posterity and was credited by modern scholars as a pioneer in the introduction of algebraic symbolism. He wrote numerous treatises on arithmetic and algebra, the most notable of which was the esteemed work al-Tabsira fi ‘lm al-Hisab (Clarification of the science of arithmetic).
In the annals of Islamic history, Abū ‘Umar Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ḥajjāj al-Ishbīlī is remembered as a distinguished figure of Andalusia, born into one of the ancient and noble families of Seville. He was widely revered in his time as a wazīr (minister of state), as well as a renowned khāṭib (renowned for his oratory skills and delivery of sermons during Friday prayers). Additionally, his proficiency in the arts of letters earned him the title of adīb (man of letters). However, what is not commonly known about this illustrious figure is his contributions to the field of agriculture, for which he penned the seminal work, al-Muqni‘ fīl-Filāḥa (Sufficiency in Farming) in the year 466 A.H. / 1073 CE.
Ibn Ḥajjāj lived in an era of remarkable intellectual ferment, surrounded by fellow botanist-agronomists such as ibn Baṣṣāl, ibn al-Lūnquh, Abū’l-Khayr, and Al-Ṭighnarī, who undoubtedly must have known him and formed part of the same intellectual circles in Seville. Unfortunately, not much is known about his personal life and beliefs, yet his treatise on agriculture continues to be remembered as a milestone in Islamic intellectual history.
Ibn Hajjaj’s book, al-Muqni‘, despite being one of the primary sources consulted by the later agronomist ibn al-‘Awwām, is not known to have survived in its entirety. However, several extracts from the original text, nearly identical in content, have been discovered, providing insights into the cultivation of olive trees, vines, figs, and other garden and aromatic plants. These extracts have made it possible to verify the accuracy of the work and reconstruct much of its content.
What is particularly noteworthy about the treatise is its lack of direct citations from contemporary Andalusi agronomists, despite the author being well-acquainted with their works. Instead, ibn Ḥajjāj drew extensively from classical agronomical texts, referencing a total of 23 authors, with a special emphasis on the works of Democritus. This approach earned him great admiration from ibn al-‘Awwām, who wrote in the introduction to his own work:
“When I come to discuss the cultivation of lands, I always give precedence to the principles established by the shaykh al-khatib Abū ‘Umar ibn Ḥajjāj in his book, which has as its subject the theories of the ancients”.
Aside from his erudition, ibn Ḥajjāj was known to possess a wealth of practical knowledge in the field of agriculture, and not only from the knowledge he obtained from other agricultural authors. For example, we know from the accounts of ibn al-‘Awwām that he conducted experiments in olive propagation in the Aljarafe district outside Seville, demonstrating his mastery of both theoretical and practical aspects of agronomy.
Then there is the Andalusian intellectual, mathematician, and poetess, Lubna al-Qurtubiyya, commonly referred to as Lubna of Cordoba, who was a shining gem of the 10th century. Born into slavery and raised within the Madīnat al-Zahrā palace, she rose to prominence as a member of Caliph al-Hakam II’s team of copyists. Together with Hasdai ibn Kaprut, she played a crucial role in the establishment of the renowned library of Medina Azahara, which housed a staggering 400,000 books.
Her contemporaries extolled her for her intelligence, her mastery of grammar and poetry, and her erudition in arithmetic and other sciences. They praised her for her incomparable knowledge of mathematics and the exact sciences, and for her ability to solve even the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems of her time. In truth, there was none in the palace as noble as she, and her legacy continues to inspire generations of scholars and intellectuals.
Verily, the name of ibn Khalaf al-Muradi, whose first name may have been Ahmad or Muhammad, deserves to be remembered and celebrated amongst the learned men of Andalusia. While the engineering prowess of the Bani Musa brothers and al-Jazari has earned them much renown, al-Muradi remains a hidden gem, deserving of further exploration, although to a certain extent, of course.
Nevertheless, it is recorded that al-Muradi was the first to conceive and construct the geared clock, a wondrous water clock that employed a complex mechanism of gears, including both segmental and epicyclic gear trains, capable of transmitting high torque with remarkable efficiency. He was also the author of the illustrious technological manuscript entitled Kitāb al-Asrār fī Natāij al-Afkār, a tome that was much sought after and widely used in the court of Alfonso VI of León and Castile in the 11th century.
The contents of this manuscript reveal the vast knowledge and ingenuity of al-Muradi, as he provided instructions and diagrams describing 31 marvels of engineering, including 15 clocks, 5 grand mechanical toys, 4 war machines, 2 machines for drawing water from wells, and a portable sundial. Among these, attention is especially drawn to three clocks, namely the solar rays clock, the double barrel 24-hour clock, and many other ingenious devices.
It is also recorded that al-Muradi was among the first to make use of mercury in his hydraulic linkages, thereby solving the problem posed by the varying behavior of water in response to changes in room temperature. This was made possible by the abundance of mercury from the cinnabar mines of Almadén, which had been producing this precious metal since Roman times and provided regional scientists with ample opportunities for experimentation and innovation.
It is believed that al-Muradi may have dwelled in Toledo, under the patronage of Yahya al-Mamun of Banu Dhil-Nun, a Berber dynasty that ruled Toledo during the 11th century and was renowned for its support of technological marvels. He should not be confused with Ali ibn Khalaf al-Saydalani, the Andalusian mathematician and astronomer who was a contemporary of the famous astronomer and instrument maker al-Zarqali and a member of the scientific circle of Saʿid Al-Andalusi.
In the land of Al-Andalus, there also lived another man of great learning and wisdom, Abu al-Qasim Maslama ibn Ahmad al-Majriti, also known as Methilem. During the reign of al-Hakam II, this illustrious Arab Muslim astronomer, chemist, mathematician, economist, and scholar shone as a beacon of knowledge and enlightenment.
Al-Majriti was not content to simply bask in the light of his own knowledge, but instead sought to bring the wisdom of the ancients to his own people. He played a key role in translating Ptolemy’s Planisphaerium and improving existing translations of the Almagest. He also improved upon the astronomical tables of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi and made it possible for historians to convert Persian dates to the Hijri years with ease.
Such was his knowledge and mastery of the sciences of mathematics and astronomy that Said Al-Andalusi proclaimed him to be the greatest of his time in Al-Andalus. He worked closely with his colleague ibn al-Saffar to introduce new methods of surveying and triangulation, and he wrote a treatise on the economy of Al-Andalus. He even had a hand in editing and improving the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity when it arrived in his land.
Al-Majriti was a visionary, for he predicted the future of scientific exchange and the creation of networks for the sharing of knowledge. He founded a school of Astronomy and Mathematics, marking the beginning of organized scientific research in Al-Andalus. Some of his most illustrious students were ibn al-Saffar, Abu al-Salt, and al-Turtushi.
It was not only men that shone in the realm of the stars in Al-Andalus, for there was also Fatima al-Majritiya, daughter of the aforementioned Abu al-Qasim Maslama. Also known as Fatima of Madrid, she was a renowned female Muslim astronomer and astrolabes manufacturer. Though she is said to have been a mathematician as well, it was in the field of astronomy that she truly excelled. She worked, wrote, and contributed to the astronomical knowledge of her time, including the famous astronomical tables of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.
Her Corrections from Fátima, a series of astronomical and mathematical treatises, have been lost to the ages, but her name lives on in the annals of history. It is also said that she co-authored A Treatise on the Astrolabe with her father, which remains a valuable resource for those who seek to understand the intricacies of the astrolabe.
Fátima was not content with simply mastering the knowledge of her time, but sought to expand her understanding by learning to speak, read, or write in Arabic, Spanish, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. She wrote several zījes, or Islamic astronomical treatises, covering a wide range of topics including calendars, ephemerides of the planets, the sun and the moon, and the intricacies of solar and lunar eclipses.
Thus we see that in the land of Al-Andalus, knowledge and enlightenment flourished and that both men and women played a crucial role in advancing the sciences and preserving the wisdom of the ages.
In the glorious days of Al-Andalus, yet another brilliant astronomer emerged whose name shall forever be remembered in the annals of history: al-Zarqali, aka Azarquiel. This inventor of renown was celebrated for his creation of the sahifah, a wondrous device of celestial navigation, which was made famous throughout the Western world with the publication of its detailed descriptions in Latin, Hebrew, and other tongues of Europe.
As an observer of the heavens, al-Zarqali’s greatest legacy was his revision of the Toledan Zij (The Toledo Tables), a set of astronomical tables based on observations conducted in Toledo, which was the product of collaboration with his fellow Muslim and Jewish scientists. This remarkable work of art garnered widespread attention from astronomers in both the Muslim and Latin worlds and was relied upon for generations.
Indeed, even Nicolaus Copernicus, in his seminal work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Clestium, acknowledged al-Zarqali’s invaluable contributions to the field of astronomy. Al-Zarqali was not only a meticulous observer, but a brilliant theoretician as well, having written a proof of the motion of the sun’s apogee relative to the fixed stars, calculating its rate of motion to be 12.04 seconds per year, a figure remarkably close to modern calculations of 11.8 seconds.
In the 12th century, Andalusia also saw a critical shift in its astronomical thinking, with growing dissatisfaction with the Ptolemaic planetary system, voiced by prominent figures such as Jabir ibn Aflah, ibn Bajjah, and ibn Tufail. These philosophers, driven by their love of Aristotelian cosmology, offered critiques of Ptolemaic astronomy, leading to new theories such as ibn Bajjah’s system of eccentric circles and ibn Tufail’s theory of spiral motion. Though these new theories did not find practical applications, the Andalusian critiques of Ptolemaic astronomy left a lasting impact on the minds of Renaissance astronomers, forever shaping the course of celestial history.
Oh, one could not get enough of the delightful tales of our celebrated polymath, Ziryab, whose voice could soar to the heavens like the blackbird for which he was named! This virtuoso, who hailed from Baghdad and found his home in Cordoba, was well-learned in multiple fields, including music, poetry, cuisine, fashion, and cosmetology. He established one of the earliest schools of music in Cordoba, in which he was renowned for his prowess on the Oud, a musical instrument he augmented by adding an additional string.
His contributions to the world of aesthetics, gastronomy, and fashion were nothing short of revolutionary. Ziryab was an early advocate of grooming and hygiene, promoting the use of deodorants, shampoos, and hair preparations made from rose water and herbal salts. He even decried those who failed to take daily baths or attend to their appearance (I wonder what he had done if he paid a visit to backward Europe!). Ziryab is also credited with the introduction of the concept of a three-course meal, to be enjoyed at a well-laid table, accompanied by fine beverages served in crystal glasses.
Moving on, it is also with great pride that we recall the remarkable innovations of Abbas ibn Firnas, who truly deserved the title of “inventor”. His creativity was boundless, and he was always at work inventing new instruments, designing a planetarium, cutting rock crystals, and setting astronomical tables, all while crafting beautiful poetry. In 875 CE, he made history as he built himself a glider and flew from a tower, predating Leonardo Da Vinci by six hundred years. Though his landing was less graceful, his flight was a triumph, and he is remembered as an early pioneer of human flight. Sadly, he passed twelve years later, possibly due to the injuries sustained from his historic flight. Yet, his legacy lived on, inspiring generations to come with his boundless curiosity and innovative spirit.
In the second half of the eleventh century, the Banū Murra, a noble family of alquería (aka al-qarya, or rural community on the outskirts of cities/medinas) of Ṭighnar, North of Granada, gave birth to a son named Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Mālik al-Murrī, better known as Al-Ḥājj al-Gharnāṭī or Al-Ṭighnarī.
Al-Ṭighnarī was not just a simple man but a scholar and a poet of great renown, possessing a vast knowledge of agriculture which he meticulously recorded in his remarkable treatise entitled Kitāb Zuhrat al-Bustān wa-Nuzhat al-Adhhān. This work is a testament to his skills as an agronomist, as it was written with a blend of scientific knowledge and literary elegance.
Al-Ṭighnarī began his career in the court of the Zirid prince ‘Abd Allāh ibn Bulughghīn, but his thirst for knowledge and a desire to advance his studies in agriculture led him to leave Granada and venture to the taifa kingdom of Almería, where he conducted various experiments in the royal gardens of the Al-Ṣumādiḥīya palace. He then embarked on a pilgrimage to Makkah, traveling through various parts of North Africa and the East, before returning to Al-Andalus.
Upon his return, al-Ṭighnarī divided his time between Granada and Seville, becoming part of the circle of agronomists and botanists under the guidance of ibn Baṣṣāl. Although the exact date of composition of his Zuhrat is unknown, it is deduced from the dedication he wrote in the book to the Almoravid governor of Granada, Abū ’l-Ṭāhir Tamīm ibn Yūsuf ibn Tāshfīn, who held office from 1107-10 CE and again from 1121-26, that it was written in the first decade of the twelfth century. Sadly, the date of Al-Ṭighnarī’s death remains a mystery, but his legacy lives on through his scholarly work, a true gem of Islamic agriculture and literature.
In the annals of Andalusian agronomy, the treatise Zuhrat al-Bustān wa-Nuzhat al-Adhhān by Al-Ṭighnarī stands as a beacon of knowledge and practical wisdom. Though only a portion of the original work remains, its significance cannot be overstated.
The Zuhrat, which was penned in the early decades of the 12th century, demonstrates the vast expanse of Al-Ṭighnarī’s understanding not just of agronomy, but also of linguistics, botany, and medicine. It is an embodiment of his scientific inquiry, drawing on a wealth of sources including the works of classical authors like Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, and Dioscorides, as well as renowned Andalusian agronomists like ibn Baṣṣāl and ibn Wāfid. Al-Ṭighnarī’s own observations and practical experience, gleaned from his time spent at the royal gardens of Almería and from alternating his residency between Granada and Seville, are integral to the treatise.
The Zuhrat’s form and content follow in the footsteps of its predecessors, but it also contains valuable linguistic, toponymic, and botanical information. It features an astronomical and meteorological calendar and, in the profiles of individual plants and trees, a section on their therapeutic and dietary properties. This information is checked, analyzed, and compared with the works of other authors, and then put to the test through Al-Ṭighnarī’s own experiments and observations.
Al-Ṭighnarī’s treatise is of particular interest as it sheds light on the unique agricultural and horticultural practices of Granada, differentiating it from other regions of Al-Andalus like Toledo and Seville. Its practical nature, combined with its scholarly rigor, make it an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to deepen their knowledge of Andalusian agronomy. It is no wonder, then, that Al-Ṭighnarī was frequently cited by other Andalusian agronomists, including ibn al-‘Awwām and ibn Luyūn, who referred to him as The Pilgrim (Hajj) of Granada. The Zuhrat will continue to inspire and inform future generations of students of agronomy and the sciences.
Furthermore, it is my great pleasure to recount the accomplishments of the esteemed astronomer, Abu al-Qasim Ahmad ibn al-Saffar, of Andalusia. This learned individual was a scholar at the renowned institution of learning established by his colleague, al-Majriti, in the flourishing city of Córdoba. His most notable contribution to the field of astronomy was his treatise on the astrolabe, a text that was widely used until the fifteenth century and had a profound impact on the works of the legendary astronomer, Kepler. Additionally, he wrote a commentary on the Zij al-Sindhind and accurately determined the coordinates of the holy city of Mecca.
Ibn as-Saffar’s influence was felt far and wide, as his works continued to inspire and shape the works of later astronomers, such as Abu al-Salt. The exoplanet, Saffar, also known as Upsilon Andromedae b, has been named in his honor, as well as the Saffar Island in Antarctica.
Then there was Saʿid Al-Andalusī, an erudite qadi of Toledo in Al-Andalus, who dedicated his life to chronicling the history of science, philosophy, and thought. His expertise in mathematics and science, particularly astronomy, led him to create a renowned biographic encyclopedia of science, which gained widespread recognition throughout the Islamic empire and beyond.
Verily, it is with great reverence and admiration that I do not forget to chronicle the achievements of one of our most illustrious agricultural scientists, ibn Bassal, a master of the art of agriculture. Hailing from the fertile lands of Andalusia in the 11th century, this learned botanist and agronomist was a true pioneer in the field of horticulture and arboriculture.
Ibn Bassal served the court of al-Mutamid, the esteemed Emir of the Taifa of Seville, and created the magnificent Haaet al-Sulṭān botanical garden in Seville. After the conquest of Toledo by Alfonso VI, ibn Bassal journeyed to Seville, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge garnered from his travels on pilgrimage to far-flung lands, including Egypt, Sicily, Syria, Abyssinia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and India.
It was here that he wrote his most renowned work, the Dīwān al-Filāha (An Anthology of Husbandry), which was abridged during his lifetime into the Kitāb al-Qaṣd wal-Bayān (The Book of Concision and Clarity). This exhaustive manuscript, dedicated to the botanical garden of al-Ma’mūn in Toledo, was a testament to ibn Bassal’s profound knowledge of agronomy and horticulture.
Ibn Bassal, with his vast experience in the cultivation and care of crops, presents in his book a comprehensive catalog of over 180 cultivated plants, from chickpeas and beans to rice and peas, from flax and henbane to sesame and cotton, from safflower and saffron to poppies and henna, and including even the artichoke.
He further details the growth and cultivation of herbs and spices, including cumin, caraway, fennel, anise, and coriander, and of the bountiful array of vegetables that thrive under irrigation or plentiful watering, such as cucumbers, melons, mandrake, watermelons, pumpkins and squash, eggplant, asparagus, caper, and colocynth, and root vegetables such as carrots, radish, garlic, onion, leek, parsnip, the Sudanese pepper, and the dye-yielding madder. He also explores the realm of leaf vegetables, including cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, purslane, amaranth, and chard.
Furthermore, ibn Bassal’s expertise is shown in the realm of arboriculture as he provides a wealth of information on the propagation and cultivation of the palm, olive, pomegranate, quince, apple, fig, pear, cherry, apricot, plum, peach, almond, walnut, hazelnut, grape, citron, orange, pistachio, pine, cypress, chestnut, holm-oak, deciduous oak, tree of paradise, arbutus, elm, and ash.
It is noteworthy that in his discussion of the use of manure, ibn Bassal refers to a mixture of straw or sweeping mixed in as mudaf, thereby implying that the composition of manure is not solely of animal dung, but a mixture of various materials. This attention to detail and accuracy in his observations truly sets ibn Bassal apart as a master of his craft and a seminal figure in the history of agronomy.
The Dīwān al-Filāha also sheds light upon the importance of proper waste management in agriculture. Ibn Bassal distinguishes the characteristics of various forms of manure and their suitability for different crops. The sweepings from hot baths, although dry and salty, were not considered suitable for use as fertilizer unless mixed with other forms of manure.
With meticulous detail, ibn Bassal provides two recipes for composting pigeon and possibly donkey manure, explaining the properties of pigeon dung, rich in heat and moisture, which were ideal for weaker and less hardy plants, especially those affected by cold temperatures. On the other hand, human waste was advised to be used in hot temperatures as it lacked any significant heat.
Ibn Bassal also issues a warning against the use of pig dung, which he states would destroy pastures and poison plants, a view shared by other writers such as the Roman Columella and Cassianus Bassus. Compost made without manure, known as muwallid, was also deemed less desirable and composed of herbage, straw, grass, ashes from ovens, and water.
The wisdom of ibn Bassal was passed down through the generations, with his works being studied several centuries later by Abu Jafar Ahmad ibn Luyūn al-Tujjbi of Almeria, who based his treatise, Kitāb Ibdā’ al-Malāha wa Inhaa al-Rajāha fī Usuul Sinā’at al-Filāha, upon the teachings of ibn Bassal. Thus, the legacy of ibn Bassal and his contributions to the science of agronomy continue to endure and enlighten future generations.
In addition to the Dīwān al-Filāha, ibn Bassal also authored The Classification of Soils, a treatise that divided soil fertility into ten classifications. This work was later translated into Castilian in the 13th century, ensuring that his legacy would endure for generations to come.
In conclusion, the Dīwān al-Filāha stands as a timeless work of remarkable insight and practical knowledge, a testament to the achievements of its author, ibn Bassal, and a valuable resource for all those who seek to deepen their understanding of the science of agronomy.
And now I shall recount to you the story of the prodigious scholar and versatile master, ibn al-Raqqām. A man of rare and unparalleled talent in the fields of arithmetic, geometry, medicine, astronomy, and other disciplines, ibn al-Raqqam was a true gem of his time.
According to the annals of the Andalusian historian, ibn al-Khatib, ibn al-Raqqam was a native of the region of Murcia. However, the footprint of his travels and erudition can be traced to the cities of Tunis and Bijaya, where he lived for a time and composed some of his most illustrious works. His astronomical treatise, al-Zij al-Qawim, indicates that he lived in Tunis, as it contains tables calculated for the coordinates of that city. Meanwhile, the existence of many astronomical tables computed for the latitude of Bijaya, as recorded in his other work, al-Zij al-Shamil, confirms that he lived in that city as well.
At the invitation of the second king of the Nasrid dynasty, Muhammad II, ibn al-Raqqam left Bijaya for Granada, where he lived until his passing. While in Granada, he taught not only medicine and jurisprudence but also a wide array of subjects. His influence and legacy are evident through his students, such as Abu Zakariyyā ibn Hudhayl, who studied mathematics, geometry, algebra, and astronomy, and Nasr, another ruler of the Nasrid dynasty, who studied the composition of almanacs and the construction of astronomical instruments.
Ibn al-Raqqam was a prolific writer and author of several astronomical works, of which three have been preserved to this day. His two zijes, al-Zij al-Shamil fi Tahdhib al-Kamil and al-Zij al-Qawim fi Funun al-Tadil wal-Taqwim, were composed to make improvements to ibn al-Ha’im’s al-Zij al-Kamil. In his works, he sought to condense the explanations of the original, add missing tables, and revise parameters to better align computation with observation. One of the modifications made by ibn al-Raqqam in the canons was copying the words of ibn al-Ha’im without his geometrical demonstrations.
Despite similarities in format and shared numerical tables between the two authors’ versions, there were differences between the two zījes as they were formulated for specific locations. The tables in the al-Zīj al-Qawīm, for example, were calculated for the latitude of Tunis, which shows that ibn al-Raqqām reworked the work after he arrived in Granada and had made a precise determination of the city’s latitude.
Ibn al-Raqqām’s Risaala fī ‘Ilm al-Zilāl is also a remarkable contribution to the field of gnomonics and remains the only complete Arabic treatise on the subject of Andalusian origin. The work, consisting of 44 chapters, details the construction of sundials and covers the mathematical and astronomical principles relevant to the field. The presentation of the work is well organized, graphic, and descriptive, showcasing ibn al-Raqqām’s ability to use the analemma, a technique not previously known in Andalusian gnomonics.
Ibn al-Khaṭīb mentions another astronomical work by ibn al-Raqqām, which may have been a revision of al-Manāj fī Ru-yāt al-Ahilla by ibn al-Bannāʾ. Among the non-astronomical works by ibn al-Raqqām, mentioned by ibn al-Khaṭīb, are a work written in the style of the great philosopher ibn Sīnā’s Kitāb al-Shifāa, a treatise on jurisprudence, and a summary of the Kitāb al-Ḥayawān wal-Khawāṣṣ, which dealt with medical cures using parts of animal bodies.
In conclusion, the life and works of ibn al-Raqqam are a testament to the wealth of knowledge and diversity of learning that flourished in Andalusia during its golden age. May his legacy continue to inspire future generations of seekers of truth and knowledge.
Verily, I shall also recount the tale of one of the lesser-known luminaries of Andalusia, Abul-Khayr al-Ishbīlī, known as al-Shajjār, aka “the tree planter.” He was a son of Seville, renowned for his mastery of the science of agriculture and the authorship of the esteemed treatise, Kitāb al-Filāḥa. Moreover, he is believed to have penned the anonymous ‘Umdat al-Tabīb fī Ma‘rifat al-Nabāt li-Kull Labīb, a botanical encyclopedia that holds great import in the annals of Islamic agriculture. Little is known of his life, save that he was a contemporary of the illustrious Emir al-Mu‘tamid of Seville, and that he passed on towards the end of the 11th century or the beginning of the 12th.
Abul-Khayr was highly regarded by the great agronomist, ibn al-‘Awwām, who often cites his works in his own writings. Based on these citations, it can be deduced that Abul-Khayr lived in the second half of the 11th century and wrote his agricultural manual between 1070 and 1075 CE. He was a disciple of both ibn Baṣṣāl and the botanist-physician ibn al-Lūnquh, and he likely worked alongside them in the king’s experimental garden in Seville. Abul-Khayr was part of the distinguished circle of 11th-century Andalusian agronomists, horticulturists, and botanists, which included ibn Baṣṣāl, ibn al-Lūnquh, ibn Hajjāj, and al-Ṭighnarī.
In his Kitāb al-Filāḥa, Abul-Khayr proclaimed agriculture to be a well-founded science and a divine blessing, deserving of great reward. He was known for his vast knowledge of soils, irrigation, and olive cultivation. The late 12th/early 13th-century agronomist, ibn al-‘Awwām, drew extensively from Abul-Khayr’s descriptions of digging wells and the instruments used for leveling land. He often cited his predecessors, especially his master ibn Baṣṣāl, al-Dīnawarī’s Kitāb al-Nabāt, and the works of Aristotle, ibn Waḥshīyya, Anatolius, Democritus, Fidas al-Fāsī, and Cassianus Bassus Scholasticus. In keeping with the practical nature of Andalusian agronomy, Abul-Khayr drew upon his personal experience, experiments, and observations in the gardens, fields, olive groves, and ramblas of his native Aljarafe, the hilly back-country to the west of Seville. He often noted, “We know this from our own experience,” attesting to the veracity of his teachings.
Al-Shajjar’s book is comprised of no less than 360 quarto pages written in the elegant Maghrebi script and is a veritable repository of agronomical knowledge from the Middle Ages. In addition to his own expertise, al-Shajjar has scoured the works of renowned authorities to bring forth a comprehensive treatise on all matters related to agriculture. From the delicate blooms of the rarest flowers to the sturdy boughs of the mightiest trees, from the cultivation of staple crops to the nurturing of luxury plants, the book covers every aspect of the science of cultivation.
With utmost precision and detail, al-Shajjar instructs farmers and gardeners on the principles of plant hygiene and pathology, offering remedies for the many diseases that afflict the vine and other crops. He expounds on the art of fertilization, providing guidance on the preparation of manures and the operations that precede and follow planting. He also delves into the specific requirements of each type of land, offering recommendations on the trees, grains, and vegetables that should be sown or planted.
In a section that will interest those who cultivate the plants of the Sahara, al-Shajjar expounds on the five techniques of grafting, detailing the Rūmi or Roman method, the Persian, the Nabataean, the Gothic, and the Greek methods. He also describes the tools necessary for the art of grafting, offering advice on the various grafts that are suitable for each species, and providing instruction on how to preserve grapes, figs, and olives.
In a chapter that is sure to stir the imagination, the al-Shajjar also offers a multitude of curious instructions on how to impart various flavors and scents to fruits, and how to create designs and inscriptions on apples and pears. He even details how to obtain figs of different colors from the same tree.
The treatise concludes with a chapter on pruning, after which the al-Shajjar offers a series of recipes for repelling and exterminating harmful creatures and insects. The book draws to a close with a final chapter on the care and management of livestock.
It is my sincerest hope that this recounting of al-Shajjar’s book shall serve to renew interest in this invaluable work and the many lessons it holds for those who seek to cultivate the land.
But alas, Abul-Khayr’s agronomical treatise has survived only in an incomplete form, preserved in three manuscripts. Nevertheless, his legacy endures, for he was a master of his craft, and his works continue to enlighten and inspire those who seek knowledge of agriculture.
I am also honored to present the contributions of another learned and illustrious scholar, Abū ’l-Muṭarrif ibn Wāfid. This man, who was held in high esteem for his mastery of the arts and sciences, was a true polymath of his time. His works, which spanned the fields of medicine, agriculture, and botany, have stood the test of time and continue to be revered to this day.
It was ibn Wāfid’s Materia Medica, a synthesis of the teachings of Dioscorides and Galen, that gained widespread recognition and was translated into Catalan, Hebrew, and Latin, showcasing the extent of his knowledge and wisdom. His Majmū‘ fīl-Filāḥa (Compendium of Agriculture) is considered to be a testament to his expertise in the field.
Ibn Wafid’s contributions to the field of agriculture are not to be overlooked. A late 14th/early 15th-century copy of an earlier Castilian translation of his Majmū‘, attributed to Abel Mutariph Abel Nufit, was discovered and its authenticity as a work of ibn Wāfid was verified through references from ibn al-Abbār and ibn Luyūn. The former states in his Takmila that ibn Wāfid wrote a most intriguing compendium on agriculture, having mastered all aspects of the science and was responsible for planting the famous garden of the ruler Al-Ma’mūn in Toledo. The latter notes in the margin of his agricultural poem that ibn Wāfid wrote a Majmū‘ fīl-Filāḥa.
In the Huerta del Rey or Bustān al-Nā‘ūra (Garden of the Water-Wheel), one of the earliest botanical gardens in Europe, ibn Wafid acclimatized exotic plants brought from the Middle and Far East and conducted agricultural and botanical experiments that continue to be studied to this day. His students in Toledo, the botanist-physician ibn al-Lūnquh and the agronomist ibn Baṣṣāl went on to become masters in their own right and passed on their knowledge and skills to the next generation of botanists and agronomists including ibn Ḥajjāj, Abū ’l-Khayr, and Al-Ṭighnarī, ensuring the legacy of ibn Wāfid lived on.
Abū ‘Uthmān Sa‘d ibn Abī Ja‘far Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Luyūn al-Tujībī, also known as ibn Luyun, was also another figure of unparalleled distinction in the realm of asceticism, philosophy, jurisprudence, mathematics, and poetry. Born in the year 681 A.H./ 1282 CE in the city of Almería, he was a man of vast learning and had acquired knowledge from numerous esteemed scholars, as evident from his possession of ijāza-s or authorizations to teach from masters of both Fez and Egypt.
As recorded by Al-Maqqarī, the prolific pen of ibn Luyūn produced nearly one hundred works, each a testament to his remarkable intellect and mastery of various disciplines. One such work, his Kitāb Ibdā’ al-Malāḥa wa-Inhāa’ al-Rajāḥa fī Uṣūl Sinā‘at al-Filāḥa (Book on the Principles of Beauty and the Purpose of Learning, Concerning the Fundamentals of the Art of Agriculture), also known as Urjūza fīl-Filāḥa (Poem on Agriculture), holds a special place in the annals of Andalusian agricultural literature. Composed in the year 1348, it was the last known agricultural work from that era, and one of the few that has survived to this day in a more or less complete form.
The Urjūza fīl-Filāḥa is a didactic poem of 1365 couplets, composed in the easy rajaz meter, that covers a broad range of agricultural and horticultural topics. The author has drawn extensively from the works of the great agriculturalists of the past, such as ibn Baṣṣāl and Al-Ṭighnarī, to produce a comprehensive treatise that is both educational and aesthetically pleasing. This rhyming work serves as a testament to the intellectual achievements of the Andalusian people, and as a source of inspiration for all those who seek to increase their knowledge in the field of agriculture.
In the opening passages of the Urjūza fīl-Filāḥa, ibn Luyūn declares his intent to make the study of agriculture easier through the medium of poetry. True to his word, he approaches the subject with unwavering objectivity, abstaining from any form of poetic flourish. While he wasn’t rated as the best poet of his time, he still masterfully organized his work around the core elements of agriculture – land, water, manures, and the various agricultural and horticultural techniques. Ibn Luyun acknowledges regional variations in farming practices and highlights the importance of evaluating the quality of the land through its taste and smell. In a remarkable feat of knowledge and insight, he delves into the intricacies of water harvesting through underground qanāts and the use of sheep dung and other organic waste as fertilizers.
The Urjūza fīl-Filāḥa is also noteworthy for its emphasis on horticultural skills, with ibn Luyūn dedicating a considerable amount of attention to the propagation of crops and plants. He classifies these according to their means of propagation, providing detailed instructions on the use of softwood and hardwood cuttings, layering, grafting, seeds, bulbs, stolons, and transplanted roots.
In line with the tradition of Andalusi agronomists, ibn Luyūn includes instructions on the preservation and preparation of foodstuffs such as raisins, vinegar, capers, mustard, pickled fish, and olives, as well as methods to improve oil when it has spoiled. The final sections of his work are particularly unique, offering advice on the placement of houses, pavilions, wells, and large trees within a large country garden, making it an invaluable resource for the study of garden history.
Next on the list, we must also remember the name of the illustrious Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati, also known as ibn al-Rumiya or al-Ashshab, who shall forever be remembered as one of the greatest luminaries of science and theology in the Andalusian realm. Born in the year 1166 CE in the bustling city of Seville, al-Nabati was the descendant of freed slaves and of Byzantine Greek ethnicity, a fact which was said to cause him a measure of embarrassment and was reflected in his nickname, Ibn al-Rumiyah (son of the Roman woman).
However, it was his unparalleled achievements in the fields of botany, pharmacology, and materia medica that would eventually earn him a place in the hearts and minds of scholars and scientists across the Islamic world. Al-Nabati was a true trailblazer, introducing the experimental scientific method to the study of medicine and separating verified and unverified reports, thereby laying the foundations for the development of pharmacology as a discipline.
During his lifetime, al-Nabati traveled far and wide in pursuit of knowledge, visiting North Africa, the Levant, and Iraq, and spending a period of time in the renowned city of Alexandria in 1216. Upon his return to Seville, he opened a pharmacy and continued his scholarly pursuits, eventually becoming a teacher to fellow Andalusian botanist, ibn al-Baitar.
In addition to his scientific achievements, al-Nabati was also a devout theologian, initially following the Maliki school of Sunni Islam before switching to the Zahirite school and becoming a “fanatical” adherent of the teachings of ibn Hazm. He was the author of the famous work Botanical Journey, an early book on plant and herb species which he based on his observations around the world. Furthermore, he wrote a comprehensive commentary on the book of Pedanius Dioscorides, entitled Materia Medica, which sought to bring together the work of both Dioscorides and ibn Juljul, as well as preceding traditions and al-Nabati’s own original contributions to the study of plants in the Iberian peninsula.
Verily, al-Nabati’s contributions to his fields of expertise are nothing short of marvelous.
Last, but certainly not least, it is with utmost reverence and admiration that I also write of the illustrious figure of Abu Dawud Sulayman ibn Hassan ibn Juljul, an erudite physician and pharmacologist of Andalusian Arab descent. Born in the year 944 CE in Córdoba, he made remarkable contributions to the annals of medicine, leaving a lasting impact on the scholars of Al-Andalus in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Ibn Juljul began his studies in medicine at the tender age of fourteen, apprenticing under the renowned physician Hasdai ibn Kaprut. His tireless efforts were soon rewarded, as he rose to become the personal physician of Caliph Hisham II, and went on to impart his knowledge to a new generation of scholars as a teacher of medicine. Among his disciples was the renowned ibn al-Baghunish of Toledo.
The most notable of his works is the book Ṭabaqāt al-Aṭibbāa’ wal-Hukamāa’ (Generations of Physicians and Wise Men), a testament to his vast knowledge and the breadth of his research. This book, considered to be the second oldest collection of biographies of physicians written in Arabic, contains valuable information on the history of medicine, drawing from both Eastern and Western sources. The 57 biographies of famous Greek, Islamic, African, and Spanish physicians and philosophers that it includes provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these learned men, and offer a unique perspective on the science of medicine in the 10th century Cordoba.
Ibn Juljul also wrote several treatises and letters on pharmacology and was a prolific translator and commentator of the works of Dioscorides. In his Ṭabaqāt, he expounds on his thoughts on the decline of science in the Eastern Islamic provinces, attributing it to the apathy of the Daylamites and the Turks towards knowledge and learning. He famously stated:
“The Abbasid empire was weakened by the power of the Daylamites and Turks, who were not concerned with science: scholars appear only in states whose kings seek knowledge.”
Other Agricultural Greats
Verily, it is with great honor that I pen this testament to the legacy of other great agricultural authors from around the Muslim world, and not only from Al-Andalus, who have contributed immeasurably to the advancement of our knowledge in the field of agronomy.
To begin, there is ibn Waḥshīya, a scholar whose knowledge of agronomy was so vast that he was sought after by rulers and nobles alike for his counsel. Then there is the brilliant ‘Arīb ibn Sa‘d, whose writings on the subject still inspire awe and admiration among those who study them.
Likewise, al-Nahrāwī, also known as Al-Zahrāwī, was a master of the subject, his works serving as a cornerstone of agricultural knowledge for generations to come. The same could be said of ibn Mammātī, al-Waṭwāṭ, and al-Malik al-Ashraf, all of whom have left an indelible mark on the annals of Islamic agronomy.
Other greats include the likes of ibn al-Bannā’, al-Dimashqī, al-Malik al-Afḍal, al-Tamār-Tamurī, al-Ghazzī al-‘Āmirī, Kibrīt al-Ḥusaynī, al-Nābulusī, ibn Kannān, Khayr al-Dīn ibn Ilyās, and Al-Khalāṣī, each of whom made invaluable contributions to our understanding of the cultivation and care of crops.
These names, each one a testament to the glory of Islamic civilization and its boundless achievements, serve as a reminder of the depth and breadth of the knowledge that was once ours. It is my hope that in recounting these great figures and their works, I have done my small part in ensuring that their legacy will be remembered and honored for generations to come.
Legacy of Al-Andalus
It is important to note that such great achievements are only possible in a society that nurtures and supports them. Without knowledge-seeking rulers, as we see in today’s world, ignorance prevails, and in doing so, righteousness fades. Al-Andalus, however, was blessed with rulers who valued knowledge, learning, and culture and paved the way for education to find its way to anyone who seeks it.
These enlightened rulers included Muhammad al-Mu’tamid, the Emir of the Taifa of Seville, who was a patron of both poetry and liberalism; Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf, also of Seville, whose love of philosophy and learning was unmatched, and who was a close friend of ibn Tufayl and ibn Rushd; Caliph al-Hakim II of Granada, who was himself a scientist of great repute and possessed a library of 600,000 books; and the many other wise Emirs and Caliphs from throughout the entire history of Al-Andalus.
Moreover, in the realm of medicine and healthcare, Al-Andalus was renowned for its chain of hospitals, a testament to its commitment to public health and the well-being of its people. Cordoba alone was home to more than 50 hospitals and 900 public baths, offering medical care and treatment to those in need. These institutions played an important role in the education of medical practitioners and were comparable to the modern teaching hospitals of our time. Some additional fun facts regarding Cordoba: there were also more than 1 million permanent residents, 60 palaces, 600 mosques, 17 universities, and 70 public libraries. Truly fascinating.
The legacy of Al-Andalus was also preserved and honored by King Alfonso the Wise of Castilla, who is sometimes considered the last king of Western Al-Andalus due to his deep respect for the cultural heritage of Muslim Iberia. In today’s troubled times, King Alfonso serves as a shining example of the kind of multiculturalism that Europe so desperately needs.
In the annals of history, the Islamic Ages of Enlightenment saw a plethora of brilliant and illustrious Muslims who left an indelible mark on the world of knowledge, propelling it toward the greatness that it stands for today. Let us delve into the stories of some of these other luminaries which I have or haven’t mentioned yet, and learn from their wisdom, scientific achievements, and philosophical pursuits.
One such luminary was Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, also known as Alpharabius, who lived in the 9th and 10th centuries CE. A renowned philosopher, jurist, and polymath, al-Farabi was a master of many disciplines including political philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, logic, science, cosmology, mathematics, music theory, and medicine. He was held in high regard in Islamic philosophical circles, where he was referred to as “the Second Teacher,” second only to Aristotle who was known as “the First Teacher.”
One of his most notable works was the Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir (Grand Book of Music), in which he delved into the philosophical principles of music and its cosmic qualities. Al-Farabi saw music as a powerful tool, capable of influencing the soul, and he expounded upon this in his Treatise on the Meanings of the Intellect. This treatise dealt with the therapeutic effects of music on the soul and remains a seminal work in the field of music therapy to this day. This contribution greatly helped hospitals in treating the mentally ill.
Al-Farabi was also the founder of his own school of early Islamic philosophy, known as “Farabism” or “Alfarabism”. Although his teachings were eventually overshadowed by Avicennism, Al-Farabi’s influence on science and philosophy was felt for several centuries and he was widely considered second only to Aristotle in his time.
In the realm of physics, Al-Farabi wrote a treatise called al-Khalaa’ (On Vacuum), in which he pondered the nature of the void and its existence. He ultimately concluded that air volume can expand to fill available space and that the concept of a perfect vacuum was incoherent. He also wrote the first treatises on social psychology, including Social Psychology and Kitab Aaraa’ Ahl al-Madina al-Faadhila wa-Madhaatuha (Principles of the Opinions of the Citizens of the Virtuous City). In these works, Al-Farabi posited that individual perfection could not be achieved without the aid of others and that it was the innate disposition of humans to associate with one another.
Finally, Al-Farabi’s Kitab al-Qawl fi Sabab al-Manamaat (On the Cause of Dreams), which appeared as chapter 24 of his “Principles of the Opinions of the citizens of the Ideal City”, was a landmark work in the field of dream interpretation. In it, he differentiated between the interpretation of dreams and the nature and causes of dreams. To this day, Al-Farabi remains a revered figure in the annals of early Islamic philosophy, and his works continue to inspire and enlighten future generations.
Al-Farabi’s vast body of work and commentaries on the original Greek texts helped preserve classical knowledge during the Middle Ages. He exerted a profound influence on many prominent philosophers of his time, such as Avicenna and Maimonides, and his works were widely known across the world.
Another legendary figure was Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Mas’udi, an Arab historian, geographer, and traveler. He was referred to as the “Herodotus of the Arabs” due to his extensive writings on various subjects, including theology, history (both Islamic and universal), geography, natural science, and philosophy. His magnum opus, Murūj al-Dhahab wa-Ma’ādin al-Jawhar (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems), is a multi-volume series that blends universal history with scientific geography, social commentary, and biography.
It is said that al-Mas’udi’s maps were used by Columbus on his journey to the New World, as the Andalusian Muslims had already ventured far west and had knowledge of the vast continents that lay there. Al-Mas’udi’s works stand as a testament to the wisdom, erudition, and cosmopolitanism of early Muslim civilization. You might be wondering why a non-scientist is included in this article; I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give a well-deserved shoutout to an Arab version of Herodotus!
Then, we have the renowned astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician al-Battānī, also known as Albategnius. He spent the majority of his life in Raqqa, where he became one of the most celebrated astronomers of the Islamic world. Al-Battānī’s works, including his magnum opus Kitāb az-Zīj aṣ-Ṣābi’, not only refined and corrected Ptolemy’s Almagest, but also introduced new ideas and astronomical tables. His contributions to the field of astronomy have played a pivotal role in its development in the West.
Let’s not forget about the multifaceted Omar Khayyam, a polymath born in Nishapur, the former capital of the Seljuk Empire. Khayyam is remembered for his groundbreaking work in mathematics, particularly his classification and solution of cubic equations, which he approached with a unique combination of geometric and analytical methods. In addition, his contributions to astronomy, including his precise calculations of the duration of the solar year and design of the Jalali calendar, remain relevant even after nearly a millennium. He also left his mark on philosophy and Farsi poetry, cementing his place as one of the most remarkable figures of the Islamic Golden Age.
Jabir ibn Hayyan
I mentioned Jabir ibn Hayyan briefly in previous sections, but let’s uncover some of his legendary contributions to the field of chemistry, which were nothing short of extraordinary. He was the first to introduce a systematic classification of chemical substances, a feat that was unrivaled in its time and remains a milestone in the annals of science. Moreover, he was the first to impart the knowledge of deriving inorganic compounds, such as sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride, from organic materials such as plants, blood, and hair.
But Jabir’s achievements do not end there, for he was also the creator of the sulfur-mercury theory of metals, a mineralogical concept that would endure for centuries and become the dominant explanation.
Verily, the great astronomer, mathematician, and engineer, Abu al-Ḥasan Alāʾ al‐Dīn ʿAlī ibn Ibrāhīm al-Ansari, known to posterity as ibn al-Shatir, lived in the city of Damascus during the fourteenth century. He was held in great esteem as the head muwaqqit (aka timekeeper) of the magnificent Umayyad mosque in Damascus, where he presided over the regulation of the astronomical times of prayer.
It was during this time that he made extraordinary advances in the design of astronomical instruments and penned his most important treatise, Kitab Nihayat al-Sul fi Tashih al-Usool (The Final Quest Concerning the Rectification of Principles). In this work, he ingeniously reformed the Ptolemaic models of the celestial bodies, demonstrating a mastery of the heavens that was unparalleled in his age. Indeed, his models were so convincing that, with the reservation that they were geocentric, they were nearly identical to those used by the later European astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus.
The world has since marveled at the similarity between the two astronomers’ models, and it has been the subject of much investigation to determine the possible transmission of ibn al-Shatir’s theories to Europe and the rest of the world. Though the research on his astronomy and its later influence remain in its earliest stages, it is known that Copernicus’ model for Mercury was taken directly from ibn al-Shatir, though he did not fully understand it.
In addition to his monumental treatise, ibn al-Shatir also compiled a set of tables, displaying the values of spherical astronomical functions relating to the times of prayer. The tables were calculated using a latitude of 34°, corresponding to a location just north of Damascus, and they show such important functions as the duration of morning and evening twilight, the time of the afternoon prayer, and other standard astronomical functions.
Verily, Abu Mahmud Hamid ibn al-Khidr al-Khojandi was also a beacon of learning in the land of Transoxania, renowned for his proficiency in the celestial sciences of astronomy and mathematics. Born in the city of Khujand, he rose to prominence under the patronage of the Buwayhid Amirs, who tasked him with the establishment of an observatory near the city of Ray in Iran.
In the year 994 CE, he achieved a remarkable feat, constructing the first huge mural sextant, which was used to determine the Earth’s axial tilt (obliquity of the ecliptic) with great precision. He found that the axial tilt was 23°32’19” for that year, refuting the earlier measurements of other astronomers, such as the Indians who had determined it to be 24° and Ptolemy who found it to be 23°51′. Thus, he was able to deduce that the axial tilt was not constant, but was instead decreasing.
However, despite his groundbreaking work, Abu Mahmood Khojandi was not immune to error, as his measurement of the axial tilt was found to be slightly too small, likely due to the settling of his heavy instrument throughout the observations. Nevertheless, he remains a celebrated figure in the annals of history, and his legacy continues to inspire generations of scholars to this day.
In addition to his work on the axial tilt, he was also a noted scholar of Fermat’s Last Theorem, stating a special case for n = 3, though his attempted proof was incorrect. It is also uncertain whether he was the first to discover the spherical law of sines, as some have credited Abu Nasr Mansur, Abul Wafa, or Nasir al-Din al-Tusi with this discovery. Nevertheless, Abu Mahmood Khojandi remains a venerated figure in the annals of science, and his contributions shall forever be remembered.
In the annals of Muslim mathematical achievement, let’s not forget the brilliant Abu’l Hasan Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Uqlidisi. This prolific mathematician contributed well to the field of mathematics, for his achievements are as enduring as they are illuminating. Born in the ancient city of Damascus and later residing in the renowned center of learning in Baghdad, al-Uqlidisi made remarkable strides in the use of the Arabic numeral system. It was in the year 952 CE that he wrote the earliest known treatise on this subject, entitled Kitab al-Fusul fi al-Hisab al-Hindi (The Arithmetics of India).
In this work, al-Uqlidisi illuminated the world with his innovative treatment of decimal fractions, an idea that was revolutionary for its time. It is a matter of great historical significance that he carried out these calculations without deletions, thereby paving the way for future generations to build upon his foundational contributions.
Contrary to the claims made by the Iranian mathematician Jamshīd al-Kāshī in the 15th century, modern scholarship has revealed that it was al-Uqlidisi who first used decimal fractions, five centuries before the aforementioned individual. Al-Uqlidisi’s appreciation of the importance of a decimal sign, and his suggestion of an appropriate one, was an insight ahead of its time and a testament to his mathematical genius.
Therefore, it can be said with certainty that al-Uqlidisi, and not al-Kashi, was the first Muslim mathematician to write about decimal fractions. His legacy will continue to inspire mathematicians for generations to come, and his name will forever be remembered as one of the brightest stars in the firmament of Muslim mathematical achievement.
Let us now turn our attention to the achievements of Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn al Ḥasan al-Karajī, a gifted mathematician and engineer of the 10th century who flourished in the vibrant cultural and intellectual hub of Baghdad.
This son of Iran left behind a legacy of mathematical works that continue to inspire and enlighten us to this day. His three principal surviving works, al-Badi’ fil-Hisab, al-Fakhri fil-Jabr wal-Muqabala, and al-Kafi fil-Hisab, demonstrate his mastery of the mathematical sciences and his exceptional aptitude for both mathematics and engineering.
While some have sought to downplay his contributions by claiming that he merely reworked the ideas of others, such as the Greek mathematician Diophantus, the vast majority of scholars recognize al-Karaji’s originality and creativity. In particular, his work in freeing algebra from geometry is widely regarded as a groundbreaking achievement that paved the way for future mathematical discoveries.
Of all his works, his book al-Fakhri fi al-Jabr wal-Muqabala is the most widely studied and revered among historians. This magnificent treatise, which survives to this day in at least four copies, provides us with a glimpse into the mind of a brilliant mathematician and the depth of his understanding of algebra.
It is also worth noting that al-Karaji was a true polymath, with interests that extended beyond the confines of mathematics. In his book Extraction of Hidden Waters, he demonstrated his profound knowledge of hydrology, making it the oldest extant text in this field. He also touched on the subject of cosmology, stating that the earth was spherical in shape and considered it to be at the center of the universe.
Al-Karaji’s work on algebra and polynomials was truly groundbreaking, and he was the first to define the rules for monomials such as x, x^2, x^3, and their reciprocals in the cases of multiplication and division. He also gave us the first formulation of the binomial coefficients and the first description of Pascal’s triangle and is credited with the discovery of the binomial theorem.
Furthermore, it is said that in a now-lost work, al-Karaji introduced the concept of argument by mathematical induction, a seminal contribution to the field of mathematics that has continued to influence mathematical thinking for centuries to come.
Verily, there was also another wise and learned man by the name of Zayn al-Din Sayyed Isma‘il ibn Husayn Gorgani, also known as al-Jurjani, who lived in the 12th century. A physician of royal stature from Gorgan, Iran, he was not only knowledgeable in the sciences of medicine and pharmacy, but also in the fields of theology, philosophy, and ethics. Al-Jurjani was a student of the esteemed scholars ibn Abi Sadiq and Ahmad ibn Farrokh, and at the age of 70 lunar years, he made his way to the court of the Iranian province of Khwarazm, where he served as a court physician to Khwarazm-Shah Qutb al-Din Muhammad I and later, to his son and successor, Ala al-Din Atsiz.
It was during his time in Khwarazm that al-Jurjani wrote his most comprehensive and influential work, the Farsi medical encyclopedia, the Thesaurus of the Shah of Khwarazm, dedicated to the governor of the province. This ten-volume compendium, covering various fields of medicine including anatomy, physiology, diagnosis, and various treatments, was influenced by Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine but also included al-Jurjani’s unique insights. In the field of endocrinology, al-Jurjani was one of the first to associate exophthalmos with goiter, a discovery not repeated until centuries later. He was also an innovator in insecticidal treatments and lice control.
Al-Jurjani continued to serve as a court physician until he moved to the city of Merv, where he lived until his death nearly at the age of 100 lunar years. His contributions to medicine and the health sciences will forever be remembered, and his legacy lives on in the pages of his masterwork, Thesaurus of the Shah of Khwarazm.
Verily, we must not forget the brilliance of Sutayta al-Mahamali, daughter of the Abbasid judge Abu Abdallah al-Hussein. She was a woman of remarkable talent, widely celebrated in her time as a master of mathematics and law, her genius extolled by three of the greatest historians of her era.
Sutayta was a true polymath, excelling not only in mathematics but also in the fields of Arabic literature, hadith, and jurisprudence. It was said that she was a master of hisab and fara’idh, two practical branches of mathematics well-developed in her time; she even invented solutions to equations that were later cited by other mathematicians, a testament to her mastery of algebra.
Not only was she renowned for her mathematical skills, but also for her virtuous and modest character. She is said to have memorized the holy Qur’an and was known for creating general solutions to problems, a logical extension of the work of great mathematicians such as al-Khwarizmi and Abu Kamil.
Her level of algebraic sophistication was so remarkable that it opened new avenues of exploration for Arabic mathematicians, perhaps even leading to the solution of cubic-type equations by her near successors, the illustrious ibn al-Haytham and Omar Khayyam. It is a shame that today, Sutayta’s legacy has been reduced to a mere historical footnote due to the limited sources available. But let us remember and celebrate her contributions to our rich cultural heritage.
Verily, there was another man of great renown in the land of Basra, known as Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī, or as he was famously called, al-Jahiz, meaning “The Bug-Eyed”. Born in the year 776 CE and departing this world in December 868/January 869, al-Jahiz was a scribe of exceptional talent, renowned for his literature, theological discourses, studies in zoology, and political-religious polemic.
It is said that al-Jahiz was a thousand years ahead of his time, for he had the foresight to understand the mechanisms that drive the evolution of animals. He wrote of three key principles, the struggle for survival, the transformation of species, and the impact on their environment. It is through his writings that the principles of natural selection are first recorded.
Ibn al-Nadim, a notable chronicler of the era, lists nearly 140 titles attributed to al-Jahiz, of which 75 still remain. Of these, his most celebrated works include Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (The Book of Animals), a seven-volume compendium on the subject of animals and their ways; Kitāb al-Bayān wal-Tabyīn (The Book of Eloquence and Exposition), a treatise on the art of communication between men; and Kitāb al-Bukhalāaʾ (The Book of Misers), a collection of tales of stinginess.
It is said that al-Jahiz met his untimely end when a pile of books he had collected in his lifetime fell upon him, smothering him in their embrace. His most famous work, Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, remains a testament to his mastery of the written word, as he enriches the reader with anecdotes, poetic descriptions, and proverbs describing over 350 species of animals. It was written in honor of Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Mālik al-Zayyāt, who paid him a sum of five thousand gold coins (5., dinar) for its creation.
Though contemporary accusations of plagiarism from Aristotle’s Kitab al-Hayawan were made, later scholars have noted that there was only a limited influence from Aristotle’s work in al-Jāḥiẓ’s writings and that he may have been unaware of Aristotle’s work altogether. Thus, the legacy of al-Jahiz endures, as a pioneering thinker and scribe in the annals of Islamic history.
Verily, it is my honor to relate the stories and biographies of all those amazing men of knowledge, but for now, I’ll mention several more to honor as many of them as I can. We now have ibn Khaldun, the well-known Arab sociologist, philosopher, and historian, who was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest social scientists of Islamic history. His pioneering works in historiography, sociology, economics, and demography have earned him a place in the pantheon of Islamic luminaries. His contributions have been instrumental in shaping the foundations of modern historiography, sociology, and economics. The truth of his factual writing in his book, Muqaddama, is as relevant as ever, especially in today’s world!
Next, we have Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the Iranian polymath who excelled in fields ranging from architecture to philosophy, medicine, science, and theology. His numerous published works on subjects such as mathematics, engineering, prose, and mysticism bear witness to his intellectual prowess.
He made numerous scientific advancements, particularly in astronomy, where he created accurate tables of planetary motion, an updated planetary model, and critiques of Ptolemaic astronomy. In addition, he made significant contributions to logic and mathematics, particularly in the field of trigonometry, biology, and chemistry. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest scientists of Islam and is often credited as the creator of trigonometry as a mathematical discipline in its own right. The great historian ibn Khaldun considered him to be the greatest of the later Iranian scholars.
And then there is Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Kathīr al-Farghānī, also known as Alfraganus, an astronomer at the court of the Abbasids in Baghdad and one of the most famous astronomers of the 9th century. He composed several works on astronomy and astronomical equipment, which were widely distributed in Arabic and Latin and exerted a profound influence on many scientists.
His most renowned work, Kitāb fī Jawāmiʿ ʿIlm al-Nujūmi, was an extensive summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest, containing revised experimental data. This work was even used by Christopher Columbus in his voyages to America. In addition to his contributions to astronomy, al-Farghani was also an accomplished engineer and supervised construction projects on rivers in Cairo, Egypt. The lunar crater Alfraganus bears his name as a testament to his lasting legacy.
And now, we come to the luminous Abū al-Wafā Būzhjānī, a master of mathematics and the celestial sciences from the land of Iran who was stationed in the great city of Baghdad. He was a scholar of the highest caliber, whose contributions to the field of spherical trigonometry were both innovative and profound. He was a true trailblazer in the field of mathematics, as it was through his work on arithmetics for merchants that the concept of negative numbers was first introduced into Islamic texts.
Abū al-Wafā was a prolific writer, and his tables of sines and tangents, calculated at 15-degree intervals, remain a testament to his mastery of the subject. He also introduced the world to the secant and cosecant functions, and his in-depth study of the interrelations between the six trigonometric lines associated with an arc is still widely regarded as one of the cornerstones of the discipline. His Almagest was widely read and revered by astronomers in the Arabic-speaking world for centuries after his death, and it is known that he wrote several other books on related subjects that have since been lost to time.
Verily, it is with great honor and reverence that I, a humble chronicler of the Golden Ages of Islam, make mention of the illustrious Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, one of the most famous names of the Ages of Enlightenment. This Iranian polymath hailing from the land of Khwarazm left a legacy of knowledge and enlightenment that has resounded throughout the ages. In the year 820 CE, he was appointed to the esteemed position of astronomer and head of the library of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where he flourished in his pursuits of mathematical, astronomical, and geographical pursuits.
It was in the field of mathematics that al-Khwarizmi made his most enduring contribution, for he wrote the seminal work, al-Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar fī Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-Muqābalah, which introduced the world to the systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations. He was the first to treat algebra as an independent discipline and introduced the methods of “reduction” and “balancing” which have since become integral to the field. He is considered the father and founder of algebra, and the very term algebra is derived from the title of his book.
In addition to his groundbreaking work in mathematics, al-Khwarizmi also made significant contributions to the field of astronomy. He revised Ptolemy’s Geography, providing a comprehensive listing of the longitudes and latitudes of cities and localities. He further wrote of astronomical tables and calendaric works, as well as the astrolabe and the sundial. He also made important advances in trigonometry, producing accurate tables of sines and cosines, and the first table of tangents.
Verily, the name of al-Khwarizmi has given rise to the terms algorism and algorithm, which he pioneered in, as his legacy continues to influence the world of mathematics and beyond. Let us forever remember the achievements of this remarkable polymath and honor his place in the annals of history.
Banu Musa Brothers
Next, we have three of the most spectacular minds ever known to man, the Banū Mūsā brothers (lit. Sons of Moses). They were three shining stars in the firmament of knowledge during the ninth century in Baghdad: Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir, Abū al‐Qāsim Aḥmad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir, and al-Ḥasan ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir. They were known for their profound wisdom and expertise in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and engineering.
Their magnum opus, Kitab al-Hiyal (The Book of Ingenious Devices, or literally, The Book of Tricks), is a testament to their ingenuity, as it described a hundred marvels of automata and mechanical devices, many of which have been reconstructed and still function as they did in their time. This work reveals the Banu Musas’ mastery of engineering technologies such as one-way and two-way valves, mechanical memories, and devices that respond to feedback and delays, all powered by the fluidity of water.
Their second major work, Kitab Ma’rifat Masakhat al-Ashkaal (The Book on the Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures), was a cornerstone in the field of geometry and was frequently referred to by both Islamic and European mathematicians. The Banu Musa were associated with the astronomical observatories established by Caliph al-Ma’mun in Baghdad and were also part of the 9th-century expedition to measure the length of a degree, advancing the science of geography.
Moreover, they are credited with inventing the first music sequencer, which was the earliest form of the programmable machine, further cementing their place in the annals of scientific discoveries. Although the majority of their works have been lost to time, their contributions to the advancement of knowledge will forever be remembered.
Verily, we must not forget the exceptional Badi’ al-Zaman (Marvel of his Time), Abu l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī. Al-Jazari lived in the Artuqid Dynasty of Jazira in Mesopotamia between 1136-1206 CE. This polymath was a man of remarkable talents, a scholar, inventor, mechanical engineer, artisan, artist, and mathematician, who left behind a legacy of knowledge and wisdom.
Al-Jazari was renowned for his work on Kitab fi Ma’rifat al-Hiyal al-Handasiyya (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices; lit. Book in the Knowledge of Engineering Tricks), a comprehensive treatise that describes fifty mechanical devices and instructions on their construction. This work, probably published after his death in the year 1206, is considered a masterpiece in the history of technology, and al-Jazari is credited with the invention of many wonderous things, including the magnificent elephant clock.
His devices, some of which were based on earlier works, such as the monumental water clocks, were influenced by the Banū Mūsā brothers for his fountains, al-Saghani for the design of a candle clock, and Hibatullah ibn al-Husayn (d. 1139) for musical automata. Yet, al-Jazari’s true legacy lies in the improvements he made to these devices and the original innovations that he introduced, such as the camshaft, crankshaft, and crank-slider mechanism. His unique, innovative design and construction methods, such as the lamination of timber to minimize warping, the static balancing of wheels, the use of wooden templates as patterns, the use of paper models to establish designs, the calibration of orifices, the grinding of the seats and plugs of valves together with emery powder to obtain a watertight fit, and the casting of metals in closed mold boxes with sand, set al-Jazari apart as a visionary in the field of mechanics.
In the field of mechanical engineering, al-Jazari’s contributions were numerous and groundbreaking. He is also credited with inventing the escapement mechanism in the rotating wheel, segmental gear, and mechanical controls such as metal doors, combination locks, and locks with four bolts. He also designed and built many water-raising machines, including Saqiya chain pumps, double-action suction pumps with valves and reciprocating piston motion, and the earliest-known water supply system driven by gears and hydropower. This system, built in 13th-century Damascus, supplied water to the city’s mosques and Bimaristan hospitals.
But al-Jazari’s ingenuity extended beyond practical applications; he also designed and constructed automated machines of remarkable beauty and sophistication. His hydraulic-powered moving peacocks, automatic gates, and doors integrated into elaborate water clocks stand as a testament to his artistry. The automatic waitress, who served water, tea, or drinks from a reservoir to a cup, is a breathtaking example of his mastery in creating humanoid automata.
The Italian Leonardo da Vinci was undoubtedly influenced by the classic automata of al-Jazari. On a side note, I must record the facts about the much-lauded Leonardo da Vinci. Despite his fame, it must be acknowledged that he was a man who rarely saw his projects to completion. The Last Supper painting remains unfinished, and the statue of Gran Cavallo was never completed. He even failed to fulfill his commission for the Adoration of the Magi, leaving the monastery of San Donato before it was done. Furthermore, his lack of understanding of mathematics is evident in his failure to write even a simple equation. Though some attribute knowledge of the golden ratio to him, this has been understood for a thousand years before his time, by the Greek mathematician Phidias.
Most significantly, Leonardo da Vinci was not a scientist in the true sense of the word, as he never conducted experiments to test his theories (that’s right; most, or possibly all of what he did was fancifully inscribed mere theories in his notebook). There is not a single scientific principle that can be attributed to him. Furthermore, much of what he is credited with inventing had already been written or built by others, including diving suits and flying machines which had been extensively documented and tested by ibn al-Firnas, al-Jazari, and most likely the Bani Musa brothers as well. In light of these facts, it is clear that the undeserved merit accorded to Leonardo da Vinci must be re-evaluated.
Back to the legendary and great inventor al-Jazari, as we noted earlier, the man is verily a genius. Continuing with his list of wonderous inventions, al-Jazari also crafted a marvel of engineering, the hand-washing automaton. This device, made of jointed copper and brass, mimics the actions of a human servant in assisting the king during his ritual ablutions. The automaton was designed with great care, incorporating a mechanism of smooth pouring, a right arm holding a brass pitcher with a divided chamber, and a left arm holding a towel, comb, and mirror.
The right arm was fitted with an axle that allowed the liquid to be poured from the reservoir, situated at the right side of the figure, through the spout of the pitcher. The left arm was fitted with a fixed weight, which would raise and lower the arm, extending it towards the king once the reservoir was nearly empty, offering him the means to dry himself and tend to his beard.
This automaton was a masterpiece of practicality and beauty, and its flush mechanism, now utilized in modern flush toilets, has proven its timelessness. The ingenuity and skill demonstrated by al-Jazari in crafting this device serve as a testament to the advanced level of technology and engineering achieved by the innovative Muslims during that time.
This bright engineer also dedicated an entire section of his renowned tome, the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, to the marvels of fountain mechanisms. Titled On The Construction in Pools of Fountains Which Change Their Shape, and of Machines for the Perpetual Flute, this section sheds light on the ingenuity and creativity of al-Jazari.
One such fountain mechanism, the peacock fountain, was a sophisticated hand-washing device that served as a testament to al-Jazari’s mastery of hydraulic engineering. This device was a humanoid automaton in the form of a peacock, which served as a dispenser of water. The dirty water from the basin would fill the hollow base of the peacock, causing a float to rise and trigger a mechanism that made a servant figure appear, offering soap to the user. With each use of water, a second float would trip and a second servant figure would appear, offering a towel to the user. The basin of the peacock fountain was used for the Islamic purification ritual of wudu and was operated by a servant, who would pull a plug on the peacock’s tail to release the water into the basin.
But the list of ingenuities doesn’t end there. Al-Jazari’s musical automata were another marvel of his time. One of these was a musical robot band consisting of a boat with four automated musicians that floated on a lake, entertaining guests at royal feasts. The flow of water was used to alternate from one large tank to another, creating a musical output that changed every hour or half-hour. The musical automata were driven by hydraulic switching, which al-Jazari masterfully utilized to create an output that was both practical and entertaining.
The water clock of the drummers was another musical automaton that al-Jazari brilliantly created. This device consisted of seven wood-jointed male figures, including two trumpeters, two cymbal players, and the rest playing other percussive instruments. The mechanism produced a musical output once every hour, serving as a clock and showcasing al-Jazari’s ability to create multi-functional automata. The motion of the automaton was initiated by a male doll who stood at the edge of the frieze element of the design and moved across until he reached a point where a carved falcon dropped a ball from its beak onto a cymbal. The automaton was driven by water and a series of pistons and cables and was said to produce a “clamorous sound that could be heard from afar” and play several different tunes.
Al-Jazari was truly a master of his craft and his innovations in the field of timekeeping were nothing short of astonishing. He revolutionized the design of water clocks and candle clocks. He created a portable water-powered scribe clock, standing a meter tall and half a meter wide, and monumental astronomical clocks powered by water that displayed intricate models of the celestial bodies.
Al-Jazari also devised the most sophisticated candle clocks known to our era. These clocks utilized a candle with a known rate of burning, with its wick passing through a hole in its cap and wax collected in an indentation that could be removed. The bottom of the candle rested in a dish connected to a counterweight through pulleys, and as the candle burned, the weight pushed it upward at a constant speed. The automata were operated from the dish at the bottom of the candle and displayed the time using a dial, employing for the first time a bayonet fitting that remains in use today.
One of al-Jazari’s greatest masterpieces was the elephant clock, which he vividly described in his marvelous book. This clock was a marvel of its time, as it was the first clock to feature an automaton that reacted after certain intervals of time. The Elephant Clock features a beautifully crafted elephant that houses a hidden water basin. The timing mechanism is ingeniously simple: a deep bowl floats in the water, with a small hole in its center. As water fills the bowl through the hole, it pulls a string that triggers a series of events in the tower atop the elephant. The string activates a see-saw mechanism, releasing a ball that drops into the mouth of a serpent, causing it to tip forward and pull the bowl out of the water. This sets off a chain reaction of strings, causing a figure in the tower to raise either its left or right hand and the mahout to beat a drum, signaling a half or full hour. The serpent then tips back, starting the cycle anew. Al-Jazari’s creation symbolizes the fusion of cultures, with the elephant representing Indian and African cultures, the dragons symbolizing Chinese culture, the phoenix representing Persian culture, the waterwork representing Greek culture, and the turban symbolizing Islamic culture.
The Elephant Clock is a true marvel of engineering and a testament to the multicultural spirit of its creator. It was also the first water clock to accurately record the passage of time to match the changing length of days throughout the year.
His largest astronomical clock, the castle clock, was another magnificent device standing at 11 feet tall and featuring multiple functions beyond mere timekeeping. It displayed the zodiac and the solar and lunar orbits and had a crescent moon-shaped pointer that traveled across the top of a gateway, causing automatic doors to open and reveal mannequins every hour. The device was also capable of reprogramming the length of day and night to account for their changes throughout the year. Its musical automata, operated by levers attached to a hidden camshaft and powered by a water wheel, added to the grandeur of this device. The castle clock also featured a main reservoir with a float, a float chamber and flow regulator, a plate and valve trough, two pulleys, a crescent disc displaying the zodiac, and two falcon automata dropping balls into vases. It is considered by many to be the earliest programmable analog computer.
In addition to these innovations, al-Jazari also created weight-driven water clocks and a portable water-powered scribe clock. The robotic scribe, with his pen, was symbolic of the hour hand in a modern clock.
Thus, the legacy of al-Jazari lives on through his unparalleled achievements in the field of timekeeping, and his ingenuity continues to inspire and amaze us to this day. In conclusion, the Arabs, including al-Jazari, not only preserved and built upon the knowledge of the Greeks, but also added a new dimension to it: the concept of practical application. While Greek robotic science was limited to dramatic illusion, the Arabs applied their expertise to create human-like machines for practical purposes. Al-Jazari’s legacy continues to inspire and enlighten future generations, reminding us of the limitless potential of the human mind.
Alas, another brilliant mind, al-Biruni, also deserves his very own section in this illustrious article.
The story of the learned and illustrious scholar, Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, during the auspicious era of the Islamic Golden Age, is nothing short of marvelous as well. Al-Biruni stood as a beacon of knowledge, a veritable polymath of unparalleled erudition and brilliance.
This noble son of the Khwarazmian land was renowned in his own time as the founder of Indology, the “Father of Comparative Religion”, the “Father of modern geodesy”, and indeed, the very first anthropologist to grace the annals of history. His mastery of the physical sciences, mathematics, astronomy, and the natural world was matched only by his proficiency as a historian, chronologist, and linguist.
It was said that royalty and the powerful elements of society vied for the privilege of funding al-Biruni’s research and sought him out for specific projects. He was a man of remarkable influence, who took inspiration from the works of other great scholars, such as the Greeks, and applied it to his own philosophical pursuits.
Of the 146 books that he is known to have penned, a remarkable 95 are devoted to the subjects of astronomy, mathematics, and related fields such as mathematical geography. In these works, al-Biruni criticized astrological prognostication with great fervor. He was, in fact, the first to make the distinction between astronomy and astrology, and later wrote a refutation of astrology, contrasting it with the legitimate science of astronomy, which he wholeheartedly supported.
His reasons for such a stance are said to stem from the pseudoscientific methods employed by astrologers, as well as the conflict between the views of astrologers and those of the orthodox theologians of Sunni Islam. He also wrote a comprehensive commentary on Indian astronomy in his work Tahqiq Ma lil-Hind min Maqoola Maqboolah fi al-‘Aql aw Marthoonah (The Book Confirming What Pertains to India, Whether Rational or Despicable), primarily a translation of the 5th-century CE Indian astronomer Aryabhatta’s treatise. It is rumored that he even resolved the matter of the Earth’s rotation in a work on astronomy that is now lost, titled Miftah ‘Ilm al-Falak (Key to Astronomy).
Verily, the great scholar and polymath al-Biruni was a master of many sciences, not least of which was the science of the heavens. In his treatise on the astrolabe, he expertly demonstrated how this wondrous device could be used to determine the passing of time, as well as for the art of surveying. His illustration of an eight-geared mechanism was the precursor to the sophisticated astrolabes and clocks that would later be developed by his fellow Muslims. And it was al-Biruni’s pioneering work on eclipses and equinox times that paved the way for the notable study of the Earth’s past rotation by Dunthorne in 1749 CE.
Al-Biruni was also a trailblazer in the realm of mechanics during the glorious Ages of Enlightenment. He was the first to introduce the scientific method to the field, and through his experiments, he determined the density of substances using a unique hydrostatic balance. He even devised a novel method for determining the radius of the Earth by observing the height of a mountain.
In the field of pharmacology, al-Biruni’s keen mind and meticulous methods shone through once again. Using a hydrostatic balance, he was able to determine the density and purity of metals and precious stones, classifying gems based on their physical properties such as specific gravity and hardness, rather than the superficial classification by color commonly practiced at the time. Al-Biruni’s medical-related achievements and contributions were mentioned in the previous article, which you can read again by clicking here.
It is a tragedy that the brilliant works of al-Biruni were not appreciated in his own time, during the rule of the Ghaznavid dynasty, and in the centuries that followed. It was only in later years that his writings were rediscovered and his pioneering ideas were once again brought to light. Most notably, his book on India became relevant once again due to the British Empire’s activity in India in the 19th century.
Thus, dear reader, we see that al-Biruni was truly a man of immense learning and accomplishment, a scholar who left an indelible mark on the annals of history and the advancement of knowledge. But that is not all, for there are many more brilliant minds from the Islamic Golden Ages. For now, let’s mention two more geniuses before we conclude this article.
Abu Hanifa Dinawari
Next, I shall present the brief story of Abū Ḥanīfa Aḥmad ibn Dāwūd Dīnawarī – a man of exceptional learning, a master of numerous arts and sciences, including astronomy, botany, geography, agriculture, metallurgy, mathematics, and history. He was born in the land of Iran and received his education in the schools of al-Baṣrah and al-Kūfah. He was tutored by renowned scholars such as ibn al-Sikkīt and his own father and was noted for his mastery of grammar, philology, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. He was also a respected traditionist, transmitting knowledge with accuracy and reliability.
But it is his Kitāb al-Nabat (Book of Plants) that has earned him a place in the annals of history as the father of Arabic botany. This magnificent work, written from an Iranian perspective, comprises six volumes and provides a comprehensive examination of the science of botany. Although only the third and fifth volumes have survived to the present day, the sixth volume has been partly reconstructed based on references in later works. In the extant portions of the Book of Plants, the author describes 637 plants, detailing their growth, flowering, and fruiting processes.
The first part of the Book of Plants deals with the relationship between astronomy and botany, including a discussion of the planets and constellations, the sun and moon, and the lunar phases that indicate seasons and rain. Dinawari also delves into meteorological phenomena such as winds, thunder, lightning, snow, and floods, and provides insight into the properties and qualities of different types of soil. He draws upon the works of other early Muslim botanists, such as al-Shaybani, ibn al-Arabi, al-Bahili, and ibn as-Sikkit, which are now lost to us, to deepen our understanding of the subject.
Last but not least, in the annals of Islamic history, the name of Ṣāghānī shall forever be remembered as a scholar of immense prowess and proficiency in the sciences of mathematics, astronomy, and astrolabe-making. Al-Qifṭī, the 13th-century biographer, attests to Saghani’s expertise in geometry and cosmology, and his reputation as the inventor and maker of instruments of observation. Al-Saghani was a respected teacher and had many pupils in the city of Baghdad, where he also served as one of the most outstanding astronomers at the Sharaf al-Dawla Observatory.
Built by the Būyid ruler Sharaf al-Dawla, this observatory was the first of its kind in Islamic history to hold an official status and was tasked with observing the seven planets. Wījan ibn Rustam al-Kūhī, the director and leader of the astronomers, oversaw this endeavor and Saghani was one of the signatories of two official documents attesting to the accuracy of the procedures.
Al-Biruni recounts Saghani’s use of a ring with subdivisions into 5 min and a diameter of 6 shibr (roughly 145 cm) for the determination of the obliquity of the ecliptic and the latitude of Baghdad. He also determined the lengths of the seasons using similar methods. While Saghani is often credited with a determination of the obliquity of the ecliptic by observation using a 21-ft. quadrant in 995 CE, it is possible that this feat was accomplished by his contemporary, the great astronomer and mathematician Abū al-Wafāʾ al-Būzjānī, who died in 997 or 998 CE.
Kitāb fī Kayfiyyat Tasṭīḥ al‐Kura ʿalā Saṭḥ al‐Asṭurlāb, written by Saghani and dedicated to ʿAdūd al‐Dawla (977–983 CE), was a groundbreaking book that detailed a new method of projecting a sphere onto the plane of an astrolabe. This method was used to create conic sections, points, straight lines, and circles by taking any point on the line joining the two poles as the “pole of projection”.
Al-Biruni was inspired by Saghani to develop a special type of projection, the orthographic or cylindrical. Saghani’s other work, Risaala fī Isti’aab al‐Wujūh al‐Mumkina fī Sanʿat al‐Asṭurlāb, which only had the first chapter as extant, focused on the circular arcs that represented the hour lines on an astrolabe plate. Saghani demonstrated that the circular arcs for the ends of the first, second, and third seasonal hours cannot all pass through the projections of the north and south points in astrolabe plates for the temperate latitudes. To further advance his research, Saghani also wrote a work in three parts on planetary sizes and distances.
Al-Saghani’s achievements in the field of astrolabe projection and planetary research were nothing short of remarkable, as with his contemporaries, his predecessors, and his successors across all fields of sciences. His innovative techniques made it possible to accurately measure the position of planets and stars in the night sky, allowing our understanding of the universe to be pushed forward. In conclusion, Saghani’s contributions to the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and astrolabe-making shall forever be remembered and honored, and his legacy shall endure through the ages as a beacon of knowledge and a testament to the brilliance of early Muslim scholars.
I shall end this article by showcasing a generalized list of the countless wonders and inventions of olden, golden times.
Verily, let me first speak of the noble game of chess, for it was in our lands that the earliest known manual was penned by the renowned al-Adli ar-Rumi, a master of the game. In his tome, Kitab al-Shatranj, he recorded the art of Shatranj (chess) and analyzed opening moves, game problems, the knight’s tour, and other subjects that continue to be studied to this day.
Next, why don’t we make a brief mention of the wondrous field of cryptology, where al-Kindi made a profound contribution. In his treatise, A Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages, he presented the world with the first recorded explanation of cryptanalysis and the method of frequency analysis.
And what of the kamal, the celestial navigation device that determines latitude, that originated with our Arab navigators in the late 9th century? This invention allowed for the earliest known latitude sailing and marked the first step towards the use of quantitative methods in navigation.
Furthermore, the al-Shammisiyyah observatory, built in Baghdad in 825 CE, was the oldest true observatory in the sense of a specialized research institute.
Also, sugar mills, driven by watermills and later windmills, first appeared in the Islamic world in what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
Then we have the story of Ali Abuzarari and his recording of a reservoir pen in his Kitab al-Majalis wal Musayarat – this too, is also worth mentioning. The story goes that one day, the Fatimid Caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah demanded a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes and was provided with a pen that held ink in a reservoir, allowing it to be held upside-down without leaking.
And let us not forget the spinning wheel, invented in the Islamic world by the early 11th century. Evidence points to its existence in the Islamic world by 1030 and the earliest clear illustration of the spinning wheel is from Baghdad, drawn in 1237. By the 11th century, much of the Islamic world was home to industrial steel watermills, from Al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.
Concerning commerce and industry, the earliest recorded use of paper for packaging dates back to 1035 CE, when an Iranian traveler visiting markets in Cairo noted that vegetables, spices, and hardware were wrapped in paper for customers after they were sold. Moreover, the incorporation of the crank handle in the cotton gin also first appeared in either the late Delhi Sultanate or the early Mughal Empire.
And last, but not least (for the time being), the bridge mill, a unique type of watermill built as part of the superstructure of a bridge, has its earliest record from Córdoba, Spain in the 12th century. The most famous one, the Molino de la Albolafia bridge mill, is situated along the banks of the River Guadalquivir near the majestic city of Cordoba. This magnificent edifice, a testament to the architectural prowess of our Andalusian ancestors, was built during the reign of the great Emir Abd al-Rahman II (may Allah be pleased with him) in the year 822 CE. With its ingeniously crafted aqueduct, the Molino de la Albolafia was charged with drawing the waters of the river and conveying them to the royal palace of the Emir.
Though the mighty naura, or water wheel, has since been restored, it was once dismantled at the bequest of the infamous Queen Isabel – may her name be forever cursed in the annals of history, and her soul damned in hellfire for all eternity. Driven by her petty hatred of the noise it produced so close to her castle, she sought to silence the Molino de la Albolafia and thus deny the locals the bounty of its waters.
But despite the evil machinations of Queen Isabel, the legacy of the Molino de la Albolafia lives on. For verily, since the 14th century, it has been depicted on the coat of arms of the city, a symbol of the prosperity and ingenuity of our forebears. May its memory never fade and may its glory endure for all time.
Verily, I come before you with the honorable mentions of the many brilliant minds of Islam, whose works and teachings have shaped our society and elevated our knowledge to new heights. Though I have mentioned a mere fraction of these wise scholars, the number of those which I haven’t mentioned is far beyond counting, for there were thousands of learned men and women of science who have made contributions to our world. In addition, there were countless jurists, theologians, philosophers, and sociologists who have left their mark on the pages of history, guiding our people along the path of righteousness and enlightenment.
In this article, I have sought to honor the pre-Ottoman innovators of the Islamic world, including those of other faith traditions who contributed to the betterment of our society. Though some of their names may not be well known to everyone, they are nonetheless deserving of our admiration and respect. In the articles to come, I shall, God willing, devote a full recounting of the brilliant minds of the Ottoman era, whose works and teachings have had a profound impact on our world.
“The ancients distinguished themselves through their chance discovery of basic principles and the invention of ideas. The modern scholars, on the other hand, distinguish themselves through the invention of a multitude of scientific details, the simplification of difficult (problems), the combination of scattered (information), and the explanation of (material that already exists in) coherent (form). The ancients came to their particular achievements by virtue of their priority in time, and not on account of any natural qualification and intelligence. Yet, how many things escaped them which then became the original inventions of modern scholars, and how much did the former leave for the latter to do.”Abu Hamid Ahmed ibn Mohammed al-Saghani al-Asturlabi (d. 380 A.H. / 990 CE)