Technology and Innovation in the Islamic World

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AP Theme

Technology and Innovation

Learning Objective 1

Explain the effects of intellectual innovation in the Islamic world (Dar al-Islam). 

Historical Development 1

The Islamic world was responsible for important intellectual advancements. 

Historical Development 2

The Islamic world was responsible for important knowledge transfer between civilizations and global regions.

Contents

What Were the Scientific and Intellectual Achievements of the Islamic World?

Great empires throughout history have sponsored learning and scholarship. Without intellectual advances, powerful civilizations would not stay powerful for long as more literate and technologically advanced societies would threaten their economic success and security. The Islamic world’s early success resulted from Islamic leader’s support for learning and education. The 8th to the 14th century is known as the Islamic golden age of arts and sciences.

The Islamic world sat in the middle of Afro-Eurasia’s great civilizations and along major global trade routes. As a result, the Islamic world became a transit hub of ideas and knowledge. Large centers of learning developed across the Middle East and North Africa. Within these academic learning centers, ideas were exchanged, discussed, and debated. Thus Islamic scholars had a deep well of global knowledge from which to draw that allowed them to make significant mathematical, scientific, and technological achievements.

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Advances in Mathematics and Astronomy

Islamic scholars were scientific and mathematical innovators. 

  • Islam’s disapproval of using human and animal imagery led the Islamic world to develop geometry as both a mathematical discipline and an art form. While decorating Islamic architecture, Muslim artists discovered all the different types of symmetry that artists could depict on two-dimensional surfaces. 
  • Persian mathematician Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi, an early director of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, was a strong advocate of adopting the Hindu numerical system of 1-9 and 0 originating in India. After the Islamic world embraced this system, it spread to Europe.
  • Another Muslim scholar, Nasir al-Din al-Tulsi, developed algebra as a mathematical discipline. 
  • Al-Tulsi was also an astronomer who mapped the motion of the stars and planets. He theorized that the Milky Way galaxy was a large number of clustered stars and strongly supported the idea that the earth was not at rest but moving.  
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Advances in Literature

The Islamic world developed a rich tradition of language and literature. During the Abbasid period, the Islamic world reached a high point of poetic expression. 

  • Poetry was considered the height of Islamic culture due to the art forms associated with god and the Quran. Common themes in Islamic poetry included love, devotion, and god. One of the most accomplished Islamic poets of the era was a woman named A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah, who published love poetry praising the Prophet Muhammad. Her entire body of work remained unmatched in size by any woman author until the 20th century. 
  • One of the most famous books in history, Arabian Nights, first appeared in the 9th century. This collection of short stories has no known author and focuses on adventure, magic, and the Islamic Middle East’s wealth. Aladdin is the most familiar tale to western audiences from Arabian Nights. 
  • The arrival of papermaking techniques from China was essential in helping Islamic literature flourish. Mass production of paper took place in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad and several other major Abbasid cities. Sufficient paper stocks allowed for the increased production of manuscripts. Mass production decreased prices and make books more available to scholars and the educated. 
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Advances in Medicine

  • The Islamic world also produced some of the world’s most advanced medical knowledge and practices. 
  • Islamic scholars developed practices like using hospitals to treat severely sick patients, training programs for doctors and medical professionals, using antiseptics like alcohol to clean wounds, and opium for pain relief developed in the Islamic world. 
  • Islamic medical practitioners also understood complex anatomical workings such as blood circulation and how diseases like smallpox, leprosy, and STDs spread. 
  • Modern medical workers still use medical instruments like forceps, scalpels, and surgical needles that Islamic scholars pioneered during the Islamic Golden Age.

How Did Islamic Science and Knowledge Impact the World?

The Islamic world was not just a creator and receiver of knowledge. It also passed ideas, technologies, and concepts through cross-cultural interactions. This diffusion of learning took place within Islamic urban centers connected to global trading networks. This international knowledge transfer helped lead to the transformation of non-Islamic societies, especially those in underdeveloped Europe.

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The House of Wisdom

The Islamic world’s incredible advances in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, literature, and the preservation of ancient Greek culture, would not have been possible without the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Initially built in the late eighth and early ninth centuries as a library, the House of Wisdom became one of history’s largest learning academies for the arts and sciences. Scholars from across Eurasia and North Africa came to the house of Wisdom to study famous books and manuscripts, learn from other scholars, share knowledge, and debate ideas. Many languages were spoken and translated at the House of Wisdom. As visiting scholars returned to their homelands, they disseminated academic expertise and practices learned at the House of Wisdom.

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The Islamic World’s Role in the Preservation of Ancient Greek and European knowledge

Ancient Greek philosophy from philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle is the foundation of the modern western world. Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, these philosophers’ ideas largely vanished from Western Europe. However, they were kept alive in the libraries of the Islamic world. Islamic translation of these ancient texts helped preserve the ideas and workings of Athenian democracy and the Socratic method (early scientific method). Greek classics would be rediscovered by Europeans during the European Renaissance and Enlightenment periods between the 15th and 19th centuries and provide the foundation for modern democratic systems and scientific outlooks.

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Cultural Transfer Between Islam and Europe

Islamic Spain provided a close point of contact between the Christian and Islamic worlds from which the knowledge and innovation from the Islamic world could spread into Europe. Significant knowledge transfers into Europe include: 

  • the reintroduction of Greek philosophical classics to Western Europe
  • medical manuals, medical treatments, and medical tools 
  • more advanced ideas and theories on algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy 
  • new technologies such as the spinning wheel and the windmill 

Impact of Transfer Between the Islamic World and Europe

The impact of these cultural transfers was immense.

  • As information filtered into Europe, students and scholars became increasingly interested in studying new mathematical, astronomical, medical, and scientific ideas. 
  • These new interests led to the growth of new universities in cities like Paris, France, and Oxford and Cambridge in England as scholars sought a place dedicated to studying. 
  • Increasing interests in mathematics,  the sciences, and Greek philosophical classics in Europe planted the seeds of multiple European social revolutions between the 15th and 19th centuries–the European Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. These three events would revolutionize Europe and remake the world between the 15th and 19th centuries.