Contributions of Islamic Civilization

‘If there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilization owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure which stems, I think, from the strait-jacket of history which we have  inherited.’

Prince Charles in a speech at Oxford University, 27 October 1993

“…the civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent. Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Sufi poet-philosophers like Rumi challenged our notions of self and truth. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership. And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population–that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership — leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage — led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.”

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, in a speech given in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Sep 26, 2001

“Technology, Business, and Our Way of Life: What’s Next”

Islam, from its inception, has encouraged Muslims to pursue intellectual and scientific exploration. Throughout its history, the Muslim world made vital contributions to science and medicine, philosophy, and the arts. Centers of learning in the Islamic world made notable contributions. They contributed to algebra, medical anatomical drawings, optics, geographical maps, and produced several scientific instruments, such as the astrolabe (used to determine the position of sun and stars). What follows are only some snapshots of Muslim contributions to our world:


The Qarawiyin University in Fez, Morocco is the oldest running university in the world. It was founded by Fatima al-Fihria, a Muslim woman, in 859 C.E. The second oldest university in the world is Al-Azhar University, founded in Cairo, Egypt in the tenth century. The Umayyad rulers of Spain had a library of 600,000 volumes in their huge Cordoba library. Hakam II, the caliph of Spain from 961-978, said the love of books was ‘a more consuming passion than his throne.’


Muslims translated the works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Galen, and others into Arabic. The first modern hospitals were established throughout the Islamic world. Harun al-Rashid, a Muslim ruler, created the first modern hospital in Baghdad in 805 C.E.

Abu Bakr Al-Razi, a native of Persia, traveled to Baghdad to study medicine and later became director of a large hospital there. He wrote more than 200 books and was a master of experimental medicine. He made discoveries and wrote treatises on pediatrics, oral hygiene, smallpox, measles, allergies, scabies, and kidney stones.

Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, was born in present-day Uzbekistan in the tenth-century. Ibn Sina's masterpiece was titled ‘The Canon of Medicine.’ This encyclopedia of medicine consisted of more than a million words and included summarized Greek medicine, anatomical drawings, descriptions of diseases and their cures, and an outline of 760 medicinal plants and the drugs that could be derived from them. The monumental work was translated into many languages and was taught to trainee doctors in universities in France and Italy from the 12th to the 16th century. In addition, the works of more than 400 other physicians and authors were translated into European languages.


Muslim scientists built observatories all over the Islamic world and refined Ptolemy's catalog and coordinates for the stars. In the eleventh century C.E., Nasir Al-Tusi of Baghdad invented the azimuth quadrant and the torquetum, instruments used to compute and measure positions of stars. The word “azimuth” comes from the Arabic word assumut (compass bearings).

Mathematics & Physics

The numerals we use today originated in India but were transmitted to the Western world by Muslim scholars in the 8th century C.E. Muslim mathematicians introduced the concept of “sifr” or zero.

The Muslim physicist Ibn Al-Haytham (965–1040 C.E.) calculated the height of Earth's atmosphere to be thirty-two miles. He was off by just a mile!

One of the greatest mathematicians produced by the Islamic civilization was al-Khawarizmi. Born in Uzbekistan, raised in Baghdad, al-Khawarizmi is known as the founder of algebra who also gave the concept of an algorithm. He developed solutions for linear and quadratic equations and detailed trigonometric tables and geometric and arithmetical concepts.

Al-Biruni, born in 973 C.E. was another famous mathematician. Born in modern-day Uzbekistan, he studied Greek, Syriac, and Sanskrit and wrote about Earth's rotation, made calculations of latitude and longitude, and used mathematical techniques to determine the seasons.


Jabir bin Hayyan or Geber (722 to ca 815) is unanimously considered the founder of Chemistry. He devised and perfected sublimation, liquefaction, crystallization, distillation, purification, amalgamation, oxidation, and filtration. He discovered the sulphuric and nitric acids and built a precise scale. Razi or Rhazes (864 to 925) was even a greater expert than Geber. He designed and described more than 20 lab instruments that are still used today such as the crucible, cucurbit, or retort for distillation. The main chemistry textbook for medieval Europe, Sum of Perfection, was written by a Muslim, Iraqi scholar, Kindi (801-873).


Muslims were among the first to calculate Earth's circumference, publish detailed world maps, and study elements and minerals. Muslim geographers traveled all over the world to gather data.

Under the leadership of al-Khawarizmi, seventy geographers worked together to produce the first map of the globe, in 830 C.E.

Al-Idrisi, grew up in Muslim Spain and educated in Cordoba, was hired to produce a world map for the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. Christopher Columbus used a map that was derived from Al-Idrisi's work in his explorations of the New World.

English Words of Arab Origin

Of all western European languages, Spanish has the highest concentration of words from Arabic. But, the influence of the Muslim world can also be seen in the many English words that originated from the Arabic language.

alchemy           al-kimiya
admiral           amir
alcohol            al-kohl
algebra          al-Jabr
almanac          al-manaakh
atlas        atlas
camphor         kafur
cipher/zero     sifr
cornea             qarniya
cotton              qutn
elixir                aksir
gauze              gazz
safari               safara
sofa                 suffa
talc                  talq
typhoon           tufaan
vizier               Wazir
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