Science and Technology in the Golden Age of Muslim World

Science and Technology in the Golden Age of Muslim World
Science and Technology in the Golden Age of Muslim World

Science, technology, and other fields of knowledge developed rapidly during the golden age of Islam from the eighth to the 13th century and beyond. Early Abbasid caliphs embarked on major campaigns seeking scientific and philosophical works from eastern and western worlds. Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, became the center of intellectual and scientific activity.

The first academy, Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was established by the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid and was expanded by his son the caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 833). By the ninth century, Baghdad had become a center of financial power and political prestige and intellectual pursuits flourished in numerous colleges, schools, hospitals, mosques, and libraries. Baghdad attracted visitors, ambassadors, and students from all parts of the empire.

The Beginning

During the seventh century the Arab empire and Islamic domain included the realm of the old Persian Empire and most of the Byzantine Empire. This resulted in access to the wealth and heritage of both Hellenistic and Eastern philosophy and knowledge.

During the immediate pre-Islamic period (fifth–seventh centuries), Hellenistic science and knowledge passed to the Arab people through Alexandria in Egypt, Nasibis in Syria, and Antioch and Edissa in northern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Through these centers much Greek philosophy and science was preserved by Coptic, Nestorian (Eastern Orthodox), and Jacobite Christians.

In Persia, Jundi-Shapur was another important pre-Islamic center for the quest of scientific knowledge. It was established during the Sassanian period and was located in Khuzistan, not far from the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. Home to many Nestorian and Zoroastrian scholars, it was conquered by the Arabs in 636. Abbasid caliphs summoned many of these scholars to serve on the faculty of the newly established Bayt al-Hikmah.

Harran was another important intellectual center. Situated in eastern Anatolia, Harran was a center for Sabaeans, a pre-Christian monotheistic Semitic people who preserved both Babylonian and Hellenistic heritages. Therefore several agencies worked to develop and extend Hellenistic and Eastern heritage.

Quest for Learning

During the seventh and eighth centuries as Arabs conquered new lands they preserved, assimilated, and transformed the cultures of their subjects. Beside the Arabic speaking scholars there were also Nestorians with knowledge of Greek and Syrian languages (dialect of Aramaic), Sabaeans who spoke a dialect of Aramaic, Zoroastrians who used Pahlevi (an old Persian language related to Aramaic), Indians knowledgeable in Sanskrit, and Jews fluent in Hebrew. However Arabic was the literary language of both the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires as well as the liturgy language of Islam.

Hence Arabic became the literary and scientific lingua franca of the time. By virtue of its root relation to the different Aramaic dialects, Arabic unified the collective intellectual effort of scholars into one dialect. Furthermore, the new Arab/Islamic authority related easily to these diverse groups and shared many of the same cultural values.

Library and scholars
Library and scholars

Records indicate that Nestorian scholars translated Greek philosophical treatises to Syriac and Arabic during the Umayyad period in the eighth century; they also studied Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, and medical and scientific works.

Empowered by the new Islamic state and fueled by the quest for knowledge that was encouraged by many Qur’anic verses and Hadiths advocating the pursuit of knowledge, Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun sponsored envoys to Byzantine and Christian authorities in Europe to gain access to Greek manuscripts, hitherto kept in basements and attics of churches and monasteries.

Countless manuscripts, especially in Greek, were collected and stored at Bayt al-Hikmah. Early scholars went to Baghdad from diverse areas and backgrounds and enjoyed considerable respect and religious tolerance from their Muslim colleagues.

Caliph al-Ma’mun encouraged the translation of Greek and other texts into Arabic. The caliph surrounded himself with learned men, legal experts, rationalist theologians, lexicographers, and linguists. Yuhanna bin Masawayh (d. 857) and his student Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 874) and a host of others headed the program at Bayt al-Hikmah.

Works of Greek philosophers such as Porphyry, Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates were translated to Syriac and then to Arabic. The bulk of these materials were exhaustively analyzed and consequently codifi ed and reintroduced with a particular Islamic Arabic identity.

In 751 the Arabs learned the technology of papermaking from the Chinese; the first paper mill was established in Baghdad around 793. The knowledge soon spread to Jerusalem, Egypt, and the Andalus in Spain, which was instrumental in transmitting the technology to Europe. Bayt al-Hikmah developed a vast library and a systematic program of translation and study. For the next 300 years, Baghdad remained a center of knowledge. Córdoba in Spain was an equally active scientific center.

Science and Medicine

Islamic scholars expanded on the works of Greek physicians such as Galen. Al-Razi (Rhazes, d. 925) was an alchemist, physician, and clinician who wrote the first medical description of smallpox and measles; he combined psychological methods with physiological explanations. He also developed the discipline of pharmacology, found treatment for kidney stones, and used alcohol as an antiseptic.

In his medical encyclopedia he included 50 contraceptive methods for women. The Latin version of his work was published and used as a text in Milan, Venice, and Basle. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) was a philosopher, poet, and physician who wrote a vast canon of medicine. Ibn Sina’s writing was held in high repute in Europe and was appreciated by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon.

In Spain, Ibn al-Khatib (Ibn al-Jatib, d. 1375) of Granada composed a treatise on the theory of infection. Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar, d. 1162) of Seville was another prominent physician. Al-Zahraw (Alzahravius, d. 1013), a famous surgeon, left the first descriptive account of hemophilia. Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288) was the first to describe the anatomy of the pulmonary vessels; his medical writing was translated to Latin.

Ibn al-Haytham al-Khazin (Alhazen, d. 1039) wrote The Book of Optics, in which he gave a detailed treatment of the anatomy of the eye and correctly deduced that the eye receives light from the object perceived, thereby laying the foundation for modern photography.


In the field of therapeutics, Yuhanna bin Masawayh (d. 857) started a scientific and systematic method in Baghdad. Hunayn outlined methods for confirming pharmacological effectiveness of drugs by experimenting with them on humans. He also emphasized the importance of prognosis and diagnosis of diseases. Other famous names in this field were al-Biruni and Ibn Butlan.

Pharmacies were open in towns and cities and were regulated by the government. Much of the repertoire of modern pharmaceutical and chemical terminology derives from Arabic, including alchemy, alkali, alcohol, elixir, saffron, zenith, and zero. Famous Arab scientists in this field include Ibn al-Bitar (d. 1248), who was born in Malaga, worked in Damascus, and served as chief inspector of pharmacies in Egypt.


Arab scientists introduced Greek medicine to India and Central Asia in the ninth century and that knowledge flourished under dynasties following the Mongol invasion through the 17th century. Islamic medical practice transformed the theological and superstitious and talismanic rituals inherited from medieval culture to methodical hospitals equipped with educated and certified physicians.

Hospitals in Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Córdoba were equipped with pharmacies and libraries; they incorporated innovations such as fountains to cool the air, storytelling to ease pain, and the sound of music to treat mental illness. Throughout the Islamic world mental institutions were built and were equipped with baths, drugs, music therapy, and occupational therapy.

Applied Science and Technology

The wealth of knowledge and scientific achievement spread to different centers in the Islamic world and was reflected in the lifestyle, public education, health service, commercial activity, and military as well as in art and architecture. Schools, libraries, hospitals—both permanent and mobile—courthouses, shopping centers, parks, and public baths were regular features of life in medieval Arab and Muslim cities.

Observatories, textile factories (Tiraz), metal and copperware manufacturing centers, and manuscript production centers were wide- spread. The astrolabe, pendulum, clock, sphere, and many other engineering tools and mechanical devices were commonly used.

In the field of science and mathematics, the three brothers Banu Musa—Muhammad, Ahmad, and al-Hasan—were pioneers and were the first to translate Greek mathematics in the ninth century. They extended their patronage to others and their work was later translated into Latin.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Geber, d. 815) was a pioneer in the field of applied science and was considered the father of chemistry. Among the achievements of Muslim scholars during this period were the invention of spherical trigonometry and advances in optics.

Famous scholars in this field were Averroës (Ibn Rushd) and Al-Kindi (Alkindus, d. 873). Al-Farabi (Alpharabus, d. 950) made notable contributions in the fields of mathematics, medicine, and music. Al-Khwarizmi (d. 840), with a Zoroastrian background and knowledge of Sanskrit, made major contributions in the fields of trigonometry, astronomy, and cartography.

He founded algebra and developed the concept of algorithms (which are named after him) and introduced the Arabic numeral system to the world. Al-Idris (d. 1166) was born and educated in the Andalus and was famous as a botanist, geographer, and medical scientist. He worked as the personal scholar for the Norman king Roger II and produced advanced maps of the world as well as an important geographical encyclopedia.

Mechanical Engineering

The Arabs also developed two types of mechanical inventions: for everyday use things such as mills, water rising devices, and war machines; and automat, devices for pleasure, novelty, and wonder. The latter category included innovations such as self-trimming lamps, multifluid dispensers, musical fountains, and calculating devices. Water clocks were major technological inventions.

In this field, the 13th-century scientist Al-Jaziri is well known for his book The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. He also researched the development of steam engine and pumping machinery. Waterwheels to lift water from ground level to higher levels, based on the manipulation of the pressure of the water, were common in Syria, Egypt, and Spain during the golden age of Islam.

Elaborate underground water channels, qanats, were widespread. Islamic inventions and knowledge, along with artistic and architectural knowledge, passed to Europe though many channels. Inventions like paper, the silk loom, astrolabes, compasses, waterwheels, and windmills, as well as agricultural crops like cotton (qutn), sugar (sukker), rice (ruzz), oranges (burtuqal), tea (shai), and coffee (qahwa), were transmitted to Europe. The collective efforts of Muslim scholars helped pave the way for scientific development in photography, gunpowder, marine warfare, and mechanical engineering.

In 1258 the Abbasid Caliphate ended when the Mongols, under Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan, conquered all of Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. The Mongols massacred tens of thousands of people including many scientists; they destroyed Baghdad with its libraries, schools, mosques, and residential quarters.

The coming of the Mongols marked the end of the golden age of Baghdad as a center of scientific and literary achievement of the Muslim world. But the echoes of that renaissance continued to reverberate in other parts of the Islamic world.

Much of the ArabIslamic scientific heritage passed to Europe through the crusaders, the Normans in Sicily, and the Mozarabic (Musta’rabeen) in Spain. Arab-Islamic science, medicine, mathematics, and technology were transmitted to Europe in written forms, especially the translation of the Greek heritage into Latin that was generated by Arab scholars in Salerno, Palermo, Toledo, Seville, and Córdoba.