An atmosphere of free investigation is essential to the
progress of science. In former times, however, such an atmosphere was extremely
rare, thanks to various kinds of man-made beliefs. There were many cases in
those days of an intelligent, scholarly person discovering a certain truth while
pondering over his subject, only to find people turning against him and his
discovery because they found it clashing with their superstitious beliefs. That
was why innovative thinking could not make any progress.
One of the most notorious examples of the suppression of
new ideas in antiquity was the condemnation of the renowned Greek philosopher,
Socrates, to death, by drinking hemlock in 399 B.C. He was accused of ignoring
the gods worshipped by the Athenians, of making new inventions in religion and
of corrupting the youth of Athens.
Another such example – as late as the seventeenth century
– was that of Galileo (1564-1642), the Italian astronomer who offended the
Church simply by endorsing the Copernican view of the planets moving round the
sun. He was sentenced by a religious court and thrown into prison. When he saw
that death awaited him, he was forced to recant before the Inquisition.
Kneeling, with both his hands on the Bible, he solemnly withdrew his
‘far-fetched’ theory of the movement of the planets around the sun. He not only
rejected this theory, but said that he considered it ‘abominable’.
This was not just an isolated incident, but rather a
symptom of the intellectual malaise created by the Christian scholars of those
times. The search for new truths and the discovery of nature’s secrets remained
forbidden pastures to them for centuries. Such activities were reviled as black
magic and a part of satanic teachings. In such circumstances, it was impossible
for research and investigation to be carried on with any success. In the Middle
Ages, it was solely due to the Muslims that such work could be given any
impetus, thanks to the Qur’ān having removed the kind of mental blocks that had
stood in the way of people of other faiths, such as Galileo.
An appropriate attitude to scientific matters began to be
encouraged for the first time after the Islamic revolution. This process then
went on unhampered, ultimately leading to the age of modern discoveries.
Following is a brief description of the contribution of the Muslims in various
fields of science and learning.
The Solar System
The astronomer who is said to have studied the solar
system and presented the heliocentric theory for the first time was a Greek
known by the name of Aristarchus of Samos. He died in 270 B.C. However, this
theory of the sun being at the centre and of the earth revolving around it never
gained popularity in those early times.
Then came the age of Ptolemy, who lived in the second
century A.D. Ptolemy’s astronomical system represented the earth as the fixed
centre of the universe, with the sun and the moon, and other stars and planets
revolving around it.
This geocentric theory of the universe appeared to be in
conformity with the beliefs the Christians had developed after Jesus Christ.
These beliefs were given the final seal of approval at the famous Church Council
held at Nicaea, a city in Asia Minor, in A.D. 325. After the acceptance of
Christianity by Constantine the great (280-337), the faith spread all over Roman
territory. Now vested with tremendous power, the Christians patronised, in
particular, the theory of Ptolemy. The curtain of darkness fell over the
heliocentric theory of Aristarchus.
Of geocentricity the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984) says:
There was no further scope for cosmology in the model,
which continued to be taught and used almost everywhere until the 17th century.
It was not until 1495 that the Copernicus arrived at the
conclusion that the earth was not the centre of the universe. After a long
period of research devoted to astronomical studies, he was forced to conclude
that the planets revolved around the sun. But, fearing the opposition of the
Church, he refrained from publishing his findings until 1543.
The Muslims, however did not suffer from the error of
regarding as sacred that which was non-sacred. They were in a position to
reflect upon matters of scientific interest with open minds, and in a purely
academic way. When they found out that the heliocentric theory was more
rational, they accepted it without any hesitation.
Edward Mcnall Burns writes that the heliocentric theory
developed by Aristarchus (310-230 B.C.), although destined to fall into oblivion
for four hundred years, has today become an established fact. This is after many
centuries of man’s minds being dominated by Ptolemy’s geocentric theory.
Of all the subjects developed by the Spanish Muslims,
there was none brought to a higher degree of perfection than science. In fact,
in this field, their successes were such as to have no parallel in history. They
distinguished themselves in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics,
chemistry, medicine, etc. As McNall Burns writes:
Despite their reverence for Aristotle, they did not
hesitate to criticise his notion of a universe of concentric spheres with the
earth at the centre, and they admitted the possibility that the earth rotates on
its axis and revolves the sun.
The Muslims arriving at the correct hypothesis of the
solar system’s functioning was made possible only because Islam had broken down
the walls of conditioned thinking which had acted as a barrier to man’s
intellectual progress. As soon as this artificial barrier was out of the way,
the caravan of human thought began to move on its journey with a hitherto
unimaginable rapidity. And thus it brought us finally to the spectacular
scientific feats of the present century.
Just as diseases have afflicted man in every age, so has
the science of medicine always existed in one form or the other. In ancient
times, however, the science of medicine never reached the heights of progress
that it did in the Islamic era.
It is believed that the beginning of the science of
medicine – a beginning to be reckoned with – was made in ancient Greece. The two
very great physicians who were born in ancient Greece were Hippocrates and
Galen. Hippocrates lived in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. However, very
little is known about his life. The historians of later times have estimated
that Hippocrates was probably born in 460 B.C. and died in 377 B.C. Some
historians, on the other hand, even have doubts about him being a historical
figure. It has also been questioned whether the books on philosophy and medicine
supposedly written by him were actually written by someone else and later
attributed to him.
Galen is considered the second most important philosopher
and physicist of this period of antiquity. He was born probably in A.D. 129 and
died in A.D. 199. Galen had to face stiff opposition in Rome, and most of his
writings were destroyed. The remainder would also have been lost to posterity if
the Arabs had not collected them in the ninth century and translated them into
Arabic. These Arabic translations were later to reach Europe, in the eleventh
century, where they were translated from Arabic into Latin. The Encyclopaedia
Britannica (1984) concludes its article on Galen:
Little is known of Galen’s final years.
It is a fact that ancient Greece produced some very fine
brains and some very high thinking in this field. But the respective fates of
Galen and Hippocrates show that the atmosphere in ancient Greece was conducive
neither to the rise of such people to their due eminence, nor to the growth of
medicine as a science. Different kinds of superstitious beliefs were an
obstruction in the path of free inquiry; for instance, the attribution of
disease to mysterious powers, and the sanctification of many things, such as
plants which had healing properties.
The science of medicine came into being in ancient Greece
about 200 years before the Christian era and flourished for another two
centuries. In this way, the whole period extended over about four or five
hundred years. This science did not see any subsequent advance in Greece itself.
Although a European country, Greece, did not contribute anything to the spread
of its own medical science in Europe, or to modern medicine in the West. These
facts are proof that the atmosphere in ancient Greece was not favourable to the
progress of medicine.
The Greek medicine which was brought into being by certain
individuals (effort was all at the individual level, as the community did not
give it general recognition) remained hidden away in obscure books for about one
thousand years after its birth. It was only when these books were translated
into Arabic during the Abbasid period (750-1258), and edited by the Arabs with
their own original additions, that it became possible for this science to find
its way to Europe, thus paving the way for modern medicine science.
The reason for this is that before the Islamic revolution,
the world had been swept by superstitious beliefs and idolatry. The environment
in those times was so unfavourable that whenever an individual undertook any
academic or scientific research, he would seldom receive encouragement. More
often than not, he had to face severe antagonism. Indeed, whenever any
scientific endeavour at the individual level came to the notice of the
authorities, it would be promptly and rigorously suppressed. In a situation
where diseases and their remedies were traditionally linked with gods and
goddesses, what appeal could the scientific method of treatment have for the
people? Only when the monotheistic revolution came to the world in the wake of
Islam did the door open to that medical progress which saw its culmination in
modern medical science. One example would be worthwhile here:
Smallpox is considered one of the dangerous diseases in
the world. It is a highly contagious disease, characterised by fever and the
appearance of small spots leaving scars in the form of pits. The symptoms
include chill, headache, and backache. The spots appear about the fourth day.
This is a fatal disease. Even if one survives the attack, the skin in scarred
permanently. According to present records, this disease was identified in Egypt
in 1122 B.C. and is also mentioned in ancient Indian books written in Sanskrit.
In the past, this disease gripped many countries in the form of dangerous
epidemics. Thousands of people fell prey to it. As far back as 1156 B.C. this
disease was taking its toll of human life, there being visible evidence in the
pock marked faced of the mummy of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses V, who died in
that year. (His embalmed body was found inside a pyramid). Even then, it took
thousands of years for this dreaded disease to be investigated scientifically.
Now we know that smallpox is a contagious disease resulting from virus
infection, and such remedies have been discovered as can ward off attacks,
provided suitable precaution are taken in advance. But is was not until the end
of the ninth century, subsequent to the emergence of Islam, that this medical
fact was unearthed for the first time. The first name which became prominent in
history in this connection was that of the well-known Arab physician, Al-Razi
(865-925), who was born in Ray in Iran. In search of a remedy for the disease,
he investigated it from the purely medical standpoint and wrote the first book
on the subject, called, Al-Judri wa al-Hasba. This was translated into Latin,
the academic language of ancient Europe, in 1565 in Venice. It was later
translated into Greek and other languages, and thus spread all over Europe. Its
English translation, published in London in 1848, was entitled, A Treatise on
Smallpox and Measles. Researchers have accepted that this is the first medical
book on smallpox in the whole of recorded history. Prior to this, no one had
ever done research on this topic.
After reading Al-Razi’s book, Edward Jenner (1749-1823),
the English physician who became the inventor of vaccination, was led to making
a clinical investigation of the disease. He carried on his research over a
twenty-year period, ultimately establishing the connection between cowpox and
smallpox. In 1796, he carried out his first practical experiment in inoculation.
This was a success, and the practice spread rapidly, in spite of violent
opposition from certain quarters, until, in 1977, it was announced by the UN
that for the first time in history, smallpox had been eradicated.
Now the question arises as to why such a long time had
elapsed between the initial discovery of the disease and the first attempts to
investigate it medically with a view to finding a remedy. The reason was the
prevalence of shirk, that is, the holding of something to be sacred when it is
not, or the attribution of divinity to the non-divine. Dr. David Werner writes:
‘In most places in India, people believe that these diseases are caused because
the goddess is angry with their family or their community. The goddess expresses
her anger through these diseases. The people believe that the only hope of a
cure for these diseases is to make offerings to her in order to please her. They
do not feed the sick child or care for him because they fear this will annoy the
goddess more. So the sick child becomes very weak and either dies or takes a
long time to get cured. These diseases are caused by virus infection. It is
essential that the child be given plenty of good to keep up his strength so that
he can fight the infection.’
When Islam came to the world, it banished such
superstitious beliefs about disease announcing in no uncertain terms that none
except God had the power to harm or benefit mankind. The Creator was the one and
only being who had such power. All the rest were His creatures and His slaves.
When, after the Islamic revolution, such ideas gained ground, people began to
think freely and independently of all superstitious. Only then did it become
possible to conduct medical research into diseases in order to discover
Only after this intellectual revolution had come to the
world did it become possible to make smallpox the subject of inquiry. Only then
did it become possible for such people as Abu Bakr Razi and Edward Jenner to
rise and save the world from this dreaded disease by discovering a remedy for
The real barrier to finding a cure was the generally
accepted body of superstitious beliefs based on idol worship; these beliefs were
swept away for the first time in history by Islam.
On account of superstitious beliefs becoming attached to
language, linguistics, as a science, stagnated for thousands of years. Writing
of this failure to Dr Ernest Gellner, a linguist very aptly commented:
‘Linguistic philosophy has an inverted vision which treats genuine thought as a
disease and dead thought as a paradigm of health.’
In antiquity, it was generally believed that writing was
the gift of God, as in the Indian concept of ‘Braham lipi.’ Words and the forms
of speech were considered to have been given to man by the gods and, as such,
they commanded the highest veneration from humans. John Stevens, in his book
Sacred Calligraphy of the East, presents research carried out by himself, which
shows that the concept of ‘sacred’ calligraphy persisted for centuries. Scholars
differed as to the origin of calligraphy, whether in Egypt, China, India, or any
other place. One idea, however, was universal: writing was divine. It was
inherently holy. Writing was the speech of the gods.
That human languages have been the object of superstitions
for thousands of years is a matter of historical record. It was supposed that
certain languages had divine origins, and that their speakers enjoyed a special
status above others. For instance, for centuries the Greek language had been
supposed to be superior to other languages, Greek being the language of the
gods, while other languages were those of barbarians.
The same was the case with Hebrew. In the Jewish Christian
world it was an age-old belief that Hebrew was God’s own language and that it
was the first language to be used in the world. Wonderly and Engene Nida, who
have made a detailed study of the influences of Christian beliefs on languages,
have made this analysis:
One of the facts which retarded linguistic progress was
the belief among early Christian writers, and persisting well into the
Renaissance era, that all languages were derived from Hebew.
The concept of ‘divine’ language was wholly a product of
superstitious beliefs, having nothing to do with reality. Whenever it comes to
be supposed of a language that it is the language of the gods, it becomes an
object of reverence in people’s eyes with the status of a sacred language. It
can no longer remain an object of investigation. After this stage, making a
critical analysis of it, or advocating a new method to develop it, or any other
such progressive attitude towards it, were looked upon as heretical, and akin to
being sacrilegious. All such efforts are seen by the people as presumptuousness,
rather than as a sincere attempt to develop the language. This state of arrested
development was typical not only of the ancient languages, but of all other
departments of thought, innumerable kinds of superstitious beliefs having
stemmed the tide of intellectual progress. It was the revolution based on
monotheism which broke down this barrier for the first time in history. This
revolution originated in Arabia, and finally came to exert its influence all
over the world. Human history then entered the age of realism, leaving behind
the age of superstition.
The very moment when the Qur’ān announced that there was
no god but the one God, the scientific way of thinking was set in motion. People
began thinking about things independently of unrealistic, mental barriers. This
way of thinking went from strength to strength until, finally, it led to the
present scientific revolution.
The monotheistic practice of according the status of
divinity to the one and only God, and denying sanctity to all else, diverted all
other creatures and things of any special status they may have had.
It was actually the ‘divine’ status of things which had
been acting as a barrier to their becoming of research and investigation. Once
all these things were shorn off their former so-called divinity, they naturally
came down to the level of being proper subjects for research and investigation.
It is this unique achievement of Islam which entitles it to be regarded as the
creator of the modern age.
The present system of numerals was first invented in
India. That was in an age, however, when all that was traditionally established
had come to be regarded as holy, while all that was invented was suspect. As
such, this method of writing numerals could not become widely known, and
continued for a long time to remain hidden in privately owned books. The new
invention did not, therefore, gain currency: people clung to the old method,
considering it to be holy.
Having learnt that in the recently established Baghdad
empire great appreciation was shown for new inventions, an Indian traveller went
in 771 to Baghdad, which was then under the rule of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mansūr.
The Indian pundit introduced into Baghdad a treatise on astronomy, a Siddhanta
(the Arabs called it sind hind) and a treatise on mathematics. By order of Al-Mansūr
these books were translated into Arabic by Muhammad Ibn Ibrāhīm al-Fazarī,
between 796 and 806. The famous Arab mathematician, Al-Khwārizmī (780-850) went
through this translation into which the digit zero had been introduced. He found
that with the nine Indian figures, 1-9, and the zero sign, any number could be
written. Calling these the ‘Indian’ numerals, Al-Khwārizmī pronounced them the
most satisfactory, and advocated their general adoption.
Philip K. Hitti writes:
Al-Khwārizmī, writing in the first half of the ninth
century, was the exponent of the use of numerals, including the zero, in
preference to letters. These numerals he called Hindi, indicating their Indian
origin. His work on the Hindu method of calculation was translated into Latin by
Adelard of Bath in the twelfth century and as De numero indico has survived,
whereas the Arabic original has been lost.
In ancient times, Roman numerals were in general use in
Europe. In this system, letters are used to express numbers, a method adopted by
the Greeks and some other ancient nations, and later by the Romans, who used the
seven letters – M.D.C.L. X.V.I. – in various combinations. For instance the
figure 88 would be written as LXXXVIII. This was a cumbersome method and made
calculation extremely difficult. The Europeans, however, regarded the Roman
numerals as holy – a gift from the gods. As a result, they failed to revise
their thinking in this matter. Regarding non-holy numerals as holy was the
reason they failed to make any progress in science and mathematics for several
hundred years. It was the Islamic revolution which for the first time dispelled
the aura of sanctity surrounding the numeral and ushered in the era of
scientific progress in Europe.
Leonardo of Pisa was the most distinguished mathematician
of the Middle Ages. He helped introduce into mathematics the Hindu-Arabic
numerals and the number sequence that bears his name.
Little is known about Leonardo’s life beyond the few facts
given in his mathematical writings. It is probable that he was born in Pisa,
Italy. During Leonardo’s boyhood, his father, Guglielmo, a Pisan merchant, was
appointed consul, or chief magistrate, over the community of Pisan merchants in
the North African port of Bugia (now Bejara, Algeria). Leonardo soon joined him.
With a view to future usefulness the father sent his son to study calculation
with an Arab master. Leonardo later described his enjoyment in learning the art
of the nine Indian figures. Leonardo also travelled to Egypt, Syria, Greece, and
Sicily, etc., where he studied different numerical systems and methods of
calculation but never found one as satisfactory as the Arabic numerals.
When Leonardo’s Liber abaci first appeared, Arabic
numerals were known to only a few European intellectuals through translation of
the writings of the ninth century Arab mathematician and astronomer
Al-Khwārizmī. Leonardo began his explanation of the notation by observing: ‘The
nine Arabic figures are; 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures and with the
sign 0… any number may be written, as is demonstrated below.’ The first seven
chapters dealt with the notation, explaining the principle of place value, by
which the position of a figure determines whether it is a unit, ten, hundred and
so forth, and demonstrating the use of the numerals in arithmetical operations.
The techniques were then applied to such practical commercial problems as profit
margin, barter, money changing, conversion of weights, partnerships, and
The Liber abaci, which was widely copied and imitated,
drew the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who was a patron of
science. In the year 1220, Leonardo was invited to appear before the Emperor at
Pisa, and there he propounded a series of problems, three of which Leonardo
presented in his books. The first two belonged to a favourite Arabic type.
Wilfried Blunt writes:
And supposing the tide of Islam and not been stemmed?
Nothing so delayed the advance of science in the West as the clumsiness of the
Roman numerals. Had the Arabic numerals, which had reached Baghdad from India
towards the end of the eighth century, been soon afterwards introduced into the
adopted by western Europe as a whole, much of that scientific progress which we
associated with the Renaissance in Italy might have been achieved several
For those who are interested in the origins of the concept
of zero in India, the Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi has published a 22 page
booklet in English entitled, ‘The Story of Zero,’ which has been written for the
general reader as well as for children by Dilip M. Salwai.
Before this invention there existed no simple method of
representing large figures. According to one method, certain words were fixed
for particular figures like Sahasara for 1,000. Aayota for 10,000, Laksha for
100,000, and Koti for 1,000,000. The invention of zero revolutionised the
science of mathematics, for now it became extremely easy to denote large
Brahma Gupta (598-660), who was born in Multan, was the
first notable person to work out a method of using the zero. However his method
had some shortcomings. Later on Bhaskar (1114-1185), who was born in Bijapur,
wrote a book in Sanskrit called Lailawati, in which he described the zero
concept in simpler and more understandable terms.
R. K. Murthi, in his review of this book, writes:
It boosts our sense of national pride to note that the
zero was conceived of in India.
The writer of Lailawati tells us that ‘the Indian numbers
first entered Spain, then Italy, France, England and Germany… Indian numbers
were accepted completely… Their adoption turned out to be the turning point in
the history of mathematics and science.
It is true that the concept of zero originated in India,
but it is not true that it reached the western world directly from India: it was
through the Arabs that it reached the West. That is why the West calls these
numerals Arabic rather than Indian. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says:
Arabic numerals – the numbers, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,
9 they may have originated in India, but were introduced to the western world
The Encyclopaedia tells us, moreover, that these numbers
became known to western intellectuals in the ninth century through the writings
of the Arab mathematician, Al-Khwārizmī, whose explanations of numbers in Arabic
reached Europe through Latin translations.
Bertrand Russell writes:
About 830, Muhammad Ibn Mūsā Al-Khwārizmī, a translator of
mathematical and astronomical books from the Sanskrit, published a book which
was translated into Latin in the twelfth century, under the title Algorimi de
numero Indrum. It was from this book that the west first learnt of what we call
‘Arabic’ numerals, which ought to be called ‘Indian’. The same author wrote a
book on algebra which was used in the West as a text-book until the sixteenth
In spite of the concept of zero having originated in
India, for several hundred years it received no recognition in India itself. It
came to be generally known in India only when first the Arabs and then the West
adopted it. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says:
The invention, probably by the Hindus, of the digit zero,
has been described as one of the greatest in the history of mathematics. Hindu
literature gives evidence that the zero may have been known before the birth of
Christ, but no inscription has been found with such a symbol before the ninth
It is true then that the concept of zero had first formed
in the mind of an Indian. But at that period in history, India was dominated
wholly by polytheism and superstition. Everything was shrouded in mystery and
inventions were abhorred. That was why the concept of zero did not receive
general recognition in ancient India. It was reduced to a mere discovery of an
individual, and thus failed to win general approval. The seed of India,
neglected at home, did, however, fall on fertile soil in Muslim Baghdad, where
it flowered into a tree and then, via Muslim Spain, spread all over Europe.
Yet, without Islam having first put an end to the concepts
of polytheism and superstition, the concept of zero – like so many other
innovative ideas – could not have been universally welcomed.
The river was one of those phenomena of nature held to
possess divine attributes. People believed that therein dwelt a mysterious
spirit which caused the water to move and made it useful or harmful.
The river Skamandros in ancient Greece evidently was so
personified, according to Aeshines, a fourth century B.C. Greek orator. Girls
bathed in it before marrying and used to say: ‘Skamandros, accept my virginity.’
Magical rites in which water serves as a substitute for semen or the fertility
of men were numerous.
Because rivers were held to be sacred in ancient times
(even to this day, some are still held sacred) people began to worship them and
offer sacrifices to them. It was this concept of holiness that hindered man in
his conquest of nature. People saw rivers in the form of deities rather than in
the form of physical objects to be exploited by common methods. That is why the
use of river water in agriculture remained limited in antiquity. It is
astonishing that the history of irrigation had its beginnings in relatively
With the onset of the Islamic revolution based on
monotheism, it was revealed to man that the river was a creature and not a
creator, it was a servant and not the Lord. Only then was it possible for man to
give thought to finding ways and means to exploit rivers on a large scale. That
is why we come across the fact in history books that there is no precedent in
any nation to the large-scale irrigation system developed by the Spanish
The Spanish Muslims developed agriculture to such an
extent that it became a regular science. They studied trees and carried out
research on the properties of soil. Vast expanses of land which had hitherto
been lying infertile were then converted into orchards and lush green fields. It
was a virtual green revolution. Philip K. Hitti writes:
They dug canals, cultivated grapes and introduced among
other plants and fruits, rice, apricots, peaches, pomegranates, oranges,
sugarcane, cotton and saffron. The south-eastern plains of the peninsula,
especially favoured by climate and soil, developed important centres of rural
and urban activity. Here wheat and other grains as well as olives and sundry
fruits were raised by a peasantry who worked the soil on shares with the owners.
The agricultural development was one of the glories of
Muslim Spain and one of the Arab’s lasting gifts to the land, for Spanish
gardens have preserved to his day a ‘Moorish’ imprint. One of the best-known
gardens is the Generalife (from Al-Jannat al-arif the inspector’s paradise), a
Nasrid monument of the late thirteenth century whose villa was one of the
outlying buildings of the Alhambra. This garden, proverbial for its extensive
shade, falling waters and soft breeze, was terraced in the form of an
amphitheatre and irrigated by streams which, after forming numerous cascades,
lost themselves among the flowers, shrubs and trees represented today by a few
gigantic cypresses and myrtles.
Charles Sinobose, a French author, writes that the Spanish
Arabs adopted the method of irrigation by canals. They also dug large wells.
Those who discovered new sources of water were given sizeable rewards. In Spain,
they dug broad canals, and then subdivided them, with the result that the arid
plain of Valenica was turned into a vast trace of lush green. They established a
permanent department of irrigation which supplied all kinds of relevant
Describing Muslim Spain, Bertrand Russell writes:
One of the best features of the Arab economy was
agriculture, particularly the skilful use of irrigation, which they learnt from
living where water is scarce. To this day Spanish agriculture profits by Arab
It is a fact that the Muslims who went to Spain brought
about a veritable green revolution. There they established such irrigation
systems for fields and orchards as were unprecedented in history. However,
strangely enough, Bertrand Russell attributes this to their having lived in the
past in desert areas, where water is scarce. This explanation is meaningless.
The true, underlying cause of this feat is the monotheistic revolution which had
overhauled the minds of Arabs. Prior to this, people had seen rivers, springs,
and the sea in the form of gods. They held them to be objects of reverence
rather than of conquest. The Arabs with their changed mind saw these phenomena
of nature in the form of God’s creations. They saw them with the eye of
conquering them for exploitation. It was this mental revolution which enabled
the Arabs to perform their historic feats in the world of irrigation and
How can we learn methods of irrigation in the desert where
water is scarce? Ignorant of the true source of this Arab skill, Bertrand
Russell linked it, quite irrelevantly, to their life in the desert, sans water,
instead of to their mental revolution which had come about thanks to monotheism.
The science of irrigation was developed not because of their desert life but
because of their monotheistic thinking.
The starting point in Arnold Toynbee’s philosophy of
history is his contention that the proper unit of historical study must be a
civilisation, rather that the traditional unit, the nation state.
Both these concepts, however, hinge on the same principle:
that history should not focus solely on royal actions and prerogatives
throughout the ages, but should be a study of the sum of all activities of all
groups of human beings, whatever the framework, political or civilizational,
within which they interact. In the long history of mankind, this approach,
developed only during the last few centuries, is relatively new. History, or
historiography, is now equated with ‘man-story’ as opposed to the ‘King-story’
of the pre-modern era. ‘King-story’, made up of elaborate descriptions of kings,
along with copious details of the palaces they occupied and the generals they
commanded, had made no mention of the common man, even if his achievements were
marked by greatness. The only man considered worthy of mention was the one whose
head was adorned by a crown. Ancient history thus amounted to a belittling of
humanity in general.
While real events relating to non-kings were regarded as
undeserving of any mention, even legendary tales and concocted stories about the
kings were preserved in writing as if they were great realities. Take, for
instance, the building of Alexandria, the renowned coastal city named after its
founder, Alexander the Great. Many strange stories are associated with the
foundation of this city. One of them concerns sea genies who were said to have
put obstacles in the path of building when the work was first started.
Alexander, so the story goes, decided to see for himself what the genies were
about. He gave orders for a large box of wood and glass to be made, and when it
was ready, he had himself lowered in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew
pictures of the genies and then back on land, he had metal statues cast to look
exactly like the dragons. These statues were then laid under the foundations of
Alexandria. When the sea genies came there, and saw that genies like themselves
had been killed and buried in the foundation, they became frightened and ran
away. The fact that this tale gained currency shows the credulous state in which
the whole world lived before the advent of Islam.
In old historical records, the most striking omissions are
the lives and influence of the great prophets of the world. Today, people would
find it very strange if a history of the freedom struggle of India laid no
stress on the role of Gandhiji, or if a history of the erstwhile U.S.S.R.
omitted Lenin altogether. But a far strange history is one bereft of all mention
of those pious souls, who were the messengers of God. The sole exception to this
rule of omission is the Final Prophet, the Prophet Muhammad (sws). The reason
for his prominent inclusion in historical records is that, by setting in motion
the Islamic revolution, he was able to change exactly those factors – the
undemocratic, polytheistic and superstitious nature of society – which in the
past had been responsible for such astonishing lacunae in the writing of human
history. There can be no doubt that it was the Islamic revolution which made it
possible for historiography to proceed on scientific lines.
In known human history, Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) is the
only historian to have changed the pattern of historiography. It was he who
raised historiography from the level of mere King-story to the level of genuine
man-story. ‘Kingology’ was changed into sociology. The truth is that the science
known today as sociology is the gift of Ibn Khaldūn. He himself claimed that he
was the founder of sociology, and there is no reason to dispute his claim.
Ibn Khaldūn’s greatness was acknowledged in a similar vein
by Robert Flint:
As a theorist on history he had no equal in any age or
country until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later; Plato,
Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers’.
It was indeed Ibn Khaldūn who gave to Europe the modern
science of history. And it was Islam which bestowed this gift upon him. The
Islamic revolution produced Ibn Khaldūn and Ibn Khaldūn produced the modern
science of history. Professor Philip K. Hitti writes:
The fame of Ibn Khaldūn rests on his Muqaddamah
(Introduction to his book on history). In it he presented for the first time a
theory of historical development which takes due cognisance of the physical
facts of climate and geography as well as of the moral and spiritual forces at
work. As one who endeavoured to formulate laws of national progress and decay,
Ibn Khaldūn may be considered the discoverer – as he himself claimed – of the
true scope and nature of history, or at least the real founder of the science of
sociology. No Arab writer, indeed no European, had ever taken a view of history
at once so comprehensive and philosophic. By the consensus of critical opinion
Ibn Khaldūn was the greatest historical philosopher Islam produced, and one of
the greatest of all times.
In Book I of the Muqaddamah, Ibn Khaldūn sketches a
general sociology; in Books II and III, a sociology of politics; in Book IV a
sociology of urban life; in Book V, a sociology of economics; and in Book VI, a
sociology of knowledge. The work is studded with brilliant observations on
historiography, economics, politics, and education. It is held together by his
central concepts of ‘asbiyah, or social cohesion. Thus he laid the foundation of
a science of history which is not based just on the description of kings, but
which is, in a broader sense, based on the economics, politics, education,
religion, ethics, and culture of the whole nation.
Historians have generally acknowledged that the science of
history remained undeveloped before the emergence of Ibn Khaldūn, and that he
was the first person to develop a philosophy of history. The Encyclopaedia
Britannica even goes so far as to say:
He developed one of the world’s most significant
philosophies of history.
The question arises as to how it became possible for Ibn
Khaldūn to discover something which had remained undiscovered for centuries. The
answer is that other historians were born before the Islamic revolution, while
Ibn Khaldūn was born after it. On the basis of monotheism, Islam had brought
about a revolution which eliminated the difference between the king and the
commoner. All human beings, the offspring of Adam and Eve, were held to be
equal. It was, uniquely, this great revolution of equality that paved the way
for an Ibn Khaldūn – himself a product of this revolution – to lay the
foundation of modern history in which the central position was held not the
‘royal figures’ but by humanity itself.
One belief which had hampered the development of the
science or art of history was polytheism. The whole period prior to Islam was
pervaded by polytheistic beliefs which were supportive of divine kingship.
The King has often stood as mediator between his people
and their god, or as the god’s representative.
Some kings pretended to be incarnations of God or even
gods themselves, without feeling the need to rationalise their claims. They did
so in order that by the ‘divine right of kings’, their absolute sovereignty
should never be questioned. Even where monarchs made no such claims, they were
credited with divinity, because divinity was universally associated with kings.
Whenever the common people came upon anything that was out of the ordinary, they
regarded it as supernatural and, if it was a person, they took him to be a god,
or a manifestation of a god. Naturally, this mentality was not discouraged by
The ancient rulers, on the contrary, encouraged such
superstitious notions so that people would continue to regard them as superior
beings. In known history, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) was the first ruler who
refuted such superstitious beliefs, showing them to be without foundation. In
this way, he lead mankind to the path of enlightenment, eliminating the
differences between men on an intellectual plane. He held as baseless all those
suppositions and superstitions which had been responsible for creating and
perpetuating the slave-master mentality.
Towards the end of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, Māriyah
Qibtiyah bore him a beautiful and vivacious son in Madīnah. The Prophet named
him Ibrāhīm, after the Prophet Abraham. Ibrāhīm was just one had a half years
old when, in the tenth year of Hijrah (January 632 A.D.), he died. It so
happened that the death of Ibrāhīm coincided with a solar eclipse. From ancient
times, one of the many prevailing superstitions was that the solar and lunar
eclipses were caused by the death of some king or other important personage.
They were meant to show, they thought, that the heavens mourned the death of the
exalted in status. At that time, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) was the ruler of
Arabia. For this reason, certain of the Madīnans began attributing the eclipse
to the death of the Prophet’s son. As soon as the Prophet heard of this, he
refuted it. There are several accounts of this incident in the books of Hadīth.
One of these is recorded as follows:
One day the Prophet came in great haste to the mosque. At
that time the sun was in eclipse. The Prophet began to say his prayers and, by
the time he had finished, the eclipse was over. Then, addressing the
congregation, he said that people imagined that the sun and moon went into
eclipse at the death of some important person, but that this was not true. The
eclipses of the sun and moon were not due to the death of any human being. Both
the sun and the moon were just two of God’s creations, with which He did as He
willed. He told them that when they saw an eclipse, they should pray to God.
When the whole of Arabia had come under the domination of
Islam, the Prophet (sws) made a farewell Hajj pilgrimage in his last days, along
with 125,000 companions. During this pilgrimage he delivered a historic sermon.
This sermon was a declaration of human rights: ‘Hear, O people. All human beings
are born of a man and a woman. All the apparent differences are only for the
sake of introduction and identification. The most worthy before God is the one
who is the most God-fearing. No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab and
vice versa. No black has any superiority over a white and vice versa. Taqwā
(piety) is the only thing which will determine one’s superiority over others.’
To this the Prophet (sws) added: ‘All things of the period of ignorance before
Islam are trampled down by my steps.’ For the first time in ancient history, all
sorts of inequality and discrimination were almost entirely eliminated.
Only then did a new civilisation come into being in which
all human beings were equal. Speaking of the successors of the Prophet, Abū Bakr
and ‘Umar, Mahatma Gandhi noted that ‘though they were masters of a vast empire,
they lived the life of paupers.’
This revolution was so powerful that even at a later
period, when the rot had taken root in the institutions of the government, and
the Caliphs had been replaced by ‘emperors,’ the pressure of Islamic
civilisation was so great that none of these ‘emperors’ could live in the style
of the ancient monarchs. In Islamic history there are many such instances. The
following incident, which took place during powerful ruler of Muslim Spain, is
an apt illustration.
This sultan had a palace built for himself called
Al-Zahrah, to the east of Cordova, which was of such immensity that the word
palace was not adequate to describe it. This magnificent residence came to be
known as Al-Madīnah Al-Zahrah (the brilliant town). But, in spite of being so
powerful and living in such magnificence, the sultan did not regard himself as
being above the law. Before the Islamic revolution it was an accepted fact that
the king was superior to a common man. For instance, the Byzantine emperor,
Heraclius, a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad (sws), in spite of being a
Christian: ‘had married his niece, Martina, thus offending the religious
scruples of many of his subjects, who viewed his second marriage as
incestous.’ It was known to the
people that this marriage was illegal, yet there was no public outcry. This was
because Heraclius was a king and, therefore, above any judgement by human
standards. As a king, he had the right to do as he pleased.
In ancient times, this extraordinary concept of the
greatness of kings was so firmly implanted as a matter of superstitious belief
that ordinary citizens had begun to consider their monarchs to be innately
superior creatures. The observance of special rites and rituals by kings was
aimed at reinforcing this way of thinking. The kings had thus, in their
respective empires, achieved a temporal greatness which was on a parallel with
God’s prerogative in the vastness of His universe. It was but natural that
historiography should come under the influence of this concept of the ‘divine
right of the kings’ so that, in practice, it became a chronicle of the lives of
royal families with scant reference to the common man.
With the onset of the Islamic revolution in Arabia and in
the neighbouring countries, objects of nature like the sun and the moon were
dislodged from their divine pedestals. In like manner, kings were removed from
the seat of extraordinary greatness. Now a king was just a human being like any
The influence of the Islamic revolution, which ultimately
reached Asia, Africa and many European countries, paved the way for a new
atmosphere on a universal scale. With the new way of thinking, the old
king-centred mentality gave way to a man-centred ethos.
The most eminent of the Mamlūk historians was Al-Maqrizī,
a disciple of Ibn Khaldūn. It was through him in the fifteenth century that Ibn
Khaldūn’s theories were introduced into Egypt. Later, other Muslims countries
came under their influence. Between 1860 and 1870 a complete rendering of the
Muqaddamah was published in French, thus introducing his historical theories
into Europe. These thoughts took root in the soil of Europe, and gained great
popularity. Vico and other western historians developed this art, finally giving
rise to the modern form of historiography.
(Courtesy: “Islam: Creator of the Modern Age”.)