Muslims’ Scientific Contributions: Lost in Oblivion

Today Islam has been manipulated as a political mutant.

Many ‘death cults’ have been brought forth to taint the reputation of the Muslims by demonstrating mass chaos and violation across the world. Islam became synonymous to terror, oppression and suicide-bombs.

This trend of violation has no reason, beyond any negotiation and more importantly doesn’t belong in religion; yet it is expanding at an alarming rate. This is a political scheme crafted carefully, manipulated masterfully and successfully over the years which results in many Muslim contributions being ignored, suppressed, forgotten and deprived of proper recognition.

When I was a little boy, I used to wonder how airplanes flew up high over the land and sea in the clear blue sky. I dreamed of being a pilot. As I grew up, I found some of the answers to those long curious questions of how airplanes work and who invented them from books. The Wright brothers made the world’s first flight 120 feet up from the ground for twelve seconds on December 17, 1903. We also remember Leonardo Da Vinci whenever we talk about airplane invention because of his hand drawn sketches of airplanes, gliders, helicopters and parachutes about five hundred years prior to the invention of the first working airplane. However, I had not heard about Armen Firman or ibn Firnas until my recent dive into Islamic culture, civilization and invention with a post 911 consciousness.

Almost eight hundred years ago Armen Firman from Qurtuba, today’s Cordoba, the largest and most technologically advanced city in Europe, undertook the world’s first parachute jump. Perhaps his reason was stupid, his suit was crude and his attempt was silly. But he was successful. Twenty three years later Ibn Firnas from the same city made all human flight dreams true by flying for a full ten minutes above the valley of the Guadalquivir in Cordoba. The only thing he forgot was to add a tail for balance and to control his speed during landing, which cost his last breath of life. Yet few books, journals or internet sites are kind enough to give him proper recognition.

Muslim contributions have been vital to modern technology. Unfortunately, they have become a forgotten part of the history they helped to shape. We all know NASA, the center of the worlds’ best aeronautics research and space observatory. Interestingly the first ever aeronautic observatory, named “Maragheh Observatory,” was established in 1259 by Nasir-al-Din Tusi under the patronage of Hulegu Khan. Hardly anyone knows about this Muslim center for scientific research on astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. It is not uncommon for civilization’s contributions to be lost. What causes my heart to bleed is the further mortification of the Muslim legacy by the world’s response to Islamic extremism. I feel obligated to recover the ancient successes for future generations of dreamers. Acute pain made me sink into the oblivion, swim through the memories and rescue the golden discoveries.

Muslim astronomers left the sky immortal with their traces of hundreds of new findings. Today most of the star-names in English are of Arabic origin. A number of technical terms such as azimuth (al-sumut), nadir (nazir), zenith (al-samt) are of Arabic etymology. Muslim contributions to astronomy were way beyond simple etymology. An astronomical-mathematical approach for observing key Muslim rituals, like praying five specific times every day in the direction of Mecca, allowed “Nastulus” -- Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh (or Bastulus) – to build the earliest surviving astrolabe, dated AH 315 (927/8 AD). The astrolabe, an astronomical instrument used to observe planetary movements, was indispensable for navigation, for finding the time of sunrise, for finding the direction of Mecca, or for calculating different lunar months. Even though NASA still uses an updated version of the astrolabe today, history has obscured this contribution.

All these astronomical computations eventually allowed Muslims to introduce spherical geometry, which goes beyond simple geometry.  Thus the use of trigonometric functions evolved from the early connection between geometry and astronomy. Today all credit goes to Greek scholars like Hipparchus of Bithynia, Menelaus of Alexandria, or Claudius Ptolemy from the 2nd century. However Greek trigonometry was merely a theoretical science among the Greeks. Trigonometry was actually developed to a level of modern perfection by the Muslim mathematicians over the span of several centuries. Al-Biruni established trigonometry as a distinct branch of mathematics back in the early 11th century. Muslim mathematicians discovered five out of six trigonometric functions to simplify all spherical geometric calculations: cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant and cosecant. They were also open-minded and accepted the sine function from India. Aided by these trigonometric functions, they calculated that the circumference of the earth was 7909 miles, which was only 23 miles off from the actual circumference (7932 miles), and that the distance around the Equator was about 24835 miles (24906 miles), which was 71 miles off. It was quite an achievement without any high-tech, modern telescope. But, we are dissuaded to concede the truth.     

I remember my early science schooling began by learning about the contributions of famous scholars like Ptolemy and Galileo. I had to memorize many tooth-breaking and tongue-twisting foreign names, digest them and make all the possible references during exams. However, Ptolemy’s planetary model of a motionless earth at the center of the solar system was wrong. Al-Biruni discussed that the earth neither stands still nor sits at the center of the solar system; rather the earth rotates around its axis. Al-Biruni made his proposition in the early 10th century, 600 years prior to Galileo’s affirmation in 1615 that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun. Still all credit goes to Galileo and we called him the “father of modern observational astronomy”.  

Greek scholar Ptolemy was right in one area for sure: that the earth is a globe. We all walk around the globe and some unknown force always pulls us into the center. In 1121, Abd al-Rahman al Khazini generalized the theory of the centre of gravity in his book, The Book of the Balance of Wisdom. He, with assistance of Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, al-Razi (Latinized as Rhazes) and Omar Khayyám, first applied his theory to three-dimensional bodies. In school, we did not learn about these intellectuals. However we never forget Isaac Newton whenever we talk about the theory of gravity, even though he simply refined and published the original idea several centuries later in 1687.

Greek scholars are remembered as innovators of many scientific ideas, many of which are not complete. Muslim scholars deserve recognition for their brilliant contributions too. But the cruel reality depicts a different tapestry, full of the limitations of our narrow mentalities. One such victim of such lame reservations was Al-Nazzam, who presented the theory of evolution in 845, which was was more than one thousand years before Charles Darwin officially published it in 1859.  Al-Nazzam and Al-Jahiz also wrote a voluminous treatise on animals, their struggle for survival and adaptation to physical environment. Strangely enough we only remember Charles Darwin’s name.

Political degradation and the spread of corruption over the years has threatened the very existence of today’s Muslims so badly that they have lost the ability to give birth to new ideas and have failed to produce the planning, means and policies for further progress. There are only a few Muslim Nobel Laureates. The participation of Muslims in the Olympics is easy to dismiss. Their contribution in literature is very nominal and in science is marginal. Who will believe that Islamic intellectual achievement was once the envy of the world?

Today many Muslim youths have no idea about it, let alone non-Muslim people. I write to repair the distorted historical image of Muslims and to restore the truth; to reveal the scholarly pursuits and the accomplishments that have been buried in the passage of several century worth of conspiracy. Merely glorifying the past is not enough, but this might encourage young Muslims into further dynamic research to work toward the reincarnation of another Muslim golden age.  

Rasheed Al Rabbi is an Information Technology specialist and PhD student in Software Engineering at George Mason University. He can be reached at