8 Great Inventions Created by Muslims
When thousands of “patriotic Europeans” took to the streets once again in Dresden to protest “the Islamisation of the West,” their actions were the result not only of resentment and fear, but also of ignorance.
Luckily for us, our central European culture has benefited from Islamic influences for thousands of years.
If, on Monday evening in Dresden, one of the speakers adjusts his glasses, he probably doesn’t know he’s holding an invention from the Arab world. If one of the protesters starts singing right-wing songs, then he might be accompanying them on an instrument with Arabic origins – the guitar. And, on their placards, the supposedly horrifying figures about immigration will be written in Arabic numerals. Here are the eight things we owe to great Muslim civilizations.
- The numeral system
Many Westerners, Germans in particular, are proud of their feats of technology and engineering. But where would engineers be without numbers? The numeral system of 1 to 9 which we use today dates back to the “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad. It is thought that our numeral system was invented there in the ninth century AD.
The numerals became known to Europe in the twelfth century, when British Arabist Robert of Chester translated the writings of Arab scholar Al-Khwarizmi. Al-Khwarizmi, for whom algorithms are named, is known as the developer of modern algebra — yet another invention from the Muslim world.
- The toothbrush
Islam was the one of the first world religions to place particular emphasis on bodily hygiene. The Quran includes instructions for ritual washing. It is no wonder, therefore, that dental hygiene also grew in popularity as Islam did. Admittedly, the ancient Egyptians are thought to have chewed on twigs from the “toothbrush tree.”
However, the twigs, also known as “miswak”, only became known to a wider public when the Prophet Mohammed regularly used them to brush his teeth. While there is no mention of miswak twigs in the Quran, they are mentioned many times in writings by Muslim scholars.
- Marching bands
Military marching bands date back to the Ottoman Mehterhane. These were bands which played during the entire battle and only ceased their music-making when the army retreated or the battle was over.
During the wars with the Ottoman Empire, the bands are thought to have made a considerable impression on European soldiers – after which they adapted the principle for their own use.
- The guitar
The guitar, as we know it today, has its origins in the Arabic oud – a lute with a bent neck. During the Middle Ages, it found its way to Muslim Spain, where it was referred to as “qitara” in the Arabic of Andalusia.
It is said that a music teacher brought one to the court of the Umayyad ruler Abdel Rahman II in the ninth century. The modern guitar developed as a result of many influences, but the Arabic lute was its most important predecessor.
- Magnifying glass/glasses
Not only did the Arab world revolutionize mathematics – it also revolutionized optics. The scholar Alhazen (Abu al-Hasan) from Basra was the first person to describe how the eye works.
He carried out experiments with reflective materials and proved that the eye does not sense the environment with “sight rays,” as scientists had believed up until then. He also discovered that curved glass surfaces can be used for magnification.
His glass “reading stones” were the first magnifying glasses. It was from these that glasses were later developed. Furthermore, Alhazen wrote important scholarly texts on astronomy and meteorology.
Coffee is the best known of the Muslim world’s exports. While it originated in Ethiopia, it soon found its way over the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula, where it grew in popularity.
It is thought that an Ottoman merchant brought the bean-based beverage to London in the 17th century. Venice gained its first coffee house in 1645, while Germany got to know the drink following the retreat of the Turks from Austria in 1683. Legend has it that the Sultan’s soldiers left sackloads of coffee behind.
The first modern hospital with nurses and a training centre was in Cairo. In the Ahmed IbnTulun hospital (named for the founder of the Tulunid dynasty), which was established in the year 872, all patients received free health care – a Muslim tradition which was institutionalized with the advent of the hospital.
Slightly more basic hospitals had existed prior to this in Baghdad. But it was the Cairo model which would later serve as the template for hospitals all around the globe.
The Andalusian-born doctor Albucasis (Abu al-Kasim) was one of the most significant medical figures of the Middle Ages. In the more than 30 volumes he wrote, the tenth-century Arab scholar described how important a positive patient-doctor relationship is, and argued for the same standard of medical care for all, regardless of social class.
He also invented methods for surgically treating diseases of the urethra, the ear and the esophagus, and was the first person to describe an ectopic pregnancy. So great was his influence that he was still being quoted by leading European physicians in the 16th century. His ideas shaped modern surgery.