When you go out in the middle of the night and look at the seemingly billions of stars, you start to realize your position and scale in a massive and indifferent universe but how many of those stars can you name? I can name around five, All of these names are actually Arabic. In fact, around two-thirds of the stars that have names, have Arabic names and we have one period of history to thank for that, the Islamic Golden Age.

The Islamic Golden Age

First of all, What was the Golden Age of Islam?It was a period of time roughly around 500 years when scientific studies and research in fields like medicine, economics, mathematics geography, astronomy, and many more were flourishing in the Islamic World. Muslims contributed greatly to science, culture, and literature. One of the most famous and scary examples is Algebra which was founded by Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian polymath. Here’s another question, what was Islamic about it? When we call it the Islamic Golden Age, the idea comes to mind that it was just Muslims but it really wasn’t. For instance, many personal Physicians to the Abbasid Caliphs themselves were Christians. A Christian called Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi was the head of the House of Wisdom for a long period of time, he was given that position by Al-Ma’mun. Jews and Zoroastrians played a huge role in translating old works of Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, and Hindu origin into Arabic. People of all religions and cultures came together in Baghdad to fuel the Islamic Golden Age. So, from this point on, when I use the term Islamic Scholars, I don’t mean necessarily Muslim Scholars but also, Scholars from other faiths and cultures. I mean all scholars who worked under the patronage of a Muslim ruler or a state that had Islam as its state religion. So, when did the Golden Age start? A lot of people put the starting date around 786CE when caliph Harun al-Rashid ascended to the throne. Some Muslims tend to put it around 610CE when Muhammad received his revelation because well, of course, they do. I personally put it around 25th of January, 750 CE because, well, that’s the year that the Abbasids came to power. All of them together made the conditions that made a Golden Age even possible. For instance, Al-Mansur founded the city of Baghdad, the center of the Golden Age, and the paper was made famous during Al-Mahdi’s reign. As you might expect, paper played a huge role in the Golden Age. It was taken from the Chinese in 751CE, during As-Saffah’s reign so you know, all of the caliphs before Harun al-Rashid played some role in bringing the Golden Age. The most important thing, I think during the Golden Age, was the Translation Movement. Muslims were in control of many important centers of learning of the ancient world. Cities like Alexandria, once home to the great library, now a mere shadow of its former self. Gondishapur, which was home to a great academy. Many alumni of this academy went on to work at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. From these old cities, Muslims inherited a massive collection of books and manuscripts written primarily in Greek, Persian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and to some extent, Latin. Scholars went on to translate these books to preserve their knowledge. They translated these books into Arabic. A huge number of ancient Greek works only exist today because of this movement. I’ve even read somewhere that a scribe who translated a book was given the book’s weight in Gold. The Christian physician I mentioned before Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi was known as the Sheikh of the Translators because he translated many books from Greek to Arabic including Plato’s Republic. Islamic Scholars didn’t only take and translate works, they also contributed to them. They learned from them and did further research on them. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi famously founded the basis of Algebra. He also made commentary and improved upon Ptolemy’s works on Geography. Ibn Mua’dh al-Jiyyani, inspired by Euclid’s work, wrote the earliest known treatise on spherical trigonometry. Ibn al-Haytham did groundbreaking work on optics. He was also the first known scholar to suggest the use of experimentation to prove the hypothesis. I like to think of him as the first scientist. Ibn al-Nafis made commentaries on Hippocrates’ work and he also described the pulmonary circulation of blood. First known person to do so. I’ll go into more detail about the contributions of the Islamic Scholars in future videos about the Golden Age. Now, why Baghdad? In one word, I think, Geography. Baghdad was founded in Mesopotamia, which was rich in agriculture, so the city had the right conditions to grow, become a metropolitan city, one big enough to be rich, and to house all the immigrants it needed and it did need a lot of immigrants. Educated people from throughout the empire or even beyond the empire were given the incentive to move to Baghdad. This made sure all the smart people were attracted to Baghdad. In addition to that, many centers of learning from the ancient world were under Islamic Control now, thanks to more than a century of conquests. All these cities contributed their knowledge to the House of Wisdom. Persia, for instance, played a huge role. The academy mentioned earlier was home to thousands of manuscripts and hundreds of scholars. All of which were moved to Baghdad. Together these factors created an intellectual revolution. The most important edge that the Abbasids had was that they controlled a significant portion of the Silk Road. The Silk Road, if you don’t know, was an old network of trade routes that were used to trade goods between China, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Along with goods, ideas traveled on this road. Also, to some extent, disease but let’s not discuss that. Let say that the Indians invent something, if it looks like it’ll be profitable, some merchants will buy it from India and sell it in the Levant, maybe in Damascus or Jerusalem. From there, if it looks like it’ll sell in the European market, some merchants will take it to Europe. This way the world was very connected and the cities that were on the Silk Road were some of the most important cities in history. The Abbasid Empire was controlling a significant portion of those cities so any ideas that traveled down the Silk Road, found its way to Baghdad. Now, when I was younger and I first read about the Golden Age, what came to my mind was that the Muslims just took works from other and made some improvements, that’s not a big deal but well, that’s one of the reasons I wanna kill my younger self. As I grew up, I realized that you have to build upon the works of others. You can’t do anything without those who came before. “Our life is made by the death of others”, as Leonardo Da Vinci said. If you’re a writer, you probably read a lot. If you’re an artist, you look at other artists’ artworks a lot. When you’re new to a field, you look at and learn from others who have been there before you and over time, you mix their style with your own unique style and make something new. Sort of a remix and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m going to link a great video by Nerd Sync here. So, that’s why in this video, I keep talking about the importance of the older works that Baghdad had access to. Without them, there could never have been an Islamic Golden Age. Muslims took works from the people who had been there before and remixed them to make something new. Then, the Europeans during the Renaissance took those works and remixed them to make something newer. The device that you’re watching this video on, for instance, has a microprocessor in it that runs on programming, an extension of the concepts proposed by the goddess Ada Lovelace. The program uses binary. Binary is made of two numbers, 1 and 0. 0 was popularized by the Islamic Scholars. Those Islamic Scholars took it from the Indians. The device you’re watching it on might look like magic to those Indians but for us, it was sort of a natural progression over things that came before it. The end of the Golden Age is said to be in 1258 CE when Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad. It’s said that the Tigris river ran black with ink from the books and manuscripts flung into the river. The leather covers of those books were used to make shoes by the Barbarians. For the Muslim world, the shock of this event was unparalleled. Baghdad was an important center of learning. It was a hub of international trade. It was the home to the Caliph. Anywhere from 200,000 to a million people were slaughtered. The Mongols killed so many people that Hulagu himself couldn’t stay in the city because of the stench of the dead bodies. However, I don’t believe that this was the end of the Golden Age. It didn’t end as much as it dispersed. Islamic Scholars still continued to do scientific work in other places like Cordoba and Cairo. Scholars like Ibn Khaldun continued to do great work away from Baghdad. All of this kinda makes you wonder what happened to the Muslims, how’d they go from pioneers of science and culture to well, today. See you next time. Read also about The Life of Prophet Muhammad, The Last Messenger Of God.

22 COMMENTS

  1. […] Probably in 780CE, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was born. He was born in Khwarazm in Central Asia. Technically, he was Persian. Al-Tabari even calls him, “al-Majusi” in his books hinting to the fact that he might’ve been a Zoroastrian but al-Khwarizmi started his books by praising Allah and the Prophet Muhammad so, it’s unlikely that he was a Zoroastrian. According to some sources, he was the eldest of the famous Banu Musa brothers but that’s probably not true. A story for another time, though. Throughout his life, al-Khwarizmi wrote various treatises. The earliest of which are clearly based onZij al-Sindhind and some works of Brahmagupta, an Indian mathematician, who had died in the middle of the seventh century. It was Brahmagupta who invented zero and the decimal number system. However, while al-Khwarizmi accepted the usage of zero, he did not quite use negative numbers which had also been introduced by Brahmagupta. In fact, the Arabs quite use them at all initially. Any equation that would result in a negative number was simply ignored by Islamic Scholars. Part of it was because of the practicality of Mathematics in the Arab mind. Al-Khwarizmi was one of, if not the first person to use zero as a means to increase a number tenfold. Add a zero next to two and it comes twenty. The idea was not widely accepted even as late as Renaissance Europe. Thabit ibn Qurra, another mathematician of the 9th century, received considerable opposition from his pro-Greek community for his pro-Arabicsympathies and using the Hindu numerals when he was a Syrian and Syria was heavily Greek, at least in culture and language, at the time. I can only imagine a bunch of mathematicians throwing shade at each other for using one system or the other. The Hindu numeral system varied quite a bit throughout the Muslim world and even today, there’s an alternate system used in many Islamic countries. Like most innovations in the Islamic world, it arrived in Europe through Spain. In the 970s, Codex Vigilanus was written in Spain and it’s the first known European Manuscript to use the Arabic Numerals. By the 14th century, the rich Italian merchants were using it and so, everyone started using it as well. The Europeans, since they took it from a Persian and didn’t know the difference between Arab and Persian, called it the Arabic Numeral system. More recently, the Hindus are getting their due credit and it’s being called the Hindu-Arabic Numerals system. So, the Hindu numerals, which were indeed superior, won out over the Greek numerals in the end, just like T-Series did. Is that meme still relevant? In the 830s. Al-Mamun wrote a letter to al-Khwarizmi who was either employed as a scholar or as the head of the House of Wisdom, at the time. In the letter, al-Mamun encouraged him to compose a short work on calculating by the rules of completion and reduction. He intended it to serve all kinds of purposes from inheritance distribution to trade and even in regards to architectural projects like digging canals. This resulted in al-Khawarizmi writing a book known as al-Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi Hisab al-Jabr wal-Muqabala. In English, this would be, “The short Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”, a book that became a household name in western Europe a few centuries later. As Carl Boyer writes in A History of Mathematics… Algebra or proto-algebra did exist before-Khwarizmi. He took influence from a number of sources like the Indians, the Babylonians, the Syrians, and the Greeks as evident by the problems and examples in his book but he mixed them all, taking what he believed to be useful. Some parts have clear influences while others do not but what I like the most about Al-Jabr is that it gives very nice and realistic examples points. Inheritance distribution was, after all, one of the reasons that the book was written so, in places, he used the examples of exactly that. Al-Jabr was translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in 1145 after which it became a principal mathematics textbook in Europe and its universities. This is the place where it gets a bit boring for those of you not interested in Mathematics. Al-Khwarizmi classified his problems into six standard forms as shown on the screen. 1. Squares equal to roots. Example: ax2 = bx2. Squares equal to numbers. Example: ax2 = b3. Roots equal to numbers. Example: ax = b4. Squares and roots equal to numbers. Example: ax2 + bx = c5. Squares and numbers equal to roots. Example: ax2 + c = bx6. Roots and numbers equal to squares. Example: ax2 = bx + cIf you remember from those classes you slept through, these equations are just multiple ways to express the General Quadratic Equation (ax2 + bx + c = 0). However, al-Khwarizmi has to write them this way to avoid negative numbers. Like mentioned before, Algebra was mainly invented to solve practical everyday problems and in most of those matters, we don’t use negative numbers, after all, no heir of property ever gets a negative share. Through demonstrations, al-Khwarizmi was, however, able to demonstrate that a quadratic equation can have multiple solutions. Al-Khwarizmi relied heavily on Greek Geometryfor his problems. He often drew line segments and rectangles to illustrate numbers. In order to solve a quadratic equation, al-Khwarizmieven draw squares and actually added sides to them to find the roots. It’s an incredible way of visualizing it, in my opinion. Now, I’m going to mix the two things people love the most – History and Mathematics. So, let’s get started. You can skip it if you like. So, al-Khwarizmi takes this equation. He draws a square with an area of x2 and each side of the length x. He has to add a total area of 10x to this square now. Since a square has four sides, he divides the value by 4 which results in 5x/2. He adds rectangles of length x and width 5/2on all four sides. The area of the new rectangles is 5/2 * x. However, the square is not complete. To fill the corners, he creates smaller squares. These are of the length 5/2 and of the area25/4. The area of all four of these little squares 25. Back to the equation, he adds 25 to both sides and simplifies it. The answer comes out to be 3. This example again shows why al-Khwarizmiignored negative numbers. Since he thought of algebra in terms of real-world measurements and the length of a side can’t be negative, he did not consider it. It’s because of al-Khwarizmi using examples like these that we have familiar terms like “completing the square”. It’s probably because of him that we even use the term square to represent a power of 2. Another mathematician named Abd al-Hamid ibn Turk wrote and published a similar manuscript around the same time as Al-Jabr if not before it. In some cases, both ibn Turk and al-Khwarizmiuse similar demonstrations, and in one case, they even used the same equation as an example. It’s unlikely that any of them plagiarized each other’s work. Rather, what’s possible is that some elementary foundations of algebra already existed and both these men contributed to it. Read Also about the Golden Age Of Islam […]

  2. […] Probably in 780CE, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was born. He was born in Khwarazm in Central Asia. Technically, he was Persian. Al-Tabari even calls him, “al-Majusi” in his books hinting to the fact that he might’ve been a Zoroastrian but al-Khwarizmi started his books by praising Allah and the Prophet Muhammad so, it’s unlikely that he was a Zoroastrian. According to some sources, he was the eldest of the famous Banu Musa brothers but that’s probably not true. A story for another time, though. Throughout his life, al-Khwarizmi wrote various treatises. The earliest of which are clearly based on Zij al-Sindhind and some works of Brahmagupta, an Indian mathematician, who had died in the middle of the seventh century. It was Brahmagupta who invented zero and the decimal number system. However, while al-Khwarizmi accepted the usage of zero, he did not quite use negative numbers which had also been introduced by Brahmagupta. In fact, the Arabs quite use them at all initially. Any equation that would result in a negative number was simply ignored by Islamic Scholars. Part of it was because of the practicality of Mathematics in the Arab mind. Al-Khwarizmi was one of, if not the first person to use zero as a means to increase a number tenfold. Add a zero next to two and it comes twenty. The idea was not widely accepted even as late as Renaissance Europe. Thabit ibn Qurra, another mathematician of the 9th century, received considerable opposition from his pro-Greek community for his pro-Arabicsympathies and using the Hindu numerals when he was a Syrian and Syria was heavily Greek, at least in culture and language, at the time. I can only imagine a bunch of mathematicians throwing shade at each other for using one system or the other. The Hindu numeral system varied quite a bit throughout the Muslim world and even today, there’s an alternate system used in many Islamic countries. Like most innovations in the Islamic world, it arrived in Europe through Spain. In the 970s, Codex Vigilanus was written in Spain and it’s the first known European Manuscript to use the Arabic Numerals. By the 14th century, the rich Italian merchants were using it and so, everyone started using it as well. The Europeans, since they took it from a Persian and didn’t know the difference between Arab and Persian, called it the Arabic Numeral system. More recently, the Hindus are getting their due credit and it’s being called the Hindu-Arabic Numerals system. So, the Hindu numerals, which were indeed superior, won out over the Greek numerals in the end, just like T-Series did. Is that meme still relevant? In the 830s. Al-Mamun wrote a letter to al-Khwarizmi who was either employed as a scholar or as the head of the House of Wisdom, at the time. In the letter, al-Mamun encouraged him to compose a short work on calculating by the rules of completion and reduction. He intended it to serve all kinds of purposes from inheritance distribution to trade and even in regards to architectural projects like digging canals. This resulted in al-Khawarizmi writing a book known as al-Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi Hisab al-Jabr wal-Muqabala. In English, this would be, “The short Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”, a book that became a household name in western Europe a few centuries later. As Carl Boyer writes in A History of Mathematics… Algebra or proto-algebra did exist before-Khwarizmi. He took influence from a number of sources like the Indians, the Babylonians, the Syrians, and the Greeks as evident by the problems and examples in his book but he mixed them all, taking what he believed to be useful. Some parts have clear influences while others do not but what I like the most about Al-Jabr is that it gives very nice and realistic examples points. Inheritance distribution was, after all, one of the reasons that the book was written so, in places, he used the examples of exactly that. Al-Jabr was translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in 1145 after which it became a principal mathematics textbook in Europe and its universities. This is the place where it gets a bit boring for those of you not interested in Mathematics. Al-Khwarizmi classified his problems into six standard forms as shown on the screen. 1. Squares equal to roots. Example: ax2 = bx2. Squares equal to numbers. Example: ax2 = b3. Roots equal to numbers. Example: ax = b4. Squares and roots equal to numbers. Example: ax2 + bx = c5. Squares and numbers equal to roots. Example: ax2 + c = bx6. Roots and numbers equal to squares. Example: ax2 = bx + cIf you remember from those classes you slept through, these equations are just multiple ways to express the General Quadratic Equation (ax2 + bx + c = 0). However, al-Khwarizmi has to write them this way to avoid negative numbers. Like mentioned before, Algebra was mainly invented to solve practical everyday problems and in most of those matters, we don’t use negative numbers, after all, no heir of property ever gets a negative share. Through demonstrations, al-Khwarizmi was, however, able to demonstrate that a quadratic equation can have multiple solutions. Al-Khwarizmi relied heavily on Greek Geometryfor his problems. He often drew line segments and rectangles to illustrate numbers. In order to solve a quadratic equation, al-Khwarizmieven draw squares and actually added sides to them to find the roots. It’s an incredible way of visualizing it, in my opinion. Now, I’m going to mix the two things people love the most – History and Mathematics. So, let’s get started. You can skip it if you like. So, al-Khwarizmi takes this equation. He draws a square with an area of x2 and each side of the length x. He has to add a total area of 10x to this square now. Since a square has four sides, he divides the value by 4 which results in 5x/2. He adds rectangles of length x and width 5/2on all four sides. The area of the new rectangles is 5/2 * x. However, the square is not complete. To fill the corners, he creates smaller squares. These are of the length 5/2 and of the area25/4. The area of all four of these little squares 25. Back to the equation, he adds 25 to both sides and simplifies it. The answer comes out to be 3. This example again shows why al-Khwarizmiignored negative numbers. Since he thought of algebra in terms of real-world measurements and the length of a side can’t be negative, he did not consider it. It’s because of al-Khwarizmi using examples like these that we have familiar terms like “completing the square”. It’s probably because of him that we even use the term square to represent a power of 2. Another mathematician named Abd al-Hamid ibn Turk wrote and published a similar manuscript around the same time as Al-Jabr if not before it. In some cases, both ibn Turk and al-Khwarizmiuse similar demonstrations, and in one case, they even used the same equation as an example. It’s unlikely that any of them plagiarized each other’s work. Rather, what’s possible is that some elementary foundations of algebra already existed and both these men contributed to it. Read Also about the Golden Age Of Islam […]

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