Islam’s Pyrite Age

June 30, 2020 Category: History


In order to cultivate an accurate understanding of what Islam’s Pyrite Age really was (and what it was NOT), it is necessary to debunk some of the popular myths that surround it.  Let’s assay four of the most prevalent falsehoods that proliferate to the present day.  First: The development of what came to be called “algebra”.  Second: The development of what came to be called “Arabic numerals” (replete with the use of “zero” and of a decimal system).  Third: The invention of the astrolabe.  Fourth: Contributions to the progress of medicine.

Let’s look at each in turn.

ONE: Arguably the most famous thinker associated with the “House of Wisdom” was the Persian polymath, Mohammad ibn Musa of Khwarezm (a.k.a. “Al-Khwarizmi), who made advances in algebra in the 9th century.  He did not, as some say, INVENT algebra.  Due to this one figure, it has become a trope in Islamic lore that the modern world has Muslims to thank for algebra.  As we’ll see, this is not true.

It was the Indians who first formalized what would later be dubbed “algebra”.  Yet the genesis of a generalized system for expressing and solving equations can actually be traced back to ancient Babylon.  Babylonian thinkers developed arithmetical processes by which one can perform calculations in an algorithmic manner.  They even used formulae for finding solutions to problems that would later be solved using linear and quadratic equations.  

So as early as the Bronze Age, prodigious headway was made in ancient Egypt as well.  Indeed, the hypothetical-deductive method so integral to science originated among ancient Egyptian priests. Notably, the mathematician, Ahmose of Thebes / Kerma composed the “Rhind” papyrus c. 1650 B.C., which laid the groundwork for algebra and Euclidian geometry.

In Axial Age China, the “Mo Jing”, the “Jiu-zhang Suan-shu”, and numerous texts associated with Sun Tzu broke new ground in mathematics.  

In the 4th century B.C., Eudoxos of Knidos [Caria] pioneered (what would later be called) Cartesian equations with his “Kampyle of Eudoxus”.  Meanwhile, Thymaridas of Paros studied linear equations. Then Menaechmos of Thrace developed equations for parabolae, hyperbolae, and ellipses (the study of conic sections).

Most famously, Greek mathematician, Euclid of Alexandria pioneered the generalization of formulae (beyond simply finding solutions to specific problems) with his “Elements” c. 300 B.C. (a work that also pioneered geometry).  Other Hellenistic mathematicians like Hero of Alexandria and Archimedes of Syracuse pioneered trigonometry.

In the 3rd century B.C., the Indian mathematician, Pingala penned the “Chanda-shastra”, in which he explicated what would later be called “Pascal’s Triangle” (a way of representing of binomial coefficients).  Meanwhile, in China, scholars composed the “Chiu-chang Suan-shu” [Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art] c. 250 B.C.

In the 2nd century B.C., Hipparchus of Nicaea (Bithynia) pioneered trigonometry.  Then Theodosius (also of Bithynia) penned “Sphærics”, in which he expounded on how to calculate the volume of a sphere.

Fast-forward to the 3rd century A.D.  Diophantus of Alexandria penned his “Arithmetika”, in which he presented 130 algebraic problems (primarily quadratic equations), and procured numerical solutions to determinate equations; while evaluating indeterminate equations.

The Islamic world clearly made use of this work. How can we be so sure? A cache of manuscripts for the entire corpus–composed IN KUFIC SCRIPT–were discovered at the 10th-century library of “Asta[n]-Quds-Raz[a]vi” at Mashhan in Khorasan.  (They seem to have been translated by the Melkite mathematician, Qusta ibn Luqa of Baalbek in the 9th century.)

In the late 5th / early 6th century, Indian mathematician, Arya-bhata of Kusumapura / Pataliputra [Bihar] laid further groundwork for algebra and trigonometry with his magnum opus, the “Ashmaka-tantra” [Book of Solutions; later rendered “Aryabhatiya” in Classical Arabic].  Further work in trigonometric functions was done by Varaha-mihira.

Two centuries before Al-Khwarizmi wrote his magnum opus (the “Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”), the great Indian mathematician, Brahma-gupta of Rajasthan [Gurjurata] pioneered algebra and geometry–especially the treatment of quadratic equations.  His magnum opus, the “Brahma-sphuta-Siddhanta” included an explication of the quadratic formula.  As it turns out, Brahma-gupta’s landmark work was produced the year that Mohammed of Mecca slaughtered the Jews of Khaybar (c. 628).

The very next year (while Mohammed was attacking the Ghassanids at Mu’tah), the Marathi mathematician, Bhaskara of Maharashtra found solutions to the algebraic “Pell” equations AND resolved the sine function in trigonometry.  He also elaborated upon Arya-bhata’s work.  Al-Khwarizmi composed his magnum opus TWO CENTURIES after that.

Thinkers in Dar al-Islam were well aware of their indebtedness to the achievements of Indian mathematicians.  Al-Fazari’s celebrated work on trigonometry and astronomy (the “Zij al-Sind-Hind”) from the late 8th century was–doubly–named after the land of the Hindus (the Sindh); and was explicitly based on Indian methodology.  (We have a record of this last work thanks to the 12th-century English natural philosopher, Adelard of Bath.)  Tellingly, Muslims LATER re-titled this work, the “Zij ala-Sini al-Arab” in order to elide the origins of its insights.  This had the added effect of leaving people with the impression that Indian numerals were to be considered “Arabic” numerals (as we’ll see below).

Work on trigonometry was also done (in Baghdad) by Wabash al-Hasib al-Marwazi c. 800.  And a contemporary of Al-Khwarizmi (the Jain mathematician, Maha-vira “Charya” of Karnataka) pioneered algebra with his “Ganita Sara Sangraha”, wherein he devised complex algebraic identities, new ways to manipulate fractions, and formulae for the area and perimeter of ellipses. That was in the 840’s. Suffice to say: By the time Al-Khwarizmi lived, it was well-known that the field had been pioneered by the Indians.

Thus the celebrated Muslim icon picked up where earlier pioneers had left off.  Al-Khwarizmi penned the “Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi Hisab al-Jabr wa’l-Muqabala” between the 820’s and 830’s. In it, he made some contributions to “algebra” (as it would later come to be known, via the Romanized “Algebræ”). {5}  His work focused primarily on solving quadratic equations. The exposition was distinct in that he employed words instead of symbols.  In other words, his disquisition was more rhetorical in nature than it was rigorously mathematical.

Al-Khwarizmi also elaborated upon the aforementioned work by “Arya-bhata” on pi (as it was used for calculations of areas and volumes). Alas, it would not be long before the myth that Al-Khwarizmi had “invented algebra” caught on; and soon thereafter, the Europeans who made use of his book forgot about the accomplishments that preceded him.

It was c. 900 that Abu Kamil Shuja ibn Aslam solved three non-linear simultaneous equations with three unknown variables.  Further work on trigonometry was done by Persian astronomer, Abu al-Wafa al-Buzjani in the late 10th century.  And, working off of the work of Diophantus, the Persian mathematician, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-Hasan of Karaj (a.k.a. “Al-Karaji”) pioneered the manipulation of polynomials, giving the first formulation of binomial coefficients c. 1000.

It was not until the late 11th century that the renowned Persian polymath, Omar Khayyam of Nishapur (a protege of Avicenna) made further advances–notably: solving quadratic and cubic equations.

We should bear in mind that none of this had anything to do with fealty to Islamic doctrine. In sum: Such insights had much more to do with exceptional PEOPLE than an exception AGE.

TWO: Some Muslims today like to take credit for the Indian decimal system–misleadingly referring to the numerals as “Arabic”.  Such commentators may wish to consult a major work by the above-mentioned Persian mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi–which was helpfully entitled: “On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals”. Also revealing is the title for his other landmark work: “The Book of Addition and Subtraction According to Hindu Calculation” (composed in the 820’s).  Considering this, it should come as little surprise that the renown Italian pedagogue, Baldassarre Boncompagni, would later refer to Al-Khwarizmi’s work on algorithms as “The Hindu Art of Reckoning”.

The popularization of characterizing Indian numerals as “ARABIC” numerals seems to have begun with commentaries by the Italian mathematician, Leonardo of Pisa (a.k.a. “Fibonacci”).  The irony is that Fibonacci was explicit in specifying the ACTUAL origin of the numerical system.  In his magnum opus, “Liber Abaci” (1206), he introduced what he referred to as the “modus Indorum” [Indian method].  Alas, the misnomer “Arabic numerals” caught on nevertheless. It has stuck every since.

The history of this subject is quite interesting.  Indians had established precursors to the numeric system in the 3rd century A.D.–as attested by the Bakhshali manuscript.  It was even the Indians who pioneered the formal use of “zero” (an Arabic morpheme, but originally referred to as “sunya” in Sanskrit).  There had been a Babylonian-inspired version of zero going back to Hipparchus of Nicaea during Classical Antiquity.  Meanwhile, there was a version of zero used by the Tang (Chinese) mathematical treatise, “Sunzi Suan-jing” from the 3rd century A.D.  In India, the first major appearance of zero was likely in the Jain treatise, “Loka-vibhaga” c. 458 A.D.

It was in the late 5th century, Arya-bhata of Kusumapura / Pataliputra [Bihar] developed the numerical system–replete with zero, negative numbers, and a decimal system–which he used to represent the value of pi in his “Ashmaka-tantra” [Book of Solutions]  As already mentioned, that work also included early work in both geometry and algebra; and would later be rendered in Arabic as the “Aryabhatiya”.  The system would eventually be adopted by the Arabs; and mislabeled “Arab numerals” by the Europeans…who worked from material gleaned from the Muslim world.

Bottom line: The numerals used throughout the world today, which are often referred to as “Arabic numerals”, are actually INDIAN numerals. {15}

THREE: Islamic apologists often (erroneously) cite the 11th-century Andalusian instrument-maker, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Zarqalluh (a.k.a. “Al-Zarqali”;  “Arzachel”) as the “inventor” of the astrolabe.  It’s worth reviewing the history of this amazing technology.

The Chinese had been using compasses since the 4th century B.C.  And the Vikings had perfected the device for marine navigation by c. 800.

The earliest version of the astrolabe was purportedly invented by Apollonius of Perga in the late 3rd century B.C.  The first astrolabe of renown was a design by Hipparchus of Nicaea from the 2nd century B.C.  The device was then refined by Theon of Alexandria in the 4th century A.D.  His storied daughter, Hypatia was credited with design contributions as well (also in the 4th century).

During the lifetime of Islam’s prophet, the great Syriac scholar, Severus Sebokht of Nisibus is known to have made further advances in the (extremely useful) device.  Alas, the first MUSLIM credited with modifying designs of the instrument was the son of the celebrated Persian scholar, Ibrahim al-Fazari (named Mohammed).  That was not until the late 8th century.  Incidentally, it was THAT Persian father-son team that adopted the Indian numerical system by translating works by Indian mathematicians into Classical Arabic, entitled “Zij al-Sind-Hind”–thereby rendering what is now (misleadingly) called “Arabic numerals”.  (That project was commissioned by Abbasid caliph, Al-Mansur.)

During the Islamic “Golden Age”, there was an efflorescence in the design of astrolabes–naturally, as Dar al-Islam had come to encompass the Mediterranean Sea–and was engaging not just in trade, but conquest and piracy on the high seas.  (Incidentally, the primary trade was the SLAVE trade.)  Needless to say, there was a high demand for navigation technology; so it would have been odd if they had NOT engaged in maritime innovations.  Unfortunately, the primary use of the device in Dar al-Islam was in Barbary corsairs for the purpose of pillaging and enslavement.

It is worth noting that the Arabic term for the device, “asturlab” comes from the Greek “astrolabos”.  Had the Arabs invented the device, they surely would have come up with their own name.

FOUR: To put advances made in Dar al-Islam in context, it is worth reviewing the progress of the medical sciences.  There was, indeed, some sporadic headway made in medicine in the Muslim world; but, less often mentioned, the majority of it was a reflection of advances that had been made much earlier…in foreign lands.  For example, the need for sanitization in surgery had been recognized as far back as the 22nd century B.C. by the Sumerians.

Famed Indian physician, Sushruta of Varanasi / Taxila made major medical advances c. 600 B.C. (ref. the “Shushruta Samhita”).  Shortly thereafter, Charaka of Gandhara (known as the Father of Medicine) composed his landmark works.  Indeed, the “Chakara Samhita” was the first treatise to establish ethical codes in medical practice.

Later, Hippocrates of Kos made groundbreaking discoveries (e.g. the need for antiseptics) c. 400 B.C.  In the late 4th century B.C., the Mauryan sage, “Chanakya” (alt. “Kautilya”) served in the court of the Kushan king, Kanishka the Great.  (He is sometimes referred to as “Vishnu-gupta”, as he is also said to have also advised the great Mauryan king, Chandra-gupta during his capacity as teacher at the great university of Taksha-shila.)  He pioneered the philosophy of medicine known as “ayurveda”.

The Chinese “Huangdi Neijing” (basis for herbal medicine) was compiled in the 2nd century B.C.  

In the 1st century A.D., Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides of Cilicia compiled a massive pharmacopoeia, “De Materia Medica”; while the Indian sage, Bharadvaja Barhaspatya composed his “ayurveda” treatise.  

In the 2nd century A.D., Roman Pyrrhonist, Sextus Empiricus made major medical advances at the school in Alexandria.  And in the 5th century, the Byzantine thinker, Aëtius of Amida made significant contributions to medical thought.

By the time Mohammed of Mecca was undertaking his ministry, Aaron of Alexandria was breaking new ground in medicine with his “Pandects” (which were promptly translated into Syriac); and Alexander of Tralles had composed his “Twelve Books On Medicine”.  Meanwhile, the Kashmiri “ayurveda” scholar, Vagbhata of Sind made contributions to medical thought in the Far East.

Around the time Mohammed of Mecca was undertaking his ministry, Isadore of Seville was composing his 20-volume compendium of all human knowledge: the “Etymologies”, which sought to bring together all the world’s scholarship.  This offered far far far more insight into the natural world than anything in the Koran or Hadith. {51}

Yet for centuries after Mohammed’s death, the Muslim world remained steeped in daffy superstition–as is illustrated by the famous (yet medically worthless) 9th-century opus, “Al-Risalah al-Dhahabiah” [The Golden Treatise] by Ali ibn Musa al-Ridha (a.k.a. “Imam Reza”).  Commissioned by Abbasid Caliph, Al-Ma’mun, the treatise was largely about the so-called “humors”–a theory popularized by Galen of Pergamon. {4}

Limited headway was then made by the Persian physician, Al-Razi (mentioned forthwith) in the 10th century; yet this added very little of note to medical knowledge.  It was at this time in China that vaccination was first used (as an inoculation against smallpox); a method later employed during the Ming Dynasty.

The purported medical insights of the Persian physician, Ali ibn al-Abbas al-Majusi of Ahvaz (a.k.a. “Haly Abbas”) were also wanting.  His “Kitab Kamil al-Sina’a al-Tibbiyya” [Book of the Complete Art of Medicine] primarily concerned protocols for medical practice (with focus on the relationship between doctor and patient).  That is to say, his contributions had largely to do with etiquette (e.g. bedside manner); not so much with medical knowledge.

When Avicenna (finally) wrote the first pioneering work in medicine in the Muslim world, the “Qanun fi at-Tibb” [Canon of Medicine] in the 11th century, he was working off the translated works of Sushruta and Hippocrates.  Unfortunately, he was co-opting (spurious) material from Galen as well.  The same goes for Abu al-Wasim al-Zahrawi (a.k.a. “Albucasis”, author of the “Kitab at-Tasrif”) in the late 11th century; and then Avenzoar in the early 12th century.  Alas, cribbing from others’ work was commonplace throughout the Muslim world.

The 13th-century expositor, Ibn al-Nafis is a celebrated figure in the history of medicine; yet his work (the “Theologus Autodidactus”) was preceded by the advances of the Italian physicians, Hugh and Theodoric of Lucca.

By the early 14th century, Guy de Chauliac had written his landmark work, “Chirurgia Magnus”.  This was also when the Persian physician, Sadid ad-Din Muhammad ibn Mas’ud of Kazarun / Fars earned renown–though HIS contributions were primarily a matter of writing commentaries on the works of the aforementioned Avicenna.

Often, when Muslims DID try to offer advise on (medicinal) remedies based on the teachings of MoM–rather than on, say, Hippocrates, it was little more than balderdash.  Case in point: the writings of Mamluk commentator, Al-Dhahabi of Damascus in the 14th century.

So when Claude Bernard composed his “Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine” in the early 1860’s, his insights were gleaned via exclusively secular means. Clearly, NO religion–let alone Islam–had anything to do with any of the progress made in this field at any point.

Here’s the thing: The Koran and Hadith make no mention of germs or infection.  This is an elementary insight that would have forestalled endless–and eminently avoidable–death and suffering over the course of many centuries.  It should come as no surprise, then, that for over a millennium after Mohammed’s ministry, the Muslim world was using a panoply of dubious medieval “remedies” that had no bearing whatsoever on genuine medicine.

The fact of the matter is that almost all of the Muslim icons now referred to as “physicians” were hardly men of science.  Most were analogous to such famed ersatz “physicians” as the 4th-century Gallic healer, Marcellus Empiricus of Burdigala [Bordeaux] (who promulgated folk-remedies rather than practicing bona fide medicine).  Such healers invoked magic more than they offered scientific insight.  Both inside and outside Dar al-Islam, such “apothecaries” proliferated in ancient times; and are hardly worthy of celebration.

Thus four major myths about Islam’s “Golden Age” are debunked.  By this point, it should be clear that there is no such thing as Indian science or Persian science or Greek science or Roman science…or Judaic / Christian / Hindu / Buddhist / Zoroastrian science…let alone ARAB or ISLAMIC science.  There is only SCIENCE.

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