Islam and Civilization: Hidden History Islam and Civilization: Hidden History
Let us remember our great and glorious heritage by briefly surveying what Islam has already contributed to the world’s civilization, education, culture and to... Islam and Civilization: Hidden History
Moorish civilization

Alhambra, Spain

Let us remember our great and glorious heritage by briefly surveying what Islam has already contributed to the world’s civilization, education, culture and to scientific development. Unlike Western Christianity where Religion and Science are posed as two separate elements, the study of Science has always been compatible with Islam. Many young Muslims are discouraged when they see the poor standard of living of Muslims throughout the world and their limited opportunities. They also know the undeveloped status of technology within the Muslim countries in comparison with the West. From these observations, they immediately leap to the conclusion that the Muslim countries are ‘backward’, because Islam cannot adapt itself to the changing conditions; cannot assimilate new knowledge. Some even go so far as to say that Islam is actually against progress and against scientific advancement. However, those Muslims who have studied the later part of Islamic history will know that this is a complete fallacy and misconception.

M. Shahid Alam: In order to obscure Western Europe’s extensive debt to the Islamicate, they devalued the birth of new cultural formations in western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, flowing from contacts with the Arabs in Spain, Sicily and the Levant.4 Instead, this history was moved forward several centuries to place it in northern Italy, whose cultural flowering – defined as a rebirth – was connected to the ‘direct’ recovery of Greek philosophy, sciences and literature

Let us do a brief review of the contribution of Islam to civilization as we know it.

Trigonometry, Sine, Tangent, Co-Tangent

The Arabs developed these functions in trigonometry and Ibn Moosaa’s work Hisaab-Al Jab-Wal Muqaabala (The Calculation of Integration and Equation) presented 800 examples in the 8th century CE. His work was translated from Arabic into Latin and until the 16th century CE, it was Europe’s main textbook on the subject.

Algebra and Geometry

Muhammad bin Moosaa Al-Khawaarizmi is considered to be one of the founders of Algebra. The word ‘Algorithm’ or ‘Algorizm’ is a corruption of his name or the name of the town Khwaarizm (Kheva), in what is now Uzbekistan, where he was born. He adopted the use of ‘cipher’ (zero), that was devised in India some centuries earlier, a numeral of fundamental importance, leading up to the so-called arithmetic of positions and the decimal system. The very word ‘zero’ is a derivative of the Arabic ‘sifr’ or ‘cipher’. His pioneering work on the system of numerals is well known as “Algorithm,” or “Algorizm.” In addition to introducing the Arabic numerals, he developed several arithmetical procedures, including operations on fractions.

Another great mathematician was Omar Khayyaam, who offered to the world geometric and algebraic solutions of the second degree. Naseeruddeen wrote the treatise on quadrilateral trigonometry, as well as plain and spherical geometry.

Physics and Chemistry

Kamaaluddeen examined the refraction of sunlight in raindrops and offered an explanation of the genesis of primary and secondary rainbows. The story of the invention of the pendulum and the presentation of a water clock to Emperor Charlemagne by Haaroon Ar-Rasheed is well known.

The great historian Gibbons wrote in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume 5) that the science of chemistry owes its origin and improvements to the Muslims.

Science of Mechanics

The development of the science of mechanics in Islam is an act of genius. Moosaa bin Shaakir described one hundred pieces of mechanical equipment in his book of artifices. Other outstanding Muslim treatises included Al Kitaab Fi Ma`rifat Al-Hiya Al-Handasiyyah (The Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Geometrical Contrivances) by Abul Fiaz bin Al Raz and Al Kitaab Meezanal-Hikmah (The Book of Balance and Wisdom) by Al-Khazini. He also did work on accurate weighing, and determination of the specific gravity of substances.



In 1859, an English naturalist and geologist, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published a book entitled “The Origin of the Species,” which is considered the foundation of the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors.

Literature on Darwin and his heritage usually highlight the role of his observations of wild nature during his voyages to Australia, Cape Town, South America and islands in the Pacific as a source for his evolutionary theory. Yet, another source for his inspiration to study wild nature is barely mentioned, and that is the earlier Islamic literature in biology and zoology.

In reality, the serious scientific discussions on evolution began at least a thousand years before Charles Darwin, mainly by Muslim scholars. Abu Uthman ‘Amr ibn Bahr, commonly known as Al-Jahiz, was the originator of the idea of evolution through his famous book entitled “Kitab al-Hayawan” (“The Book of the Animals”). Al-Jahiz was an Arab prose writer, the author of works on adab, philosophy, Mu’tazili theology, politico-religious polemics and scientific essays. He was born in Basra in 776 and learned various disciplines at different mosque circles. Later he joined Mu’tazili circles and bourgeois saloons in Basra, Baghdad and Samarra, where conversations were animated by philosophical, theological and scientific problems.[1]

In his “Kitab al-Hayawan”, Al-Jahiz introduced the concept of food chains and also proposed a scheme of animal evolution that entailed natural selection, environmental determinism and possibly the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In difference from modern evolutionary theory, for Al-Jahiz, the will of Allah served as the antecedent or originator for all mutation and transformations. As he suggested, inanimate elevates to plant level and animals are evolved from plants. Man, according to Al-Jahiz, was an evolutionary stage of animals. He also widely discussed the concepts of struggle for existence, adaptation and animal psychology, the concepts that make the pivot of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.[2]

Al-Jahiz’s theory of evolution was something completely new in the history of science. He could be called the first evolutionist in the world. As Muhammad Iqbal wrote: “It was Jahiz (d.225 A.H.) who first hinted at the changes in animal life caused by migration and environment generally.”[3] George Sarton in his “Introduction to the History of Science” stated that the “Kitab al-Hayawan” of Al-Jahiz contains the germs of many later theories in biology and zoology: evolution, adaptation and animal psychology.[4]

After him, his revolutionary ideas about evolutionary mechanism and transformation of species were permeated into the works of many Muslim scholars and scientists such as Al-Farabi (870-950), Abu Al-Hasan Al-Mas’udi (d. 957), Ibn Miskawaih (d. 1032), Ibn Sina (980-1037), Al-Biruni (973-1048), Imam Raghib Al-Isfahani (d.1108), Ibn Tufayl (1100-1186), Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), the Ikhwan Al-Safa’, Maulana Jalal Al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), Al-Damiri (1344-1405), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and many others.[5]

These ideas of evolution were widely taught in medieval Islamic schools.[6] Accordingly, pre-Darwinian Muslim scholars had already discussed the concept of evolution and provided sufficient materials to Darwin for his theory who gave it scientific language. But how has Al-Jahiz’s idea been transmitted to the Europeans? Did Darwin know about these writings?

In fact, long before the rise of the school of natural philosophy in Germany, Al-Jahiz and others were well known to Europeans through translation of their works into European languages. For example, Al-Damiri’s “Hayat al-Hayawan” was partially translated into Latin by a Jew, called Abraham Echellensis and published in Paris in 1617. This Damiri’s book has many passages taken from Al-Jahiz’s book and is based on his Evolutionary theory. Along with many other works, Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy ibn Yaqzan,” which contains the philosophy of evolution, was first published in Latin in Oxford in 1671. Due to translation activities, Islamic knowledge of zoology and biology penetrated European universities as early as seventeenth century and provided the foundation for the development of modern disciplines of zoology and biology.

Interestingly, John William draper, a contemporary of Darwin, called evolutionary theory the “Mohammadan theory of evolution” in 1878. It means, these ideas of Muslim scholars were known to educated and scientific circles in Europe.

According to Imad Hasan and Shahnawaz, Charles Darwin studied about evolution from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who got the whole idea from Muslim philosophers preceded him by centuries. Then Darwin collected evidence by observations to support this idea.[7]

Besides, Charles Darwin himself knew Arabic and had the direct access to Arabic literature. He was initiated into Islamic culture in the faculty of religion at the University of Cambridge and learnt Arabic in order to understand Islam. He was the student of Samuel Lee, who was well-versed in oriental sources. According to the letters of Darwin, he used to meet his teacher and discuss the matters of mutual interest with him.[8]

So it is certain that Charles Darwin was familiar with the works and ideas of Muslim scholars and philosophers, including Al-Jahiz, and laid the foundation of his theory of evolution using the material derived from Muslim sources.[9]

Then, is it wise to claim that evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin is completely against Islamic worldview and reject it fully and say that it is alien to the Muslim thought?

Camera Obscura

In the field of optics, Camera Obscura was invented by Ibn Haytham in 1038 CE.

Theory of Relativity

Qaadhi Abu Bakr had developed the theory of relativity in the 8th century CE in terms of time and space by means of mathematical equations and astrophysics. Imagine, Einstein was not even born in the Western world, who propounded the same theory of relativity much later in the 20th century CE.


As far as geography was concerned, Muslim scientists established that the world was round in the 9th century CE, and the first map of the globe was made during the Caliphate of Ma’moon.

Paper Making

This was one of the earliest skills attained by the Muslims. As early as the 8th century CE, high quality paper was being manufactured in Samarqand. Egypt was known to have its first paper mill in the year 900 CE. The earliest Arabic manuscript written on paper that has been discovered is the Ghareeb Al Hadeeth by Abu ‘Ubayed, dated 837 CE. It can be seen in Holland preserved in the library at the University of Leyden.

Advances in Industry

Under Islamic rule, Spain was an industrial center. It was one of the wealthiest and most thickly populated of the European countries. Muslims were leading in weaving wool, producing silk, pottery, jewelry, leather and perfume industry. In the Middle Ages, world trade was commanded by Muslims and Baghdad, Bukhaara and Samarqand remained centers for world fairs until the 16th century CE. The Bayt Al-Hikmah at Cairo contained two million books, the library at Tripoli contained some three million, but this library was burned down by the Christians during the first Crusade.

Miracles of the Qur’an

Let us consider the hundreds of scientific facts mentioned in the Holy Quran. For example, the fact that the earth was previously a part of the sun and after its separation, it became a habitable place for humankind, as mentioned in chapter 21, verse 30. That matter is made up of sub-atomic particles (chapter 10, verse 61). That the embryo in the mother’s womb in enclosed by three epithelial coverings (chapter 39, verse 6). That each human being has a unique fingerprint (chapter 75, verse 4) etc. There are thousands of other scientific facts in the Holy Quran.

Regrettably, today the West is at its peak and we have lagged behind so far. However, our downfall is not due to Islam, as the West would like us to believe, but due to our sheer neglect of Islamic principles. We must realize that Islam is undeniably the most progressive religion, which is in fact a way of life with a very wide scope.





[3] Mohammad Iqbal, Dr., The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p.96. At another place in this book, Iqbal has again referred to al-Jahiz and wrote: “It was Jahiz who was the first to note the changes in bird-life caused by migration. Ibid. p. 106.

[4] George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 1, p. 597.


[6] John W. Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, (London: Henry S. King & Co, 1875), p.118.

[7] See,; Imad Hasan, “Shajara Code Decoded,”; and T. O. Shanavas, Creation AND/OR Evolution: An Islamic Perspective (Xlibbris Publishers).

[8] Muhammad Hamidullah, The Emergence of Islam, translated into English by Afzal Iqbal (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2004), p.179; and   Charles Darwin, Darwin Correspondence project, Letter 413, Dated 15 May 1838; also available at

[9] Muhammad Sultan Shah, “Pre-Darwinian Muslims’ Views on Evolution,”



African Holocaust (Est. 2001) is a non-profit civil society dedicated to the progressive study of African history and culture. The society is composed of diverse array of African scholars and writers, who share the desire use critical thinking to represent and restore an authentic, reflexive, honest, inclusive and balanced study of the African experience, past and present.

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