Twenty top Islamic Inventions? 3.13.2006

The Independent lists a story that has taken off everywhere on the Blogosphere: How Islamic inventors changed the world
From coffee to cheques and the three-course meal, the Muslim world has given us many innovations that we take for granted in daily life. As a new exhibition opens, Paul Vallely nominates 20 of the most influential- and identifies the men of genius behind them

In the name of political correctness we invoke the name of Arabic inventors, in order to tell the west that the people who now protest cartoons by burning embassies, blow themselves up on busses full of Israeli children, decapitate innocent victoms on the Internet to terrorize a world, and blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11 aren't bad people--in fact, they're not the backwards nutbars who want to destroy the West, but are in fact valid contributors to the West.

But in order to reach the top list of 20 or the full list of 1001 inventions, it appears the historians have stretched the truth a little.

(1) The history of Coffee. The story given by the Independent tells of an Arab named Khalid who discovered coffee in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia discovering coffee by watching his animals becoming livelier after eating some. From the web sites I have been reading, the location of these dancing goats has been placed variously in Ethopia (on the African continent, for those who are geographically challenged), or on the Arabian Peninsula.

However, it remains that Coffee comes from Ethiopia--from Africa--and it apparently gets some mention by Homer (of Greece), and was used locally as far back as 800BCE. It remains, however, that this African drink was definitely popularized by the Turks--but that's sort of like saying that Americans invented gunpower because we popularized the gun.


(2) The discovery of light and the Camera Obscura. Setting aside the fact that the word "Camera" does not come from the Arabic "Qamera", but from the latin word for "room", the first mentioning we have of a Camera Obscura does not come from 10th century Arabia but from 5th century (BC) China, with the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti. Aristotle used a camera obscura to make observations of a partially eclipsed sun, and despite the article, many greek philsophers knew that light was emitted from light sources and entered our eyes, and not the other way around.


(3) Chess. By the very admission of the article, "A form of chess was played in ancient India." This means that Chess was not invented in Persia--but refined. Again, like giving Americans credit for discovering using gunpowder for making bombs, because we managed to refine the process into some fairly devistating warheads.

(4) Flying Machine. I'm not sure what a few failed attempts at making a flying machine is doing here in an article on inventions that changed the world, given that poor Abbas ibn Firnas was not well known by the western minds who succeeded where he failed a thousand years earlier. However, I will note that the ancient Greek Legend of Icarus and Daedalus predates our poor experimenter by at least a thousand years.

(5) Soap. Again, by the very admission of the article, "The ancient Egyptians had soap of a kind, as did the Romans who used it more as a pomade." Muslims did not invent soap; they simply made it better. By that metric, one could argue that Johnson & Johnson invented soap as they perfected a formula that doesn't sting the eyes of babies as much.

I will note, however, that one thing the Muslims did invent was the concept of bathing as a religious requirement. And while the article doesn't cover other cleanliness requirements of Muslims, I will note here that Muslims are also required to shave all their pubic (underarm and nether-region) hair completely off every 40 days or less--a fact that was recounted in lurid detail by Western travelers visiting the Middle East a thousand years ago.

So while the Muslims did not invent soap, they did require a set of religious practices that does inform the Pornographic Industry's current code of sexy hygine.

(6) Distillation While it may be true that Jabir ibm Hayyan perfected the art of distillation, he certainly did not invent it. The Babylonians more than 1200 years before were playing around with distilling alcohol, and the Egyptians perfected distillation around 300BCE to extract perfumes. What the Arabs invented was a method of gathering the results of distillation through a cooling chamber.


(7) The Crankshaft The Crankshaft was indeed invented by the turkish inventor Ibn Ismail Ibn al-Razzaz Al-Jazari, who also gave us the combination lock.

(8) Quilting By the article's own admission "[i]t is not clear whether it was invented in the Muslim world or whether it was imported there from India or China." In fact, it's not clear at all it wasn't invented by the Crusaders rather than the Muslims they were trying to conquer, at least according to Wikipedia's article.

Which brings me to a question: How the fuck does including something whose invention you're not sure about count as a "win" for "Mulsim inventions that changed the world"?

(9) The pointed arch. While it may be true that Europe's Gothic cathedrals borrowed the pointed arch from Islamic architecture, it was first used by Assyrians 1500 years prior to Mohammad coming onto the scene, and it was indeed the Romans (who preferred their arches circular, but not because they didn't know about other types of arches) who started using arches above ground for decorative purposes, rather than using them strictly for structural support.

(10) Surgical Instruments While many of the instruments used today may have been the same designed as used by a 10th century Muslim surgeon, it's only because his instruments were the same shape as those described by Sushruta, the 5th century (BC) Indian "father of surgery."


(11) Windmills Uh, off by 1400 years. It was the Babylonians, and it was Hammurabi, not a Persian Caliph, who organized irrigation through using windmills. The Persians did perfect a vertical axis style windmil, however.


(12) Innoculation While it is true that innoculation was not invented in Europe, the actual practice of "variolation" was first devised by the Chinese to combat smallpox 500 years prior to the practice being carried from Turkey to England.

As a side note, many inventions that Europe credited to the Middle East are actually Chinese in origin. That's because the Middle East is geographically between the Far East (China) and Europe. But just because Europe got the practice from Arabs who occupied the chunk of land between Europe and China doesn't mean it was invented by the Arabs.

(13) The fountain pen. Yep, we're two for 13. The Sultan of Egypt demanded a pen which would not stain his clothes, and ordered such a pen be invented.

(14) The system of numbering. According to the article itself, "[t]he system of numbering in use all round the world is probably Indian in origin." The only thing the Arabs gave the west was the original number forms which eventually evolved into our own number shapes. Likewise, Algorithms and trigonometry may have been imported to the west from the Middle East, but the Middle East imported them from India (from Indian mathematicians such as Lagadha and his Vedanga Jyotisha, the Sulba Sutras written between 800BCE and 500BCE, which described the sine function, and from the Greek philosophers Hipparchus who in 150BCE compiled trig tables, and Ptolemy who further refined trig calculations.

What we did get from the Muslim world was the genius of Omar Khayyam, whose mathematical genius cannot be understated. But Omar Khayyam, as much as a genius as he was, was not working alone, nor was he the first. Like all excellent discoveries, it was made on the backs of those who came before him.

In fact, the thing that puzzles me the most about this article was its mentioning of Al Kindi and Al Khwarizmi--but it's omission of Omar Khayyam.

(15) The Three Course Meal. In a world of ever-widing behinds, is this a good thing? As far as formal meals are concerned, the Romans had the ancient world beat, and Ali ibn Nafi was only able to bring crystal glasses to Europe from Iraq because the Iraqi glass making industry failed to decline as it did in Rome--even though it was the Roman Empire who managed to commercialize and spread what was originally an Egyptian practice.

Meaning that while crystal glass may have come to Europe from Iraq, it wasn't invented there by any stretch of the imagination.


(16) Carpets Certainly some of the finest carpets have been created in Persia. But carpets are not invented by Muslems; handloomed Egyptian rugs have been discovered which date back to 1500 BCE.


(17) Checks While certainly perfected by the Persian traders whose trading of inventions between China and eager buyers in Europe required perfection of a number of financial and trading methods, the check was certainly not invented by the Muslims. Banking and record keeping predated the Persians; in fact, it has been suggested that the art of writing was invented first out of necessity for keeping written records of ownership and transactions. Checks themselves were probably invented by the Romans, though the modern idea of a check as a financial instrument guaranteeing payment was not popularized in the West until several hundred years after it's acceptance by Persian traiders.

Let me also note that it has been suggested that the word "check" may have come from the printed serial numbers placed on the promisary notes to keep track of, or "check" them.


(18) Round Earth First, let me note the author of this paragraph was a complete moron. The debate between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church was not over if the Earth was round or flat--but over if the Sun revolved around the Earth, or the Earth around the Sun.

Second, let me note that Pythagoras theorized the Earth was a sphere more than a thousand years prior to Ibn Hazm, and Eratosthenes managed to compute the diameter of the Earth to within 100 miles a thousand years before Muslim astronomers performed the same calculations in the 9th century.

(19) Gunpowder What, exactly, are the Muslims supposed to get credit for here? Not gunpowder, which the article freely admits was invented by the Chinese. And not rockets; the Chinese were building rockets (for fireworks) long before the "self-moving and combusting egg" rocket the Crusaiders witnessed. Perhaps the Muslims are simply getting credit for using such devices in warfare?

At any rate, a quick Google search hasn't given me evidence one way or another for this pear-shaped boat destroyer.

(20) Gardens One of the most fascinating things I encountered in Spain was the various homes built around a courtyard. What fascinated me about them was how the Roman atrium on buildings that clearly predated the Moorish invasion was being passed off as a Muslim invention driven by the desire to create a micro-"paradise" on Earth.

Gardens as idillic areas to rest, including courtyard gardens, can be traced back to Rome and Greece, though the Chinese and Indians were building courtyards centuries before, in part for the purpose of playing and relaxing.

And while Carnations and Tulips certainly did come from (and were cultivated for their beauty) in the Middle East, there is evidence that appreciation for the beauty of flowers dates back to the Neanderthals, and evidence for cultivating flowers can certainly be traced back to 15th century China.

So, to summarize, out of twenty items we have two inventions that can actually be credited to Muslims--the fountain pen and the crankshaft. We have one that I wasn't able to check, but which seems to be an adoption to warfare of a peaceful invention (torpedoes), and other "inventions" which are clearly being mis-credited.

And we have one odd little factoid: one of the most famous (Muslim) mathematicians getting completely ignored for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Instead inventions that came from all parts of the globe are being credited to Muslims, while ancient Muslim contributions to the world (in the form of trade and trading practices, and Muslim desire for the safekeeping of knowledge allowing the West to bridge the gap between classical history and our rennesance) all but completely ignored--and for what?

What this appears to be is an attempt to rewrite history in order to show the Muslims in a better light than their modern bomb-throwing, embassy burning, beheading siblings would cast it. Sadly, though, this shows another problem: while the Muslims were active contributers (though not the sole inventors) to the modern age, these contributions by and large disappeared in the 13th century.

And in rewriting history we're ignoring the massive contributions made by the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and the ancient Persians who predated Islam by a thousand years.

posted by William Woody at 12:47 PM

Excellent work.

I did some research of my own into the subject but I missed some of the points you raised.

Well done.

Blogger Jay.Mac at 1:58 PM  

Why, in American schools, are we not taught about the Golden age of Islam? Why are we told that all of Europe suffered the Dark ages when in fact Al Andaluz was in its hayday until the 1400's? Give unto Cesar what is Caesar's. Give credit to the people who deserve it.

When you research, look for truth and not information that supports your prejudice.

Blogger Dorie at 7:08 PM  

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