Arab Contributions to Civilization

Arab Contributions to Civilization

Much like America today, the Arab world of the seventh to the thirteenth centuries was a great cosmopolitan civilization. It was an enormous unifying enterprise, one which joined the peoples of Spain and North Africa in the west with the peoples of the ancient lands of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia in the east.

It was the rapid expansion of Islam that initially brought this empire together. Alliances were made, trade routes were opened, lands and peoples were welded into a new force. Islam provided the dynamism, but it was the Arabic language, which provided the bond that held it together.

Islam spread to lands more distant than North Africa and the Fertile Crescent, but it was in this area that a common Arab culture emerged.

To be Arab, then as now, was not to come from a particular race or lineage. To be Arab, like American, was (and is) a civilization and a cultural trait rather than a racial mark. To be Arab meant to be from the Arabic-speaking world — a world of common traditions, customs and value — shaped by a single and unifying language.

The Arab civilization brought together Muslims, Christians and Jews. It unified Arabians, Africans, Berbers, Egyptians, and the descendants of the Phoenicians, Canaanites, and many other people. This great “melting pot” was not without tensions, to be sure, but it was precisely the tension of this mixing and meeting of peoples that produced the vibrant and dynamic new civilization, the remarkable advances of which we outline in this ADC Issues.


The years between the seventh and thirteenth centuries mark a period in history when culture and learning flourished in North Africa, Asia, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. When one sets aside the vagaries of politics, intrigue, mistrust, and suspicion which have plagues Man‘s history, one finds that the Arab world continue to spin out the thread of earliest recorded civilization. It enhanced and developed the arts and sciences and preserved the libraries of the early centuries of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine cultures. Indeed, during the Dark Ages of Europe, much learning was preserved for the world through the Arab libraries in the universities of Morocco (Fez), Mali (Timbuktu) and Egypt (al-Azhar). From this period of Arab influence, new words such as orange, sugar, coffee, sofa, satin, and algebra filtered into the languages of Europe and eventually into our own. New discoveries were made in the sciences and arts which improved the life and condition of Man, and thousands of Arab contributions have become an integral part of human civilization.


In mathematics, the Arab sifr, or zero, provided new solutions for complicated mathematical problems. The Arabic numeral — an improvement on the original Hindu concept — and the Arab decimal system facilitated the course of science. The Arabs invented and developed algebra and made great strides in trigonometry. Al-Khwarizmi, credited with the founding of algebra, was inspired by the need to find a more accurate and comprehensive method of ensuring precise land divisions so that the Koran could be carefully obeyed in the laws of inheritance. The writings of Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, and Master Jacob of Florence show the Arab influence on mathematical studies in European universities. The reformation of the calendar, with a margin of error of only one day in five thousand years, was also a contribution of Arab intellect.


Like algebra, the astrolabe was improved with religion in mind. It was used to chart the precise time of sunrises and sunsets, and to determine the period for fasting during the month of Ramadan, Arab astronomers of the Middle Ages compiles astronomical charts and tables in observatories such as those at Palmyra and Maragha. Gradually, they were able to determine the length of a degree, to establish longitude and latitude, and to investigate the relative speeds of sound and light. Al-Biruni, considered one of the greatest scientists of all time, discussed the possibility of the earth‘s rotation on its own axis — a theory proven by Galileo six centuries later. Arab astronomers such as al-Fezari, al-Farghani, and al-Zarqali added to the works of Ptolemy and the classic pioneers in the development of the magnetic compass and the charting of the zodiac. Distinguished astronomers from all over the world gathered to work at Maragha in the thirteenth century.


In the field of medicine, the Arabs improved upon the healing arts of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Al-Razi, a medical encyclopedist of the ninth century, was an authority on contagion. Among his many volumes of medical surveys, perhaps the most famous is the Kitab al-Mansuri. It was used in Europe until the sixteenth century. Al-Razi was the first to diagnose smallpox and measles, to associate these diseases and others with human contamination and contagion, to introduce such remedies as mercurial ointment, and to use animal gut for sutures.

The famous scientist-philosopher known in Europe as Avicenna was Ibn Sina, an Arab. He was the greatest writer of medicine in the Middle Ages, and his Canon was required reading throughout Europe until the seventeenth century. Avicenna did pioneer work in mental health, and was a forerunner of today‘s psychotherapists. He believed that some illnesses were psychosomatic, and he sometimes led patients back to a recollection of an incident buried in the subconscious in order to explain the present ailment.

In the fourteenth Century, when the Great Plague ravaged the world, Ibn Khatib and Ibn Khatima of Granada recognized that it was spread by contagion. In his book, Kitabu‘l Maliki, al-Maglusi showed a rudimentary conception of the capillary system; an Arab from Syria, Ibn al-Nafis, discovered the fundamental principles of pulmonary circulation.

Camphor, cloves, myrrh, syrups, juleps, and rosewater were stocked in Arab sydaliyah (pharmacies) centuries ago. Herbal medicine was widely used in the Middle East, and basil, oregano, thyme, fennel, anise, licorice, coriander, rosemary, nutmeg, and cinnamon found their way through Arab pharmacies to European tables.


As with astronomy and mathematics, the great purpose of early Arab architecture was to glorify Islam. Architects devoted their skills primarily to the building of mosques and mausoleums. They borrowed the horseshow arch from the Romans, developed it into their own unique style, and made it an example for the architecture of Europe. The Great Mosque of Damascus, built in the 4early eighth century, is a beautiful demonstration of the use of the horseshoe arch. The mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, with its pointed arches, was the inspiration behind the building of many magnificent cathedrals in Europe.

Arab cusp, tefoil, and ogee arches provided models for the Tudor arch such as those used in the cathedrals of Wells in England and Chartres in France. The Muslin minaret, itself inspired by the Greek lighthouse, became the campanile in Europe. One of the most famous examples of this can be seen in the San Marcos Square in Venice.

Designs from the Islamic mosques of Jerusalem, Mecca, Tripoli, Cairo, Damascus, and Constantinople were borrowed in the building of ribbed vaults in Europe. The Arab use of cubal transitional supports under domes was incorporated into the cathedrals and palaces of eleventh and twelfth century Palermo.

Arab styles were elegant and daring. Arabesque designs, calligraphy, and explosions of color can be seen today in such structures as the Lion Court of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, and many of the great medieval religious and civic buildings of Europe.

While we as Westerners are more familiar with the influence of Arab architecture of the Romance countries of Spain, Italy and France, we do not often remember that the Arab empires reached into Eastern Europe and Asia as well. Startling remnants of a once powerful conquest are particularly prevalent in Russia. The brilliant blue tiled done of the Mosque of Bibi Khanum, Timu‘s (Tamerlane) favorite wife, catches the visitor‘s eye in Samarkand. Here, as well as in the complex of tombs called Shah-I-Zinda (the Living Prince), much of the old beauty is being returned to its former elegance through restoration.


The world‘s earliest navigational and geographical charts were developed by Canaanites who, probably simultaneously with the Egyptians, discovered the Atlantic Ocean. The medieval Arabs improved upon ancient navigational practices with the development of the magnetic needle in the ninth century.

One of the most brilliant geographers of the medieval world was al-Idrisi, a twelfth century scientist living in Sicily. He was commissioned by the Norman King, roger II, to compile a world atlas, which contained seventy maps. Some of the areas were therefore uncharted. Called Kitabal-Rujari (Roger‘s book), Idrisi‘s work was considered the best geographical guide of its time.

Ibn Battuta, an Arab, must have been the hardiest traveler of his time. He was not a professional geographer, but in his travels by horse, camel and sailboat, he covered over seventy five thousand miles. His wanderings, over a period of decades at a time, took him to Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Persia, and central Asia. He spent several years in India, and from there was appointed ambassador to the emperor of China. After China, he toured all of North Africa and many places in western Africa. Ibn Battuta‘s book, Rihla (journey), is filled with information on the politics, social conditions, and economics of the places he visited.

A twenty five year old Arab, captured by Italian pirates in 1520, has received much attention in the West. He was Hassan al-Wazzan, who became a protégé of Pope Leo X. Leo