The Golden Age of Islam refers to a nearly six-centuries-long period of renaissance in the Islamic world, beginning with the foundation of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth century and ending with the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. It was a time of unprecedented developments in the fields of geometry, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, arts, algebra, and many others, as scholars from across the known world came to Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, and other major Islamic cities to practice and hone their crafts.
Automatons were early designs in robotics and programmable machines, going as far back as ancient Egypt. While European thinkers – especially from the Italian Renaissance era – are usually credited with the development of complex automatons, it was Arabic scientists that first pioneered them. Perhaps the most influential of them was Ismail al-Jazari, also sometimes called the ‘father of medieval robotics’.
Born in 1136 in modern-day Turkey, Al-Jazari’s inventions included complex works of mechanical engineering that could operate all on their own, like an automated peacock, a water-run clock, automatic soap and wine dispensers, and advanced water cranks and pumps to supply water to farmers. His 1206 treatise on automata, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, influenced scientists and engineers in the Arabic world and beyond for centuries, including Leonardo da Vinci.
9. Automatic Musical Instruments
The Banu Musa were three polymaths living in Baghdad during the ninth century. While each of them specialized in a field of their own, their contributions are still remembered collectively. They were perhaps one of the first few Arabic scientists to build upon the Greek school of mathematics, establishing their own methods for solving classic mathematical and geometrical problems.
The Banu Musa were also adept at designing automatic mechanical devices, and are credited with the creation of some of the first programmable music devices. Precursors to modern-day music-making machines like sequencers, synthesizers, drum machines, and others, these structures were automatically able to generate a diverse range of melodies – an unprecedented innovation for that time. Their automatic flute player – a humanoid automaton that could play a variety of tunes on the flute – was easily the first programmable machine in history.
8. Damascus Steel
Damascus steel was a form of steel used in many places throughout medieval times. While it had its origins in a kind of steel from ancient India called wootz steel, it was on the streets of Damascus, Syria that the material really took off. Apart from a unique, dark look that can’t be replicated, the steel was famed for its strength and flexibility, making it especially useful for melee weapons like swords and knives.
Damascus steel was widely used by Islamic armies throughout the Golden Age of Islam, though it also had uses in ornaments and other crafts. Sadly, the formula to produce it has been lost to history, even if we can make other, far-better types of steel and other metals with the technology available today.
Optics is the study of light, pioneered by such scientists as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton during the European Renaissance. Much of their work, however, was built on the discoveries made much earlier. While the study of optics goes as far back as Greek times, it was during the Abbasid era that thinkers really understood the true nature of light.
Hasan Ibn al-Haytham – one of the most prominent light specialists of the Islamic era – was the first to disprove the Ancient Greek notion that light originates inside the eye. His book, the simply-named Book of Optics, remains an important work in the field of optics, influencing thinkers across the European world and beyond in the coming centuries.
6. Drug Trials
Clinical trials are now an irreplaceable part of drug testing and approval, though that wasn’t always the case. The idea of testing medicines in controlled experiments before they’re administered to the general public is a relatively-recent development in human history. It could be singularly traced back to Ibn Sina – a 10th century Iranian polymath who first introduced logic and experimentation to the process of drug testing, among a bunch of other medical innovations.
His book – the Canon of Medicine – was so influential that it was taught across Arabic and European schools of medicine until at least the 17th century. Apart from his insights on drugs and clinical trials, Ibn Sina also made seminal contributions to surgery and the development of a wide variety of surgical tools. Sina’s logic-based method influenced many Arabic doctors and scientists in the following years, and his works like Canon provided the basis for what would be one of the greatest ages for the medical sciences in history.
While glass had existed for thousands of years before the Islamic golden age, it wasn’t until the first glass factories were set up in Syria during the eighth century that glassmaking really turned into a craft of its own. The first clear, colorless varieties of glass showed up in the Arabic world, thanks to innovations and discoveries by prominent thinkers like Abbas Ibn Firnas – the first inventor to come up with a method to produce clear glass from sand.
Around the same time, another Arabic chemist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, was working on colored and stained glass. His treatise, The Book of the Hidden Pearl, provided the first known recipes for artificial pearls and other precious stones, along with methods to cut high quality glass into gemstones. Thanks to these advancements in the Arabic world, the first glass factories showed up in Greece by the 11th century.
The Abbasid era saw many pioneering developments in the science of surgery, thanks to parallel discoveries in other areas of medicine that advanced our overall understanding of the human body. Islamic physicians would study the works of surgeons from earlier eras – especially Ancient Greece – and come up with their own techniques and tools for the procedures.
While many thinkers, physicians, engineers, and other smart people contributed to this revolution, the most prominent name was that of Abu al Qasim al-Zahrawi, also known as the ‘father of operative surgery’. Born in 936 near Cordoba in Spain, al-Zahrawi pioneered many surgical techniques used by surgeons around the world for centuries to come. His book, al-Tasreef, or the ‘Method of Medicine’, was used as a medical encyclopedia around the world until the 18th century, as it described over 200 surgical instruments and 300 diseases and their treatments. Many of al-Zahrawi’s techniques remained unchanged until the development of modern surgery.
Algebra is a broad field of mathematics that deals with symbols of varying values – like x,y, z etc. – and operators like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and others to represent mathematical problems. While equations and variables have been studied in some form by mathematicians in ancient Egypt, Greece, and India, it was only during the Islamic golden age that all that knowledge was compiled in one place, giving birth to modern algebra.
In fact, the term ‘algebra’ derives directly from the Kitab al-Jabr – a monumental treatise on elementary algebra written by a Persian mathematician called al-Khwarizmi. Apart from providing a new way of solving linear and quadratic equations with abstract variables, he was the first mathematician to work with ancient Indian numerals, modifying and perfecting them into the ten-digit number system we all use today.
While facilities for medical care existed in various forms before the Abbasid era, the modern hospital only showed up in Baghdad during the ninth century. Built in 805 by the vizier to caliph Harun al-Rashid, it was the first documented facility that provided a center for medical care, a place for the sick to rest, a home to take care of the elderly, and a teaching center for aspiring physicians.
Between the ninth and 10th centuries, many other Islamic hospitals were founded in Baghdad, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Mecca and Medina, Spain, and other major regions across the empire. Known as bimaristans, some of them were quite advanced for their time and closely resembled the modern hospital. In Cairo, a hospital founded by the Abbasid governor became the first facility to offer care for the mentally ill.
Islamic armies first came across paper during the various invasions of Central Asia in the eighth century. Invented in China some time in the first century AD, the material was far superior to anything used in the Arab world before it, including previous rudimentary mediums of writing like papyrus or parchment. Paper could be mass produced with freely-available waste fibers and retained ink for long periods of time, making it an ideal material to fuel the oncoming golden age.
The permanent nature of the writing made paper immensely useful for imperial and bureaucratic purposes, as it was impervious to forgery or alteration of any kind. By the 10th century, paper mills had sprung up across the Islamic empire – from Persia to Syria to Spain – allowing scientists and thinkers to widely publish and disseminate their ideas across the empire and beyond. Paper was why Islamic libraries usually contained hundreds of thousands of volumes of knowledge, compared to the relatively-modest collections of major empires before it.