Contributions to Muslim civilizations to the world -Hamidur Rashid Jamil


A civilization is a society that is characterized by urban development, social stratification, a form of government, and symbolic systems ofcommunication. Historically, “a civilization” has often been understood as a larger and “more advanced” culture, in implied contrast to smaller, supposedly primitive cultures. The English word civilization comes from the 16th-century French civilisé (“civilized”), from Latin civilis (“civil”), related to civis (“citizen”) and civitas (“city”). The fundamental treatise is Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process (1939), which traces social mores from medieval courtly society to the Early Modern period. In The Philosophy of Civilization (1923), Albert Schweitzer outlines two opinions: one purely material and the other material and ethical. He said that the world crisis was from humanity losing the ethical idea of civilization, “the sum total of all progress made by man in every sphere of action and from every point of view in so far as the progress helps towards the spiritual perfecting of individuals as the progress of all progress”.

Islamic culture inherited an Arab culture born in the desert, simple but by no means simplistic. It has an oral tradition based on the transmission of culture through poetry and narrative. However, it has been the written record that has had the greatest impact on civilization. Islam civilization is based on the value of education, which both the Qur’an and the Prophet stressed.

In the Pre-Islamic period, one of the traditions was that of the mu’allaquat (literally “the hangings”). In the city of Mecca, poets and writers would hang their writings on a certain wall in the city so that others could read about the virtues of their respective tribes. Their travels from city to city and tribe to tribe were the means by which news, legends, and exploits would become known. The tradition continued as the Qur’an was first memorized and transmitted by word of mouth and then recorded for following generations. This popular expression of the Arab Muslim peoples became an indelible part of Islamic culture. Even today Muslims quote the Qur’an as a way of expressing their views and refer to certain maxims and popular tales to make a point.

Great centers of religious learning were also centers of knowledge and scientific development. Such formal centers began during the Abbasid period (750-1258 A.D.) when thousands of mosque schools were established. In the tenth century Baghdad had some 300 schools. Alexandria in the fourteenth century had 12,000 students. It was in the tenth century that the formal concept of the Madrassah (school) was developed in Baghdad. The Madrassah had a curriculum and full-time and part-time teachers, many of whom were women. Rich and poor alike received free education. From there Maktabat (libraries) were developed and foreign books acquired. The two most famous libraries are Bait al-Hikmah in Baghdad (ca. 820) and Dar al-Ilm in Cairo (ca. 998). Universities such as Al-Azhar (969 A.D.) were also established long before those in Europe.

Islamic history and culture can be traced through the written records: Pre-Islamic, early Islamic, Umayyad, the first and second Abbasid, the Hispano-Arabic, the Persian and the modern periods. The various influences of these different periods can be readily perceived, as can traces of the Greek, the Indian, and the Pre-Islamic Persian cultures. Throughout the first four centuries of Islam, one does not witness the synthesis or homogenization of different cultures but rather their transmittal through, and at times their absorption into, the Islamic framework of values. Islam has been a conduit for Western civilization of cultural forms which might otherwise have died out. Pre-Islamic poetry and prose, which was transmitted orally, was recorded mostly during the Umayyad period (661-750 A.D.) when the Arab way of life began shifting from the simple nomadic life prevalent in the peninsula to an urban and sophisticated one. Contacts with Greece and Persia gave a greater impulse to music, which frequently accompanied the recitation of prose and poetry. By the mid-800 in the Baghdad capital of Abbassids under Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun, Islamic culture as well as commerce and contacts with many other parts of the world flourished.

Aside from such essential trivia, as you know learning and pursuing education are an integral part of Islam. Complying with the revelations of Qur’an, which started with the word Iqra – read or recite, the Prophet sallil Allahu alayhewaSallam made it compulsory for Muslims to get educated. Thus, alongside masajid, Muslims established madrassas to teach children and grown-ups alike. And learning and teaching became so widespread among Muslims that they became its torch-bearers for the rest of world. Great centers of learning were founded in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba. This academia later on served as models for the European universities. Baghdad was founded by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur in 762 and in 790 it became a center of learning under Caliph Harun al-Rashid. He invited persons from different countries with various backgrounds for dialog and learning from each other. His son, al-Mamun founded bayt al-Hikma or House of Wisdom which was devoted to translating philosophical and scientific works from the Greek and other languages and served as public library. It needs to be pointed out that bayt al-Hikma did not only serve to keep the Greek originals from extinction, as is generally acknowledged, but also as the meeting place for scholarly dialogue, interactions, and discourses. Many original publications in a variety of areas came out from Bayt al-Hikma. And it continued to serve as such until sacked by Mongols in 1258.

Throughout the Golden era Arabic became the language of science, and advancement. For example, Maimonides the great Jewish scholar, a student of the famous Andalusian al-Rushd, wrote his most significant work in the Arabic language. The first and one of the greatest universities was Al-Zaytuna in Tunis, Tunisia, and many Muslim scholars graduated from it. It was the earliest university in the world built around 703. The Islamic party Al-Nahda is currently engaged in reviving its world status. Then in 859, Princess Fatima al-Firhi, daughter of a wealthy businessman founded the first degree university in Fez, Morocco, and her sister Miriam founded the adjacent mosque. The complex became known as the al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university. Another great intellectual center, the Al-Azhar was founded in 970 in Cairo. It started as a mosque and became the largest academe in the Islamic world. It is named after Fatima, the daughter of Prophet sallil Allahu alayhewaSallam. She was also called as al-Zahra -the luminous. So Al-Azhar means the illuminated one, a deserving name for this great institution.

There were many illustrious Muslim physicians. The foremost among these are such famous personalities as Al-Razi and Abu Ali Sina. The Europeans knew them by their Latinized names Razes and Avicenna respectively. Both wrote masterpieces that were considered authority in medical universities in Europe until the 18th century. Muhammad Al-Razi’s al-JudariwalHasba, on smallpox, measles and chickenpox represented the first accurate clinical study of infectious diseases. His other book, called al-Hawi or the Comprehensive Book, included all that was known in medicine along with accounts of his own experiments and observations.

Abu Ali Sina is called the prince of physicians, since he authored the most influential medical text book called al-Qanun fi al-Tib or the Canon of Medicine that summed up all existing medical knowledge. In it, he introduced the contagious nature of infectious diseases, the use of quarantine to curb spread of infections, neuropsychiatric conditions such as epilepsy, stroke and dementia, and complications of diabetes. He suggested that all new medicines should be tested for their efficacy on animals and humans in clinical trials to determine any harmful side effects before they are widely used, as the US Food and Drug Administration do now. The French honor Al-Razi and Abu Ali Sina by commemorating them at the University of Paris.
It was around 1,000 AC that Qasim al-Zahrawi published his renowned 1,500 page illustrated encyclopedia of surgery. It was used as a reference in Europe for the next 500 years. He is credited for developing new treatment methods ranging from dentistry to childbirth. Among his inventions was use of the dissolving cat gut to stich wounds. He also performed the first caesarian operation. He surgical tools such as scalpels, bone saws, and forceps are still used in hospitals.

Jabir ibn Hayyan initiated the science of chemistry. He invented most of the chemical processes which are still used in science laboratories such as purification of substances, oxidization, sublimation, liquefaction and crystallization. He also introduced improved laboratory equipment such as water baths, furnaces, and systems for filtration and distillation.
A great mathematician Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi joined the Bayt al-Hikma in the early 9th century and is known as the most influential mathematician of all times. His book Hisab al-JabarwalMuqabala, Calculation of Integration and Equation changed mathematics forever. Algebra takes its name from the title of the book. It became a standard text in Europe for 400 years. He also invented algorithm, a branch of mathematics that derives its name from his home town of Khwarizm. He wrote several mathematical works that were soon adopted throughout the Muslim world. For a long time European were using the cumbersome Roman numbering system. They learnt their current numbering called Arabic numerals from Muslims. The most astounding of his findings is Sifr or Zero which is not a number but the lack of it. It helped solve many problems in mathematics.

At a meeting of her executives arranged just after 9/11, Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett Packard rightly informed them that IT technology would not have been possible without these contributions. Among others, Morgan quoted above also reminds us of this, and other Muslim achievements. The development of Muslim civilization requires the transformation of human beings and their institutions, focusing in the increasing of education and personality development, and the simultaneous mobilization of material, economic and technological resources for the re-arrangement of community structures over the principles of deliberation and accountability, unity, independence and justice.

The writings of Hamidur Rashid Jamil focus on theology & Islamic history. He is working on Tafseer of the holy Quran.