Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians were excellent scientists and engineers, but history often overlooks a particular group, which was key to the technological development of humanity, the Arabs.
It is difficult to imagine the Muslims as an open and innovative society, however, a millennium ago, the roles were changed, the West was closed and did not develop with astonishment, instead, the greatest innovations were created in the capitals of Eastern Empires.
A particular case was the Islamic empire that Muhammad left, it expanded enormously in a short time, acquiring technologies and knowledge of Europe, Asia, and Africa, thus developing two revolutions, which we will analyze below.
Muslim Agricultural Revolution (700 AD Approx.)
It arises as a consequence of the great Islamic expansion, it is said that it was a first “globalization”, given that the Empire occupied a large part of the Silk Road and commercial ports of the Mediterranean. Unlike the ancients, they recovered the works of the conquered civilizations, absorbing all their knowledge and wisdom.
This favored the creation of a “corporation” of translators of different ethnicities and religions, thus being born, the greatest intellectual center of its time: the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad, which could be considered as the Harvard of its time.
During this period new farming techniques were used, in addition to cultivating more variety of vegetables. The use of hydraulics played an important role in this matter, turning deserts into prosperous cities.
Science began to be applied to the field of agriculture and a new concept was introduced in the way of organizing land: private property. All these factors helped to have surplus production, which greatly favored trade and exports.
Islamic Golden Age (800 AD – 1300 AD Approx.)
The consequence of this change is the Islamic golden age, which would be the technological “revolution” of this agricultural expansion. Due to the “globalization” of that time, there were great developments in that culture, illustrious engineers and scientists were born and lived there, such as Ismail al-Jazari, Alhacén, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Avicenna or Taqi ad-Din, which left their discoveries for eternity.
You could even say that the Islamic world of that time was the “West”, since while Europe was mired in some ignorance, it was in Baghdad or Mecca where Aristotle was read –which is not necessarily positive– and other philosophers of all over the world, the Muslim empire was the intellectual center of the globe.
Mathematics is developed to solve concrete problems in their society; inheritances, commerce, construction, in this way advances in areas such as trigonometry or algorithms, number theory and, new disciplines are created such as combinatorial and algebra.
Among their inventions and contributions we can highlight: improved paper, openness to liberal and individualist ideas, the astrolabe was improved and became universal, alembic, crankshaft, algebra, valve, piston, crystallization, public libraries, universities, hospitals, crop rotation and manufacturing complexes (Tiraz). It should be noted that in the Arab world of that time, women had great participation in public life and homosexuality was tolerated –at least in the aristocracy–.
His contributions were in all areas, both civil and military; they improved the Chinese gunpowder, catapults, cannons, created a torpedo, it is even said that they designed the first rockets and created fireproof clothes. They copied all kinds of Hellenistic and Roman machines, improving many of them, the principle of the two-stroke engine was developed and, above all, various hydraulic machines, such as water pumps, were built.
Also, important works were left for engineering, philosophy, and medicine –among others–, such as the Book of Ingenious Mechanisms, attributed to the Banu Musa brothers –persians–, the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanisms, written by Al Jazarí –kurdish–, On how to achieve the happiness of Al-Farabi –turkish– and The Canon of Medicine written by Ibn Sina (Avicenna).
However, why did not they continue to develop? There are various theories, the invasion of Mongols or internal conflicts, but the least known – and most consistent – is: by religion. There was a man, Hamid al-Gazali (1058 BC – 1111 BC), who would be the equivalent of St. Angust in Christianity, he said what the interpretation of the Qur’an should be.
One of his statements was that the manipulation of numbers was Satan’s work, as you might imagine, this stopped all subsequent mathematical developments. He also attacked the philosophers of his time very much –he wrote a book entitled: The Incoherence of the Philosophers– as philosophy was closely linked to the study of science, the decline of these began.
There were people who wanted to confront this current of thought but failed, such is the case of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), which proposed the independence of thought in the face of religious dogmas, ended up executed and his works incinerated.
Although some say that it was not al-Gazali responsible for the Islamic stalemate, but he promoted critical thinking, instead, blame a contemporary of his: Nizam al-Mulk (Hassan al-Tusi), however, the cause is the Same: religion.
In contrast to antiquity, the technological developments achieved during the Arab Golden Age were not forgotten. They were taken to Europe –because the empire was the educational capital of the world, the scholars were going to learn there–, the works were translated, the inventions were improved, therefore, we can conclude that this “revolution” was vital for the later.
For that reason, the most important thing about this golden age is that it allowed the dissemination of knowledge from different places on the globe.
So far today’s trip, I hope you liked it, in future chapters we will analyze what happened in Europe in those years, was there really a technological setback? Did not innovate in any way?