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Introduction to the Arab World

The Arab homeland stretches some 5,000 miles— nearly twice the distance between New
York and San Francisco—from the Atlantic coast of northern Africa in the west to the Arabian
Sea in the east, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to Central Africa in the south. It
covers an area of 5.25 million square miles. By comparison, the United States comprises 3.6
million square miles.
With seventy-two percent of its territory in Africa and twenty-eight percent in Asia, the Arab
world straddles two continents, a position that has made it one of the world's most strategic
regions. Long coastlines give it access to vital waterways: the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean
Sea, the Arabian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
While the region is dominated by dry climatic conditions, the existence of mountain ranges
permits seasonal rainfall. The Atlas range in northwest Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia)
forms a barrier between the Sahara Desert and the coastal areas. Other important mountain
systems are the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges and the Zagros Mountains to the east of Iraq.
Given the preponderance of arid conditions, reliable sources of water are immensely
important; be they springs, from which oases are formed, or rivers. Foremost among the river
valleys are the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates.
The population of the Arab nation—approximately 253 million as of 1994—is a youthful one.
Almost half of the population is under fifteen years of age. Given the current annual rate of
increase, the population will be approximately 280 million by the year 2000.
The concept of average population density has little meaning when applied to the Arab world.
Since significant human settlement is found only where water supplies are adequate, the
overwhelming majority of Arabs live in relatively high concentrations along coastal areas and
major river valleys. The most striking example of this phenomenon is in Egypt where more than
ninety percent of the population lives on less than five percent of the land.
Agriculture is the primary economic activity in the Arab homeland. The most important food
crops are wheat, barley, rice, maize, dates and millet. These are largely consumed within the
region, while cotton, sugarcane, sugar beets and sesame are exported as cash crops.
Contrary to popular belief, relatively few Arab countries possess petroleum and natural gas
resources. Other natural resources include iron-ore, lead, phosphate, cobalt and manganese.
It was in the Arab land that man first organized into a settled form of society, cultivating grain
and raising livestock, establishing cities and promoting diverse skills and occupations. In such a
setting, rich and complex cultures were nourished: ancient Egypt, Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia and
Phoenicia were great civilizations, legends even in their own day, whose traces continue to be
uncovered in archeological sites throughout the region.
It was in this same area that the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and
Islam—originated, in time spreading to all corners of the world. The followers of those faiths
lived in harmony throughout the centuries in the Arab homeland, since all considered themselves
the people of one God.
The Prophet Muhammad appeared in the seventh century A.D. with the message of Islam. His
Arab followers soon spread the new faith in the West, across North Africa into Spain and France,
and in the East, to the borders of China. These Muslim believers rapidly founded a new and
dynamic civilization that for centuries was the only bright light in an otherwise culturally and
intellectually stagnant world. Indeed, while Europe was experiencing its "Dark Ages," the
Arab/Islamic civilization was at its apogee. It was this same Islamic civilization, with its many
contributions to science and the humanities, that paved the way for the rise of the West to its
present prominence.
The Arab homeland today is a rich composite of many diverse influences. Various ethnic,
linguistic and religious groups inhabit the region. Yet, Islam and the Arabic language constitute
its two predominant cultural features. The Arab people, spread over a vast area, enjoy common
bonds of history and tradition. Members of twenty-one different countries, the Arabs consider
themselves to be one nation.
The Arab people are further united through their membership and participation in the League
of Arab States. One of the oldest regional organizations in the world, the Arab League was
founded on March 22, 1945, even before the formal establishment of the United Nations. The
primary objective of the Arab League, as it is commonly called, is to facilitate maximum
integration among the Arab countries through coordination of their activities in the political
sphere as well as in the fields of economics, social services, education, communications,
development, technology and industrialization.
The headquarters of the Arab League are in Cairo, Egypt, which also hosts some of the
League's specialized agencies. Additional agencies are based in the capitals of other Arab
countries. The twenty-two member states of the League, in alphabetical order, are: Algeria,
Bahrain, Comoro Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania,
Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab
Emirates, and Yemen.
The Arab nation in the twentieth century is a region in transition— developing, modernizing,
and building the foundation for its own renaissance. Its great and ancient cities—Cairo,
Damascus and Baghdad— with populations well into the millions, are rapidly expanding their
municipal services, communications systems and other facilities. New construction is evident
everywhere as high-rise buildings replace the covered bazaars of former times.
Those Arab countries with natural resources, especially petroleum, are devoting large funds to
development programs in nearly every field while at the same time providing their less fortunate
sister states with financial assistance to help them modernize. Scores of thousands of young
Arabs are studying in old and new universities in their own countries and abroad, particularly in
the United States where there are an estimated 60,000 Arab students. They are specializing in
professions and disciplines that will enhance the progress of their homeland.
In spite of all of this development and modernization, the Arab nation is also dedicated to
preserving its traditions and values which are largely rooted in Islam. Its people are reaching out
for progress while endeavoring to avoid the confusion that so often accompanies rapid change.
While the great urban centers of the Arab nation are reaping the benefits of the space age,
including satellite communications with other parts of the world, many retain the flavor of the
past through their architecture, arts and traditions. In sum, the Arabs today are still drawing
cultural sustenance from their great past, while fueling their advance into the future.
This present collection is intended to offer the reader a glimpse of some of the major
contributions made by the Arabs to world civilization. Its purpose is nomerely to acknowledge a
great cultural debt, but also to stimulate interest in a region and its people based on mutual
respect and understanding.

Since the seventy century A.D., the culture of the Arab world has been dominated by the last of
the three great monotheistic religions to have emerged from the region: Islam. Islam, faith of the
vast majority of Arabs, is more than just a religion; it is the focal point of Arab society for
Muslims and non-Muslims alike, permeating their culture at every level—political, social,
economic, as well as private. To appreciate the enormous force of Islam in the Arab world, one
must understand the basic tenets of the faith—how it emerged and grew.
Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula— present-day Saudi Arabia—in 622 A.D.
According to Islamic tradition, God (Allah) conveyed to Muhammad, a tradesman, a series of
revelations which were to form the basis of the new faith. Islam means submission—submission
to the will of God; a Muslim, in turn, is one who has submitted himself to Allah and who
acknowledges Muhammad as His prophet.
Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last in a series of prophets which included Abraham,
Moses and Jesus, to whom God revealed His Divine Message. Islamic tradition, in fact, takes
into account the doctrines of both Judaism and Christianity which preceded it. For example,
Muslims believe, as do both Jews and Christians, in one God and in an afterlife. Islam also
acknowledges Jews and Christians as the "people of the Book" (ahl al-kitab), "the Book"
meaning the Bible, and has granted them privileged status from the early days of the Islamic
empire into modern times. For this reason, religious minorities throughout the Arab world have
survived and flourished during periods of severe cultural and religious repression elsewhere.
The body of revelation which Allah delivered to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel is
contained in the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. The Qur'an, written in Arabic, the language of
Allah's divine transmission, provides the Muslim believer with all he or she needs to know to
lead a good and pious life. In addition to its obvious religious significance, the revelation of
the Qur'an represents the crowning literary achievement of the Arabic language. It has been both
an immeasurable influence on the development of Arabic literature and an inspiration for all
branches of literature and scholarship. Islamic acts of devotion and worship are expressed in
the Five Pillars of Islam. These involve not only profession of faith, but also recognition of God
in all aspects of human conduct. The Five Pillars are:
(1) Profession of Faith, or shahada in Arabic, which requires the believer to profess the unity of
God and the mission of Muhammad. This involves the repetition of the formula: "There is no
God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." This assertion forms part of every
prayer and in a critical situation, one may repeat the first part in order to establish one's identity
as a Muslim.
(2) Prayer, sala, is required five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and dusk. It
must be performed in a state of ritual purity and every word must be in Arabic. The worshipper
has the choice of praying privately, in the open air or in a house; or with a group outdoors or in a
mosque. Islam opposes the practice of withdrawing into ascetic life. For this reason, there is no
priesthood, as is known in the West, only 'ulema, learned men, who are well-versed in Islamic
law and tradition. Throughout the Muslim world, services are held at noon on Fridays in
mosques. Muhammad did not explicitly designate Friday as a day of rest, only a part of which is
devoted to a special religious service. Merchants are free to open their shops before and after the
(3) The third Pillar of Islam, Almsgiving, zaka or zakat, embodies the principle of social
responsibility. This precept teaches that what belongs to the believer also belongs to the
community in the ultimate sense, and that only by donating a proportion of his or her wealth for
public use does a person legitimize what he or she retains. The zaka, in addition to the other
tenets of Islam, is a religious obligation, and believers are expected to treat it seriously.
(4) The ancient Semitic institution of Fasting is the fourth Pillar of Islam, known as saum. To a
Muslim, it means observing Ramadan, the month during which, it is written, God sent
the Qur'an to the lowest heaven where Gabriel received it and revealed it in time to Muhammad.
Fasting demands complete abstinence from food and drink from dawn to sunset every day during
(5) The last cherished Pillar of Islam is the Pilgrimage to Mecca, al-hajj, where God's revelation
was first disclosed to Muhammad. Believers worship publicly at the Holy Mosque, expressing
the full equality among Muslims with a common objective—all performing the same actions, all
seeking to gain the favor of God. All pilgrims, from various cultures and classes, wear identical
white robes as they assemble around a single center, the Ka'aba, which inspires them with a
strong sense of unity. Every Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once during his
or her lifetime. Attached to the experience of the pilgrimage is added status: after the individual
returns home, he or she is addressed as "al-Hajj" or "al-Hajjah" (the pilgrim), a title which
carries great prestige.

While the Islamic community throughout the world is united by the two essential beliefs in (1)
the Oneness of God and (2) the divine mission of His Prophet, there developed shortly after
Muhammad's death a debate within the Islamic community over who should succeed the Prophet
as leader of the faithful. This debate split the community into Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. It is
important to remember, however, that on fundamental issues, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are in
basic agreement since they both draw on the Qur'an and the Shari'ah, body of Islamic Law.

While most people know that Arabic is the written and spoken language of more than 150
million inhabitants of the Arab world, few realize that the Arabic script is also used by one-
seventh of the world's population.
Millions of people in Africa and Asia write their languages in the Arabic alphabet. Farsi—the
language of Iran—and Urdu—the language of Pakistan and some parts of India—are written in
the Arabic script. The Turkish language employed Arabic characters until the 1920's. In addition,
Arabic script is used today in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, sections of China and even in
the Muslim areas of the Philippines and the former Soviet Union.
The reason for the extensive use of Arabic dates back to the emergence of the Islamic faith in
622 A.D. The Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and
subsequently, recorded in Arabic. Thus, for the Muslim Arab of that time, as well as today, his
language and the language of God (Allah) are identical. Arabic remains the primary vehicle for
prayer in Islam.
As the new believers, or Muslims, spread out from the Arabian Peninsula to create a vast
empire—first with its capital in Damascus then, later, in Baghdad—Arabic became the
administrative language of vast sections of the civilized world. It drew upon Byzantine and
Persian terms and its own immense inner resources of vocabulary and grammatical flexibility.
By the eleventh century A.D., this language was the common medium of expression from Persia
to the Pyrenees—the language of kings and commoners, poets and princes, scholars and
scientists. Arabic became the principal reservoir of human knowledge, including the repository
for the accumulated wisdom of past ages, supplanting previous cultural languages, such as Greek
and Latin.
Arabic belongs to the Semitic family of languages, of which Hebrew is also a member; thus,
the term "Semite" refers to anyone who speaks a Semitic tongue. Arabic script reads from right
to left and its alphabet contains twenty-eight characters. While it is universally written, read and
understood in its classical form, spoken Arabic has undergone regional or dialectical variations.
The Arabic language developed through the centuries in what is today Saudi Arabia until, in
the era immediately preceding the appearance of Islam, it acquired the form in which it is known
today. Arab poets of the pre-Islamic, or Jahiliyyah period, had developed a language of amazing
richness and flexibility, despite the fact that many were desert bedouins (nomads) with little or
no formal education. For the most part, their poetry was transmitted and preserved orally. The
Arabic language was then, as it is now, easily capable of creating new words and terminology in
order to adapt to the demands of new scientific and artistic discoveries.
As the Empire spread, the Arabic language—and, indeed, culture—was enriched by contacts
with other civilizations: Greeks, Persians, Copts, Romans, Indians and Chinese. During the ninth
and tenth centuries, a great translation movement, centered in Baghdad, was in force, in which
many ancient scientific and philosophical tracts were transposed from ancient languages,
especially Greek, into Arabic. Many were enhanced by the new wisdom suggested by Arab
thinkers; other texts were simply preserved, only to re-emerge in Europe during the Renaissance.
Modern European languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and English owe a
great debt to Arabic. The English language itself contains many words borrowed from Arabic:
algebra, alchemy, admiral, genius, ghoul, mare sherbet, soda and many others.

Words that came

from Arabic
(Fossilized resin)



(Palm of the hand) (Coffee, originally wine)


(Pipe, reed) (To travel)
(To sift) (A drum)


(Evil spirit, ogre) (Arab skiff or type of sandal)


(Dice - as in "roll of the dice") (The lute)


(Spirits of fermentation) (Declaration)



Arabic calligraphy is characterized by flowing patterns and intricate geometrical designs. This
fine writing—which the Alexandrian philosopher, Euclid, called a "spiritual technique"—has
poured forth from the pens of Arabs for the last thirteen centuries.
In a broad sense, calligraphy is merely hand-writing, a tool for recording and communicating;
but in the Arab world it is an art, an art with a remarkable history; a form with great masters and
revered traditions. Beauty alone distinguishes calligraphy from ordinary handwriting; writing
may express ideas, but to the Arab it must also express the broader dimension of aesthetics.
Historians disagree on both the birthplace and birthdate of Arabic writing, but the most widely
accepted theory is that it developed from Nabataean, a west Aramaic dialect which served as the
international language of the Middle East from about the fourth century, B.C., until the seventh
century, A.D. As the new Islamic faith emerged and spread, the Arabic of the Arabian Peninsula
replaced Aramaic as the lingua franca of the area.
As we have noted elsewhere, the Arabs had a highly developed oral tradition in poetry even
before they had an alphabet. Poetry was composed and committed to memory and was passed on
in this manner from generation to generation. Indeed, in the beginning, even the Qur'an, the
Holy Book of Islam and the Arabic language's crowning literary achievement, was committed to
memory by professional memorizers who attended the Prophet Muhammad. For fifteen years
after his death, it existed only in oral form.
The Caliph 'Uthman, 644-656 A.D., fearing dangerous diversity in such a method, ordered that
an official recension be undertaken. In the seventh century, only consonants and long vowels
were written; the short vowels had to be inferred by the reader. But even more confusing was the
fact that several consonants were written with the same symbol; only later was a system of dots
above and below the letters devised in order to differentiate among them. Finally, in 933 A.D.,
the final version of the written Qur'an—the one which is considered authoritative even to this
day— was completed.
Just as the Christian monks of Europe in the Middle Ages spent lifetimes writing and
illuminating religious manuscripts, so, too, did the Arab forebears devote their lives to producing
elegantly handwritten copies of the Qur'an. Because Islam's monotheism discouraged the
representation of human or animal forms, the calligrapher found artistic expression in highly
stylized intricate and flowing patterns. Over a period of centuries, calligraphy remained a
supreme art form, replacing design, painting and sculpture. Calligraphy filled not only palaces
and mosques, but clothing, carpets, decorative items and literary works. The artist could draw
from any number of styles—kufic, thuluth and the best known, naksh—depending, often, on the
purpose of that inscription.
From the Dome of the Mosque of the Rock in Jerusalem to the great mosques of Isfahan in
Persia, calligraphy decorated, enhanced and even helped to visually unify the greatest Muslim
structures. The art of Arabic calligraphy was employed in many European churches as well, such
as in Saint Peter's in Rome. The representations of Christian saints that beautify the Capella
Palatina in Palermo, Sicily, bear inscriptions in kufic, the early Arabic script. Today, the
calligraphic tradition lives on throughout the Arab/Islamic world in religious, educational,
governmental and commercial architecture.

The Prophet Muhammad said "it is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to seek
education," and under his influence, the Arabs were encouraged to pursue knowledge for its own
sake. Fulfilling the duty to pursue knowledge gave Muslims a head-start in education. Among
the early elementary educational institutions were the mosque schools which were founded by
the Prophet himself; he sat in the mosque surrounded by a halqa (circle) of listeners, intent on his
instructions. Muhammad also sent teachers to the various tribes to instruct their members in
the Qur'an.
The formal pursuit of knowledge had existed in one form or another since the time of the
Greeks. The Arabs translated and preserved not only the teachings of the Greeks but those of the
Indians and the Persians as well. More importantly, they used these basic teachings as a starting
point from which to launch a mass revolution in education beginning during the Abbasid dynasty
(750-1258 A.D.).
During the Abbasid period, thousands of mosque schools were established throughout the
Arab empire and the subjects of study were increased to include hadith (the science of
tradition), fiqh(jurisprudence), philology, poetry, rhetoric and others. In tenth century Baghdad
alone there were an estimated 3,000 mosques. Fourteenth century Alexandria had some 12,000
mosques, all of which played an important role in education.
In the mosque school, the teacher sat on a cushion and leaned against a column or wall as his
students sat around him listening and taking notes. Only Muslims were allowed to attend
the Qur'an or hadith sessions, but non-Muslims could attend all other subjects. There was no age
limit, nor were there any restrictions on women attending classes.
Historians such as Ibn Khallikan reported that women also taught classes in which men took
lessons. Few Westerners recognize the extent to which Arab women contributed to the social,
economic and political life of the empire. Arab women excelled in medicine, mysticism, poetry,
teaching, and oratory and even took active roles in military conflicts. Current misconceptions are
based on false stereotypes of Arab life and culture popularized by some journalists and
In the mosque schools, rich and poor alike attended classes freely. Classes were held at
specific times and announced in advance by the teacher. Students could attend several classes a
day, sometimes traveling from one mosque to another. Teachers were respected by their students
and there were formal, if unwritten, rules of behavi. Laughing, talking, joking or disrespectful
behavior of any kind were not permitted.
Different teachers used various methods of instruction. Some preferred to teach from a text
first and then to answer questions. Others allowed student assistants to read or elaborate upon the
instructor's theories while the teachers themselves remained available to comment or answer
questions. Still others taught without the benefit of texts.
In 1066 A.D., Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, founded the Nizamiyya Madrasa in Baghdad
which became the forerunner of secondary/college level education in the Arab
empire. Madrasas had existed long before Nizam al-Mulk, but his contribution was the
popularization of this type of school. The madrasa gave rise to various universities in the Arab
empire and become the prototype of several early European universities. Founded in 969 A.D.,
Al-Azhar University in Cairo preceded other universities in Europe by two centuries. Today it
attracts students from all over the world.
The madrasas, which literally mean "places for learning," were the beginning of
departmentalized schools where education was available to all. The madrasas even provided
student dormitories. Each madrasa, depending on its location, had a specific curriculum. The
subjects taught were the religious sciences (e.g., the study of the Qur'an, hadith,jurisprudence
and grammar) and the intellectual sciences (e.g., mathematics, astronomy, music and physics).
As these schools began to attract distinguished teachers and specialists from all corners of the
Arab empire, the number of disciplines increased. Teachers received substantial salaries and
scholarships and pensions were available for students. Funds for operation of the madrasas came
from both the government and private contributions. Since the government placed an important
role in promoting these institutions, the subject matter, choice of teachers and allocation of funds
were closely supervised and regulated.
The development of the madrasaevolved from the various elementary and secondary schools
which were prevalent in the Abbasid empire: the mosque schools and other traditional
institutions; maktabat, or libraries, which originated in the pre--Islamic Arab world; tutoring
houses, palace schools; halqa, discussion groups in the homes of Muslim scholars; and the
library salons in the palaces of wealthy men and courtiers who were patrons of learning and
scholarship. In addition, there were the majalis or meetings which were presided over by learned
men at various social institutions and private homes. The majalis covered a wide range of topics
and subjects. In the current revivals of traditional Islam, many of these "old" institutions and
customs are being resuscitated.
Traveling to other cities to seek knowledge under the direction of different masters was a
common practice in the early centuries of Islam. From Kurasan to Egypt, to West Africa and
Spain, and from the northern provinces to those in the south, students and teachers journeyed to
attend classes and discuss social, political, religious, philosophical and scientific matters. The
custom was later popularized in Europe during the Renaissance.
Academies began to emerge in the eighth century, serving as centers for the translation of
earlier works and for innovative research. Each academy provided rooms for classes, meetings
and readings. The Bayt al-Hikma for the Caliph al-Ma'mum (813-833 A.D.) and the Dar al-
'Ilm of Cairo founded by al-Hakim (966-1021 A.D.) are the most notable. Books were collected
from all over the world to create monumental libraries that housed volumes on medicine,
philosophy, mathematics, science, alchemy, logic, astronomy and many other subjects.
Along with the introduction of paper and textbooks in the eighth century came the antecedent
of "teacher certification." An instructor would give his permission (ijazah) to competent students
to teach from one or all of his textbooks. Because of this practice, an individual could have
an ijazah to teach a subject although he might be a student in another class. Consequently, the
distinction between teacher and student was often minimized.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as Arab influence spread to Spain, Sicily and the rest of
Europe, Europeans became increasingly aware of Arab advancements in many fields, especially
education and science. Books were translated from Arabic into Latin and, later, to vernacular
language. European schools which had long limited learning to the "seven liberal arts" began to
expand their curricula.
For some five hundred years, Arab learning and scholarship played a major role in the
development of education in the West. The Arabs brought with them well-developed techniques
in translation and research and opened new vistas in areas of medicine, the physical sciences and
mathematics. Application of empiricism in all fields of study was rapidly incorporated into the
learning system of those who became familiar with Arab methodology.
Long before the popularization of the phrase "transfer of technology," a term used to describe
advanced expertise which developed nations offer to Third World countries, the Arabs shared
their accumulated knowledge and institutions with the rest of the world.

Any discussion of Arabic literature must begin with the language itself. While the leading
literary figures within the Islamic Empire represented a diversity of ethnic and cultural
backgrounds, the non-Arabs among them adopted the language of the Qur'an as their universal
medium of expression. Arabs have long considered their language a perfect instrument of
precision, clarity and eloquence, as evidenced by the Qur'an itself and by subsequent literary
masterpieces. Since the Qur'an was adopted as the fixed standard, a surprisingly vast and rich
literature has accumulated over a period of fourteen hundred years.
The earliest known form of Arabic literature is the heroic poetry of the noble tribes of pre-
Islamic Arabia. It was there that the standard Arabic verse form, the qasidah, evolved.
The qasidah, a long poem, often recounted incidents from the poet's own life or that of his
tribe—sometimes dramatically and, sometimes, with a distinctively epic flavor. Pre-Islamic
poetry was transmitted and preserved orally until the latter part of the seventh century A.D. when
the Arab scholars undertook a large effort to collect and record verses and shorter compositions
that had survived in the memories of professional reciters.
During the Umayyad period (661-750 A.D.), the Arab way of life began to shift from a
nomadic mode of existence to a more settled and sophisticated urban style. In accordance with
Greek and Persian practices of the time, poetry was often accompanied by music performed by
women. In time, the poetic form was simplified: the complex and highly refined meters of the
traditional Arabian poetry were replaced by shorter, freer meters which were adaptable to music.
Poetry and music became inseparable, giving rise to the ghazal traditions, most strikingly
illustrated in the famous Kitab al-Aghani, or "Book of Songs."
Arab literature flourished under the Abbasids, who rose to power in Baghdad in the mid-
eighth century. The "golden age" of Islamic culture and commerce reached its zenith during the
reigns of Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma'mun. Arabic prose began to take its rightful place
along with poetry; secular literature was at home alongside religious tracts. Abbasid authors of
this era not only contributed to the splendor of their age but also left an indelible mark on the
European Renaissance.
The outstanding genius of Arab prose at that time was Abu 'Uthman 'Umar bin Bahr al-Jahiz
(776-869), the grandson of a black slave who, having received a wide education in Basra, Iraq,
became one of the period's leading intellectuals. Al-Jahiz is best known for his Kitab al-
Hayawan, "Book of Animals," an anthology of animal anecdotes, representing a curious blend of
fact and fiction. His Kitab al-Bukhala, "Book of Misers," a witty and insightful study of human
psychology, is more revealing of Arab character and society than any other book the time.
The essays of al-Jahiz form a part of the large category of adab, polite literature or belles-
lettres. In the second half of the tenth century, a new literary genre appeared. This was known
as maqamat"assemblies"—amusing anecdotes narrated by a vagabond who made his living by
his wits. The maqamat were invented by Badi' al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (d.1008); only fifty-two
of his original four hundred maqamat have survived. Al-Hariri (d. 1122) elaborated upon this
genre and stereotyped it, using the same format and inventing his own narrator and roguish hero.
The popularity of the maqamat was only eclipsed by the rise of modern Arabic.
For many people, Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad al-Mutanabbi, may have been the greatest of all Arab
poets. Born in Kufa, Iraq, and educated in Syria, al-Mutanabbi appeared in the early part of the
tenth century. His themes recalled the traditional Arab virtues of loyalty, honor, friendship,
bravery, and chivalry.
The last great poet of the Abbasid period was Abu al-'Ala al-Ma'arri (973-1057). While al-
Ma'arri's poetry reflects the pessimism and skepticism of his particular era, he nevertheless
transcended his age to become one of the major figures of Arabic literature, as well as a special
favorite of Western scholars.
Towards the end of the ninth century, history began to form a part of belles-lettres. The
necessity for collections of data on the countries of the Abbasid empire stimulated geographical
writing, mixed with travelers' observations and tales of marvels. Idrisi, in twelfth century Sicily,
was commissioned to compile the Book of Roger for the Norman King of Palermo, with
accompanying maps. Yaqut (d. 1229) wrote a large geographical dictionary, gleaned from many
The basis of Arabic writings of history was provided by accounts of the life of the Prophet
Muhammad. Since the compilation of such biographies was determined by the Arab system
of isnad—that is, of quoting all available authorities and establishing their reliability—Arab
history-writing was generally characterized by accuracy rather than by creative handling or
interpretation of available materials. It, thus, provides the modern historian with a most accurate
and comprehensive source of material. The Arabs also produced the man whom modern scholars
consider the true father of modern historiography and of the science of sociology—Ibn Khaldun
(d. 1406).
A native of Tunisia, a government official at the Arab courts of Granada, Morocco and
Algeria, Ibn Khaldun became the chief justice of the Mamluk sultans of Egypt. It was in the
Maghreb, before settling in the Middle East, that he spent several years in retreat composing his
great work: Muqaddimah. While before Ibn Khaldun, historiography was concerned mainly with
rulers, battles and straightforward accounts of main events, the great Arab thinker was the first to
recognize that events did not happen in a vacuum but depended upon an endless variety of
factors previously neglected by historians, such as climate, social customs, food, superstitions
and so on. Thus, in his Muqaddimah, he deals extensively with subjects such as the nature of
society and occupation, labor conditions, climate and methods of education.
Modern scholarship acknowledges that, thanks to him, latter-day historiography changed fun-
damentally. Of his truly revolutionary work Arnold Toynbee wrote, "Ibn Khaldun has conceived
and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that
has ever yet been created by any mind in any time." In a similar vein, Professor George Sarton
has said of the Muqaddimah "I do not hesitate to call it the most important historical work of the
Middle Ages."

Orientalism in European Literature

Arab influences in European literature began to appear in the poetry of the early Spanish and
Provençal troubadours, and, in the thirteenth century, in the French fabliaux and contes.
No Western author expressed Europe's fascination with any aspect of Arabism in a more
dramatic and poetic form than did Shakespeare. Among his most attractive characters, two are
Arabs, or as he calls them, "Moors": Othello, from the play of the same name and the Prince of
Morocco, one of the noblest figures in The Merchant of Venice. The prince, modeled on the great
Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur, shows a royal dignity expressed in words of great nobility.
Whereas the Prince of Morocco is but a minor character in The Merchant of Venice, Othello
completely dominates the drama to which his name is given. A man of unbounded passion, this
Moor—"who comes from a land of deserts, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven" (an
obvious reference to the Atlas Mountains)—is also a paragon of loyalty, courage, honesty, and
possessed of a nobility rendered more striking by contrast with the infamy of the "white" Iago.
To the present day, experts acquainted with the Moorish character are amazed at the insight with
which Shakespeare created Othello.
In the London of Queen Elizabeth I, Morocco was very much "in the news." Among the
founders of the "Barbary Company," an association of London merchants trading with Morocco,
we find the Earl of Leicester, one of the Bard's patrons; it was from his many Barbary-merchant
friends that Shakespeare obtained much information of Morocco and its people. Altogether we
find more than sixty references to Barbary (Morocco) in Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare was by no means alone in falling under the spell of Moorish subjects. In
his Tamburlaine the Great of 1587, Christopher Marlowe introduces the "Kings of Moroccus
and Fez." A year later a certain Ed. White published A Brief Rehearsal of the Bloody Battle of
Barbary; in 1594, George Peel's play, The Battle of Alcazar, was produced in London; and,
shortly afterwards, an anonymous author, Ro. C. published a history of Morocco entitled, A True
Discourse of Muley Hamet's Death.
The Oriental fashion, in which Arab elements were often confused with Persian and Indian,
persisted through most of the nineteenth century when Victor Hugo could write: "In the age of
Louis XIV all the world was Hellenistic; now it is Orientalist" (Preface to Les Orientales).
While The Thousand and One Nights did not alone create this romantic flood, it greatly widened
the scope of European literature and enriched its imagery and language, producing a focus for
Europe's yearning for the exotic and stimulating latent interests among its intellectuals.
Arabic literature, in addition, to being the crowning artistic and intellectual achievement of the
Arabs, also represents one of their most enduring legacies to the West. It is an aspect of the Arab
heritage which, though often neglected or given only cursory attention, offers important insights
that provide a fuller understanding of Arab culture and its contributions.
We find Arab names and settings in the famous Aucassin et Nicolette and Arab echoes even in
Boccacio's Decameron. Chaucer's Squires Tales uses a theme brought to Europe by Italian
merchants who had traded in the Middle East. And, of course, there is the most famous medieval
work of literature, Dante's Divine Comedy, replete with details from the story of the Prophet
Muhammad's ascension to heaven and details culled from the Meccan Revolution by the great
Arab mystic Ibn Arabi.
Perhaps no work of Arabic literature has stirred Western imagination as much as The
Thousand and One Nights, popularly known as The Arabian Nights. A collection of separate
stories—exciting, romantic, amusing and always highly entertaining— the book has Arab,
Greek, Persian and Indian origins. It was finally compiled and unified by Arab authors in the
tenth century, giving it an entirely Arab character, placing its two main centers in Baghdad and
Cairo. At times, with the salty humor of true folk tales and always with an astounding
inventiveness, the book enjoyed a great popularity throughout the Middle East where it was
known chiefly through oral transmission by professional storytellers. Its popularity with the
European public, however, was infinitely greater. The first translation by the Frenchman
Galland, in 1704, was soon followed by English versions. Their was spectacular, and new
editions followed one another in the most enviable manner of modern best-sellers.
The astounding popularity that The Thousand and One Nights enjoyed in Europe from the start
can be traced to the "oriental" yearnings that had been growing among Western writers, artists
and readers ever since the days of the Crusades. The public found in these tales an element of
romance and adventure that was missing from European literature. To be sure, The Thousand
and One Nights was partly responsible for the composition of European novels as famous
as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. Arabism, or "Orientalism," as it was usually called,
provided Western writers with a wealth of new themes. We find such themes in Samuel
Johnson's Rasselas, in Byron, in the satires of Voltaire, and, of the French reformers, in
Beckford's Vathek, in Germany, in Goethe's famous Westoestlicher Diwan, and in Rukert and

Chemistry, or alchemy, from the Arabic alkimiya, was first studied among Arabs in the seventh
century A.D. by Khalid ibn Yazid ibn Muawiyya who was familiar with the writings of the
ancient Greeks on the subject. Muawiyya was followed by Jabir ibn Hayyan (known to the West
as Geber). Jabir was born in the year 721 A.D., and later became the pupil of the celebrated
Islamic teacher, the Imam Jaffar. He spent most of his life in Kufa, Iraq. In spite of Jabir's
leanings toward mysticism and superstition, he more clearly recognized and proclaimed the
importance of experimentation than any other early chemist. "The first essential in chemistry," he
declared, "is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who
performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain the least degree of
mastery." He made noteworthy advances in both the theory and practice of chemistry.
Jabir was acquainted with the usual chemical reactions such as crystallization, calcination,
solution, sublimation, and reduction and often described them. Among Jabir's great contributions
were his studies in the transmutation of metals. Regarding practical applications of chemistry,
Jabir described processes for the preparation of steel and the refinement of other metals, for
dying cloth and leather, for making varnishes to waterproof cloth and to protect iron, and for the
preparation of hair dyes. He devised a recipe for making an illuminating ink for manuscripts
from "golden" marcasite to replace the much more expensive ones made from real gold, and
suggested the use of manganese dioxide in glass-making.
Jabir is credited with the discovery of red oxide, bichloride of mercury, hydrochloric acid,
nitrate of silver, nitric acid, sal ammonic, and ammonium chloride. The preparation of nitric acid
was perhaps his most useful discovery. But to the alchemists and chemists of the Middle Ages,.
the descriptions and illustrations of furnaces in Jabir's books were probably of even greater
History records a few alchemists in the interval after Jabir's death, but it is only with the
appearance of the chemist and physician, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (known to the West
as Rhazes) that Jabir's great example was successfully followed. Razi was learned in almost
every branch of science and philosophy, alchemy, mathematics, logic, ethics, metaphysics and
music. By profession a physician, his medical writings were more famous than his works in
alchemy. His interest in alchemy seems to have begun in his youth and he is reported to have
said that "no man deserves the name of 'philosopher' unless he be a master of theoretical and
applied chemistry." He authored more than one hundred medical books, thirty-three treatises on
natural science (exclusive of alchemy), eleven on mathematics and astronomy and more than
forty-five on philosophy, logic and theology. On alchemy, he wrote Compendium of Twelve
Treatises and Book Secrets.
Razi is a figure of exceptional importance in the history of chemistry since in his works we
find for the first time a systematic classification of carefully observed and verified facts
regarding chemical substances, reactions and apparatuses described in a language almost entirely
free from mysticism and ambiguity. Razi also gives a list of the apparatuses used in chemistry.
These consists of two classes: (1) instruments used for melting metals, and (2) those used for the
manipulation of substances generally. He completes the subject by describing how to make
composite pieces of apparatuses and, in general, provides the same kind of information as is to
be found in laboratory manuals today.
Another famous scientist who followed Razi is Abu Ali al-Hussain ibn Sina, "Avicenna" as he
was known in Europe, who has been described as the "Aristotle of the Arabs." During his
lifetime, he accomplished an amazing mass of literary, medical, philosophical and scientific
works. In his Book of Remedy, he wrote about minerals, the formation of rocks and stones and
the properties of minerals and metals.
From the fourth to the twelfth centuries A.D., the original chemical research and writing in
Europe was virtually non-existent. Instead, Arabic texts came to be translated into Latin, these
treatises functioning as standard textbooks for students in Europe. The translation of technical
matters presented special difficulties, so that scholars often had to content themselves with literal
renderings. It was safer not to translate words the meanings of which were imperfectly
understood. Thus, in the translation from Arabic to Latin, such words were often simply
transliterated, e.g., alembic, camphor, borax, elixir, talc and saffron.
Mathematics and Astronomy
There is no doubt that mathematics and astronomy owe a great debt to the Arabs. As George
Sarton, the great Harvard historian of science, wrote in his monumental Introduction to the
History of Science:

From the second half of the eighth to the end of the eleventh century, Arabic was the scientific, the
progressive language of mankind... When the West was sufficiently mature to feel the need of
deeper knowledge, it turned its attention, first of all, not to the Greek sources, but to the Arabic

In the twelfth century, Europe became aware of the scientific achievements of the Arabs and
embarked upon serious translations of their rich legacy. A special college for translators was
founded in Toledo, Spain, and it was there, and in other centers, that some of the great Christian
scholars translated most of the Arabic works on mathematics and astronomy. In most European
universities, Arab treatises formed the basis of mathematical studies.
The history of Arab mathematics began with Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarazmi who, in
the ninth century, journeyed east to India to learn the sciences of that time. He introduced Hindu
numerals, including the concept of zero, into the Arab world. This number system was later
transmitted to the West. Prior to the use of "Arabic" numerals, as we know them today, the West
relied upon the somewhat clumsy system of Roman numerals. Whereas in the decimal system,
the number of 1948 can be written in four figures, eleven figures were needed using the Roman
system: MDCCCXLVIII. It is obvious that even for the solution of the simplest arithmetic
problem, Roman numerals called for an enormous expenditure of time and labor. The Arab
numerals, on the other hand, rendered even complicated mathematical tasks relatively simple.
The scientific advances of the West would have been impossible had scientists continued to
depend upon the Roman numerals and been deprived of the simplicity and flexibility of the
decimal system and its main glory, the zero. Though the Arab numerals were originally a Hindu
invention, it was the Arabs who turned them into a workable system; the earliest Arab zero on
record dates from the year 873, whereas the earliest Hindu zero is dated 876. For the subsequent
four hundred years, Europe laughed at the method that depended upon the use of zero, "a
meaningless nothing."
Had the Arabs given us nothing but the decimal system, their contribution to progress would
have been considerable. In fa, they gave us infinitely more. While religion is often thought to be
an impediment to scientific progress, we can see, in a study of Arab mathematics, how religious
beliefs actually inspired scientific discovery.
Because of the Qur'an's very concrete prescriptions regarding the division of an estate among
children of a deceased person, it was incumbent upon the Arabs to find the means for very
precise delineation of lands. For example, let us say a father left an irregularly shaped piece of
land—seventeen acres large—to his six sons, each one of whom had to receive precisely one-
sixth of his legacy. The mathematics that the Arabs had inherited from the Greeks made such a
division extremely complicated, if not impossible. It was the search for a more accurate, more
comprehensive, and more flexible method that led Khawarazmi to the invention of algebra.
According to Professor Sarton, Khawarazmi "influenced mathematical thought to a greater
extent than any other medieval writer." Both algebra, in the true sense of the term, and the term
itself (al-jabr) we owe to him. Apart from mathematics, Khawarazmi also did pioneer work in
the fields of astronomy, geography and the theory of music.
It was due to another exponent of Arab civilization, Omar Khayyam (1040-1123), that algebra
made an enormous leap forward, two centuries after Khawarazmi. Known in the West as the
author of The Rubayat, a poem made famous by Edward Fitzgerald's translation, he was admired
in the East mainly as a mathematician. In his use of analytical geometry, he anticipated the
geometry of Descartes. Commissioned by the Seljuk Sultan Halikshah to reform the Persian
calendar, he prepared a calendar said to be more accurate than the Gregorian one in use to the
present day. Whereas the latter leads to an error of one day in 3,300 years, in Omar Khayyam's
calendar that error is one day in 5,000 years.
Because of their Islamic faith, it was essential for the Arabs to obtain a more precise
knowledge of astronomy and geography than was already available: a Muslim is obliged to
perform a number of religious observances with distinctly astronomical and geographical
implications. When he prays, he must face Mecca; if he wishes to perform the pilgrimage to
Mecca, he must first know in what direction and what distance he will have to travel. Yet a
thousand years ago such a journey might take months or even years, for the would-be pilgrim
might have been living in Spain, Sicily or Asia Minor—all parts of the medieval Arab Empire.
During Ramadan, the month of fasting, when between sunrise and sunset a Muslim must abstain
from food and drink, he must know in advance the precise moment at which the moon rises and
sets. All these functions required a detailed knowledge of astronomy and geography.
It was, thus, under the great Caliph Ma'mun (813-833) that the Arabs set out upon their
investigations into astronomy. Ma'mun—a son of Harun al-Rashid of Arabian Nights fame—
built a special observatory in Palmyra, Syria, and gradually, his scientists determined the length
of a degree, thus establishing longitude and latitude.
Among the Arabs who laid the foundations of modern astronomy were Battani (858-929) and
Biruni (973-1048). Battani's astronomical tables were not only adopted enthusiastically by the
West, but were in use there until the Renaissance. He was the first to replace the Greek chord by
the sine, in trigonometry. His works were translated and published in Europe from the twelfth
until the mid-sixteenth century.
Professor Sarton considers Biruni "One of the very greatest scientists of all time." It was he
who gave, finally, an accurate determination of latitude and longitude, and who, six hundred
years before Galileo, discussed the possibility of the earth's rotation around its own axis. He also
investigated the relative speeds of sound and light.
However much astronomy depends upon mathematics, equally vital to it are instruments, and
in that field, also, the Arabs proved themselves the chief pioneers. In the early Middle Ages,
measurements had to be made with purely mechanical instruments, such as the quadrant, the
sextant, or the astrolabe. To reduce the margin of error, the Arabs made their instruments larger
than any known before and, consequently, obtained remarkably accurate results. The most
famous observatory at which these instruments were being used was at Maragha, in the thirteenth
century, where distinguished astronomers from many countries collaborated—not only Muslim,
Christian and Jew, but even Chinese. It was the latter who were responsible for the otherwise
surprising appearance of Arab trigonometry in China.
It has already been indicated that, in the hands of the Arabs, mathematics acquired a new
"dynamic" quality. We find this in Biruni's trigonometry, where numbers became elements of
function, and in Khawarazmi's algebra, where the algebraic symbols contain within themselves
potentialities for the infinite. What is significant about this development is that it reveals an
intuitive correspondence between mathematics and religion. The Qur'an does not present the
universe as a finished creation; rather, God keeps re-creating it at every moment of existence. In
other words, creation is an ever-continuing process, and the world is not static but dynamic. This
dynamic character, inherent in Islam, is amply manifested in Arab mathematics.
In conclusion, it is clear that Arab mathematicians, besides passing on to the West the Hindu
and Greek legacies, developed most branches of trigonometry and astronomy, gave us algebra,
invented many astronomical instruments, and showed that science, instead of being a denial of
faith, can be its instrument if not its affirmation.

Without question, the greatest name in physics during the Arab/Islamic Empire was Ibn al-
Haytham, born in the city of Basra, Iraq, in 965 A.D. By the time he died in 1030, he had made
major contributions to optics, astronomy and mathematics, some of which would not be
improved upon for six centuries.
Ibn al-Haytham's main field of interest and the one to which he made his greatest
contributions, was the branch of physics we call optics. Striking parallels exist between his work
and that of the seventeenth century English physicist, Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists
of all time.
One of Newton's major accomplishments was his famous Law of Universal Gravitation. The
most significant aspect of this theory is that it considers gravitation to be universal; that is, the
same laws apply in the heavens and throughout the universe as apply on earth. This contradicts
the idea held from the time of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) that there is a difference between the
laws governing events on earth and those pertaining to celestial bodies. Newton realized that the
force that causes an apple to fall from a tree is the same force that holds the moon and all the
planets in their orbits and, indeed, is the same as that which governs the motion of the stars
If this idea were considered new in the seventeenth century, it was certainly new in the
eleventh. Yet some of Ibn al-Haytham's experiments showed that he, too, believed that
extraterrestrial phenomena obeyed the same laws as do earthly ones.
Ibn al-Haytham evolved his theories of optics through the study of light rays, and his
investigations revealed a number of important properties: that light travels in a straight line; that
every point of a luminous object radiates light in every direction; and that light weakens as it
travels from its source. He studied these characteristics of light from a variety of light
sources, i.e., self-emitting (the moon and reflecting bodies on earth).
This seemingly trivial experiment is in fact an early example of what is known as the
"scientific method." Ibn al-Haytham designed an experiment to test a hypothesis, namely, that
light travels in a straight line. His experiment was arranged to avoid the possibility of the
experimenter's bias affecting the conclusions. Today, it seems obvious that light travels in
straight lines, yet there was a time when intelligent men thought it obvious that the sun travels
arounthe earth. The most advanced and sophisticated theory in modern physics, the Theory of
Relativity, is derived from a refutation of ideas that are based on our everyday experience.
Performing experiments to test and verify theories is at the heart of all modern scientific
Ibn al-Haytham's experiments have even greater significance. By using the sun, the moon,
lamps, fires and a variety of other light sources in his experiments, he was saying that light is
light, regardless of its source. In this sense, he anticipated the universal laws of seventeenth
century scientists.
We have described only the simplest of Ibn al-Haytham's experiments on the properties of
light rays, but there are many others that were considerably more sophisticated. Ibn al-Haytham
foresaw the works of later scientists not only in his use of experimentation but in the use of
instrumentation: devices to help make measurements, the key to all modern science. He designed
and constructed a variety of instruments, pipes, sheets, cylinders, rulers and plane, concave and
convex mirrors in order to conduct his tests.
In addition to his studies of reflection, he also studied refraction, a phenomenon in which light
rays bend when traveling from one medium to another, such as from air to water. The effect
causes an object to appear to be in a location other than where it actually is, making him the first
scientist to test a property of refraction that seems so obvious today. He demonstrated that a ray
of light arriving perpendicular to the air-water boundary was not bent at all and showed that this
was true for light passing through not just two, but several media. Clear parallels exist between
his work and that of Isaac Newton six centuries later: both men studied that effects of light
passing through glass, and both realized that the accepted ideas of their day were wrong.
It is difficult to appreciate the degree of intellect required by both these men to overcome the
ingrained prejudices of previous centuries. The greatest scientists of Newton's day could not
accept his theory of colors, a theory that we in the twentieth century, with three hundred years of
hindsight, regard as self-evident. Newton's seemingly simple idea was that the colors produced
when sunlight passes through a prism are caused by the separation of the sunlight, which
contains all colors, into its constituent parts by refraction. Ibn al-Haytham demonstrated that the
prism made the colors visible by bending rays of different colors in varying amounts, thus
producing the familiar spectrum.
Ibn al-Haytham's explanation of how a lens worked required a similar leap of intellect. He
contended that magnification was due to the bending, or refraction, of light rays at the glass-to-
air boundary and not, as was thought, to something in the glass. He correctly deduced that the
curvature of the glass, or lens, produced the magnification; thus, the magnifying effect takes
place at the surface of the lens rather than within it.
This distinction is, of course, critical to the design of lenses, and without the ability to design
lenses, we would have no cameras, movies, television sets, satellites, eyeglasses, contact lenses,
telescopes, or microscopes—life would be very different for the human race.
Although he did not build a telescope, it is known that Ibn al-Haytham did construct parabolic
mirrors. incoming parallel rays of light, such as those from the stars, are focused at a point so
that such mirrors can be used to obtain unblurred images of celestial bodies and remote objects
on the earth. Today, these are used in the world's great telescopes.
Like Newton, Ibn al-Haytham was interested in vision. Three Greeks, Galen in particular, did
pioneering work on the anatomy of the eye and its connections to the brain, but did not produce a
satisfactory theory of vision. Hero and Ptolemy both believed that vision was produced by the
emission of light from the eyes, but their theory did not provide a reasonable explanation of
perspective, the effect whereby the apparent size of an object depends upon its distance from the
observer. As we know today, and as Ibn al-Haytham understood in the eleventh century, vision
results from light being reflected into the eye from the object observed, an idea that explains
perspective. He correctly regarded the eye as an intercepting screen, comparable to those we use
today to show movies or slides. When his revolutionary ideas on perspective passed into Europe
during the Renaissance, they influenced the development not only of science but also of art. The
use of improved knowledge of perspective to give a feeling of depth and movement became
strikingly visible in the works of Italy's new school of painters, the Perspectivi, around 1500.
Furthermore, Ibn al-Haytham appreciated that an explanation of vision must take into account
not only such physical factors as light, screens, lenses and so on, but also anatomical and
psychological factors, and he realized that the eye must function in a manner consistent with the
laws of optics.
Ibn al-Haytham proved that the perception of an image occurs not in the eyes but in the brain
and that the location of an image is largely determined by psychological factors. Like Newton,
Ibn al-Haytham considered the problem of why a visual image produced within the brain is
perceived as if it were located at some distance from the viewer, is the actual position of the
object which produced it. Even today, most people do not find this surprising, although it is quite
remarkable that images of the objects we see do not appear to be inside the head, where they
actually exist, since they are simply electro-chemical versions of the scene inside the brain.
Ibn al-Haytham was aware of an even more subtle aspect of vision, namely, that when we see
an object the brain automatically performs a memory retrieval procedure to see if it recognizes
the object. The signals ultimately produced within the brain by light entering the eye cannot tell
us that what we see is, for example, a loaf of bread. Almost instantly, the brain scans its memory
and compares the new information it has received through the eyes with data it has stored over
the years. Ibn al-Haytham called this function of the brain "the distinguishing faculty" and
realized that it is intimately tied to the entire process of seeing.
That someone in the eleventh century realized that such complex questions existed is in itself
noteworthy, but Ibn al-Haytham did not merely raise them, he attempted to provide answers.
Explanations of these phenomena required him to construct a psychological theory of vision at a
time when psychology was not recognized as a field of study. These ideas were quite different
from the notions held by the Greeks and even by other contemporary Arab scientists.
The manner in which Ibn al-Haytham presented his theories in his Book of Opticsis extremely
interesting to the historian of science. He was both a mathematician and an experimenter, which
allowed him to present his arguments with a power unmatched by previous scientists who rarely
had experimental evidence to back up their assertions. Here lies another parallel between Newton
and Ibn al-Haytham: they were both mathematicians and experimenters who made significant
contributions to optics and other physical sciences by applying their knowledge of mathematics
to the results of experiments. Ibn al-Haytham's descriptions of his experiments are replete with
mathematical explanations in the form of geometric drawings, and he must have prepared
engineering drawings or sketches to assist with the manufacture of his instrumentation.
About one-fourth of Ibn al-Haytham's more than 200 books and treatises survive; the best
known of which is his Kitab al-Manazir, or Book of Optics (literally, Book of Perspectives). The
breadth of the other subjects discussed in his book shows the wide range of his interests. They
include optical illusions, the structure of the eye, binocular vision, perspective, atmospheric
refraction, comets, mirages and the camera obscura. He is known to have studied physiology,
anatomy and meteorology. Ibn al-Haythaalso made notable contributions to astronomy. For
example, he pointed out problems with the model of planetary orbits proposed by Ptolemy in the
first century A.D., a model that was not superseded until the time of Copernicus in the sixteenth
It is not too much to claim that Ibn al-Haytham was not only the founder of the science of
optics, but a pioneer in the modern scientific method and a man whose work stood unchallenged
for six centuries before others were able to carry forward ideas that sprang from his fertile mind.
The development and, indeed, the very creation of European medicine is unthinkable without the
Arabs' contribution. For its basis was the legacy of the ancient Greeks, and that legacy was
unknown to Europe until the moment when it became available in Arabic translations and with
the commentaries of Arab scholars. The first contribution of the Arabs to Western medicine is,
thus, the transmission of Greek knowledge. Between 800 and 900 A.D., they had discovered,
translated, commented upon, and assimilated the entire Greek heritage in practically all branches
of science. Of medical works they translated not only those of such giants as Hippocrates and
Galen, but also of Dioscorides, Paul of Aegina, Oribasius and Rufus of Ephesus. Further, the
Arabs are credited with many original contributions of hospitals and clinics, the practice of
internship, the licensing of physicians and regulations concerning malpractice.
The most important medical school affecting the development of Arab medicine was
Jundishapur, situated in what is now western Iran. Jundishapur came under Arab rule in 738
A.D., and a medical school managed by Syrian Christians began to foster the spread of medicine
among Arabs and other Muslims.
The first bimaristan (hospital and medical institution) in the Arab domain was established in
Baghdad during the reign of the Caliph al-Mansur (754-775 A.D.). Incorporating the traditions
and standards of Jundishapur and laying the foundations for the wider Arab adventure in
medicine, hospitals continued to be built throughout the Abbasid empire (749-1258 A.D.), an era
referred to as the "golden age" of Arab Muslim rule. In the medical schools associated with the
hospitals, a well-developed curriculum was taught, in line with the notion that an "educated" man
was not one with a singular area of expertise but, rather, broad knowledge in many fields. Music,
mathematics, astronomy, geometry and other courses were among the electives available.
Students learned medical theory and practiced in small classes where they received clinical
instruction and observed surgery.
From Spain to western India, bimaristans were among the most important educational
institutions in the Arab world. Physicians of many races, nationalities and religions taught and
practiced in them, making daily rounds, taking notes, writing prescriptions. Men and women
recuperated in separate wards and many hospitals had gardens in which herbs were grown for
use in treatments. Doctors even traveled to remote villages and accompanied soldiers into the
field so that the injured could be cared for immediately. Hospitals were established for the blind,
lepers and even the mentally ill.
Most of the early Arab physicians believed in treating the whole person, not just a given
disease. They were aware of the links between a patient's physiological and psychological
conditions. Early Islamic literature abounds in stories and anecdotes of a medical nature,
particularly those dealing with what Razi termed ilaj-il-nafsani, or psychotherapeusis—that is,
cures effected by psychoanalysis, for, the therapy he often applied consisted of leading his
patient back to some early recollection of a long-forgotten incident that, planted in the
unconscious, became the cause of an ailment physical in its manifestation, yet psychological in
They also developed an elaborate ethical theory for medicine based on Greek, Indian and
Persian teachings as well as the tenets of Islam. Among early books on the subject was Adab al-
Tibb (Literature of Medicine) by Ishaq ibn Ali al-Ruhawi who considered physicians as
"guardians of souls and bodies." He expounded on proper etiquette for physicians, urging high
standards of ethical conduct. To insure that such prescriptions were followed, a special office,
created early in the ninth century to deal with overcharging, profiteering, extortion and fraud in
business, also watched over medical practice and administered a special oath to doctors.
The first great physician of the Arab world was Muhammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (860-940
A.D.), known as Razi by the Arabs and Rhazes by medieval Europe. Universally considered one
of the outstanding authorities in medical history, Razi authored more than two hundred books.
His most important work was the Hawi, an extremely detailed medical encyclopedia in twenty-
five volumes that was being used by doctors and students not only in the East, but also
throughout Europe well into the fifteenth century. Razi best demonstrated his sharp powers of
observation in an encyclopedia of therapeutics.
Among his discoveries was the identification of smallpox and measles, both of which he
treated successfully. His treatise on smallpox was translated into several European languages
over the centuries, the last time in 1948, into English. Razi was the first to use alcohol as an
antiseptic and mercury as a purgative. In surgery, he used a fine string made of animal intestine
for sewing up wounds.
Perhaps the most renowned of all Arab philosopher-scientists was Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn
Sina (980-1037 A.D.) or Avicenna. An extremely precocious youngster, Ibn Sina did not turn to
medicine until he was sixteen, by which time he had already mastered Islamic law, philosophy,
natural sciences and mathematics. He was only eighteen when his fame as a physician was such
as to induce ruling princes to seek his services. A busy statesman, teacher, lecturer, profound
thinker, poet and highly prolific writer on subjects as diverse as geology, music and
mathematics, Ibn Sina treated medicine as only one of his numerous occupations.
Nevertheless, he produced sixteen books on medicine, including the Canun, a work of one
million words. This encyclopedia, dealing with every then-known disease, treatment and
medication as prescribed by both Greek and Arab authorities, is generally regarded as the final
codification of all Greco-Arab medicine. Some thirty editions of it were issued in Latin and
several in Hebrew. It formed one-half of the medical curricula at European universities
throughout the fifteenth century.
While some of the greatest representatives of medicine in the West were Persians, practically
all those of western Arabism—that is of Morocco and Moorish Spain—were Arabs. The most
famous of these was Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, better known as a philosopher than as a doctor.
However, his Kulliyyat fa Tibb (Rules of Medicine), while a compendium of Greek and Arab
medicine, is more critical and analytical than either of the comparable works by Ibn Sina and
While under Arab rule, Spain produced its share of great physicians, especially surgeons,
foremost among whom was Abu al-Qasim al-Zarawi, or Abulcassis. His main work, Concession,
was rendered into Latin and other languages and was studied for centuries in the West. He
described how to crush stones in the bladder and how to cauterize wounds. His book was the first
to include a section on general surgery, detailing different operations and containing some two
hundred figures of surgical instruments in use at the time.
It was in the West that the Arabs made one of their most significant discoveries, namely that
of contagion. While contagious diseases, such as smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague were
known to the Arabs, it was not until the fourteenth century, at the time of the Great Plague which
ravaged the world from India and Russia across Europe, that they clearly recognized the fact of
contagion. This recognition was the great achievement of Ibn Khatib and Ibn Khatima of
Granada in Moorish Spain. Ibn Khatib's most important medical work is called On The Plag. In
it we find the first clear affirmation of the existence of contagion. Another two hundred years
had to elapse before Gerolamo Fracastoro gave a scientific formulation of contagion, and yet
another three hundred before Pasteur's bacteriological discoveries. The fact remains that Ibn
Khatib and Ibn Khatima were the first to give clinical accounts of contagion.
In the book Kitab al-Maliki (Liber Regiusin its Latin version), the tenth century al-Majusi
propounded views that show a rudimentary conception of the capillary system, several hundred
years in advance of Western science. In the same century, the geographer and historian al-
Masudi, speaks of the process of evolution from mineral to plant, plant to animal, and animal to
man in his Kitab al-Tanbih. Modern scholars have recognized him as a precursor of Darwinism,
and the German expert Dieterici called his book about Masudi, Darwinism in the Tenth and
Nineteenth Century (Leipzig, 1878). Ibn al Nafis (d. 1289), discovered not only the fundamental
principles of pulmonary circulation but, by criticizing Ibn Sina's theory concerning the possible
passages of venous blood between the ventricles, established himself as a forerunner of William
Gradually, in Western Europe, chiefly in Spain and Sicily, both strongly subject to Arab
influences, scholars were absorbing the knowledge opened up to them by the Arabs. Among the
Western pioneers of Arab medicine were Roger Bacon, Michael Scott, Gerard of Cremonal,
Adelard of Bath and Gerbert, the future Pope Sylvester II. They approached that knowledge
"with a great and growing enthusiasm combined with a blind trust in its authority." Medieval
Europe regarded Arab medicine with wondrous awe, and Cordoba, an Arab center was looked
upon with admiration by educated Europeans. As a result, until the end of the sixteenth century,
the medical curricula of European universities demanded a knowledge of
Avicenna's Canun (Arabian Medicine, by Donald Campbell, London, 1926). When the leading
European medical schools were established in Paris (1110 A.D.), Bologna (1113), Montpellier
(1181), Padua (1222) and Naples (1224), their curricula were dominated entirely by Arab
medicine. It is interesting to note that these universities have remained among the leading
medical schools to the present day.

The identifying link of a people may be found not only in their language, but in their music as
well. Throughout their long and illustrious history, the Arabs have been lovers of music in its
various forms. Music is an integral part of daily life in the Arab world and sensibility to its
sounds and tones is deeply rooted in the Arab personality.
Musical tradition in the Arab world is very old, dating back to the simple sing-song recitations
of tribal bards in pre-Islamic days, usually accompanied by the rababa, a primitive two-string
fiddle. As they spread out into the Middle East and North Africa in the seventh and eighth
centuries A.D., the Arabs quickly added the rich and complicated scales and tones of Indian,
Persian and Byzantine music and developed a unique form that has persisted to this day with
only minor changes.
In that sense, Arabic music is a remarkably enduring art form which, after centuries of
competing cultural influences, has retained an overall unity. Many of its sounds are alien to
Western ears, but the melodies have great emotive power for Arabs who can recognize the
variations in musical styles, from the famous maqaam of Iraq to the muwashahat, a form of
singing developed in Arab Spain during the Middle Ages and still used today.
For several centuries, Arab rulers from Baghdad to Cordoba were famed for their patronage of
music and musicians. Their courts boasted full orchestras for entertainment, while noted
musicians competed for the ruler's favor.
The music of the Arabs gradually influenced the West. Masters such as Bartok and Stravinsky
composed works with detectable Eastern or Arabic influences. The Western world inherited not
only the structure and tabulation of Arab music but also many of its instruments.
The leading musical instrument in the Arab takhet (orchestra) is the 'oud. It has a half pear-
shaped body with stripes on its shell and a right angle keyboard. It has twelve strings (six pairs)
and is played with a plectrum, often the sharpened quill of an eagle. The word 'oud comes from
the Arabic word meaning wood. This instrument has a long history. Pictures of 'oud-like
instruments have been discovered on stone carvings in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Persians
and Indians played it in ancient days. It was the Arabs, however, who perfected the 'oud, gave it
its name, and passed it on to the Western world.
The 'oud reached Europe during the Middle Ages to replace a plucked instrument, the gittern.
In Italy, the 'oudbecame il luto, in Germany, laute, in France, le luth, and in England, the lute. As
music became more complex with the introduction of chord patterns in the thirteen century,
alterations in the technique of playing the 'oud as well as modifications in its construction were
applied. These changes brought its sound close to that of the vihula, a form of Spanish guitar. In
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the 'oud was very popular in Europe as a solo instrument
and as a part of orchestra ensembles. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the lute's rival, the
guitar, which was simpler in construction and less cumbersome to hold and to play, finally won
the battle for popular favor.
Other instruments which developed from the 'oud are the mandolin, the mandora, panadurina,
theorbo, chitarrone and mandolino.
The mandolin enjoyed its golden age in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when
works for it were written by Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven. Another instrument
developed by the Islamic world and passed on to Europe is the tanbour or the buzuk. This
instrument has a small pear-shaped body and long gut-fretted neck. Its shape required the player
to have a far greater dexterity than was required for performing the 'oud. In Italy, it was
transformed into the calscione and is still used in most of the Balkan countries as a folk
instrument. In Yugoslavia, it became tanburitzza, in Greece, the buzuki, and in Russia,
the domras.
The qanoon, zither, was first developed in the Arab world during the tenth century. It is a flat
trapezoidal wooden box, with twenty-four strings in triple fastened at its rectangular side on one
end and to pegs on the oblique side on the other. Small levels lying below each course of strings
are manipulated by the player to make slight changes in pitch. The strings are plucked with two
horn plectra, one on each index finger. The qanoon is believed to have been invented by al-
Farabi, the Muslim mathematician, physicist and musician. From Spain it was introduced to
Europe. It retained its original name and shape until the fifteenth century. In Europe, it was
the psaltery, in Russia, gusli, in the Ukraine, bandura. The Latin name was canon, the
Italian, canone, the German, kanon, the Scandinavian, kanala, and the French, micanon.
As early as the twelfth century, a new Islamic instrument, very similar to the qanoon, was
introduced to Europe through Byzantium. The santur, as it originated, or the dulcimer, as it was
named by medieval Europe, is struck rather than plucked. In Greece it was known as
the santuri and in Rumania and Hungary it evolved as cembalom.
The rabab, or "rabe morisco"—one of the contributory ancestors of the violin—also spread
from Spain to Europe under the name rebec. It is a violin-like instrument except that it is played
vertically, mostly by street musicians.
The last Arab instrument to be adapted by the Western world is the tambourine. A percussion
instrument used to provide rhythm, the tambourine is made of wood and parchment with pairs of
small brass cymbals attached around its circular frame. It is held up by its frame with the thumb
of the left hand on one side and the rest of the fingers extended on the other side of the skin. Its
effect can still be felt today in many parts of Europe, especially in Spain.

Every culture builds in its own way, borrowing from the past, developing a distinctive style, then
passing on to a new age those special achievements which are proven most worthy. The
foundation of all great buildings in Islam was Faith. The earliest major work of Islamic
architecture was undertaken during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad: the rebuilding of the
sanctuary of the Ka'aba at Mecca. Since, Islamic architecture has created a unique design
concept, style and form which have survived to this day. The principal architectural types of
Islamic buildings are the mosque, with its minaret, the madrassa(school), the tomb (mausoleum),
the khan(rest house), the fort, and the palace.
At first, the Arabs adopted Greek methods of design and architectural forms to suit their own
purposes. The byzantine rotunda dome, for example, was used in the seventh century Mosque of
'Umar, or Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem (685), the earliest existing monument of Islamic
architecture. This mosque, built on the site from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to
heaven, is the work of craftsmen from all corners of the Arab/Islamic Empire.
The method of constructing domes—a recurrent feature of Islamic mosques—is another
architectural theme that was passed on to the West. The Arabs introduced a transitional structural
support, known as corner stalactites or muqarnasaat, between the dome and the cube which
shaped the plan of a mosque. This technique was successfully applied in the Capella Palatina in
Palermo, Sicily (1132).
The minaret, a Muslim innovation, was inspired by earlier forms. The earliest known minaret
at Kairouan, Tunisia (670), is a vast, battlemented tower. The most striking was constructed in
Samaria, a Muslim capital of Iraq. It recalled the lofty, spiraling structure, called ziggurats,
which the Arabs found in the ancient cities of Babylonia. The minaret, in turn, was adopted by
Western architects. The Giralda of Seville, which had been built originally as a minaret and
completed as a bell-tower, was duplicated in Evesham, England. The influence of the minaret
may also be seen in innumerable towers of rural medieval English churches and in
the campaniles or bell-towers of Renaissance Florence (Palazzo Vecchio) and Venice (Piazza
San Marco).
The horseshoe arch was an early Islamic form. It became a predominant feature of the Great
Mosque of Damascus (707), in Alcazar of Seville and in Santa Maria la Blanca in Toledo. The
Muslims also developed the pointed arch which appeared throughout the Arab world more than
two centuries before it attained popularity among the Gothic church builders of Europe.
Medieval French, German, English and Italian architects adopted the pointed arch in the form of
cusped, trefoil and ogee arches which may be seen today supporting and adorning magnificent
European cathedrals, such as those of Chartres and Notre Dame in France and Wells in England.
Thus, they provided the model for the Tudor arch and other arches found chiefly in English,
French and Italian churches. In the Great Mosque of Cordoba (786), the soaring double arches
were used springing higher into the horseshoe forms; later even higher into the gothic.
Ribbed vaults arching high over central spaces, arcades and colonnades defining interior
spaces in buildings, as well as construction supports, inspired Western buildings in their church
designs and other buildings.
Stone or wood interlacing (mashrabeyya) grilles, an early feature of Arab architecture, were to
become one of the greatest ornamental glories of the time. Begun in the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in
Cairo, the Blue Mosque in Isfahan and in other monuments in Damascus, the pierced fretted
stone window grilles were laid out in complex geometrical schemata. This technique inspired
builders of churches in medieval Europe.
The Alhambra, the palace of the Moorish rulers of Granada, built by Muhammad Ibn Al-
Ahmar in 1230, is perhaps the most famous example of classical Muslim architecture in Europe.
Externally, it resembles an imposing fortress; internally, it displays a most sumptuous design, an
unsurpassed conquest of space, light and water. It is laid out with gardens, enclosed courts and
luxurious chambers and a mosque.
Islamic techniques of covering walls with breath-taking explosions of brightly-colored
patterns, plastered ornaments and stretches of lustered tiles are best exemplified in the Alhambra,
whose faience mosaic and tile designs were absorbed into the mainstream of Western design.
Finally, the use of water as a landscaping element to create a beautiful environment was
introduced by the Muslims in the Alhambra; this technique was later imitated by European
architects and landscape designers to form beautiful fountains, reflecting pools and man-made
waterfalls adorning many of the open spaces and structures of the Western world, such as Villa
D'Este in Rome, Italy.
The classical period of Arab art, which began with the advent of Islam in the seventh century
and lasted more than a thousand years, was marked by an art form that was essentially abstract
and geometric. The artistic movement in Islam has always favored the lacy theorizing of
geometry over the realities of nature. Its staunch monotheism discouraged depiction of human or
animal forms in any place or object used for religious purposes, so that Muslim artists were
forced to limit themselves to the realm of abstraction and intricate floral designs, known as
Arabesque, with the Arabic script as a distinctive feature.
During the ten centuries of Arab/Islamic expansion, arts and crafts were treated in a unified
way. Islamic artists and artisans concentrated on woodwork, ivory inlays, glass-making,
ceramics, textile weaving and rug-making. Their sense of balance and their use of color were
outstanding. They drew upon imaginary and natural sources to arrive at pure designs and forms
with which they covered both walls and objects with mosaics, tiles, carvings and paintings.
The woven textiles of the Muslims laid the foundations in Sicily for one of Italy's later and
most important industries. The Arab cape woven for the twelfth century coronation of the King
of Sicily, Roger II, is only one example of this influence in craftsmanship. Cotton muslin (from
Mosul), damask linen (from Damascus), wool cloth (from Shiraz), and fustian (from Fustat,
Egypt's first Islamic capital), were prized during the European Renaissance.
Islamic craftsmen excelled in the bookmaking arts, such as leather binding which left a deep
mark upon Europe, manuscript illustrations, miniature painting—especially in book
illustrations—and above all, the art of making paper. Their knowledge of paper making was
brought to Sicily and Spain and then to Italy and France, generating a great increase in book
production in the West and, thus, in learning.
Muslim scientists also contributed to the advancement of craft technology. Adopting from
India the art of crucible steel forging. Islamic craftsmen developed the process considerably. The
result was a high order of arms and armor named after the cities in which they originated as well
as architectural Islamic metalwork, decoration and inlays. Techniques of setting gold and silver
segments into brass and bronze vessels were developed in Persia, Syria and Egypt, and
influenced Western craftsmanship for many years.
This material has been written, produced and distributed by the ARAB INFORMATION CENTER, 1100-17th St., N.W., Suite 602, Washington, D.C.
20036 which is registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended, as an agent of the LEAGUE OF ARAB STATES, Cairo, Egypt.
Copies of this material have been filed with the Department of Justice where the registration statement of the ARAB INFORMATION CENTER is
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