Is Islam against civilization?

Is Islam Against Civilization?

When we look at the history of the Arabs, we find that the Arab mind experienced a paradigm shift. Up to a certain point long ago, the utmost aspiration of an Arab was to have a few sheep, a few palm trees or a few camels, but we suddenly find him in the year 650 AD translating hieroglyphic symbols detailing chemical equations, from ancient Egyptian drawings, about ten years after the conquest of Egypt. This means that 1200 years before the discovery of the Rosetta stone, Arabs had already started deciphering some hieroglyphic symbols, especially in relation to the sciences.

First public institutions

In 754 AD, the first apothecary for dispensing medicines was opened in Baghdad. This meant that medications were no longer acquired from herb vendors or lay medicine men. It was the equivalent of a modern day pharmacy, where a person went with a prescription, got the prescribed medicine and paid for it.


In the House of Wisdom

In 763 AD a library, what was known as Bayt Al –Hekma (House of Wisdom), was established in Baghdad during the rule of the Abbasid Caliph Haroun Al Rasheed. It held tens of thousands of translated books. These books had been translated from books and manuscripts that were written in Chinese and Greek, and in many other languages. And the reason for this huge translation movement was that this Caliph had encouraged the translation of books from other languages, and had proclaimed that anyone who translated a book would receive the equivalent of that book’s weight in gold.

   In 763, the first hospital was opened in Bagdad. It was called “Bimaristan”. Prior to that, the sick were tended to in their homes, but from then on, seriously ill patients were moved to the hospital to be cared for. So the   concept of hospitals actually started with the Arabs.


The fathers of chemistry and algebra

Jabir ibn Hayyan Geber, Arabian alchemist

In 780, a man called Gaber Ibn Hayyan, known in scientific latin books as Geber, who is also known as the father of Chemistry, invented around 20 laboratory instruments. The word “chemistry”, by the way, comes from the old English word “Alchemy”, which in turn comes from the Arabic word Al Chemia’a. At that time they used to take Arabic words and add them to their languages, because Arabic was the language of science. Nowadays, we take English words such as “television” and “internet” and use them in our language, because English is now the language of science. But back then, Arabic was the language of science, so anyone who wanted to become educated had to learn Arabic. Just like nowadays, there are many subjects that one cannot learn without first learning Western languages, and in particular English.

Al Khwarizmi, known in Latin as algorithm, is the one who invented the decimal system. He is also the one who invented Algebra, and he wrote a book called “Al Mokhtasar fi Hesab Al Gabr wa Al Moqabala” (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing). I can assure you that without the zero invented by Al Khwarizmi, we would not have today any computers or digital instruments.

In 796 AD, Al Fazari invented the astrolabe. This is an instrument that can locate directions, can locate stars, and can also function as a clock. I want to point out that at that time half the population of Europe was still idol-worshippers. All of Eastern Europe including countries like Hungary and Romania were still pagans, while Arabs were accomplishing all these feats.

 The first psychiatric hospital and university

During the ninth century, mental patients in Europe were thought to be possessed by the devil

During the ninth century AD, mental patients in Europe were thought to be possessed by the devil, and were, therefore, burned alive. Meanwhile, in Egypt, the first psychiatric hospital was established and patients were treated there with the Quran, with music and with sedatives. Ironically, nowadays it is people in Arab countries who believe that mental patients are possessed by the devil or by jinn and such things.



In 859 Princess Fatima Al Fihri established a university called the University of Al Qarawiyyin in Fas, Morocco. This was the first university that gave degrees to its students. Prior to that, students even in Arab and Islamic countries attended universities in order to attend lecture circles and gain knowledge, but in this university, for the first time, education became regulated, and the concept of university degrees that followed a tiered system was introduced.


Scientists and their inventions


The Book of Fixed Stars

Around 864 AD Abu Bakr Al Razi wrote tens of volumes on medicine, chemistry and physics. His books were translated to many European languages, most importantly to Latin, and during the Renaissance, the Europeans depended on the works of that great scientist.The first turbine that produced hydraulic energy was invented by Arabs in the year 850 AD.

In 875, Abbas Ibn Firnas succeeded in flying a considerable distance in a flying contraption he had invented. He eventually went down, probably because his contraption had only wings, but no tail. Actually, it is not fair to recognize this man solely in the field of flying, because he also had a great role in the widespread production of glass. That is because he was the first person who was able to produce glass from silica, or sand. Prior to that, glass was only produced from quartz, which was expensive, and that is why it was only found in the palaces of wealthy people and Caliphs, but because of Abbas Ibn Firnas, glass became widely available and commoners were able to acquire it.

 In 925, Al Razi described in his book “Al Asrar (The Secrets) the method of oil refinement and he was able to extract kerosene from oil and started its use as fuel for lanterns. In 930, in Bagdad, the first grid for drawing of maps was invented. This enabled drawing of maps to scale, similar to graph paper nowadays.

 In 964 Abdul Rahman Al Sufi wrote a book called Al Kawakeb Al Thabeta (The Book of Fixed Stars). In it he described many stars that were yet unknown, and the names he gave them are used to this day. He described the magnitude or brightness of each of these stars, and he corrected some mistakes that had been made by Ptolemy. He also discovered a new galaxy, which he named “The Little Cloud” and which is now known as the Andromeda Galaxy. He also discovered two star clusters, now known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Later on, these were discovered to be galaxies.

In the year 1010 AD Ammaar Ibn Ali Al Musili wrote a book called the “Al Montakhab fi Amrad Al Ain” (Choice of Eye Diseases). In it he detailed six different eye operations, and he was the first one to enable the treatment of cataract. Before that, anyone with cataract was doomed to blindness, but he was able to invent the injection syringe, a hollow needle, through which opaque lens material could be evacuated from the eye, in order to restore vision.

The great physicists

Al Baruni

Al Biruni used the principles of trigonometry in geography

In the year 1030 Ibn Khalaf Al Muradi wrote a unique technological manuscript called Kitab Al Asrar Fi Nata’ij Al Afkar (The Book of Secrets in the Results of Thought). In it he described thirty kinds of mechanical devices and gears.

Going back to the year 1010, we find the great physicist called Al Biruni. He wrote a book called: Saheeh Al Tool wa Al Ard Li Masaken Al Maamour min Al Ard” “The Determination of Coordinates of Positions for the Correction of Distances between Cities”. This is a geography book in which he used the principles of trigonometry to determine the longitudes and latitudes on Earth with great precision, and his calculations remained in use for more than 600 years. He was also the first scientist to discover that light had a speed, which could be calculated, and that this speed was faster than the speed of sound. In the year 1021 Ibn Al Haytham wrote a book called Al Manazir (Book of Optics), in which he described his experiments using mirrors and observing the results of reflection and refraction of light. Through his experiments he was able to reach crucial facts about light rays that remain important to this day, and his discoveries form the principle behind the pin-hole camera, or the camera obscura.


  The fathers of modern surgery and medicine

Al Zahrawi is called the father of modern surgery. This man invented around 200 surgical instruments, many of which are still in use to this day. He was the first man to invent a firm kind of plaster for immobilization of fractures, as well as plaster lined with cotton. He also invented oral anaesthetics and inhaled anaesthetics, as well as the anaesthetic sponge. He wrote a whole medical encyclopaedia, composed of 30 volumes. It was called Al Tasreeef Fi Al Teb (The Method of Medicine) and was required reading for medical students for more than 600 years, together with volumes of another medical encyclopaedia written by another notable scientist, namely Ibn Sina.

Ibn Sina, Doctor and

Ibn Sina, a doctor and philosopher

Ibn Sina is well known in the field of philosophy, but I always like to mention him in the context of medicine. He wrote two very important medical books. The first of these is called Al Qanoun fi Al Teb (The Canon of Medicine). Incidentally, once in the United States, I was approached by a man who said, “You people are really violent. Even your scientists are violent. When Ibn Sina wrote a book about medicine, he called it The Cannon of Medicine. I pointed out to him that the word in the title was not cannon, with double N, but canon with one N, meaning the rules or standards of medicine. The word to canonize or standardize is taken from the Arabic word Al Qanoun, because, as I mentioned before, Arabic was the language of science back then. In his book The Canon of Medicine, Ibn Sina was the first to discuss cancer. He also described many psychological ailments in the book.

  Next we come to a great scientist called Ibn Al Jazari (Al Jazari). He is considered one of the greatest scientists across history. In fact he is considered one of the greatest inventors and probably the greatest engineer of all time. He wrote a book called Al Gami’ bain al ilm wa al amal al nafi fi sina’at al hiyal (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices). In it he described more than 50 inventions including mechanical clocks and an elephant clock. This man was the first person to lay the principle of the crankshaft, and he can be considered the inventor of the very first robot.



Now we come to the crucial question: What was the cause of this paradigm shift I talked about earlier? What caused the Arab to change from someone whose greatest aspiration was to own a few palm trees or camels, to someone who produced all of these inventions and amazed the whole world in such a way? Well the answer is that a book called The Holy Quran descended upon them, a book whose very first word was “Iqraa”, meaning a command to read. The verb to read is actually a transitive verb, which takes an object. When we are told by someone to read, we expect to be told what to read: is it to read the Quran, read a book, a magazine, or what? But these verses merely commanded us to read. The very first verses that descended say:
 “Read in the name of your Lord who created, created man out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood; read and your Lord is most bountiful; he who taught (the use of) the pen; taught man that which he knew not.
Imagine what it was like for an Arab to be suddenly exposed to the command to read, repeated three (two) times in succession. The verses also mention the pen. What pen?! There must have been entire cities in the Arab Peninsula back then that did not have a single pen. This is what caused the paradigm shift in the Arab mind itself. The turning point was that the reason behind the creation of the entire universe was revealed. In Surat Al Talaq there is a verse that explains just that. It says:
“Allah is He who created seven firmaments (skies) and of the earth a similar number. Through the midst of them (all) descends His command: that you may know that Allah has power over all things, and that Allah comprehends all things in (His) knowledge.”
In other words, God created this magnificent universe so that we may seek knowledge and understand all about this creation. So how long is one required to seek knowledge? For how many years? Well, the Prophet (PBUH) urged us to read a certain Sura every week, and that is Surat Al Kahf. Why is that? Is it for the blessings that it will confer upon us? I really don’t think so because all of the Quran is a source of blessings for its reader. So if it were a matter of blessings, then the Prophet would have just told us to read any sura every week, but the fact that he specified Surat Al Kahf means that this particular Sura contains certain concepts that need to be revived in the mind of a Muslim at least once a week.

One of these concepts is present in the conversation between Prophet Moses and his aide, which is narrated in Surat al Kahf. He says to him that he will not stop walking until he reaches the junction of the two seas, even if he has to keep walking for tens of years. Why does he say that? Well, there is a saying by the Prophet, which is narrated by Obay Ibn Khalaf that explains that story.

Prophet Moses once stood and gave a speech among the Children of Israel. They had a penchant for asking tricky questions. So they asked him, “Who is the most knowledgeable person of all?” He answered, “It is I.” He probably said that because, being the Prophet of that era and being one of the resilient messengers of God, he truly believed that he was the most knowledgeable. But God reprimanded him for not saying that only God knew the answer to that question. When faced with a question he didn’t know the answer to, he should have said that only God knew the answer. So Moses then asked God, “But is there anyone who is more knowledgeable than me?” And God answered him that indeed there was a more knowledgeable man. He asked him who he was, and God answered him that it was a man who lived at the junction between the two seas. So Moses next asked God how he could reach such a man.

Why do you think Moses wanted to reach that man? Was it because he wanted to kill him, so that he would then be the most knowledgeable of all? Or was it so he could learn from him? Prophet Moses was ready to walk for tens of years just to meet a man who was more knowledgeable than him, in order to learn from him.

So it is the Quran that caused the paradigm shift I spoke about. The first word of the Quran that descended was “Iqraa”, meaning “Read”, and the last verse that descended says: “And fear the day when you shall be brought back to Allah. Then shall every soul be paid what it earned, and none shall be dealt with unjustly.” And between the first and last words of the Quran there were 23 years of edification by the Quran and by the Prophet, teaching us that seeking of knowledge must be conducive to piety, because knowledge that does not lead to piety and righteousness is absolutely worthless.