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Friday, 24th April 2009

Why is history important ?

A magazine article on science history prompted me to re-read a book about the history of the Middle East the other day.

As the book recounts, there was active translation of major Greek writings starting from the 9th century, three centuries after the birth of Muhammad the Prophet. That was at a time when the western world was rather uninterested in the works of great philosophers and scientists in the older days, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Archimedes. Some important Greek works were even lost permanently.

The translation of Greek texts into Arabic was promoted by Muslim rulers in Baghdad at the time. This followed from the emergence of a paper industry there after the know-how of paper-making was captured from Chinese craftsmen in the 8th century. Baghdad, as many of us know, is the setting for the story of Aladdin in Thousand and One Nights.

The medieval Middle East did not just sit on the Greek learning, nor on knowledge from the distant East alone. Instead, Islamic scientists went to great lengths in their observations and experiments. While Greek science tended to be rather theoretical in general, Middle Eastern science was very practical. It handed to the modern world a rich scientific heritage.

A new arithmetic was started - a reason why we use the so-called 'Arabic numerals' nowadays (which actually had their origin in India). While geometry was a Greek innovation, trigonometry was mostly a Middle East invention and algebra an entirely Middle Eastern (or Babylonian) discovery.

There was also much advance in astronomy, chemistry and medicine. Planetary theories developed by Islamic astronomers may have inspired Nicolaus Copernicus, who formulated a sun-centred (or heliocentric) cosmology in the 16th century. Alkalis and strong acids (sulphuric and hydrochloric acid) were both discovered by an Islamic scientist. A Middle Eastern medical encyclopedia translated into Latin in the 13th century dominated the European medical scene for centuries after that. Smallpox vaccination became known in the west in the 18th century, through Turkish people.

Many scientific terms in use today have their Middle East origin --- alchemy, alkali, algebra and algorithm, to name a few. The last term, algorithm, is the latin name for al-Khwarizmi, the great Persian mathematician who worked in Baghdad in the 9th century.

Starting from the 9th century, the productive period went on for more than 800 years. The tradition of discovery and innovation was continued with the advent of Renaissance. In the words of the American historian Bernard Lewis, the Muslims created "a religious civilization beyond the limits of a single race or region or culture. The Islamic world in the high Middle Ages was international, multi-racial, polyethnic, one might even say intercontinental."

History tells us many things. The history of science tells us at least one thing - be inclusive and accepting to others, no matter where they come from.

B.Y. Lee

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>