So I wanted to learn how to pronounce the name al-Khwārizmī. So I searched YouTube, and stumbled across Science and Islam hosted by Physicist Jim Al-Khalili, a BBC documentary series consisting of three parts: The Language of Science, The Empire of Reason, and The Power of Doubt.
I did not expect to enjoy the documentary as much as I did; I would like to buy the series on DVD, but I have not found a way to do this. It really opened my eyes: in spite of my western education, I knew something of the golden age of Islamic scholarship, but I failed properly appreciate its importance to the modern world.
I say “in spite of my western education” because many students would recognize the names of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, but not al-Khwārizmī, al-Haytham, or al-Biruni. And yet, the contributions of these Islamic scholars are in many ways more lasting and more profound than the Greeks. After all, al-Khwārizmī made large, foundational contributions to Algebra, which is more widely taught than Greek philosophy.
This is not to belittle the contributions of the Greeks; after all the Greeks had a profound influence on Islamic scholarship. The story starts with the creation of an Islamic empire, the largest empire the world had ever seen at the time, and the start of the Translation movement. The empire sought out written materials in any language from any culture, to be translated into Arabic and disseminated throughout the empire. Greek texts were among the first to be translated, and in many cases were given priority.
The widespread use of the Arabic language and lack of intellectual discrimination greatly accelerated the dissemination and creation of knowledge. al-Khwārizmī had the envious position of being one of the first humans in history to have access to both Indian and Greek mathematics, and he set about applying one body of work to the other, refining both and making new discoveries along the way.
al-Haytham wrote a seminal text on optics, and contributed significantly to the scientific method, and is considered one of the greatest scientists of the Middle Ages. al-Biruni measured the size of the Earth with unprecedented accuracy using a novel method based on trigonometry. al-Tusi headed up an program of astronomical observation that was of great importance to Copernicus, Newton, and other European scientists. One of the lasting contributions was questioning the Greek philosophical orthodoxy and an emphasis on repeatable experiments.
The medieval Islamic scholars gathered and disseminated knowledge widely, applied mathematics and practical science to measure the physical world to then-unprecedented accuracy, laid the groundwork that eventually grew into modern chemistry, revolutionized agriculture, industry, metallurgy, navigation, map making, and much more. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these efforts to later European science and scholarship or as a necessary step in the development of the modern world.
Eventually the golden age of Islamic scholarship came to an end; although Europeans tended to overstate the extent of the decline, it certainly did occur. The documentary attributes this to a large number of reasons, including the rejection of the printing press, the decline of the empire that funded these efforts, and entrenched political, economic, and religious interests. Perhaps there are some lessons here for today’s state of affairs.