Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science

Jim Al-Khalili

17th Aug 2012

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Publisher: Penguin

Date Published: 26 Jan 2012

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Wandering through the maze of streets in the Old City of Damascus, Syria, a few years ago, amongst its souks, mosques, minarets and fountain courtyards, I came across a building that opened my eyes to the ‘golden age of Arabic science.’ Now a museum but still retaining its original buildings and courtyard herb garden, the Al-Nouri Bimaristan was established as a hospital and medical school in the early 12th century. Bimaristan is a Persian word from bimar meaning ‘sick’ and -stan, the suffix for ‘place.’ This ‘place of the sick’ became one of the greatest hospitals in the Islamic Empire. It was also home to innovative scientific ideas, such as Ibn al-Nafis’ description of how blood is carried from the right side of the heart to the left, via the lungs, some four centuries before the English scientist, William Harvey, became famous for his own ‘breakthrough’ discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood.

For anyone intrigued by this period of science and medicine in the Arab world or, indeed, in the history of civilization, Jim Al-Khalili’s book, Pathfinders, is a must. The author grew up in the town of Hindiyya, south of Baghdad, Iraq, and not far from where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon once were. Now a distinguished theoretical physicist, writer and broadcaster living in Britain, Al-Khalili tells a remarkable story – ‘one of an age in which great geniuses pushed the frontiers of knowledge to such an extent that their work shaped civilizations to this day.’ In a period stretching over seven hundred years, Arab and Persian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars, scientists, philosophers and physicians helped to inform our understanding of the world.

Conjuring the history of his own childhood home, Al-Khalili outlines the role of Baghdad in this great era of medieval science. In the mid-eighth century, the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur built the new city of Baghdad to be his imperial capital. His great grandson, the Caliph Abdullah al-Ma’mun (786-833), created the legendary ‘House of Wisdom’ (Bayt al-Hikma), a celebrated library and centre of scholarship that helped turn Baghdad into the greatest intellectual centre of its time. He also ordered the building of the first astronomical observatory in Baghdad. Original thinking and free debate were encouraged and many scholars from all over the empire gravitated towards the city. Other centres of science flourished across the Arabic-speaking world. Greek, Persian and Indian texts were translated into Arabic which, in time, reached Europe through Córdoba in Muslim Spain. This treasure house of material, subsequently translated into Latin for the learned, became a major influence on European scientific thought during the Renaissance.

The Middle Eastern scientists who feature in Al-Khalili’s book were ‘pathfinders’, both literally and metaphorically. The title of his book is taken from a quotation about the fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Khaldun, but, as Al-Khalili says: ‘it is in fact applicable to all those whose stories and achievements’ he touches upon ‘for they all broke new ground in advancing mankind’s knowledge, yet most have been forgotten.’

We learn of the work of alchemists, mathematicians, physicists, engineers, philosophers, astronomers and medics, including the polymath Ibn al-Haytham, one of the earliest and leading exponents of the modern scientific method of experimentation and observation who can be regarded as the world’s greatest physicist between Archimedes and Newton. Other colourful characters highlighted in Pathfinders are Jabir the chemist; al-Khwarizmi the algebraist; al-Kindi, Maimonides and Ibn Rushd the philosophers; al-Razi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Zuhr the physicians; al-Zahrawi the surgeon; Ibn Firnas the inventor; and al-Biruni the natural scientist. Their curiosity and contributions to science and medicine, which Al-Khalili so brilliantly brings to life, are awe-inspiring.

The book is also full of wonderful gems. For instance, the names of five of the seven main stars that make up the constellation Ursa major (or ‘Great Bear’) – also known as the Big Dipper or the Plough – are Arabic in origin: Dubhe, Magrez, Alioth, Mizar and Alkaid. The term ‘gibberish’, which goes back to the sixteenth century, refers to any obscure language, such as that used by the eighth century chemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, a Yemeni Arab whose obscure writing is often hard to follow. The words alcohol, alkali, alembic, algebra, amalgam, elixir, zenith and many others derive from Arabic. The Hindu decimal system was introduced to the Islamic world and later adopted in Europe as Arabic numerals. The site of a new hospital in Baghdad was selected by al-Razi by hanging up pieces of fresh meat in various districts. A few days later, he checked the pieces, and he chose the area where the least rotten one was found, stating that the ‘air’ was cleaner and healthier there!

Easy to read, instructive and insightful, Pathfinders is a tour-de-force of Middle Eastern history as seen through the eyes and writings of generations of influential scholars. Complemented by his BBC television series, Science and Islam, Al-Khalili offers us a breath-taking perspective of this ‘golden age’.

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