Science, Technology and Islam

During the darkest of Christian centuries - the 9th and 10th - a confident, expansive Islamic empire preserved and extended much of classical knowledge. 'Enlightened' caliphs patronized art and science and encouraged the translation of classical literature. For the most part Muslim intellectuals were free to explore wide horizons and made inventions and discoveries unimagined in Christendom. Without the contribution of the Islamic world there would have been no European Renaissance; without Islamic science and technology the New World would not have been discovered.

Chemistry, Mineralogy, Gemology
In the 8th century Iranian Jabir ibn-Hayyan of Kufa (c 721-815) ('Geber' in Europe) transformed alchemy from an occultist art into a scientific discipline – thus earning his reputation as the 'father of chemistry'.

Jabir ibn Hayyan
Jabir was active both at the royal court in Baghdad and at his laboratory in Damascus. He wrote over a hundred treatises (notably, 'Summa Perfectionis') describing distillation, crystallization, calcination, sublimation and evaporation. He also wrote works on medicine and astronomy.

Among his many achievements was the distillation of vinegar into acetic acid, followed by nitric, hydrochloric, citric and tartaric acids. He went on to combine hydrochloric and nitric acid to produce aqua regia - a highly corrosive acid used to extract and purify gold (a much-valued skill). His insights led to improvements in rust prevention, tanning, water-proofing, and the manufacture of steel and glass.

Jabir's pioneering methods in the study of chemical reactions anticipating by almost a thousand years the principles of quantitative chemistry and the law of constant proportions. His work provided the standard texts for European alchemists for centuries.

As early as the 10th century, Muslim physicians and surgeons were applying purified alcohol to wounds as an antiseptic agent. Five hundred years after Jabir's death, the Spanish alchemist Arnau de Villanova used his distillation process to produce brandy and whisky. In 1310 sulphuric acid followed.

The Arabs went on to identify a new class of chemicals derived initially from ashes - the alkalis - and from wine and aluminium sulphate from the Sahara, Arab chemists produced alum, used to render dyes more brilliant.

Continue: The Arab legacy; Medicine, Pharmacology, Botany; History; Architecture - Garden Cities; Mechanics, & Law >>> to source article: Seeding the Renaissance

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