This article is a critique of the BBC produced series of programmes entitled Science & Islam, presented by the Moslem physicist Jim Al-Khalili, in which he extols the perceived benefits to science that Islam has bequeathed to the western world. These programmes imply that all the world’s great inventions and scientific discoveries between 640 -1500 AD was the result of Islamic ingenuity, and that Europeans invented nothing during this period. How true is this assumption, and is the BBC being biased in its promotion of Islam as the benefactor of Europe’s success? What follows is an examination of the claims made by the BBC to see if Europe really does owe Islam the credit for its current dominance in scientific and engineering achievements.
Arab Numerals is a misinterpretation by early Europeans as to the origin of base 10 numerals, i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. They came to Europe through the Arabic speaking Islamic world, hence the assumption that they were Arab Numerals. In fact, they were invented by the Hindus, with some Chinese involvement, and should correctly be called Hindu Numerals. In early Hindu numerals the “0” was used to indicate a gap in the numbers between, say units and hundreds, i.e. 305; the concept of zero meaning ‘nothing’ was not yet understood. The BBC programme used the term Arab Numerals, with no mention of the Hindu connection.
The Concept of ‘0’ as meaning ‘Nothing’ was first used by the Hindus.
The first known use of a small circle to represent zero (Nothing) appears on a stone inscription found at the Chaturbhuja Temple at Gwalior in India, dated 876 AD. In the BBC programme it was claimed that in 825 AD the Persian mathematician, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khawārizmī, published a book explaining the use of zero. Whilst al-Khwārizmī is the first person who can be positively identified as using “0” to represent ‘nothing’, he was only applying known Hindu mathematical techniques.
The Decimal Point as we know it today was first used by the John Napier, a Scottish mathematician who developed the use of logarithms for carrying out calculations. The modern decimal point became the standard in England in 1619, as a means of separating the integer part of a number from its decimal part. It was known to the Chinese and Hindus in the 5th century; so how Jim Al-Khalili can claim on BBC TV that Moslems invented the decimal point is nothing but a downright lie; but promoting Islam now seems to be the BBC objective.
Algebra was not invented by Islamic scholars. However, it was the Persian mathematician, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khawārizmī, who collated all the Babylonian and Greek methodology for creating equations and unified them under the heading of Algebra in one of his many Arabic publications. His publications on various aspects of mathematics were eventually written down into Latin and found their way into many European seats of learning.
The paradox is that most of this information would have been available at the Ptolemy Library in Alexandria; all of which was destroyed by the Moslems when they invaded Egypt. It was known that al-Khawarizmi was in fact a Zoroastian; but to be able to study in Persia at that time he was forced to use an Islamic name and learn Arabic.
In the first programme it was stated that Islamic scholars solved the problem of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs using the Coptic alphabet, and to some extent this is true as Coptic was the original language of Egypt prior to the Islamic invasion when Arabic was enforced on its people. However, it was not the Moslems who managed to encrypt some of the later hieroglyphs, but the Coptic Christians who still used the Coptic language in their Bibles
and Holy scriptures. Even the Copts could not decipher the very early Egyptian hieroglyphs, as the Coptic language had evolved to be so much different from the time of Pharaohs like Ramesses I.
It wasn’t until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 by Europeans that the ability to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs was eventually solved. The Rosetta stone was produced by the Greek Ptolemy scholars to help them solve the mysteries of Egyptian history; but it was the Islamic invaders who destroyed the Rosetta stone and used it as building material – it was a miracle that a major part of it was eventually found.
Why the BBC used the topic of Egyptian hieroglyphs to promote Islamic science is beyond comprehension. The truth is that it was the Islamification of Egypt that almost cost all knowledge of ancient Egypt to be lost forever.
One of Islam’s most prolific medical scholars was al-Razi (850 – 923), who was at the forefront of Islamic research into medicine. A prolific writer, he produced over 200 books about medicine, botany and philosophy, including an unfinished book of medicine that gathered most of the medical knowledge known to the Islamic world in one place. This book was translated into Latin, and it became one of the books used to teach medicine. However, what the BBC failed to mention was that similar work was also being done in Europe; although Europe had no universities during this period, scholarly activities were being undertaken – mostly by monks in the monasteries.
Although there were lots of manuscripts written about herbal medicines during the medieval period, most of these remedies were of little value as they were based on ‘oldwive’s tales, without any scientific research or experimentation. The fact is that virtually all of the advances in European medicine was home produced, with Islam’s contribution being of little relevance.
The BBC went to great lengths to promote the questionable Islamic contribution to map making; and high-lighted the map of the world produced by Muhammed al-Idris. This map (shown below) would appear upside-down to modern eyes, with Mecca being at the centre of the map. The Arabian Sea is shown at the top half of the map and to the left, with the Mediterranean in the bottom half to the right.
Cartography was slowly being developed in Europe completely independent from any Islamic influence, and the lower pictures shows a map of Great Britain produced by Matthew Paris, a Monk at St. Alban’s Abbey, in c1250. This map has north at the top, in accordance with Ptolemy’s early maps; and although by modern standards it would not be considered a very accurate depiction, it is certainly more accurate than Muhammed al-Idris’s map.
However, the BBC did get one thing right in their programme when they stated that the Persian mathematician, Abu al-Burini was the first person to measure the Earth’s radius. He used Pythagoras’s theorem and Greek angular theories to calculate the Earths radius to within 10 miles of its actual dimension – quite an achievement.
It wasn’t until the early 1500s that European maps became accurate and reliable, with Gerald Mercator’s maps known as Mercator Projections.
ALCHEMY & CHEMISTRY
Much more is known about Islamic alchemy and chemistry as it has been better documented than similar European advances; but the BBC tended to focus all of the programme’s content on how Moslems used and developed the distillation process to improve their knowledge of chemistry.
However, it is a known fact that the distillation process was in use by the Hindus at around 400BC, and was well documented by the Greeks at around 200BC. Arabic manuscripts indicate that the Moslems knew how to distil alcohol at around 1100AD, but Chinese text indicates that they were aware of this process well before that date. So, what is the BBC playing at? They must be aware of these facts; one only has to look at Wikipedia to find the truth!
Although there was much done by various Islamic scholars in bringing together in one manuscript the known works of Chinese, Hindu and Greek alchemists, there were very few major scientific breakthroughs – and much of what they wrote was factually wrong. It was the European alchemists of the renaissance period who would separate fact from fiction, and create the foundations for the science of alchemy and chemistry.
The BBC even went on to say that Moslem’s developed soaps, scents and perfumes; but wasn’t it the Romans who first built bathrooms, using soap to wash themselves down with, and then applying perfume?
Ptolemy’s model of the universe, with the Earth at its centre, was the accepted model up until 1514 when Nicholas Copernicus put forward his revised model with the Sun at its centre. In the final program the BBC spent much time implying that it was Moslem scholars who were responsible for casting doubt on the Ptolemy model, and without Islamic intervention
Copernicus would not have been able to create his model. This is complete rubbish! In actual fact it was Aristotle who first suggested that the Sun was the centre of the universe, but he failed to provide any definitive proof. Copernicus’s model of the universe owes absolutely nothing to Islamic science, in fact all his research was derived from the Latin translations of Greek manuscripts. Copernicus’s model has proved to be accurate and very reliable; and when he finally published his work in 1543 he made no reference to any Islamic scholar, although he did mention Aristotle and other Greek astronomers.
European Science Over the Same Period
Paul of Aegina 625 – 690 was a 7th century Byzantine Greek physician best known for writing the medical encyclopedia Medical Compendium in Seven Books. “He is the father of early medical books”. For many years in the Byzantine Empire, this work contained the sum of all Western medical knowledge and was unrivalled in its accuracy and completeness.
The word “quarantine” originates from the Venetian dialect form of the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning ‘forty days’. This is due to the 40-day isolation of ships and people before entering the city-state of Ragusa, this was practiced as a measure of disease prevention related to the Black Death. The original document from 1377, which is kept in the Archives of Dubrovnik, states that before entering the city, newcomers had to spend 30 days in a restricted place waiting to see whether the symptoms of Black Death would develop. Later, isolation was prolonged to 40 days and was called quarantine. The forty-day quarantine proved to be an effective formula for handling outbreaks of the plague. According to current estimates, the bubonic plague had a 37-day period from infection to death; therefore, the European quarantines would have been highly successful in determining the health of crews from potential trading and supply ships.
The Venerable Bede of Jarrow was the earliest and most influential works of medieval science is The Reckoning of Time, written around AD 725. The Reckoning of Time explains the operation of the cosmos and the cycles of time, and proposes a model for calculating the date of Easter within the framework of the Julian calendar. Bede’s work was read widely throughout the Middle Ages and its calendrical model soon came to be regarded as authoritative. With a few adjustments, it remains the calendar that we use today.
The Viking shipbuilding technology was in advance of any other shipbuilding methods used throughout the world. Some of their design and engineering of wooden hulled boats were still in use up to the 1950s. Its shallow draught enabled it to navigate shallow rivers, whilst its relatively light weight enabled the boat to be carried across land.
These boats were in use from about 300 to 1200 AD; and formed the basis of Europe’s Naval supremacy.
Oars mounted on the side of ships evolved into quarter steering oars, which were used from antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. As the size of ships and the height of the freeboards increased, quarter steering oars became unwieldy and were replaced by the more sturdy rudders with pintle and gudgeon attachment.
While Steering oars were found in Europe on a wide range of vessels since Roman times, including light war galleys in the Mediterranean; the oldest known depiction of a pintleand-gudgeon rudder can be found on church carvings of Winchester dating to around 1180 – so in all probability it’s an English invention.
The heavy plough was first developed by medieval Europeans, and first appeared in Slavic lands at about 500AD. They certainly improved the productivity of the land!
Existing references to the nailed horseshoe are relatively late, first known to have appeared around AD 900. There are no extant references to nailed horseshoes prior to the reign of Emperor Leo VI and by 973 occasional references to them can be found. This made more durable when used for ploughing or pulling carts.
Bologna University was founded in 1088, and is the world’s oldest University. The university is historically notable for its teaching of canon and civil law; indeed, it was set up in large part with the aim of studying the Digest, a central text in Roman law, which had been rediscovered in Italy in 1070, and the university was central in the development of medieval Roman law. Until modern times, the only degree granted at that university was the doctorate.
Robert Grosseteste concluded that mathematics was the highest of all sciences, and the basis for all others, since every natural science ultimately depended on mathematics. He supported this conclusion by looking at light, which he believed to be the “first form” of all things, the source of all generation and motion (approximately what is now known as biology and physics). Hence, since light could be reduced to lines and points, and thus fully explained in the realm of mathematics, mathematics was the highest order of the sciences Bacon’s Greatest Work, the Opus Majus, contains treatments of mathematics, optics, alchemy, and astronomy, including theories on the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies. It is divided into seven sections: “The Four General Causes of Human Ignorance”, “The Affinity of Philosophy with Theology”, “On the Usefulness of Grammar”, “The Usefulness of Mathematics in Physics”, “On the Science of Perspective”, “On Experimental Knowledge”, and “A Philosophy of Morality”. Bacon was the scholar that provided the inspiration for Isaac Newton.
Artesian wells were named after the former province of Artois in France, where many artesian wells were first drilled by Carthusian monks from 1126.
Since the late 20th century, a number of new archaeological finds have consecutively pushed back the date of the earliest tidal mills, all of which were discovered on the Irish coast: a 6th century vertical-wheeled tidal mill was located at Killoteran near Waterford. A twin-flume, horizontal-wheeled tidal mill, dating to c630, was excavated on Little Island in Cork. Alongside it, another tide mill was found that was powered by a vertical undershot wheel.
The Nendrum Monastery mill from 787 was situated on an island in Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland.
Although the Chinese had used furnaces to smelt iron; the oldest known blast furnaces in the West were built in Dürstel in Switzerland, the Märkische Sauerland in Germany, and at Lapphyttan in Sweden, where the complex was active between 1205 and 1300. These furnaces were vastly more efficient than anything the Chinese had built, and could produce iron on an industrial scale. At Noraskog in the Swedish parish of Järnboås, there have also been found traces of blast furnaces dated even earlier, possibly to around 1100.
The first eyeglasses were made in Northern Italy, most likely in Pisa, by about 1290: In a sermon delivered on 23 February 1306, the Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa (1255–1311) wrote “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision… And it is so short a time that this new art, never before extant, was discovered. … I saw the one who first discovered and practiced it, and I talked to him.”
The printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to a linked surface resting
upon a print medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring the ink. It marked a dramatic improvement on earlier printing methods in which the cloth, paper or other medium was brushed or rubbed repeatedly to achieve the transfer of ink, and accelerated the process. Typically used for texts, the invention and global spread of the printing press was one of the most influential events in the second millennium.
The BBC programme Science & Islam proved to be a complete exaggeration of the scientific benefits that Europe gained from the Islamic world. The reality is that the coming of Islam at around 650AD actually stifled the flow of knowledge between Europe and the Hindu/Buddhist civilisations of East Asia.
Northern Europeans were generally late in developing new scientific knowledge, not because of low intellect; but because their territory was still recovering from the effects of the Ice Age, consequently the land was sparsely populated with no major centres of learning. It wasn’t until the coming of Christianity that these nations were united in adopting Latin as the common language of learning that allowed new ideas to be shared amongst the different speaking peoples. The coming of the printing press in 1439 accelerated the means by which knowledge could be transferred, which resulted in Europeans becoming virtually the sole source of technological and intellectual advancement over the next 500 years.
Why did the BBC produce a programme on Islamic science when it was so blatantly flawed? It exaggerated the benefits of Islamic science, which contained multiple errors together with downright lies. One can only assume that the politically-correct BBC were desperate to promote Islam; portraying Islamic immigrants as highly intelligent people to whom the indigenous British public should welcome, and show respect for their religion and culture. As the saying goes, “If you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it.”; and quite clearly the BBC are trying to dupe the indigenous British into believing that they are inferior to the immigrant population, safe in the knowledge that no one is likely to challenge them.
Unfortunately, most people will be fooled, as they expect the BBC to project honestly and integrity free from politically-correct indoctrination. Perhaps somebody should write to the BBC and challenge the programme’s content but will they listen?