As Europeans spent the 5th through 14th centuries in the “Dark Ages”, Arabs went through an age of Enlightenment. During this time Arab scholars would nourish and add to what had already existed and created new scientific fields. Indeed, they also brought forth ideas and inventions that eventually would help bring Europe out of the dark. Here are just a handful of those Arab inventors and their inventions that still impact our lives today:
Since the time of the 5th-century Chinese philosopher Mozi, scientists had studied ideas behind light and camera obscura. However, it wasn’t until the 11th century that the Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham perfected it. He was the first to suggest using a screen on which to project the image that came through a pinhole. As a result, he invented the pinhole camera. Of course, the camera as we have come to know it has changed over the years since then. Yet, we still take pictures on our smartphones through a small pinhole in our smartphones a thousand years later.
A merchant’s daughter named Fatima Al-Fihri built the world’s first university — the University of al-Qarawiyyin — in 859 in Fez, Morocco. Al-Fihri first built it as a mosque and a school to learn about Islam. However, it later turned into the first degree-issuing school in the world teaching Islam, Math, and Medicine, among other subjects. Today, it is not only the oldest university in the world, but it also houses the world’s oldest library.
The Wright Brothers are often given the credit for being the first men to fly. However, that title actually belongs to Abbas Ibn Firnas. At the tender age of 67, Ibn Firnas built a pair of wings out of silk, wood, and feathers. He took those wings to a cliff of Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain and jumped, reportedly flying for 10 minutes. Unfortunately, thinking more about the flying part than the landing part, he ended up crashing. Still, Ibn Firnas would go on to live another 12 years. His drawings continued to inspire other aircraft designers well into the 20th century. (Incidentally, shortly after his initial crash, he would also invent what would become the modern parachute.)
Coffee is perhaps the most well-known Arab contribution to the rest of the world. Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat farmer named Kaldi was the first to discover coffee. Kaldi noticed that when his goats ate the berries of a certain tree, they were leaping and bounding with energy. So full of energy were they, in fact, that he often had trouble getting them to sleep at night. When Kaldi reported what he saw to the local monastery, the abbot decided to try these berries himself. He found that these magic beans did, indeed, keep him alert throughout his nightly prayers.
Soon, word spread from one place to the next, eventually reaching the Arabian Gulf region. In fact, it was there that 13th century Muslims started brewing this new beverage. They found it helped keep them awake during long prayers. They called it qahwah. Later, Turks would call it kahveh, leading Dutch traders to call it koffie, and that’s where the English got their “coffee” from. It leads us to wonder where Starbucks would be today if the Arabs hadn’t perfected the world’s favorite beverage.
No matter what subject you majored in throughout college, we’d bet that Algebra was a required course for graduating. You can thank Arab mathematician Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the inventor of algebra, for that. Though the Babylonians used algebra to figure out things like area and interest on loans, Musa al-Khwarizmi brought it mainstream. He did so by advancing the Arabic number system. He also developed the study of algebra as its own science. Oh, and he wrote a book in 825 called Kitab Al-Jabr, too. Incidentally, it also gave us the word “algebra”.
In 973, a Fatimid caliph of Egypt grew tired of ink staining his hands and clothes whenever he wrote something down. So, he shouted for his assistant, Nu’man, and demanded someone invent a pen that would not stain his hands. He was not let down. Nu’man brought back a pen with an ink reservoir inside it which, when held upside-down, thanks to gravity.
The modern “check” is derived from the Arabic word saqq. 9th-century Muslim traders were the first to use checks as written payment once their goods arrived at their destination. This meant a trader who travelled from Cairo to China could cash his check in Beijing. It also meant you didn’t have to carry all your cash and take the chance of getting robbed while traveling.
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