Islamic achievements in the arts, crafts, and literature are discussed in Islamic Art and Literature, Arabic


The Muslim philosophers generally worked also in other fields, in the tradition of the early Greeks. Among those whose writings helped introduce Greek philosophy into Europe were al-Kindi (who lived in Baghdad, 9th century), a physicist specializing in optics; al-Farabi (Syria, 9th–10th centuries), a student of Music; and the physicians Avicenna (Central Asia, 11th century) and Averroës (Spain, 12th century). Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers in the Muslim countries also contributed to the development and transmittal of Islamic thought.

Islamic philosophy developed naturally out of the concepts prevailing in the Middle East. Neoplatonism had been popular there in the early Christian Era and had served as a basis for Byzantine philosophy. The later Neoplatonists had turned to Aristotle, as had such Eastern Christian sects as the Nestorians and the Monophysites. The Muslims did not ignore Plato, but they especially admired Aristotle. It was from Muslim philosophy that the Roman Catholic Church acquired its veneration for Aristotle's teachings—a veneration that long made it impossible for European scientists such as Galileo to have revolutionary theories recognized.

There were many points in Aristotelian teaching that conflicted with Christian and Muslim religious belief—for example, the creation of the world. (Aristotle believed that the world had always existed.) The Muslim philosophers, and in time the Christians, managed to reconcile the conflicting points. Stricter Muslims, however, found all secular philosophy too liberal. Philosophers fell into disfavor in the Muslim world in the 12th century and were suppressed as heretics.


An academy of medicine that followed the teachings of the Greek physician Galen existed in Persia at the time of the Muslim conquest. By the early ninth century all available medical works had been translated into Arabic, and Baghdad had become a medical center, specializing in diseases of the eye.

The greatest Muslim physician was the Persian Rhazes (865–925), whose many writings included a 20-volume compendium of medical knowledge. In Spain in the 10th century a manual of surgery was written by the caliph's court physician, Abul Kasim, and reference works on medicinal drugs and remedies by the botanist and pharmacist Ibn-al-Baytar. Avicenna and Averroës both wrote important books on medicine.

Physics and Chemistry

The philosopher-physicist al-Kindi studied and wrote on meteorology and mechanics as well as on optics. The most productive research in optics was done by Alhazen (965?–1039?), a Persian considered to have been the leading Muslim physicist, who was employed by the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. He disproved the long-accepted Alexandrian theory that vision is accomplished by the eye emitting rays. Although the Muslims excelled in the mechanics of irrigation and the flow of water, Alhazen failed in his attempt to regulate the flow of the Nile.

Experimental chemistry received the name alchemy, by which it was known throughout the Middle Ages, from the Muslims. Geber, or Jabir, who worked in Baghdad and Kufa in the mid-eighth century, was outstanding in the field. He found improved methods for basic chemical operations and described his procedures in scientific terms. He believed also, however, in the transmutation of metals—that is, that base metals could be changed into gold. His books were so influential that alchemy later became concerned primarily with transmutation.

Astronomy and Mathematics

As in the case of chemistry, the Muslims mixed mysticism with their study of astronomy. The heavens were studied often only for the sake of astrology (forecasting the future from the stars). Nevertheless, many important astronomical discoveries were made.

Muslim astronomers measured the length of a terrestrial degree and determined the earth's circumference. The relation of tides to the moon was studied by Albumazar (Persian, 9th century). The astrolabe, an astronomical instrument for charting the heavens and calculating position at sea, was perfected. Al-Khwarizmi (Persian, 9th century) and Ibn-Yunus (Egyptian, 10th century) compiled astronomical tables.

In mathematics the Muslims adopted and passed on to Europe the decimal system of numbers, using nine digits and zero. So-called Arabic numerals and decimal notation greatly simplified arithmetic in the West, after they were introduced in a translation of the first textbook on algebra, written by the astronomer al-Khwarizmi. Another influential treatise on algebra was written by Omar Khayyám in the 11th–12th century. The Muslims were largely responsible also for the development of trigonometry.


was introduced into Arab life from Persia and flourished under the Omayyad dynasty. Instruments were the lute, flute, horn, reed pipe, tambourine, castanets, and drum. Many Byzantine and Persian songs were translated into Arabic, and great musical festivals were held at the palace. Considered ungodly by devout Muslims, music was discouraged by theologians. However, the philosopher al-Farabi wrote an important work on the theory of music, dealing with intervals, scales, rhythm, and acoustics. Muslim musicians also contributed to the development of musical notation and the establishment of time values.

Geography and History

The Muslims were noted seamen and travelers, journeying to China in the east, Russia in the north, and Zanzibar in the south. Their improved methods of mapmaking were passed on to Europe by the geographer al-Idrisi (1100–1166), who was employed by the Norman ruler of Sicily. A geographical dictionary, or gazetteer, the first of its kind, was compiled by Abdallah Yaqut (1179–1229).

Al-Biruni (from Central Asia, 10th–11th centuries) is best known for his work of history, Chronology of Ancient Nations. He also wrote treatises on astronomy, geography, mathematics, and pharmacology.

One of the greatest of the Islamic scholars was the historian Ibn-Khaldun (1332–1406), a Tunisian who held official posts in Spain and Egypt. Writing during the decline of Islamic civilization, he treated philosophically and sociologically the growth and decay of the Muslim Empire.