The Independent has an article about the "Islamic inventions that changed the world". It's a highly misleading article- and science exhibit at the science museum in Manchester. In fact, the more I learned the more it began to appear that this is little more than an attempt to rewrite history- a piece of pure propaganda. I'm no expert of many of the subjects discussed but even cursory research turns up fairly obvious reference to supposed Islamic inventions long before the religion of Islam was even invented.
Please do read on.
1. First up is coffee, and the Independent quotes the mythical story of a Yemenite who saw some particularly perky goats. They do mention in passing that coffee beans were first exported from Ethiopia to Yemen- so that would make it an African invention, not an Islamic one. Ethiopian tribesmen used to chew the bean to help keep them alert on hunting trips. There's no clear evidence that it was Muslims who first thought to use the beans in a drink.
2. Next up we hear how an Arab invented photography. According to the Independent, the term "camera obscura" comes from the Arabic for dark room. Which is odd because the term originates from Latin. It's also misleading that they say the ancient Greeks thought that our eyes emitted light- Aristotle believed the opposite. Alhazan (as he is generally known) did invent the pinhole camera, a concept understood by the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle made the first reference to a camera obscura in 330BC.
3. The Independent goes on to tell us that chess is another Islamic invention- after noting that the game itself actually originated in India. The earliest reference to the game- originally known as chaturanga- comes from 500BC while the oldest discovered chess pieces dated from 3000BC. There is another school of thought which traces the development of chess from China. So, not an Islamic invention either.
4. Next up we have Islamic claims on flight. The first attempts resulted in crashes, loosely termed here as the invention of a parachute. They were working parachutes in China by the twelfth century. The paper then goes on to credit Abbas ibn Firnas with making a reasonably successful glider flight in 875AD. There are Chinese accounts of manned kites and gliders dating back as far as 500BC.
5. Soap developed, apparently, because of the Muslim requirements of washing and bathing. While the Independent does, again, mention that this was not an Islamic invention but a development, there are other accounts of soap making. The ancient Celts for example made soap, and soap was adopted by the Romans for washing by 2AD. It's also claimed that shampoo was introduced to England by a Muslim in 1759. Funny that the Celts had used soap particularly for their hair long before this date.
6. Distillation- "invented" in 800AD by Jabir ibn Hayyan. Well, not quite. Aristotle mentioned the process (he died in 322BC) and Pliny the Elder (died 79AD) recorded an early still, the apparatus used to perform distillation. Furthermore by the 3rd century AD, Maria the Jewess, as she was known, had apparently developed a forerunner of the modern alcohol still. And Egyptians were using distillation in the 3rd century to produce alcohol. What Jabir did was to invent an alembic still - not discover the process of distillation.
7. While the invention of the crankshaft is claimed for al-Jazari by 1206AD there is no solid evidence that he did actually invent it, rather than just describe it. In fact such a device had been used by the Chinese and was first mentioned in 530AD, a water powered flour sifting device- the first machine capable of translating rotary into back and forth movement. Piston technology was, incidentally, used by Hero of Alexandria in the first century AD. Al-Jazari is also, rather bizarrely, credited as the "father of robotics"- most likely because he created some automatic machines- a feat that Hero had also been capable of. The latter did, in fact, create automated puppet theatres and water-powered mechanical birds which even chirped! Long before the 12th or 13th century. Water clocks were also not a new invention of al-Jazari- these can be traced back to the Egyptians and the Greeks. As for his invention of the combination lock, this is generally attributed to the Chinese.
8. Quilting - Again, no mention is made of it as an Arabian invention but it does say that "it certainly came west via the Crusades". So, we have Christian knights to thank, not Islam. And according to this site dedicated to the history of quilting, the skill actually developed from around 3400BC.
9. The pointed or gothic arch- a design which can be traced back to the Assyrians in 722BC. Then there's the rose window, also attributed to "Muslim genius"- but which is actually traced back to the Roman oculus. Also the dome design is attributed to Muslims, but the design is also of Roman origin, the most famous example being the Pantheon. Finally there's the ribbed vault- yet again one which began with the Romans and which was developed by Romanesque/Norman architecture, used for the first time in St. Etienne, France.
10. Surgical Instruments - While the 10th century doctor al-Zahrawi's contribution to medical knowledge cannot be overlooked, there are more impressive examples of early medicine- namely the Indian Sushruta from 500BC, known as the "father of surgery". The Indian schools of medicine passed their knowledge west to the Persians. The Independent asserts that it was al-Zahrawi who discovered that catgut dissolves internally but it took until Joseph Lister in the nineteenth century for the technique to be developed to perfection- and the Egyptians were using animal sinew to stitch wounds as far back as 4000BC. As for the Muslim invention of anaesthetics, these date back to prehistory.
11. The windmill became commonplace in Persia or perhaps Afghanistan, probably sometime around 600AD. As such they were in use before the beginning of Islam in 622AD. Yet again, not an Islamic or Muslim invention, but a Persian one. There is also some evidence of ancient Babylonians using windmills in 2000BC.
12. Inoculation - Inoculating against smallpox was first witnessed by an Englishwoman in the Ottoman Empire, but the origins of the technique go back much further- beginning in either India or China in 200BC. The importance of Jenner's work was that he used relatively safe cowpox to vaccinate against the much more lethal smallpox- hence vaccination was invented by Jenner. Contrary to the Independent's statement, it was smallpox which was used for these inoculations.
13. The fountain pen - While it true that there is a reference to a fountain pen dating from the tenth century, there is no actual evidence of its existence nor of the veracity of the claim. The earliest surviving examples of fountain pens date from the 17th century.
14. Numbers- There are quite a few claims laid down here. The first printed record of the Hindu-Arabic number system was not an original work at all, but a translation of an Indian book, the Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written in 628AD. al-Khwarizmi and al-Kindi are essentially responsible for popularising the Indian method. Algebra is named after a book by al-Khwarizmi but its roots go back to the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, then to the Greeks and the Indians. Fibonacci did bring the Arabic system of numerals to Europe, but this system is itself based on an Indian, Hindu, system; a fact Fibonacci himself referred to. As for trigonometry, it was a branch of mathematics which goes back for 4000 years, though important work was done by Omar Khayyam, whose religious beliefs differed considerably from Islam- he was obliged to take the pilgrimage to Mecca to prove he was a follower of the religion.
I'm no mathematician so forgive any technical errors I may make here. The Independent- and the Science Museum, Manchester- assert that algorithms came from the Muslim world. An algorithm is simply a procedure for accomplishing a task. The first algorithms were used by the ancient Babylonians and were also used by Euclid and Eratosthenes. While the Muslim mathematician al-Kindi did record the first known instance of frequency analysis (the study of the frequency of letters in an encrypted message), cryptology itself can be traced back to the time of Julius Caesar and the early Christians.
15. Food, specifically the three course meal. While the Independent would have us believe that this was an Islamic innovation dating from the 9th century, it actually can be traced back to the Romans- the Roman cena was a three course meal that usually began with a starter of salad, a main meat dish and then a dessert of fruit, nuts, and perhaps some wine. This was a tradition which was enjoyed by the Romans in Britain too. I can find no reference whatsoever to an Islamic invention of crystal glass (perhaps the author is using the incorrect term). Lead crystal glass was invented by an Englishman, George Ravenscroft, in 1676.
16. Carpets- Again, NOT an Islamic invention. Carpets can be traced back to Mongolia or Turkestan between the 4th and 2nd millennium BC. The earliest surviving example of a pile carpet has been dated back to the 5th century BC. Carpet production in Spain also pre-dated the Moorish occupation.
17. Cheques - It's quite true that a Muslim businessman could use cheques in the 9th century, but the actual development of the cheque pre-dates Islam; they go as far back as the 1st century AD, originating in Persia.
18. A spherical earth. Apparently by the 9th century most Muslim scholars held that the earth was a sphere, a position that they were not the first to expound by far. The idea comes, of course, from the ancient Greek scholars. Aristotle provided evidence for the theory in 4BC. In calculating the size of the Earth, Eratosthenes managed to get within 800km of the actual figure- in 250BC. It is a myth that people widely believed the earth to be flat before the age of exploration- by the 1st century AD Pliny stated that just about everyone was in agreement that the earth was round. As for the assertion that it took another 500 years for Galileo to reach the same conclusion that too is a myth- Galileo's battle with the church concerned the movement of the earth, not whether or not it was flat.
19. Gunpowder. This is a strange one- the author admits that while the Chinese invented saltpetre gunpowder, it was the Muslims who "worked out that it could be purified using potassium nitrate for military use". What's odd about this is that saltpetre is potassium nitrate- they may perhaps have been able to produce a more purified form of saltpetre. Gunpowder was developed in China around the 7th century AD and it was brought west either along the Silk Road or by the Mongols. In any case, the Chinese were using militrary rockets in the 11th century-long before any other such recorded use. On the contrary it was only in the 15th century that Muslim forces seem to have used their own rockets, a development probably brought to them by the Mongols who used Chinese technological expertise. As for the notion of an Islamic torpedo- there is a reference to it, but there is no proof that it was ever actually developed.
20. Gardens - Apparently it was the Arabs who developed the garden as a place of beauty and meditation. Only if you ignore the evidence of ornamental gardens in ancient Egypt. And while the Persians did develop such gardens, it can be traced back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (long before Islam)- and the Greeks also had their own gardens, dating back as far as 350BC. There was also a strong Roman tradition of gardening- a tradition which was continued, but hardly invented, in Byzantium and by the Moors in Spain.