1902 Encyclopedia > Mohammedanism (Islam) > Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry in the Muslim World

(Part 13)


Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry in the Muslim World

The study of mathematics was carried very far. The Moslems not only received arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, and algebra from the Greeks and Hindus, but themselves gave a further development to those sciences. The works of Al-Kharizmi served as guides to those learned men in Europe who first turned their attention to algebra in the 16th century.

The sciences of physics and chemistry, on the other hand, remained in their infancy. In physical science we can only mention a few works on Optics. As for Music, its study was limited to the practical, and though we may name the important treatise of Al-Farabi on the theory of Music – a treatise itself drawn entirely from Greek sources – we must acknowledge that Acoustics, properly so called, are not at all taken into consideration by him. Chemistry, considered as an exact science, continued unknown to the Moslems; yet they cultivated Alchemy with eagerness, in their search after the transmutation of metals, and Alchemy is the mother of Chemistry. Medicine, in the hands of the Arabs, remained such as they had borrowed it from the Greeks. As their religion forbade dissection, the Moslems were never able to rise above a rude empiricism. They contented themselves with adding to their own prescriptions, which they pretended to have received from the Prophet, those of the Greek physicians. The works of Avicenna prove this; and Ibn l-Baitar’s treatise on the pharmacopoeia also shows how small a part observation played in Arabian medicine. Zoology, botany, and mineralogy made no greater progress; but they were at least among the subjects which attracted the attention of learned Moslems. The great treatise by Damiri, entitled Hayat al-Haiwan,. Or Life of Animals, is of interest mainly from the legends it contains; and the treatise on mineralogy by Taifashi interests us principally by the details it gives on the origin of precious stones and the art of cutting them. It would be unjust to conclude this sketch without adding that the Moslems possess also a great number of technical treatises on the art of war, on military engines, and the Greek fire, on falconry and hunting, and on certain industries, such as those of glass, pottery, and metals. They have also written on magic, on the interpretation of dreams, and on sleight of hand. These works have as yet been very little investigated. We shall no doubt find in them interesting revelations on the history of the industrial arts, and on the history of superstitions.

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