9 Key Muslim Inventions and Innovations of the Medieval Period | History Hit

9 Key Muslim Inventions and Innovations of the Medieval Period

Richard Bevan

04 Jan 2022
The earliest extant map of the Nile in al-Khwārazmī’s Kitāb ṣūrat al- arḍ (Picture of the Earth). Original size 33.5 × 41 cm. Blue, green, and brown gouache and red and black ink on paper.
Image Credit: National Library of France / Public Domain

From the 8th century to around the 14th century, the medieval world witnessed what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. During this time, Muslims across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe pioneered swathes of cultural, social and scientific inventions and innovations.

The lives of human beings around the globe today would be quite different without the contributions of these medieval Muslim thinkers and inventors. Hospitals, universities, coffee and even the predecessors of modern violins and cameras, for example, were all pioneered during the Islamic Golden Age.

Here are 9 Muslim inventions and innovations of the medieval period.

1. Coffee

Yemen is where the ubiquitous dark bean brew has its origins from around the 9th century. In its early days, coffee assisted Sufis and Mullahs to stay up during late nights of religious devotion. It was later brought to Cairo in Egypt by a group of students.

By the 13th century, coffee had reached Turkey, but it wasn’t until 300 years later that the drink, in its various forms, began to be brewed in Europe. It was first brought to Italy, now famously associated with quality coffee, by a Venetian trader.

2. The flying machine

Although Leonardo Da Vinci is associated with early designs for flying machines, it was Andalusian-born astronomer and engineer Abbas ibn Firnas who first constructed a flying device, and technically flew it, in the 9th century. Firnas’ design consisted of a winged apparatus made of silk that fitted around a man like a bird costume.

During a botched flight trial in Cordoba, Spain, Firnas managed to briefly fly upwards before falling back to the ground and partially breaking his back. But his designs may have been an inspiration for Leonardo hundreds of years later.

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3. Algebra

The word algebra comes from the title of the 9th-century book Kitab al-Jabra, by Persian mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. The pioneering work translates as a tome of reasoning and balancing by the man who became known as the ‘father of algebra’. Al-Khwarizmi was also the first individual to introduce the mathematical concept of raising a number to a power.

4. Hospitals

What we now view as modern centres of health – providing medical treatments, training and study – first emerged in 9th-century Egypt. The very first medical centre is thought to have been constructed in Cairo in 872 by Ahmad ibn Tulun, the ‘Abbasid governor of Egypt’.

Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital, as it is known, provided free care for all – a policy based on the Muslim tradition of caring for anyone who was sick. Similar hospitals spread from Cairo around the Muslim world.

5. Modern optics

Around the year 1000, the physicist and mathematician Ibn al-Haytham proved the theory that humans see objects by light reflecting off them and entering the eye. This radical view went against the established theory at the time that light was emitted from the eye itself and pioneered centuries of scientific study into the human eye.

Al-Haytham also invented the ‘camera obscura’, a device that forms the basis of photography and explained how the eye sees images upright due to the connection between the optic nerve and the brain.

Muslim polymath Al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham.

Image Credit: Public Domain

6. Surgery

Born in 936, court physician Al Zahrawi, from southern Spain, published a 1,500 page illustrated encyclopaedia of surgery techniques and tools titled Kitab al Tasrif. The book went on to be used as a medical reference tool in Europe for 500 years. Alongside his surgical investigations, he developed surgical tools for C-sections and cataract surgeries and invented a device to safely crush kidney stones.

Over a 50-year career, he investigated gynaecology issues, performed the first tracheotomy operation and studied eyes, ears and noses in great detail. Zahrawi also discovered the use of dissolving threads to stitch wounds. Such an innovation did away with the need for a second surgery to remove sutures.

7. Universities

The first university in the world was the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. It was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman from Tunisia. The institution first emerged as a mosque in 859, but later grew into the al-Qarawiyyan mosque and university. It still operates 1200 years later and is a reminder that learning is at the core of the Islamic tradition.

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8. The crank

The hand-operated crank is thought to have first been used in ancient China. The device led to the emergence, in 1206, of the revolutionary crank and connecting rod system, which converted rotary motion into a reciprocating one. First documented by Ismail al-Jazari, a scholar, inventor and mechanical engineer in what is now Iraq, it assisted with the lifting of heavy objects with relative ease, including the pumping of water up a crankshaft.

9. Bowed instruments

Among many instruments that arrived in Europe through the Middle East are the lute and the Arabian rabab, the first known bowed instrument and an ancestor of the violin, which was played widely in Spain and France in the 15th century. Modern musical skills are also said to have derived from the Arabic alphabet.

A rabab, or Berber ribab, a traditional Arabic instrument.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Richard Bevan