Muslim contributions to modern engineering, the birth of automation

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Muslim Heritage: Professor Al-Hassani on the History Channel

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How Islamic inventors changed the world

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From coffee to cheques and the three-course meal, the Muslim world has given us many innovations that we take for granted in daily life. As a new exhibition opens, Paul Vallely nominates 20 of the most influential- and identifies the men of genius behind them

1 The story goes that an Arab named Khalid was tending his goats in the Kaffa region of southern Ethiopia, when he noticed his animals became livelier after eating a certain berry. He boiled the berries to make the first coffee. Certainly the first record of the drink is of beans exported from Ethiopia to Yemen where Sufis drank it to stay awake all night to pray on special occasions. By the late 15th century it had arrived in Mecca and Turkey from where it made its way to Venice in 1645. It was brought to England in 1650 by a Turk named Pasqua Rosee who opened the first coffee house in Lombard Street in the City of London. The Arabic qahwa became the Turkish kahve then the Italian caffé and then English coffee.

2 The ancient Greeks thought our eyes emitted rays, like a laser, which enabled us to see. The first person to realise that light enters the eye, rather than leaving it, was the 10th-century Muslim mathematician, astronomer and physicist Ibn al-Haitham. He invented the first pin-hole camera after noticing the way light came through a hole in window shutters. The smaller the hole, the better the picture, he worked out, and set up the first Camera Obscura (from the Arab word qamara for a dark or private room). He is also credited with being the first man to shift physics from a philosophical activity to an experimental one.

3 A form of chess was played in ancient India but the game was developed into the form we know it today in Persia. From there it spread westward to Europe – where it was introduced by the Moors in Spain in the 10th century – and eastward as far as Japan. The word rook comes from the Persian rukh, which means chariot.

4 A thousand years before the Wright brothers a Muslim poet, astronomer, musician and engineer named Abbas ibn Firnas made several attempts to construct a flying machine. In 852 he jumped from the minaret of the Grand Mosque in Cordoba using a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts. He hoped to glide like a bird. He didn’t. But the cloak slowed his fall, creating what is thought to be the first parachute, and leaving him with only minor injuries. In 875, aged 70, having perfected a machine of silk and eagles’ feathers he tried again, jumping from a mountain. He flew to a significant height and stayed aloft for ten minutes but crashed on landing – concluding, correctly, that it was because he had not given his device a tail so it would stall on landing. Baghdad international airport and a crater on the Moon are named after him.

5 Washing and bathing are religious requirements for Muslims, which is perhaps why they perfected the recipe for soap which we still use today. The ancient Egyptians had soap of a kind, as did the Romans who used it more as a pomade. But it was the Arabs who combined vegetable oils with sodium hydroxide and aromatics such as thyme oil. One of the Crusaders’ most striking characteristics, to Arab nostrils, was that they did not wash. Shampoo was introduced to England by a Muslim who opened Mahomed’s Indian Vapour Baths on Brighton seafront in 1759 and was appointed Shampooing Surgeon to Kings George IV and William IV.

6 Distillation, the means of separating liquids through differences in their boiling points, was invented around the year 800 by Islam’s foremost scientist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, who transformed alchemy into chemistry, inventing many of the basic processes and apparatus still in use today – liquefaction, crystallisation, distillation, purification, oxidisation, evaporation and filtration. As well as discovering sulphuric and nitric acid, he invented the alembic still, giving the world intense rosewater and other perfumes and alcoholic spirits (although drinking them is haram, or forbidden, in Islam). Ibn Hayyan emphasised systematic experimentation and was the founder of modern chemistry.

7 The crank-shaft is a device which translates rotary into linear motion and is central to much of the machinery in the modern world, not least the internal combustion engine. One of the most important mechanical inventions in the history of humankind, it was created by an ingenious Muslim engineer called al-Jazari to raise water for irrigation. His 1206 Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices shows he also invented or refined the use of valves and pistons, devised some of the first mechanical clocks driven by water and weights, and was the father of robotics. Among his 50 other inventions was the combination lock.

8 Quilting is a method of sewing or tying two layers of cloth with a layer of insulating material in between. It is not clear whether it was invented in the Muslim world or whether it was imported there from India or China. But it certainly came to the West via the Crusaders. They saw it used by Saracen warriors, who wore straw-filled quilted canvas shirts instead of armour. As well as a form of protection, it proved an effective guard against the chafing of the Crusaders’ metal armour and was an effective form of insulation – so much so that it became a cottage industry back home in colder climates such as Britain and Holland.

9 The pointed arch so characteristic of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals was an invention borrowed from Islamic architecture. It was much stronger than the rounded arch used by the Romans and Normans, thus allowing the building of bigger, higher, more complex and grander buildings. Other borrowings from Muslim genius included ribbed vaulting, rose windows and dome-building techniques. Europe’s castles were also adapted to copy the Islamic world’s – with arrow slits, battlements, a barbican and parapets. Square towers and keeps gave way to more easily defended round ones. Henry V’s castle architect was a Muslim.

10 Many modern surgical instruments are of exactly the same design as those devised in the 10th century by a Muslim surgeon called al-Zahrawi. His scalpels, bone saws, forceps, fine scissors for eye surgery and many of the 200 instruments he devised are recognisable to a modern surgeon. It was he who discovered that catgut used for internal stitches dissolves away naturally (a discovery he made when his monkey ate his lute strings) and that it can be also used to make medicine capsules. In the 13th century, another Muslim medic named Ibn Nafis described the circulation of the blood, 300 years before William Harvey discovered it. Muslims doctors also invented anaesthetics of opium and alcohol mixes and developed hollow needles to suck cataracts from eyes in a technique still used today.
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Sadequain is arguably responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan

Sadequain is arguably responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan.

February 10 marks Sadequain’s 23rd death anniversary. Sadequain Foundation estimates he painted close to 15,000 paintings, murals, calligraphies and drawings. Most of his work was gifted to institutions, individuals, acquaintances, and total strangers. Sadequain, at the time of his death was painting the stupendous ceiling mural at the Frere Hall, which though left incomplete, nonetheless, adorns the ceiling of the historic building.

Sadequain is arguably responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan. A review of the history of calligraphic art in the country during the decades of the 1950s and ’60s reveals that there was minimal activity in this genre of art form. Syed Amjad Ali wrote in his book, Painters of Pakistan, that after Sadequain’s first exhibition of calligraphies in December 1968, “For next fifteen years or sixteen years, a veritable Niagara of painterly calligraphy flowed from his pen and brush. He initiated painterly calligraphy and set the vogue for it in Pakistan.”

Calligraphy by Sadequain “Kalma-e-Tayeba”

Calligraphic art had enjoyed a revered status in the subcontinent, reaching its pinnacle during the glorious days of the Mughal Empire. But after the downfall of the empire, calligraphic art fell so far out of favour that in post-partition Pakistan, it was considered to be a mere vocational skill and not a serious genre of creative art. Searching for a new form of expression, Sadequain commemorated Ghalib’s anniversary by illustrating his poetry in 1968. To enhance the paintings, he inscribed Ghalib’s verses in Urdu to append the paintings, and that experiment later led to more calligraphic inscriptions in the Arabic language.

Calligraphies by Sadequain: Illustration of “Sura-e-Rehman”

In a manner similar to his figurative paintings, Sadequain followed the same principles in his calligraphic art. His calligraphies represent the most radical departure from the established norms for hundreds of years. The centuries-old guarded traditions, watchful eyes of the religious police, or pitfalls of the uncharted waters did not deter him from going where few had ventured before him. He invented his own iconography and produced a dizzying array of calligraphic marvels at such large scales that had not been witnessed in recent history. His art became the most effective ambassador for the country and his impact was so profound, that on a number of occasions, Pakistan was represented in international forums only by Sadequain’s masterpieces.

Special mention must be made of some of Sadequain’s major works, which are spread over Pakistan, India, and the Middle East. He inscribed four versions of complete sets of the beautiful Verse, Sura-e-Rehman; the first two versions of the Verse, which consisted of 31 panels, have been preserved, one at Staff College Lahore and one with a private collector. Another version, consisting of 40 panels was painted on transparent cellophane. The fourth version of the Verse was painted on marble slabs, which Sadequain gifted to the citizens of Karachi in a ceremony held on the lawns of the Frere Hall in 1986. The intent was to place the complete set of 40 marble slabs on permanent display at the Gallery Sadequain of Frere Hall. But soon after Sadequain passed away, all forty panels disappeared from the premises, leaving no trace behind.

Paintings on display at the Mohatta Palace Museum

“Saga of Labor” Portion of the Mural at Mangla Dam – largest mural in Pakistan 200 ft x 70 ft

During the early 1970s, Sadequain completed several large calligraphies for the historic Lahore Museum, and gifted them to the citizens of Lahore. Eight of these large calligraphic panels, each measuring approximately 20 x 20 feet, are on display in the Islamic Gallery of the museum. He also inscribed Sura-e-Yaseen on to a wooden panel measuring 260 feet long and gifted it to the Islamic Gallery of the Lahore Museum. A large calligraphic mural adorns the power station at Abu Dhabi, which Sadequain completed in 1980.

During his stay in India, end of 1981 through 1982, Sadequain painted several large calligraphic paintings and murals. One of the most significant calligraphic works was the rendition of the 99 panels of Asma-e-Husna (the beautiful names of God) that he inscribed on the circular wall of the rotunda, which towers an imposing five stories high in the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies at Delhi. This rendition of 99 panels is one of the three complete sets he finished in his life. In addition to the calligraphic work at the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies at Delhi, Sadequain painted or sculpted calligraphic works at Aligarh Muslim University, Ghalib Academy, Jamia Millia, and the tomb of Tipu Sultan. In his customary practice, Sadequain gifted all this work to the Indian authorities. In addition to painting the murals and calligraphies in India, he exhibited his works at Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Aligarh, Banaras, and several other cities.(Edited excerpts from the book ‘The legend of Sadequain’ by Sadequain Foundation)

THOUGHTS ABOUT SADEQUAIN’S CALLIGRAPHY

Annemarie Schimmel

“One of the most exciting experiences of an orientalist is the discovery of mutual relations between various aspects of Islamic culture. The study of the visual arts in Islam excellently complements that of poetry, and poetry can often help to elucidate particular aspects of miniature painting and, even more, of calligraphy. For Islam, the first religion to distinguish between those who were blessed by a Divine Scripture and those who were not, has always largely dwelt upon the importance of the written word. A contemporary historian of medieval philosophy at Harvard has even coined the term “inliberation” God, God’s becoming manifest through a book for Islam, denote the theological concept corresponding to the Christian “incarnation”, God being manifest in a human being.


It is therefore small wonder that the imagery of letters and writing plays such an immense role in the history of Islamic poetry. Beginning with the early Sufis of the 8th and 9th centuries who realized in the letter “alif” the perfect symbol of God’s unity and unicity, there is barely a poet in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian not to mention those writing in Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi, and Pushto, and even in the vernaculars of Islamic Africa, who has not dwelt upon the imagery of letters, for here he could be sure that his allusions were under-stood by everyone in the Islamic world, including the illiterate at the least sensed the deep meaning of letters, and knew of their mysterious powers.”

Click here to know more about Sadequain

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