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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
g 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 .
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.
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.
windmill was invented in 634 for a Persian caliph and was used to grind
corn and draw up water for irrigation. In the vast deserts of Arabia ,
when the seasonal streams ran dry, the only source of power was the
wind which blew steadily from one direction for months. Mills had six
or 12 sails covered in fabric or palm leaves. It was 500 years before
the first windmill was seen in Europe .
technique of inoculation was not invented by Jenner and Pasteur but was
devised in the Muslim world and brought to Europe from Turkey by the
wife of the English ambassador to Istanbul in 1724. Children in Turkey
were vaccinated with cowpox to fight the deadly smallpox at least 50
years before the West discovered it.
fountain pen was invented for the Sultan of Egypt in 953 after he
demanded a pen which would not stain his hands or clothes. It held ink
in a reservoir and, as with modern pens, fed ink to the nib by a
combination of gravity and capillary action.
The system of numbering in use all round the world is probably Indian
in origin but the style of the numerals is Arabic and first appears in
print in the work of the Muslim mathematicians al-Khwarizmi and
al-Kindi around 825. Algebra was named after al-Khwarizmi’s book,
Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah, much of whose contents are still in use. The
work of Muslim maths scholars was imported into Europe 300 years later
by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci. Algorithms and much of the
theory of trigonometry came from the Muslim world. And Al-Kindi’s
discovery of frequency analysis rendered all the codes of the ancient
world soluble and created the basis of modern cryptology.
ibn Nafi, known by his nickname of Ziryab (Blackbird) came from Iraq to
Cordoba in the 9th century and brought with him the concept of the
three-course meal – soup, followed by fish or meat, then fruit and
nuts. He also introduced crystal glasses (which had been invented after
experiments with rock crystal by Abbas ibn Firnas – see No 4).
were regarded as part of Paradise by medieval Muslims, thanks to their
advanced weaving techniques, new tinctures from Islamic chemistry and
highly developed sense of pattern and arabesque which were the basis of
Islam’s non-representationa l art. In contrast, Europe ’s floors were
distinctly earthly, not to say earthy, until Arabian and Persian
carpets were introduced. In England, as Erasmus recorded, floors were
“covered in rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the
bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for 20 years, harbouring
expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings,
scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned”.
Carpets, unsurprisingly, caught on quickly.
The modern cheque comes from the Arabic saqq, a written vow to pay for
goods when they were delivered, to avoid money having to be transported
across dangerous terrain. In the 9th century, a Muslim businessman
could cash a cheque in China drawn on his bank in Baghdad .
By the 9th century, many Muslim scholars took it for granted that the
Earth was a sphere. The proof, said astronomer Ibn Hazm, “is that the
Sun is always vertical to a particular spot on Earth”. It was 500 years
e that realisation dawned on Galileo. The calculations of Muslim
astronomers were so accurate that in the 9th century they reckoned the
Earth’s circumference to be 40,253.4km – less than 200km out. The
scholar al-Idrisi took a globe depicting the world to the court of King
Roger of Sicily in 1139.
the Chinese invented saltpetre gunpowder, and used it in their
fireworks, it was the Arabs who worked out that it could be purified
using potassium nitrate for military use. Muslim incendiary devices
terrified the Crusaders. By the 15th century they had invented both a
rocket, which they called a “self-moving and combusting egg”, and a
torpedo – a self-propelled pear-shaped bomb with a spear at the front
which impaled itself in enemy ships and then blew up.
Europe had kitchen and herb gardens, but it was the Arabs who developed
the idea of the garden as a place of beauty and meditation. The first
royal pleasure gardens in Europe were opened in 11th-century Muslim
Spain. Flowers which originated in Muslim gardens include the carnation
and the tulip.