a man playing the guitar to a group of women, all of them are seated on the floor

Anthropology: The Global Impact of Arab Inventions and Culture

a man playing the guitar to a group of women, all of them are seated on the floor
“The story of Bayad and Riyad”- a 13th century Arabic love story                                  Credit: en.wikipedia.org                       

While these days it’s most common to think of the Middle East when referring to Arab countries, the Arab world is a much larger region with an array of different languages. The Arab League is full of rich and diverse cultures and customs that vary from country to country. In the past, countries in Arab regions were often at war with themselves. Among the chaos and war-driven lands, however, were thriving artists, inventors and scientists. They used the obstacles of their day-to-day lives as inspiration for inventions and artworks that aimed to soothe and make their lives a little easier. Additionally, Arab inventions laid the foundations for many of the tools and scientific concepts used today. Western scientists often relied heavily on the works of  Arab people but they were rarely given full credit for those achievements. Throughout the years, historical records buried and worn through over time resulted in the public in most parts of the world being unaware of the vast contributions of Arabs. Therefore, in order to understand the evolution of human civilization, it is important to acknowledge the immense contributions to modern science and medicine by Arab scientists.

What Is Considered Part of The Arab World?

Map of Northern Africa and the Middle East
Map of Northern African and the Middle East credit: al-bab.com

Firstly, an “Arab” is a person who speaks Arabic as their first language and originates from an Arab country. This is a more modern usage of the word. In the past, “Arab” was used to strictly describe those who were directly descended from the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Today, the Arab world consists of mainly twenty two countries located in the Middle East and Northern Africa. These nations make up what is known as  the Arab League.

The Arab League contains the following countries: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In addition, the Arab region extends from the Mediterranean sea in the North, to the horn of Africa, to the Atlantic ocean in the West, the Arabian sea in the East and the Indian ocean in the Southeast. Collectively, Arabs are an incredibly diverse people with religions, languages and traditions varying from place to place. In terms of languages, each Arabic dialect is distinct while the language shares some similarities in foundation.

Although the official language of these countries is Arabic, some have more than one spoken dialect. This is because a large number of non-Arabic speaking people also live in these Arab regions. For example, in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait there exists a high  percentage of non-Arab and non-Muslim people. In addition, in these nations there is a large population of Hindi-Urdu speaking people. Another example of bilingual populations is the country Djibouti. It has two official languages: Arabic and French. Overall, the Arab world evolves with time and accommodates the constant shifts in populations by acknowledging the diversity of its people.

A Brief Overview of Anthropology and Culture

Arab cultural food and teapot
Credit: Kaleela.com

While the customs of the Arab world vary greatly, there are a few common traditional beliefs that appear to be universally understood and acknowledged within the Arab world. For example, the behavioral habits and manners that are implemented through religious beliefs.

Today, the most dominant religion in the Arab world is Islam, with Christianity being a close second. Before the arrival of Islam in these regions, the Arab tribes followed pagan religions. These religions focused on the worship of multiple gods in the form of statues and idols. During that era, the Arab tribes were known to keep slaves, argue among themselves over petty grievances, and had a strong disregard for the women in their communities. Keeping in mind, this does not mean that anyone following polytheistic religions is likely to have these negative characteristics. It does mean, however, that the Arab tribes felt comfortable ignoring these idols and any spiritual guidance they may have offered. Thus, they had no strict moral compass in a religious context. The arrival of Islam is credited by most historians as the encouragement tribes needed to better themselves. These days, many of the manners that now define Arab culture were brought forth by religion. Even Arabs who do not practice Islam are accustomed to the influence it pertains to this day.

One example is the emphasis put on hospitality and kindness towards strangers. In multiple religions, one of the core lessons about morality is that charity and welcoming people into your home is important. For the Arabs, this had a great impact in the earlier days of monotheistic religions, as they were beginning to do more for others. The idea of charity, hospitality and the emphasis put on the importance of family bled into the overall culture. Therefore, despite what religion they follow, most Arabs are known for their generosity and strong familial bonds. Additionally, one significant lesson of Islam is the importance of hygiene. This encouraged the Muslim Arab populations to make advancements towards hygienic products and habits within their individual societies. This progress would ultimately serve as the foundation for the invention of the toothbrush and hard fragrance soap. Therefore, cleanliness is a strongly encouraged virtue in Arab culture.

Arab Scientists and Inventions

In history, Arab scientists and inventors have contributed immensely to various fields in science, medicine, physics and astronomy. This dates back to the Islamic Golden Age which lasted roughly from the eighth century to the fourteenth. During this era, research studies on culture, sciences and the economy flourished. Additionally, this Islamic period was considered the “golden” era because of the rich circulation of information and new discoveries being made. The thirst for knowledge and innovation was strong during those years. Some even believed that, for the most part, Arabs were ahead of their European counterparts in scientific progress by several years. Furthermore, many modern day concepts within these fields were developed based on the findings and inquiries made by Arab scientists.

The Origins of Aviation Technology

Man flying in the air with the help of a device that has bird like wings
Abbas Ibn Firnas’s flying device credit: forgottenislamichistory.com

Abu al-Qasim Abbas ibn Firnas ibn Wirdas al-Takurini, more commonly known as Abbas Ibn Firnas, was born in the Spanish province of Ronda in 809 A.D. He later migrated to Cordoba in order to advance his studies. During his lifetime, he excelled in a number of fields, and was considered an established inventor, physicist, physician, and engineer. In the Arab world, he was renowned for his experimentation with the form of flight. Additionally, he is credited with being the first to invent a gliding device that allowed him to be airborne for a short amount of time.

Historically, there have been depictions in architectural remains of man flying but they were normally regarded as myth or legends. These depictions have been presented  since the early Mayan civilization in 3000 B.C, in Egyptian artifacts from around 3150 B.C, in Greece 2500 B.C and even in the times of Babylon in 2000 B.C. While the idea of flight was not itself original, Abbas Ibn Firnas was the first to prove that it is possible for man to fly. He used his observations and knowledge on the anatomy of birds as a basis for his experiments.

Furthermore, in the ninth century, he designed a pair of bird-like wings that could support the weight of man midair. It was noted in his work that he studied the structure of a bird’s wings, body, as well as tail and incorporated them into his designs. In fact, the study of a bird’s flight structure and pattern became an inspiration for modern day aviation. It is widely understood that the impressive aerodynamic shape of a bird’s wings enables flight. Thus, air crafts today mimic their shape. In the 17th century A.D,  an Italian scientist, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, began to study the body structure of birds. His findings became well known in the West. Ultimately, his work became the reference used in the creation of air crafts in the 20th century A.D.

However, historians still maintain that Firnas conducted his research centuries before the West and his work contributed to the foundation of modern aviation. Additionally, this fact is given further acknowledgement by a Western scholar, Phillip K. Hitti. In the research for his book, History of Arabs, From The Earliest Times To The Present, Hitti acknowledged that Firnas was “the first man in history to make a scientific attempt at flying”. More specifically, Firnas began his work in 875 A.D. His flying contraption was reportedly made of silk and feathers from an eagle. The mechanics of the device required him to be at a great height in order for the take off to be successful. After he achieved this and jumped, he could glide down by flapping the wings with his hands. The building and designing of this device required many years, but Firnas was determined.

At 65 years old, he tested his flying device properly for the first time in front of an audience at Jabal al-‘Arus, Rusafa. His device proved to be successful as he glided through the air flying for more than ten minutes. However, a bad landing damaged his glide. Consequently, Firnas sustained intense injuries to his back, some reported that he had broken one of his backbones. Unfortunately, this prevented him from performing any further flight tests to improve his design. Moreover, he enabled the West to develop the ornithopter , which is the main structure responsible for the balance of air crafts. Therefore, Ibn Firnas was the innovative and brilliant  mind that helped with the evolution of air travel.

The Study of Optics

From “The Book of Optics” by Ibn Al- Haytham depicting his understanding of the structure of the human eye
From “The Book of Optics” by Ibn Al- Haytham depicting his understanding of the structure of the human eye. Credit: wikipedia.org

Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen in the West, was a Muslim astronomer, mathematician, and physicist. He was born in Basra, Iraq, in the year 965 A.D. He was considered by many of his peers as a pioneer in the field of optics. It was through his observations of light entering a dark room, that he made scientific breakthroughs in the study of light and vision. The  developments he made in the experimental sciences were documented in his influential book, The Book of Optics, in 1027 A.D. Additionally, he was one of the intellectual scholars that lived during the Islamic golden age.

In the Arab world, he was known most commonly as “the Father of Optics”. This refers to his impressive research and progress on the concept of visual perception. His main discovery, which held great influence, was that vision only occurs when light reflects off an object and passes to one’s eyes. He was also the first to explain that vision occurs in the human brain rather than the eyes itself. Furthermore, al-Haytham’s studies concluded  that light travels in straight lines by using  lenses, mirrors, refraction, and reflection in his experiments. Al-Haytham’s principal goal was to come up with a theory that could successfully encompass parts of Euclid’s arguments regarding mathematical rays, the theories of Aristotle and the medical theories of Galen.

Although al- Haytham’s arguments regarding rays of light weren’t always accurate, no other theory at the time was as comprehensive. Therefore, his work had immense influence, especially in Western Europe. It is now understood that whether indirectly or directly, his work inspired more involvement and progress in optics between the 13th and 17th centuries. In addition, the theory of retinal image that proved to be effectual and filled in the missing pieces of information in the existing theories of light was based on the conceptual work of al- Haytham.

It is clear to historians and scholars alike that al- Haytham’s work was focused on the process of sight, the structure of the eyes, image formation and the overall ocular system. His influence, however, was not fully acknowledged in the West. Canadian Psychologist, Ian P. Howard argued in a 1996 article that al-Haytham should be acknowledged and credited with the numerous discoveries and theories that were attributed to Western Europeans centuries after his own work. Howard expressed the unfairly credited repetitions of al-Haytham’s work in the 19th century by others. For example,  Aguilonius’s law of equal innervation. Al- Haytham wrote a description that added foundation to this law 600 years before Aguilonius uncovered it. Al-Haytham’s original work was actually closer to the modern day understanding of it than Aguilonius’s work.

Additionally, despite Western renaissance scientists being credited with the formation of the scientific method, Al- Haytham helped pioneer it in its earliest forms. He emphasized the need for hypotheses to be supported by scientific experimentation, constant procedures, and mathematical evidence. This was largely because his own studies of optics required methodological reliance on experimentation. His use of experiments to verify his theories shows direct similarities to what is now the modernized scientific method.

The Creation of The First University

Portrait of a woman without color
Fatima Al- Fihri, founder of the first degree granting educational institute in the world. Credit: alliancemagazine.org

Fatima Al- Fihri was born in Tunisia, Morocco around the ninth century. She came from a well educated and wealthy family, although not much of her life is known to historians outside her accomplishments. Upon her father’s death, Al-Fihri inherited a large fortune and she used this to fund the reestablishment of a mosque and create a higher education system for her local community. The University al-Qarawiyyin was established in the year 859 and named after Al-Fihri’s hometown. It is now recognized as the first degree granting institution in the world; a fact that is further legitimized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Guinness World Records.

Furthermore, al-Fihri established the idea of university the way we understand it today. She had a desire to create an educational institution that advanced the learner’s understanding of more worldly topics. In addition, the idea of providing them with future opportunities ended up spreading during the Middle Ages. Ultimately, her work became the foundation for Europe’s educational academies in the following centuries. Some examples of early universities in Europe include the University of Oxford which was founded in 1096, and the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088.

The Global Anthropological Impact

In the history of the world, Arab people have contributed greatly to the understanding of science, physics, medicine and more. The achievements and advancements made in the past must be thoroughly acknowledged and given credit today. Especially, since the work of Arab scientists served as the foundation for much of the advancements made by the Western regions. In almost every aspect of life in this modern era, we come into contact with advancements that were made possible with the help of Arab scholars. Moreover, it shows us how intertwined we are with other cultures in the Arab world. Many people aren’t aware how heavily their day day-to-day lives are impacted by Arab inventions. From an anthropological perspective, it is crucial to recognize the ways in which Arab inventions and Muslim culture contributed, both directly and indirectly, to the development of the West.

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