Down the centuries, from camera obscura to designing a sail that allowed early seafarers to tack into the wind, Muslim scientists have made many significant contributions to science. Rym Ghazal and Asmaa Al Hameli visit an exhibition in Sharjah that celebrates those contributions
1001 Inventions: in praise of Islam’s gifts to the world
About 500 years ago a young man became increasingly impatient waiting for the wind to blow in the right direction so that he could sail.
After a number of experiments, Ahmad Ibn Majid perfected a design for the triangular lateen sail, allowing him to navigate safely between his home on the Arabian Peninsula and the ports of East Africa and India.
Despite being perhaps the most famous Arab navigator, little is known of Ibn Majid’s life. He was born about 1432 (835 Hijri), most likely in Julfar, Ras Al Khaimah, but with competing claims from Sohar in Oman and even what is today Saudi Arabia.
What is without doubt, though, is that the design of the lateen sail has survived the centuries, and hangs from the masts of local ships to this day.
Now there is a chance to become reacquainted with Ibn Majid, who is one of the stars of 1001 Inventions, a new exhibition in Sharjah subtitled The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilisation.
Running until the middle of next month, 1001 Inventions uncovers 1,000 years of scientific and technological achievement in Islamic civilisation.
Held at Sharjah’s Expo Centre as part of the Emirate’s Children’s Reading Festival, the exhibition will literally give visitors the red-carpet treatment as they enter to meet some of the stars from the past who shaped the world we live in today.
In a darkened chamber is one of the fathers of photography. Ibn Al Haitham, a pioneer in the field of optics, developed a camera obscura to demonstrate that light travels in straight lines.
His breakthrough came when Ibn Al Haitham was being held in captivity, faking madness to get out of an impossible project demanded by the caliph to prevent flooding in Egypt.
For visitors in Sharjah, Ibn Al Haitham is even there in person, or at least in the shape of a young local student who has dressed in period clothing of a brown thoub and grey turban to pose as the great Arab scientist.
“I pretended to be mad so that the khalifa of Egypt wouldn’t kill me for failing in my mission,” he explains. “I saw a light shine through a pinhole in the prison I was in, projecting an image of the outside world on to the opposite wall.”
In the process, he gave a name to the camera – in Arabic, qumra, meaning private room.
Just how much Islamic civilisations have given to the world becomes clear during a walk around the exhibition. Numbers, perfumes, heels on shoes, gardening, interior decoration, even three meals a day. All originate in the Muslim world.
One example is the Iraqi scientist and philosopher known as Al Kindi. His book on chemistry has more than 100 formulae for perfumes, a method for extracting oil and the basics of brewing coffee.
1001 Inventions also highlights the large number of words with Islamic roots, including algebra, yogurt, traffic, soda and cotton.
At the entrance, prominent Muslim figures from the past ask visitors to gather round as they introduce themselves and their largely forgotten achievements.
Among them is Fatima Al Fihri, who lived in 9th-century Morocco. After receiving a large inheritance from her father, this pious and devout woman used the entire sum to build a mosque-university in Fez. The University of Al Qarawiyin is still educating students to this day.
“I built the first university in the world, called Al Qarawiyin,” explains her incarnation at the exhibition, smiling and wearing a sparkling scarf and pink thoub. Her university offered countless courses such as theology, rhetoric, medicines, prose and verse writing; more than is taught in some modern Islamic colleges.
One of the aims of 1001 Inventions is to demonstrate that when Europe was experiencing what are commonly known as the Dark Ages, the Islamic world was busy building the foundations of modern life.
Great men and women of the past – mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, physicians, architects, engineers, economists, sociologists, artists, historians, geographers and educators left behind life-changing contributions to society and humanity.
“There was a gap in history books, where you would find only the European discoveries, so 1001 Inventions was born out of trying to fill in this gap in the history of science,” says Ahmed Salim, the exhibition’s producer and managing director.
After launching in Britain in 2006, the exhibition has toured the world before making its way to Sharjah. Local students are recruited and trained to play prominent characters from history.
“We localise our exhibition, 70 per cent stays the same, and the rest is designed for the chosen location,” Mr Salim says. “Here, one of the key heros is Ahmed Ibn Majid, a great traveller and a naval scientist.”
Some, like Ibn Majid, who rose to the challenges he faced, should be a role model for the youth of today, Mr Salim says. In this sense, 1001 Inventions is not simply a history lesson, but an opportunity to inspire a new generation of scientists.
Learning how to sail a boat into the wind was one of the great achievements in navigation. Before Ibn Majid, sailors would wait for the prevailing winds to change with the seasons to travel and trade.
“Instead of waiting for the winds, he perfected the lateen sail, a shape of sail, a curved one, that allowed boats to travel into the winds,” Mr Salim says. “A unique invention by Majid. As the wind crosses over from one side, it splits, and on the other side, it goes straight, causing negative pressure that allows the boat to be sucked into the wind.
“That same technology and shape used in the lateen sail is found in the aerofoil on a Formula One car,” he says. “These discoveries didn’t just make an impact on their world, they had a positive impact on our world today.”
Great woman also feature, as well as great men. One of them was Laila bin Abdullah Al Qurashi Al Adawiya, from Mecca, nicknamed Al Shifa, or healer. She lived about the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and would collect and mix herbs to cure wounds.
Also present at the exhibition is Lady Mary Montagu, the wife of the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 18th century. While in Istanbul she observed how children were given immunity against smallpox by inoculation, introducing the practice from the Middle East to England on her return.
“I was surprised to see a tradition where women would on purpose give their children a dose of smallpox, even though it was a fatal disease,” says Lady Mary, or at least the student playing her in velvet dress and a turban with a peacock feather. Then she discovered that it saved lives. “It created an immunity against the disease.”