Islamic Golden Age- A Brief Review of Contributions to Today’s World

Islamic Golden Age- A Brief Review of Contributions to Today’s World May 6, 2018
Ibn Tulun Hospital-Mosque, Cairo

My last article was a brief overview of the Islamic golden age. This article’s focus is on some of the important contributions from this era, realizing a full review would require writing a multi- volume book. My initial thought was to write about individual scholars but upon further pondering, I decided to sort them under specific fields, although I will mention a few notables here.

Since publishing the last article, I have had quite a bit of feedback, ranging from “Let’s not dwell in the glory of the past given the ‘plight of the Muslims’ today”, on one hand to the other extreme where folks tend to get stuck in the past without any references to it’s implication on today’s world.

I would like to strike a balance. Healthy nations and communities do not forget their past. We have not forgotten the contributions by Einstein, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Copernicus from the last few hundred years, and Galen, Aristotle and Socrates from over 2 thousand years ago. We cannot forget those who lived in between these two eras during the Islamic golden age. Muslims should be proud of their glorious past, and highlight the accomplishments as a source of inspiration to bring about a change in our lives TODAY.

We need to learn what kind of critical thinking and attitude led to the golden age, and what caused its fall. Only then this conversation will be meaningful and relevant.


Hospitals and Teaching: Ahmad Ibn Tulun hospital in Cairo, built in the early 870s, is considered the first full-fledged Islamic hospital, where patients were treated free of charge. Like the modern hospitals, patients would give their street clothes and valuables to the hospital and put their hospital gowns on. The hospital had a psychiatric ward and a rich library.

Baghdadi hospital was built about a hundred years later with 25 physicians. Subsequently more, and larger hospitals were built throughout the empire ranging from Nuri hospital in Damascus, Al Mansuri hospital in Cairo to Andalusia.

These hospitals were also teaching hospitals where students were taught by the physicians as they tended to the ill. Teaching was done individually, as well as in groups, lectures given in a large hall at the hospital and there were questions and answers sessions along with ‘teaching rounds’ whereby the staff physician would do history and examination of the patient accompanied by students- much the same was it is done now in teaching hospitals. The hospitals in Andalusia inspired the Europeans to build their own system.

The health care delivery was a ‘single payer’ system, where the payer was the Islamic government. The admission to the hospital, the surgeries, the vaccinations and dispensing of the medicines were all done free of cost to the patients- a system the current British national health system closely follows. (Are you paying attention, Bernie Sanders?). there was another important source of funding that supported the running of the hospitals.

U.S. National Library of Medicine ‘s section on Islamic Culture and Medical arts state:

All the hospitals in Islamic lands were financed from the revenues of pious bequests called waqfs. Wealthy men, and especially rulers, donated property as endowments, whose revenue went toward building and maintaining the institution. The property could consist of shops, mills, caravanserais, or even entire villages. The income from an endowment would pay for the maintenance and running costs of the hospital, and sometimes would supply a small stipend to the patient upon dismissal. Part of the state budget also went toward the maintenance of a hospital. The services of the hospital were to be free, though individual physicians might charge fees.

Pulmonary Circulation

Galen, a Greek physician from the 2nd century and a giant in his own right, described the circulation to the right side of the heart. From the right side of the heart, he postulated, the blood goes through tiny pores in the septum (that separates the right and the left ventricles). In the 13th century, Ibn al Nafis explained the pulmonary circulation correctly, describing that the blood goes from the right side of the heart to the lungs for oxygenation, then to the left side of the heart.


Physicians from this era were performing various eye surgeries and writing text books. Al-Mawsili (also spelled Al Mosouli) , the author of the Book of Choices in the Treatment of Eye diseases, designed a hollow needle he inserted into the anterior chamber of the eye to remove cataract by suction- a procedure that is still in use and curing poor eyesight and preventing blindness in many others.

Optics and Vision

Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists believed in two theories about how we see objects. The first postulated that rays come out of our eyes and are cut off by objects. The second postulated, without any evidence that we see because something (objects image) enters our eyes, but without he support of experimentation. Al-Kindi, a 9th century polymath, philosopher, physician and an optician our visual cone is not formed of discrete rays but rather but as a volume and in three dimensions of continuous radiations. He discussed the effects of distance and angle on the sight(e.g. how a circle on its side appears  linear) and optical illusions. 16th century Italian physician and mathematician Geronimo Cardano said Al Kindi was “one of the twelve giant minds of history”. [1]

Al- Haytham, known as Alhazen in the west, a10th century polymath, mathematician, physician and a chemist, is considered the father of Optics and the first to use experimental evidence to confirm theories. His most influential work was his book, Kitab Al Manazir, or The Book of Optics (known as Magnum Opus), had laid the foundation for the science of Optics. He was the first to explain that vision occurs when light bounces on an object and then is directed to one’s eyes.

Until this time physics had been more like philosophy, without experiment. He was the first to require experimental evidence to support a hypothesis or a theory. He is thus considered the father of scientific methods. George Sarton, a 20th century science historian in his book History of Science stated, He, Ib Haytham, was the greatest Muslim physicist and student of optics of all times. Whether it be in England or far away Persia, all drank from the same fountain. He exerted a great influence on European thought from Bacon to Kepler.”[2]

There were numerous physicians from this era but to maintain the brevity, I would mention only three here-very briefly.

Next: Al Razi, Avicenna and al Zahrawi- father of Surgery.

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