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Pathfinders, by Jim al-Khalili

Pathfinders, by Jim al-Khalili

Jabir ibn-Hayyan (721-815) is recognised as the first of the great Arabic scientists. Like many of his illustrious successors he was a polymath. Jabir’s interests included pharmacology, medicine, philosophy, cosmology, logic, music and numerology. His legacy includes the development and perfection of basic chemical procedures familiar to pupils learning science today – crystallization, distillation, evaporation, calcination and sublimation. He revolutionised the way science was carried out, stressing careful observation, controlled experiments and accurate results, and his work provided many benefits for those living in eighth and ninth-century Iraq. He discovered how to prevent rusting, produce coloured glass, glaze tiles, smelt and refine metals, and tan leather using manganese dioxide.

To his followers Jabir was al-Sufi. Idries Shah writes about him in The Sufis. To begin to understand Jabir’s life and work we need to turn to Shah. Jim al-Khalili’s book tells of the Golden Age of Arabic Science from the perspective of a modern self-declared atheist, but it is still a fascinating story and one that needs to be told.

‘Pathfinders’ tells us about the two centuries of the translation movement initiated by the second Abbassid caliph, al-Mansur, who founded Baghdad in 762. Through it knowledge from Greece, Persia and India was made available in Arabic to the Islamic world. Baghdad became a centre for art, culture and trade. It was multicultural and multi-faith. However, it was not until the reign of al-Mansur’s great-grandson, al-Ma’mun, that a sudden shift in emphasis took place to a culture that encouraged free and creative thinking across a wide range of disciplines.

Translation had brought to light discrepancies which needed to be resolved. Al-Ma’mun ordered the building in Baghdad of the first astronomical observatory, where astronomical tables could now be verified. The great mathematician, astronomer and geographer, al-Khwarizmi, who wrote the first book on algebra, was one of the scientists who flourished during this caliphate.

At the back of his book Jim al-Khalili has concise biographies of over seventy Pathfinders. They include al-Razi, the greatest clinician of Islam, who influenced Europe for many centuries. But the three greatest scientists of Islam, according to Jim al-Khalili, were Ibn al-Haytham, renowned for his work on optics and astronomy, ibn-Sina, the most famous and influential scholar in Islam, and al-Biruni, who believed that through logic and induction one can reduce all phenomena in nature to mathematical axioms and laws.

Two of the scientists whose work I found most astounding lived in Andalusia. Abbas ibn-Firnas was a legendary inventor, sometimes described as the Leonardo da Vinci of Spain, and Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi invented more than a hundred surgical instruments, many of which are still in use today.


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