Arab Contributions to Society

The ancient lands of Arabia are referred to as “The Lands The of the Prophets” where the first Civilization began. Much like the U.S. today, the Arab world of the seventh to thirteenth centuries was a great cosmopolitan Civilization. It was an enormous unifying enterprise, one which joined the peoples of Spain and North Africa in the West with the peoples of the ancient lands of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) in the East. Alliances were wade, trade routes were opened, lands and peoples were welded into a new force. Islam provided the dynamism, but it was the Arabic language that provided the bond that held it together.

The Arab Civilization broughttogether all the Semitic Religions. It unified Arabians, Africans, Berbers, Egyptians, and the descendants of the Phoenicians, Canaanites (modern day Lebanon and Palestine) and many oilier peoples like the Assyrians, Babylonians and Chaldeans. This great “melting pot” was not without tensions, but it was precisely the tension of this mixing and the interacting of peoples that produced the vibrant and dynamic new Civilization. The remarkable advances, of which did not end with the decline of the Arab Empire in the thirteenth century, continue to be made in modern times around the world.

The years between the seventh and thirteenth centuries mark a period in history when culture and learning flourished in North Africa, Asia, southern Europe, and the Middle East. The Arab world enhanced and developed the arts and sciences and preserved the libraries of the early centuries of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine cultures. During the Dark Ages of Europe, much learning was preserved for the world through the Arab libraries in the universities of Morocco (Fez), Nigeria (Timbuktu) and Egypt (al Azhar). From this period of Arab influence, new words such orange, sugar, coffee, sofa, satin, and algebra filtered into languages of Europe and eventually into our own. New discoveries were made in the sciences and arts which improved the life and condition of Man, and thousands of Arab contributions have become air integral part of human Civilization.


In mathematics, the Arab sifr, or zero, provided new solutions for complicated mathematical problems. The Arabic numeral –  an improvement on the original Hindu concept and the Aral, decimal system facilitated the course of science. The Arabs invented and developed algebra and made great strides in trigonometry. The writings of Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo Fibonaci of Pisa, Master Jacob of Florence show the Arab influence of mathematical studies in European universities. The reformation of the calendar, with a margin of error of only one day in five thousand years, was also a contribution of Arab intellect.


Arab astronomers of the Middle Ages compiled astronomical charts and tables in observatories such as those at Palmyra and Maragha. Gradually, they were able to determine the length of a degree to establish longitude and latitude, and to investigate the relative speeds of sound and light. Al Biruni, considered one of the greatest scientists of all time, discussed the probability of the Earth’s rotation on its own axis – a theory proven by Galileo centuries later.


In the field of medicine, the Arabs improved upon the healing arts of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Al-Razi, a medical encyclopedist of the ninth century, was an authority on contagion. Among his many volumes, perhaps the most famous is the Kitab al Mansuri. It was used in Europe until the eighteenth century. Al Razi was the first to diagnose smallpox and measles, to associate these diseases and othere with human contamination and contagion, to introduce such remedies as mercurial ointment, and to use the animal gut for sutures. The famous scientist-philosopher known in Europe as Avicenna was Ibn Sina, an Arab. He was a the greatest writer of medicine in the Middle Ages, and his Canon was required reading throughout Europe until the seventeenth century.

In the fourteenth century, when the Great Plague ravaged the world, Ibn Khatib and Ibn Khatima of Granada recognized that it was spread by contagion. In his book, Kitabu’l Maliki, al-Maglusi showed a rudimentary conception of the capillary system; an Arab from Syria, lbn al-Nafis, discovered the fundamental principles of pulmonary circulation.

Camphor, doves, myrrh, syrups, juleps, and rose water were stocked in Arab sydaliyahs (pharmacies) centuries ago. Herbal medicine was widely used in the Middle East, and basil, oregano, thyme, fennel, anise, licorice, coriander, rosemary, nutmeg, and cinnamon found their way through Arab pharmacies to European tables.

Navigation and Geography

The world’s earliest navigational and geographic charts were developed by Canaanites who, probably simultaneously with the Egyptians, discovered theAtlantic Ocean. The medieval Arabs improved upon ancient navigational practices with the development of the magnetic needle in the ninth century.

One of the most brilliant geographers of the medieval world was al-Idrisi, a twelfth century scientist living in Sicily. He was commissioned by the Norman King, Roger II, to compile a world atlas which contained seventy maps. Some of the areas were therefore uncharted. Called Kitabal-Rujari (Roger’s Book), Idrisi’s work was considered the best geographical guide of its time.

lbn Battuta, an Arab, must have been the hardiest traveler of his time. He was not a professional geographer, but in his travels by horse, camel and sailboat, he covered over seventy-five  thousand miles. His wanderings, over a period of decades at a time, took him to Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Persia, and Central Asia. He spent several years in India, and from there was appointed ambassador to the Emperor of China. After China, he toured all of North Africa and many places in western Africa. Ibn Battuta’s book, Rihla ( Journey), is filled with information on the politics, social conditions, and economics of the places  he visited.

A twenty-five year-old Arab, captured by Italian pirates in 1520, received much attention in the West. He was Hassan al Wazzan, who became a protégé of Pope Leo X. Leo gave him his own name, and later convinced him to write an account of his travels on the then almost unknown African continent. Hassan became Leo Africanus and his book was translated into several European languages. For nearly two hundred years, Leo Africanus was read as the most authoritative source on Africa.

It should also be remembered that in the fifteenth century Vasco de Gama, exploring the east coast of Africa near Malindi. Was guided by an Arab pilot who used maps never before seen by Europeans. The pilot’s name was Ahmed Ibn Majid.


The Arab contributions to food production are legion. They were able to graft a single vine so that it would bear grapes in different colors, and their vineyards were responsible for future wine industries of Europe. Peach, apricot, and loquat trees were transplanted in southern Europe by Arab soldiers. The hardy olive was encouraged to grow in the sandy soil of Greece, Spain, and Sicily. From India they introduced the cultivation of sugar, and from Egypt they brought cotton to European markets. “May there always be coffee at your house”, was their expression, wishing prosperity and the joy of hospitality for their friends. Coffee was qahwah, that which gives strength, and derivatives of that name are used today in almost every country in the world. They also perfected the storage of soft fruits to be eaten fresh throughout the year.

Other Sciences

Concerning Arab contributions to engineering, one can look at the water wheel, cisterns, irrigation, water wells at fixed levels, and the water clock. In 860, the three sons of Musa Ibn Shakir published the Book on Artifices which described a hundred technical constructions. One of the earliest philosophers, al-Kindi, wrote on specific weight, tides, light reflection and optics.

Al-Haytham (known in Europe as Alhazen) wrote a book in the tenth century on optics, Kitab al-Manazir. He explored optical illusions, the rainbow, and the camera obscura (which led to the beginning of photographic instruments). He also made discoveries in atmospheric refractions (mirages and comets, for example), studied the eclipse, and laid the foundation for the later development of the microscope and the telescope. Al-Haytham did not limit himself to one branch of the sciences, but, like many of the Arab scientists and thinkers, explored and made contributions to the fields of physics, anatomy and mathematics.


Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who sought the meaning of existence, provided Europe with its greatest understanding of Aristotle, and who, more than any other Arab philosopher, influenced European philosophy. He was called the “soul and intelligence of Aristotle” by Ibn Maymun, the great Arab philosopher better known as Maimonides. Thomas Aquinas, leaning heavily on the philosophy of Averroes, became Christendom’s leading expert on Arab doctrines.

Language and Calligraphy

The Arabic Language is rich and pliant, and poetry, literature, and drama have left their mark on both East and West. Among the earliest publications of the Arabs were the translations into Arabic of the Greek and Roman classics –  the works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, Dioscorides and Galen. These books would have been lost for all time if they had not been translated into Arabic. The tomes fund their way back to Europe through the Arabs.

Some note that the poet Nizami’s translations of the twelfth century romancee, Layla and Majnun, may have been an inspiration for the later work, Romeo and Juliet. Ibn Tufayls Hayy Ibn Yaqqqzn (Alive, Son of Awake), considered by many to be the first real novel, was translated by Pocock into Latin in 1671 and by Simon Ockley into English in 1708. It bears many similarities to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A Thousand and One Nights and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat are among the best loved and most widely read of Arabic literature. The fascination with Arabic, following the Hellenistic period of Louis XIV, is particularly evident ill Shakespeare’s characterizations of the Moors (Othello and the Prince of Morocco), in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, and in George Peel’s The Baffle of Alcazar.


The harp, lyre, zither, drum, tambourine, flute, oboe, and reed instruments are today either exactly as they were used from earliest Arab civilization, or variations of the Arab’s early musical instruments. The guitar and mandolin are sisters to that plaintive, pear-shaped stringed instrument, the oud.

Arab poetry was put to music in the subtle delicacy of minor key sequences and rhythm. The modes continue to influence ballads and folk songs today. Extempore poetry was perfected into musical expression, and Arab wedding and other occasions are still celebrated with extempore versing and musical composition.

Cultures flourish and contribute to humanity. Each culture makes a bridge to the next. Our contributions today are the foundations of the future.