Islamic Heritage belongs to All — Architecture and Science

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Few places throughout the world have remained untouched by the extraordinary, multi-faceted heritage of Islam. For more than 1000 years the unique and unsurpassed achievements of Islamic culture illuminated the known world, building a civilization that in itself formed one of the greatest epics of human history.

From the 7th to the 18th centuries – more than an entire millennium — Islam permeated society with a profound cultural fabric whose influence is still being revealed even in today’s postmodern age.

Inspired in new and revolutionary ways by the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as by his Companions and later followers, Muslim artists, architects, scholars and scientists carried the intellectual and creative concepts of Islam from present-day Saudi Arabia across the lands now known as Morocco, Spain, France and Sicily, as well as eastward throughout ancient Persia (now Iran) to India and the Far East.

Over time as Islam spread, many lands and many peoples also flowed into the faith, resulting in a diverse global community where all believers became brothers and sisters in spirit, united by their faith in the one God. Thus, diversity developed within unity, expressed in an astonishing breadth and flowering of culture which had a deep and permanent effect on life, art and science throughout societies even beyond Muslim borders.

Sadly, however, this noble and living heritage, together with the importance of its worldwide influence, is too little known today among both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Islamic architecture is a prime example of how much has been forgotten or left unappreciated.

Within the early Islamic world, which included Arabia, the Maghrib (North Africa), Spain, Sicily, Egypt, Turkey, Persia, and India, the foundation of all great building enterprises was based solidly on the precepts of faith. From mosque to mausoleum, Muslim architects and builders devoted their greatest skills to creating edifices that reflected the glory of God, rather than that of humans.

Many great historic mosques demonstrate, for example, the enduring success of a major structural innovation replicated by Western builders. This was a radically new method of constructing a dome upon a cube by creating transitional supports between the two – called muqarnas or corner squinches — such as those found prominently in the Martorana and Cappella Palatinebuilt in Palermo, Sicily, during the 11th and 12th centuries.

The minaret (tower) form of the mosque was also adopted by Western architects. In Seville, they simply added to the Giralda, which had originally been built as a minaret. The influence of the minaret may also be seen in some Medieval church towers in rural England and the campanile, or in the bell towers of Renaissance Florence and Venice, as well as somewhat later in the later free-standing church towers common to Scandinavia.

Artists and architects of the Islamic world also brought to the West their elegant and daring ways of covering the interior walls of buildings. In Spain’s famed Alhambra at Granada and in the mosques of Isfahan, a breath- taking explosion of beautiful patterns and colors took place. Before long, the techniques of Islamic faience, mosaic and tile design –” virtually unequalled before or since — were absorbed into the mainstream of Western craftsmanship.

Architecture was further enhanced by advances in the fields of Islamic sciences and engineering, through the practical works of many great Muslim scientists – al-Razi, al-Biruni, Avicenna, and even the poet-scientist Omar Khayyam – which were also passed on and eagerly adopted by the West.

Fascinated by the versatility and potential of machines and mechanics, Muslim inventors developed many new ones, ranging from the ingenious water- clock to enchanting mechanical "automata" (animated figures), also run by water, and regarded as being among the most magical of all diversions.

Muslims were also innovative pioneers in another major branch of science – that of optics, or the investigation of vision and the physics of light. Al-Haytham, born in the 10th century, wrote one of the greatest medieval scientific works, the Kitab-al- Manazir, or Book of Optics. This work was the fruit of his detailed exploration of optical illusions, rainbows, and the camera obscura – the beginning of photographic instruments. He also made important discoveries about atmospheric refraction, mirages, and comets, as well as studying the phenomenon of eclipses. His work laid the foundation for later optical developments, such as the microscope and telescope. Al-Haytham’s exhaustive studies in optics and related fields influenced Western scientific thought for centuries.

Muslim scientists such as Jabir bin Hyan lived and worked during the 8th century. And as early as the 10th century, the Baghdad scientist-historian al-Masudi spoke of the process of evolution from mineral, to plant, to animal, to human being — a concept gradually inherited by Western scholars, reaching fruition nine centuries later in the works of England’s Charles Darwin.

There is much more to know about Islamic sciences at: www.islamichistorymonth.com

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