Muslim World

10 Inventions You Didn’t Know Came From Muslims

10 Inventions You Didn’t Know Came From Muslims

It is often said that no religion has had a greater impact on our world and its culture than Christianity. It is certainly true that many of our greatest works of art and literature were inspired by the Bible and the ministry of Jesus. However, in the Western world, we have a tendency to become so caught up in Christian contributions that we overlook those which came from Islam. Believe it or not, Islam has contributed much to our modern, Western society. We’re not just talking about Islamic strongholds – such as the Middle East – when we say that. Even in the West, we rely on inventions and ideas which have their roots in Islam on a daily basis. Don’t believe us? Check out the inventions listed below. Here are 10 brilliant inventions you didn’t know came from Muslims.

  1. The Toothbrush

In anti-Islamic propaganda, we often see Muslims depicted as unhygienic. In reality, however, Muslims are mandated to keep themselves clean by their very doctrine. The most obvious example of this is the commandment of wudu (ablution), which requires Muslims to wash their hands, mouth, arms, head, feet, and even nostrils before praying. A lesser-known example is the invention of the toothbrush.

The miswak is considered by historians and Muslims alike to be the very first toothbrush. While there is some contention as to when it was first introduced, most ballpark its introduction as having occurred about 7000 years ago. In its most basic form, the miswak is a twig taken from the Salvadora persica tree. Early users discovered that its shape lends itself to handheld use and would soak it in warm water in order to soften the bristles on either end of the twig. Furthermore, modern research revealed that the miswak naturally contains fluoride, which aids in dental health.

It is thought that the Prophet Muhammad himself used the miswak to maintain superior oral hygiene. Muslims know the Prophetbrushed his teeth constantly–even when facing the enemy on the battlefield and even at the time of death. In fact, there are numerous hadith in which Prophet Muhammad praises the health and hygienic virtues of the miswak, while encouraging his followers to use it. In one such hadith, the Prophet declares:

“Were I not afraid that it would be hard on my followers, I would order them to use the miswak (as obligatory, for cleaning the teeth for ablution for prayer).” Sahih Bukhari

A similar hadith regarding the Prophet and the miswak is as follows: “Hudhaifa narrated that whenever the Prophet got up for Tahajjud prayer he used to clean his mouth (and teeth) with miswak.” Sahih Bukhari

If you are a Muslim and believe Muhammad to be a messenger of Allah, you will not be surprised to learn that the miswak boasts several scientifically-proven benefits in the realm of oral hygiene. In fact, in 1986 the World Health Organization (WHO) approved and recommended the use of the miswak for maintaining one’s teeth.

Over the centuries, the miswak evolved into the toothbrush, allowing the Western world to catch up with Islamic civilization after hundreds of years of neglecting oral hygiene. However, the miswak is still used today, particularly in the Middle East, where its benefits have long been understood and appreciated.

  1. Flying Machines

Everybody learns that the airplane was invented by the Wright brothers. However, Wilbur and Orville, as clever as they were, were not the first people to dream up a flying machine. For centuries, inventors had been attempting to craft a machine by which humankind could soar with birds. Famed 15th-century polymath Leonardo da Vinci even went so far as to create blueprints for a flying machine all the way back in 1485. Yet even the great da Vinci could not claim to be the originator of the flying machine. That honor belongs to Abbas ibn Firnas, who beat his Italian counterpart to the punch by about 500 years.

Abbas ibn Firnas was a Muslim polymath, poet, and inventor – among many other things – who lived in Spain in the 800s. While his work covered a wide range of topics, he is recorded to have been extremely interested in flight and was particularly fascinated by the idea of helping humans take to the sky. Ibn Firnas worked extensively on something that seems to have fallen between a bird suit and an ornithopter, which may or may not have had feathers, depending on what eye-witness accounts you read. Although it certainly sounds a little silly, it seems ibn Firnas’ flying machine was actually something of a success. One of the most detailed accounts of his test flights was gathered by historian Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari, who wrote the following:

“Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.” Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari

  1. The Guitar

In 1978, singer-songwriter Cat Stevens announced his shock conversion to Islam and stepped away from the limelight. Taking the name Yusuf Islam, he abandoned Western music, having been convinced it was against the laws of Allah by some strict Islamic scholars. 30 years later, Yusuf would return to popular music, explaining that his decision to leave in the first place had largely been the result of his own failure to conduct independent research into Islam’s relationship with rock and roll. Had he done so when he first converted to the religion, Yusuf would have discovered that not only was popular music permitted within Islam, but it was virtually invented by Muslims.

The guitar – the cornerstone of the Western songbook – has its origins in the oud. Characterized by its unique bent neck, the oud is a form of lute and was extremely popular in early Islamic society. It was likely used to compose songs of praise to Allah and was carried by Muslim travelers who sought to introduce Islam to the West. In the Middle Ages, a group of such travelers brought Islam and the oud to Spain. There, the oud experienced a marked increase in popularity, being tweaked and altered according to the musical preferences of the Spaniards. Over time, the oud evolved into the guitar, in much the same way the miswak evolved into the toothbrush.

As a side note, there is also evidence to suggest Muslims created the now extremely Western concept of the marching band. It is believed that the Ottoman Empire utilized military bands during its battles. The band would play throughout a battle in order to inspire the Ottoman warriors and distract their rivals. According to some reports, the band would not stop playing until the enemy had retreated. While European forces may not have returned from battles with the Ottoman Empire victorious, it seems they at least returned inspired. Around the 16th century, groups which had faced Ottoman soldiers in battle began incorporating marching bands into their own military units. Marching bands eventually evolved beyond the warzone and can today be found everywhere from high school football games to parades.

  1. Algebra

If you’re trying to change the perception of a group of people for the better, it may initially seem counterproductive to credit that group of people with creating algebra. Yes, Muslims are, in a roundabout way, responsible for all those tests you failed in high school. But as boring as it was when we had to learn it in the classroom, there is no denying that the formulation for algebra was a magnificent feat. Without it, we could not have contemporary engineering, electronics, or architecture,

Algebra, as we know it, was pioneered in the 9th century by a Persian mathematician named Al-Khwarizmi. Sometime around the year 820, Al-Khwarizimi published his landmark work, The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. This exhaustive treatise was the first of its kind, treating algebra as an independent academic branch as opposed to a lesser arm of mainstream mathematics. The book was immensely popular in scholarly Arabic circles for several centuries and in 1145 was translated into Latin by Robert of Chester. This gave new life to Al-Khwarizimi’s ideas and served to introduce much of the Western world to the basics of contemporary algebra. It was this translation which also gave algebra its name, deriving it from the original Arabic title of Al-Khwarizimi’s book, Kitab al-Jabr Wa l-Mugabala.

The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing continued to be used as the primary tool for teaching algebra for several centuries after Robert of Chester completed his translation. It was heavily relied upon by universities in the Middle East and the Western world alike right up to the 16th century, making it one of the few scholarly works to survive through the Renaissance. Today, Al-Khwarizimi’s work is still held in high regard, while he himself is revered as the Father of Algebra.

  1. The Crankshaft

We know that the crankshaft doesn’t exactly sound as exciting as the airplane or the guitar – or, indeed, some of the other entries still to come on this list – but it is truly one of the most important inventions in human history. The crankshaft and crank-slider mechanism was created in the 13th century by the Muslim polymath Ismail al-Jazari. When designing his invention, Al-Jazari drew on previous crank systems for inspiration, such as those used by the Romans and the Greeks. However, Al-Jazari’s creation was the first crank incarnation to feature a crank-connecting rod and a twin-cylinder pump. This design made it possible to easily convert rotary motion into linear reciprocating motion and was essential in the design of the steam engine some 500 years later.

The invention of the crankshaft alone is enough to secure one’s place high in human history. However, Al-Jazari did not stop there. In fact, his crankshaft and crank-slider mechanism was only one of 100 inventions he outlined in his 1206 book Kitab fi ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiya. Roughly translating into English as Book in Knowledge of Engineering Tricks, Kitab fi ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiya contains several additional groundbreaking concepts. These include the camshaft, the lamination of timber, and even the combination lock.

  1. Surgery

There is evidence of very primitive surgeries being performed stretching back as far as 12,000 BCE. However, these surgeries – if you can even call them that – were pretty barbaric and are extremely unlikely to have been effective. For example, during this period, it was not uncommon for an ill person to have a hole made in their skull in order to let “bad spirits” out. Surgeries carried on in this manner for several hundred years. In fact, such gruesome operations were still being performed during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It was not until after the Prophet’s death that his followers began to use their ever-expanding knowledge of the human body – much of which came from the Quran – to pioneer safer and more successful forms of surgery.

The most important player in the development of surgery as we know it was a Muslim physician by the name of Al-Zahrawi. Considered by many to be the father of modern surgery, Al-Zahrawi pioneered the practice of cauterization. This he used to treat wounds and lacerations, as well as to facilitate the speedy healing of incisions he made during operations. However, Al-Zahrawi’s medical expertise was not just limited to cauterization. Throughout his surgical career, he perfected previously risky procedures and made them relatively commonplace in Arab society. It is even said that he performed the first successful Cesarean section. Al-Zahrawi’s courageous new procedures necessitated new equipment. For this reason, he took it upon himself to create a variety of surgical instruments which are still in use to this day, including the forceps.

The ability to create and innovate Al-Zahrawi displayed in the field of medicine is the kind of thing that comes along once in a million years (literally). As such, the mammoth advances he made could have very easily been lost upon his death in 1013. Thankfully, the great surgeon had the foresight to produce Kitab al-Tasrif. Kitab al-Tasrif is a 30-volume encyclopedia compiled by Al-Zahrawi throughout his medical career. It examines, in great detail, his groundbreaking medical advancements, while also offering advice to aspiring surgeons and doctors. Even after his death, Al-Zahrawi remained an authority on medicine for hundreds of years. Kitab al-Tasrif was relied upon by surgeons through the Middle Ages and beyond, with its influence still clear in surgeries today. It is no wonder Al-Zahrawi is so regularly referred to as the father of surgery.

  1. Hospital

Given Al-Zahrawi’s incredible innovations in the field of medicine, it should come as no surprise that Muslims pioneered the modern-day hospital. What may be surprising, however, is that Al-Zahrawi was not involved in the establishment of the first hospital. In fact, the earliest recorded Islamic hospital predates Al-Zahrawi’s birth by a century.

The Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital, as it was known, was opened in Cairo in 874 during the reign of its namesake. It boasted the finest doctors and nurses of the period. As we discussed in the previous section, medical care wasn’t particularly impressive until Al-Zahrawi came on the scene, but if there was a treatment that could cure what ailed you in 9-th century Egypt, you were guaranteed to find it in Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital. And not only that, you would find it for free. That’s right, the early Islamic hospitals were absolutely free. This was based on the Islamic belief that the sick should always be cared for, a law laid down clearly in the Quran, the hadith and the works of the prophets. As such, Islamic hospitals served to break down class barriers. The wealthy healed side-by-side with the poor, with nobody perishing on waiting lists or incurring sky-high medical debt. Islamic hospitals even had psychiatric wings, where those suffering from mental illness were treated with compassion and respect rather than being branded possessed and cast out from society. To this day, there is a lot the medical industry can learn from the Islamic hospitals of the Middle Ages.

  1. Coffee

A lot of people hold the erroneous belief that coffee was discovered, processed in and disseminated from Ethiopia. While the coffee bean originated in Ethiopia, there is no evidence to suggest it was used to make coffee by the locals who harvested it. In reality, the earliest evidence of the coffee as we know it being consumed comes from the 15th century. This is actually pretty recent, considering many of the other inventions examined in this article. Also considering the other inventions examined in this article, it should come as no surprise that Muslims are credited with being the first to eat or drink coffee.

Coffee was first brewed by a Sufi imam named Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani, who also worked extensively as an importer with Ethiopian merchants. Shortly thereafter, Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani introduced coffee to his Sufi brothers, who used it as an aid to increase concentration during worship. Coffee eventually spread beyond Sufism to all of the Islamic world. Muslim travelers would later introduce it to Europe. From there, it found its way to the Americas and the rest of the world, although it remains irrevocably tied to Islamic culture to this day.

Coffee actually has something of a mystical side in Islam. While it can today be more or less confirmed to have originated from Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani’s travels to Ethiopia, there are still many legends in circulation concerning its creation. Perhaps the most notable of these legends claims that coffee was given to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in the early days of Islam. It was introduced as an alternative to alcohol, which had been forbidden by Allah. While there is nothing in Islamic scripture to support this idea, there is no denying that coffee’s popularity within the Islamic world is at least partially the result of Islam’s strict prohibition of alcohol.

  1. University

Institutions for higher learning have existed for thousands of years. Plato is commonly considered the “creator” of such places given his founding of the Academy. This was a free though exclusive school which dealt in a number of topics, though largely catered to the Ancient Greeks’ fascination with philosophy. However, the Academy did not have a set curriculum. Nor did it grant its graduates degrees. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest anybody ever actually graduated from Plato’s Academy. To the contrary, it seems students just went there for as many years as they cared to before moving on to start their own place of learning or entering politics.

The modern-day model for a university was forged in the 9th century. Its development was heavily driven by Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim princess who was renowned for her high education. She was literate and had extensive knowledge of the Quran and the life of the prophet Muhammad, as well as many more secular topics. Al-Fihri sought to share her love of knowledge with the Muslim world and so in 859 she founded the University of Al-Qarawiyyin.

Located in Morocco, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin was the first university to award degrees to its graduates. Its curriculum included Islamic studies, mathematics, and medicine. Al-Fihri’s involvement with the university played a major role in improving the reputation of women within the Muslim world. Her accomplishments were indisputable evidence that women were just as capable as men in academics and she was compared by many to Khadijah, the strong and well-to-do first wife of the Prophet Muhammad.

Al-Fihri’s vision of education quickly spread across the rest of the world and inspired the establishment of colleges and universities in lands far from her humble hometown of Kairouan. However, the popularity of the University of Al-Qarawiyyin never waned, even the face of thousands of similar institutions. Today, the university is still in operation and boasts almost 10,000 students. Its library – believed to be the oldest in the world – is a true testament to the longevity of Islam and is home to the earliest known collection of hadith.

  1. Glasses

Recently, I witnessed a talking head on a news channel ranting about the dangers of Islam and the horrible faith the Western world will experience if it continues to accept refugees from Middle Eastern countries. The poor guy became so worked up about the West’s growing Muslim population that his glasses slid down his nose and he had to pause to fix them. How shocked he would be, I thought, to learn that those glasses came from the very group of people he was trying to shut out.

Despite being very much guided by the Quran – or, maybe, because of it – the Islamic world was the most scientifically advanced civilization of the Middle Ages. As we have already discussed, it made huge advancements in mathematics and medicine. It is also responsible for much of what we know about optics. Ibn al-Haytham was one of the most prominent Muslim scholars of the 10th century. He dedicated much of his life to the examination of the human eye, seeking to provide a concrete answer as to how it works. Prior to Ibn al-Haytham’s arrival, even the most educated scientists believed the eye relied on “sight rays” to see. Through his studies and experiments, however, al-Haytham was able to prove that the eye works by processing light reflected by the object(s) being viewed. He was also the first to suggest that sight is controlled by the brain, rather than by the eye itself. As he further familiarized himself with the workings of the human eye, Ibn al-Haytham created what many dubbed “reading stones.” These were used to improve the eyesight of 10th century Muslims and would later evolve into modern-day glasses.

Although Ibn al-Haytham is today best-known as Alhazen – the Latinized version of his name – his work remains unparalleled in the realm of optics. Not only did he change our understanding of the workings of the human eye forever, he made it possible for people many hundreds of years in the future to read the words of the Quran with greater ease. This brings to mind a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. Recorded in Sahih Muslim, it applies not only to Ibn al-Haytham, but to all of the pioneering Muslims mentioned in this article:

“When a person dies his deeds discontinue, except for three things: Ongoing charity, knowledge which people benefit from, and a righteous son who prays for him.” Sahih Muslim