Through translations from Greek, Persian, Sanskrit and Syriac, the whole field of science and technology was transmitted from East to West. These texts brought new, previously unknown learning, and theoretical references that the Latin world did not have. This dual translation, from the source language to Arabic and then from Arabic to Latin, established a corpus of what might be called “universal” learning as it had twice crossed dividing-lines between languages and religions. Muslim-Arab civilization had brought a new perspective that enabled it to pass on to us the openings towards modern science and a reconstruction of the world.
In the Muslim-Arab world, research in all scientific fields was done for practical purposes and sought to solve everyday problems, such as calculating surfaces and longitudes, town planning, improving the calendar and, before Copernicus (who knew of Arab scientific work), criticized Ptolemy and constructed a planetary model centred round the sun. The Arabs invented new technologies useful for agriculture, such as the noria, the oil and sugarcane press and land surveying techniques, tax calculation, cartographical, architectural and navigation techniques, and impressive automata.
Mathematics, first divided into two major branches – the “calculation sciences” or arithmetic and “measurement sciences” or geometry (in which Euclid occupied a prominent place) – opened up to include what was to become known as algebra (al-jabr), formalized by the celebrated mathematician and astronomer al-Khwârizmî (the word “algorithm” comes from his name), who wrote Kitab al-jabr (from jabara, to reduce).
The history of the French word chiffre (figure) is interesting: When the Arabs borrowed from India the positional notation system which made arithmetical calculation so much easier, they called 0 es-sifr (literally, “the void”). The word was Latinized as cephirum; in Italy, it became zefero and then zero; in France, in became chiffre and referred to all numerical characters. To remove the ambiguity, the word zero was borrowed from Italian to refer to the value nought, which, strictly speaking, was the only one that should have been called chiffre. It was only in the twelfth century, however, that, under the influence of Muslim-Arab science, the West began to use “Indian calculation”, in other words, arithmetic with a positional notation system using nine figures and zero for basic calculation.
Optics, alchemy, astronomy and mechanics, all made their appearance in the West from the Muslim-Arab East. Alchemy, whose name comes from the Arabic al-kimiyâ, derived through Syriac from Greek, in which it meant “the art of melting and combining metals”, gave rise to complex systems that aroused the suspicion and even the hostility of the Latin Church. Astronomy began to develop rapidly in the East in the ninth century, but it was only in the twelfth that new translations of astronomical tables enabled westerners to use the astrolabe, which they then began to manufacture themselves.
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