As Americans, we tend to learn history from a very Eurocentric perspective. We study the ancient world, the middle ages, and then move through the history of Europe. We may briefly learn about Asia or Russia, but rarely do we dig deeper into non-European history, which is truly a shame. While our European ancestors were trudging through the Middle Ages, the Arab world was a flourishing haven of technology and science. In fact, some of their technology is still alive and well today. Three technologies in particular from the Arab world have greatly impacted modern society. While some may argue that these technologies were initiated earlier by the Greeks, they were certainly mastered by Arab scholars.
One of the most well-known technologies of the Arab world is algebra. While it may be hated by many students, algebra is without question the basis for all complex math. Without algebra, none of the technologies that exist today would have ever been created – it is truly among the most influential branches of mathematics in history.
A second technology, the astrolabe, also holds great significance. While most modern Americans are likely unfamiliar with the astrolabe, it is one of the most amazing computers of the ancient world. An astrolabe is a tool allowing the user to see a chart of the night sky. But it’s utility goes beyond that – you can use it to determine the angle to any star, the sunrise and sunset times, the current time based on star position, or for navigational purposes – among other uses. In fact, some scholars have indicated that you can use an astrolabe to solve over a thousand different problems. Today, astrolabes are usually only found in museums. But for hundreds of years, they were used for navigation, to better understand the night sky, and so much more. Without tools like the astrolabe, the age of exploration would have been far more difficult.
Cryptography serves as a third influential Arab technology. Indeed, basic cryptography has been known far back into the ancient world. The Muslims, however, took it to the next level. While Muslim scholars were copying the Koran, they were also paying attention to how many times each letter was used. This counting of letters ultimately led to cryptanalysis and even changed the course of European history. Ever hear of Mary, Queen of the Scots? She was executed because of Arab codebreakers who were centuries ahead of European cryptographers.
While I could undoubtedly find countless other technologies from the Arab Golden Age, these technologies stand out above the rest. During a time of immense trial and despair for Europeans, Arabs were pulling world history into the next chapter through the efforts of their brightest minds! Though many will look in awe at the technology of today, I would urge others to take the time to look into the rich history of technology around the world. The technological innovations of the past often hold just as much excitement!