From coffee to checks and the three-course menu, the Muslim world has brought us many innovations that we take for granted in the West. Here are 20 of the most influential innovations:
(1) The story began with his Arab named Khalid grazing his goats in the Kaffa region in southern Ethiopia when he noticed that the animals became more lively after eating certain berries.
He cooked these berries and made the first coffee. The first record of this drink made from beans exported to Yemen from Ethiopia is surely where some Muslims drank it, on special occasions to stay awake all night to pray. In the late 15th century he reached Mecca and Turkey, from where he made his way to Venice in 1645.
It was brought to England in 1650 by a Turk named Pasqua Rosee, who opened the first coffeehouse on Lombard Street in central London. The Arabic “qahwa” became “kahve” in Turkish, then Italian “caffé” and finally English “coffee”.
(2) The ancient Greeks thought that our eyes would emit rays like a laser that enabled us to see. The first person to realize that light entered the eye instead of leaving it was the Muslim mathematician, astronomer and doctor Ibn al-Haitham in the 10th century.
He invented the first pinhole camera after noticing how the light shone through a hole in the shutter. The smaller the hole, the better the picture, he found, and constructed the first camera obscura (from the Arabic word “qamara” for a dark or private room).
He is also credited with being the first man to change physics from a philosophical activity to an experimental one.
(3) A type of chess was played in ancient India, but the game was developed in Persia to the type we know today. From there it spread westwards to Europe – where it was introduced by the Moors in Spain in the 10th century – and eastwards to Japan. The word “rook” (tower) comes from the Persian “rukh” which means chariot.
(4) A thousand years before the Wright brothers, a Muslim poet, astronomer and engineer named Abbas ibn Firnas made several attempts to build a flying machine. In 852 he jumped from the minaret of the great mosque of Cordoba with a broad cloak reinforced with wooden struts.
He hoped to slide with it like a bird. But he didn’t. But the cloak slowed his fall, creating what is considered the first parachute and only let him get away with a few minor injuries.
He tried again in 875 at the age of 70, jumping from a mountain with a perfected machine made of silk and eagle feathers. It flew to a significant altitude, stayed in the air for ten minutes, but crashed – it made the correct conclusion that this was because it hadn’t given its vehicle a tail to keep it stable on landing. Baghdad International Airport and a lunar crater are named after him.
(5) Washing and are religious requirements for Muslims, perhaps for this reason they have perfected the recipe for soap as we still use it today. The ancient Egyptians had had soap of a type used by the Romans that they used more than pomade.
But it was the Arabs who combined vegetable oils with sodium hydroxide and fragrances like thyme oil. One of the most striking features of the Crusader – for Arab noses – was that they did not wash.
Shampoo was introduced in England by a Muslim who opened Mahomed’s Indian Vapor Baths in Brighton on the seafront in 1759 and was the commissioned shampoo doctor for Kings George IV and William IV.
(6) Distillation, the means to separate liquids by their different boiling points, was introduced in around 800 by the leading scientist in Islam, Jabir ibn Hayyan, who converted alchemy to chemistry, introducing many of the basic processes and equipment that are still in use today – liquefaction, crystallization, distillation, purification, oxidation, evaporation and filtration.
He also discovered sulfuric acid and nitric acid, he introduced the still, gave the world strong rose water, as well as other perfumes and alcoholic extracts (although drinking them is prohibited). Ibn Hayyan emphasized systematic experimentation and was the founder of modern chemistry.
(7) The crankshaft is a device that converts rotation into linear movement and plays a central role in many machines in the modern world, not least in the internal combustion engine. One of the most important achievements in human history was invented by an ingenious Muslim engineer named al-Jazari to promote water for irrigation.
His Book of Knowledge on Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206) shows that he introduced or refined the use of valves and pistons, made some of the first mechanical clocks powered by water and weights, and was the father of robotics. One of his 50 other inventions was the combination lock.
(8) Quilting is a method of sewing or joining two layers of fabric with a layer of insulating material in between. It is not certain whether it was invented in the Muslim world or whether it was imported from India or China.
However, the Crusaders certainly made it to the West. They had seen it with the Saracen fighters wearing straw-filled quilted linen shirts instead of armor. In addition to providing protection, it also proved effective as protection against the abrasion of the Crusaders‘ metal armor and as effective insulation – so much so that a cotton industry developed back home in colder climates such as Great Britain and Holland.
(9) The pointed arch, which is so characteristic of the Gothic cathedrals in Europe, was an invention that was borrowed from Islamic architecture. It was much stronger than the arch used by the Romans and Normans, so it allowed the construction of larger, taller, more complex, and more magnificent buildings.
Other borrowings from Muslim geniuses include the ribbed vault, rosettes and domed building techniques. Europe’s castles were also rebuilt based on the Islamic world – with loopholes, fortress walls, a bailey and ramparts. Square towers and keep keep the round square easier to defend. The architect of Henry V’s castle was a Muslim.