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Meet the Geniuses of the Islamic Golden Age

Traditional sayings such as “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave” and “Seek knowledge even as far as China” encapsulate the atmosphere of intellectual curiosity that prevailed in this period of exploration, experimentation and discovery.

In the inspiring short film The Library of Secrets, produced by the 1001 Inventions initiative, three schoolchildren take a magical journey back to the Islamic Golden Age. Through the pages of a book found in a dusty library, a time portal is opened to meet the great scientists and inventors of times gone by.
“Welcome to the dark ages, or, as it should be known, the Golden Ages”, award-winning actor Ben Kingsley says to the children, turbaned and robed, introducing himself as “Al-Jazari, engineer and ingenious inventor”.

1001 inventions

From this enchanted book the room is filled with illuminated diagrams of Golden Age inventions and discoveries, and the figures of the great minds behind them emerge from the pages to introduce themselves. Ibn Al-Haytham explains how his experiments in optics led to the invention of the camera. Abbas Ibn Firnas, who dreamed of flying like a bird, launches himself on his flying machine above the children to crash a moment later behind them, calling the doctor al-Zahrawi, the father of surgery, to his aid. Mariam al-Astrulabiya then steps from the pages of the book with an astrolabe, like a map of the stars in her hand, a sophisticated device for timekeeping and navigation that she helped to develop.

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The life of Ibn al-Haytham, ‘the father of modern optics’, who lived in Basra and Cairo during the tenth and eleventh centuries, is explored in greater depth in The World of Ibn Al Haytham, another short film by 1001 Inventions, and starring Omar Sharif, with music composed by Sami Yusuf. The grandfather in this short film, played by Omar Sharif, introduces his granddaughter to the Islamic Golden Age, relating Caliph al-Ma’mun’s “epic quest to collect the world’s knowledge from East to West” and his monumental efforts to translate ancient books from Greece, Persia, India, Africa and China into Arabic. The grandfather tells the story to his granddaughter in rhyme, narrating Ibn al-Haytham’s attempt to dam the Nile and his struggle to correct the understanding of how the eye works, the verses he recites brought to life by cartoon characters.

At the centre of the highly literate and scholarly civilisation of the Islamic Golden Age was Baghdad, known as Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace, which spread out on both sides of the Tigris river from the original round city, with its massive concentric fortified walls and gates, and its wide main streets. Its House of Wisdom drew the best minds of the Islamic world to work in an environment filled with the spirit of creativity and curiosity.

Writing about Baghdad, Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Wasiti, who died in 919, said:

Is there any equivalent to the City of Peace?!
A miracle! You will not find for Baghdad any parallel.

A temple for the hearts, spring
there everlasting, even in summer.

A city for all noble traits, where
the meaning of everything shines like the sun.

A manuscript illustration of scholars sitting in front of books in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad

In around the year 820 the polymath Al-Khawarizmi was appointed astronomer and head of the library of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Known as the father of algebra, his name is the origin of the word algorithm, and the word algebra comes from his book on the subject. This ground-breaking mathematician appears in the Al-Khawarizmi episode of the Great Muslim Minds series.

Other episodes in the bite-sized series focus on important astronomers, such as the 10th century Mariam al-Astrulabiya from Aleppo, who also appeared in The Library of Secrets, and who was employed by Sayf al-Dawla, the ruler in charge of the city. She was celebrated for her skilful construction of astrolabes, devices which were like the smartphones of their day, used to navigate and tell the time, to find the qibla and prayer times and determine the starting days for Ramadhan and Eid.

The 11th/12th century Persian mathematician, astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam has an episode dedicated to him as well. Famed in the West for his quatrains, translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, he also designed the Jalali calendar, still used in Iran and Afghanistan, and in 1079 historically recorded the most accurate year length ever, correct to the sixth decimal place.

Astrolabe in observatory

The Great Muslim Minds series covers famous doctors and physicians too, including the 10th/11th century Persian polymath Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Ibn Sina’s medical encyclopaedia became a standard medical text at universities in the East and West for many hundreds of years and was still in use until the middle of the 17th century. Meanwhile his contemporary from Cordoba, the physician and surgeon Al-Zahrawi, is considered to have been the greatest surgeon of the Middle Ages. Al-Zahrawi’s writings on surgery were translated into Latin in the 12th century to became the standard textbook on the subject in Europe for the next five hundred years, and amazingly, some of his designs for surgical instruments are still in use today.

There’s more to discover in the episode about the 8th century alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan, known for devising and perfecting chemical processes such as distillation, evaporation and crystallisation. If the Great Muslim Minds episodes about these influential polymaths pique your interest, the Iranian dramas, Abu Ali Sina and Jaber Ibn Hayan also portray the lives of these figures, and are aimed at an older audience.

Meanwhile, in the Great Muslim Minds series, kids can discover more about the 9th century Abbas Ibn Firnas from Cordoba, who goes down in history for his experimentation in early aviation, and attempt at flying with the aid of a device based on the wings of birds. There is also an inspiring glimpse of the lives of other great engineers and inventors from Islamic history, such as the 12th/13th century inventor and mechanical engineer al-Jazari, (played by Ben Kingley in The Library of Secrets) famous for building marvellous clocks and water-raising machines, and for writing The Book of Knowledge and Ingenious Mechanical Devices; and the Ottoman architect and civil engineer Mimar Sinan, who lived from the 15th to the 16th century, and was responsible for the design of countless magnificent building projects, including the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.

These short films and bite-sized episodes offer a perfect introduction to great Muslim scientists and thinkers from the past, and are an entertaining way to inspire young minds with the stories of discovery and invention from the great figures of Islamic civilisation, whose lives and remarkable feats spring to life in these films from the pages of history.

Writer Awa Farah and filmmaker Alice Aedy talk about the making of Somalinimo in an interview about their film, which explores the experience of being Black, Muslim, Somali women at Cambridge.
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Writer Awa Farah and filmmaker Alice Aedy talk about the making of Somalinimo in an interview about their film, which explores the experience of being Black, Muslim, Somali women at Cambridge.
The award winning short film 'The Present', set in the West Bank about a father and daughter going shopping, shows the dystopian reality of everyday life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

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