Islamic Achievements

Essential Question

What were the intellectual contributions of the Islamic world?

Islamic Achievements

The empires of the Islamic world contributed to the achievements of Islamic culture. Muslim scholars made advances in astronomy, geography, math, and science. Scholars at Baghdad and Cordoba translated many ancient writings on these subjects into Arabic. Having a common language helped scholars throughout the Islamic world share what they learned, even though many scholars came from different cultures and spoke other languages they could combine the knowledge of all their cultures.

The blending of traditional Islam and the cultures of conquered peoples also produced fresh approaches to art, architecture, and writing. As a result, literature and the arts flourished in the Islamic world.


Many cities in the Muslim world had observatories where people could study astronomy-the sun, moon, and stars. Scientists studied astronomy to better understand time and clockmaking. Muslim scientists also improved the astrolabe, which the Greeks had invented to chart the position of the stars. Arab scholars used the astrolabe to figure out their location on earth. This helped Muslims know what direction to turn so they could face Mecca for their prayers. The astrolabe would later become an important contribution to the exploration of the seas.


Studying astronomy also helped Muslims explore the world. As people learned to use the stars to calculate time and location, merchants and explorers began to travel widely. For example, Ibn Battutah traveled to Africa, India, China, and Spain in the 1320s. To help travelers on their way, Muslim geographers made more accurate maps than were available before. They also developed better ways of calculating distances.

During the mid-1100s, a Muslim geographer named al-Idrisi (uhl-i-DREE-see) collected information from Arab travelers. He was writing a geography book and wanted it to be very accurate. When al-Idrisi had a question about where a mountain, river, or coastline was, he sent trained geographers to figure out its exact location. Using the information the geographers brought back, al-ldrisi made some important discoveries. For example, he proved that land did not go all the way around the Indian Ocean as many people thought.


Muslim scholars also made advances in mathematics. In the 800s they combined the Indian number system, including the use of zero, with the Greek science of mathematics: The Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi (al-KWAHR-iz-mee) then used these new ideas to write a math textbook on what he called al-jabr, or "algebra." It laid the foundation for the modern algebra that students around the world learn today. When the book was brought to Europe in the 1500s, Europeans called the new numbers "Arabic" numerals.


Muslims made many advances in other sciences, but their greatest scientific achievements may have come in medicine. They studied Greek and Indian medicine, adding to this knowledge with discoveries of their own.

As early as the 800s, Muslim doctors in Baghdad began to improve medicine. As they studied, Muslim doctors

  • created tests for doctors to pass before they could treat people,

  • made encyclopedias of drugs with descriptions of each drug's effects,

  • wrote descriptions of diseases,

  • started the first pharmacy school to teach people how to make medicines.

The first Muslim public hospital was built in Baghdad. In that hospital, a doctor named Ar-Razi discovered how to diagnose and treat the deadly disease of smallpox.

Another doctor, lbn-Sina, who was known in the West as Avicenna (av-uh-SEN-uh), wrote a medical encyclopedia. This encyclopedia, which was translated into Latin and used throughout Europe until the 1600s, is one of the most famous books in the history of medicine.


Many Muslim doctors and scientists also studied the ancient Greek philosophy of reason and rational thought. Other Muslims developed a new philosophy. Worried about the growing interest in worldly things, they focused on spiritual issues. Many of them lived a simple life of devotion to God. The focus on spiritual issues led to a movement called Sufism (soo-fi-zuhm). People who practice Sufism are called Sufis (soo-feez). Sufism teaches that people can find God's love by having a personal relationship with God. They focus on loving God and call him their Beloved. Sufism had a strong impact on Islam.


Two forms of literature were popular in the Muslim world-poetry and short stories. Poetry was influenced by Sufism. Some Sufis wrote poems about their loyalty to God. Through their poetry, the mystical ideas of Sufism spread among other Muslims. One of the most famous Sufi poets was Omar Khayyam (oh-mahr-ky-AHM). In a book of poems known as The Rubaiyat, Khayyam wrote about faith, hope, and other emotions. Some of his poems express deep sadness or despair. Others, like the one below, describe lighter, happier scenes.

1"A book of verse, underneath the bough, A jug of wine, a loaf of bread-and thou, Beside me singing in the wilderness-Ah, wilderness were paradise enow (enough)!"

-Omar Khayyam, from The Rubdiydt, translated by Edward FitzGerald

Muslims also enjoyed reading short stories. One famous collection of short stories is The Thousand and One Nights. It includes stories about legendary heroes and characters. A European compiler later added short stories that were not part of the medieval Arabic collection. Among these were some of the most famous, such as "Sinbad the Sailor," "Aladdin," and "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves." Many of these tales came from India, Egypt, and other lands that had become part of the Muslim world.


Architecture was one of the most important Muslim art forms. Most people would say that the greatest architectural achievements of the Muslim empires were mosques. Like the great medieval cathedrals in Europe, mosques honored God and inspired religious followers.

The first mosques were simple. They were built to look like the courtyard of Muhammad's house in Medina where he had led the community in prayer. As the Muslim world grew richer, rulers became great patrons, or sponsors, of architecture. They used their wealth to pay for elaborately decorated mosques.

The main part of a mosque is a huge hall where people gather to pray. Many mosques have a dome and a minaret, or narrow tower from which Muslims are called to prayer. Some mosques, such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, have many domes and minarets. Great mosques were built in major cities such as Mecca, Cairo, Baghdad, and Cordoba. In addition to the mosques, Muslim architects built palaces, marketplaces, and libraries. These buildings have complicated domes and arches, colored bricks, and decorated tiles. Muslim architecture is known for these features.

Blue Mosque

Taj Muhal

Mosque of Cordoba



Although Muslim buildings are often elaborately decorated with art, most of this art does not show any animals or humans. Muslims think only Allah can create humans and animals or their images. As a result, most Muslim artists didn't include people or animals in their works. Because they couldn't represent people or animals in paintings, Muslim artists turned to calligraphy, or decorative writing, into an art form. They used calligraphy to make sayings from the Qur'an into great works of art that they could use to decorate mosques and other buildings. They also painted decorative writing on tiles, wove it into carpets, and hammered it into finely decorated steel sword blades.

Muslim art and literature show the influence of Islamic beliefs and practices. They also reflect the regional traditions of the places Muslims conquered. This mix of Islam with cultures from Asia, Africa, and Europe gave literature and the arts a unique style and character.

Discussion Questions

  • How did the Islamic Empires make improvements in Science?

  • How did the Islamic Empires make improvements in Geography?

  • How did the Islamic Empires make improvements in Math?

  • How did the Islamic Empires make improvements in Philosophy?

  • How did the Islamic Empires make improvements in Medicine?

  • How did the Islamic Empires make improvements in Art?

  • How did the Islamic Empires make improvements in Literature?

Activity 1: What were the intellectual contributions of the Islamic world?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the question in a thinking map. Include the following fields: Astronomy, Geography, Math, Medicine, Philosophy, Literature, Architecture, and Art. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Activity 2: Islamic Achievements Evaluation

List the Islamic Achievements in order from most important discovery to least important. Then write 2 paragraphs explaining your ranking. You must use evidence to support your claim.

Extension Activities

NEWSELA: The Taj Mahal, a Tomb and a Love Story

NEWSELA: Technology and innovation in the Middle East

NEWSELA: Rumi's spiritual teachings continue to be bestsellers in the U.S.

NEWSELA: "Behold the Water of Waters": A poem by Rumi

NEWSELA: The Explorers: Ibn Battuta

NEWSELA: Islamic geometric patterns are simple ruler-and-compass designs