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Contribution of Muslims to Scientific Thought

Dr. M. Raziuddin Siddiqi, Vice-chancellor, University of Sind

In this monograph, it is our purpose to give a brief account of the contribution of

the Muslim people to the various branches of natural science. Before proceeding
with the main theme, however, it seems desirable to explain the attitude of Islam
towards scientific knowledge.

It is generally recognized that learning and acquiring knowledge is the

fundamental right of every human being. But this was not always so. For a long
time in human history, learning was considered to be the prerogative of a certain
privileged class of people variously known as priests and kahins. The common
man was prevented from having any access to knowledge under the threat of
serious penalties and dire consequences. Later on this restriction was removed, but
it was Islam which for the first time made it obligatory on all the believers to
acquire knowledge. This democratization of knowledge with the consequent
liberation of the human spirit and mind brought about by Islam was the greatest
revolution in human affairs.

In the very first verse of the Qur’an revealed to him, the Prophet of Islam (Sallaho
Alaihe Wassallam) was directed to read:

Was directed to read:

The importance of reading, writing, and acquiring knowledge has been expounded
in this verse in a most forceful and direct manner. Since it is obligatory for every
believer to obey the Lord’s Commandments, it was, therefore, announced by the
Prophet (Sallaho Alaihe Wassallam) that learning and searching after knowledge
was a sacred duty of every Muslim:

and that knowledge had to be acquired even if one had to go to far distant places in
search of it:

The common man thus began to learn and think for himself, and that was the
beginning of a truly democratic society in which every individual had an equal
opportunity of development. The effect of this injunction of Islam about learning
and its emphasis on reading and writing was such that the spirit of enquiry spread
rapidly throughout the Muslim world, and permeated the whole of Europe later.
Islam thus sanctified knowledge, and created a thirst for it among the common
people. It was the herald of the new scientific age.
We shall now turn to the nature of science, and inquire what attitude Islam has
adopted towards the scientific method. In the early days of civilization, man was
used to taking things at their face value. As time passed and his consciousness
developed, he acquired knowledge by experience. His knowledge, which consisted
of a catalogue or record of events, was quite sketchy and haphazard. He was still
far from drawing inferences or making predictions. Systematization began much
later with the Greek philosophers, but they went to the other extreme, and attached
all importance to contemplation, ignoring observation and experiment more or less

The Qur’an, on the other hand, appealed constantly to reason and experience, and
thus it showed for the first time that science was based on experiment as well as
theory. It proclaimed contemplation and inner experience is only one source of
human knowledge. There are two other sources, viz., History and Nature, and it is
in tapping these sources that the spirit of Islam is seen at its best. The observable
aspect of reality is emphasized by the Qur’an in several verses throughout the
book, a few of which are quoted here to give a concrete basis to the above
statement. One of these verses runs as follows:

“Assuredly in the creation of the heavens and of the earth; and in the alternation of
night and day; and in the ships which pass through the sea; and in the rain which
God sendeth down from heaven, giving life to the earth after its death, and
scattering over it all kinds of cattle; and in the change of the winds, and in the
clouds which are made to do service between the heavens and the earth - are signs
for those who understand.” (Al-Qur’an, 2:164)

In another verse the Qur’an proclaims:

“And it is He who hath ordained the stars for you that ye may be guided thereby in
the darkness of the land and the sea. Clear have We made our signs to men of
knowledge.” (Al-Qur’an 6:97)

The Qur’an sees signs of the ultimate reality in the sun, the moon, the lengthening
out of the shadows - in fact in the whole of nature as revealed to the severe
perception of man. And, the Muslim’s duty is to reflect on these signs, and not to
pass by them as if he is ‘deaf and blind.’

Again and again does the Qur’an lay stress on travel, observation, and

“Observe what is in the Heavens and in the earth.”

“Do you not see? Do you not think?” is the theme constantly recurring in the
Qur’an. The oft quoted verse:

“Do they not look at the camels, how they are made? And the sky, how it is raised
high? And at the mountains, how they are fixed firm? And at the earth, how it is
spread out.” (Al-Qur’an 88:17-20)

Is an injunction for the observation of the biological nature of the heavens and the

Repeatedly does the Qur’an lay stress on the phenomena of this world as a sure
means of knowledge. The appeal to the concrete was first made by the Prophet
(Sallaho Alaihe Wassallam) himself whose constant prayer was, “God! Grant me
knowledge of the ultimate nature of things.” Nazzam formulated the principle of
doubt as the beginning of all knowledge, and Ghazzali amplified it further and
prepared the way for Descartes’ “Method”. Thus arose the method of observation
and experiment which has revolutionized scientific knowledge.

Iqbal has very pertinently brought out this point in his first lecture, a short
quotation from which will not be out of place here:

“But the point to note is the general empirical attitude of the Qur’an which
engendered in its followers a feeling of reverence for the actual, and ultimately
made them the founders of modern science. It was a great point to awaken the
empirical spirit in an age which renounced the visible as of no value in men’s
search after God.”

Western historians have now begun to recognize the Islamic origin of the scientific
method. Briffault has acknowledged this in his book, “Making of Humanity”:

“Neither Roger Bacon nor his later namesake has any title to be credited with
having introduced the experimental method. Roger Bacon was no more than
one of the apostles of Muslim science and method to Christian Europe. The
experimental method of Arabs was by Bacon’s time widespread and eagerly
cultivated throughout Europe.” (Briffault, pg. 200)
“For although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the
decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and
momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the permanent
distinctive force of the modern world and the supreme source of its victory -
natural science and the scientific spirit.”(pg. 191)

Similarly, Sir Oliver Lodge, writing in his book “Pioneers of Science”, pays the
following tribute:
“The only effective link between the old and the new science is afforded by the
Arabs. The dark ages come as an utter gap in the scientific history of Europe,
and for more than a thousand years there was not a scientific man of note
except in Arabia.” (pg. 9)

It is clear from the large number of Qur’anic verses, a few of which have been
quoted above, and from the writings of numerous eastern as well as western
scholars, that modern science owes its very existence to Islam. The new spirit of
enquiry and the new methods of experiment, observation, and measurement, on
which modern science is based, are all contributions of those who followed the
teaching of Islam. Says Briffault: “The debt of our science to that of the Arabs
does not consist in startling discoveries of revolutionary theories; science owes a
great deal more to Arab culture. It owes its existence … What we call science
arose in Europe as a result of new spirit of enquiry, of new methods of
investigation, of the methods of experiment, observation, measurement, of the
development of mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and
those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs.” (pg. 109)

We now come to the importance and significance of science in human affairs. It is

well known that before the advent of Islam, the general attitude prevalent among
the people was to renounce this world and to concentrate attention on the life here-
after. The riches of this world were considered a kind of handicap in attaining
salvation. The believers were encouraged to become ‘lamas’, ‘yogis’, and ‘monks’
in order to save their soul. People left their hearths and home to live the life of a
recluse and a hermit in deserts and mountains. In this attitude of other-worldliness
in which the world was totally neglected, there was naturally no place for
acquiring a knowledge of the physical universe.

Islam changed this attitude by proclaiming: “there is no asceticism in Islam.” This

world and all its resources are to be used for the material betterment of the human
race, though men should not devote themselves exclusively to the physical aspect
of their personality alone. They should conquer the forces of nature, and should
subjugate them for their own ends. The Qur’an has proclaimed that “all that is in
the heavens and in the earth has been subjugated to man.” And this conquest of
nature comes through knowledge. There is a tradition of the Prophet (Sallaho
Alaihe Wassallam) which shows that he considered knowledge as his weapon.

In an age when the whole world was steeped in superstition, the Qur’an
proclaimed boldly that knowledge is extremely good:

And that only those believers who are endowed with knowledge are exalted to
higher ranks:
It can thus be said that Islam not only supports and strengthens modern science in
all its essential aspects, but has actually founded it, and has given it its present
direction. One can perhaps go a step further and claim that the present attitude of
the civilized world towards science and knowledge has been conditioned by the
original teachings of Islam. These observations are confirmed by the fact that the
followers of Islam devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the acquisition of
knowledge, and soon after the advent of Islam, the Muslims achieved leadership as
much in learning and scholarship as in the political field, and retained this lead for
several centuries.

In what follows, we shall give a brief account of the contributions of Muslims to

the various branches of knowledge.

1. Arithmetic.

In arithmetic, the Arabs systematized the use of numerals, and particularly of zero,
which was an immense advance on the old method of depicting numbers by the
letters of the alphabet. The zero is found for the first time in the arithmetic of Al-
Khwarizmi written in the early parts of the 9th century. The Arabs contributed a
great deal to fractions; to the principle of errors which is employed to solve the
algebraic problems arithmetically; to the higher theory of numbers with its
problems on the primitive, perfect, and associated numbers. They solved the
famous problem of finding a square which, on the addition and subtraction of a
given number, yields other squares.

2. Algebra.

The ancients considered the number as pure magnitude, and it was only when Al-
Khwarizmi conceived of the number as a pure relation in the modern sense that the
science of Algebra could take its origin. Algebra is one of the proudest achievements of
the Arabs and it was cultivated so much that within two centuries of its creation it had
reached gigantic proportions. The very name ‘Algebra’, which is derived from the Arabic
name is a reminder of its origin. The symbolic process which it idealizes is still called
‘Algorithm’ in modern mathematics, an everlasting tribute to its immortal founder. Al-
Khwarizmi himself formulated and solved the algebraic equations of the first and second
degree, and created his beautiful geometrical method of solving these equations. He also
recognized that the quadratic equation has two roots. Then, in the 10th century, Abul
Wafa Al-Kuhi created and successfully developed a branch of geometry which consists
of problems leading to algebraic equations of higher degree than the second. Ibn-Ul-Lais
found geometrical methods of solving the cubical equations. Al-Khujindi proved that the
so-called Fermats’ problem for cubic powers cannot be solved in terms of the rational
numbers. Al-Karkhi who lived in the beginning of the 11th century, and who is
considered as one of the greatest Arab mathematicians, wrote a book on Arithmetic called
Al-Kafi and another on Algebra called Al-Fakhri . In these books he developed
approximate methods of finding square roots, theory of indices, theory of surds, Al-
Beruni’s theory of summeration of series, sums of squares and cubes of natural numbers,
equations of the degree 2n, theory of mathematical induction, and the theory of quadratic
indeterminate equations.

Then came Omar Khayyam , the most glamorous figure of the 11th century, who has
recently become famous and popular as a great poet, but who, according to Moritz
Cantor, has better claim to immortality as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.
He made an uncommonly great advance in the theory of equations by treating
systematically the equations of the higher degree, and dividing them in different groups.
He found and proved the binomical theorem for positive integral indices.

By this time, i.e., the end of the 11th century, the Arabs had founded, developed,
and perfected geometrical Algebra, and could solve equations of the third and
fourth degrees. As Cantor, who is by no means partial to the Arabs, remarks, “At
least in the sciences with which we are at present concerned (i.e. Algebra), the
Arabs of the year 1100 were uncommonly superior to the most learned

3. Geometry.

The Arabs began translating the geometry of Euclid and the conic sections of
Apollonius, and thus preserved the works of these Greek masters for the modern
world. This was satisfactorily accomplished in the 9th century. Soon after this, they
began making fresh discoveries in the domain of geometry. Thus the three
brothers, Hasan, Ahmad, Muhammad, sons of Musa bin Shakir discovered a
method of trisecting the angle by means of the geometry of motion. Abul Wafa
made many valuable contributions to the theory of polyhedra, which is even now
considered as one of the most difficult subjects. Ibn-ul-Haitham also made many
discoveries in geometry. His book on geometrical optics is the first book treating
the subject systematically. Here he deals with problems which would be difficult
to solve even now. For instance, one of his problems is to find the focus of a
spherical lens satisfying certain conditions which, if treated by the modern
analytical methods, would lead to an equation of the fourth degree. It is this book
which was translated by Roger Bacon, and published in his Opus Majus. The later
Arabs developed the geometry of the conic section to a great extent. But the
crowning achievement in Geometry was that of Abu Jafar Muhammad Ibn Hasan
who is commonly known as Naseeruddin Tusi. He was undoubtedly the greatest
savant of the 13th century, and was as well versed in philosophy and mathematics
as in medicine and the natural sciences.

His mathematical work contained contributions in Arithmetic, Algebra, and

Geometry. He separated Trigonometry from Astronomy, and created a new branch
of Trigonometry, both plane and spherical based on Mevelans’ Theorem in
Geometry. But his greatest contribution to Mathematics is the recognition and
explanation of the weakness in Euclid’s theory of the parallels. Since the days of
Ptolemy in the 2nd century, no one had given serious thought to the difficulties of
demonstrating the truth of Euclid’s parallel postulate on the basis of perceptual
space. After a lapse of more than a thousand years, it was Tusi who first attacked
this problem, and in his efforts to improve the postulate realized the necessity of
abandoning perceptual space. This was the basis on which the non-Euclidean
Geometry of the last century was developed, resulting in the hyperspace
movement and the theory of relativity of our own time.

4. Trigonometry.

Trigonometry, both plane and spherical, is for the most part a creation of the Arabs. Al-
Battani introduced the trigonometric function in the 9th century. He is known in Europe as
Albategunes. His book on the motion of the stars was translated by Plato of Tivoli in the
12th century. It is from this translation that the word ‘sine’ spread in all European
languages. The Indians used only the full arc for the sine, but Al-Battani remarked that it
was more advantageous to use the half-arc. Cantor considers this an advance in
mathematics which cannot be appreciated highly enough. After developing trigonometry
to a great extent, and preparing accurate trigonometric tables, they could calculate the
heights of mountains, distances of inaccessible points, and breadths of rivers. Their
knowledge of applied mathematics is evident from all those wonderful examples of Arab
and Moorish architecture which made the fables of the Arabian Nights a reality. It is
impossible that such an architecture could have developed only empirically. One has to
admit that their creators must have been applied mathematicians of no mean talent.

5. Astronomy.

The Arabs claimed Astronomy to be their special subject, and indeed they far
surpassed all their contemporaries in the knowledge of the heavens. Alberuni
quotes in his book a passage from Ibn Khatib saying that the Arabs had no equals
in their knowledge of the stars. Even in the beginning of the Muslim Era, when
Greek astronomy was not yet translated into Arabic, a knowledge of the heavens
was considered to be one of the requisites of a scholar. But once they had
translated Ptolemy’s Almagest, they developed astronomy so quickly that their
mark is found at every step. Even to this day their name is associated with a
number of stars, constellations, and astronomical instruments.

Western historians are unanimous in their avowal that when Islam appeared on the
scene only one observatory, namely that in Alexandria, existed in the whole world.
Those in India and other places had been destroyed by that time. In the course of a
few centuries, the Muslims erected numerous well-equipped observatories all over
their empire.
But these observatories would have been useless without accurate astronomical
instruments. The Arabs had no doubt inherited a few instruments from the Greeks,
but a work of such magnitude could not have been carried out with these rough
tools. This necessity urged them to concentrate all their practical faculties on
devising skillful and consummate means to carry out their work. Their
craftsmanship developed as they went on with the project, and they made a great
contribution to the technique of making astronomical instruments. They perfected
not only the old transit instruments, but devised many new ones for various

The contribution of the Muslims to astronomy can be described briefly as

consisting of the following investigations and results. They investigated the
liberation of the moon, and proved that it is not constant. They determined fully
the movements of the planets. Abul Wafa determined accurately the obliquity of
the ecliptic in 995 A.D. and calculated the variation in the moon’s motion. He also
discovered the third liberation in the moon’s motion which was rediscovered by
Tycho Brahe after 600 years. He perfected Ptolemy’s lunar theory, and corrected
many errors in the observations of the old astronomers. The quadrant was invented
by Ibne-Yunus Albatrash (Encyclopedia of Islam) found many errors in Ptolemy’s
hypothesis of the solar system, and in 1150 A.D. put forward a new system for the
planetary motions. Ibne Rushd discovered a sunspot. Ibne Aalam determined the
stellar motion by observing that the stars traverse one degree in 70 solar years. He
also determined the latitude and longitude of many stars, and measured the
greatest declination of the planet Mercury. He discovered the moons (satellites) of
Jupiter, discussed the motion of the sun spots, and determined the eccentric orbits
of the comets. The obliquity of the ecliptic, the points in which the meridian cuts
the equator and the ecliptic, the arc of the terrestrial meridian, and the precession
of the equinoxes were determined in the reign of the Abbasid Caliphs. Abu Kasim
Abdullah and Abu Hasan Ali ibni Abu Kasim produced very correct almanacs
from 883 A.D. to 933 A.D. Abu Hasan discovered that the moon’s distance from
the sun is not constant, as assumed by Ptolemy. Omar Khayyam, who was court
astronomer to Malik Shah Seljuki, reformed the calendar in such a way that, as
Cantor says, the solar year proposed by him is more accurate than any calendar
proposed either before or after his time.

Mohammad bin Jaber Al-Battani, who lived in the 10th century AD, investigated
the motion of the apogee, corrected the previous values of the precession of
equinoxes and of obliquity of the ecliptic; was the first to apply the sine and
tangent in calculating the angles; proposed a method to determine the precession
of the equinoxes; determined the moon’s nodes and discovered the wobbling
motion of the earth’s orbit.
As the greatest astronomical discovery of the Arabs should be mentioned their
discovery that the earth revolves round the sun, and that orbits of the planets are

Al-Beruni also testifies to the fact that a great astronomer of his time believed in
the earth’s motion: Al-Beruni’s actual words from his book are reproduced here
for convincing the reader. We give here a verbatim translation of one of the
passages from Qanun Masoodi: Al-Beruni says, “I have seen a great astronomer
who believed in the authenticity of this doctrine. He argues that when a thing falls
from a height, it does not coincide with the perpendicular line of its descent, but
inclines a little, and falls making different angles. He says that when a piece of
earth separates from it and falls, it has two kinds of motion. One is the circular
motion which it receives from the rotation of the earth, and the other is straight
which it acquires in falling directly to the center of the earth. The former implies
the change, and the latter the fixity of its position. If it had only the straight
motion, it would have fallen to the west of its perpendicular position. But since
both of them exist at one and the same time, it falls neither to the west nor in the
perpendicular direction, but a little to the east.”

This book of Al-Beruni was written in 421 A.H., i.e. about the beginning of the
11th century A.D. Thus the Arabs had discovered the true mechanism of the solar
system, i.e. the heliocentric doctrine, about 300 years before Copernicus. The
credit for the scientific formulation and a detailed working out of the theory
should of course be given to Copernicus, but it must also be recognised that the
Arabs had conceived the hypothesis long before his time.

6. Physics.

After developing mathematics and astronomy, the Muslim scholars turned their attention
to other natural sciences, of which we shall give a brief account in the following sections.

Ibn-al-Haytham (968 - 1039 A.D.) was one of the greatest physicists, whose work on
optics, compiled in his book, “Kitab-al-Manazir,” which was translated by Roger Bacon,
had a great influence on Kepler and other European scientists. He prepared tables of
corresponding angles of incidence and refraction of light passing from one medium to
another, and thus paved the way for the discovery of the law of refraction later by Smell.
He accounted correctly for twilight as due to atmospheric refraction and deduced the
height of the atmosphere above the surface of the earth. He explained the laws of
formation of images in spherical and parabolic mirrors, and the causes of spherical
aberration and a magnification produced by lenses. He gave a much sounder theory of
vision than the Greeks, and was able to solve a number of advanced questions in
geometrical optics. (George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. 1, pg.
Abu al-Ali-al-Hussain ibn Sina (980 - 1037 A.D.), who is regarded as one of the
greatest savants, philosophers, and scientists of all time was a keen experimental
worker, and made numerous investigations on specific gravity. He designed a
simple device similar to that of the modern vernier for increase in the accuracy of
measuring lengths. He tackled such abstract physical subjects as the nature of
motion, of force, vacuum, light, and heat, and arrived at sound conclusions, in
spite of the fact that very few correct data were available. He recognised, for
instance, that the velocity of light was finite, and that it was not possible to
transmute the elements by chemical methods.

Omar Khayyam, the great mathematician, was another Muslim scientist who
worked on the problem of specific gravities.

In mechanics, the Muslims improved the hydro-static balance, the Alexandrian

hydrometer, and the Syrian water-wheels. The “Mizan-al-Hikmah” (The Balance
of Wisdom) by Al-Khazini is a masterly treatise on mechanics as far as it was
developed up to the twelfth century. It deals with the theory of balance from an
application of the Theorem of Moments and discusses the buoyancy of liquids and
of air. It gives the correct explanation of the weight of material bodies as caused
by a universal pull towards the center of the earth. It may be noted that this
explanation was given about 600 years before the promulgation of Newton’s
theory of gravitation. (N. Khanikoff, Journal of the American Oriental Society,
Vol. VI, New Haven, 1859).

7. Chemistry.

Before the advent of Islam, the simple properties of metals and the methods of
preparation of their simple compounds were known to the civilized people. The
Muslims developed the processes of crystallization and precipitation, distillation
and sublimation, and were thereby able to obtain a number of substances in a state
of comparative purity like mercury, ammonia, alum, soda, borax, niton, arsenic,
and antimony. Abu Musa Jabir ibne Hayyan has recorded all this knowledge in
some of his books written about 776 A.D. He put forward a sulphur-mercury
theory known in his day to explain their different properties, depending, as it was
alleged, on the differences in proportion of their two constituents. Nevertheless, he
deals with many useful practical applications of chemistry like “refinement of
metals, preparation of steel, dyeing of cloth and leather, varnishes to waterproof
cloth and protect iron, use of manganese dioxide to color glass, and of iron pyrites
for writing in gold and distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid.” (Sarton,
quoted by M.A.R. Khan; Muslim Contribution to Science and Culture, pg. 49).
8. Biology.

The interest of the Arabs in the breeding of horses and camels, led them naturally
into the study of biology, particularly into the branches concerning the habitat,
behavior, and classification of animals. Al-Asma’e (739-783 A.D.) wrote several
books on the camel, the horse, the animals, and the man. The last named book
reveals a considerable knowledge of the human anatomy. (Sarton; I, pg. 534). His
pupil, al-Jahiz, wrote a book on animals called Kitab al-Haywan, in which he
refers to the struggle of animals for existence and their adaptation to environment.
(Sarton; I, pg. 597). Al-Dasiri (1405 A.D.) was a well known zoologist of Egypt,
whose book on animal life, Hayat al-Haywan, has been translated into English in

Use of plants and their products in medicine primarily induced the Muslims to do more
scientific work in botany. Ibn-Jami (d. 1193), Al-Dimashqi, Al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, Al-
Nubati (1165-1239), Al-Ghafiqi (d. 1165), and Ibn-al-Baytar (d. 1248) are some of the
Muslim botanists who explored the various regions for plants, and described the
characteristics and properties. Ibn-al-Baytar is considered the greatest Muslim botanist
and pharmacist, and his book was considered the best of its kind in the Midlle Ages, and
was translated into Latin.

9. Medicine.

From the very early days, the Muslims have made great contributions to medicine.
They acquired a complete mastery of the Greek system of medicine associated
with Hippocrates (436 B.C.) and Galen (200 B.C.), and went on to develop it to
great heights.

Al-Razi (850-925 A.D.) is recognized as one of the greatest physicians of all time.
His book, Al-Hawi was an encyclopedia of medicine, which contains all that was
known about diseases and their treatment. He contributed a great deal to
gynecology, obstetrics, and opthalmology. His most outstanding work is on small-
pox and measles, which is recognized as remarkably accurate even from the point
of view of modern research. It is related that when he went to Baghdad to take up
his duties as Chief Physician, he selected a suitable site for a hospital by hanging
up raw meat in various localities and chose the spot where it showed least sign of
putrefaction. He is reported to have written more than 14 books and monographs.

Ibn-Sina (980-1037 A.D.) is even more famous than Al-Razi in the history of
medicine. His versatile genius and all-round knowledge elevated him to a position
second only to that of Aristotle. He was called Shaikh-al-Rais (the Supreme Head)
by his pupils and followers, and up to the beginning of the modern era, he was the
undisputed leader and authority both in the East and the West. His book, Al-
Qanun, was the bible of physicians for centuries all over the world. Its Latin
translation passed through several editions, and its pharmacopia contained 760

The Arab physicians did a great deal of work in opthalmology also. The early
Muslim physicians diagnosed more than 130 diseases of the eye, and explained
their treatment. Some of their books such as the Nur al-Uyun wal Jami al-Funun
(1296) by Ibn Yusuf of Hamah, is said to have been unsurpassed even in the
nineteenth century.