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AfricaScience

5 Most Influential African Muslim Scientists

From a Somali philosopher of the 1800s to a Berber-Andalusian engineer of the 800s, the African continent is home to some of the most extraordinary Muslim scientists.

Muslim personalities since medieval times have their footprints in different areas, from sciences to philosophy and arts. 

According to Kettani in his 1976 article titled ‘Moslem Contributions to the Natural Sciences’ he mentioned that,

“The period between the seventh to the fifteenth centuries is considered as the ‘Golden Age of Islamic Civilisation’. During this period there was great emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge. Consequently, there were individuals who lived scholarly and pious lives, such as Ibn Sina, Al- Khwarizmi, and Al-Biruni, who in addition to excellence in the study of religious texts also excelled in mathematics, geography, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and medicine. At this time Islam was not just a set of religious beliefs, but a set of ideas, ethics, and ideals encompassing all aspects of human life. This resulted in the establishment of an Islamic civilisation. Thus the motivating force of this civilisation was its Islamic faith (used here both in the spiritual and temporal sense) and its language was Arabic.” 

Nevertheless, African Muslims before and after were not left behind in the making of this historic epoch. In the continent, there are a number of Muslim scientists whose inputs have contributed to the development of astrology, astronomy, geography, medicine, and mathematics. Some of them are: 

1. Sheikh Sufi

Abdulrahman Bin Abdullah al-Shashi, popularly known as Sheikh Sufi, is a renowned astrologist who lived between 1824 to 1904. The Mogadishu-born astrologist was a leading founder of the Qadiriyyah sect of Dariqah who was influenced by the teachings of Sheikh Abdulqadir Gilani, Abadir Umar Ar-Rida, and Al-Zayla’i. 

Besides his scholarly career, Sheikh Sufi was known as a great mediator between merchants and shopkeepers in the coastal cities. As a reformist, he is credited with having put an end to what he considered to be the urbanites’ immoral dancing rituals. In private, he also wrote many poems, which would eventually be taken up by fellow scholars such as Abdallah al-Qutbi in their books.

The now famous and loved mausoleum and mosque of Sheikh Sufi.

After his death in 1904, Shaykh Sufi’s mausoleum became a site of annual pilgrimage for the faithful from across Somalia and East Africa, a location that would later become a cemetery that dignitaries in the country will be buried. 

2. Nurad Din Al-Bitruji

Nur al-Din Ibn Ishaq al-Betrugi, also known as Abu Ishak ibn al-Bitrogi, was popularly known as Alpetragius in the West.

Nurad Din Al-Bitruji

It is widely believed that Al-Bitruji was the first astronomer to present a non-Ptolemaic astronomical system as an alternative to Ptolemy’s models, with the planets borne by geocentric spheres. He expounded an astronomical system that revived the Eudoxan explanation and denied the Ptolemaic explanation of the anomalous motions of the planets. It is said that his alternative system spread through most of Europe during the 13th century. 

The crater Alpetragius on the Moon is named after him. Al-Birtruji, who was born in the 12th century in Morocco, died around 1204.

3. Abbas Ibn Firnas

Abu al-Qasim Abbas ibn Firnas ibn Wirdas al-Takurini, whose Latinized name according to some sources is Armen Firman, was an astronomer, physician, chemist, engineer, and Andalusi musician who lived between c. 809/810 – 887 AD. Firnas was born in Izn-Rand-Onda Al Andalus, which is in present-day Spain, then under the Cordoba Emirate which was a leading learning hub during the reign of the Ummayyad Caliphate, to ethnic Berber parents.

The Wright Brothers, according to Ufuk Necat Tasci, may have invented the first motorised aircraft, but the 9th-century engineer Abbas Ibn Firnas is considered to be the first human to fly with the help of a pair of wings built by silk, wood, and real feathers. 

Historians say that when he was about 65 to 70 years old, he attempted flying from Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain, which he spent ten minutes on air before he later fell down disappointedly. 

Statue of Ibn Firnas outside Baghdad International Airport

Today, his statue stands at the Baghdad Airport. 

4. Hassan Al-Jabarti

A Somali mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, who lived in the 18th century, Jabarti is the father of the renowned historian Abdulrahman Al-Jabarti and originated from the Somali city of Zeila. 

The scholar, who conducted experiments in his house, was always visited by Frankish students. 

Until his death, he lived in Cairo, Egypt. 

5. Ismail Mustafa Al-Falaki

Ismail Mustafa, or Ismail Mustafa al-Falaki, lived from 1825 to 1901 and was an Egyptian astronomer and mathematician. “Al-Falaki” was added to his name later – literally meaning “the astronomer”. He was born in Cairo and was educated in Paris, France. 

In some corners, he is addressed as Ismail Effendi Mustafa, Ismail Bey Mustapha, or Ismail Pasha al-Falak. 

Ismail Mustafa was in 1873 delegated to the International Statistical Congress in Moscow where the Tsar conferred on him the rank of Commander in the Imperial Order of Saint Anna. 

In 1883, he taught cosmography, geodesy, and astronomy at the Military Academy, École Polytechnic, and the School of Land and Surveying, where he held the position of director, all in France. 

He has authored books in Arabic including an elementary treatise on astronomy and the first volume of a long-term work on the same subject and geodesy. Before his death, he published Arabic almanacs and European calendars on behalf of the Egyptian state.

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