Muslim Inventions

  • 23 Sep - 29 Sep, 2017
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Panorama

From the first sundial, people have wanted to record time. Now we have silent, digital time pieces as well as the tick tock of modern clocks. Their ancestors were the drip-drop of the clepsydra and of water clocks. The clepsydra, a simple vase marked with divisions that measured water flowing out of a small spout near the base, was used in Egypt before 1500 B.C.E.

Another ancient water timing device is from India and is called ghatika-yantra. It consists of a small, hemispherical bowl (made of copper or a coconut) with a small hole in its base. Floated in a larger pot of water, the bowl would gradually fill and sink. When it reached the bottom, an audible thud alerted the timekeeper, who would raise it up to start the process again. This became very popular in Buddhist and Hindu temples, and later was widely used in Indian Muslim mosques.

Our story begins with 13th century water clocks and an ingenious man called Al-Jazari from Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey. He was a pious Muslim and a highly skilled engineer who gave birth to the concept of automatic machines. He was inspired by the history of machines and the technology of his predecessors, particularly ancient Greek and Indian scientific inventions.

By 1206, Al-Jazari had made numerous clocks of all shapes and sizes while he was working for the Artuq kings of Diyarbakir. Then-king Nasir al-Din said to him, “You have made peerless devices, and through strength have brought them forth as works; so do not lose what you have wearied yourself with and have plainly constructed. I wish you to compose for me a book which assembles what you have created separately, and brings together a selection of individual items and pictures.”

The outcome of this royal urging was an out-standing book on engineering called The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. This book became an invaluable resource for people of different engineering backgrounds, as it described 50 mechanical devices in six categories, including water clocks.

Just as we need to know the time today, so did Muslims more than 700 years ago, and Al-Jazari was keeping to a Muslim tradition of clock making. Muslims knew that time could not be stopped, that we are always losing it, and that it was important to know the time to use it well doing good deeds. Muslims also needed to know when to pray at the right times each day. Mosques had to know the time so they could announce the call to prayer. Important annual events, such as when to fast in Ramadan, celebrate Eid, or go on pilgrimage to Mecca also had to be anticipated.

This inspiration meant that the “peerless devices” to which King Nasir al-Din referred included the Elephant Clock. As well as telling the time, this grand clock was a symbol of status, grandeur, and wealth; it also incorporated the first robotics with moving, time-telling figures.