The Story Behind the Stamp: Balian 881, March 22, 1979, The Arabs, their Achievements.

This some what uninspiring stamp nevertheless alludes to one of the most interesting periods in the development of mathematics and the sciences that underpin our modern societies - that golden time between 750 and 1400 C.E. This stamp with minor changes was also issued by several other Arab countries, beginning with Iraq on March 10, 1979, and ranging to the U.A.E. on March 22, 1980. It consists of a sunburst illuminating the world and a Koran, and at the bottom of the stamp are simple line drawings depicting some of the sciences which were greatly advanced by the Arabs: Astronomy, Agriculture, Algebra, Geometry, Alchemy (Chemistry) and the Arab numerals we use today that transformed the world of calculations. They also made other advances, notably in medical science, and possibly the outline of the head is meant to be that of Ibn Sina, whose enormous medical encyclopaedia, the Al-Qanun fil-Tibb (The Canon), remained the supreme authority, not simply in Islam but also in Christendom, for some six centuries.

One may question the term Arab and use Islamic instead but this itself would not be strictly true either, as this period comprised many scholars from diverse racial and religious backgrounds - Persian, Syrian, Arab, Jew, Christian, Greek, Afghan, Turk, Uzbek they all were involved in creative work.. What these scholars had in common, besides their interest in science, was the use of the Arabic language and most of the work was carried out under the patronage of Arab rulers so the use of the term Arab Science is quite fitting.

The Arab empire grew rapidly from 650 C.E. and was soon to stretch from Spain to the border of China including Egypt, Syria, Persia and parts of India. The early development of Arabic science was determined by the necessities of building the Islamic state and guided by the Koran, which says that true believers "reason about the origin of the heavens and the earth" (Koran 3:190-191). The Umayyads, the first dynasty of caliphs, made Damascus their capital in 661. Al-Mansur, second caliph of the Abbasids, the second caliph dynasty, moved the capital to Baghdad after 762, and his successors made it the most dynamic city of the time.

To begin with, the languages of the educated elite of the Middle East were Pahlavi (the language of the Persian empire now governed by Arabs) and Syriac (the language adopted by the Christian church). Works from the conquered world were gathered and translated into Arabic. Translating this wealth of philosophical and scientific literature into Syriac and then into Arabic required some 150 years before Arabic science was ready to build on the inherited knowledge and make its own original contributions. This phase began with the decision of caliph al-Ma'mun , who reigned from 813 to 833, to establish a House of Wisdom (Bayt al-hilkma), the largest such institution in the Mediterranean region since the Museum in Alexandria, and bring together a team of scientists to verify Ptolemy's data of the Almagest. This produced the first astronomical tables made in an Arabic empire that surpassed all existing tables in accuracy.

The project was without doubt helped by another of the great achievements of Arabic science, the combination of Greek geometry with Indian arithmetic. Greek maths had by then become sterile and was in an impasse. Interestingly, books on the history of maths, up to about twenty years ago, give little credit to Arab science other then to say it preserved Greek thinking. This is a gross disservice to the great Arab thinkers and the Hindu maths itself maybe influenced by the Chinese thinking that gave the world zero and far more important ideas than came from the Greeks.

In 830 the great work of the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, whose name lives on in the word algorithm, was produced. His work Kitab al-jabr wa l-muqabala (literally "The Book of Reduction and Comparison"), from which our word algebra derives, was a systematic treatise of geometric problems in algebraic notation and of solutions to quadratic equations. For the next 500 years Arab science was to flourish and change the world.

Can anyone give an explanation of why so many countries issued this stamp at more or less the same time?