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Botany & Art in Islamic Culture

Scholars of Islamic culture contributed significantly to botany, herbals & healing, improving knowledge of plants. They classified plants into those that grow from cuttings, those that grow from seed, & those that grow spontaneously.

The Holy Qur’an provided the initial impetus for the investigation of herbs by Islamic writers, as plants are named in the depiction of Paradise & are used as signs of the Creator’s power and majesty. Inspired by their faith, Muslims worked extensively in this area.

Muslim scholars also commissioned botanical studies due to the need for research on medicinal plants, to respond to medical needs & contribute to the physical & mental health of the community. They created the context of the advent of pharmacology in Islamic civilization.

Considerable information about herbs is contained in medieval Islamic literature, where plant life is closely associated with philology, medicine & agronomy. In addition, plants were discussed in philosophical, magical, encyclopaedic and geographic works.

As a result of the wide geographical spread of Islam & travel within its territories, adding information from Middle Eastern, Indian & North African sources, there emerged a rich botanical literature in which Muslim authors sought to determine the true significance of plants.

Muslim botanists knew how to produce new fruits by grafting; they combined the rose bush & almond tree to generate rare lovely flowers. They created botanical gardens containing indigenous & exotic plants, cultivated for foliage, fragrance, or culinary & medicinal virtues.

Botany reached its zenith in Spain. Al-Masudi has given the rudiments of the theory of evolution in his well-known work Meadows of gold. Another of his works, Kitab al-Tanbih wal Ishraq, advances his views on evolution from a mineral plant to the animal, & from animal to man.

In botany, Spanish Muslims made significant contributions & some of them are known as the greatest botanists of medieval times. They were keen observers & discovered the sexual difference between plants, developing agriculture & horticulture on a grand scale.

Spanish Muslims advanced in botany far beyond the state in which “it had been left by Dioscorides & augmented the Greeks’ herbology by the addition of 2,000 plants.” Regular botanical gardens existed in Cordova, Baghdad, Cairo, & Fez for teaching and experimental purposes.

Some of these were the finest in the world. The Cordovan physician, Al-Ghafiqi (D. 1165), was a renowned botanist who collected plants in Spain & Africa & described them. He gave the names of each in Arabic, Latin and Berber.

Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn Muhammad Ibn Al-Awwan flourished at the end of 12th c. in Seville, Spain & authored the Islamic treatise on agriculture in medieval times; Kitab al Filahah. It includes 585 plants & over 50 fruit trees discussing numerous diseases of plants & remedies.

Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati (c. 1200) was an Andalusian scientist, botanist, pharmacist & theologian. His techniques such as separating verified and unverified reports led to the development of the field of pharmacology. He was a teacher of fellow Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baitar.

From Ibn al-Baytar (d. 646 H / 1248 AD): Tafsir kitab Diyasquridus fi al-adwiya al-mufrada (A Commentary on Dioscorides' Materia Medica), edited by Ibrahim Ben Mrad (Carthage (Tunisia): Bayt al-hikma, 1990).

One of the most famed Muslim herbalists is Abu Da’ud Sulayman b. Hassan, known as Ibn Juljul. Born in Cordova in 332 H/ 944 CE. at fifteen he began studying medicine in which he was skilled. He was the personal physician to Al-Mu’ayyad Billah Hisham, Caliph from 977 - 1009 CE.

Muslim scholars were aware that plant distribution is modified by the changes of topography & difference in the character of the soil. They distinguished a plant types according to whether the plant is found in wilderness, on mountain tops, on river banks, on the sea-shore…

Another botanist Ibn Sauri was accompanied by an artist during his travels in Syria, who made sketches of the plants they found. Ibn Wahshiya wrote his celebrated work al-Filahah al-Nabatiyah containing valuable information about animals and plants

Muslim travellers provided a very rich account on the nature, variety, location & origin of various plants. Their writings compose a precious literary heritage. These text constitute the first extensive & systematic botanical survey of vast and diverse lands.

Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta (d. 1377) described in his Rihla the fruit of Isfahan (apricots, quince, grapes, watermelons) the fruit trees of India (mango & sweet orange). In Malabar, cinnamon & the Brazil nut; in the Maldives the coconut, palm, & lemon tree & others.

Ābu Hanīfah Āhmad ibn Dawūd Dīnawarī (828 – 896) was an Iranian Islamic Golden Age polymath, astronomer, agriculturist, botanist, geographer, mathematician, & historian. His most renowned contribution is Book of Plants, for which he is considered the founder of Arabic botany.

Al-Dinawari is one of the earliest Muslim botanists. His work largely confined to the flora of Arabia, is the most comprehensive & methodical philological work on herbs. Kitab al-Nabat is characterised as the most methodically superior work of philologically-orientated botany.

These are drawings from Arabic manuscripts of the cultivated and the uncultivated kinds of the hindiba, a plant well known to Muslim pharmacologists and herbalists for its therapeutic virtues which include cancer treatment.

In Mughal India, horticulture developed with the creation of splendId Mughal gardens. Various botanical products & scientific inventions made in this field find due mention regarding their role in the upkeep of the economy. A flower study attributed to Muhammad Khan.

Mughal Emporer Jahangir is notable for his patronage of botanical paintings & drawings. The works created in his court include beautifully drawn & scientifically correct illustrations.

Selections from a 1792 Persian beautiful botanical compendium by a Mughal author, ʽAbd al-ʽAzīz Bukhārī Qalandar, commissioned by the Scottish military adventurer John MacGregor Murray (1745-1822), entitled Tashrīḥ al-ashjār (SBzB Ms. or. fol. 171):

What makes botanical illustrations different from abstract or impressionist-style flowers is that they are based on science & careful observation. Today, these illustrations are highly sought after as beautiful works of art, providing a perspective on a moment in time…


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