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Abu Yaqoub bin Ishaq al Kindi

By Syed Aslam

Al-Kindi, also known in west as Alkindus was born in Kufa, Iraq in the year 801 CE to a family of the Kinda tribe. His father was the governor of Kufa, where he received his preliminary education and went to complete his studies in Baghdad. Here he was patronized by the Abbasid Khalifa al- Ma’mun who appointed him to House of Wisdom, a recently established centre for learning. When al-Ma’mun died, his brother, al-Mu’tasim became Khalifa who appointed him as a tutor to his son. He died in Baghdad in 873 CE during the reign of Khalifa al Mutamid.

Al-Kindi was a philosopher, astronomer, chemist, mathematician musician, physician, physicist and a pioneer in cryptography. He was a master of many different areas of thought, although he would eventually be eclipsed by names such as al Baruni and ibn Sina, he is still regarded to be one of the greatest Islamic philosophers and scientist of his time. The Italian Renaissance scholar Geralomo Cardano (d 1575) considered him one of the twelve greatest minds of the middle Ages. He authored two hundred and sixty books, contributing heavily to geometry, medicine and philosophy, logic and physics. His influence in the fields of physics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and music were far-reaching and lasted for several centuries.

His greatest contribution to the development of early Islamic philosophy was his efforts to make Greek and Hellenistic thought both accessible and acceptable to a Muslim intelligentsia. Al-Kindi carried out this mission from the House of Wisdom, an institute of translation and learning patronized by the Abbasid Khalifa, in Baghdad. He and the people of House of Wisdom translated many important texts, which become standard Arabic philosophical vocabulary. His work later produced philosophers like Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. He believed revelation was a superior source of knowledge to reason because it guaranteed matters of faith that reason could not uncover.

As stated before al-Kindi was a genius who contributed in many branches of science. In the field of mathematics al-Kindi authored a number of important mathematical subjects, including arithmetic, geometry, the Indian numbers, the harmony of numbers, lines and multiplication with numbers, relative quantities, measuring proportion and time, and numerical procedures and cancellation. He also wrote four volumes, On the Use of the Indian Numerals (Ketab fi Isti’mal al-’Adad al-Hindi) which contributed greatly to propagate the Indian system of numeration in the Middle East and the West. In geometry, among other works, he wrote on the theory of parallels. Also related to geometry were two works on optics.

As an advanced chemist, al-Kindi was the first to oppose the practice of alchemy; he debunked the myth that simple base metals could be transformed into precious metals such as gold or silver. The isolation of ethanol (alcohol) as a relatively pure compound was first achieved by al-Kindi. He was the first to describe the production of pure alcohol from the distillation of wine.

Al-Kindi was very much advanced of his time, classical mechanists such Galileo, Descartes and Isaac Newton considered time, space and motion to be absolute, while al-Kindi suggest that all these properties are relative to each other and not independent or absolute. This can be considered as early concept of Theory of Relativity which was developed by Albert Einstein in twentieth century.

Al-Kindi is credited for developing the frequency analysis method where variation in the frequency of the occurrence of letters could be analyzed to break ciphers.

Recently a detailed text has been discovered in the archives of Ottoman Empire in Istanbul with title “Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages”

This manuscript covers methods of cryptanalysis and statistical analysis of letters and letter combinations in Arabic. Thus he was the first person who pioneered the science of cryptology and cryptanalysis.

Al-Kindi demonstrated the application of mathematics in quantification to medicine, particularly in the field of pharmacology. He developed a mathematical scale to quantify the strength of a drug. He wrote thirty volumes on the subject of medicine and pharmacology.

Al-Kindi had a great interest in scent and perfume products and performed extensive research and experiment in this field. He extracted perfume from many plant and its flowers and compounded it to produce a variety of scent products.

Many of the plant products he extracted were very useful in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. He is considered as a pioneer and father of the science of perfumery.

Al-Kindi realized the therapeutic value of music and tried to cure a quadriplegic boy with musical therapy. He was the first great theoretician of music in the Islamic world.

He published fifteen treatises on the theory of music, proposed adding a fifth string to the ‘ud and discussed the cosmological connotations of music. He surpassed the achievement of the Greek musicians.

Al-Kindi is credited with being the first real Muslim philosopher who understood the Greek philosophy and incorporated it to the Islamic philosophy; he does appear to have borrowed ideas from other Hellenistic schools as well.

He makes many references to Aristotle in his writings, but these are often unwittingly re-interpreted in a Neo-Platonic framework.

During his life, al-Kindi was fortunate to enjoy the patronage of the khalifas al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tasim, which meant he could carry out his philosophical speculations with relative ease. This would change significantly towards the end of his life.



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