Thabit ibn Qurra: Biography, Contributions & Inventions

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Thabit ibn Qurra lived during the Islamic Golden Age, when a lot of progress was made in the Islamic world in many scientific fields. In this lesson, learn more about him and the time in which he lived and worked as a translator, mathematician, and astronomer.

The Islamic Golden Age

At the beginning of the ninth century, a new age was dawning in the Islamic world. Scientists, doctors, and scholars of all kinds were coming together to discover new knowledge and change the world. For the next 400 years, the center of the world for learning and scholarship was located in the Middle East. Today, this period in time is referred to as the Islamic Golden Age.

A painting of scholars gathered at a library during the Islamic Golden Age
Scholars during the Islamic Golden Age

In 836 A.D., near the beginning of the Islamic Golden Age, Thabit ibn Qurra was born in what is now modern-day Turkey. He could speak and write in three languages and is still famous for his Arabic translations of important Greek documents. In addition to his work as a translator, he was also a scientist who made huge discoveries in many different fields, including astronomy, mathematics, and mechanics.

Early Life

Thabit ibn Qurra was born in the city of Harran, which is in modern-day southern Turkey. He was a member of the Sabians, a distinct religious group residing in the area around Harran. The Sabians were descended from Babylonians who worshiped the stars. As a result, they maintained an interest in the stars, and many Sabians, including Thabit ibn Qurra, became notable astronomers and mathematicians.

Thabit's native language was Syriac, which was spoken in and around Harran, but he also learned Greek and Arabic and was able to read and write in all three languages. Most of his work was written in Arabic because that was the common language in the Islamic world at the time, but he did write some things in Syriac and translated many Greek documents into Arabic.

As a young man, he worked in Harran as a money changer for a short time, but then moved to the capital of the ancient Islamic world, Baghdad, where he became a famous translator, scientist, and mathematician.

The Suq al-Ghazel Minaret in Baghdad, which was built around the time that Thabit ibn Qurra was living there, is the oldest minaret in Baghdad.
A minaret in ancient Baghdad

Contributions to Mathematics

Thabit ibn Qurra is probably most well-known for his translation of ancient Greek texts into Arabic. Most of the Greek texts he translated were written about mathematics. He translated many books written by such important Greek mathematicians as Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius, among many others.

For many years, the original Greek versions of some of these books were lost, and only Thabit ibn Qurra's Arabic translations survived. Without him, we would certainly know a lot less about the mathematics of ancient Greece than we do today!

Thabit ibn Qurra was also a talented mathematician who made many contributions of his own to the development of modern mathematics. In some of his many books, he proved the Pythagorean Theorem and Euclid's Fifth Postulate. He also wrote about the theory of compound ratios, which laid the foundation for the development of differential calculus several hundred years later.

Most mathematical historians also think that he discovered the basics of integral calculus as well, although he didn't describe it in the same way we do today. In one of his books, he calculated the area of a parabola segment. Although this had been done previously by Archimedes, the method he used was different. He used a method that relied on integral sums, which no one had ever done before!

Contributions to Astronomy

In astronomy, Thabit ibn Qurra wrote extensively about the motion of the sun, moon, and stars. He expanded upon Ptolemy's astronomical model of the universe, and was one of the first people to make great changes to Ptolemaic astronomy.

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