How the Muslim world used soap, distilled alcohol and quarantine

Many people ask what Islam has provided to the world; what good has come from Muslims, Islam and following the teachings of Islam.

This question is harshly and rather ignorantly pressed with a special demand asking for the Muslim contribution towards science and research.

Of course, for anyone who has studied a bit of the history of Islam, it is clear how Muslim scientists, doctors, academics and philosophers provided the pillars of modern advancements in science, innovation and research across a plethora of disciplines.

Muslims, first a foremost, present the revolutionary teachings of the Holy Quran that span across countless subjects; morals, purpose, ethics, society, economy, international peace, science, research, discovery, the role of religion, atheism, the soul, the Hereafter etc. By following such teachings, humanity can (as proven throughout the history of Islam) steer its ship towards huge advancements spiritually and physically. Couple these teachings with the practise of the Holy Prophet of Islam, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and you have a force of good that the world had never seen.

Here, I would like to magnify a small snippet from the history of the great Islamic civilisation in which huge steps for medicine were taken.

Ever since the outbreak of Covid-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) have emphasised on many occasions that to prevent further spread, everyone should wash their hands often, using soap for at least 20 seconds and to apply hand sanitisers. Along with the recommendations of hygiene, countries have been forced to go into lockdown and quarantine to prevent the continuous spread of this virus and to “turn the tide” and “flatten the curve”.

All these methods have been used throughout history. Yet, it would be interesting to learn that these inventions and approaches came about during the Islamic Golden Age.

In narrations of the Holy Prophetsa, he emphasised a great deal on cleanliness and even said, “Cleanliness is half of faith” (Sahih Muslim). He urged Muslims to continuously brush their teeth, use perfume and to keep nails and pubic hair always cut and trimmed. Thus, with such importance given to cleanliness, it does not come as a surprise if the invention of soap was by a Muslim.

Recipes of making hard-soap can be found and traced back to the Islamic Golden Age, and more specifically to Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (854–925), a Muslim Persian philosopher, physician and an important figure in the history of medicine.

The book Science and Technology in Islam: Technology and Applied Sciences provides the following evidence in support of soap making in the Islamic Golden Age:

“By AD 800, soap from animal fats was produced in Europe which had a very unpleasant smell. But hard toilet soap with a pleasant smell from the Islamic lands started to arrive.

“In the Islamic lands, soap-making was an established industry. Recipes for soap-making occur in alchemical treatises such as those of al-Razi.”

In fact, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi also gave recipes for making olive oil.

The Holy Quran is very clear that the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. The Quran also states that there is some benefit in it, but the sin of its consumption is greater than the benefit. On multiple occasions, the Quran enjoins upon the Muslims to ponder and think about the universe and the world around them. This push by the Author of the Holy Quran further helped and drove Muslims to continue pursuing knowledge and new ways and inventions in benefiting mankind.

Thus, wisdom dictates, that though the consumption of alcohol isn’t permissible, its use in a way of striving for the wellbeing of mankind is allowed.

The famous hand sanitisers of today are strongly based on the antibacterial properties of distilled alcohol. Early Muslim scientists had been using alcohol in their medical practices and discoveries for a very long time, such as Jabir ibn Hayyan who described the distillation of wine in his works.

Science and Technology in Islam explains that alcohol from distilled wine was heavily used from the time of Jabir ibn Hayyan, famously known as the father of chemistry. Various other scholars also mentioned the distillation of wine and its medical properties such as Al-Kindi, another prominent figure, in his book The Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations.

Today, many countries have resorted to a full country lockdown in order to control Covid-19 from further spreading. This method is also known as quarantine. The method of quarantine, or, isolating oneself from others during an illness, can first be seen during the Umayyad Caliphate when the first hospital in Damascus for this purpose alone was created. (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam)

Thomas Walker Arnold, a British orientalist and historian of Islamic art, in his book, The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith mentions an incident of Hazrat Umarra. Whilst highlighting the topic of how Hazrat Umarra treated people of other faiths, it has been recorded that he ordered an allowance of money and food to be made available to some Christian lepers. As recorded by Tabari, charity toward lepers was shown again by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid, who established a leprosarium in Damascus in 707 AD. This did not serve as a hospital as known today, but as a shelter and a place whereby those infected could isolate from society, thus inhibiting further spread of the disease. (A History of Medicine: Byzantine and Islamic Medicine)

Many of the basic medicinal practices that we rely heavily on today actually originate from discoveries made by the Muslim world.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih V, may Allah be his Helper, recently urged Ahmadi Muslim scientists and researchers to reignite the dawn of a new era for scientific advancement made by Muslims. Let us hope that this new wave is nigh and the teachings of the Holy Quran once again push humanity towards advancement and discovery.


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