From Ibn Al-Haytam’s optical lenses and Ibn Hayyan’s chemistry flasks to a mosque lamp of Amir Qawsun, Muslim Civilization played a major role in inspiring the growth of glass industry from the 8th century onward.
Mosques, houses and cities were transformed into beautiful spaces richly decorated with glass. Beauty and functionality were both essential elements of design in Muslim Civilization. Possibly in an effort to supply the thousands of mosques, and also thanks to the input provided by the thriving scientific activity in fields such as optics and chemistry, glass makers in Muslim Civilization turned – what had up till then been – a craft into an industry employing new techniques and large number of workers from different parts of the Muslim Civilization.
Throughout the Muslim Civilization glassware was produced in vast amounts from the 8th century either by blowing liquid glass into holds or by cutting it from crystal. Glass makers in Syria and Egypt inherited the Roman glass industry and improved it by developing their own technique perfecting glass decoration and coloring, and expanding the variety of products.
Excavation work in Syria and other parts of the Muslim Civilization uncovered a huge amount of glassware. Aleppo in Syria was mentioned as a glass making and decorating centre by the geographers Yaqut Al-Hamwi (d. 1229) and Al-Qazwini (d. 1283). Damascus, too, was described as a glassmaking centre by Ibn Battuta (d. 1377). Egypt, Iraq and Andalusia were also all producing glass in vast quantities.
Glass from the Muslim Civilization, and especially that from Syria, was highly prized the world over. Glass objects were discovered in medieval European sites in Sweden, and Southern Russia. Even such fragile objects as Syrian enameled glass of the 13th century have been found in Sweden.
Supporting Scientific Endeavours
In the early 14th century, more than 300 years after Ibn Sahl, Maragha astronomer-mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Farisi experimented with a glass sphere filled with water to analyze the way sunlight breaks into the spectrum colors of a rainbow. The rays that produced the colours of the rainbow, he observed:
“… were refracted upon entering his glass sphere, underwent a total internal reflection at the back surface of the glass sphere (which sent them back toward the observer), and experienced a second refraction as they exited the sphere. This occurred in each droplet within a mist to produce a rainbow.”
Kamal al-Din Al-Farisi (1267-1319)*
The technique of cutting crystal was said to have been introduced by ‘Abbas ibn Firnas (d. 887), scholar and inventor in the courts of ‘Abd al-Raḥman II and Muḥammad I. It is worth pointing here to the genius of Ibn Firnas, who was not only able to decipher the most complex writing, but also made attempts at flying by building artificial wings. In relation to glass, he was familiar with the scientific properties of glass, and contributed to the early experiment with lenses and the idea of magnifying script by their use. He also lent his skills to the glass making furnaces of Cordoba, and made a representation of the sky in glass, which he was able at will to make clear or cloudy, with lightning and the noise of thunder at the press of a finger.
“The rise of Islam, and the resulting expansion of Muslim territories through the seventh century A.D., ultimately gave rise to a society that kept alive many of the achievements that were lost in the west. Mosaic glass, cast and cut vessels, and free- and mold-blown wares continued to be made, and starting in the ninth century, new decorative approaches emerged. The principal advance began with the discovery that glass could be painted with metallic stains, resulting in a type of glass known as lustre ware because of its distinctive sheen. This was the first stained glass.”*
Some of the most sophisticated Egyptian glass vessels were decorated with lustre. This shiny, sometimes metallic effect was achieved by painting copper or silver oxide on the surface of the object, which was then fired at a temperature of about 600°C (1112°F) in reducing conditions. The same technique, as already noted, was used in the decoration of earthenware, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq and Iran. Until recently, controversy raged over the origin of lustre painting, but the problem appears to have been solved by the discovery at Al-Fustat, of a glass cup of local type, inscribed with the name of ‘Abd al-Hamad, governor of Egypt in 771-772; Egyptian glass painters were therefore using lustre some time before its appearance in Iraq.
In Al-Andalus, glass vessels were blown in Almeria, Malaga, and Murcia in imitation of eastern wares, such as the irakes –glass goblets– so favoured on the noble tables of 10th-century León. The technique of cutting crystal was said to have been introduced by ‘Abbas ibn Firnas (d. 887), scholar and inventor in the courts of ‘Abd al-Raḥman II and Muḥammad I. It is worth pointing here to the genius of Ibn Firnas, who was not only able to decipher the most complex writing, but also made attempts at flying by building artificial wings. In relation to glass, he was familiar with the scientific properties of glass, and contributed to the early experiment with lenses and the idea of magnifying script by their use. He also lent his skills to the glass making furnaces of Cordova, and made a representation of the sky in glass, which he was able at will to make clear or cloudy, with lightning and the noise of thunder at the press of a finger.
(This article was written at MuslimHeritage.com and modified by HikmahWay Institute & AMYN Staff)