In honor of Ramadan this month, we begin with an introduction of what Ramadan is, and will follow with weekly profiles of notable muslim scientists, mathematicians, and physicians. Our first profile is that of Dr. Ayub Khan Ommaya, a Pakistani-American Neurosurgeon, who is internationally recognized for his expertise on brain injury. For our second profile we celebrate Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, known as the “father of algebra.” The students concluded this month's profiles with Abu-Ali Sina (also known as Avicenna), physician, scientist, and the author of 'the most famous medical textbook ever written' - the Cannon of Medicine.
Abu Ali Sina (also known as Avicenna) is one of the Islamic Medieval world’s most renown scientists, physicians, and philosophers. Born in the year 980 in Afshana in modern day Uzbekistan, he was born at a time when the great cities of Bukhara (located in Uzbekistan) and Baghdad (located in Iraq) were the twin pillars of eastern Islamic philosophy, science, and thinking. His father was from Balkh (in modern day Afghanistan) and served in the bureaucracy of the Samanid Empire, thus allowing Avicenna access to the preeminent learning centers of his time.
Avicenna received a rigorous education in Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. Some time later, Avicenna’s father invited the physician and philosopher Abu Abdallah al-Natili to educate Avicenna. It was here that Avicenna studied Aristotle’s work, after becoming versed in Greek sciences, Avicenna began to continue his research independently. Although Avicenna only mentions Natali as his teacher in his autobiography, he likely had other teachers as well such as physicians Abu Mansur Qumri and Abu Sahl al-Masihi.
Avicenna would eventually move to Rey (Tehran in Modern day Iran) where he would eventually finish his book ‘Cannon of medicine’. The Cannon of Medicine was a 5-volume medical encyclopedia. It was used as the standard medical textbook in the Islamic world and Europe up to the 18th century. Avicenna considered whether events such as rare diseases have natural causes, a line of thought that was not as commonplace in the medieval world as it is now. His ideas anticipated developments in the enlightenment by seven centuries. He used the example of polydactyly to explain his perception that causal reasons exist for all medical events.
Another important contribution of Avicenna to the medical and scientific field was his descriptions and discussions surrounding the scientific method of inquiry. Avicenna discussed the issue of developing a proper methodology for scientific inquiry. He explored the complex relationships between deductive and reductive reasoning, and how one may go about developing a hypothesis without inferring it form a more basic premise.
It is Avicenna’s early works at developing a scientific method of inquiry that have important tie ins with Islamic morality as well. As scientific fields, and in particular medicine advance, the complexity of these fields of inquiry increase drastically. Whereas hundreds of years ago, a study demonstrating the causal relationship between unsanitary surgical tools and patient infections was novel groundbreaking literature, today studying even the most granular aspects of medicine or biology may not guarantee a publication. Science has become much more laborious and time consuming, requiring a special diligence and patience. The principles of humility and patience we are held to during Ramadan have a special relationship to the personal principles we must keep in mind while striving to be better scientists. Fasting during Ramadan is meant to instill virtues of patience and tolerance for hardship. Going beyond personal growth, it is also to serve as a reminder of the situation of those less fortunate, in essence it is meant to humble us. In both fasting and research, virtues such as patience and humility are a necessity.
The Cannon of Medicine has been described as ‘the most famous medical textbook ever written’ noting that it reminded a cornerstone of medical education for a longer time than any other work. Avicenna’s patient and painstaking methods of scientific observation by which he was able to write his seminal piece of medical literature should serve as a model and inspiration for all scientists regardless of faith. This Ramadan, let us remember the contributions of this great scholar, and to put into practice the virtues of patience and humility into our every day work regardless of faith or culture.
We live in an age of constant technological and scientific development. Novel ideas that were deemed impossible decades ago have become essential parts of our society. None of this progress would be possible if it was not for the power of mathematics, the language of science. Branches of mathematics include Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, and Statistics. Algebra can be argued to be the most fundamental of these branches and is the first introduction to complex equations students get in their education.
The word algebra itself can be rooted back to the Arabic word al-jabr. This immerged prominently in the 9th century in the book “al-Kitāb al-mukhtasar fīhisāb al-jabr wal-muqābala” (Arabic for The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) written by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Al-Khwarizimi was a Muslim Persian mathematician, astronomer, and scholar. He is estimated to have been born around 780 in modern day Uzbekistan, but much of his early life is unknown. He later moved to Baghdad and became one of the most famous scholars of the intellectual powerhouse, Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom).
While Al-Khwarizimi’s intellectual impacts spread far and wide, his legacy in mathematics, especially the book mentioned above, is the most prominent. During his time in Bayt al-Hikma, he revolutionized algebra and arithmetic. His book served as a manual for solving linear and quadratic equations. He included equations that aimed to be sets of solutions that can be utilized more easily. He discussed how these equations can be used to more tangibly, like to split an inheritance or find measurements of buildings.
Further, the word algorithm is derived from Khawarizmi, which was latinized as Algorismi. Al-Khwarizimi provided algorithms to solve these complex quadratic equations, which are core to computational reasoning. When learning coding languages that are the basis of computers and phones, many parallels are seen between the code and algebra. Al-Khawarizmi impact on algebra revolutionized the fields of finance, optics, engineering, chemistry, astronomy, geography, and computing. It is this ripple effect of his contributions to mathematics that earned him the title of “father of algebra.”
Dr. Ayub Khan Ommaya is a Pakistani-American Neurosurgeon, who is internationally recognized for his expertise on brain injury. Born in 1930 in Main Chanuu, Pakistan, Dr. Ommaya studied medicine at King Edward Medical College in Lahore, Pakistan. While in medical school, he won the Harper Nelson gold medal for outstanding academic achievement. He was also known for his accomplishments as a champion debater, boxer, and swimmer. Dr. Ommaya was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Balliol College in Oxford. There, he developed an interest in the mechanisms of traumatic brain injury and he worked with another renowned neurosurgeon, Dr. Joe Pennybacker.
Upon moving to the United States in the 1960s, Ommaya began working as a physician and researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where he served as the Chief of Neurosurgery. Early in his tenure, he developed the first coma scale to assess levels of consciousness following brain trauma, which came prior to the development of the now widespread Glasgow Coma Scale in the 1970s. Between 1980-1985, while working as Chair of Neurosurgery at the George Washington University, he also served as Chief Medical Adviser to the U.S. Department of Transportation. He commissioned a report on brain damage titled Injury in America, which focused on medical consequences of road traffic accidents. Dr. Ommaya’s contributions included the understanding of rotational acceleration and trauma to neurological injury. This work led to his establishment of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the US Centers for Disease Control.
Of his many accomplishments, perhaps most impactful was his invention of the Ommaya reservoir. This mushroom-shaped reservoir is a self-sealing silicone dome designed for placement beneath a flap in the scalp, with a catheter that runs from a small hole in the skull to the lateral ventricles of the brain. This revolutionary tool allows for the delivery of medications and chemotherapy directly through the catheter into the cerebrospinal fluid and to tumor sites in the brain. The Ommaya reservoir was also used as the prototype for the modern medical port.
Ommaya used his medical and academic career to bring awareness to traumatic brain injury, while he was also known to use his cheerful temperament to bring joy to the many patients he served. Trained in Opera, he was fondly known to sing prior to and after operations. A colleague of his recollects: “He was friendly, outgoing, and almost invariably cheerful…He had a fine operatic voice, and he'd sing at the drop of a hat.” As two billion people globally join together to celebrate Ramadan, we remember the legacy of Dr. Ayub Ommaya as a warm messenger of the holiday spirit of empathy towards one another, and service to the vulnerable.
Ramadan - a brief introduction
Researched and written by Mosufa Zainab, class of 2025
There are five core beliefs of Islam: Profession of Faith (shahada), Prayer (salat), Alms (zakat), Fasting (sawm), and Pilgrimage (hajj).
For Muslims around the world, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, serves as the opportunity to observe the fourth core belief of Islam, sawm. From dawn to sunset, Muslims abstain from eating food and drinking. Abstinence from food, water, smoking, immoral behavior, and unkind or impure thoughts serves several spiritual and social purposes. It renews awareness of all the blessings God has provided in our lives and provides an opportunity to practice self-restraint and introspection. It also shows what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty, so we feel compassion and remember our duty to help the poor and needy.
The month of Ramadan is followed by Eid-ul-Fitr – a day of celebration where Muslims gather with friends and family to show gratitude towards God for a month of reflection and spirituality.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a typical day like during Ramadan?
During the 30-day month of Ramadan, the day begins with a pre-fast meal (suhur) followed by Fajr, the morning prayer. The daily activities, including work and school, continue as usual. The fasting period ends at sunset with a meal (iftar) and evening prayer.
How long do you fast for each day?
Based on the time of the year Ramadan falls in and the location, the fasting period can range from 11-16 hours. In 2022, the daily fasting period will be about 15 hours.
Why do the dates of Ramadan change every year?
Because the Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, it is shorter than the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, every year, Ramadan starts about 10-12 days earlier than last year.
How do I wish my Muslim friends or acquaintances a happy Ramadan or Eid?
A simple ‘Happy Ramadan’ or ‘Happy Eid’ works! Or you could also say ‘Ramadan/Eid Kareem’ or ‘Ramadan/Eid Mubarak.’
Can I eat in front of my Muslim friends during Ramadan?
Are there times when Muslims don’t fast?
Yes. The sick, elderly, travelers, pregnant and nursing women, and menstruating women are exempt from fasting.
How do you survive?
It’s not as bad as it may sound. Our body is resilient, and gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis are surprisingly efficient.