Ancient Islamic writings help reconstruct the climate of the past

Environment 22 Apr 2021 Contributor
Today's Focus
Islamic writings
Late 8th century Quran manuscript with Kufic calligraphy Islamic art from some of the earliest periods of Islamic history. Photo : Dreamstime

The Islamic Golden Age (between 816-1009 AD) has contributed to human civilization enormously. In an effort to gather meteorological information of that time, a team of Spanish scientists used ancient Islamic writings by scholars of that era. The team from Universidad de Extremadura analyzed the Arabic writings of scholars, historians, and diarists in Iraq from the 9th and 10th centuries (3rd and 4th in the Islamic calendar) for the evidence of abnormal weather patterns. Their study got published in the Reputed journal, Weather.

How this study on Islamic writings was conducted?

The ancient Islamic writings mainly focus on the social and religious events of the time. But they also contain references to abnormal or extreme weather events. Until now, scientists used official records from the Air Force during WW2 and 18th-century ship’s logs to have a picture of the weather of that time. According to the lead author of the study, Dr. Fernando Dominguez-Castro, “the ancient Arabic documents have records of extreme events which impacted wider society such as droughts and floods.” As Baghdad was the central place for trade, commerce, arts, and science, the team chose the writers who either reside or visited Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age.

For example, in the writings of geographer Berber in 891 AD, it was found that Baghdad had hot summers and cold winters with climatic conditions favoring strong agriculture. Many Islamic writings and manuscripts have been destroyed or stolen. But the surviving works of writers like al-Tabari (913 AD), Ibn al-Athir (1233 AD), and al-Suyuti (1505 AD) shed light on some important meteorological information of that period.

What has been known from this study?

Analyzing the ancient Islamic writings and manuscripts, the researchers found references to the increase of cold events in July 920 AD and snowfalls in 908. 944 and 1007 AD. According to Dr. Fernando, the cold events confirm sudden temperature drop during the 10th century, immediately before the Medieval Warm Period. He also added, “The cold event in July 920 AD may have been linked to a great volcanic eruption, though more study is needed to confirm this idea.”

After analyzing plenty of surviving documents, the team thinks that Iraq was supposed to have experienced significant climate events frequently with severe cold weather than now. While speaking about the importance of a study like this Dr. Fernando said, “Recreation of past climate helps us to understand our own current climate.” They have also invited the Arabic historians and climatologists to work together to increase the climate data rescued from across the Islamic world.