Historical Figures From the Middle East That Have Had an Impact On the World
By Muhammed Aladdin
From science to politics, the people of the Middle East and North Africa have surely left their footprint on the world’s stage. However, in time, there comes a handful of people from the region with an unbendable will, rising through the challenges, and radically changing the world for the better, earning their names a place in the history books of all nations.
These Arabs were fathers of nations, geniuses, political leaders, and activists who helped the region realize its full potential, discard outdated traditions, and embrace its true greatness. They have gone on to become unforgettable in our collective history, and it is only right to celebrate them. So, here are my picks for the historical Arab figures who helped change the world.
An Arab Muslim, Fatima Al-Fihri is credited with the foundation of the oldest, continually-operating educational institutes in the world, The University of Al-Quaraouiyine in Fes.
In the midst of the European Dark Ages, the Arab World was experiencing its golden years. Fatima Al-Fihri was born in 800 A.D. and along with her sister Miriam, they attended school and received a good education. She immigrated from Tunisia to Fes in Morocco, and out of love to her new home, she donated her inheritance to establish the aforementioned university.
It is the first institution in the whole world to offer degrees based on different fields of study; the courses there included Islamic studies, mathematics, and science, ushering in a golden age of knowledge for the people of the region.
Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham
Dubbed the father of modern optics, Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham was an Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist of the Islamic Golden Age. His work contributed to the flourishing of optic science and the understanding of visual perception.
Back in the day, people used to think that light projects from a person’s eye to illuminate an object, but Ibn Al-Haytham had a number of experiments in his book Kitab Al-Manazer that had proven that light falls on an object and then is reflected onto a person’s eye.
The Iraqi-born scientist immigrated to Cairo during the Fatimid Caliphate and spent his days working on refining our modern understanding of physical optics; he was dubbed “The Second Ptolemy”.
Hailed as the father of Arab philosophy, Al-Kindi was born in Kufa in the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate around 801 A.D. He traveled to the bustling capital of Baghdad to learn about mathematics, philosophy, and music.
The prominent scientist was one of the first to learn about Greek and Hellenic philosophy and integrate it with his own vision to the Muslim World. He also became a notable figure in the renowned House of Wisdom, a major intellectual center in Baghdad.
Furthermore, he is one of the first scientists to introduce Indian numerals to the Arab World. While, internationally, he is considered to be one of the father’s of cryptography.
In the 3rd century B.C., Odenatheus, the King of Palmyra in Syria and a vassal of the Roman Empire, triumphed over the Persian Sassanids, elevating the province of Palmyra into a regional power. As a consequence, his influence grew and with him, his wife, Zenobia.
Zenobia assumed the de facto rule of Palmyra after the assassination of her husband. In the events that followed, she lobbied for the independence of Palmyra from the Roman Empire, naming herself Empress and ushering in an era of prosperity in the history of the Levant.
The father of the 1919 Revolution, Saad Zaghloul is an Egyptian-born political leader and founder of Al-Wafd Party. He was born in Ibyana village in Kafr El Sheikh and went on to complete his education at Al-Azhar University and then studied French Law at the Cairo University.
The young government official rose through the ranks, culminating his efforts with his appointment as the Prime Minister of Egypt. He led an official Egyptian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference with a demand that the United Kingdom would formally recognize the independence of Egypt.
The British apprehended him and he was exiled to Malta. His absence led to the rise of the Egyptian people in the 1919 Revolution.
Born in Alexandria, in 1865, the Arab World’s first feminist, Qasim Amin was a philosopher, reformer, and judge. He was vocal when it came to women’s rights, criticizing seclusion, early marriage, and the lack of education of Muslim women.
A prodigy, Amin finished law school at the age of 17, and was one of a handful of students to receive a scholarship to continue their education at the University of Montpellier, in France; it was there that his feminist thoughts first began to form. He returned to Cairo a learned man and started his crusade for more women’s rights. To crown his struggles, he was one of the people behind the inauguration of Cairo University.
Born into the city of Monastir to a modest family of eight, Habib Bouriguiba grew to change Tunisia’s history. The father of the modern Tunisian state moved to the capital city seeking a degree from Sadiki College then in Lycée Carnot.
Raised under the French occupation of Tunisia, he grew to despise Paris’ hold over his country, and early on in his life, he joined the national movement to denounce inequality. In later years, he served as the country’s leader for independence; his efforts led to the ending of the 75-year-old protectorate, ushering in the time for the modern Tunisian republic.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
The Father of the Emirati Nation, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan was the driving force behind the unification of the United Arab Emirates and was proclaimed the President of the Union for 33 years from 1971 until his death in 2004.
Sheikh Zayed was a fair liberal ruler and believed in freedom of worship and freedom of the press. He also believed in diplomacy, opting to build diplomatic ties with belligerent nations instead of warring endlessly. His vision helped build the UAE into the economic powerhouse that it is today.
The first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-British Architect, has revolutionized modern architecture. In tribute, The Guardian of London has dubbed her the Queen of the Curve, for her ability to free the once solid, immobile structures, giving them a new expressive identity.
Hadid was born in Baghdad to an Iraqi upper-class family, and soon, she moved to Lebanon to study mathematics at the American University in Beirut. She then moved to London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. There, she was renowned for her creative and innovative way of thinking; one of her professors even said that she was “a planet in her own orbit”.
Hadid grew and her dreams grew with her; she worked in a number of projects including the aquatic center for the London 2012 Olympics, Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum in the United States, and the Guangzhou Opera House in China. Her ingenious work has made her a household name of architecture.