InshaAllah, Help for Reverts will be looking at inspiring figures of the past. This week, we will take a look at the amazing contributions of Abbas Ibn Firnas (may Allah be pleased with him).
Full name: Abbas Abu al-Qassim ibn Firnas ibn Wardas al-Takurini
Born: Ninth-century; Andalusian descendant from a Berber family residing in Takuronna (now Ronda)
Most influential work: Producing a flying machine, crystal, and a planetarium.
It is difficult to pin one profession on Cordoban Abbas ibn Firnas because he had numerous talents, including poetry, astrology and astronomy. He was also fluent in Greek, and made translations of philosophical and musical manuscripts.
After perfecting the technique of cutting rock crystal (quartz) and producing glass, he made a kind of glass planetarium, complete with artificial thunder and lightning. His most famous achievement is the construction of a flying wing, the first known to be capable of allowing a human to glide through the air.
Unfortunately, he left no trace of his original works, and his biography was reconstructed only from a few verses and information from eye witnesses left to us in numerous documents.
Crystal was developed in Andalusia due to the ingenuity of Ibn Firnas. In his experiments, he manufactured glass from sand and stone, establishing a crystal industry based on rocks mined north of Badajos. Most of the Andalusian rock crystal pieces that have survived are found in European churches and monasteries, the most famous among them being a spherical bottle currently in the Astorga Cathedral, Spain. It bears vegetal patterns and a Kufic inscription, the common decorative elements on rock crystal pieces.
As well as introducing crystal that was used for drinking glasses, Ibn Firnas was the same man who used glass in a most ingenious way to construct a planetarium, supplying it with artificial clouds, thunder and lightning. Naturally, this astounded the ninth-century public.
Perhaps the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine was: Abbas Ibn Firnas in the ninth century. He flew successfully a number of times over desert regions, improving his designs before attempting his two famous flights in Cordoba in Spain.
The first flight took place in 852 when he wrapped himself in a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts and jumped from the minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. The attempt was unsuccessful, but his fall was slowed enough that he got off with only minor injuries, making it at least one of the earliest examples of a parachute jump. Western sources wrongly gave him a Latin name calling him Armen Firman, instead of Abbas ibn Firnas.
Ibn Firnas was one to learn from experience, and he worked hard to improve his next design. Accounts from various eye witnesses and medieval manuscripts described it as a machine consisting of large wings. So about 1,200 years ago, the nearly 70-year-old Ibn Firnas made a flight machine from silk and eagle feathers.
In the Rusafa area on the outskirts of Cordoba, Ibn Firnas mounted a hill and appeared before the crowd in his bird costume, made from silk covered with eagle feathers, which he tightened with fine strips of silk. Ibn Firnas explained with a piece of paper how he planned to fly using the wings fitted on his arms,
“Presently, I shall take leave of you. By guiding these wings up and down, I should ascend like the birds. If all goes well, after soaring for a time I should be able to return safely to your side.”
He flew to a significant height and hung in the air for more than 10 minutes before plummeting to the ground, breaking the wings and one of his vertebrae. After the event, Ibn Firnas understood the role played by the tail, telling his close friends that when birds land, they normally land on the root of the tail, which did not happen for him because he did not have one.
Unfortunately, the injury he sustained prevented him from carrying out further experiments. However, he was an enterprising man and is likely to have inspired many to create a better version.