Adam Jussila: Islamic Scholarship as the Precursor to the Renaissance

 

The European Renaissance had strong roots in the Islamic scholarship of the middle ages. It is important to understand the environment at the time that bred the Muslim scholars, known as ulama. With the “golden age” of Islam, Islamic society saw a flourishing in almost all academic pursuits, from theology to politics to physics. The 7th Abbasid Caliph, known as Al-Ma’mud, funded “The House of Wisdom” in Baghdad that became one of the central places for scholars to learn. Large “think-tanks” were set up in Cairo and Baghdad in the 9th century and helped to allow for major advances in the “profane sciences.” These hubs of learning led to the creation of new fields of study and significant expansion in other fields that already existed, which was the result of people trying harder to understand the sacred texts.[i] The foundations of knowledge that the Muslim scholars compiled in their golden age gave inspiration to the European Renaissance as it started just after the Islamic golden age came to its end. In order to understand what the Islamic world did to contribute to the Renaissance, one must understand more about the Islamic golden age itself.

There are a few key features of the golden age that should be noted. It all started when Islamic scholars started to find inspiration from the ancient civilizations, translating tens to hundreds of thousands of texts from other languages into Arabic, the holy language. This was a hugely important aspect of the Renaissance and the Islamic golden age, because the Europeans had forgotten the impact of the ancients for a few hundred years and the rediscovery of that marked the beginning of the Renaissance. The works of ancient scholars such as Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Galen, and many more heavily influenced the Muslim scholars. One amongst them, Al Farabi, was regarded as one of the foremost philosophers and intellectuals of all time, and by some reckoning, he was only eclipsed by Aristotle himself. Al Farabi drew heavily from Aristotle’s works in particular and continued to expand on many of the subjects talked about by the Ancient Greeks.[ii] This revival of past knowledge allowed for people to jump into the sciences and created an environment that encouraged scholars to write about and think deeply about the world around them. This should not be seen as purely a revival of ancient knowledge, because the Islamic people expanded upon the original sources of knowledge significantly. It led to a huge influx of books to read on every subject that one could imagine, far beyond the translations of the thousands of important texts from the Ancients.

With this expansion of study beyond the sacred texts, people began exploring new areas of study. A few examples are ibn Khaldun, known by some as the father of sociology, ibn Haytham, the inventor of the scientific method that inspired so many in subsequent centuries, and many more. Some people even regard idn Haytham as the “first scientist” for the work that he did in developing an empirical method for experimentation. Ibn Khaldun was particularly known for his Prolegomena, a clear account of sciences as they appeared in his time that was widely agreed upon.[iii] By the ends of the Islamic golden age, the cultural and intellectual hubs had filled massive libraries and storehouses with the accumulated knowledge of an entire civilization. These were stored in great libraries that were located in Cairo and Baghdad and in other smaller libraries throughout the Islamic world. By the end of the golden age, Arabic was the language of scholarship, and almost every major work had been translated into Arabic. This set up the perfect situation for European scholars, who, at the time, were coming into communication with the Muslims through the Crusades and also likely through some trade.

As the Islamic scholarship began to seep into Europe, it undoubtedly provided them inspiration that helped start the Renaissance. The Renaissance was largely spurred on by a revival of classical ideas as the Europeans rediscovered their roots. This would not have been possible if not for the work that the Muslims had done in digging up, translating, and saving the books of the great philosophers and thinkers of the ancient times. One should not, however, dismiss the ability of the Muslim scholars as scientists and thinkers in their own right. They learned a lot of important things on their own by experimentation and observation.[iv] This applied particularly to the study of natural sciences such as astronomy, physics, and medicine. All three of these fields experienced huge advances that far outlived the practitioners in Islamic society who came up with them. For example, al-Sina, a famous scientist, known for his writings on medicine, wrote l-Canon fi al Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), an important medical text that continued to be used to teach medicine for many years after.[v] By having these massive storehouses of knowledge, the Muslims allowed for the European people to rediscover their rich heritage and to make inquiries spurred by the immense progress made by Islamic scientists.

Likely one of the final steps that connected the academics of these two areas of the world was when a man by the name of Gerard of Cremona, located in Toledo, Spain, translated 87 major works from Arabic into Latin[vi]. He was not by any means the only person doing this, but the sheer quantity of important texts that he translated, including Ptolemy’s Almagest, was very noteworthy. These translations were hugely important, because it allowed people who were not well versed in Arabic to read the revived texts of the Ancient Greeks as well as those of the Islamic scholars. It connected the two worlds, and it is likely one of the main reasons that the Europeans managed to rediscover the ancient literature and find the desire to study sciences again, continuing the work of the Islamic world.

 

 

Holt, Peter M. The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,.

Mahallati, Jafar. . Science and Humanism, Lecture, Edited by Adam Jussila.

[i] Mahallati, Jafar. . Science and Humanism, Lecture, Edited by Adam Jussila. General information about the various scholars and what they contributed to the world.

[ii] Holt, Peter M. The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,. Detailed accounts of almost all scholars of the Islamic golden age and their accomplishments in a each field. This gave most of the information for this paper.

[iii] IBID

[iv] IBID

[v] IBID

[vi] Mahallati, Jafar. . Science and Humanism, Lecture, Edited by Adam Jussila. This was for general information detailing the number of translations and mentioning the impact of this man’s work.