Anna Moore: Imperial Overlaps

I have some faulty models in my head. Somewhere I picked up the idea that historically, human knowledge has increased almost linearly, with one discovery leading to the next. Somewhere, I learned to think of historic civilizations as separate entities with clear divisions. From the first time I looked at a map, I saw that the world consisted of seven different continents. María Rosa Menocal refers to this, “our casual acceptance of the notion that there is some critical or intrinsic division between Africa and Europe.”[i] The history of Muslims and their role in the European Renaissance force me to revise this and other assumptions.


The Greek works of Aristotle, Plato, and others were translated into Arabic a long while after they were written. Rather than a gradual building of knowledge, this reflects episodic learning. Hunay Ibn Ishaq was separated from the ancient authors he translated by culture and time. Yet translation allowed Muslims to fuse the earlier discoveries of ancient civilization with their new discoveries. For example, Arabic geometry built on the work of mathematicians such as Euclid and Archimedes.[ii] This is a point that Holt makes slightly defensively: “It would be wrong to regard the work of Muslim scientists simply as an appropriation of the ancient legacy.”[iii] Later, Holt repeats the idea that Muslims went further than the Greeks: “Ultimately the Muslim scientists surpassed their masters in powers of observation and care in verification.”[iv] Still, Greeks and Muslims studies many of the same subjects – medicine, philosophy, mathematics, physics – making for a kind of distant cooperation.


The overlap between Greek and Muslim scientific fields mirrors the cultural overlap that Muslim society experienced as it spread under the rule of the Umayyads. The Empire was perhaps the biggest ever, and it spread across the area that was formerly Roman.[v] In Damascus, where the new capital was, the Umayyads built Muslim monuments on top of Christian ones. Islam and Christianity occupied the same location and much of the same theology. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built on a ruined temple and contains a quote from Jesus on the inside wall. Later, in Andalusia, the cultures combined in another way, as people intermarried and people converted.[vi] All of these overlaps question the assumption that civilizations have distinct borders.


After reading Menocal, I began to think of the Mediterranean Sea as a body of water that connects people rather than a body of water that divides two continents. It’s not the way political maps teach me to think about it. It does, however, help me understand how the various projects Muslims undertook contributed to what is called the European Renaissance.


[i] María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2002), 21.

[ii] P. M. Holt, The Cambridge History of Islam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 752.

[iii] Holt, The Cambridge History of Islam, 747.

[iv] Holt, the Cambridge History of Islam, 150.

[v] Menocal, The Ornament of the World, 21.

[vi] Menocal, The Ornament of the World, 28.


Works Cited

Holt, P. M.. The Cambridge History of Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2002.