Ashley Belohlavek: Muslim Contributions To the European Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance and the Enlightenment are extraordinarily famous eras in history that are still celebrated today. While these popular times are frequently honored in history classes, it is not often that credit for so many of the discoveries made within these time periods is properly bestowed. While European nations are well known for these times of intense learning and creativity, it is actually thanks to Muslim scientists, scholars, and doctors that so many of these significant discoveries came to be.


One of the most notable aspects of this general European Renaissance is that a large number of scholarly texts were translated from Arabic into Latin. This was a common occurrence because while Muslim scholars were poring over and analyzing ancient studies and literatures, their European counterparts were preoccupied with other matters, until they began analyzing the works of these Muslim scholars, translating them back into Latin, discovering what Muslims had already discovered for themselves. For instance, Ibn Sina, a Muslim scientist and philosopher, wrote several books in his time, one being al-Qanun, which went on to be studied in “Christian lands” as well as “Muslim lands.”[i] The book is also regarded as the “single most significant medical textbook” in Ibn Sina’s time.[ii] As well as this, Ibn Sina also wrote much on the ego and self-awareness, ideas that Rene Descartes is enormously famous for. As one can infer, Descartes was immensely influenced by Ibn Sina’s ideas, which factored into his own philosophies in France.[iii]


Though the Enlightenment in Europe is known for its explosion of scientific discovery, Muslims had actually set the groundwork for much of the discoveries European scientists have frequently been accredited for in modern times. For instance, between the work of multiple Arab scholars, modern trigonometry functions that we study today were formulated. The term “sine” got its actual Latin name “sinus” from a translation of the original name “jayb” in Arabic.[iv] Another important area of science, optics, was pioneered by a Muslim scientist, by the name of Ibn Haytham, or Alhazen, as he was known as in the West. Known as the “father of optics,” Ibn Haytham wrote the book Kitab al-manazir, or, On Optics, which made its way into Europe and influenced medieval scientists Roger Bacon and Witelo to study the field of optics further.[v] Perhaps one of the fields of study that the Muslim world is most famous for is alchemy. Alchemy began in the Muslim world and because of its popularity, it became integrated into Western society as its more modern, mainstream form, chemistry, another area of science has been enormously important in scientific discovery and achievement to this day.[vi]


Within the Muslim Empire at the dawn of the new millennium, libraries and hospitals were popping up, creating huge spaces for expansion of learning and advancement of vital medical practices. Several think tanks were emerging in the Muslim world, like the Bayt al-Hikmah, or House of Wisdom, and incredible libraries in Cordoba, a flourishing city in Muslim Spain, that would go down in history as a society of immense religious tolerance, peaceful coexistence and scholarly creation.[vii] Within these great Muslim hospitals, there would be sections for internal disease, surgery ophthalmology and orthopedics, a new setup for hospitals, and each even had its own pharmacy. They even had their own libraries and gardens for medicinal plants, and the greatest medical surgeon at the time was a Muslim by the name of Abu al-Qasim.[viii] Muslim Spain was also a hub of great artistic and architectural strides. The Cordoban city Madinat al-Zahra, sacked in 1009 by a rebellious group of Muslims, has been regarded through historic documents as having incredible levels of architectural sophistication and beauty, even being compared to Versailles in France which wouldn’t even go on to be a symbol of achievement and luxury for several centuries.[ix] These are example of how Muslim civilization led the world in advancements of architecture, science, and medicine, among so many other areas of development, that would eventually be spread to neighboring lands and be adopted as their own.


Similar to Europe’s adoption of the Muslim world’s newfound scientific developments, Europeans then grew bored of the scientific studies and then moved on to the exciting language of romance literature and poetry. European nations even adopted coffee from Muslims. Yemeni Sufis in the late 15th century were the first recorded consumers of the drink, and before long, coffee could be found all over Europe.[x] It is minor inventions such as coffee that Muslims can be accredited for that rapidly spread to the rest of the world that are still used to this day. Whether it’s bar soap or a kerosene lamp invented by Al-Razi or various contributions such as paper, the process of printing, and hobbies like guitar or chess, all of these everyday items or processes are still used today and can be traced back to Muslim scholars and scientists before they ever came to European societies.[xi][xii]


It is unfortunate that the Muslim world is rarely given the credit it deserves for its massive and countless contributions to science and culture. European nations are frequently regarded as the homeland of science and romantic and sophisticated literature and this is simply not the whole story. With little research into the Second Golden Age of Science and Tradition, it is easy to see that the Muslim world was booming with creativity and scholarship long before much of the West even broke the surface of what Muslims had been studying for centuries.


Works Cited:

Holt, P. M., Lambton, Ann K. S., and Lewis, Bernard. The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 3b lecture. September 14, 2016.

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

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction To Islam. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print

Bulliet, Richard. “Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Lecture at Columbia University. March 9, 2010.


[i] Holt pg 805

[ii] Mahallati

[iii] Holt pg 808

[iv] Holt pg 754

[v] Holt pg 755

[vi] Mahallati

[vii] Mahallati

[viii] Mahallati

[ix] Menocal pg 36-37

[x] Brown pg 149

[xi] Mahallati

[xii] Bulliet