Carlos Armstrong: Islamic Contributions to the European Renaissance

The European Renaissance was a specific period of time in which cultural exchange between the Western and Middle Eastern worlds was at one of its highest points. Sicily and Spain served as the main points of cultural transmission as Norman-Arab-Byzantine exchange grew and developed. Eventually, translations of Arabic writings became available in the various languages spoken by the Europeans, allowing decades of discovery by the Muslims to be understood. From this, numerous centers of Muslim higher learning emerged, providing the Europeans with opportunities to study Muslim discoveries in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, art, and science.

Many classical Greek texts, such as those by Aristotle, had been translated in the Muslim world for centuries by the advent of the European renaissance. These texts were stored and developed by the Muslims until cultural exchanged occurred again, this time the developed texts translated into Latin by European scholars. From this cultural exchange rose the philosophical movements of Avicennism and Averroism; both were revivals of the Peripatetic school of philosophy that built off of Aristotle’s commentary to increase the understanding of logic and the existence-essence distinction, respectively. Averroes’s development of the concept of “existence precedes essence”, which states that the mere act of existence determines our value and worth, lead to an increased understanding of psychology and theory of mind. From this, two main aspects of Renaissance humanism developed as part of Muslim-founded theory: the art of diction and the humanist attitude to classical language.

Part of the critical works translated during the European Renaissance was Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine, which stood as the standard for all medical practices through the early modern period of European history. In this text sat some of the earliest recorded notes and study of the nature of contagions and infectious disease, with notes on how to effectively treat various diseases and develop new medicines. Avicenna also wrote The Book of Healing and The Comprehensive Book of Medicine, which both became a large influencial authority on various theories and practices of medicine. Additionally, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawl wrote the Kitab al-Tasrif, which became the medical encyclopedia famed for it intensive detailing of surgical practices and surgical instruments Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawl had developed him. These books would be translated into Latin and used in European medical school well into the 1770s.

The translations of the works of Al-Khwarizmi provided the European scholars with the first works of algebra in the entire continent. From introducing the word algorithm itself to the understanding of plan and spherical trigonometry, all these advances in mathematics are derived from Islamic scholars and authors from books such as the Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala and the Great Sindhind. These works were translated into Greek, and the lessons they taught eventually went on to be applied to a gained knowledge of Arabic numerals and the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. The application of these numerical systems lead to the Europeans gaining the ability to study the physics and cosmology, increasing the success of studying and applying cartographic mapping skills that then lead to greater European success in exploring the world.

Decorative Islamic art pieces were in high demand throughout the Europe in the Middle Ages largely due to their highly intricate designs and quality of material used. Islamic textiles were used for church vestments, shrouds, hangings and clothing for the more affluent Europeans. Because Islamic art was primarily ornamental in decoration or depicting small, nature-based scenes, Islamic objects did not offend or challenge the Christian religion’s morality or beliefs. In addition to these cultural contributions to the visual arts, European music was expanded by the influences of Arabic musical instruments, such as the rebec, naker, and shawm. These instruments are believed to have been brought by the original troubadours, who were Arabo-Hispanic performers who’s songs were full of intensity and eroticism. These artistic contributions to the European Renaissance added unique ornamentations to the visual and musical artistic realms.

Large advancements were made in the various scientific fields throughout the Islamic Golden Age, most notably in mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry. These findings were translated into Latin around 1127, and used by famous European scientists such as Newton and Descartes. The various discoveries improved European understanding of physics and how to apply astronomical information to better improve navigational and cartographical exploration. Additionally, advancements in chemistry lead to Western understanding of alchemy. Although belief in alchemy was considered controversial by the Christian church, it formed a preliminary understanding of atomic structure and introduced Arabic names for the new alchemical works, such as alkali.