Chamden Henzler-Lhasawa: Muslim Influence on the European Renaissance

The European Renaissance began in Italy and took place during the 14th to 17th centuries. Muslim scientists, philosophers, and doctors can be credited with laying the groundwork for the Renaissance during the years leading up to it. As Robert Briffault said in Making of Humanity, 1919: “There is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable”. The influence of Muslims on the European Renaissance can be seen through European connection with Islamic culture and technology in the al-Andalus emirate, the translations which took place in Baghdad and Cordoba, and the Muslims scholarship, both scientific and philosophical during the Abbasid empire.

In understanding the influence of Muslims on the European Renaissance it is crucial to understand the pre-Islamic Iberian peninsula, later home of Europe’s greatest Islamic empire. In 711 C.E. the Umayyad caliphate conquered the Iberian peninsula,–current day Spain and Portugal– overthrowing the Visigothic kingdom. The Visigoths, originally a Germanic tribe which took part in the fall of the Roman empire, had ruled over the Iberian peninsula since the 5th century. Although they were officially a Catholic people, paganism and polytheism were widespread throughout their empire. The Visigothic kingdom was an ethnic oligarchy, with Visigoths at the top and Jews at the bottom. Despite ruling for three-hundred years, the Visigoths rarely intermarried with ethnic Iberians. When the first Muslim armies crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 C.E. corruption, political instability, and mass unrest were ubiquitous throughout the kingdom and many Iberians weren’t embittered by the change in political leadership. The Islamic empire founded in the Iberian peninsula known as al-Andalus was a geopolitical estuary for the Christian and Muslim worlds which influenced the European Renaissance.

Abd al-Rahman, a Umayyad prince, was the first Emir of al-Andalus. Al-Rahman brought with him Islamic culture and the greatest technologies of the Muslim world. Using the Umayyads vast amount of money al-Rahman was able to economically revitalize the area. The Muslims introduced “new crops and new techniques including irrigation […] [making] agriculture a prosperous concern” (Menocal 2002, 47). By bringing the more advanced farming skills of the Islamic world to Iberia, the old Roman trading routes and pan-Mediterraneanism were rejuvenated. Unlike the Visigoths before them, the Muslim’s heavily intermarried with the native Iberians, sowing their legitimacy into the future of the region. Furthermore, the Muslims were as united by faith as they were by ethnicity. Being a Muslim became a sign of authority, resulting in mass conversion to Islam from Christianity, only reinforcing the Islamic empire. By bringing the techniques of agriculture to the Iberian Peninsula, the Muslims were able to make the region more prosperous and open up old trade roots with the rest of Europe allowing the technology of the Muslims to become known throughout Europe. While al-Andalus was only a satellite state of the Muslim world, it had the same technological and cultural advancements which it spread it to Europeans. It was this interaction with the prosperity of the Islamic world that caused the Renaissance.

Unlike Europe and Christian civilization, the Islamic world was extremely interconnected from Iberia to Kashmir. Although, the Umayyads reigned from Damascus and the Abbasids from Baghdad, Cordoba the capital of the al-Andalus empire, still had similar technological and cultural advancements due to advanced trade routes. During the height of Abbasid empire, massive translations of Greek and Roman literature took place in Baghdad. While many of these texts were lost or forgotten in the place of their origin, their ideas of philosophy, science and medicine flourished throughout the Muslim world. Eventually, the Greco-Roman translations made their way to Cordoba where they were translated into Spanish, Catalonia or Latin from Arabic by the al-Andalusians.The most prolific of the Cordoban translators was Gerard of Cremona, who translated over eighty-seven major scientific books from Arabic to Latin. Cordoba was the center of scholarship in Europe, “Learned men flocked thither from every part of Europe, in order to study the treasure of Graeco-Arab philosophy and Science” (Holt and Lambton, 1977, 853). Cordoba had the largest library in Europe at the time, it is said: “the caliphal library [had] (by one count) some four hundred thousand volumes, and at this time when the largest Christian library in Europe probably held no more than four hundred manuscripts” (Menocal 2002, 33). It was these Cordoban translations which reintroduced the high water mark of Latin Civilization back to Europeans, spurring the European Renaissance. Although the Greco-Roman texts did show the Europeans the greatness of their past, the contemporary Muslim work on science, medicine and philosophy also played an important role in sparking the European Renaissance.

When the Abbasids translated the scholarly texts of Greece and Rome they interpreted and analysed the literature, internalizing it and creating something entirely new: “Far from being merely the transmitters of the philosophical ideas of antiquity, the Arabs, and the Muslims in generally became the teachers and inspirers […] of the West” (Holt and Lambton, 1977, 860).We can credit Islam for the foundations of math, medicine, physics the scientific method and much more. We use the work of great thinkers such as Ibn Khaldun in sociology and Muhammad al-Razi in medicine to define our understanding of their fields today. Similar to the works of the great Latin thinkers, the writings of Muslims on all subjects eventually made their way to Cordoba and were translated into European languages. Europeans who were introduced in Cordoba to Muslim scholarship were galvanized to pursue their own science, medicine, and philosophies, a movement which eventually became the European Renaissance.

Without the influence of the Muslims, the European Renaissance would have never taken place. Only through the connection with al-Andalus and its technological and cultural achievements, the translations of Greco-Roman texts first into Arabic and then back into Latin, and the scholarship of Muslims throughout the world was the Renaissance allowed to happen. In the years leading up to the fourteenth century it was Muslims who conducted the greatest scholarship, leading the way for Europeans from the 14th to 17th century.

 

Holt, P.M., Lambton, Ann., Lewis, Benard., The Cambridge History of Islam. 1970. Cambridge: University Press.

Menocal, Maria. 2002. The Ornament of the World. New York: Back Bay Books.

Robert, Briffault. 1919. The making of Humanity. London: G. Allen and Unwin Ldt.