Emily Hamlin: The Influence of Muslim Scientific Advancements on the European Renaissance

From the 9th to 13th centuries, the Muslim world was at the height of its scientific exploration, and essentially going through a Renaissance of its own. Meanwhile, Europe was slowly emerging from the “dark ages”, a time of little academic and scientific advancement and bad conditions in comparison with the “light” of the Renaissance in the 14th century. Many factors contributed to the European Renaissance, but Muslim scholarship and advancements played an important role in the enlightenment of Europe. Translations of Muslim works revealed to Europeans much of their forgotten Greek scientific roots, and also brought many new ideas to the table.

From the 9th century on, Muslim scholars made large advancements in many scientific fields. After translating a great number of scientific works from Greece and India into Arabic, scholars categorized and studied every area of scientific study. Muslims went beyond simply understanding and repeating the work of their predecessors, however; they also made advances in nearly every field, and created several of their own sub-fields. Mūzā al-Khurwārizmī, whose Latinized name is the basis of the word “algorithm”, was responsible for “laying the foundations” of Islamic Algebra (which comes from the Arabic word, al-jabr) (Holt 753). Many other Arabic words are used in chemistry, astronomy, and navigation today. Our system of numbers comes from India, but was transmitted to Europe by Muslims (Holt 742). Muslim scholars also invented the concept of plane and spherical trigonometry, within which field Abu’l-Wafā’ defined several trigonometric identities, as well as the secant and cosecant (Abu’l-Wafā’, not Copernicus, has been shown to be the true inventor of the secant) (Holt 754). Muslims also made numerous other important scientific and technological discoveries. The Muslim empire also supported scientific advancement through libraries and “think tanks”, some of which offered stipends to scholars who came to study. Hospitals were also places of study for medicine, and provided both care for the sick and medical training and study (Holt 748).

Equally important for the European renaissance were the areas of study that Muslim scholars focused less on. In areas such as Astronomy, Muslims mainly used the information they received to set times of prayer and improve their society and practice of religion in various other ways. They did not challenge the geocentric model of the universe advocated by Ptolemy (except in Muslim Spain, and this opinion was ignored elsewhere), and generally only deviated a bit from the Greek view of the universe. However, even fields that were less productive were still studied and improved a good amount. And just the fact that the Muslims had access to information on these fields meant that they could be of use to Europeans later on. Translation of Muslim scientific writings into European languages was what allowed Europeans to access not only Muslim advances in the sciences, but the sources that allowed for these advances in the first place. Medieval Europe had forgotten the scholarship and intellect of their Greek ancestors, and this knowledge was returned through translation of Islamic documents into Latin. In essence, Muslims received scientific information from European scholars, and returned the information, along with many additions, to Europe several centuries later. Europeans learned about their own roots through an outside source.

I found it very interesting to learn that the period of Muslim scientific advancement was an important factor in the European Renaissance. I learned about the Renaissance in several history classes in middle and high school, and never was the Muslim influence on the Renaissance, or anything about the Muslim world at the time, discussed. Of course, there were many other factors that came together to set the Renaissance in motion, but it seems like a large oversight to leave out the source of such a large influx of scientific information into Europe. From the Muslim perspective at the time, Europe was far behind in terms of civilization. In the late 11th century, Europeans invaded Syria and Palestine and set up crusader states in the areas (Brown 224). At this time, much of the Muslim empire was currently wracked with conflict, and the crusaders happened to come to the best place at the best time to conquer their territory. According to the accounts of Usāma ibn Munqidh and others, the Muslims under attack had little fear of the crusaders. In the eyes of the Muslims, the Christians were fighting for territory just as everyone else was. And unlike more powerful groups, the crusaders were viewed as barbaric, and easily cast aside their “crude” customs for the more civilized and advanced culture of the Muslims whose land they had captured (Brown 225). In the late 13th century, the crusaders lost their hold on Muslim territory, indicating that they were not yet ready to tackle the strong cultural and physical presence of the Muslim empire. Muslim civilization was at the peak of its scientific progress at this point, while Europeans still had a ways to go before the Renaissance in the 15th century. The crusaders likely learned from their experiences in contact with Muslims and saw where their own societies could be improved.

The European Renaissance came to fruition as a result of a number of factors, both internal and external. The information that European scholars received from Muslims was very important in allowing Europeans to move forward technologically and academically. And science was not the only thing that Europe used from Muslim culture: Muslims were also skilled in the manufacturing of textiles, leather, steel, etc., and their artwork was impressive as well (Holt 778). I believe that Muslim scholarship during this time period should get more recognition among the public for its part in both the European Renaissance and the advancement of the sciences in general.


Works Cited:

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

Holt, P. M., Ann Lambton K. S., and Bernard Lewis. “Science.” The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977. Print.