Emma Nash: Maintaining Classical Legacy in the Arab-Islamic Middle Ages

Maintaining Classical Legacy in the Arab-Islamic Middle Ages

13th century illustration depicting a public library in Baghdad, from the Maqamat Hariri. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

13th century illustration depicting a public library in Baghdad, from the Maqamat Hariri. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

In Western Europe, the collapse of the Roman empire led to the loss of both the civil order and long-term continuity from classical Greece.[1] During the Middle Ages, Muslims continued to translate, circulate, and innovate from classical sources. The intellectual prosperity of Arab-Islamic civilization at this time owed to cultural and scholarly attitudes embedded both in the Qu’ran and in the project of Arab conquest. By proclaiming that God was glorified by wonder at His creation, the Qu’ran itself stimulated scientific research and innovation.[2]  The attitude of Arab rulers toward their conquered lands was, additionally, one conducive to the assimilation of knowledge and revival of classical sources. In their conquests, Arab rulers forged a new cultural synthesis, melding Arab roots and Arab language with Near Eastern patterns of civilization and religious life[3]; hence, the Arab-Islamic civilization was able to “assimilate and even revive the rich gifts of earlier and indigenous cultures.”[4]

In Cordoba, this equal glorification of knowledge and capacity for the assimilation thereof manifested in a culture of book worship, which itself sustained the continued circulation of texts from classical Greece. While Christian texts comprised the majority of what people led in Latin, Arabic encompassed many secular literatures.[5] The Andalusians made translation of the Greeks into Arabic a prized, and their libraries (which completely outstripped those of Christian Europe) housed crucial traditions lost to the rest of the Latin West[6]. During the Crusade of 1095, the holdings of Cordoba’s libraries came to be read and canonized as part of Western tradition[7]. Outside of Cordoba, one might also look to the rich holdings of the libraries of Cairo under the Fatimids as an example of the vibrancy of Muslim textual culture at the time.[8] Muslims, by sustaining the circulation of classical texts at the moment of Western Europe’s historical rupture from its classical past, thus made possible the intellectual foundations of Renaissance inquiry.

Sustained Muslim inquiry into classical traditions also laid the groundwork for scientific innovation. During the Middle Ages, Muslim thinkers participated in the classification of the sciences, as well as made lasting contributions to arithmetic, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, optics, mechanics, astronomy, and medicine. Many of these innovations built upon those of classical (but especially Greek) thinkers who were rarely directly read in the Christian West at the time. In classifying the sciences, both al-Farabi and Ibn Sina drew on the works of Aristotle.[9]  Arabic arithmetic inherited its basic principles and definitions from the Greeks[10], while Arabic geometry was founded on a deep knowledge of Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius.[11] (Of course, it is not just the acquisition of classical knowledge that stimulated so much innovation at the time, but also the assimilation thereof; Islam provided an impetus for scientific inquiry in part because it saw the secular or profane sciences as useful to Islamic needs. Arithmetic, for example, was a useful means of assessing taxes, reckoning legal compensation, and dividing inheritances according to Quranic law.[12]). In mechanics and astrology, classical learning also became a familiar point of reference; al-Khazini quoted Archimedes, Aristotle, Menelaus, and Pappas in his theory of balance,[13] while in the field of astronomy, scholars frequently deferred to the theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle.[14] Classical tradition, which Islam was uniquely prepared to absorb, thus provided a foundation for Arabic inquiry into the sciences.

This general inquiry into mathematics also yielded a form without precedent: algebra, so named for the work of Muhammad b. Musa al-Khawrizmi (whose own name inspired the word “algorithm”)[15], translated by Robert of Ketton near the end of the 12th century.[16] At the same time, Western Europe imported from the Arabs an entirely new numerical system—the same one in use today. This was itself a Baghdadi adaptation of an Indian system, which made advanced mathematical calculations possible through reference to the number zero (which was not a feature of the Latin system). The Arabic numeral system also made use of positional notation, making advanced calculations substantially easier.[17]

In addition to building upon the traditions of Aristotelian classification, classical arithmetic, and Euclidean geometry, Muslims in the Middle Ages applied rigorous observation and experimentation toward new subject areas. While these innovations reflected the influence of the Greeks, they also demonstrated that the Muslims had come to surpass the Greeks in their powers of observation and care in verification.[18] While Muslim science built upon classical tradition, it also vigorously applied itself to the direct observation of nature and experiment.[19] The institution of hospitals helped sustain a culture of scientific observation and experiment, as did the tools of scientific instrumentation provided by caliphs and princes.[20]

The capacity for precise measurement so yielded trigonometry, which was not so new as writers like Carra de Vaux initially thought (both Hipparchus and Ptolemy had calculated a table of chords in their time). However, Arabic inquiry into trigonometry made the trigonometrical functions of sine, tangent, cosine, and cotangent explicit; the importance of these functions in modern mathematics requires no elaboration.[21] Moreover, the application of geometric principles to light enabled Muslim scientists to construct mirrors and lenses—to innovate, that is, within the emergent field of optics. The work of Hasan b. al-Haytham within this field was of particular influence in medieval Western Europe, inspiring studies by Roger Bacon and Witelo.[22] Additionally, Muslims wrote the first (Banu Musa’s Book of Artifacts) [23] and recorded original observations on smallpox and measles.[24] The innovation that proceeded from this processes of observation extended to all fields.

During the Middle Ages, the Arab-Islamic capacity to assimilate knowledge spurred the continued translation and circulation of classical texts. These classical texts were, at the time, remote to Western European society; the Arab-Islamic influence on the European Renaissance thus begins with sustaining the classical discourses which would later inspire the Renaissance. These classical texts inspired mathematical and scientific innovations—among them algebra, trigonometry, the Arabic numerical system, and optics—whose influence would persist throughout the Renaissance (and well after). More broadly, the Arabic-Islamic influence on the European Renaissance might be summarized through recourse to their practice of a more rigorous and precise system of scientific observation and measurement—a practice that surely anticipates Enlightenment practices. The Arab-Islamic legacy in Renaissance thinking thus begins the preservation of the classical legacy that would later inspire the Renaissance itself and extends to the scientific program that developed from that legacy.

[1] Menocal, Maria-Rose. “Culture in Time of Tolerance: al-Andalus as a Model for Our Time,” pp. 25.

[2] Holt 778

[3] Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd. Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 111.

[4] Menocal 21

[5] Menocal 75

[6] Menocal 34

[7] Menocal 42

[8] Holt, P.M. ed., “Science,” in the Cambridge History of Islam, pp. 748.

[9] Holt 745

[10] Holt 751

[11] Holt 752

[12] Holt 751

[13] Holt 756

[14] Holt 760

[15] Holt 753

[16] Menocal 180

[17] Menocal 180-181

[18] Holt 750

[19] Holt 749

[20] Holt 750

[21] Holt 754

[22] Holt 755

[23] Holt 756

[24] Holt 770