Haley Jones: Muslim Scholarship as the Foundation for Early Modern Europe

The European Renaissance represents a turning point in the history of Western culture. To this day, the medieval period preceding it is considered a “Dark Age,” in which economic woes wrought by plague and large scale migration, the rise of early Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, and political instability in the wake of the fallen Roman Empire created an unproductive climate for the pursuit of knowledge. The Renaissance was an enormous change, marked by a return to the cultural ideals that flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as a starting point to the scientific developments that would grow to define the continent for the remainder of the millennium. However, not all of the rediscovered wisdom that brought about the Renaissance is owed to the Mediterranean civilizations. Significant historical biases have understated the true value of Muslim scholarship to the evolution of Western understanding. During Europe’s “Dark Age,” Islam had entered a Golden Age, in which culture reached a peak of refinement and sophistication. This occurred under the expansive rule of the Abbassids, from the 8th century to the 13th century.

The contributions of Muslims to the early modern European conception of science and mathematics are innumerable and underappreciated. Algebra was invented by the ninth-century scholar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khuwarizmi, and Arab scholars are responsible for the formalization of trigonometry as well. [1] Arithmetic was refined by Muslim scholars, as was geometry, astronomy, and hydrology. Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham made enormous strides in the field of optics, and medicine as a practice and profession was significantly expanded and regulated. [2] Muslim scholars wrote significant textbooks in a variety of fields that would serve to inspire Westerners, such as the Liber de pestilentia and Liber medicinalis ad al-Mansorem by the physician Abu Bakr al-Razi, the Book of Artifices of the Banu Musa (the first ever textbook on mechanics), and the Kitah al-manazir by al-Haytham. [3] The incredible output of scholarship during the Muslim middle ages would go on to serve as the foundation for European thinkers as the continent transitioned from the late medieval period into the Renaissance, where intellectual pursuits and the production of culture flourished.

Another important contribution to the Renaissance by Muslims was the notion of the connection between God and the observable universe. Rather than religion and sciences standing as opposing forces, Muslim scholars were inspired by their faith, and indeed from the Qur’an directly, to continue to investigate natural phenomena. [4]  Holt even makes the statement that “with the possible exception of its poetry and its proverbs, all Muslim intellectual activity in the widest sense had its starting point in the Qur’an”. [5] This theological justification for research, and a climate of religious tolerance, allowed for the incredible progress made in the Muslim world in almost every field of scholarship. The idea that the perfection of God’s creation could be understood through the rational understanding of geometry, optics, and other sciences was a particularly strong undercurrent in the European Renaissance.

The Renaissance was by definition a renewal, a rediscovery, of ancient knowledge from disparate cultures – primarily the civilizations of Greece and Rome. But the process of incorporating such wisdom with present ideology to form a cultural synthesis began with Muslims in the late middle ages. Muslim scholarship had its genesis in the decipherment and translation of important scientific and philosophical texts from India and Greece, including the ideas of men such as Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, and Ptolemy that remain central pillars in the development of Western thought. [6]

Muslims contributed linguistically to the development of early modern European thought. Islam was instrumental in bringing the study of the Arabic language to Europe. This gave scholars the linguistic tools needed to translate the Hebrew Bible, one of the many ancient texts uncovered and scrutinized during the Renaissance that lead to a deepening of intellectual culture. [7] Additionally, Arabic words remain enmeshed in European languages as terms for various scientific fields and concepts. For example, the mathematician Musa al-Khuwarizmi’s name is the root of the word “algorithm,” and his field of expertise, algebra, comes from an Arabic word. [8] Even our present writing system utilizes Arabic numerals, replacing Roman numerals and streamlining mathematical calculations. [9]

Finally, the Muslim world was responsible for the development of institutions that would later be borrowed in urban centers in Europe – elements of social organization that seem indispensable in Western countries today. The Bayt al-hikma, founded in 833 CE under Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma’mun in Baghdad, was one of the first universities in the world. The libraries of Cairo contained thousands of books and formed a repository of knowledge from all fields, both ancient and contemporary. Muslim hospitals acted both as arenas for medical research as well as places to care for the sick, and their physical and hierarchical organization was incredibly advanced and allowed for doctors to specialize within the various subsets of medical practice. [10]

In the fifteenth century, the golden era of Islamic sciences began to decline, for reasons that are debated among scholars. [11] Nonetheless, the contributions that scholars such as  al-Haytham and al-Khuwarizmi made to their fields long outlive any transient political regime or period of cultural prosperity. Traces of the golden era remain in the present day institutions that we take for granted, as well as the words we use when we discuss mathematics or astronomy. The intellectual curiosity inspired by the Qur’an, as well as the Muslim willingness to assimilate knowledge from distant peoples into their own understanding of the world, serve to this day as models for mediating religion and science in today’s global community.

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment. -Haley Jones




1 P. M. Holt, ed. “Science.” The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume IIB: Islamic Society and Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978. pg. 753

2 Holt, pg. 755, 769

3 Holt, pg. 756, 770

4 Holt, pg 778.

5 Holt, pg 741.

6 Holt, pg 742

7 P. M. Holt, ed. “Introduction.” The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume IIB: Islamic Society and Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978. pg xvii-xviii

8 Holt, “Science.” pg 753-754

9 Holt, pg 747

10 Holt, pg 748-749
11 Holt, pg 778