Hayley Segall: Muslims as the foundation to the European Renaissance

Between the 10th and 11th centuries, an Islamic renaissance flourished in which Muslim scholars and scientists elaborated on existing works and established new ideas regarding philosophy, science, literature, and faith. The depth and impact of such contributions reached beyond the borders of Arabia and the geographical origins of Islam. Through the spread of Islamic reign and informal cultural interactions, Muslims highly influenced the European renaissance and the foundations of Western academia and art. Muslims’ influence on the European Renaissance lay primarily in three areas: scientific advancements, the transformation of Spanish culture through dynastic rule, and the creation of institutions.

Muslim scientists and academics pushed for advancements in numerous fields, some of which include mathematics, physics, astronomy, metaphysics, and medicine[i]. Building upon ancient works formulated by Indians, Greeks and others, Muslim scientists sought to find deeper, more complex answers to questions pertaining to the natural world and were responsible for establishing new fields of study that became foundational to the Renaissance world.  Scientists like Muhammad b. Musa al-khuwarizimi expanded upon notions of mathematics and laid down the foundations of modern algebra[ii]. His name was the root for the word ‘algorithm’, and he is best known for verbalizing over sixty types of quadratics, as well as the division and multiplication required to solve such equations[iii].

Even the word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic work ‘al-jabar’, meaning the restoration of something broken[iv]. The significance of the Arabic root, which appears consistently throughout renaissance-related linguistics, embodies the heavy-hand Muslims played in shaping the European renaissance and the evolution of what is often perceived to be Western thought.

Another important Muslim scientist was Ibn Haytham. As explain by Professor Mahallati, all discoveries prior to Haytham were ‘pre-scientific’[v]. Haytham was responsible for essential innovations and discoveries in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, but is best known and credited as the father of optics[vi]. Haytham established the concept of camera obscura, and was the first to be able to calculate the height of the atmosphere[vii]. All of these contributions laid the groundwork for often Western-attributed discoveries and inventions in the fields of optics and astronomy. Countless scientists in the Renaissance and beyond elaborated upon the work of their Muslim predecessors, thus creating thousands of materials deeply enriching the knowledge about the natural world and methodologies in which to best calculate such phenomenon.

Muslim advancements and influence in academia extended beyond the areas of science and mathematics. The European Renaissance experienced a new richness and romanticism in language and literature, and much of this had grounding in Islam. Islam became integrated into European culture through education, and most specifically Islamic control in Spain.  When fleeing persecution, Umayyad Prince, Abd Al-Rahman III established an Islamic dynasty in Cordoba, Spain in 756 c.e without having intended to do so[viii]. Spaniards seeking a new form of rule welcomed the authority of Muslims and therefore welcomed the Islamic culture and traditions that came with the dynasty, and therefore Muslims interacted deeply with Jews and Christians of the region. By the 10th and 11th centuries, Arabic became the dominant language for Jewish communities in Spain, and Muslim theology was quickly integrated into Christian concepts of the Enlightenment[ix]. Further, Christians utilized concepts of Muslim romantic literature, which was fundamental to the European Renaissance culture, and would have been absent without Muslim influence.  More generally, Muslim culture that had reached Spain impacted romantic literature and rationalism, for which the renaissance is known.  Thus, without the transmission of literature and technique from Muslims to Spaniards and Christians as a whole, the European Renaissance would not have existed as we know it, and modern European literature would be lacking.

The advancement in the natural sciences, social sciences, philosophy and literature was culminated through the establishment of institutions, perhaps the most powerful contribution Muslims gave to the European Renaissance. Muslims established universities, libraries, and hospitals that provided outlets for education, preservation, and experimentation. The Fatimid empire cultivated education and exploration through its religious tolerance and its intellectual freedom. These strongly held social values allowed the creation of the oldest university in the world, Al-Aznor[x]. The establishment of education through universities also persisted through the formation of libraries throughout Spain, Egypt, and beyond. According to Professor Mahallati, Cordoba alone developed over 70 libraries with some containing more than 400,000 pieces of literature[xi]. These libraries integrated works of ancient scholars in Greece with modern thought of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, most of which was written in, or translated into Arabic. Perhaps the most notable library was one established in Baghdad. Al- Ma’mun founded the ‘House of Wisdom’ which served as an academy and the largest library in the world[xii]. The library held texts pertaining to mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, chemistry, zoology, geology and cartography[xiii].  The House of Wisdom became the first think tank in which scientists of all faiths collected research and studied texts[xiv]. While built in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom became central to students and academics from European and Arabized places alike and served as an intersection of language, cultural background, and faith.

In addition to libraries, which seem to be a trademark institution of the Muslim people, hospitals and medical facilities were characteristic of Muslim rule in, most specifically, Egypt and Baghdad. Hospitals held Islamic spiritual importance by serving as a means of charity for pious purposes, but they also facilitated the expansion of medical research and experimentation[xv]. The medical facilities were divided into two sections: one for treating men and one for treating women. Each section had separate wards and sub-wards to address fields ranging from internal diseases to surgery to orthopedics and ophthalmology[xvi]. As mentioned before, hospitals also had libraries where foreign students, many of whom would be at the forefront of the European Renaissance, could study, experiment, and collect materials to bring back to their homelands[xvii].  The formation of these institutions helped unify and organize thousands of years of research and create better opportunity for research and an overall more educated, healthier society.

The contributions of Muslims to the European Renaissance is best reflected through the following value in Islam as described by Professor Mahallati: the ink of scholars is more pious than the blood of martyrs[xviii]. Muslims maintained a deep dedication to advancing and spreading knowledge amongst Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. The Renaissance saw huge advancements in the fields of science, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and romantic literature.  The Muslim developments and creation of institutions in Europe and the Middle East that spurred the development of all these fields helped foster such advancements for which the Renaissance is known.  In short, despite the lack of credit most Westerners give to the Islamic influence, the spread of Muslim culture and thought to Europe proved essential to the foundations of Western thought and science in the Renaissance and beyond

[i] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[ii] Holt, P.M. “Science”. The Cambridge History of Islam. (Cambridge University Press. Vol 2b) Page 753.  

[iii] Holt, P.M. “Science”. The Cambridge History of Islam. (Cambridge University Press. Vol 2b) Page 753.

[iv] Holt, P.M. “Science”. The Cambridge History of Islam. (Cambridge University Press. Vol 2b) Page 753

[v] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[vi] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[vii] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[viii] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[ix] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[x] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[xi] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[xii] Holt, P.M. “Science”. The Cambridge History of Islam. (Cambridge University Press. Vol 2b) Page 748.

[xiii] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[xiv] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.

[xv] Holt, P.M. “Science”. The Cambridge History of Islam. (Cambridge University Press. Vol 2b) Page 749.

[xvi] Holt, P.M. “Science”. The Cambridge History of Islam. (Cambridge University Press. Vol 2b) Page 749.

[xvii] Holt, P.M. “Science”. The Cambridge History of Islam. (Cambridge University Press. Vol 2b) Page 750.

[xviii] Mahallati, Jafar. “The Abbasids and Buyids”. Lecture. 13 September 2017.