Jorge Kalil: Muslim Influence on the European Renaissance

Following the fall of Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, Europe entered what is known as the dark ages, a period characterized by cultural and economic deterioration. Thankfully, this eventually led to a phase of rediscovery and scientific innovation, today known as the Renaissance. Contrary to popular belief, this was only made possible due to the significant scientific and cultural accomplishments of Muslim scientist in the centuries preceding the renaissance known as the Golden Age of Islam. Under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, the Islamic empire expanded not only geographically but also intellectually; their thirst for knowledge rooted in the Quran and their encounters with older civilizations led to significant advancements in algebra, medicine and engineering. Had it not been for Arabic translations of classic texts, which stimulated Muslim contributions to important areas of knowledge, the libraries and schools built in Muslim cities, and Muslim presence in Spain, the European renaissance could not have been.

Arabic translations of classic Greek and Roman texts not only preserved important European history, ultimately allowing Europe to rediscover itself, it also increased Muslims’ thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world. After the Roman Empire fell, awareness of early European contributions to science was slowly diminishing. But as the Islamic empire expanded and encountered older cultures, Muslims discovered and translated important classic texts, thus allowing them to build upon the already existing body of knowledge pertaining to medicine, mathematics, and many natural sciences (Mahallati, 2017). Perhaps even more important was the widespread use of the Arabic language within the Islamic empire, which stretched from India to Spain; meaning that all major scientific discoveries of the time were documented in Arabic. It wasn’t until Western Europeans began to translate translations of ancient Greek works and original Muslim texts that Europe managed to enter its period of rebirth. One example is Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who translated 87 major science books from Arabic to Latin in the 12th century, including Ptolemy’s Almagest, Euclid’s Geometry, and Alfraganus’s Elements of Astronomy. Without these translations, Europe would have lost access to an immense body of knowledge and culture (Holt, 1970) (Mahallati, 2017).

Moreover, Muslims efficiently built and expanded on these classic works, making significant contributions to areas such as mathematics and medicine, which were later driving forces in the European renaissance. As interest in the sciences grew, Muslims became “enamored [with] research and experiment, exploring not only the books of the ancients but also nature itself” (Holt, 1970). The field of algebra, for example, was pioneered by figures like Musa al-Khuwarizmi, known as the father of algebra, and ‘Umar Khayyam, who distinguished between 60 types of quadratics. Also, “the Arabs were, according to Carra de Vaux, unquestionably the inventors of plane and spherical trigonometry, which did not, strictly speaking, exist among the Greeks” (Holt, 1970). Building on the works of Hipparchus and Ptolemy, the Arabs developed the functions of sine, tangent, cosine, and cotangent. Furthermore, Muslims are known for creating the concept of the number zero and for using a more efficient numeral system that was later adopted by Europe (Mahallati, 2017).

Similarly, in medicine, Muslim scientists “laid the foundations for the great treatise subsequently produced” when they developed the scientific method, which led to many important progressions in worldwide medicine (Holt, 197)(Mahallati, 2017). Hunayn b. Ishaq, one of the main contributors to medicine, translated and revised works by Plato, Aristotle, Autolycus, Menelaus, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander of Aphrodisias and Artemidorus as well as the “three authors who provided the basis of all Greek medical science and who performed the same service for Arab medicine: Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides” (Holt, 1970). As if that was not enough, Hunayn wrote about a hundred books on medicine, three of which had profound and lasting influence: Medical Questions, Questions on the Eye, and The Ten Dissertations on the Eye. Meanwhile, the manuscripts of the medical endeavors of Muslim scientists were spread to the important centers in Spain, North Africa, Egypt, and Syria (Holt, 1970). Later, Ibn Sina, who led Muslim medicine to the peak of its achievement, wrote Canon of Medicine, a seminal work replicating the great works of Hippocrates and Galen and supplementing them with personal experiences, allowing him to make important discoveries such as distinguishing between mediastinitis and pleurisy, and recognizing the contagious nature of tuberculosis (Holt, 1970). His book was considered the most complete dissertation of its time. To top that off Ibn Sina is known for inventing the concept of momentum, which is not necessarily related to medicine, but showcases the versatility of Muslim scientists, a characteristic observed in many Renaissance scientists (Mahallati, 2017). Mathematics and medicine were not even close to the only areas of knowledge profoundly influenced by Muslim efforts. Other contributions include astronomy, optics, architecture, poetry and literature; all were essential to the development of thought during the European renaissance.

Other contributing factors were the institutions such as libraries and hospitals, which were the setting where numerous scientific discoveries took place. Muslims were pioneers in the use of spaces specifically dedicated to learning; their libraries contained both ancient Greek works and original texts written by Muslim scholars and had reading rooms and halls for studying. One example is the House of Wisdom, founded by al-Ma’mun, which had an “important influence on transmitting ancient learning to the Islamic world” and on stimulating a “burst of intellectual activity” (Holt, 1970). The famous Dar al-hikma in Cairo, founded by Caliph al-Hakim, was similarly innovative by providing scholars with pensions so they could pursue their studies. Additionally, their hospitals also included classrooms and doubled as medical schools (Holt, 1970). In this way, Muslim scholars set a precedent in education, which ultimately spilled over into Europe once Islamic growth had slowed down after the 12th century.

What brings all of this together is Muslim presence in Spain, which helped integrate Muslim thought and institutions into Western Europe. Fleeing prosecution in the East, Muslims were welcomed into Spain with open arms where they exchanged ideas with Jews and Christians living in Cordoba. This period was a time of great cultural effluence and syncretism where cultures grew by learning from one another. No period was as thriving and promising for Jewish history as the 500 years they lived within the Muslim empires (Mahallati, 2017). Furthermore, Christianity was heavily influenced by Muslim theological concepts when they created Muslim-Christian sister organizations that brought philosophy to religion (Mahallati, 2017). Eventually the Christian use of rational Muslim theory during enlightenment heavily influenced the rise of romanticism. Ultimately, the expansion into Spain solidified Muslims impact on European thought.

Muslim influence on modern times is evident in our language, schools, and general understanding of the world. What Muslim scientists achieved shaped the rest of European history, and should be given more credit. In a relatively short period of time Muslims went from using “mathematics and science as a means of awakening a sense of transcendent wonder” (Armstrong, 2009) to advancing bodies of knowledge that are the foundation of modern thought. The Golden Age of Islam is clearly one of the most productive and influential eras in modern human history and it should be treated as such; too few people comprehend the magnitude of these accomplishments.

 

References:

Armstrong, K. Islam: A Short History. London: Phoenix Press, 2009.

Holt, P.m., Lambton, Ann K.S., and Lewis, Bernard. The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture notes. September 13, 2017