Léo Anderson: Influence of Islamic Intellectualism on the European Renaissance

From the beginning of Islamic tradition, the importance of intellectual pursuits is stressed, as recorded in the Qu’ran: “Seek knowledge, in China if necessary” (Holt, p.741). With the gradual spread of the early Islamic Empire, this is exactly what the Muslim community did. With the course of the Arab conquests, they began to revive and assimilate with some of the rich indigenous cultures of newly acquired territories—starting with the Umayyads who demonstrated this by displaying Roman spoils and translating and consuming Persian and Greek literature and philosophical texts, although the bulk of the Greek philosophical corpus was translated under the Abbasids (Menocal, p. 21, 30). This influence went both ways; Islamic intellectuals relied on old foundational texts from foreign lands, but also contributed in making new cultural and intellectual developments that informed future Western academic canon. 

Academic/Intellectual Institutions, Translation

 It is important to note that the Muslim’s search for knowledge was rooted in and ultimately fueled by their religious devotion to better understand religious texts, jurisprudence and theology. This worldview is ingrained in the very classification of Muslim intellectuals, such as al Fārābī, the first Muslim thinker who’s “Catalogue of the Sciences” placed the “religious sciences” alongside foreign “rational” ones (Holt, p.743). In adopting ancient legacies from Greece and India, Muslim intellectuals soon developed their own branches of study—astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Institutions that fostered this intellectual progress were primarily academic libraries, and Al-Maʾmūn, the seventh caliph of the Abbasid Empire, was well known for founding the “House of Wisdom” that had “an important influence on the transmission ancient learning to the Islamic world and… [stimulated] a burst of intellectual activity” (Holt, p.748). Cordoba’s caliphal library during Umayyad Empire held an approximated 400,00 volumes, which loomed over Christian Europe’s largest library that only consisted of 400 manuscripts (Menocal, p.33). Other institutions that served the purpose of intellectual progression were that of Islamic law, which not only determined theological disputes but practically every faucet of Islamic society, including academic study of society and the sciences. The “dual authority” of the Qur’an and prophetic Sunna (which is made up of hadiths, or accounts of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions) shaped the general theory of Islamic law, which was then disputed by legal scholars belonging to various schools of law (Brown, p.189). Unlike jurists, who occupied a distinctly political position, many legal scholars prided themselves on their independence, and conducted research that was relevant to their pursued interests, both pragmatic and idealistic and were considered scientists in their own right.

Medicine and Health  

Islamic sciences were not only from the books, but involved direct observation and testing. This is evident in the practice of Islamic medicine, which began to make rapid progress in the second/eight century in Baghdad. Hospitals first started out of charitable conceptions but with the translation of ancient manuscripts by the immense effort of Christian scholar and physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq, they eventually served as a way for medical sciences to evolve in an experimental manner (Holt, p.768). Many hospitals had separate wards for internal diseases, surgery, ophthalmology and orthopedics, and even contained pharmacies which prescribed prescriptions from botanical materials under doctor’s orders. In these institutions, physicians had quite a bit of freedom to conduct their own research, advocate new treatments, take on pupils and consult members of the public.The strength of Muslims scientists and physicians was in the careful observation and verification seen in their work. Al-Rāzī, a Persian polymath who was considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest physician of the Islamic world, was able to distinguish smallpox from measles based off of his clinical observations and chemical experiments, which required complex laboratory apparatus that was previously unknown to previous practitioners of medicine (Holt, p.750). While Islamic medicine owed much of its foundation to ancient physicians and the medical texts they left behind, the medical developments resulting from meticulous practice and religious inspiration were original and groundbreaking and were enabled by breakthroughs in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and the natural sciences.

Mathematics & Science

In the field of mathematics and physics, Islamic intellectuals made significant strides in the fields of numerical calculations, inventing the fields of trigonometry and optics, among other things (Mahallati). These significant mathematical advancements are reflected in the word “algebra” itself, which is actually derived from Arabic: “al-jabar” meaning the restoration of something broken or amplifying something incomplete (Holt, p. 755). In particular, the invention of the Arabic numerical system was integral for more complex mathematics beyond arithmetic. While the basic principles were taken from the Greeks, Arabic manuals sorted numbers into whole numbers, non-rational numbers, and fractions; this system was a pivotal foundation for both theoretical and pragmatic calculations in geometry and algebra. Astronomical research was fueled by religious intentions, and was used for the purpose of understanding and measuring the heavens in order to calculate the relative passing of time to determine when and where to pray as well as the dates of religious holidays. Mechanics was a more practical application of mathematic, and was used to build up the infrastructure of the growing empire, including as the construction of irrigation works such as canals and other hydraulic machines. The “Book of Artifacts” dated back to 246/860, is the first Islamic mechanics textbook and was written by a collective of mathematicians who were all scientists and “patrons of learning” (Holt, p.756).

Muslim scholars also worked extensively in the natural sciences; besides medical related biology, the exploration of alchemy, although pursued for superstitious intentions, revealed the fundamental principles of chemistry. The previously mentioned Persian polymath al-Rāzī can also be credited for the first practical classification of chemical substances, through tangible experimentation in the laboratory where he prepared various drugs used as medication. In his “Sirr al-asrar” (Secretum secretorum), he mentions the chemical processes of distillation, solution, evaporation, crystillization, filtration, sublimation, calcination, and amalgamation (Holt, p. 777). Al-Rāzī rejected the magical and astrological practices of alchemy and insisted on fact-based experimentation, thus developing the infantile stages of reliable chemical knowledge that would guide future generations.

Although much of the vast intellectual progress made by Muslims during this time period relied on ancient foundational texts (of which a good amount was from Greece), the depth and scope of their advancements and inventions were absolutely crucial to later Western cultural, literary and scientific revival during the Renaissance. Almost all access to Ancient Greek text was through Arabic translations that were carefully translated and preserved in Islamic libraries, and were not directly from Latin (Mahallati). Thus it is thanks to the efforts of Islamic intellectualism that the vast body of human knowledge was able to be preserved, built and added upon by all future civilizations.



Brown, D. A New Introduction to Islam, 3rd. Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

Holt, P. M., Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, eds. The Cambridge History of Islam. The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521219495.

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

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.