Max Condon: Islamic Thought and European Development

During the Islamic Golden Age, the cultivation of knowledge led to centuries of advancements across a variety of fields.  Mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, and philosophy all flourished as great thinkers and resources came together in centers for intellectual discovery.  Islamic civilization became a bastion for the great academic texts of history, defending, translating, and building upon this pool of knowledge.  Through various points of transmission, this knowledge permeated into European society.  This influx provided the framework for the transition out of the Medieval period into the Renaissance. 

The fields of mathematics and astrology was revolutionized in Europe by translations of great Muslim thinkers and by the adoption of the Hindu–Arabic numeral system.  One notable example was Al-Khwarizmi, considered to be the father of algebra.  Translations of his work were crucial to the development of mathematics through Medieval Europe and into the Renaissance.  The transfer of Al-Khwarizmi’s work into Europe in the 12th century was fundamental to the adoption the Hindu–Arabic numeral system in Europe.[1]  It is hard to overstate the importance that this adoption, along with the knowledge contained in the works themselves, had on European mathematics.  The developments of the great Renaissance mathematicians and astronomers served as incremental improvements over a generation of Europeans directly influenced by the work of muslims.  For example, the efforts of Fibonacci to adopt Arabic systems in Europe after his exposure to a trading post in the Almohad Caliphate.[2]  Work by the Greco-Egyptian astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy were studied and modified by al-Battani and Averroes.  This led to non-Ptolemaic models produced by Mo’ayyeduddin Urdi, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Ibn al-Shatir, which were later adapted by Renaissance thinker Copernicus.[3]

The field of physics, specifically optics, was also significantly advanced by muslim thinkers.  Ibn al-Haytham’s work The Book of Optics, built on the work of Ptolemy, and was a crucial development not just for the field, but the scientific method in general.[4]  Later European scientists, including Roger Bacon and Johannes Kepler, were directly influenced by Ibn al-Haytham, and these new theories of optics set the stage for new uses of perspective in later European art.[5]  The field of medicine was also revolutionized by the introduction of works by Arabic thinkers.  Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine become a standard textbook for centuries, being reprinted dozens of times through the 15th and 16th century.[6]  Ibn Sina was also a noted philosopher whose work reached a number of influential Medieval thinkers.[7]  Among the great thinkers of the Golden Age, Ibn Sina’s ability to be influential across a variety of different fields was not a unique exception, but practically the rule.  In this way, the very concept of the “Renaissance man” or the polymath is grounded in an Islamic understanding of one’s nature to God.  As scholar Ziauddin Sardar puts it, “this is seen as a testimony to the homogeneity of Islamic philosophy of science and its emphasis on synthesis, interdisciplinary investigations and multiplicity of methods”.[8] 

Going thinker by thinker, text by text through the countless fields of knowledge that were touched by Arabic thinkers does help one appreciate the scope with which Islam influenced and shaped the European Medieval period and by extension, the Renaissance.  However, this only scratches the surface of influence; the raw building blocks.  Perhaps even more crucial is the spirit of the pursuit of knowledge, a core value of the Golden Age of Islam that was effectively nonexistent in Europe in the middle ages theological philosophy.  The explosion of great thinkers in the Renaissance was not just the result of translated texts, preserved ancient works, or adaptations of knowledge.  It seems as though the spirit that drove the engines of innovation in cities like Baghdad was the very same one that pushed the artists, philosophers, and scientists of Europe’s own golden age.

Works Cited

  1. Toomer, Gerald (1990). “Al-Khwārizmī, Abu Ja’far Muḥammad ibn Mūsā”. In Gillispie, Charles Coulston. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 7. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  2. Knott, R. “Who was Fibonacci?”.
  3. George Saliba, ‘Revisiting the Astronomical Contacts Between the World of Islam and Renaissance Europe: The Byzantine Connection’, ‘The occult sciences in Byzantium’, 2006, p.368
  4. H. Salih, M. Al-Amri, M. El Gomati (2005). “The Miracle of Light”, A World of Science 3 (3), UNESCO
  5. Falco, Charles M. (12–15 February 2007), Ibn al-Haytham and the Origins of Modern Image Analysis, International Conference on Information Sciences, Signal Processing and its Applications
  6. David W. Tschanz, MSPH, PhD (August 2003). “Arab Roots of European Medicine”
  7. “The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Avicenna/Ibn Sina (CA. 980–1037)”. 2006-01-06.
  8. Ziauddin Sardar, Science in Islamic Philosophy, in Edward Craig (general editor), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 8, Taylor & Francis (1998), p. 564