Muslim Inclusion and Influence in the Latin West – Ciaran Disney

The contribution from Muslims to the European Renaissance began far before latin speaking europeans and arabic speaking muslims came into constant contact. After The Prophet Muhammad’s death, Islamic Arabia was left without a leader. This began the extension of Arabia’s fingers eastward and westward. Adoption of other societies and cultures led to creation of muslim foundations from Spain to Pakistan.

Islam was a religion based in community. A central part of the religion that Muhammed established was umma, or community. This encouraged muslims to pray together as a community; prayer and religion would bring people of the Arabian Peninsula together. Mosques were fixed buildings that served as more than just religious centers for muslims. They worked as places that brought the community together to pray, teach, discuss, as one. So, in essence, Islam thrives in urban settings1. However, many of the first people who converted to Islam were Bedouins. Bedouin culture was based in nomadism: in constant motion with their camels2. Many new, muslim arabs were not suited to the fixed life that Islam pushed for. This caused the blanket of Islam to spread. Muslims were kneeling to Mecca from India in the east to Spain in the west. This meant that muslims, thousands of miles apart and of all different cultural backgrounds, were reciting the Quran in Arabic. In the quest to gain piety, muslims studied the Quran searching for sacred meaning. This led to the beginning of the Islamic focus on science, history, and knowledge. As Islam expanded to outwards from the Arabian Peninsula, muslims built or integrated into urban centers adopting knowledge and culture along the way. As Latin Europe entered a dark age, muslim scholars were present on the Iberian Peninsula consolidating books and pushing culture forwards.

In the later part of the first millennia, the Islamic kingdom was at its zenith of cultural advancement. The spark that started this Umayyad expansion lay in the previously discussed nomadism and strong sense of community. However, the success of this dynasty comes from a different source. As the muslim arabs furthered the geographic lines of Islam, an identity was forged. A robust feeling of pan-arabism was being developed by the people of the Arabian Peninsula. Tribal divides didn’t matter like they once did in the time of The Prophet. This unifying identity allowed this huge kingdom to have one mission for the lands that they conquered. The regions that the Umayyads were expanding into consisted of crumbling civilizations, either in transition or facing extinction. However, the conquering arabs seemed to have no difficulty in assimilating, adopting, and adjusting to new cultures3. This means that being a muslim and being Arab were not exclusive. Arabian muslims were excepting of, and even curious about, the new people they were encountering. This led to many conversions to Islam, but also many cultural conversions for the colonial Arabs. For example, Arabs on the Iberian Peninsula integrated into a culture by sparking conversions as well as intermarrying4. Those who lived within the bounds of Islamic civilization and did not convert to Islam were treated with general acceptance. In other words, jews and christians did live alongside muslims in the Umayyad empire. Muslims were moving quickly across the globe and accumulating cultural richness wherever they went. The intense identity of pan-arabism, the massive Islamic conversions, and the widespread tolerance of muslims allowed them access to the essence of the conquered lands.

The Umayyad empire thrived on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt, to Turkey, and the Iberian Peninsula. Islam occupied much of the bed that the Roman Empire once controlled5. The spread of Islam into this region of the world was happening as Europe was entering a stagnant, dark age6. Muslims were entering areas where Europe’s early history was crumbling and disappearing. The influence of the Quran as a driver of intellectual advancement spread beyond the heart of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. This meant that muslim scholars were working as academics in fields that included chemistry, math, and history in and around Europe. More specifically, these scholars were studying Roman and European history and translating it into arabic7. This history became muslim by nature. The process of conversion from latin to arabic and back again doesn’t leave a subject matter unchanged. As latin speaking Europe came into the Renaissance age, they had to relearn their own history from muslim scholars. In addition, arabs had become one of the most advanced societies in the world; furthering studies in chemistry, algebra, sociology, cosmology, math, and physics. For example, Gerard of Cremona, a latin speaking european, translated 87 muslim science books into latin. Due to the scholars of the golden age of Islam, european science was born.

The Iberian Peninsula, one of Islam’s only true footholds in classical Europe, was one of the most influential Islamic societies. Firstly, this area, which is now known as Spain, was never fully conquered by muslims. Many christian communities continued to exist free of muslim rule in the north and many christians, pagans, and jews lived within muslim communities freely8. This resulted in the transfer of knowledge, as well as strong muslim influence, even before the Islam was pushed out of the Iberian Peninsula. This was only intensified by the large amount of intermarrying and cultural interplay between the arabs and resident christians. Muslim reign of Spain began to end with the fracturing within their community and ended when Alfonso VI of Castile began to capture some of the opulent Islamic cities9. Christianity was now in control of the vast knowledge that belonged muslims. This, in combination with regrowing communities of Northern Europe, began the European Renaissance. The presence of muslims scholars and their libraries sparked the spirit of creativity that defined a massive part of the Renaissance. European history and science will always have inherent roots in muslim culture.

The European Renaissance and revival out of the dark ages wasn’t caused by Islamic presence, but did draw strength from it. The way in which pan-arabism spread and acted allowed for Islam to be an accessible culture to new converts, or people of any religion. The consolidation of knowledge and foothold in the Mediterranean basin was perfect geography to have influence in the latin west. Islamic politics and the inclusion of other cultures enabled their influence; acceptance allowed muslims to have effect on other societies.

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Endnotes:

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

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

3: 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.

4: 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.

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

6: 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.

7: 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.

8: 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.

9: 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.