Rebecca Posner: The Influence of Islamic Culture on the Renaissance

During the Middle Ages and beginning in the ninth century, literature, science, and the arts all experienced a major resurgence within the Islamic world.[i]  This was due to the influence both of government policies and of individual scholars who were interested in intellectual progress.  In addition to coming up with new ideas and creations in various fields, Muslim scholars helped preserve and revive works from ancient cultures.  Many fundamental texts by Greek and Roman philosophers were translated into Arabic.  Without these developments, the Renaissance in Europe that began during the fourteenth century might not have occurred.  For hundreds of years, the scholarship of the Greeks and Romans had been almost forgotten by most Christian scholars in Europe.  It was the Muslims who allowed these works to be rediscovered.  In addition, Arabic texts on science and medicine had a major impact on the European perspective on these subjects, which had previously been somewhat behind the times.  Many modern institutions that most people now take for granted, such as the hospital, the university, the think tank, and the library were revived and refined by Muslim scholars.  The European Renaissance involved both a revival of ancient ideals and the assimilation of new scholarly developments, and this would not have been possible without Islamic influences.

The golden age of Islamic scholarship originally began with the search for a deeper understanding of the Qur’an and the Hadith.  Ever since the beginnings of Islam, there had been a desire among its followers to fully comprehend the words of God and Muhammad as they were encapsulated in the sacred texts.  This thirst for knowledge led to the categorization of hadiths according to their historical merit and to ever-deeper analysis of each line of the Qur’an in order to understand its practical relevance for how to live a more spiritually and morally correct life.  It was inevitable that the Muslim tradition of practical research and textual analysis would eventually spill over into the study of more traditionally secular disciplines.  This development was indirectly encouraged by the large size of the Islamic empire.  Government administrators needed a better understanding of mathematics, geography, and the natural sciences in order to maintain the stability of the economy and ensure the health of the general population.  Libraries and think tanks also became increasingly necessary for religious scholars, or ulama, who needed to explore how Islamic law applied to the wide variety of social situations that naturally resulted from ruling over such a diverse group of people.  There were several famous libraries that provided a base for learning.  Two of the largest and most well-known ones were the Bayt al-Hikma (or House of Wisdom) in Baghdad which was founded by the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun in the early ninth century, and the Dar al-Hikma, founded in Cairo by the Fatimids in the year 1005.[ii]  The libraries provided a base for a burst of new academic activity, and they were also a repository for Arabic translations of a wide variety of philosophical works from older civilizations.  These translations served as a foundation upon which Muslim scientists, philosophers, and doctors were able to make significant advances in their fields.

Some major scientific pioneers of the Islamic world included Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina (or Avicenna), and Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, among many others.  Ibn Khaldun is considered to be one of the first sociologists, Ibn Sina was a polymath who wrote a major medical textbook that was used for many years after his death, and Musa al-Khwarizmi came up with many of the essential concepts of algebra.[iii]  Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Sina also both created different systems for categorizing all the areas of the sciences.  The mathematician Al-Battani was one of the inventors of plane and spherical trigonometry, which has implications for all sorts of scientific and mathematical calculations in astronomy and geography, among many other fields.[iv]  Their thoughts and discoveries helped lay some of the groundwork for the later advances made in Europe during the Renaissance.  One could even say that European scientists and mathematicians like Johannes Kepler, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo Galilei could not have made the discoveries that they did without the work of the Muslim scholars who came before them.  Their calculations would have been much less efficient without the use of Arabic numerals, and the advances that Muslims made in geometry, trigonometry, and algebra laid the foundation for further developments such as calculus.  In some cases, Islamic scientific research also had artistic consequences.  The research that Ibn al-Haytham, a scientist who died in the eleventh century, did relating to optics led to the development of the first camera obscura.  This later became a tool for European artists that they used to help create a more realistic sense of perspective in their works.[v]  Many of the Arabic scientific works that later scholars learned from were transmitted to them by Gerard of Cremona, an Italian scholar who translated eighty-seven scientific works from Arabic to Latin (which was still the main language of academic communication in Europe).[vi]  Clearly, the Europeans were able to glean a wide variety of skills and tools from the research done during the Islamic golden age.

The ancient texts that Muslims used as starting points for their own discoveries and experiments were also essential for later Renaissance scholars.  The main reason that the Renaissance started was as a way to revive various Greek and Roman artistic and philosophical practices in a non-pagan context.  The dominant religion of Christianity started to assimilate ancient ideals about the arts and morality in order to further strengthen the message and appeal of the Church.  This manifested itself in the stylistic choices that Renaissance artists made; they imitated the idealized proportions of classical statues in their own paintings and sculptures.  The wider dissemination of classical philosophical texts by Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, and countless others encouraged scholars to push themselves to think differently about their religion and the ways in which they studied the sciences.  If Muslim academics had not preserved these resources and come up with so many new techniques of study in the humanities and sciences, Europeans might have failed to make further progress in these fields for a much longer period of time.

[i] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/14/2016

[ii] Anawati, G. (1977) ‘SCIENCE’, in Holt, P.M., Lambton, A.K.S., and Lewis, B. (eds.) The Cambridge History of Islam:. Cambridge University Press, pp. 741–779.

[iii] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/14/2016

[iv] Anawati, pp. 754.

[v] Steadman, Philip. “Vermeer and the Camera Obscura.” BBC- History, February 17, 2011. Accessed September 25, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/vermeer_camera_01.shtml.

[vi] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 09/14/2016