Sam Davidson: Science in Hearts and Minds

“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” The achievements of a single scholar can bring about more change and help more people than the sacrifice of any individual. This idea permeated Islamic Civilization, a place centuries ahead of Europe in its education and understanding of the Scientific Method. It was only through prolonged interaction with the Muslim World (through both conquest and more diplomatic means) that Europe’s own renaissance would one day blossom. While the Muslims shared much with Europe that would help its renaissance flourish, (trading new goods to stimulate trading and commerce for example) it was the gifts in both Science, and Education that would prove most transformative of Europe.

“The importance of this ‘Muslim’ or ‘Arab’ science to the general progress of culture is beyond question, and much evidence of it can be adduced,” (Holt, 742). The Muslim world’s contributions to Europe from a purely technological perspective are many. The Muslim world was indeed more advanced than Europe in both knowledge, and classification of, many natural sciences. Medicine, hydraulics, optics, astrology, even mathematics and trigonometry were all expanded greatly, if not discovered or reformed altogether.

“From being enthusiastic and industrious disciples, the Muslims proceeded to the second stage of becoming masters, exploring not only the books of the ancients, but nature itself” (Holt, 747) Above, Holt describes the commendable scholarship of The Muslim World, which managed to blend respect and learning from classics with more modern-observation. Rather than devotional following to the ancient words or complete disregard for them, the Muslim Scholars sought the ideal middle ground of venerating ancient treatises and essays while also setting out to expand upon them.

As it turns out, this compromise would greatly help Europe’s own renaissance form. As the Islamic world shared and translated more ancient texts for European readers, it allowed European philosophy to shift further from a church-centric view which it had been under for so long. This would promote freer thinking, the flourishing of The Arts, and change Europe in innumerable other ways. Meanwhile, a better focus on Scientific Method would allow European scholars to better develop their own technology through careful analysis and observation.

Education was another aspect of Islamic Civilization which would enrich Europe greatly. “In 218/833 al-Ma’mun founded the famous “House of Wisdom”, which was bound to have an important influence on the transmission of ancient learning to the Islamic World, and to stimulate a burst of intellectual activity…But the library which surpassed all others was the Dar al-hikma founded by the Caliph al-Hakim in 396/1005, which contained a reading-room and halls of courses of study; efficient service was secured by means of paid librarians, and scholars were given pensions to enable them to pursue their studies. All the sciences were represented there.” (Holt , 748) The description of Dar Al-hikma soundslike what could be expected of a large library or university in modern times! Muslim Societies great love of buildings that housed and spread knowledge would both help to spread information to Europe, while also perhaps showing Europe a better model for storing and sharing its own information.

That muslim society greatly appreciated both education and the drive to increase scientific thought is perhaps most evident in its hospitals. “The Physician had complete freedom over his experiments there, and was able to advocate new treatments. He wrote up the results of his experiments in special reports, which could then be consulted by members of the public. Physicians gave courses of instruction to their pupils, and, on the completion of teaching and practical work confirmed by an examination, granted them the ijaza which allowed them to practice medicine.”(Holt, 747) While Muslim hospitals were first and foremost places of healing and support, they could also be the perfect birthplaces for new medicine and physicians. This realization would not come to Europe until the renaissance was well under way, and it certainly did not come of its own volition.

At the core of Islamic civilization, there was a powerful respect for knowledge and the good it could bring about. I am reminded of a discussion we had in class, wherein we discussed how to give blood or ask for blood before the discovery of blood transfusions was Haram or forbidden. It was this way for many years, until the scientific community discovered how much blood giving could help people, and it has since become Mandub, or preferred. Behind each scientific discovery in Muslim Civilization, there appears to be some higher purpose, to bend that discovery to the forces of benevolence. It is perhaps this mindset which would allow a most pious region to also become a most questioning and curious one, quite unlike its European counterpart.


I have adhered to the Oberlin Honor Code

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