Zoe Kushlefsky: The Ink of Scholars: Muslim Society as the Catalyst of the European Renaissance

The Ink of Scholars

Muslim Society as the Catalyst of the European Renaissance


By Zoë Kushlefsky



“The search after knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.” “The ink of the scholars is worth more than the blood of the martyrs.”[1] These are just two of the innumerable maxims within the tradition of Islam that makes clear the high pious value placed on education and knowledge.  The Islamic focus on the importance of knowledge can be traced to the very root of the religion: the Prophet Muhammed’s first visit from the angel Gabriel, wherein Gabriel proclaimed to Muhammed the command, “Read.” Gabriel says to Muhammed, “Read in the name of God who created you,” and from the Prophet Muhammed’s very first connection to the divine he is immediately put out on a quest for knowledge. This is a theme that never went away, as Islamic civilization developed. The high pious value placed on information and education led to the ever-repeated pattern of Islamic scholars and thinkers making great strides in fields that were either underdeveloped, untouched, or completely undiscovered. The emphasis on knowledge in Islamic society around the 9th century allowed for Muslim scholars to make these great strides which in turn were able to be brought over to Europe and usher in their own European Renaissance. Most everything we consider mathematics or sciences today are the direct results of the educational and theoretical strides made by Islamic minds, and these texts being translated from Arabic directly caused the European Renaissance.

The development of sciences as well as the categorization of studies belong to Muslim scholars. The search for understanding of the sacred texts led to the inquiry of the profane sciences, further showing the never-ending quest for knowledge and understanding of Earth and the cosmos. Al-Farabi, for example, gave an “overall picture” of sciences and broke them down into their categories which have stuck and further developed today. Logic, mathematics—which breaks down into arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, music, statistics, and mechanics—physics, metaphysics, politics, jurisprudence, and theology are the categories he set forth.[2] Another notable contributer to the Islamic studies of science is Muhammed b. Musa al-Khuwarizmi, whose name is the inspiration for the word “algorithm.” He is considered to be the sole mind behind the roots of the study of algebra.[3] Considering algebra is at the base of many other modern mathematical endeavors, his influence is insurmountable. Another Islamic scientist, Ibn Haytham, is credited with beginning the modern scientific method that is still used today. Once again, one can only imagine the stretch of influence made by this man considering scientific method is used to develop and research constantly in the scientific community. It is impossible to know where society would be without the developments made by these and many other men of Islamic society. Abu al-Qasim is also considered the father of modern surgery, mathematics, and physics, which are clearly three massively important areas of study. Just looking at these few men alone, not counting the numerous others, Islamic contributions can be seen to cover essentially all of today’s science and scientific endeavors. Additionally, principles of geometry allowed for the development of mirrors and lenses. Members of this Arab society were theorists, analysts, inventors, and revolutionaries whose contributions to every single field of science, math, the study of music, and even art were truly too numerous to even skim the surface of.

Not only were all these and more developments made, but refinements were made to previous Grecian works of science, including specifications to terms. “The admirable flexibility of the Arabic language made it possible for them to coin an exact philosophical and scientific vocabulary, capable of expressing the most complicated scientific and technical terms.”[4] There are terms which were previously left obscure that were, thanks to the language of Arabic, able to be strongly and firmly identified. Therefore, we have not only the Muslim scholars to thank, but the Arabic language itself for its flexibility and specificity.

It would be folly to consider Islamic influence on the European Renaissance without looking at the institutions that were formed in Muslim society. Libraries and hospitals were two such institutions that made leaps and bounds in developing theories.[5] There are today, “in spite of many losses by destruction, nearly a quarter of a million manuscripts in the various libraries of the Muslim world…”[6] The House of Wisdom was the largest library in the world in the 9th century, and the place where scientists and theorists of all disciplines and belonging to all religions came and gathered for the first ever think tank. The House of Wisdom, or dar al-Hikma, also housed over 400,000 volumes, and there were many other massive libraries in Cordoba. This multidisciplinary approach to problem solving and further development was potentially unheard of at the time. The Fatimid empire also ushered in a period of exquisite and influential art, and encouraged the intellectual freedom that allowed for all these new discoveries and scientific endeavors. Also, the Islamic Al-azhar university is the oldest university in the world. Books and libraries weren’t the only impressive institution, however. While Muslim science “borrowed a great deal from the ancients, it also applied itself to the direct observation of nature and to experiment, as demonstrated…by the institution of hospitals.”[7]

Aside from the libraries, hospitals were another massively important institution that ushered in the European Renaissance. The charity hospitals featured doctors who had their own interns and students, who would learn under the doctors before becoming practicing doctors themselves, an extension of the think tank ideology. There were gardens for medical herbs and a hospital of music therapy. There were several wards for men and women: internal diseases, surgery, ophthalmology, and orthopedics, and several of these wards had subcategories for even more specific needs. It is easy to take the specificity of these things for granted in the 21st century, but it must be understood that such a detailed and thorough healthcare institution was unheard of at the time.

The European Renaissance can be safely considered to be directly caused by the developments coming out of Arabia. As these texts were translated from Arabic into Latin, Europe picked up on developments and took them as their own, ushering in the Renaissance. There are many theories for the decline of scientific advancement in Arabia, one of which is the newfound prominence of predestination ideology. Regardless, to say Muslims contributed to the European Renaissance would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say, rather, that every scientific and mathematical advancement can be traced back to the mind of a Muslim scholar.






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.


[1] 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, 741.


[2] Ibid., 743.

[3] Ibid., 753.

[4] Ibid., 747

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 749.