Christian Bolles: Who Started the Renaissance? It’s About Optics (And Much More)

In modern colloquial discourse, there has been a broad erasure of Muslim contributions to European society to further a narrative of otherism. This skewed perspective ignores not only the sheer sophistication of pre-Renaissance Muslim civilization, but also the significant cultural, literary, and scientific exchange that defined the relationship between the Muslim and European worlds – two distinctions which, in retrospect, may not be necessary to draw. Between Arabic translations of ancient texts and scientific revelations, the European Renaissance benefited heavily from Muslim appropriations; in fact, those appropriations may have been the jump-start Europe needed to lift itself out of the Dark Ages.

Perhaps the most defining factors separating the “European world” from the “Muslim world” circa 400-1000CE were the vicissitudes of the Dark Ages. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the lands over which it reigned with its famously sturdy hand fell into what was eventually coined a “darkness.” Without the Romans to provide a way forward, scientific and cultural progress was strangled. Out of the ashes rose feudalism, redistributing all wealth upwards to landlords and nobles while shutting out the vast majority of the population, now relegated to toiling in the fields. Without enough artistic and cultural avenues through which to express their discontent, the populace was stuck in a vicious cycle of labor and loss.

Meanwhile, the “Muslim world” was flourishing. Following the successful reign of the Sassanids – though their influence dwindled in later years, the civilization still flourished – Muhammad’s new Muslim society saw a great uptick in artistic and scientific endeavors. Encouraging scholarship and curiosity as tools of understanding Allah’s universe, this new paradigm represented a notable shift towards progress, even acknowledging the existence of an extended reality beyond our own planet. Mosques became beacons of education, ensuring broad access to big ideas[1]. Thus, science and philosophy were intimately intertwined; a pairing which led scholars down a decidedly Classical road. To look to the future, they had to engage with the past.

By translating Greek and Roman philosophical and scientific texts into Arabic, Muslims found a wealth of knowledge thereto unknown to the world. In the throes of the Dark Ages, Europe had forgotten its Classical treasures; but in capitalizing upon this new age of Muslim theory, scholars brought the great texts back into style. From Plato to Hippocrates, this cultural renaissance was informed by the musings of the Greek and Roman world’s most famous literary figures[2]. Aristotelian philosophy, for example, came to constitute Muslim conceptions of the organization of thought both within and without the Qur’an. Ibn Khaldun, an historian who wrote the Prolegomena, divided the sciences into the natural – that which man conceives of on his own; that is, philosophy – and the traditional, that which is dictated by religion. These “comprise the four main classical divisions of the Aristotelian tradition,” writes Holt[3]. Of course, we cannot generalize the views of Muslim scholars when it came to philosophical and scientific categorization; rather, it is safe to say that the introduction of Classical literature into the Muslim world fostered socioreligious discourse which had not yet been possible. In turns, Europe took notice. Classical texts – a point of great historical pride which all Europeans once under the Roman Empire could take small ownership of – livened feudal Europe, acting as one catalyst for cultural rejuvenation.

Much easier to place a finger on is the effect which ancient medicine had on Renaissance-era practice. To explore this, it is necessary to stress the importance of libraries, which became the pinnacle of Muslim scholarly tradition. One such library in Cairo contained something to the order of 18,000 ancient texts[4]. Indeed, the ancient world had fully integrated itself into the modern; that is not to say, however, that Muslim science was purely a function of historical precedents. Rather, those texts were used as foundational theory upon which further truths could be discovered. Of course, the term ‘truth’ is used here somewhat loosely, as these scientific pursuits borrowed heavily from the wildly inaccurate and temporally pervasive ‘humoral theory,’ wherein the body is said to contain four fluids, or humors – black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm – the imbalance of which is supposedly the source of all bodily ills[5]. The progenitor of this theory was Galen; a celebrity in his own right in the Roman world, he would be immortalized by the Renaissance’s scientific community. Thus, humoral theory survived well into the 19th century – a remarkable feat for such an ancient idea, and testament to the reverence which the European world held for Muslim scholarship. Greek and Roman texts also opened the path to other sciences – many of them, in fact. Astronomy, mechanics, and the natural sciences all saw vibrant new horizons; and philosophy converged with science in astrology, a practice of great import in the Middle Ages[6].

Muslim contributions were not only scientific and philosophical, but also mathematical. Carra de Vaux claims that that Arabs were “unquestionably” the “inventors of plane and spherical trigonometry,” which the Greeks did not touch[7]. They also experimented with optics, pioneering new technologies with precision which rocked the world of the Middle Ages.

Yet given the otherism with which Middle Eastern and African cultures have been treated since the Persian Wars and the conquest of Carthage, one might ask how Muslim genius bled into feudal Europe. The answer is, resoundingly, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the early 8th century CE. As Umayyad forces stormed Gibraltar and spread throughout the Spanish mainland, a new Islamic law swept Spain. Vitally, though, not all subjects of the new Spain were forced to live by religious laws, preserving a great deal of European culture. Though there was tension between the Umayyads’ Spain and the rest of Europe, these communities eventually constituted a point of contact through which the scientific and philosophical advances of the Islamic world could be fed into the Dark Ages’ waiting maw.

Looking at maps and writing from that period, one might be taken aback by the respect with which European scholars treated the African and Middle Eastern cultures from whom they benefited. Kings were treated as valid and complex; scientists were acknowledged for their brilliance; and the Muslim world’s accomplishments were, for the most part, credited[8]. Though a certain stigma was attached to these appropriations, as ‘novelties from a far away land,’ the immediacy of Umayyad Spain lent more shades to those distinctions, resulting in a much more complex relationship than one may assume. The Renaissance was a symbiotic period: without the contributions of Muslim scientists and scholars, the Dark Ages may never have ended. Unfortunately, one of the European Renaissance’s most formidable aspects was its bracing nationalism; this may be why it did not truly begin until the reconquest of Spain. But that is a question for another time.

[1] Mahallati, “Islam.”

[2] Mahallati, “Islam.”

[3] Holt, “The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 2B: Islamic Society and Civilization,” 745.

[4] Holt, “The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 2B: Islamic Society and Civilization,” 748.

[5] Mahallati, “Islam.”

[6] Holt, “The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 2B: Islamic Society and Civlization,” 763.

[7] Holt, “The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 2B: Islamic Society and Civilization,” 754.

[8] Rarey, “Approaches to African Art.”