How Islamic culture helped Europe out of Dark Ages

Category: Featured, World Affairs Topics: Europe Views: 6813

The timing is apt: here is a thoughtful book revealing how Islamic culture helped the West to emerge from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance.

Author Jonathan Lyons is well-qualified for the task. He spent many years as a Reuters foreign correspondent in Islam and is affiliated with the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University in Melbourne. As he describes, it was centuries of Arab scholarship that enabled Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and their successors to develop mathematics and cosmology. Lyons's history validates the proposition that science transcends rival national ideologies. In consideration of how Iraq has been devastated in the past few years, it is ironic to reflect that Baghdad was founded 1,246 years ago and soon afterwards became a supreme centre of international intellectual enlightenment.

Caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur, the founder, built a great library in Baghdad, Lyons relates, "modelled after those of the great Persian kings". Arab chroniclers later praised his mastery of logic and law and his interest in philosophy and astronomy, and gave him credit for directing translation into Arabic of numerous important works by Greek, Persian and Hindu philosophers and scientists. Data were gathered from across the widespread Islamic empire for development by Baghdad's men of learning. His library was named The House of Wisdom.

Arabs adopted the efficient Hindu decimal system, with the nine numerals and zero we use today. On the basis of Euclid's geometry and Ptolemy's astronomy, the Arabs devised algebra and trigonometry and made astronomical observations of their own. At a time when the Christians of Europe believed the world was flat, found it difficult to fix the date of Easter and could not even tell the time of day, the Arabs, aided by a gadget called the astrolabe, made astronomical and terrestrial measurements to discover that our world is spherical and to calculate its size almost exactly. The astrolabe was also a valuable navigational instrument, determining latitude.

The Arabs made great progress in cartography, chemistry and medicine at a time when the Christian Church was telling adherents that diseases were divine punishments for human sins. Flagellation was one of the atonements for the Black Death.

In every discipline, Arab scholars were assisted by the manufacture of paper, while Europe's relatively few literates were writing on cumbersome and expensive parchment. Libraries in Islam then contained hundreds of thousands of volumes, when books in Europe were very scarce.

Lyons traces the influences of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas on the Arabs. "Today many tend to see religion as the enemy of scientific progress," Lyons writes. "Yet early Islam openly encouraged and nurtured intellectual inquiry of all kinds." Muhammad himself said: "Seek for science, even in China." In contrast with the Crusaders who rampaged through the Holy Land at the end of the 11th century, there were European scholars, such as Adelard of Bath and Michael Scot, who travelled to Islam and brought back Arabic texts for translation into Latin and beyond. Cultural go-betweens connecting East and West were helped by Muslims in Sicily and Spain to transmit knowledge.

The House of Wisdom is an exciting collection of facts and ideas that stimulate the imagination. There has always been more than oil in the Middle East.

Patrick Skene Catling is an author. His most recent book is the memoir Better Than Working.  This article was published on February 3, 2009.


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  14 Comments   Comment

  1. zinedine from Morocco

    Salaamu alaikum,

    Sure there is some "influence" from Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine (of modern day Algeria) but not Thomas Aquinas. On the contrary, Ibnu Rushd aka Avoroes had a huge influence on Thomas Aquinas.

    Muslims did not just progress science or "copied" from the ancient Greeks NO NO NO they are actually the foundations of modern sciences as we know them. They did not speculate like the Greeks and Indians did (although I give a huge credit to the Indians for introducing the ZERO. The Muslims came up with their own scientific theories and put them to the test, did the same with others' theories & corrected hocus pocus Alchemy and created the science of Chemistry out it!!!

    If anyone has doubts, just read Dr Ajram's book THE MIRACLES OF ISLAMIC SCIENCES among others!

    Btw: Romesh, be thankful and grateful to Muslims. Without our ancestors would not have a history.

    The history of India (not stories) HISTORY is also the results of India's Muslims hard work.

    Also remember that history repeats itself: WE HAD A GREAT HISTORY WE SHALL REPEAT IT! IT'S JUST A QUESTION OF TIME!

    My next comment will prove this point!!!

  2. Exposing ignorance from UK

    India is a relatively recent invention. I am sure that quite a few WASPs are familiar with Winston Churchill & his comment. Uncle Logic aka Romesh is an Aryan fascist RSS Hindutvadi revisionist. We are quite familiar with the relative dearth of historical analysis in the region up until the Muslim presence. Even the supplanters of Muslim rule the Raj admitted this fact. Myths, legends & fables are the pre-Abrahamic fare

  3. hall from malaysia

    It is ok for Muslims to glorify the past, but take it as a challenge to explore the future. If the past Muslims can achieved it why the present one cannot. Al-Hadid maybe hinting the vast energy of the iron. Black hole theory, time dilation, time travel, breast feedings and so many others. Muslims just need to come back to the Koran. Read and contribute to mankind.

  4. Matt from US

    While I can not prove all his facts correct, the general statements

    made by Lyon are correct. While Europe was lost in the Dark

    Ages, knowledge was saved by Muslims (and the Irish I have to

    add) and was diseminated in placed like Islamic Spain where

    Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in relative peace and

    exchanged knowledge. In light of the current world events,

    shedding light on long forgotten history is important for

    everyone involved in these rough and retched times.

  5. Uncle Logic from UK

    Does this guy have a clue?

    At least he admitted that the numerical system does actually originate from India. Does he even know what trigonometry is? It is the study of triangles so Muslims could only have invented this if the Greeks, Romans and all the rest had never studied triangles, which is of course complete nonsense, either the writer doesn't know what trigonometry is, or he's never heard of Pythagoras. True, Arabs calculated the Earths diameter almost exactly, but it was in fact already known that the earth is round, this was discovered by the Greeks if not by an even earlier culture and many Europeans, even in medieval times were aware of this, only some educated Europeans believed it to be flat and some even dogmatically believed it to be round.

  6. r8dmarshall from USA

    I am not against or for the article. from my knowledge of ancient cultures and their development it has been shown that portions of the Earth have gone through periods of catastrohpies and rebuilding.

    The oldist cultures were more inclined to have accumulated more knowledge and observations of science and nature in relation to their technology.

    China had well developed natural science in medicine and astronomy. The myans and aztecs also had a calander superior to the modern day calander. muslim countries had advanced sciences in various sciences.

    There can be little inference of superority for a people genetically, but only for the advanced condition of the existing cultures of the time and location.

    r8dmarshall

  7. Jaffer Ali from India

    Assalamu Alaikkum,

    I want to share my reading a similar book a few years back, this one giving the history of holy wars. The name of the book is "God Wills it" written by Wayne Bartlet. Please read the book only by Bartlet, as there is another book by the same name(I have not read the other book yet). This book by Bartlet, gives facts about how the holy war was started and the muslims had no other option to fight the wars, and how muslims conducted themselves fairly throught the wars, their upright and just acts, their wisdom, and how they were in quest of knowledge which laid the foundation of renaissance and the industrial revolution. I feel it is necessary for every muslim to know about their past history, and to make everyone else to understand muslim's contribution to the world civilization.

  8. Romesh Chander from USA

    As usual, muslims love to live in the "Past Glory", never in the present or the future. Past is past, folks; you cannot live in the past any more. Past is only for stuydying by the historians, nothing else.

    What have muslims achieved in medicine, science, technology, mathematics over the last 500 years? Nothing. Whatever exists in the 'modern' muslim countries is borrowed and purchased from the West. Saudi Arabia is extremely modern; but everything was bought from the West including the architecture, pinting press, internet, telephone, electricity, air plane, car, truck, guns, powder, etc; nothing was invented in the area.

    No wonder, muslims cannot progress when they waste their time in glorifying the past and never look at the future.

  9. Alfonso Saahir from USA

    The article does give a brief history of the some contibutions that Muslims Scholars have made.The focus of the article should be more on Muslim Scholars contrbutions, Arab cotributions are to vague.

  10. Tarquin Farquhar from UK

    LYONS has made several errors and or misrepresentations viz:

    1...Hipparchus (A non-Islamic Greek) putatively invented the first ASTROLABE.

    2...Trigonometry was first propounded by non-Islamic Greeks.

    3...The devastating Crusades (initiated in response to the terrible atrocities committed against Christian Pilgrims) could not compare in terms of murderous tumult when contrasted against the Islamic 'Great Annihilation' wherein circa 270 million people died as a direct consequence of refusing to adopt the alleged 'religion of peace'.

    LYONS has discredited himself by his shoddy and partisan book.

  11. Yohan from Bhutan

    What a fantastic idea! Everything that is successful becomes Muslim and Islam after it existed. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and their successors who developed mathematics and cosmology do not fail inclusion into Islam as if they were also members of that society!! The much earlier Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are attributed to have part in the same!!

    When the Muslims of the present vehemently declare that there is no genuine Islam beyond Arabic language and culture, the author surely transgresses the bound of rigid traditions of the Anti-Christ over the ages, maligning the Christians as mere "Crusaders" as if the crimes of the Papal Rome were to be inherited by the disciples of Lord Jesus Christ at the present moment. A bold article, indeed! Non believers may teach letters and words to the believers, the believers themselves have to learn making phrases and sentences.

  12. t.o. from U.S.A.

    Again, revisionist history designed to curry. Algebra comes from the Greeks (and babylonians, Egyptians, etc.). The works of Diophantus specifically, and Euclids "Arithmetica".Trigonometry also comes from the Greeks. Hipparchus of Nicaea(who, incidentally, is the creator of the astrolabe. Theon of Alexandria is well-known for his works with the astrolabe) is well-known for his works in trigonometry. it is known that the Europeans had known the world was round since at least the Roman times.