Aspects of Influence of Muslim Science on the West

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 4th February 2003

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To go through the Islamic impact on modern science and civilisation in detail demands so vast a book that nobody has written yet. Just some overall observations and points are raised here by the author.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
Aspects of the Islamic Influence on Science and Learning in the Christian West (12th-13th century) by Salah Zaimeche

A general picture of the legacy of the East before and during Islamic times is described by Wickens:

“In the broadest sense, the West’s borrowings from the Middle East form practically the whole basic fabric of civilisation. ‘Without such fundamental borrowings from the Middle East, he adds, ‘we should lack the following sorts of things among others (unless, of course, we had been quick and inventive enough to devise them all for ourselves): agriculture; the domestication of animals, for food, clothing and transportation; spinning and weaving; building; drainage and irrigation; road-making and the wheel; metal-working, and standard tools and weapons of all kinds; sailing ships; astronomical observation and the calendar; writing and the keeping of records; laws and civic life; coinage; abstract thought and mathematics; most of our religious ideas and symbols’. And he concludes that, ‘there is virtually no evidence for any of these basic things and processes and ideas being actually invented in the West.” Wickens

To go through the Islamic impact on modern science and civilisation in detail demands so vast a book that nobody has written yet, and it is much beyond the capability of this author to address this issue as extensively as he would wish.. Notwithstanding just some overall observations and points are raised here.

In order to highlight the true scale of the Islamic impact, it is crucial to look, however briefly, at the condition of Western Christendom during those so-called Dark Ages, when, such were the contrasts, and such was the envy of Western Christians of life in the Muslim world, that, for Europeans, as Menocal puts it, ‘it must have at times appeared that wealth and comfort went hand in hand with the ability to read Arabic’.

Whilst universality of learning was a fundamental element in Islamic civilisation, science was the `hobby of the masses, with paupers and kings competing to obtain knowledge…’ whereas in Western Christendom, as Haskins observes, ‘..relatively few could read and write, these being chiefly ecclesiastics and, save for the very moderate attainments of an individual parish priest, men of education were concentrated in certain definite groups separated one from another by wide stretches or rural ignorance’.

As Draper puts it, when `Europe was hardly more enlightened than Caffraria is now, the Saracens were cultivating and even creating science. Their triumphs in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, proved to be more glorious, more durable, and therefore more important than their military actions had been.’ Draper goes on to say that whilst `the Christian peasant, fever stricken or overtaken by accident, journeyed to the nearest saint’s shrine and expected a miracle; the Spanish Moor relied on the prescription or lancet of his physician, or the bandage and knife of his surgeon.’ `The Spurious medicine of the time, as practised under the sanction of the Holy See,’ Scott adds, `had raised up a herd of ignorant and mercenary ecclesiastical charlatans. These operated by means of chants, relics, and incense; and their enormous gains were one of the chief sources of revenue to the parish and the monastery, and a corresponding burden on the people.’

Urbanity and wealth also belonged to the Muslims, at that time. In tenth century Cordova, there were 200,000 houses, 600 mosques, 900 public baths, the streets were paved with stones, and were cleaned, policed, and illuminated at night, water was brought to the public squares and to many of the houses by conduits. Islamic cities, as a whole with their mosques and madrassas, their churches, synagogues, and schools, their bathhouses and other amenities, contained all that was needed for leading a religious and cultured life. Such Islamic cities boasted huge expanses of gardens.

Basra in Iraq was described by the early geographers as a veritable Venice, with mile after mile of canals criss-crossing the gardens and orchards; Damascus with its 110,000 gardens, and in Turkey, Ettinghausen says flowers were a `devotion, if not mania.’ Whilst in Islamic towns and cities, trade flourished in all directions, and the wealth of its land were the objective of the preying and attacks of Christian pirates, the view from Western Christendom was hardly flattering. So big was the contrast, as Scott puts it, that the magnificent architectural works of `Arab genius were attributed to an infernal agency, as beyond the efforts of unaided human power;’ an opinion still entertained by the Spanish peasantry, who firmly believe that the Muslim palaces `were constructed by evil spirits.’
This account by Draper tells that:

“As late as 16th century England, there were highwaymen on the roads, pirates on the rivers, vermin in abundance in the clothing and beds… The population, sparse as it was, was perpetually thinned by pestilence and want…” Draper

A similar state of wretchedness prevailed everywhere else. Scott tells how:

“In Paris there were no pavements until the thirteenth century; in London none until the fourteenth; the streets of both capitals were receptacles of filth, and often impassable; at night shrouded in inky darkness; at all times dominated by outlaws; the haunt of the footpad, the nursery of the pestilence, the source of every disease, the scene of every crime.” Scott

In the Spanish Asturias at the time of the Muslim arrival (early 8th century), Scott states that,

“The dwellings were rude hovels constructed of stones and unhewn timber, thatched with straw floored with rushes and provided with a hole in the roof to enable the smoke to escape; their walls and ceilings were smeared with soot and grease, and every corner reeked with filth and swarmed with vermin. The owners of these habitations were, in appearance and intelligence, scarcely removed from the condition of savages. They dressed in sheepskins and the hides of wild beasts, which, unchanged, remained in one family for many generations. The salutary habit of ablution was never practised by them. Their garments were never cleansed, and were worn as long as their tattered fragments held together.” Scott

From this alone, it seems extremely odd how, instead of gratitude, Western historians, including Albornoz and Spanish historians of his ilk, deny the Islamic influence.

The Passing on of Islamic Civilisation to the West

Western scientific awakening and emergence out of barbarism mainly took place during the 12th century. Most serious historians now accept this. The idea of the Renaissance of the 16th-17th century now belongs either to past history, or primarily to the mass media where amateur historians working for the BBC and similar channels occasionally delve into history as one would engage into an enjoyable, but still far from mastered, hobby.

‘Universities, like cathedrals and parliaments are products of the Middle Ages’, says Haskins, who adds that, ‘The Greeks and the Romans, strange as it may seem, had no universities in the sense in which the word has been used for the past seven or eight centuries.’

Also belonging to the 12th century were new architectural styles, windmills, hospitals, many sciences and scientific works etc. In the 12th century two major elements entered into play, both linked to the Muslim world:

First: The Western Christians established themselves into lands formerly Muslim, such as Sicily which had been retaken from the Muslims during the last decade of the eleventh; Spain, where the Muslims lost their main northern town of Toledo; and of course, the 12th century being (until the rise of Imad al-Din Zangi in the 1140s who inflicted the first major defeat on the Crusaders) a major period when the Crusaders followed their onslaught begun in 1097, and conquered the whole of Palestine and nearly the whole of today’s Syria. From these three regions as will be seen the Westerners derived plenty, or should one say the essentials of what makes modern civilisation.

Second: In the 12th century took place the greatest translation effort of sciences ever seen, and that was primarily of Islamic science in the town of Toledo, northern Spain.

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