Misconceptions about Islamic and Greek Science

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 19th March 2003

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According to some, heritage was lost during the Dark Ages (5th-15th AD) and then recovered during the Renaissance. The real evidence from history shows that where the Greeks had left off, the Muslims had continued thus setting up the foundations of modern science and civilisation.


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

Traditional Western History

The history of science and civilisation according to traditional Western writing and narration, by an overwhelming majority, can be summarised as follows:

All Western, and hence our modern, civilisation is derived from the Greek heritage (roughly 6th BC to 1st –2nd century AD). This heritage was lost during the Dark Ages (5th-15th AD), recovered during the Renaissance (16th-17th centuries), dusted off, and so was revived for our modern world.

As it was difficult to explain how such learning could be lost for nearly fifteen centuries, but recovered, Western historians gave that role to the Muslims: it was they, who, by chance, preserved it, keeping it for Western genius to arise again, before it was re-claimed and developed by that genius. One of the `illustrious’ historians to defend this point, followed by hordes of modern `historians’ who today crowd history departments, is the Frenchman Duhem who states:

“The revelations of Greek thought on the nature of the exterior world ended with the “Almagest” (of Ptolemy) which appeared about A.D. 145, and then began the decline of ancient learning. Those of its works that escaped the fires kindled by Mohammedan warriors were subjected to the barren interpretations of Mussulman commentors and, like parched seed, awaited the time when Latin Christianity would furnish a favourable soil in which they could once more flourish and bring forth fruit.” Duhem

Some modern historians go further than Duhem, and even deprive the Muslims of this modest role of guardianship; one such historian, at a recent conference on the subject, seemingly able to interpret the unknown, confidently asserted that had the Muslims not preserved such heritage, it would have been recovered by Western scholarship anyway.

The Problem

Briefly, however, one or two comments on the previous statement on the Greek role to highlight how ridiculous such an argument can be made before moving on.

First and foremost, the learning recovered, or found, or available, at that Renaissance of the 16th-17th (another illogically based notion of Western history) bears no resemblance to anything left by the Greeks. The mathematics, the medicine, the optics, the chemistry, the astronomy, geography, mechanics etc. of the 16th is centuries ahead of that left by the Greeks. Any person with the faintest knowledge of any such subjects can check this by looking at what was left by the Greeks and compare it with what was available in the 16th century, and even with what was available centuries up to the 14th ). Anyone can thus question this notion of Greek learning recovered during the Renaissance.

Furthermore, even supposing the Greeks had made some contribution in some of the sciences cited, what is the Greek contribution to the invention of paper, printing, farming techniques, irrigation, windmills, the compass, industrial production, glass making, cotton production, the system of numerals, trade mechanisms, paper money, the cheque? modern finance as a whole, gardens, flowers, art of living, urban design, personal hygiene, and many more manifestations that compose our modern civilisation?

As for the notion that Greek learning had disappeared, this is another preposterous point repeatedly made by Western historians. Greek learning was available throughout the so-called Dark Ages in Byzantium and even in the West. Western historians never fail to insist that the Muslims sought that Greek learning from Byzantine sources, and yet say that it has disappeared, which is impossible to square. Now, if such learning was available all along, why did Western scholars have to wait until they conquered Islamic lands in Sicily (11th), Toledo (Spain) (in the 11th) and in the east during the Crusades (11th-12th) before they started acquiring such `Greek’ learning? Why wait? And above all, why did Western translators of the 12th century, to whom we will return further on, chose to translate such learning from Arabic, then turn it into Latin rather than go to the Greek and even Latin sources? This is never explained by those historians who select miniscule or fragmentary pieces of evidence, often concoctions of their own, to build extensive theories (i.e the Pirenne theory, the burning of the Alexandria Library etc).

The Evidence

The real evidence from history shows that where the Greeks had left off, the Muslims had continued thus setting up the foundations of modern science and civilisation. Before looking, albeit briefly, at some aspects of Muslim decisive influences, this author, like other Muslim historians, first and foremost, never ceases to acknowledge that, although the Muslims had made such contributions, the Islamic mind and soul stresses that science and civilisation are God given gifts to all people of equal abilities. The reason why the Muslims excelled at the time they did, and played the part they did is not due to any special status (as others appear to recognise as their own), but simply to circumstances current then, i.e. spur of Islamic values, which were very strong; driven by faith, Muslims were able to accomplish what they could never achieve under other circumstances as history has shown. Moreover, the Muslims had their own contributions but never denied their inheritance from other civilisations; particularly from the Chinese with whom they always had excellent relations.

In the Muslim civilisation, opportunities were always available to others. Muslim history is crowded with instances of slaves, and their descendants of whatever ethnic mix who became great scientists, men of letters, leaders and even rulers. The multi-faith and equalitarian nature of Islamic civilisation has not be equalled by even the so-called most open multi-cultural societies of today. Even when the whole Islamic land was threatened with extinction by both crusaders and Mongols (mid 13th century), decimated populations of Muslim lands in their hundreds of thousands (800,000 deaths in Baghdad alone in 1258), minorities whether Jewish or Christian (even when allies of the crusaders) still survived within Islamic jurisdictions, with all their powers, privileges, and wealth intact. These instances highlight the true character of Islamic civilisation, a characteristic completely alien to their successors. Thus, in respect to the issue debated here, it is no surprise that such successors, whilst benefiting from Islamic learning, still chose to obliterate their debt, and re-write that history in the ways indicated above.

Such observations are not conjured up by the present author to pursue his own agenda. They can be found amidst some of the best but often inaccessible and thus obscure Western historians, or men of renown. Thus, Glubb states:

“The indebtedness of Western Christendom to Arab civilisation was systematically played down, if not completely denied. A tradition was built up, by censorship and propaganda, that the Muslim imperialists had been mere barbarians and that the rebirth of learning in the West was derived directly from Roman and Greek sources alone, without any Arab intervention.” Glubb

Draper, too, notes `the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has contrived to put out of sight our scientific obligations to the Muhammadans (Muslims) Injustice founded on religious rancour and national conceit cannot be perpetuated forever… The Arab has left his intellectual heritage on Europe as, before long, Christendom will have to confess.’

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