Mont Saint-Michel or Toledo: Greek or Arabic Sources for Medieval European Culture?

by Charles Burnett Published on: 25th February 2009

4.8 / 5. Votes 196

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

In a recent book, Sylvain Gouguenheim has caused a furore in claiming that European culture owes nothing to Arabic culture. The following article by Professor Charles Burnett, an eminent scholar in the intellectual context of the Middle Ages and of the intricacies of the Arabic-Latin transmission, explains the arguments of this debate and sheds light on salient aspects of the transmission of Islamic learning to Latin Europe. Concluding that we must acknowledge both Mont St Michel and Toledo as contributors to European culture, and warning that Gouguenheim's focus on the true roots of ‘Christian Europe' runs the danger of ethnicity, that is of replacing a racial purity of blood with a textual one, he shows how both Greek and Arabic sources enriched the intellectual world of the Middle Ages and in what way Islamic culture contributed to shape Western European civilization.

By Professor Charles Burnett*

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. The controversial context of the debate
3. Academic evaluation
4. Critical evaluation
5. Conclusion

* * *

The original form of this article was delivered as a lecture at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, on 23 October 2008. I am very grateful to Professor Jan Ziolkowski for inviting me to give the lecture, and for the comments of various members of the audience.

1. Introduction

image alt text

Figure 1: Professor Charles Burnett interviewed by FSTC, with the logo of 1001 Inventions behind him, during The First International Conference on the History of Science among Muslims and Arabs at the University of Sharjah, UAE, in March 2008.

Sylvain Gouguenheim has recently caused a furore, especially in French academic circles, in claiming that European culture owes nothing to Arabic culture, but that the successive renewals of learning of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were entirely of Greek inspiration (Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe chrétienne, published by Editions du Seuil in March 2008) [1].

The argument of his book is basically this: Greek culture was never lost in the West (a succession of popes between 685 and 752 were Greek and Syriac, Pépin the Short had Greek works sent to him, including the Rhetoric of Aristotle etc.). Christianity is Greek (the Gospels and the Church Fathers were written in Greek). Greek texts were translated into Arabic, but by Christians (especially Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who translated more than 200 works of Galen, Hippocrates etc.) and only a very small number of Arabic writers were interested in Greek philosophy, and conspicuous among them, too, were Christians. Greek culture had very little effect on Islamic society, politics and law; reason was never placed above revelation. The very structure of the Arabic language made it incapable of assimilating the structure of demonstrative reasoning (the syllogism). And the Arabic concepts of ‘reason’ and ‘science’, anyway, are different from those in the West. Muslim civilisation received only a ‘superficial hellenisation’. Europe, in turn, was not indebted to Islam for much-certainly not much that is essential. It was never ‘Islamicized’.

image alt text

Figure 2: Front cover of Ibn Baklarish’s Book of Simples. Medical Remedies between Three Faiths in Twelfth-Century Spain, edited by Charles Burnett (Oxford University Press, 2008).

The book owes its title to supposed revelation by Gouguenheim that almost all the Greek works of Aristotle were translated into Latin at Mont St Michel by James of Venice, in the 1120s, several decades before the same works were translated from Arabic in Toledo by Gerard of Cremona in the 1170s and 1180s (p. 50). His evidence is based, first, on the testimony of Robert of Torigny, abbot of Mont St Michel from 1154 to 1186, that ‘James the cleric, of Venice, translated from Greek into Latin certain books of Aristotle and commented on them, namely the Topics, Prior and Posterior Analytics, and Sophistici Elenchi, although an older translation of the same books is extant (‘Jacobus clericus de Venecia transtulit de graeco in latinum quosdam libros Aristotelis et commentatus est, scilicet topica, analyticos priores et posteriores, et elencos, quamvis antiquior translatio super eosdem libros haberetur’) [2], and secondly on the existence of early manuscripts of the Greek-Latin translations of Aristotle in the library of Mont St-Michel (now preserved in the Bibliothèque municipale of Avranches). This just proves, in Gouguenheim’s eyes, that Europe owed its knowledge of the full range of Aristotle’s works (the core of the philosophical curriculum) directly to the Greeks, and not to the mediation of the Arabs.

2. The controversial context of the debate

image alt text

Figure 3: Front cover of Abu Ma‘shar’s The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology: Together with the Medieval Latin Translation of Adelard of Bath, edited and translated by Charles Burnett et al. (Brill, 1994).

Gouguenheim is consciously reacting against a trend in modern research (especially French research), which emphasizes that medieval culture is not just the heritage of the Classical Latin and Greek tradition, together with the Judaism of the Bible, but also of the Arabic tradition. As he writes in his preface: ‘the dark days (les âges sombres) of the Middle Ages have returned. The cultural history of Europe, however much it has been illuminated for several decades by the work of numerous medievalists, is becoming the object of revision. It is now replaced by the biased image of a Christianity which lags behind an ‘Islam of Enlightenment’ (un Islam des lumières) to which it owed its rise, thanks to [3].

image alt text

Figure 4: Statue of Ibn Rushd in Cordoba (Source).

One result of this was that, for three years, the principal subject of the French agrégation (the competitive examination conducted by the State for admission to posts on the teaching staff of lycées and universities) was this Arabic/Islamic patrimony, and textbooks on this subject were written.

An author that Gouguenheim mentions prominently by name, however, as promoting the ‘Arabic’ claim to an unreasonable extent is Alain de Libera (pp. 9 and 140). If one reads his La philosophie médiévale (first published in 1993, before the Council of Europe report), one will see that it covers, in equal measure, the philosophy of the Byzantine Empire, that of both Oriental and Occidental Islam, and that of the Jews, before dealing with Latin philosophy from the High Middle Ages through to the fifteenth century. But what is most telling is his introduction to twelfth-century Latin philosophy, in which he raises a paradox:

‘That which distinguishes Western Latin philosophy is not its presenting itself as the heir to the Greeks. On the contrary, in Christian lands the Western difference (difference occidentale – the emphasis is de Libera’s: we may say: ‘what makes the West different’) derives from the Latin-speakers’ Arabic sources and roots. At the other extremity of the Christian world, Byzantium isolates itself, in continuing, alone, Hellenic ‘Romanness’. The particularity of Byzantium arises from the fact that in the 12th century, Byzantium is more western in the modern sense of the term than the Latin-speaking world: Greek-speaking, the Byzantine world remains closed to the philosophical culture of the land of Islam; its intellectual richness, its tradition, its heritage exempts it from looking elsewhere. The Latin world, on the other hand, is philosophically poor and its poverty makes it open and receptive. Once they are masters of Toledo, the Christians start to translate’ [4] (and elsewhere de Libera insists that it is only when a culture is translating texts from another culture that it grows and develops – Muslim philosophy stagnated when it ceased to incorporate through translations new texts).

image alt text

Figure 5: Page from the Commentarium magnum Averrois in Aristotelis De Anima libros, the Great commentary by Ibn Rushd on Aristotle’s Book of the Soul, translated into Latin from Arabic by Michael Scot. French manuscript, third quarter of the 13th century, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS (Source).

Gouguenheim takes an even more confrontational phrase of De Libera in his slightly earlier Penser au moyen âge (1991, pp. 114-6): that it is to Islam that the West owes reason and rationality, to which Gouguenheim counters that ‘the exercise of reason is universal, but the practice of demonstrative reasoning (which is crucial for the rise of modern science) was born in Greece [5].

Unfortunately, Gouguenheim gives prominence, in a first ‘Annexe’, to another author, Sigrid Hunke (1913-99), whose book, Allahs Sonne über dem Abendland (‘The sun of Allah illuminates the West’) advances the thesis of the Western world being corrupted by Judaeo-Christianity and owing its science, civilisation and art of living only to the Arabo-Muslim world. Arabic-Islamic civilisation, in other words, rescued Europe from Judaeo-Christianity. Somehow she managed to associate Islam with the values of ‘pagan Germany’, uncorrupted by the oriental religion of Christianity. Gouguenheim may be quite right in attributing the distortions of her book to her allegiance to the Nazi party (hence the title of the Annexe: ‘L’amie d’Himmler et le ‘soleil d’Allah’), but it is really rather unfair to hold up this clearly biassed book as representative of the pro-Arabic view.

image alt text

Figure 6: Ibn Rushd in the paiting Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas by the Italian artist Andrea di Bonaiuto (Florence, second half of the 14th century) (Source).

In view of this politicizing of the question it is not surprising that reaction, especially among French scholars, has been rather passionate. About forty historians and philosophers of science, led by Hélène Bellosta (CNRS), published a text: ‘Taking old moons for new stars, or, how to rewrite the history of knowledge today’. An international group of 56 researchers added their signatures to an article in Libération on 30 April 2008, entitled: ‘Yes, the Christian West is in debt to (redevable) the Islamic world’. Alain de Libera of course responded, with a letter fully of cutting sarcasm, published in Télérama (a weekly French magazine owned by the French daily newspaper Le Monde), which includes, among other things: ‘The hypothesis of Mont St-Michel as a missing link in the history of the passage of Aristotelian philosophy from the Greek world to the Latin world… has as much importance as the re-evaluation of the role of the genuine Mère Poulard in the history of the omelet’; and concludes ‘This Europe is not my Europe. I leave it to the ministry of immigration and national identity and the vaults of the Vatican [6].’ In response to these attacks, the publisher of the book speaks of an ‘inquisition’ against the book and others spoke of a ‘fatwa’ against the author. On 17 October an article appeared in Le Monde (supplément ‘des livres’) on ‘L’Affaire Gouguenheim’, mentioning the establishment of a committee of experts charged with examining the book (which sounds very much like inquisition and a revival of the Vatican Index!)

3. Academic evaluation

image alt text

Figure 7: Front cover of Penser au Moyen âge by Alain de Libera (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1997, 408 pages).

But, leaving politics aside, is there some merit in Gouguenhim’s approach? It might seem petty to point to factual mistakes in the book, although there are in fact many.

Louis-Jacques Bataillon has recently scoured the third chapter, which gives the book its title – Le moines pionniers du Mont-Saint-Michel: l’oeuvre de Jacques de Venice’ (‘the pioneer monks of Mont St-Michel: the work of James of Venice’) [7], and pointed out a number of misidentifications of the Greco-Latin translations and incorrect dates of the manuscripts containing them at Mont-St-Michel. More serious is the fact that there is absolutely no evidence that James of Venice himself was at Mont-St-Michel. One of the manuscripts crucial to Gouguenheim’s thesis—Avranches 232, was brought to Mont-St-Michel from somewhere else in Northern France (from the evidence of its handwriting), and some of the Aristotelian texts in it (Ethics Bk 1, Physics, De memoria, De longitudine et brevitate vitae) were copied in the 13th century. Moreover, Gouguenheim was unaware that the translations of the De generatione et corruptione and the Ethics (bks 1 and 2), also in Avranches 232, were not made by James of Venice, but by the scholar Burgundio of Pisa, for whom there are ample records that he spent his whole career as a professional notary in Pisa. So the texts were brought to the abbey, not translated on the spot.

image alt text

Figure 8: Toledo Alcazar, beautiful Muslim building in Toledo, Spain (Source).

One could add: One of the two early (mid-twelfth century) manuscripts of Mont St-Michel manuscripts mentioned by Gouguenheim as manifesting this Greek-Latin translation movement ‘decades’ before Gerard of Cremona was translating in Toledo does, in fact, also contain works translated from Arabic (I refer again to Avranches 232, which contains parts written in the late 12th century, and others in the early 13th century): De differentia spiritus et animae of Qusta ibn Luqa (13th cent.), and the Aphorisms of Mesue (12th century), alongside Peter Abelard’s Tractatus de intellectibus and Galen’s De elementis secundum Hippocratem in Burgundio of Pisa’s translation –both 12th. century– completely mixed in with the works of Aristotle [8]. The Qusta ibn Luqa text was translated by John of Seville, and dedicated to Raymond, archbishop of Toledo in 1125-51, the Mesue text was probably translated by Constantine the African (died before 1098) or one of his pupils (both these being long before Gerard of Cremona). One could propose a different line of transmission for these texts: Hermann of Carinthia, in June 1143, dedicates a translation from Arabic of the theory behind the astrolabe (Ptolemy’s Planisphere) to Thierry, the chancellor of Chartres, whom he addresses as his teacher. In it he advertises translations of important texts on the science of the stars that he and his colleague Robert of Ketton have been translating from Arabic, probably being aware that Thierry had been collecting the most important texts and up-to-date for the study of the seven liberal arts in his Heptateuchon (This two-volume set already includes two ‘modern’ translations from Arabic: a portion of Euclid’s Elements and the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi). Hermann of Carinthia knew the De differentia spiritus et animae, which he quotes in his original work De essentiis, written later in 1143. It is quite plausible that the text reached Chartres through his agency. In 1167 John of Salisbury, who was to become bishop of Chartres in 1176, asked his former teacher in Paris, Richard Bishop, for copies of Aristotle’s works. Richard had moved from Paris to Coutances, where he was archdeacoin from 1163 to 1170 (he became bishop of Avranches in 1170). Coutances and Mont St-Michel were close to each other, and Richard knew Robert of Torigny, abbot of Mont-St-Michel, very well. One should rather see Mont-St-Michel as a place to which texts originating in Italy and Spain had been brought by scholars interested not only in the natural science of Aristotle, but in the related subjects of medicine and astronomy. If one were to look at Chartres, rather than Mont St-Michel in the same period (1140s) one would get an even better impression of the mix of the new learning that was combined, without concern as to whether it came from the Greeks or the Arabs. Not only are there the translations included in Thierry’s Heptateuchon, but also there are several medical works, translated from Arabic by Constantine the African and his school, an introduction to astrology by al-Qabisi, and other Arabic astrological texts, and works on the construction and use of the astrolabe – all predating the translations by Gerard of Cremona [9].

image alt text

Figure 9: The Emperor Frederick II, pictured in his court in Palermo, Sicily, continued the fruitful contacts with Muslim scholars initiated by his father, Roger II, even during time of war. He furthered learning by financing translations of Arabic works into Latin. © Stiftung Maximilianeum, Munich (Source).

Inaccuracies on the Arabic side include the fact that the Syrian Christian scholar and theologian Theodore Abu Qurra is throughout conflated with the Sabaean (‘pagan’) Greek-Arabic translator and mathematician, Thabit ibn Qurra (p. 97, 98), whilst the greatest of the Greek/Syriac translators into Arabic, the Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq, acquires even more stature by being conflated with the Jewish doctor, Ishaq Israeli (p. 48).

More serious are the facts that Sylvain Gouguenheim passes over in silence. He points out that Arabic philosophers never attempted to learn Greek. But the same can be said about medieval Latin scholars. And Aristotelian philosophy met resistance on the part of Western Christians, just as it did from Islamic monotheists. More importantly, he completely disregards the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Europe, which is the time at which texts translated from Arabic may be claimed to have had the most effect.

4. Critical evaluation

image alt text

Figure 10: Book cover of Alhacen’s Theory of Visual Perception. First Three Books of Alhacen’s de Aspectibus, by A. Mark Smith. Vol. 1: Introduction and Latin Text. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2001, Paperback, 520 pp.

But maybe we are missing the point. Should we be responding to Gouguenheim by saying that he has got his facts wrong and that scores of translations were made from Arabic into Latin, including several decades before the time of Gerard of Cremona? Sylvain Gouguenheim would claim that those Arabic texts that were translated were really simply the heritage of the Greek tradition, which happened to be embraced by a very few Arabic writers (and these mainly Christians anyway), and so one cannot really regard these as belonging to an oriental inheritance.

Are we wrong, then, to consider that European culture has been influenced by the Arabs? This may seem like a replay on a larger scale of the famous debate on Spanish soil between Sanchez Albornoz on the one side and Amerigo Castro (Islamic influence) on the other, as to whether the true Spanish culture is that which survived from Antiquity and was kept alive during and inspite of the Islamic rule in the Middle Ages, or, on the other hand, is a rich mixture of Arabic and Romance elements. The political background to this stretches back, of course, to the time of the expulsion of the Muslims (1492) and beyond, and involves the questions of puridad de sangre, the Inquisition, and more recent Spanish nationalism. But I think it is fair to say that present day Spanish scholarship has embraced as its own its Islamic past, as can be seen in the institutions of the Escuela de Estudios Árabes in Granada and the Instituto Hispano-Arabe de Cultura in Madrid, and the publications al-Andalus and Awraq. However, that the culture of Islamic Spain has not been regarded as belonging to European culture is a point made strongly (perhaps with too much protest) by Maria-Rosa Menocal, in her The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. A Forgotten Heritage (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania University Press, 1987), a book whose title Gouguenheim alludes to in the first paragraph of his preface that I quote above (‘the forgotten heritage’).

image alt text

Figure 11: Two pages from Book X, chapters 6-7, of Ptolemy’s The Almagest in Latin. The most important medieval Latin translation of the Almagest, which is found in many manuscripts, was made from the Arabic in Spain in about 1175 by Gerard of Cremona, the most prolific of all medieval translators from Arabic into Latin (Source).

The question of Arabic-Islamic influence on European culture as a whole is not a recent one, in fact, but has been addressed at least since the early modern period. In 1537 Jean Bruyerin Champier wrote, in an introduction to a collection of Averroes’ medical texts: ‘When the great flourishing of learning collapsed in Athens, and Gothic barbarity invaded the Roman empire, some Greek books of both the philosophers and the physicians migrated to the Arabs, including the Moors and the Spanish… especially the books of Aristotle and Galen… Then it happened that the Arabs translated many volumes of both authors from Greek into their own language. For it is known that the Arabs were most zealous in the study of the humanities, with the result that Averroes, Alfarabi, Avicenna and innumerable others of the same period philosophized on the basis of these books… and they wholly concentrated on this effort and poured all the force of their intellect into writing interpretations and explanations of both authors. But when Spain was ruled by Alfonso, who had a great thirst for texts, especially in mathematics, since the Moors still held Andalusia, it was easy… for the books of Averroes and others… to be brought to Northern Spain where they were put into Latin… [10]‘ John Selden of Oxfrod in 1642 wrote that ‘the liberal and correctly taught sciences were formerly for a long time called by the English ‘the studies of the Arabs’ – the studia Arabum, as if called from the race and the places where they were then alone seriously cultivated. This is clear also from the preface to the Natural Questions of Adelard of Bath, which he wrote when bringing the sciences back to England from the schools of the Arabs [11]‘.

In the field of science and technology the transmission of information and techniques from the Islamic world to Western Europe has been uncontroversial. It is plain to see that Arabic numerals have been adopted by European mathematicians, that techniques for building bridges, for raising water and making paper were introduced into Europe from the Islamic world. The extent to which is this the case has been documented in books such as Danielle Jacquart and Françoise Micheau’s La médicine arabe et l’occident medieval (1990), and the three-volume Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science (English translation 1996; French text 1997) edited by Roshdi Rashed and Régis Morelon, which includes articles on ‘the influence of Arabic astronomy in the medieval West, the influence of Arabic mathematics in the medieval West, the Western reception of Arabic optics, the reception of Arabic alchemy in the West, the influence of Arabic medicine in the medieval West’. One of the most recent proponents of Arabic-Islamic science is George Saliba in his Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (2007); he makes a strong claim for the distinctly Islamic character of ‘ilm al-hay’a (‘science of the configuration [of the cosmos]’), which gave rise to the Western genre of Theorica planetarum, and traces a continuous development of Arabic astronomy through the works the al-‘Urdi (d. 1266), Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), and al-Qushji (d. 1474) to Copernicus.

image alt text

Figure 12: The only complete Islamic spherical astrolabe known to have survived. © 2005 Museum of the History of Science, Oxford (Inv. 49687) (Source).The spherical astrolabe, long employed in Islamic astronomy, was introduced to Europe by Gerbert d’Aurillac, later Pope Sylvester II: see Gerbert d’Aurillac.

One can point also to elements in Western European society that were or could have been influenced by Arabic models and contacts. Without dwelling on the controversial questions of whether the College system arose from the Islamic waqf (dealt with by George Makdisi [12], who is not mentioned at all by Gouguenheim) or that the Scholastic method pursued there was modelled on the disputations in the Islamic madrasas [13], one can still point to many areas in which practices and characteristics in Islamic societies are adopted in Christian societies: Roger II’s use of a Fatimid diwan in his chancery in Palermo [14]; Alfonso X’s adaptation of Islamic law in his own law code – the Siete Partidas – the use of paper and Arabic numerals in legal and mercantile contexts, additions and changes to cuisine (e.g. pasta), the introduction of musical instruments and the concomitant styles of performance, melodies and rhythms.

But Gouguenheim’s focus is much narrower. He disregards science and technology, and even elements of everyday society, and focuses on texts – and philosophical texts at that – as representing cultural heritage most profoundly.

The documentary evidence in the field of philosophy for the relative value of Greek and Arabic sources is quite straightforward: Aristotle’s works in logic either already existed in Boethius’s late antique translations or were recovered through translations from Greek. His works on natural science, on the other hand, were recovered through translations both from Arabic and from Greek, and, in the course of time, the Greek translations prevailed (William of Moerbeke, in the late thirteenth century, made sure that any outstanding translations from Arabic were replaced by translations from Greek). The interpretations of Aristotle, on the other hand, and the major later texts in the Peripatetic tradition, were written in Arabic, and it is these Arabic texts that were translated into Latin. (As a correspondent in Le Monde put it: ‘the letter of Aristotle remained dead until the keys of the Arabic commentators revived it’) I am referring to Averroes’s three levels of commentary, Avicenna’s Shifa’, and several works by al-Kindi, al-Farabi and al-Ghazali. Only in the case of the logical and ethical texts were antique or Byzantine commentaries used (Boethius, Eustratius, Michael of Ephesus). Thanks to William of Moerbeke there was a limited knowledge of the Greek commentaries of Philoponus, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, Ammonius and Simplicius in the later Middle Ages, but this can be balanced by the use of Averroes’ Middle Commentaries on the logical texts, and, indeed, the replacement of Aristotle’s original Poetics by Averroes Middle Commentary on that text.

The spread of Arabic philosophical works in the thirteenth century, as evidence by their existence in libraries, has been comprehensively documented by Harald Kischlat [15]. The preeminence of Arabic sources for Western philosophy can be seen in the fact that, when Giles of Rome criticizes the errors of the philosophers in ca. 1270, all the philosophers named are Arabic or wrote their philosophy in Arabic (e.g. Maimonides), with the exception of Aristotle himself [16]. Even in the case of Aristotle, Giles uses the Arabic-Latin translations of the Physics, Metaphysics, and the De anima, since he takes them from the lemmatized texts in the Long Commentaries of Averroes. He also uses Alfred of Shareshill’s translation of the Pseudo-Aristotelian De plantis. The works of the great philosophers of the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, are saturated with citations of works by Arabs, and explicitly so. They call these authorities ‘peripatetici Arabici’ and ‘philosophi Arabes’ – the Arabic Aristotelians. It is not by chance that the edition of the Latin Averroes Commentaries is being led by the Thomas Institut in Cologne [17]. For Thomas Aquinas, as for Albertus Magnus, Aristotle could not but be accompanied by the commentaries of Averroes. And this situation survived until well into the sixteenth century, when, in 1550-2, the Giunta brothers in Venice published a 11 volume edition of ‘All the Extant Works of Aristotle, in select translations…. And all the commentaries of Averroes of Cordoba which have come down to us…. some newly translated’. The Arabic philosophers did not simply repeat what the Greek philosophers had to say, as the editors of the Giunta edition had already pointed out (Thomaso Giunta): ?Aristotle, although wonderfully learned in the arrangement of his teachings, seemed too concise and rather difficult, and therefore for a long time he was not indeed held in contempt, but languished as being obscure and inaccessible and lacking brilliance… Aristotle dealt with principles, methods and general things in such a way that he left many of them to be investigated and thought over more carefully by others. The Greeks made very little effort to do this, if any at all. But the Arabs, not content with mere interpretations, thought that the whole subject matter -that is the things themselves which had to be dealt with – should be investigated much more carefully and fully. This especially is what Averroes is praised for, whose most solid teaching, which is not so much drawn from the springs of the Greeks as squeezed out of them, has shone forth so much that he alone has vindicated for himself the right to be called “the Commentator”. Now, then, it is established among all men who have philosophized in the intervening centuries, that those parts of philosophy which had been omitted by Aristotle, have up to now been more carefully inspected and placed on more solid foundations by no other man (than Averroes) [18].’

image alt text

Figure 13: A Treatise on the astrolabe by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, al-Risalah al-Asturlabiyah (Treatise on the Astrolabe), from a private Arabic manuscript collection (Source).

Dag Nikolaus Hasse, in a recent article on the influence of Arabic philosophy for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, has given a list of the doctrines that were taken up by medieval philosophers, and are not found in the Greek philosophers or commentators themselves: the logical distinction between first and second intentions; the intension and remission of elementary forms; the soul’s faculty of estimation and its object; the conjunction between the human intellect and the separate active intellect; the unicity of the material intellect; naturalistic theories of miracles and prophecy; the active intellect as giver of forms; the distinction between essence and existence; the theory of primary concepts; the concept of human happiness as resulting from perfect conjunction with the active intellect [19].

But, we return to the question to what extent can we call the philosophical works of Averroes, Avicenna, al-Farabi etc. ‘Islamic’ (to take up Sylvain Gouguenheim’s argument again)? Philosophy was always regarded as a ‘foreign science’ by the Muslims, and was never more than a minority interest. Its very name falsafa was simply the transliteration of the Greek word. Al-Farabi, the most strictly Aristotelian of the Arabs, was a ‘free-thinker’ (zandiq) or heretic, rather than a proper Muslim. Al-Ghazali, as a good Muslim, ‘destroyed the opinions of the philosophers’, while Averroes, though writing a ‘destruction of al-Ghazali’s destruction’, had still to disguise his true philosophical beliefs by using the devise of the ‘double truth’ – and even so he was persecuted and his philosophical works were hardly transmitted in Arabic. Gouguenheim writes (pp. 197-8) that ‘European clerks took philosophical commentaries from many scholars, Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Jews and Christians, whose influence was real even though these sources were filtered and readapted. But even in respect to the commentaries of Avicenna and Averroes, nothing can affirm that notions specific to the Arabic language or concepts proper to Islam brought about the cultural revolution of the 12th and 13th centuries’ (p. 198).

One could respond that Aristotle was also regarded as pagan and unchristian in the West, as shown in the series of condemnations of Aristotle’s works – first of all, of whole works and their commentaries, then of 219 doctrines contained in them. And Alain de Libera points out (in his letter in Télérama) that the Byzantines called philosophy a ‘foreign science'(‘or Hellenic fables’), before the Arabs did. But if we have to exclude the ‘foreign’ (or ‘ancient’) sciences from the question of Arabic influence on Europe, what are we left with? Arabic grammar and Islamic theology and religious law. Is Gouguenheim’s point, then, solely that Arabic grammar and Islam, as a religion, had no impact on European culture? This would be the implication of his use of the word ‘islamicised’ as being of the same order as ‘hellenicised’ (p. 164: ‘En somme l’Islam ne s’est pas héllenisé, pas plus que l’Occident ne s’est islamisé’), even though this analogy is not exact, since Islam is a religion, but Hellenism is not.

‘Islamicisation’ in the sense of becoming Muslim, was firmly rejected in the Latin Middle Ages. The importance of accepting Arabic texts but rejecting the Islamic religion was repeatedly made. Peter the Venerable regarded the Arabs as ‘gifted and wise’ and praised their libraries, full of books consecrated to the liberal arts and to the sciences of nature, while judging them ‘fools in regard to eternal and divine things’. Hermann of Carinthia refers to the intimi Arabum thesauri (‘intimate treasuries of the Arabs’) from which he and his fellow translator, Robert of Ketton, have taken precious texts, but he calls the Muslim ‘infelicissimus Agarenus’ (‘most wretched descendant of Hagar’) and the Ismaelita, and the prophet Muhammad an ‘infelicissimus homo’ (70vD) [20].

Nevertheless, the Muslim religion was not entirely absent from the Arabic texts translated, and had some impact on western culture. Peter the Venerable, as is well known, commissioned a translation of the Koran, with accompanying texts in the early 1140s; a second translation was made by Mark of Toledo in the early thirteenth century, when it accompanied the profession of faith of Ibn Tumart, the religious leader (Mahdi) of the Almohads, who held the reins of power at that time in Islamic Spain and the Maghreb [21]. Religious phrases also appear in other texts. The predictions in astrological texts are often followed by the phrase ‘bi-idhn Allah’ (‘by the permission of God’), which the Christian translators render as ‘Deo annuente’. Since every Arabic text written by a Muslim begins with the basmala, in which the name of God is invoked. This is the most obvious way of showing that the text belongs to the Islamic cultural heritage. In the literal translations made in Toledo and elsewhere in Spain a close equivalent of the basmala was provided: ‘In nomine Domini misericordis et pii (miseratoris)’ (‘in the name of God the merciful and kind’). The Islamic invocation of the ninety-nine names of God inspired Ramon Llull to invent a Christian equivalent, the arguments for the unity of God in the writings of Ibn Tumart added weight to Christian arguments for the One God, and the story of the mi‘raj (Prophet Muhammad’s midnight journey through the seven heavens) is reflected in European literature, perhaps even in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

But Islamicisation in the sense of making a Christian Europe an Islamic Europe is not really in question. It smacks too much of imposing a present-day concern on the Middle Ages. If one is looking at intellectual traditions, which Gouguenheim is claiming to be doing, then surely one must admit that true knowledge is independent of any religion. In the Arabic world the falasifa (philosophers) were Muslim (al-Kindi), Christian (Ibn ‘Adi, Ibn Masawayh) and Jewish (Ishaq Israili), but spoke a common philosophical language, in search for truth through reason. Similarly, in the Western world, Maimonides and Averroes were cited in philosophical texts without regard to the fact that the one was a Jew, the other a Muslim. Knowledge should be sought from any source available. This point is repeatedly made by Arabic and Latin scholars. Already a tradition (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad is well-known: ‘look for science as far as China’. Al-Kindi, in his On First Philosophy, says that truth must be taken from wherever it can be found [22]. Adelard of Bath in the twelfth century in his De eodem et diverso states the same thing, using an elaborating metaphor: ‘it will be worthwhile to approach teachers of different peoples, and to commit to memory what you may find is most finely expressed among each of them. For what French studies are ignorant of, those across the Alps will unlock: what you will not learn amongst the Latins, eloquent Greece will teach you. For as the (human) soul… cannot exercise all its powers in all the parts of the human body… so, since not every region is fertile with men who are capable of every kind of excellence, the (world soul) established different disciplines in different peoples, so that, what she is not able to effect in one part of the world, she might bring about within the compass of the one world’ [23]. Gouguenheim himself quotes some words of Hugo of St Victor: ‘The well-advised student willingly listens to everyone; he reads everything, and does not look down disdainfully on any book, person or doctrine. Indiscriminately, from all and sundry, he asks for what he sees he is lacking in himself’.

5. Conclusion

Thus we must acknowledge both Mont St Michel and Toledo as contributors to European culture; both Greek and Arabic sources enriched the intellectual world of the Middle Ages. Gouguenheim’s focus on the true roots of ‘Christian Europe’ runs the danger of ethnicity—of replacing a racial purity of blood with a textual one. It is significant that blood is mentioned in one of the two quotations that open the book: Monique Dosdat’s statement that ‘The book in Christianity is like water, like blood: it irrigates the life of the soul’. Blood is passed naturally from one generation to another, but texts can only be passed down to ‘sons’ (and ‘daughters’) who are worthy and appropriate to receive them—those who understand them through their innate nature (viz. Gouguenheim’s discussion of the incompatibility of the Arabic learning for receiving Greek syllogistic argument). A pure tradition is contaminated by elements coming from outside it (e.g. Gouguenheim speaks of ‘a distortion of Greek astronomy by the Arabs, into something more “spiritualist” than scientific, which was diffused in Europe where for a long time astronomy and astrology were combined. The Islamic filter has then, operated with efficacy, hindering and limiting that which should have been a profound and durable Hellenization’) [24]. An alternative view is that texts are enriched both by passing through the languages of other cultures, and by being supplemented by new texts incorporating distinctive characteristics of these cultures. Thus Greco-Latin translations and Arabo-Latin translations are not only two conduits by which ancient Greek culture reached the Middle Ages; they also provided the Byzantine, Arabic (and beyond Arabic, the Persian, and Indian) developments and supplements to this culture, whose mixture makes Western European civilization what it is.


[1] All translations from this book, and from other texts, are my own, unless otherwise stated. The book has recently been translated into Italian, under the title Aristotele contro Averroè. Il mito delle radici islamiche della società occidentale (Rizzolo, January 2009) and has won the Prix Victor Cousin of 2008.

[2] Coloman Viola, ‘Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel’, Millénaire monastique du Mont Saint-Michel, ed. R. Foreville, 2 vols, Paris, 1967, II, pp. 289-312, see p. 298.

[3] Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Cultural co-operation between Europe and the south Mediterranean countries, Report of the Commission on Culture, Science and Education, 8 November 2002, Document 9626.

[4] La philosophie médiévale, p. 309: ‘Ce qui distingue la philosophie occidentale latine n’est pas de se poser en héritière des Grecs. Bien au contraire, en terre chrétienne la différence occidentale vient des sources et de l’enracinement arabes des latinophones. A l’autre extrémité du monde chrétien, Byzance s’isole à continuer, seule, la romanité hellénique. Le “particularisme byzantin” vient de ce qu’au xiie siècle, Byzance est plus occidentale au sense moderne du terme que le monde latinophone: hellénophone, le monde byzantin reste fermé à la culture philosophique de la terre d’Islam; sa richesse intellectuelle, sa tradition, son héritage le dispensent de regarder ailleurs. Le monde latin au contraire est philosophiquement pauvre et sa pauvreté lui tient lieu d’ouverture. Une fois maîtres de Tolède, les chrétiens se mettent à traduire’. The isolation of Byzantium is exaggerated, as can be seen from the writings of Irfan Shahid and Paul Magdalino.

[5] Aristote au Mont Saint Michel, p. 140: ?Je ne peux suivre Alain de Libera qui crédite l’Islam d’avoir effectué “la première confrontation de l’hellénisme et du monothéisme”, oubliant les Pères grecs! et estime que c’est à l’Islam que l’Occident doit la raison et la rationalité: “La raison, improprement dite “occidentale”, telle la lumière, vient aussi de l’Orient” (Penser au moyen âge, 114-6). Si l’exercice de la raison est universel, la pratique du raisonnement démonstratif est née en Grèce’.

[6] `L’hypothèse du Mont-saint-Michel… “chaînon manquant dans l’histoire du passage de la philosophie aristotélicienne du monde grec au monde latin”, hâtivement célébrée par l’islamophobie ordinaire, a autant d’importance que la réévaluation du rôle de l’authentique Mère Poulard dans l’histoire de l’omelette… Cette Europe-là n’est pas la mienne. Je la laisse au “ministère de l’Immigration et de l’Identité nationale” et aux caves du Vatican’.

[7] L.J. Bataillon, ‘Sur Aristote et le Mont-Saint-Michel’, in Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques, 92, 2008, pp. 329-334.

[8] Gouguenheim, in his description of the contents of the Avranches manuscripts (Annexe 3 of his book) deliberately fails to mention any text that is not by Aristotle.

[9] See C. Burnett, ‘The Contents and Affiliation of the Scientific Manuscripts Written at, or Brought to, Chartres in the Time of John of Salisbury’, in The World of John of Salisbury, edited by M. Wilks, Studies in Church History, Oxford, 1984, pp. 127–60.

[10] Jean Bruyerin Champier, Collectaneorum de re medica Averrhoi philosophi… Lyons, 1537, sig. A3v-A4r.

[11] John Seldon, Eutychii Patriarchae Orthodoxorum Alexandrini… Ecclesiae suae Origines…, London, 1642, p. 156. Seldon is referring to the translator from Arabic and literary scholar, Adelard of Bath (ca. 1080-1150).

[12] G. Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, Edinburgh 1981.

[13] Christopher Beckwith, ‘Central Asian Buddhist Sources of Early Scholasticism in Medieval Tibet, Islam and Western Europe’, forthcoming in Islam and Tibet, eds A. Akasoy, C. Burnett and R. Yoeli-Tlalim, Aldershot 2009.

[14] Jeremy Johns, Arabic Administration and Norman Kingship in Sicily: The Royal Diwan, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[15] H. Kischlat, Studien zur Verbreitung von Übersetzungen arabischer philosophischer Werke in Westeuropa, 1150-1400: das Zeugnis der Bibliotheken, Münster, 2000.

[16] Giles of Rome, Errores philosophorum, ed. Josef Koch… English translation by John O. Riedl, Milwaukee, 1944.

[17] See online Thomas-Institut der Universität zu Köln: Averroes-Database. This Database is a service of the Averroes Latinus project which is backed by the Northrhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences and Humanities and located at the Thomas-Institut in Cologne. Within the framework of this project the works of Averroes which have been translated to Latin are to be critically edited: see Averroes-Database.

[18] Aristotelis Stagiritae omnia quae extant opera… Averrois Cordubensis in ea opera omnes qui ad nos pervenere commentarii…, Venice 1550-52.

[19] See the online version of this article: Influence of Arabic and Islamic Philosophy on the Latin West (first published 19 September 2008).

[20] Hermann of Carinthia, De essentiis, ed. C. Burnett, Leiden, 1982, pp. 70-1 (58rD), 80-1 (59rD) and 166-7 (70vD).

[21] See Thomas Burman, Reading the Qur’an in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560, Philadelphia, 2007.

[22] Oeuvres philosophiques et scientifiques d’al-Kindi, 2 vols, Leiden, 1997-1998, II, pp. 12-13.

[23] Adelard of Bath, Conversations with his Nephew, ed. and transl. by C. Burnett, pp. 68-71.

[24] Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel, pp. 146-7: ‘Cette orientation plus spiritualiste que scientifique s’est diffusée en Europe où, longtemps, astronomie et astrologie vont aller de pair. Le filtre islamique a donc opéré avec efficacité, freinant et limitant ce qui aurait pu être une héllenisation profonde et durable’.

* Professor Charles Burnett holds the Chair of History of Islamic Influences in Europe at The Warburg Institute, University of London, London, UK, and is a key associate of FSTC.

4.8 / 5. Votes 196

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.