The Appreciation of Arabic Science and Technology in the Middle Ages

by Charles Burnett Published on: 16th May 2007

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This article describes the appreciation of Arabic science and technology in the Middle Ages through the example of Adelard of Bath, an English scholar of the early 12th century, one of the first scholars that personify Arabic-Latin intercultural transmission that paved the way to the introduction of Arabic learning in premodern Europe.

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Figure 1. Prof. Charles Burnett during his speech in 1001 Inventions Conference.

The article is originally a talk presented at the international conference 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on the 8th of March 2006, on the occasion of the launch of the exhibition 1001 inventions. The conference proceedings are edited by Dr. Salim Ayduz and Dr. Saleema Kauser.

I would like to start with a passage written by an Englishman in the early 12th century, in his introduction to a rather popular book on natural science (the 12th-century equivalent of cosmology, physics, human and animal biology, botany and psychology all rolled into one). This author, Adelard of Bath, was brought up at a time when young noblemen and otherwise talented youngsters received their first education from private tutors, or in schools attached to the cathedrals in England, and then went abroad, to Continental Europe, for their higher education (still in cathedral schools). Adelard, as a tutor to some noble young men in Bath, tells us that he was taking them to Laon, a notable centre of learning to the Northeast of Paris, and he made a pact with one of them—whom he calls his nephew—that he (the nephew) should learn the kind of things that one is taught in France, to the best of his ability, whilst Adelard himself would devote himself to Arabic studies (studia Arabum), and that they should meet a few years later and compare the results. Adelard then embarked on an intellectual journey—which took him to several places in the Principality of Antioch, which had recently been established as a result of the success of the First Crusade (1098-1100)—he mentions Tarsus and Mamistra (Misis), both now in South East Turkey—while other scholars refer to him as the ‘Antiochene’—he also spent some time in Sicily, which had been under Islamic rule until 1072. After seven years he returned to England and there he met his nephew again, and they engage in a kind of intellectual competition in which Adelard espouses Arabic studies, and the nephew draws on his French studies. Adelard characterizes Arabic studies as being new and exciting and French studies as being traditional and boring. But the main point of contrast is that the Arabs use their brains (they use ‘ratio’–‘reason’), whereas the French rely on authority. To quote Adelard’s own words:

“I have learnt one thing from my Arab masters, with reason as guide, but you another: you follow a halter, being enthralled by the picture of authority. For what else can authority be called other than a halter? As brute animals are led wherever one pleases by a halter, but do not know where or why they are being led, and only follow the rope by which they are pulled along, so the authority of written words leads many people into danger, since they just accept what they are told, without question. So what is the point of having a brain, if one does not think for oneself?… If I am going to talk to you, you must give and provide rational arguments. For I am not the kind of man whom the painting of the skin can satisfy” (here there is an allusion to the painting, or writing of letters on parchment and vellum, the skins of sheep and goats).

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Figure 2. Adelard of Bath, Conversations with his Nephew. Edited by Charles Burnett et al., Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Adelard is not the only person to regard the Arabs as the epitome of rational thought. His contemporary, the well-known philosopher, theologian and lover, Peter Abelard, wrote a conversation between a Jew, a Christian and a ‘philosopher’, in which each explains how his beliefs can lead to happiness and personal fulfillment. Several indications (among them being his circumcision) show that the Philosopher is a Muslim, and Abelard, in describing the emotional and intellectual turmoils of his life, at one stage threatens to escape from his Christian enemies by running away to an Islamic country. So, for Abelard, Muslims represent both rationality and tolerance. One may note that even Henry II, the English king, a few years later (1168), threatened that he would follow the religion of Nur ad-Din, the Zangi Sultan of Aleppo, and become a Muslim, if the Pope did not depose his troublesome archbishop, Thomas Becket.

There may well have been awareness that tolerance for ‘people of the book’—Jews and Christians—was firmly established in Qur’anic teaching. Tolerance towards Muslims on the part of Christians is less likely to be acknowledged, but Arabic/Muslim scholars were openly respected for their scientific and philosophical talent, and their willingness to innovate. John of Salisbury, one of the leading intellectuals of the time, credits the Muslims as the only people to understand geometry, which they pursued for the sake of astronomy. Robert of Ketton, a churchman and friend of the leading theologians of the period, quotes a colleague as saying that the Arabic scientist, al-Kindî (9th century), is the most reliable authority on the science of the stars. One may quote another anecdote, by a scholar of the generation after Adelard, Daniel of Morley, who tells us that, like many young scholars, he left England with the intention of studying at the university of Paris (which was now replacing the cathedral schools as the main centre for advanced study), but found that the professors there were more like donkeys than men; they spent their time engaged in minutiae and had no interest in science. But then he heard that Arabic learning concentrated on the mathematical sciences (using the terminology of the time, he calls these the ‘quadrivium’, the four-fold path to wisdom, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), and that it was possible to study these in Toledo. So he hastened there and was not disappointed. He studied both with the greatest of the translators of Arabic science and philosophy, Gerard of Cremona, and with his Arabic colleague, Ghalib, a Christian from al-Andalus. This allowed him to write a book about how the universe functioned (‘On the natures of the heavens and the earth’), in which he begs his readers to accept the ‘simple and clear opinions of the Arabs’ rather than the obscure statements of Latin scientists who ‘veil their ignorance under a blanket of unintelligibility’.

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Figure 3. Artist impression of Al-Kindî. Copyright (Source)

Latin scholars were spurred into doing something about the fact that Arabic learning was superior to their own. Adelard himself translated from Arabic a programme of mathematical learning, starting from the geometry of Euclid, progressing possibly through the spherical geometry of Theodosius, to the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi, along with their instructions, which led naturally to dealing with applied astronomy, i.e. astrology and astrological magic. Moreover, he described in his own words how to use an astrolabe, basing his statements on an instrument belong to a certain ‘Elmireth’. We have good reasons to believe that Adelard had some connections with the best-known cathedral school of the time, that of Chartres, some fifty miles southwest of Paris. For in the early 1140s the chancellor there, who was in charge of the school, compiled a comprehensive two-volume collection of the essential texts for studying the seven liberal arts (the basis of education in the schools), and he included Adelard’s translation of Euclid and the astronomical tables in it. Moreover, he clearly encouraged other scholars to translate works. For Hermann of Carinthia, who calls Thierry his teacher, proposed to him a curriculum in astronomy and astrology, consisting of works that he and his colleague, Robert of Ketton, had already translated, or intended to translate.

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Figure 4. The frontispiece of Adelard of Bath’s Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements, ca. 1309–1316 (MS Burney MS 275 f.293, British Library, London)

The most comprehensive programme of translation, however, is that which took place in Toledo in the second half of the 12th century. Here Dominicus Gundissalinus, an archdeacon resident at the cathedral (died after 1190), and Gerard of Cremona, nicknamed ‘the Master’ (1114-87) undertook, respectively, the translation of texts on psychology and metaphysics (Gundissalinus), and texts on logic, geometry, natural science, astronomy and medicine (Gerard). Both translators made their own versions of a very significant Arabic text concerning the range of human knowledge: al-Farabi’s On the Classification of the Sciences. Here al-Farabi, who lived in Baghdad in the 9th century, described the nature and the divisions of logic, mathematics, natural science, metaphysics and the social sciences (politics, law and rhetoric), and recommended text books (largely by Aristotle) for the individual divisions. Al-Farabi’s book provided a programme for the Toledan translators to follow, and we see them completing this programme over a period of roughly a century, between ca. 1150 and 1260.

The Western translators were, in the first place, aiming to restore the ancient learning of Euclid, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Galen (all written in Greek), which they were aware survived amongst both the Greeks (in the Byzantine Empire) and the Arabs. Thus they had two possible sources: the centres of Greek and of Arabic learning respectively. They could find copies of most of these texts in Greek, just as scholars in Baghdad had done in the 9th century when they translated them into Arabic. But among the Arabs the Latins could and did find more than the texts: they were also confronted with the results of a tradition of scholarship which had not only absorbed new elements from other cultures (particularly those of India and Persia), but had also developed, refined, and changed the learning of the ancients. Thus, the astronomical models of Ptolemy contended with those of Indian astronomers, and his measurements of the movements of the planets were repeatedly corrected and often replaced, ever since the official “testing” sponsored by the caliph al-Ma’?mun in the early 9th century. Aristotle’s works on physics together with the ancient commentaries on them were transmitted, but al-Farabi, Avempace (Ibn Bajja, d. ca. 1139), and Averroes (d. 1198) wrote new commentaries, and Avicenna (d. 1037) recast the whole of Aristotle’s philosophy in a new, up-to-date form. Perhaps even more radical was the replacement of the original works of Galen by new texts on medicine, each generation of Arabic doctors trying to improve on the work of their predecessors.

Adelard of Bath and Stephen the Philosopher both refer to their Arabic magistri, which they encountered in the Principality of Antioch. Other translators benefited from the Diaspora of Jewish scholars who had cultivated Arabic learning, following the expulsion of the Jews from Islamic Spain by the Almohads in 1160. In some cases translators appeared to have used those scientific works promoted by their Arabic masters: an example is Constantine the African, who transmitted the medical tradition of his masters in Qairawan in Tunisia, and Gundissalinus, who translated works of Avicenna, Algazel, and Avicebron, the authors favoured by his Jewish collaborator, Avendauth (Abraham Ibn Daud). Gerard of Cremona, while translating several important works by Arabic scholars (especially in the field of medicine, including Avicenna’s magisterial Canon of Medicine), appears to have made a more deliberate effort to recover the ancient texts from amongst the Arabs. But his translating activity coincides with a reaction against ‘modern’ developments also on the part of a group of Islamic scholars in Córdoba (the chief of them being Averroes), who tried to restore a pure Aristotle both for natural science and for astronomy.

One indication of the reverence for the Arabic texts and their authors is the high degree of literalness of the translations. Most translators made no attempt to produce idiomatic and elegant Latin. Rather, they sought to preserve as strictly as possible the ‘Arabica veritas’—the truth that was embedded in the Arabic—even at the expense of providing something readable. In some cases one gets the impression that the Latin is a crib, enabling students to read the Arabic itself. Most students, however, would not have had the Arabic text at hand, and would have had to glimpse the ‘Arabic truth’ through the Latin text, with the help of teachers and commentaries, which often derived from the Arabic tradition. Any departure from the literal sense was regarded as being a slight on the original author, and a sign of the pride and self-esteem of the translator. No attempt was made to disguise the fact that the Latin was based on an Arabic original.

This massive movement of translation lasted approximately from the early 12th century until the mid-13th century. Just as the new translations of Adelard at the beginning of this period had enriched the library of the cathedral school of Chartres, so the translations of texts and commentaries at Toledo and in the South of Italy and Sicily, became the set texts on the curricula of the new universities of Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, and of the schools of medicine. By the second quarter of the 13th century we find some remarkable testimonies to the commonality of scientific knowledge within the Islamic and Christian worlds, which made it possible for intellectual centres in the West to benefit directly from the studies of the Arabs.

Theodore of Antioch, a Syrian Christian, studied philosophy, geometry and astronomy in an Islamic madrasa at Mosul under the foremost Muslim scholar of his age, Kamal al-Din ibn Yunus (1156-1242), and then studied medicine in Baghdad, after which he served, as a doctor and ‘philosopher’ (hakim), a Seljuk ruler of Konya, a Christian Armenian regent, and finally the Christian emperor of Sicily, Frederick II. Another student of Kamal al-Din, al-Urmawi, also spent time at the Emperor’s court, composing a book on logic for him. Frederick himself sent questions on mathematics, optics and philosophy to Arabic scholars throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Later in the same century, astronomical information from the observatory of Maragha in the Mongol realms arrived at the Spanish court of Alfonso X, while the observations and investigations at Ulugh Beg’s observatory in Samarkand at the beginning of the 15th century led to theories of planetary movement that were eventually taken up by Copernicus. Adelard proved to be remarkably prescient in claiming that Western scholars could benefit from Arabic learning.


Adelard of Bath, Conversations with His Nephew: On the Same and the Different, Questions on Natural Science and On Birds, edited and translated by Charles Burnett, Italo Ronca, Pedro Mantas España, et Baudoun van den Abeele,. Cambridge, 1998.

Peter Abelard, Collationes (Dialogus inter philosophum, Judaeum et Christianum), edited and translated by John Marenbon and Giovanni Orlandi. Oxford, 2001.

Burnett, Charles, The Introduction of Arabic Learning into England. London, 1997.

Burnett, Charles, ‘Master Theodore, Frederick II’s Philosopher’, in Federico II e le Nuove Culture. Spoleto, 1995, pp. 225-285.

Idem, ‘The Coherence of the Arabic-Latin Translation Program in Toledo in the Twelfth Century’. In Science in Context, 14, 2001, pp. 249-88.

Saliba, George, A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories during the Golden Ages of Islam. New York and London, 1994.

* Charles Burnett is a Professor of History of Islamic Influences in Europe, The Warburg Institute, London, UK.

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