The fallacy of the ‘Dark Ages’

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 1st November 2002

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There is a major fallacy in the concept of the 'Dark Ages'. That period coincides exactly with the Muslim apogee. In the midst of Europe's darkness, almost immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Muslim civilisation came into being.

Summarised extracts from a full article:
An Introduction to Muslim Science by Salah Zaimeche

There is a major fallacy in the concept of the ‘Dark Ages’. Haskins (endnote 3), followed by scores of other scholars, demonstrated that Europe experienced its revival in the twelfth century and not in that magic period of the so called Renaissance (late 15th-early 17th).

Sarton (endnote 4), in his voluminous Introduction to the History of Science shows both the continuity in scientific progress, the crucial importance of the middle ages and also the decisive Muslim contribution.

L.White JR (by no means a fervent admirer of Muslim science) recognises:

‘the traditional picture of the Middle Ages (5th to the 15th) has been one of historical decline, particularly in early Middle Ages, the so called dark Ages. Yet such a view of the Middle Ages is false when viewed from the standpoint of the history of technology.’(endnote 5)

He further adds that:

`the very creative new Islamic civilisation incorporated and perpetuated the technical achievements of Greece and Rome… The idea of so called dark Ages was only applicable to the western portion of the Roman Empire.'(endnote 6)

Whilst Whipple states:

`To many students of medical history and medical science the Middle Ages, or Dark Ages as they have been called, implies a period of regression, of endless controversy, of fruitless arguments of scholasticism and the mention of this period is met with disinterest if not antagonism.’(endnote 7)

That period of the ‘Dark ages’ coincides exactly with the Muslim apogee. This alone explains very much the hostility to it.(endnote 8) Indeed, in the midst of Europe’s darkness, almost immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Muslim civilisation came into being.

It was in the year 622 that the Hijra took place and in the year 630, that the Prophet (pbuh) entered Makkah. Following the death of the Prophet (pbuh), Islam spread to the neighbouring lands, embraced rapidly by the various local populations. And by the year 750, the Muslim lands stretched from Spain to the borders of China.

Rising with the spread of Islam was a grandiose civilisation. Unlike Europe gripped by darkness, the Muslim scientific revolution took place exactly during the apogee of Islam, from roughly the late 8th century (2 Hijra) to the thirteenth (7th H).

Islam, according to Draper:

`had all along been the patron of physical science; paganising Christianity not only repudiated it, but exhibited towards it sentiments of contemptuous disdain and hatred.’(endnote 9)

It was, indeed, between the 8th-13th centuries that most decisive scientific inventions were made, and the foundations of modern civilisation were laid. Scientists and scientific discoveries in their thousands, artistic creativity, great architecture, huge libraries, hospitals, technology, universities, industry, mapping of the world, the discovery of the sky and its secrets and much more.

It was the time when Al-Biruni, Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Kindi, Al-Idrisi, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Ibn Khaldun, Al-Khazin, Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Al-Jazari and hundreds more scientists shaped the modern sciences in such a way that in the mind of Briffault, science ‘owes a great deal more to the Arab culture, it owes its existence.’(endnote 10)

Had not it been for such Muslim upsurge, modern European civilisation, he pursues, would never have arisen at all and ‘would not have assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution.'(endnote 11)

George Sarton speaks of:

`The Miracle of Arabic science, using the word miracle as a symbol of our inability to explain achievements which were almost incredible… unparalleled in the history of the world.’(endnote 12)

Martin Levey points out to the crucial timing of the Muslim scientific upsurge (during the times of darkness elsewhere), and also how it was conveyed to Europe:

‘In a time when the movement of ideas was at a relative standstill,’ he holds, `the Muslims came along with a new outlook, with a sense of enquiry into the old, and finally to a point where Western Europe could take over this thoroughly examined knowledge and endow its ripeness with a completely fresh approach of its own.’(endnote 13)

With the Spanish re-conquest of former Muslim towns and cities, most particularly Toledo, (in 1085), the Christians came across the vast Muslim learning. Adelard of Bath, Robert of Chester, Plato of Tivoli, Herman of Carinthia, Gerard of Cremonna, and many others and, of course, the many Jewish intermediaries, translated vast amounts of scientific works from Arabic into Latin, Hebrew and local dialects. These hundreds of works were to serve as the foundations of Western learning. The courts of Sicily and Muslim Spain also communicated more knowledge and civilisation. And so did the Crusades, two centuries of warfare and mayhem, and also of cultural intercourse, during which the Europeans acquired skills of various nature, in architecture, and others. Just as stated by Lowe:

`The so called Dark Ages were lighter than we used to believe, and there was a constant interchange of knowledge and ideas between the supposedly hostile worlds of the Cross and the Crescent.’(endnote 14)

It is impossible for historians to explain the role of the Middle Ages in the advance of civilisation without referring to the Islamic role. Some (Lynn White Jr, Duhem; Clagett…) did try to rehabilitate the Middle Ages, whilst still lessening the role of the Muslim. Their works ended up with gaps and contradictions of horrendous dimensions that any person, however limited in skills could raise. Besides, amongst the Westerners are scholars in the many who keep unearthing what others try hard to blot out. Sarton, Haskins, E.Kennedy, D.King, Wiedemann, Ribera, Hill, Mieli, Myers, Suter, Leclerc, Millas Vallicrosa, Sedillot, just to cite a few amongst the many, have put at the disposal of scholarship and audiences so much that is impossible to hide. The true place of Islamic science should now be reclaimed.

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