The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper

by The Editorial Team, Khaleel Shaikh Published on: 31st October 2017

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Professor Glen Cooper discusses the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation. During the European Dark Ages, when science, art and literature seemed to flounder for centuries, there actually was a lot of discover in places like Iraq, Persia and Syria.

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Note of Editor: This Podcast was first published and broadcasted at Later, it was published by 1001 Inventions. The transcript, however, is published first at Muslim Heritage. We thank Khaleel Shaikh for transcribing the interview.


The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 2. Guest Prof Glen M. Cooper 

The West Owes a Debt to Islam

Host: Julie Rose (J.R), broadcast journalist and interviewer

Guest: Prof Glen Cooper (G.C), PhD, Adjunct Professor of History, Pitzer College

Description: During the European Dark Ages, when science, art and literature seemed to flounder for several centuries, there actually was a lot of discover and insight going on – but in places like Iraq, Persia and Syria. The science of medicine, mathematics and astronomy flourished among scholars and would help catalyze the European Renaissance. But those contributions have been largely forgotten today.

Podcast: Click here to listen the interview (

Below is the Transcript of this interview >>>

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 3. Galen, Ibn Sina (Avecena), and Hippocrates, the three authorities on medical theory and practice in a woodcut from an early 15th-century Latin medical book. (Source) 

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 4. The overview of the astronomical instruments and staff of the Istanbul Observatory with Taqi Al-Din Rasid at work from Shahinshahnāme manuscript (Source)

J.R. Intro: To understand why and what’s lost when we ignore the debt we owe to Islam? I’m joined by Glen Cooper, he’s an Adjunct Professor of History at Pitzer Collage and also a BYU alum. He has built a career on studying ancient Islamic science.

J.R: Welcome Professor Cooper it’s good to have you.

G.C: Thank you Julian.

J.R: Can you point to anything in our modern scientific or medical world, that we can look at and say, Islamic Scholars made that what it is today?

G.C: Well there is numerous examples of things that we use every day. For example, the numeral system, the Arabic numeral system that we use, which actually comes from India. But the decimal fractions that the Muslim mathematicians invented, in 15th C. Samarqand, which simplified astronomical calculations. And also Spherical Trigonometry, which they developed to help them investigate the heavens. But more pervasively, and this is often overlooked, is that the mediaeval Muslims shaped the way that we think about and do science to this day. Their greatest innovations were scientific institutions, they came up with the idea of private, endowed research institutions. They pioneered in colleges, hospitals and observatories.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper

Figure 5. Samarkand (Source)

J.R: Prior to the Islamic world doing this, how would that kind of pursuit be done? Would it have been done more individually rather than in a professional setting?

G.C: Well there were things like the library of Alexandria and other places. But they were usually endowed by the ruler and were subjected to his whim, whereas these [Muslim scientific] endowments were protected by the religious institutions.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 6. Turning a fistula into in rhinophyma treatment by a Muslim surgeon. Miniature in Sharaf al-Din Sabuncuoglu’s book Cerrahiyat al-Hâniyya (Source)

J.R: Give me an example of one of these institutions that you have studied

G.C: Let me start with the hospitals. Hospitals as we understand them were originally invented by Christians as places of charity for the dying and this is what we see as hospice care today. But in the mediaeval Islamic world they took that idea and turned the hospitals into research institutions that were privately endowed by a pious benefactor. This was to improve medication towards the sick rather than just the dying.

J.R: So when we go to the hospital today to get better and not to die, that was an idea that the Islamic scientists came up with?

G.C: Yes. Plus the knowledge that accumulated in such places.

J.R: But did they advance medical treatment during this period? In the dark ages medicine was pretty rough compared with what we know today! What kind of contributions did the Islamic scholars make?

G.C: They improved medical treatment, they built upon the Greek physicians and improved all of their techniques and all of their theories. They made remarkable discoveries. For example, Ibn al-Nafis, a 13th century Syrian physician, discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood, which prefigured Harvey’s great discovery three centuries later. Ibn al-Haytham, in the 11th century, investigated the anatomy and physiology of vision.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 7.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 8. A parade of surgeons, on the left side from Surnâme-i Vehbî (Source)

J.R: Were they surgeons? Were they advancing the treatment? Or were they mostly advancing the basic knowledge and writing anatomical texts which other scientist could then build upon?

G.C: physicians usually did many things. They in many different things that we would separate today. But in the place of the hospital, were they worked, they had the opportunity to do a variety of investigations.

J.R: Were there political or cultural reasons why the Islamic world was experiencing this golden age of science when we had the dark ages going on in Europe?

G.C: Yes there is. The dynasty of the Caliphate that was established in Baghdad in 750 A.D. had political reasons in its rivalry with Byzantium to appropriate ancient Greek thought. Which was useful for things like astrology, mathematics and medicine. So all these Greek works were translated into Arabic and became a part of an imperial/political ideology of knowledge and advancing everything.

J.R: Advancing what exactly? Was it a part of this idea of world domination? Were they translating to claim all the wisdom of the Greeks?

G.C: Yes it was a part of asserting the legitimacy of the Islamic ruler as opposed to the Christian emperor. And to assert that Islam was the legitimate successor of all the ancient empires that had gone before, from whom they based their knowledge and their discoveries.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 9. Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation sent by Charlemagne at his court (Source)

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 10. Spain’s Islamic heritage Al-Andalus

J.R: But how far did the Islamic world span at this particular moment in time?

G.C: From Spain, the Iberian Peninsula, all the way to India.

J.R: And this is truly the largest it had ever been? This was at its peak and the ruler had political reasons for wanting to be the world leader in science and thought right?

G.C: Yes. And with astrology, the ability to predict the future, or supposedly to predict the future, was important politically.

J.R: Was there any influence of Islam itself and the religious principles of Islam, that is evident in the scientific work that was done by these scholars?

G.C: Yes the Quran has many verses that encourage the seeking of knowledge, to understand God’s creation and to understand His existence. This was also seen as a religious responsibility.

J.R: So there wasn’t any concern about man usurping the power of Allah and usurping the Majesty of Allah in some way by trying to understand the heavens or understand in detail how the human body works?

G.C: For the most part, astrology got into trouble because it claims knowledge that only God is thought to have. But if you could set the claims of astrology aside, then you could have predictive astronomy which was useful for the calendar and useful for the Islamic religion regarding prayer times and other things which are related to the stars.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 11. The depiction of Orion, as seen from Earth (left) and a mirror-image, from a 13th-century copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars.In this version, Orion’s shield has become a long sleeve, typical of Islamic dress. (Source).

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 12. The picture depicts al-Razi stained on a glass window in Princeton University Chapel. (Source)

G.C: Absolutely, the same applies to Christianity for the date of Easter and so on. This was actually the impetus which drove the popes to seek knowledge from Islam in the 11th and 12th centuries.

J.R: Well so many religious holidays are based on accurate measurements of astronomy. So it would have been important for both religion and science to understand how this works and when these different moments were thriving.

J.R: What do you mean the popes were seeking knowledge from Islam?

G.C: Well the pope, understood that in Spain, when it was reconquered by the Christians, had libraries which had repositories of astronomy and mathematics that went way beyond the ancient Greeks. So the popes encouraged scholars from France to go there to translate and learn the mathematics and astronomy so that they could come back and fix the calendars and mathematics and so on. What they found was a trove which was bigger than they could possibly imagine.

J.R: Was it not known across the western world that Islam and the Islamic caliphate had such advanced scientists and researchers in their midst?

G.C: Well it was known but the rivalry between the states, that was a military conflict, for most of their existence, sort of precluded that and they did not have access to these libraries until they were conquered from those territories that the Christians got back.

J.R: So they conquered those libraries and found these Arabic texts which had borrowed heavily and built upon what the Greeks had done right? Did the Europeans and the Christians then translate them into Latin and then sort of pretend that the Islamic scholars never contributed?

G.C: No, not right away. The translations of these texts took over a century. They came in waves to. Aristotle and Galen were among the last of the waves. All through the European ages these texts fostered what we now know as the early renaissance. During the renaissance that we know of, the Italian renaissance, this is when people began to deny the Arabic contribution. During that time, you had parallel strands, you had scholars that were studying Arabic. They were trying to learn the contributions that Muslim scholars were still making in things like astronomy and mathematics. But then you have the humanists that were emphasising the pure Greek, and they thought of these translations, in the middle ages, from Arabic, as having corrupted the pure Greek. Even though with science, as we know, it is accumulative so what they took as corruptions were actually improvements that the mediaeval Islamic scientists and physicians had made in these texts. So the humanists actually set the clock back, scientifically in some ways, and they also began to obscure the Islamic contribution.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 13. Aristotle teaching astronomy while using an astrolabe on a Arabic Manuscript… (Source)

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 14. Frontispiece of the Latin Version of the Canon of Medicine, printed in Venice (Source)

J.R: Was that out of xenophobia? I mean why would they obscure the Islamic contribution?

G.C: Well there’s the rivalry between religions. Which religion is the true faith? Both Christianity and Islam felt that they were the one true faith and that says a lot for how they related to one another on an ideological level.

J.R: When did you realise that there was this whole rich world of Islamic scientific thought and inquiry that had been obscured.

G.C: Well I studied philosophy at oxford and I began to notice that there was this gap in the history of philosophy, from late antiquity till the 11th century. It was almost as if ancient, classical philosophy suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I poked around a bit and discovered that this wasn’t the case, there was this vast body of Arabic commentary and translations of these ancient works that were avidly studied by the very people that were using them in the middle ages to revive philosophy and science. So that is when I became aware of it and I decided to study that subject in graduate school where I completed my PHD.

J.R: How accessible are the records and the resources and do they still live in some of these places that remain majority Muslim to this day? Are some of these individuals, that you mentioned, known and appreciated in places like Syria and Iraq today?

G.C: Yes, they are. However, some of these scientists that were rediscovered in the 20th century, by western scholars primarily, had been forgotten in the Islamic world. For example, Ibn al-Nafis’ contribution, the pulmonary circulation, had actually been forgotten exclusively. So Western scholars are actually contributing the reawakening and contribution of Islamic pride and their own history.

J.R: Is there today this same kind of energy and interest in scientific pursuits in Islam?

G.C: I think the desire is there and I think that the vision is there. There are numerous efforts, for example, the 1001 Inventions international exhibition, is designed to show the vast contributions of the Islamic world in technology and the sciences. Both to make the west aware of these thing but also to encourage young Muslim youth to do the STEM subjects?

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 15. 

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 16.  15th-century European portrait of “Geber”, the Latin name of Jabir ibn Hayyan: in Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166 (Source)

J.R: Why is this important to you? what do you hope is the result of your efforts to raise awareness about what really does plug this gap between the Greeks and the Europeans?

G.C: Well, personally I don’t like to be lied to about the way history goes. But my broader vision is to encourage my fellow westerners to appreciate the contributions of the Islamic world. I don’t mean necessarily to love Islam, but to appreciate that the history of science is a global thing with many strands, many contributions and I would also like to see western arrogance hum down a little bit. We didn’t invent everything and the Greeks didn’t invent everything. We are not the only heirs of the Greeks the Muslims were to.

J.R: Glen Cooper is an adjunct assistant professor of history at Pitzer College a former professor of history here at BYU and a graduate of the University. Thank you for coming in today I really appreciate it.

G.C: Thank you very much.

The West Owes a Debt to Islam: Interview with Prof Glen Cooper
Figure 17. © 1001 inventions House of Wisdom Sketch

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