The Impact of Translations of Muslim Sciences on the West

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 4th March 2003

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Scholars from all Christian lands rushed to translate Muslim science, and thus start the scientific awakening of Europe. Many of course were Spaniards: John of Seville, Hugh of Santalla, and those working under the patronage of King Alfonso.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
Aspects of the Islamic Influence on Science & Learning in the Christian West by Salah Zaimeche

Although translations of Islamic science were undertaken in Barcelona, Tarazon, Segovia, Leon, Pamplona, Toulouse, Beziers, Narbonne and Marseille, the chief centre of translation remained: Toledo. Re-conquered by the Christians in 1085, after being almost four centuries (702-1085) in Muslim hands, Toledo, the ancient Visigoth capital, soon became the ideal place from where Muslim science was to be transferred north. It was in Toledo that possibly the greatest translation effort in the history of science took place. Throughout the early stages of the 12th century Toledo was the focal point, which attracted every single minded scholar and translator of the Christian West. D’Alverny explains how:

“Following the steps of the Christian armies, students from all countries rushed to Spain to lay hands on the treasures of science piling in the ‘armaria’ of the Infidels,” D’Alverny

The Translators

Scholars from all Christian lands rushed to that place to translate Muslim science, and thus start the scientific awakening of Europe. Many of course were Spaniards: John of Seville, Hugh of Santalla, and those working under the patronage of King Alfonso; another translator was Herman from Dalmatia; two came from Flanders, Rudolph of Bruges and Henry Bate; many from southern France: Armengaud son of Blaise, Jacob Anatoli, Moses ibn Tibbon, Jacob ben Mahir, and from Italy: Plato of Tivoli, Gerard of Cremona, Aristippus of Catania, Salio of Padua, John of Brescia. From the British Isles will arrive Robert of Chester, Daniel of Morley, M. Scot, and possibly Adelard (of Bath), and others, including the intermediaries who helped transfer Islamic science from Arabic into Latin or local languages.

Amongst such translators the most prolific of all was the Italian Gerard of Cremona, who translated about 87 works amongst which included the Toledan tables of al-Zarqali Canones Arzachelis and Jabir ibn Aflah’s Islah al Majisti (correction of the Almagest of Ptolemy.) His other translations include The Banu Musa’s Liber trium fratrum, Al-Khwarizmi’s : De jebra et elmucabala, Abu Kamil: Liber qui secundum Arabes vocatur algebra et almucabala,,-Abu’l Qasim Al-Zahrawi: Liber Azaragui de cirurgia (treatise on surgery), Al-Farabi: De scientiis,-Al-Kindi’sworks on physics and mechanics: De aspectibus; followed by De umbris et de diversitate aspecturm, Ibn al-Haytham’s work on physics: De crepusculis et nubium ascensionibus, Al-Kindi’s : De gradibus medicinarum (on medicine).

Amongst the translations made by the Jew turned Christian, John of Seville, are Al-Battani’s Treatise on astronomy and other works; Thabit ibn Qura: De imaginibus astronomicis; Maslama ibn Ahmed al Majriti: De astrolabio; Al-Farabi: Ihsa al-Ulum; Abu Ma’shar: Al-Madkhal ila `ilm ahkam al-nujum; Al-Ghazali: Maqasid Al-Falasifa; Al-Farghani: Kitab fi harakat al-Samawiya wa jawami’ ilm al-nujum…
It is not necessary to list all the translations since they can be found in greater detail, together with their successive editions, and a vast bibliography relating to them in G. Sarton’s Introduction.

Medical Sciences

Every science was affected by the translation movement. The list and variety of seminal Muslim medical works that, were translated at Toledo and used for inspiration is endless. Campbell, and by far the best work on the subject by Leclerc remain very good sources of reference for any curious mind on this matter. Just to mention briefly here, that it was a Tunisian born named Constantine, who introduced modern medicine into Europe through the southern Italian town of Salerno making it the first medical centre of Europe from which medical learning radiated north to Padua, Montpellier etc. Constantine had, indeed, carried with him vast amount of knowledge from Qayrawan northwards to Europe, following which arose `a generation of prominent medical teachers.’ Constantine’s best known translation is that of Ali Abbas al-Majusti’s Kitab al-Malaki, known under the Pantegni.

One does not need to dwell here on the many translations and editions up to the 18th century of the works of Ibn Sina and Al-Razi, and other medical works by Ibn Zuhr, Ibn Rushd, etc. However it must be stressed that the Muslims pioneered and had an early impact in the sphere of mental health. It was in fact the direct contribution of Al-Razi, who set up an exclusive ward for the mentally ill in Baghdad. And it was the Muslims, who, as Syed explains, `brought a refreshing spirit of dispassionate clarity into psychiatry.’ And as they were free from `the demonological theories’ which were sweeping over the Christian world, they could make clear cut clinical observations about such diseases.


Modern surgery owes about everything to Al-Zahrawi (d.1013). Al-Zahrawi’s chapter on surgery from Kitab al-Tasrif is `particularly outstanding’ due to the frequent illustration of instruments and `its pervading sense of personal experience.’ Most of the instruments were devised and made by al-Zahrawi himself, and their introduction and use was a major breakthrough at the time, and had a lasting influence. His surgical techniques were also revolutionary, and Smith gives very good illustrations of them. For calculus in the urethra, for instance, Al-Zahrawi introduced the technique of using a fine drill inserted through the urinary passage. In the case of tonsillectomies, whilst he held the tongue by a tongue depressor, he removed the swollen tonsil holding it by a hook, and then removed it with a scissor like instrument with transverse blades, which cut the gland, whilst holding it for removal from the throat. Al-Zahrawi also described how to connect sound teeth to those that were loose by gold or silver wire.

In gynaecology, his work, alongside that of other pioneering Muslim surgeons, included instructions on training midwives to perform unusual deliveries, ways of extracting dead foetuses, the removal of the afterbirth, the design and introduction of vaginal dilators, the description of forceps, and the use of caesarean methods.

The surgical part of Al-tasrif was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona, and various editions were published at Venice in 1497, at Basel in 1541 and Oxford in 1778, and for centuries, it remained the manual of surgery in all early medical universities such as Salerno and Montpellier, whilst the illustrations of his instruments laid the foundations for surgery in Europe. Muslim surgeons also, as Smith observes, displayed a sensible and humane reluctance to undertake the riskiest and most painful operations, and were also aware of the discomfort they inflicted on patients. This could be seen as a decisive breakthrough in the relationship between the surgeon and the patient.


The Muslim influence on pharmacy is similarly considerable. Levey gives a very good account of such influence. According to him, many influential Latin works of the `Renaissance’ and thereafter are just compilations and slightly altered works of previous Muslim treatises. Belonging to such recessions is Johannes of St Awand’s Expositio Supra Nicolai Antidotarium written in 1250 and published in Venice in 1495, 1599 and 1602. Conciliator and De Venenorum remediis by Albano (professor in Padua from 1306 to 1316), while extensive extracts from Ibn Rushd and Al Maradini were repeatedly printed over the years.

An important work on pharmacy in the modern sense, Levey maintains, is greatly influenced by the works of Ibn Sinna, Ibn Sarabiyun (known in Latin as Serapion), Al-Zahrawi and Ibn Masawaih (al-Maradini) in form and content was written by Saladin of Ascolo, a well known physician of the 15th century, and called Compendium aromatariorum. Divided into seven parts, this work follows exactly Muslim categorisation of subjects: examination of the pharmacist, the qualities desired for the pharmacist, substitute drugs, care of simple and compound drugs, etc. Another work that also greatly influenced European pharmacopoeias using material from Muslim treatises on simple ‘drug’ substitutes, preservation of drugs, lists of little known drugs, etc, was that by Ludovico dal Pozzo Toscanelli, a physician of Florence who was authorised to do so by the Florentine College of Physicians, and from which compendium various editions were made.

Pharmacopoeias in German, French, English and Spanish also showed Muslim influence, whilst a later edition of the London Dispensatory, in the late 17thcentury, in its list of botanicals, minerals, simple / compound drugs for external and internal uses, oils, pills, cataplasms, etc, reflects the extent of Muslim influence. Most Muslim material was in fact used until late in the nineteenth century, and Levey concludes that there is much to be learned yet from their early drug treatises.


In chemistry, the works of Jabir and Al-Razi set the foundations to the modern science. Jabir, known as Geber in Latin, described the preparation of many chemical substances: sulphide of mercury, oxides, arsenics etc. He made applications that led to major industrial transformations, including the refining of metals, dyeing of clothes (crucial for the textile industry some centuries later), the use of manganese in glass making (to become another fundamental industry in Europe,) use of pyrites, and gave an exact description of processes such as calcination, crystallisation, solution, sublimation and reduction.

Al-Razi’s work is wary of using the mystical and even occult elements which affect so much of Jabir’s and his predecessors’ works. His Secret of Secrets, in Latin Liber secretorum bubacaris, describes the chemical processes and experiments conducted by him, and which can be identified as equivalent to modern processes ranging from distillation to calcination, crystallization etc.

Al-Razi also divided substances into animal, vegetable, and mineral.; the mineral substances include mercury, gold, silver, pyrites, glass etc: vegetable substances were mainly used by physicians; whilst animal substances divided into hair, blood, milk, eggs, bile etc. Al-Razi was also a practical chemist giving laboratory work pre-eminence over theoretical observations. Hill points out that Al-Razi’s ‘Book of Secrets’ `foreshadows a laboratory manual’ and deals with substances, equipment and processes. Al-Razi’s laboratory includes many items still in use today: crucible; decensory; cucurbit or retort for distillation (qar) and the head of a still with a delivery tube (ambiq, Latin alembic); various types of furnace or stove etc.

Some of Al-Razi’s revolutionary experiments, derived from his ‘Secret of Secrets’, include ways of smelting metals, the sublimation of mercury, the preparation of caustic soda, the use of the mercury ammonium chloride solution as a dissolving reagent, and the preparation of glycerine from olive oil. Al-Razi’s lead in careful experimentation and observations demonstrated, as Holmyard put it:

“That a by-product of alchemy was a steadily increasing body of reliable chemical knowledge, a trend which Al-Razi did most to establish and for which he deserves the gratitude of succeeding generations.” Holmyard

Still on chemistry, Hill also notes that works by many Muslim chemists included recipes for products that had industrial or military uses. He points out that the discovery of inorganic acids was of crucial importance for the history of chemistry. These acids were produced during chemical experiments but became valuable agents for industrial applications.


In optics, the works of the Muslims set up the foundations for all that was to follow. Excellent extracts can be found in Lindberg’s study of the Islamic impact on Latin optics in Rashed’s Encyclopaedia. The Islamic role is highlighted by their demolition of the previous Greek erroneous assumptions of optical theory.

Hunain ibn Ishaq, first, followed by al-Kindi, criticised the Greek theory a critique outlined by Lindberg. It was, however, Ibn al-Haytham who revolutionised the whole science, determining by experimentation many optical phenomena. Ibn al-Haytham’s achievements, as summarised by Lindberg, show that he did not just explain the principal facts of visual perception but also managed to establish the intromission theory of vision beyond all doubt and dispute for good. He `fundamentally’ altered the aims and scope of the optical theory, and also managed to integrate into his theory anatomical and physiological claims of the medical theory. Thus, as Lindberg concludes, he was able `to draw together the mathematical, physical and medical traditions into a single comprehensive theory…. He created a new optical tradition and established the aims and criteria of optics which would prevail, though not without rivals, until Kepler and beyond.’

Further achievements of Ibn al-Haytham include developing precision instrumentalisation, expounding for the first time the use of the camera obscura, and writing treatises on the halo and rainbow.

Hill states, `unquestionably, the most important work on physics to reach the West in medieval times was Kitab al-Manazir.’ The influence of this work, with its intromission theory of vision and its completely new methodology had a profound impression on others, particularly Roger Bacon and Witelo.

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