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Islam, the Greeks and the Scientific Revolution, part 1
Fjordman - 10/5/2007

I have written a couple of essays regarding the Greek impact on the rise of modern science, and why the Scientific Revolution didn't happen in the Islamic world. I find this to be an interesting topic, especially since there are so many myths regarding this perpetrated by Muslims and their apologists today, so I will explore the subject in some detail.

I mentioned the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in one of my previous essays. It has been claimed by one researcher that an Arab alchemist in the ninth century managed to decode some of the hieroglyphs. Even if this should be true, his research didn't leave any lasting impact and wasn't followed up by others, which is in itself significant. The proven track record is that Arab Muslims had controlled Egypt for more than a thousand years, yet never managed to decipher the hieroglyphs nor for the most part displayed much interest in doing so. The trilingual Rosetta Stone was employed by the French philologist Jean-François Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphs in 1822. He chose an intuitive (though ultimately correct) approach by employing the Coptic language, the liturgical language of the Egyptian Christians (which was a direct descendant of that of the ancient Pharaohs, as opposed to the language of the Arab invaders) rather than the more mathematical approach of his English rival Thomas Young.

For the sake of historical accuracy, it should be mentioned that when hieroglyphs were finally put out of use, thus ending one of the oldest continuous cultural traditions on the planet, dating back at least to the Narmer Palette celebrating the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in the 32nd century B.C., this was also done by Christians. The process was begun in the fourth century AD, before the partition of the Roman Empire, and was completed by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian who abolished the worship of Isis on the island of Philae in the sixth century. As the Egyptian religion was shut down, so the writing system associated with it was forgotten. The remnants of Plato's Academy were also closed in the name of Christian (Nicaean) unity.

Justinian is otherwise remembered for constructing the Hagia Sophia, the grandest cathedral in Christendom for almost a thousand years, and for his ultimately unsuccessful attempts at restoring the unity of the Roman Empire by reconquering the Western lands. This stretched the resources of the Empire, and along with a plague pandemic, drained its strength. The long wars between the Byzantines and the Sassanid (Persian) Empire weakened both states and were one of the reasons why the Arabs could make their Islamic conquests in the seventh century.

Logically speaking, the Middle East should be perfectly situated to combine the knowledge of all major centers of civilization in the Old World, from the Mediterranean and the Greco-Roman world via the Persian and other pre-Islamic cultures in the Middle East to India and the civilizations of the Far East. As I will demonstrate, the Muslim thinkers and scientists whose names are worth mentioning did just that.

According to scholar F. R. Rosenthal: "Islamic rational scholarship, which we have mainly in mind when we speak of the greatness of Muslim civilisation, depends in its entirety on classical Islam as in every civilisation, what is really important is not the individual elements but the synthesis that combines them into a living organism of its own....Islamic civilisation as we know it would simply not have existed without the Greek heritage."

Greek thought was certainly an important inspiration for virtually all Muslim thinkers, but it wasn't the only one. Alkindus (Al-Kindi), the Arab mathematician who lived in Baghdad in the ninth century and was close to several Abbasid Caliphs, was one of the first to attempt reconciling Islam with Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, a project that was to last for several centuries and prove ultimately unsuccessful. His other lasting impact was his writings about Indian arithmetic and numerals. Alkindus was one of a handful of people primarily responsible for spreading the knowledge and use of Indian numerals in the Middle East.

India has a long-standing mathematical tradition and the Hindu numerical system is one of its most important contributions to world culture. It was slowly introduced in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, gained momentum after the Italian mathematician Fibonacci in 1202 published his book Liber Abaci and reached wide acceptance during the Renaissance. Europeans learned about Indian numerals via Arabs, which is why they were mistakenly called Arabic numerals in the West. They were superior to Roman numerals in several ways, the revolutionary concept of zero being one of them. There is no doubt that this numerical system reached the West via the Islamic world, but we should remember that since the Middle East is situated between India and Europe, any ideas from India by necessity had to pass through that region to reach Europe. I'm not sure how much credit we should give Islam for this geographical accident.

Al-Razi was a talented Persian physician and chemist who lived in the ninth and early tenth century. He combined Greek, Indian and Persian traditions, and relied on clinical observance of patients in the Hippocratic tradition. He also commented, and criticized, the works of philosophers such as Aristotle. Some of his writings were translated into Latin. As Ibn Warraq writes in his book Why I Am Not a Muslim, "Perhaps the greatest freethinker in the whole of Islam was al-Razi, the Rhazes of Medieval Europe (or Razis of Chaucer), where his prestige and authority remained unchallenged until the seventeenth century. Meyerhof also calls him the 'greatest physician of the Islamic world and one of the great physicians of all time.'" He was also highly critical of Islamic doctrines, and considered the Koran to be an assorted mixture of "absurd and inconsistent fables." Moreover, "His heretical writings, significantly, have not survived and were not widely read; nonetheless, they are witness to a remarkably tolerant culture and society - a tolerance lacking in other periods and places."

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was a Persian physician who continued the course set by al-Razi of mixing Greek, Indian, East Asian and Middle Eastern medical learning. His book The Canon of Medicine from the early eleventh century was a standard medical text for centuries. A striking number of the Muslims who did leave some imprint upon the history of science were Persians, who could tap into their proud pre-Islamic heritage. Historian Ibn Khaldun admitted that "It is strange that most of the learned among the Muslims who have excelled in the religious or intellectual sciences are non-Arabs with rare exceptions."

It is also interesting to notice that virtually all freethinkers and rationalists within the Islamic world, such as Avicenna or Farabi, were at odds with Islamic orthodoxy and were frequently harassed for this. Whatever discoveries they made were more in spite of Islam than because of Islam, and in the end, Islam won. As Ibn Warraq notes, "orthodox Islam emerged victorious from the encounter with Greek philosophy. Islam rejected the idea that one could attain truth with unaided human reason and settled for the unreflective comforts of the putatively superior truth of divine revelation. Wherever one decides to place the date of this victory of orthodox Islam (perhaps in the ninth century with the conversion of al-Ashari, or in the eleventh century with the works of al-Ghazali), it has been, I believe, an unmitigated disaster for all Muslims, indeed all mankind."
Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was born in Córdoba, Spain (Andalusia) in the 12th century. He held comparatively progressive views on women, was in some ways a freethinker and faced trouble for this, yet he was also a jurist in the Maliki school of sharia law and served as a qadi, Islamic judge, in Seville. He supported the traditional view, held by leading scholars even into the twenty-first century, of the death penalty for persons leaving Islam: "An apostate…is to be executed by agreement in the case of a man, because of the words of the Prophet, 'Slay those who change their din [religion]'…Asking the apostate to repent was stipulated as a condition…prior to his execution."

Still, Averroes is chiefly remembered for his attempts at combining Aristotelian philosophy and Islam. According to Ibn Warraq, he had a profound influence on the Latin scientists of the thirteenth century, yet "had no influence at all on the development of Islamic philosophy. After his death, he was practically forgotten in the Islamic world."

Philosophy in general went into permanent decline. One of the reasons for this was the influential al-Ghazali, by many considered the most important Muslim after Muhammad himself, who argued that much of Greek philosophy was logically incoherent and an affront to Islam. Averroes' attempts at refuting al-Ghazali were ignored and forgotten.

The leading Jewish thinker of this era was the rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides. He was born in 1135 in Córdoba in Islamic-occupied Spain, but had to flee through North Africa when the devout Berber Almohades invaded from Morocco and attacked Christians and Jews in a classical Jihad fashion. Maimonides eagerly read Greek philosophy, some of which was available in Arabic. He also, for the most part, wrote in Arabic. His attempts at reconciling Aristotelian philosophy with the Torah influenced the great Christian thinker Saint Thomas Aquinas, who made similar efforts at reconciling Greek thought with biblical Scripture a few generations later.

It is true that some Greek and other classics were translated to Arabic, but it is equally true that Muslims could be highly particular about which texts to exclude. As Iranian intellectual Amir Taheri explains: "It is no accident that early Muslims translated numerous ancient Greek texts but never those related to political matters. The great Avicenna himself translated Aristotle's Poetics. But there was no translation of Aristotle's Politics in Persian until 1963."

In other words: There was a great deal of Greek thought that could never have been "transferred" to Europeans by Arabs, as is frequently claimed by Western Multiculturalists, because many Greek works had never been translated into Arabic in the first place. Muslims especially turned down political texts, since these included descriptions of systems in which men ruled themselves according to their own laws. This was considered blasphemous by Muslims, as laws are made by Allah and rule belongs to his representatives.

William of Moerbeke was a Flemish scholar and prolific translator who probably did more than any other individual for the transmission of Greek thought to the West. His translation of virtually all of the works of Aristotle and many by Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria and others paved the way for the Renaissance. He was fluent in Greek, and was for a time Catholic bishop of Corinth in Greece. He made highly accurate translations directly from the Greek originals, and even improved earlier, flawed translations of some works. His Latin translation of Politics, one of the important works that were not available in Arabic, was completed around 1260. His friend Thomas Aquinas used this translation as the basis for his groundbreaking work The Summa Theologica. Aquinas did refer to Maimonides as well as to Averroes and Avicenna and was familiar with their writing, but he was rather critical of Averroes and refuted some of his use of Aristotle.

Like Aquinas, William of Moerbeke was a friar of the Dominican order and had personal contacts at the top levels of the Vatican. Several texts, among them some of Archimedes, would have been lost without the efforts of Moerbeke and a few others, and he clearly did his work on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, one of the reasons why he did this was because the translations that were available in Arabic were incomplete and sometimes of poor linguistic quality. The Arabic translations, although they did serve as an early reintroduction for some Western Europeans to Greek thought, didn't "save" Greek knowledge as it had never been lost. It had been preserved in an unbroken line since Classical times by Greek, Byzantine Christians, who still considered themselves Romans, and it could be recovered there. There was extensive contact between Eastern and Western Christians at this time; sometimes amiable, sometimes less so and occasionally downright hostile, but contact nonetheless. The permanent recovery of Greek and Classical learning was undertaken as a direct transmission from Greek, Orthodox Christians to Western, Latin Christians. There were no Muslim middlemen involved.

As a result, by the late 1200s, Saint Thomas Aquinas and early Renaissance figures such as the poet Dante and the humanist Petrarch had at their disposal a much more complete and accurate body of Greek thought than any of the renowned Muslim philosophers ever did. What's more, many of the translations that did exist in Arabic had been undertaken by Christians in the first place, not by Muslims.

At the American Thinker, Dr. Jonathan David Carson dispels some of the hype regarding Islam's role in the history of science. In his view, "The 'Islamic scholars' who translated 'ancient Greece's natural philosophy' were a curious group of Muslims, since all or almost all of the translators from Greek to Arabic were Christians or Jews." Moreover, most Greek texts "did not make the long journey from Greek to Syriac or Hebrew to Arabic to Latin, and Western Europeans preferred [surprise!] translations of Aristotle directly from the Greek, which were not only superior but also more readily available."

In A History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston says that "it is a mistake to imagine that the Latin scholastics were entirely dependent upon translations from Arabic or even that translation from the Arabic always preceded translation from the Greek." Indeed, "translation from the Greek generally preceded translation from the Arabic." This view is confirmed by Peter Dronke in A History of Twelfth—Century Western Philosophy: "most of the works of Aristotle, however, were translated directly from the Greek, and only exceptionally by way of an Arabic intermediary...translations from the Arabic must be given their full importance, but not more."

As Carson sees it, "the great rescue of Greek philosophy by translation into Arabic turns out to mean no rescue of Plato and the transmission of Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek texts of Aristotle, either directly or more often via Syriac or Hebrew, to a Christendom that already had the Greek texts and had already translated most of them into Latin."

Moreover, the intellectual curiosity was entirely one-sided. As Bernard Lewis states in The Muslim Discovery of Europe: "We know of no Muslim scholar or man of letters before the eighteenth century who sought to learn a western language, still less of any attempt to produce grammars, dictionaries, or other language tools. Translations are few and far between. Those that are known are works chosen for practical purposes and the translations are made by converts or non—Muslims." J.M. Roberts put it this way: "Why, until very recently, did Islamic scholars show no wish to translate Latin or western European texts into Arabic? (…) It is clear that an explanation of European inquisitiveness and adventurousness must lie deeper than economics, important though they may have been."

Much has been made of Spain's glorious Islamic past, yet more books are translated in Spain now in a single year than have been translated into Arabic over the past 1,000 years. As I have shown, what existed of advances in sciences in the early centuries of Islamic rule owed its existence almost entirely to the infusion of pre-Islamic thought, and even at the best of times the translations from non-Muslim ideas and books could be quite selective. Later, even the limited debate of Greek philosophy was curtailed. Muslims were assured of their God-given superiority and did not bother to look into ideas from worthless infidel cultures.

Toby E. Huff, author of the book The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, explains this. A landmark in Western science was Nicholas Copernicus' The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres from 1543. The same years also saw another milestone in the rise of modern science: Vesalius' On the Fabric of the Human Body, which created the foundations for modern medicine by representing an empirical agenda, the first-hand examination of the body through human dissection (autopsy).

According to Huff, "Vesalius claimed to have corrected over 200 errors in Galen's account of human anatomy," and his "illustrations are far superior to anything to be found in the Arabic/Islamic tradition (where pictorial representation of the human body was particularly suspect) or, for that matter, in the Chinese and (I presume) Indian traditions." In astronomy, "Kepler went far beyond Ptolemy's methods, and discovered entirely new principles for the precise description of the motions of bodies in the heavens," thus proving the elliptical (and hence not perfectly circular) orbit of Mars.

In the eyes of Toby E. Huff, "the twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a social, intellectual and legal revolution that laid the intellectual and institutional foundations upon which modern science was later constructed. At the heart of this development was the jurisprudential idea of a corporation, a collection of individuals who were recognized as a singular 'whole body' and granted legitimate legal autonomy. Such entities were given the right to sue and be sued, to buy and sell property, to make rules and laws regulating their activities, to adjudicate those laws and to operate according to the principle of election by consent as well as the Roman legal aphorism, what affects everyone should be considered and approved by everyone. Among the entities granted status as legitimate corporations were cities and towns, charitable organizations, professional guilds (especially of physicians) and, of course, universities. Nothing comparable to this kind of legal autonomy emerged in China or under Islam. In short, the European medievals created autonomous, self-governing institutions of higher learning and then imported into them a methodologically powerful and metaphysically rich cosmology that directly challenged and contradicted many aspects of the traditional Christian world-view."

This was also a time period noted for the growth of early modern capitalism, but Huff rejects any simplistic connection between money and science. Christian Europe exhibited an intellectual curiosity, a desire to uncover truth, that could not be reduced simply to a matter of economic interests: "There was indeed a 'commercial revolution' sweeping Europe from about the twelfth century, but that hardly explains the great interest in Aristotle in the universities of that period or the decision by medical practitioners to undertake dissections and to incorporate medical education into the university curriculum. Similarly, there was another rise in commercial activities in the sixteenth century, but this hardly explains either the motivation of the clerical Copernicus, or of Galileo, Kepler, or Tycho Brahe in developing a new astronomy against the interests of the Church."

One of the most groundbreaking innovations in Europe during the High Middle Ages was the creation of an ongoing, university-centered debate. This made all the difference, since, as Huff points out, "it is one thing if an activity is pursued randomly by various actors; it is something else altogether if that activity is carried on collectively as a result of a regularized process." While Islamic madrasas excluded all of the natural works of Aristotle, as well as logic and natural theology, European scholars benefited from "a surprising degree of freedom of inquiry" which "did not exist in the Arab/Muslim world then and does not exist now."

Centers of learning have existed in civilizations throughout recorded history, yet most of them did not possess all of the qualities generally associated with a university today. It is possible that the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Indians and others had institutions that could be called universities already at this early age; I don't know Asian history intimately enough to judge that. But the Islamic world definitely did not.

The German-Syrian reformist Bassam Tibi points out that the Muslim thinkers who developed Greek rationalism are today despised in their own civilization. As he writes in his book Islam Between Culture and Politics, "rational sciences were – in medieval Islam – considered to be 'foreign sciences' and at times heretical. At present, Islamic fundamentalists do not seem to know that rational sciences in Islam were based on what was termed ulum al-qudama (the sciences of the Ancients), that it, the Greeks."

Science was viewed as Islamic science, the study of the Koran, the hadith, Arab history etc. The Islamic madrasa was not concerned with a process of reason-based investigation or unrestrained enquiry but with a learning process in the sacral sense. Tibi believes it is thus incorrect to call institutions such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, the highest institution of learning in Sunni Islam, a university: "Some Islamic historians wrongly translate the term madrasa as university. This is plainly incorrect: If we understand a university as universitas litterarum, or consider, without the bias of Eurocentrism, the cast of the universitas magistrorum of the thirteenth century in Paris, we are bound to recognise that the university as a seat for free and unrestrained enquiry based on reason, is a European innovation in the history of mankind."

It is noteworthy that the first medieval European universities were sometimes developed out of monasteries or religious schools. However, here the Greek knowledge was adopted in a far more unfettered manner than it was in the Middle East. The earliest European universities, such as the University of Bologna in Italy and Oxford in England, were created in the eleventh century. More were established during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for instance the University of Paris (Sorbonne), the University of Cambridge, the University of Salamanca in Spain and the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

According to Bassam Tibi, the situation has changed less than one might think: "In Muslim societies, where higher institutions of learning have a deeply rooted procedure of rote-learning, the content of positive sciences adopted from Europe is treated in a similar fashion. Verses of the Koran are learned by heart because they are infallible and not to be enquired into. Immanuel Kant's Critiques or David Hume's Enquiry, now available in Arabic translation, are learned by heart in a similar manner and not conceived of in terms of their nature as problem-oriented enquiries." As a result, "In contrast to the European and the US-model, students educated in a traditional Islamic institution of learning neither have a Bildung (general education) nor an Ausbildung (training)."

This is a problem members of this culture bring with them abroad if they move. In Denmark, Århus city council member Ali Nuur complained that one of the challenges certain immigrant groups face in the education system is that they are unfamiliar with tests rooted in a rational, critical and analytical way of thinking. Guess who?

Another issue is the lack of individual liberty. I still haven't read Atlas Shrugged, a novel I know many Americans hold in high regard, and I have mixed feelings about Ayn Rand's philosophies. However, one thing I do agree with her about is that "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." A Danish man who lived in Iran before the Revolution in 1979 noticed that if he suggested to his Muslim friends that he would like to enjoy some privacy for while, they thought he was crazy. The very notion of "privacy" was alien to them because it implies that you are an autonomous individual with needs of your own. A Muslim is simply an organic part of the Umma, the Islamic community. This lack of individualism and individual liberty is one of the main reasons why Muslims lost out to other cultures.

On the other hand, I believe the West has in recent decades gone too far in making individualism the sole basis of our culture. When a nation is reduced to nothing more than an atomized collection of individuals, with no ties to the past and no obligations to future generations, mounting a defense of a lasting society becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Fjordman is a noted Norwegian blogger who has written for many conservative web sites. He used to have his own Fjordman Blog in the past, but it is no longer active.




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