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Western Science and Muslim Sources: Debt or Investment?

THURSDAY, MAY 01, 2008 

In the April 28th issue of the International Herald Tribune, John Vinocur had an interesting article that overlaps with my academic training and intellectual interests: "Europe's debt to Islam given a skeptical look."

Back in my history of science studies -- roughly, 1980-1985 -- we learned of an intellectual debt to the Islamic world on the part of Western science. Starting about the 12th century, or so we read, Western Christians in Spain began translating texts on natural philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics from Arabic sources into Latin.

At one point, this all sounded so interesting that I considered studying it . . . but the complexity of Arabic put me off, so I never followed the interest up.

Now, it seems, that was all rot anyway:

When Sylvain Gouguenheim looks at today's historical vision of the history of the West and Islam, he sees a notion, accepted as fact, that the Muslim world was at the source of the Christian Europe's reawakening from the Middle Ages.

He sees a portrayal of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the path in Europe to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy -- a gift the West regards with insufficient esteem.

"This thesis has basically nothing scandalous about it, if it were true," Gouguenheim writes. "In spite of the appearances, it has more to do with taking ideological sides than scientific analysis."

For a controversy, here's a real one. Gouguenheim, a professor of medieval history at a prestigious university, l'École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, is saying "Whoa!" to the idea there was an Islamic bridge of civilization to the West. Supposedly, it "would be at the origin of the Middle Ages' cultural and scientific reawakening, and (eventually) the Renaissance."
In a new book, he is basically canceling, or largely writing off, a debt to "the Arabo-Muslim world" dating from the year 750 -- a concept built up by other historians over the past 50 years -- that has Europe owing Islam for an essential part of its identity.

"Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel" (Editions du Seuil), while not contending there is an ongoing clash of civilizations, makes the case that Islam was impermeable to much of Greek thought, that the Arab world's initial translations of it to Latin were not so much the work of "Islam" but of Aramaeans and Christian Arabs, and that a wave of translations of Aristotle began at the Mont Saint-Michel monastery in France 50 years before Arab versions of the same texts appeared in Moorish Spain.

So . . . everything that I learned was wrong, and Sylvain Gouguenheim -- in his Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel -- has proof.

Actually, I had already begun to question some of the thesis of the Western debt to Islamic science, for in my cursory readings in that field, I had begun to suspect that the Islamic "Golden Age" was golden because the 'Muslim' empire was still a largely non-Muslim, multicultural realm that allowed greater intellectual freedom than later was possible under more profound Islamization.

Even the achievements of Muslim scientists were erected on the scientific foundation laid by Greco-Roman science in the lands conquered by Islam.

Moreover, I wondered if Western Europe had really been so benighted in the Early Middle Ages as was often claimed -- were the 'Dark Ages' really so utterly dark?

As Vinocur remarks, this is "a controversy, . . . a real one," and Gouguenheim's book sounds interesting enough for me to attempt reading it
in French . . . almost. Or I could read what Le Monde and Le Figaro have to say in their reviews . . . also in French.

But perhaps I'll wait for the book's English translation, which is certain to come soon.

Meanwhile, I have a few doubts about this book
completely overturning what we 'know'. Some of Gouguenheim's critics argue "that he disregarded the mathematics and astronomy produced by the Islamic world between the 9th and 13th centuries and painted the period's Islamic civilization exactly what it was not: obscurantist, legalistic, fatalistic and fanatic." The point is perhaps well taken. One cannot deny the achievements of Muslim scientists, nor can one ignore the fact that the translation of scientific texts from Arabic to Latin did take place in such places as Spain from about the 12th century until the Renaissance, when Westerners turned largely to the original Greek sources coming from Byzantium.

The issue, then, is not whether Western science owes an intellectual debt to the Muslim world but, rather, the amount of that debt . . . if "debt" is the right word.

My own view? I'd use an analogy other than
debt. Let me suggest this scenario. Some of the Greco-Roman world's intellectual wealth was invested in Muslim intellectual enterprises during the Early Middle Ages, and the interest that accumulated from that investment was collected by the West in the High Middle Ages.

That's a type of usury, I suppose, and usury was condemned in both
Islam and Medieval Christianity, but whoever said that civilizations are entirely consistent?

At any rate, that's my "Usury Thesis" on what the West obtained from the Muslim world.

Labels: Christianity, History of Science, Islam, Western Civilization

posted by Horace Jeffery Hodges @ 4:27 AM   11 comments


At 7:32 AM, [image] Erdal said...

I call foul. Mont Saint-Michel's monks may have indeed translated much of Aristotle. I assume good faith on Gougenhaim's part here, and will take his word for it. But the translation that was actually used in Europe was the one that came with Averroes' commentaries on Aristotle.

These were, of course, badly received in the Muslim world and he was lucky to get away with being exiled, not killed. There was (sufi pockets aside) no reception of Aristotle, or Averroes, and no heir. This train of thought was stillborn there, and Averroes was thought of as a blasphemer and renegade: Ghazali carried the day.

Europe thus owes big time to Averroes (and the translators), but not to Islam as such. This used to be the consensus view in Europe until very recently, and I still think it makes perfect sense.

Recent overblown claims about the positive impact of Islam on Europe's development are just as silly and politically motivated as Gouguenheim's claims about those monks doing it instead. They didn't. Islam didn't either. It was Averroes, a great scholar, an individual, unloved in his home country, but gratefully lapped up by Europe's scholastics.


At 7:43 AM, [image] Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Averroes is certainly a good example, and your point about his being rejected by Islam but received by Christianity is also my view.

But let's not write off Muslim achievements in astronomy and mathematics, which were an advance upon Greek works and which the Latin West eagerly received.

But I'll still be interested in reading Gouguenheim's book . . . in English translation.
Thanks for visiting again.
Jeffery Hodges
* * *

At 8:12 AM, [image] Erdal said...

No doubt about astronomy and math (and medicine!). But the point Gougenhaim makes here:

Gouguenheim calls the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, where the texts were translated into Latin, "the missing link in the passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy [...]
(from the IHT article)

is false and pathetic. The is no "missing link" in this case and never has been. There is Averroes, and his towering influence on the "passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy" has been acknowledged by everybody from the very beginning. To claim otherwise is plain bizarre.

At 8:40 AM, [image] Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, that is an odd way to put it. Aquinas's use of Averroes is well-known, so what is Gouguenheim claiming?

But I'll withhold judgement until I see his full argument . . . in English translation. I've visited and read the reviews in French at the
Le Monde and Le Figuro sites, but they don't give enough information for me to judge.
Jeffery Hodges
* * *

At 11:21 AM, [image] John B said...

I really don't know how to start, but it sounds like this guy's blowing a lot of smoke. First of all, if you're going to talk about the West, you should put it opposite the East and not Islam. Islam dominated the East, it's true, but it's not quite the same thing. Or should we, for example, start discounting the achievements of European Jews from the scoreboeard?

My background is some (only three years) of college physics, so it's pretty hard for me to imagine science existing at all before symbolic algebra. That is an achievement of Persian mathematics, I thought, and I've never heard of it being independently developed in Europe.

European Englightenment science was dominated by lines of research that grew out of math and astronomy, wasn't it?

So, this guy is saying, Eastern scientists didn't do nothing. Except math. And astronomy. And some medicine. (And wasn't there some exchange over chemistry as well?) Nothing except, you know, the most important bits.

It sounds like he's playing into the culture wars more than making any serious academic contribution. Of course, that's me giving him a lot of crap even though I've never actually looked at his work, so I admit I don't have much to stand on.

Final confession: I never understood what was so freaking awesome about Greek science anyways.

At 11:30 AM, [image] John B said... If I may double-post:

"He sees a portrayal of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the path in Europe to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy"

I've seen this sort of rhetoric before, describing the Islamic empires as a sort of academic bank, holding Greek and Roman knowledge until Europe was able to receive it again. That implies that Eastern scientists didn't actually contribute anything new. The whole thing sounds like the bad kind of Orientalism. 


At 11:35 AM, [image] Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, for the most part, I agree with you, but some clarification is in order.

The expression "The West" is used to refer to Western Civilization, so one can't easily refer to "The East" without conflating and probably reifying several different civilizations.

Islamic Civilization was long The West's rival and threat, for it was militarily powerful and culturally more advanced during its high imperial stage, and The West gained much from intellectual links to the Islamic world.

Well, that's what's at issue, anyway.

As for Greek science, it's rather impressive despite not having developed algebra. But it doesn't hold a candle to the light that science has become.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


At 11:39 AM, [image] Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

On your second point . . . that describes what Gouguenheim is rejecting, for he rejects the view that much came to the West from the Islamic world.

But since I don't know exactly what he does argue, I'll wait until the English translation comes out before critiquing the thesis.
Jeffery Hodges
* * *

At 8:21 PM, [image] Anonymous said...

In his book, WANDERINGS,Chaim Potoks's History of The Jews,
Fawcett, Ballantine Books:New York, 1978, in Book Three, Through Islam and christianity, the author states that the Jews in Spain had more freedoms to practice their religion, and in arts and sciences, than the subsequent victory of Christianity there, and in fact, began to suffer the inquisition. Quite a switch in our generation, isn't it?

At 9:27 PM, [image] Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, perhaps, but there's been some revisionist history about Muslim Spain, and some historians argue that Islam wasn't so tolerant as is claimed.
I don't know, of course, but Isabella and Ferdinand certainly weren't very tolerant when they unified Catholic Spain.
Jeffery Hodges
* * *

At 12:50 AM, [image] Anonymous said...

While laboring to be brief I risk becoming obscure here (paraphrasing Cicero) but just my take: "But let's not write off Muslim achievements in astronomy and mathematics..."

As to the medicine part, I think that field was simply a reacquisition of the work of Galen, I read that somewhere but cannot recall the source.

But my main suggestion here is that it is not precise to suggest Islam made any real contribution except insofar as being oh well, I guess I'll call it, being "repositores" of previous works.

Kinda like being librarians, which is not to say librarians don't make contributions. (Yes Judy L. I remember).



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