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The Islamic Impact on Western Civilization Reconsidered PDF Print E-mail

Basit B. Koshul

The topic of the Islamic impact on western civilization has received a great deal of attention from various Muslim scholars, and some attention from western scholars. When discussing this topic, Muslims usually concentrate on providing a list of important scientific discoveries made by Muslims with the intent of proving that Muslims made the discoveries before the Europeans. For example: Ibn Sina (d. 1036) used an air thermometer and Ibn Yunus (c. 900) used a pendulum many centuries before Galileo, al Idrisi (c. 1OOO) discovered and mapped the sources of the Nile River nine hundred years before the Europeans, and al Zarkayl proved that the planetary orbits were elliptical-not circular-many centuries in advance of Copernicus.

Whereas the historical authenticity of these claims cannot be questioned, such discussion does not shed much light on the Islamic impact on western civilization. It is entirely possible that even though the Europeans made the noted discoveries many centuries after the Muslims, they did so without having any knowledge of earlier Islamic works. Such is the case in the above-mentioned examples. Hence, the issue of the Islamic impact on the West cannot be discussed in this context.

Due to the shortcoming of the typical method of discussing the issue at hand, this paper will adopt an alternative method: the history of ideas and intellectual traditions in the Muslim world and the West. An attempt will be made to identify broad trends and characteristics of the western and Islamic intellectual traditions in order to discover possible links. The primacy of reason, logic, and the scientific method are the defining characteristics of the western intellectual tradition from the Renaissance to the present. Prior to the Renaissance, Christian theology determined exclusively the pattern of western intellectualism, and prior to Christian theology it was Greek thought. The paper will seek to prove that if the Islamic impact is discounted, one cannot establish an organic link between these two intellectual traditions and the Renaissance tradition. Evidence will be presented to substantiate the claim that it was the Islamic intellectual tradition that played a critical role in the emergence of Renaissance thought. The organic link between the Islamic and Renaissance intellectual traditions will be established by highlighting the contributions of key individuals and institutions in the transmission of the Islamic tradition to the West.

The Circumstantial Evidence

Speaking of the critical impact that Islam has had on the West, one scholar notes:
It is highly probable that but for the Arabs modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them it would not have assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution. For although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the paramount distinctive force of the modern world and the supreme source of its victory-natural science and the scientific spirit.

Briffault is stating that the Islamic influence upon the West is so far reaching that it is traceable in every facet of European development. He goes even further and credits Islamic culture with endowing European civilization with the defining characteristic of modernity: the scientific spirit. This is a very bold and radical statement in light of the fact that Harry Barnes’ statement regarding the Islamic impact on the West is representative of the majority view of western scholars. He states:

In no sense did Islam directly encourage learning except as it might be incidentally involved in history, jurisprudence, philosophy, or theology of Islam . . . . The learning of both medieval
Christians and Muslims was based chiefly on earlier pagan scholarship, particularly that of the Greeks, which Islam made less difficult to appropriate than did Christianity. Herein, chiefly, is to be found the key to Muslim cultural preeminence. It is a complete mistake to seek it in native Muslim genius, in the inherent superiority of Islam, or in any direct Islamic encouragement of scholarship and art?

Another scholar is even more adamant in rejecting any connection between Islamic culture and learning. M. Andre Sevier states:

What is called “Arab civilization,” in so far as any manifestation of Arab genius is concerned, has never had any real existence. The civilization that passes under that name is due to the labor of other peoples who, subjected to Islam by force, continued to develop their aptitudes in spite of the persecution of their conqueror.

Both Barnes and Sevier argue that Islamic culture has contributed nothing to the intellectual legacy of humanity. According to Barnes, the cultural preeminence of the Muslim world during the Middle Ages vis-a-vis the Christian West was rooted in the fact that Islam made it ‘ I . . . somewhat less difficult to appropriate” the pagan scholarship of the Greeks than did Christianity. For Sevier, one cannot even speak of an “Islamic-Arab civilization” because all of the cultural and intellectual achievements usually attributed to this entity were the result of Syrian, Persian, Jewish, Nestorian, and Hindu endeavors.

The argument that Islam did not encourage scholarship and had no impact on western civilization is very weak and borders on the absurd. George Sarton, in his monumental Introduction to the History of Science, divides human history into periods of fifty years, beginning with the fifth century BC4 For each period, he identifies the most influential scientist of the time and names the period as that scientist’s “epoch.” Consequently we have the epoch of Plato (450-400 B.C.), followed by those of Aristotle, Euclid, and Archimedes. The first Muslim name in Sarton’s schema, a1 Jabir, appears in the 750-800 period. He is followed by al Khwarizmi, al Razi, Mas’udi, and Biruni. The epoch of Muslim scientists continues uninterrupted from 750 to 1100. Gregory of Cremona and Roger Bacon interrupt this chain, but the Muslims reappear for another two centuries beginning with the epoch of Ibn Rushd (1200-1250).

This period of Muslim preeminence in the scientific fields parallels directly the Dark Ages in Europe. The wide gap between the western and Islamic cultures during this time period is illustrated vividly by the following fact: al Hakim (d. 975), a vizier in the Muslim government in Spain, had a private library collection of four hundred thousand books. The most famous library in Christian Spain at this time was in the Repoll Monastery, which contained a mere 192 books. It is not hard to imagine the wide gap between a culture where private citizens could amass a private collection of four hundred thousand books and one in which the largest collection was a mere 192 books.

During the same century (922), a Muslim trader by the name of Ibn Fadlan made the following observation on the hygienic practices of Scandinavian traders who he met on the lower Volga River during one of his many trading expeditions into the area. He states:

Every morning a girl comes and brings a tub of water, and places it before her master. In this he proceeds to wash his face and hands, and then his hair, combing it out over the vessel. Thereupon he blows his nose, and spits into the tub, leaving no dirt behind, conveys it all into this water. When he has finished, the girl carries the tub to the man next him, who does the same. Thus she continues carrying the tub from one to another, till each of those who are in the house has blown his nose and spit into the tub, and washed his face and hair.

At a time when Europeans were washing their faces and hair in water used by others for the same purpose, Muslims in Cairo, Baghdad, Toledo, Granada, and other major cities were taking advantage of the numerous public baths that had been constructed by the government and private citizens alike. These baths were supplied by aqueduct systems, the likes of which even the Romans had not known.

The comparison between al Hakim’s library and that of the Repoll Monastery and the hygienic conditions of the Scandinavian traders and the Muslims is made in order to contrast the relatively advanced Muslim culture with that of the backward West. This wide gap between the two cultures needs to be noted, for their close proximity and constant interaction will cause one culture to influence the other. Such scholars as Barnes and Sevier, who claim that Islam had no impact on the West, have to counter the following argument put forth by Briffault:

That a brilliant and energetic civilization full of creative energy should have existed side by side and in constant relation with populations sunk in barbarism, without exercising a profound and vital influence upon their development, would be a manifest anomaly. That no such suspension of natural law was involved in the relationship between Islam and Europe is abundantly attested in spite of the conspiring of every circumstance to suppress, deform, and obliterate the record of that relation.

Here Briffault is merely stating a law of history that all historians accept as valid: two civilizations, one barbarian and one advanced, cannot exist side by side without the advanced civilization having a profound impact on its barbarian counterpart. The fact that western civilization was “sunk in barbarism” at the turn of the last millennium is testified to by the fact that this period is referred to as the Dark Ages of Europe. The fact that the Muslim world was a “brilliant and energetic civilization full of creative energy” is attested to by the fact that it produced the leading scientific minds in the world from 750 to 1100, as noted by Sarton. The fact that there was constant interaction between these two civilizations in trade, diplomacy, and war is too well-known to be detailed here. Hence, the three leading factors in Briffault’s schema have been established, and, as he notes, it would be a “manifest anomaly” if the advanced (Islamic) civilization did not exercise a profound influence upon the barbarian (western) civilization.

Here we have circumstantial evidence that Islamic civilization had some sort of impact on the West. This circumstantial evidence is still far short of justifying Briffault's thesis that the West was influenced in profound ways by the Muslims, to the extent that the scientific spirit itself is a Muslim legacy inherited by the West. Even though we have not presented enough evidence to prove Briffault's thesis, enough evidence has been presented to undermine seriously the thesis of the rejectionist school, as represented by Barnes and Sevier, which holds that Islam did not exercise any influence on the West whatsoever.