The book that inspired this text was The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by Rémi Brague, a French professor and specialist of medieval religious philosophy. He is also the author of the fine book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, which I have written an extensive essay about previously. Thematically this text overlaps to some extent with my essay Why Christians Accepted Greek Natural Philosophy, but Muslims Did Not and my reviews of the books Science and Religion by Edward Grant and Defending the West by Ibn Warraq. It also overlaps with some of the material I have included in my book Defeating Eurabia. I will include page references to the various book quotes so that others can use them and will supplement with some quotes from two good online interviews with Mr. Brague.
Medieval Muslims were reluctant to travel to infidel lands. According to Islamic jurists Muslims should not stay for too long in the lands of non-Muslims if they cannot live a proper Muslim life there. Muslims had little knowledge of or interest in any Western languages. Only Italian had some currency for commercial purposes, but mainly involving Jews and Eastern Christians, especially Greeks and Armenians. Few Muslims knew any non-Muslim languages well, the knowledge of which was considered unnecessary or even suspect.
Consequently, the translators of Greek and other non-Muslim scientific works to Arabic were never Muslims. They were Christians of the three dominant denominations plus a few Jews and Sabians. The language of culture for these Christians was Syriac (Syro-Aramaic or Eastern Aramaic) and their liturgical language was Greek. The translators already knew the languages they were to translate. We do have examples of translators who travelled to
"Neither were there any Muslims among the ninth-century translators. Almost all of them were Christians of various Eastern denominations: Jacobites, Melchites, and, above all, Nestorians (though I am not sure why the latter predominated). A few others were Sabians, a somewhat bizarre religious community with an intriguing history, whose elites were perhaps the last heirs of the pagan philosophers of the
The Baghdad-centered Abbasid Dynasty, which replaced the Damascus-centered Umayyad Dynasty after AD 750, was closer to pre-Islamic Persian culture and influenced by the Sassanid Zoroastrian practice of translating works and creating libraries. Even Dimitri Gutas admits this in his pro-Islamic book Greek Thought, Arab Culture. There was still a large number of Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews and they held a disproportionate amount of expertise in the medical field. According to author Thomas T. Allsen, Middle Eastern medicine in Mongol ruled
One prominent translator was the Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-873), called Johannitius in Latin. He was a Nestorian (Assyrian) Christian who had studied Greek in Greek lands, presumably in the Byzantine Empire, and eventually settled in
Thabit ibn Qurra (ca. 836-901) was a member of the Sabian sect of star worshippers who had adopted much of Greek culture. His native language was Syriac but he knew Greek and Arabic well. He worked for years in
Aramaic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic. It was once the lingua franca of much of the
Syriac or Syro-Aramaic gradually gave way to Arabic after the Arab conquest of this region, but when the Koran was composed, Arabic did not yet exist as a written language. Author Ibn Warraq estimates that up to 20% of the Koran is incomprehensible even to educated Arabs because parts of it were originally written in another related language before Muhammad was born, if Muhammad as he is described to us ever existed at all, that is.
The author of the most important work on this subject, a German professor of Semitic languages, due to potential threats writes under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg. According to him, certain obscure passages of the chapters or suras of the Koran usually ascribed to the Mecca period, which are also the most tolerant ones as opposed to the much harsher and more violent chapters allegedly from Medina, are not "Islamic" at all but based on Christian hymns in Syriac, Biblical texts adapted for liturgical use:
"In its origin, the Koran is a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book, with hymns and extracts from Scriptures which might have been used in sacred Christian services...Its socio-political sections, which are not especially related to the original Koran, were added later in Medina. At its beginning, the Koran was not conceived as the foundation of a new religion. It presupposes belief in the Scriptures, and thus functioned merely as an inroad into Arabic society."
While many philosophical and scientific works (but hardly any literary or historical ones) were translated into Arabic, Muslims didn't preserve the originals as these were now seen as unnecessary. This made the phenomena of "renaissances" impossible -- that is, a return to the original texts to reinterpret and study them with fresh and unbiased eyes. Muslims themselves virtually never learned Greek. Here is The Legend of the Middle Ages again, page 168:
"Those who knew Greek had been raised bilingual because they were sons of an Arab father and a Greek mother. No Muslim seems to have ever learned a foreign language for theoretical reasons rather than, for example, commercial reasons. The one exception is perhaps Farabi. One of his biographers relates that he is supposed to have spent years in '
Islamic civilization, in sharp contrast to the European one, never used its knowledge of the foreign as an instrument that would permit it, through comparison and distancing in relations to itself, to understand itself by becoming conscious of the non-obvious character of its cultural practices. An extremely rare exception to this rule may be the eleventh century Persian polymath al-Biruni. As Brague states in his book Eccentric Culture, page 112-113:
"It may be that its geographers made a eulogy of India and of China in order to address a discreet critique of the Islamic civilization of their time, often compensated in the last instance by an affirmation of the religious superiority of the latter. The examples that one could find of such a vision 'reflected' in the mirror are exceptional and come from marginal or heretical thinkers. Thus, the contact with the Brahmin Hindu thinkers whose religion does quite well without prophecy (which the Islamic religion declares on the contrary necessary to the happiness of man and to a good social order) posed a problem for the Muslim thinkers; the real or fictitious dialogue with the Brahmins was able to serve to mask a critique of the Islamic religion in a free thinker like Ibn al-Rawandi. The only incontestable exception is without doubt the astonishing work of Al-Biruni on
Greek translations heavily influenced Middle Eastern scholars. Al-Kindi (died ca. AD 873), commonly known as "the Philosopher of the Arabs," lived in
As Rémi Brague states, "in the oft-romanticized city of
European Christians re-conquered
The basic principle of the astrolabe, a working model of the heavens, was a discovery of the ancient Greeks. Stereographic projection, one way among several of mapping a sphere onto a flat surface, was probably known to the great mathematical astronomer Hipparchus in the second century BC and was certainly in use by the first century BC when Vitruvius, the Roman writer on architecture and engineering, mentioned it. The first treatise on an astrolabe in the modern sense was probably written by Theon of Alexandria (ca. AD 335-405). He was a teacher of mathematics and wrote commentaries on the works of Ptolemy, including the Almagest, and made an influential edition with added comments of
"The earliest astrolabes used in Europe were imported from Moslem
The oldest surviving, moderately sophisticated scientific work in the English language is a Treatise on the Astrolabe, written by the English poet and philosopher Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400) for his son. His The Canterbury Tales are studded with astronomical references.
It should be noted that while it was a very popular device, the astrolabe was not a precision instrument even by medieval standards. Its popularity stemmed from the fact that approximate solutions to astronomical problems could be found by a mere glance at the instrument. The invention of the pendulum clock and more specialized and useful scientific devices such as the telescope from the seventeenth century on replaced the astrolabe in importance.
Nevertheless, its medieval reintroduction via the Islamic world did leave some traces. Quite a few star names in use in modern European languages, for instance Aldebaran or Algol, can be traced back to Arabic or Arabized versions of earlier Greek names. Today astronomers frequently identify stars by means of Bayer letters, introduced by the German astronomer Johann Bayer (1572-16259) in his celestial atlas Uranometria from
It is true that there were translations from Arabic and that these did have some impact in
Moreover, it is simply not true that these translations "rescued" the Classical heritage. This survived largely intact among Byzantine, Orthodox Christians. When Western, Latin Christians wanted to recover the Greco-Roman heritage they translated Greek historical works and literature as well, in addition to philosophy, medicine and astronomy, and copied works by Roman authors and poets in Latin which had been totally ignored by Muslims.
It is easy to track how Arabic translations of Greek texts from Byzantine manuscripts, almost always made by non-Muslims, made their way from the Islamic East to Sicily and southern Italy or to the Iberian Peninsula in the Islamic West where some of them were translated by Jews and Christians, for instance in the multilingual city of Toledo in Spain, to Latin. It is true that some ancient Greek texts were reintroduced to the West via Arabic, sometimes passing via Syriac or Hebrew along the way, but these were usually based, in the end, on Byzantine originals. The permanent recovery of Greco-Roman learning and literature was undertaken as a direct transmission from Greek, Orthodox Christians to Western, Latin Christians.
The greatest translator from Greek to Latin was the Flemish scholar William of Moerbeke (ca. 1215-ca. 1286), a contemporary of the prominent German scholar Albertus Magnus. He was fluent in Greek and made very accurate translations, still held in high regard today, from Byzantine originals and improved earlier translations of the works of Aristotle and many by Archimedes, Hero of
Thanks in part to William of Moerbeke's efforts, by the 1270s Western Europeans had access to Greek works that were never translated into Arabic, for instance Aristotle's Politics. This benefited Thomas Aquinas and his great theological work the Summa Theologica. The Spanish-born Jewish rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), famous for his The Guide for the Perplexed, attempted to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Biblical Scripture. Aquinas was well aware of his work as well as Muslim Aristotelian commentators such as Avicenna and Averroes, but he could be critical of Averroes and his use of Aristotle.
Renaissance figures in
It was a major stroke of historical luck that printing was introduced in Europe at exactly the same time as the last vestige of the Roman Empire fell to Muslim Turks. Texts that had been preserved in
"The classical editions, dictionaries, grammar and reference guides issued from print shops made it possible to achieve an unprecedented mastery of Alexandrian learning even while laying the basis for a new kind of permanent Greek revival in the West....We now tend to take for granted that the study of Greek would continue to flourish after the main Greek manuscript centers had fallen into alien hands and hence fail to appreciate how remarkable it was to find that Homer and Plato had not been buried anew but had, on the contrary, been disinterred forever more. Surely Ottoman advances would have been catastrophic before the advent of printing. Texts and scholars scattered in nearby regions might have prolonged the study of Greek but only in a temporary way."
Muslims and Christians treated Greek philosophy very differently, partly because Judaism, Islam and Christianity are monotheistic in very different ways. Brague points out that there are fundamental differences between them. It is a misunderstanding that there are "three religions of the book" because the meaning of the book is very different in each religion.
According to Rémi Brague, "In Judaism, the Tenakh is a written history of the covenant between God and the people of
In Islamic lands, falsafa remained a private affair, an unofficial matter for individuals in fairly restricted numbers. Philosophy was always marginal in the Islamic world and was never institutionalized there as it was in the European medieval universities. According to Rémi Brague, theology as such is a Christian specialty. He even claims that "'theology' as a rational exploration of the divine (according to Anselm's program) exists only in Christianity."
Brague states that "The great philosophers of Islam were amateurs, and they pursued philosophy during their leisure hours: Farabi was a musician, Avicenna a physician and a vizier, Averroes a judge. Avicenna did philosophy at night, surrounded by his disciples, after a normal workday. And he did not refuse a glass of wine to invigorate him a bit and keep him on his toes. Similarly, among the Jews, Maimonides was a physician and a rabbinic judge, Gersonides was an astronomer (and astrologer), and so on. The great Jewish or Muslim philosophers attained the same summits as the great Christian Scholastics, but they were isolated and had little influence on society. In medieval
Demand usually precedes the presence of a product on the market and it is the demand that needs to be explained. As Brague notes, translations are made because someone feels that a certain text contains information that people need. The real intellectual revolution in Europe began well before the wave of translations in
The "Papal Revolution" starting in the eleventh century was an effort to apply ancient Greek methods of logic to the remnants of Roman law dating back to Late Antiquity and the reforms of the active Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian the Great. Justinian's revision of existing Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) was compiled in Latin in the 530s AD and later influenced medieval Canon Law. While they did utilize Roman law and Greek logic, medieval Western scholars through their intellectual efforts created a new synthesis which had not existed in Antiquity. Prominent among them was the twelfth century Italian legal scholar Gratian, a monk who taught in
"Every person in Western Christendom lived under both canon law and one or more secular legal systems. The pluralism of legal systems within a common legal order was an essential element of the structure of each system. Because none of the coexisting legal systems claimed to be all inclusive or omnicompetent, each had to develop constitutional standards for locating and limiting sovereignty, for allocating governmental powers within such sovereignty, and for determining the basic rights and duties of members… Like the developing English royal law of the same period, the canon law tended to be systematized more on the basis of procedure than of substantive rules. Yet after Gratian, canon law, unlike English royal law, was also a university discipline; professors took the rules and principles and theories of the cases into the classrooms and collected, analyzed, and harmonized them in their treatises."
With the papacy of the dynamic and assertive Gregory VII (1073-1085), the Roman Catholic Church entered the Investiture Struggle, a protracted and largely successful conflict with European monarchs over control of appointments, investitures, of Church officials. Edward Grant explains in his book God and Reason in the Middle Ages, page 23-24:
"Gregory VII began the process that culminated in
The power of the secular states grew as well, but the separation between Church and state endured because the Papal Revolution had established a virtual parity between them. It was the internal dynamism of
"The European intellectual renaissance preceded the translations from the Arabic. The latter were not the cause, but the effect of that renaissance. Like all historical events, it had economic aspects (lands newly under cultivation, new agricultural techniques) and social aspects (the rise of free cities). On the level of intellectual life, it can be understood as arising from a movement that began in the eleventh century, probably launched by the Gregorian reform of the Church. . . . That conflict bears witness to a reorientation of Christianity toward a transformation of the temporal world, up to that point more or less left to its own devices, with the Church taking refuge in an apocalyptical attitude that said since the world was about to end, there was little need to transform it. The Church's effort to become an autonomous entity by drawing up a law that would be exclusive to it -- Canon Law -- prompted an intense need for intellectual tools. More refined concepts were called for than those available at the time. Hence the
Rémi Brague is a highly competent scholar and I can easily recommend his works to those who have a serious interest in studying these subjects. I will conclude by adding some other books that people can read. About Islam I recommend essentially everything written by Robert Spencer. Bat Ye'or's books are groundbreaking and important. The Legacy of Jihad by Andrew Bostom should be considered required reading for all those who are interested in Islam. It is the best and most complete book currently available on the subject in English, possibly in any language. Ibn Warraq's books are excellent, starting with Leaving Islam. Understanding Muhammad by the Iranian ex-Muslim Ali Sina is worth reading, as areDefeating Jihad by Serge Trifkovic and A God Who Hates by Wafa Sultan. For Western and European readers especially I could add my own book Defeating Eurabia.
For books about the history of science, I recommend everything written by Edward Grant. The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg is good, though slightly more politically correct than Grant when it comes to science in the Islamic world. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff is highly recommended. Huff's work is carefully researched and should be considered required reading for those who are interested in this subject. These books are easy to read for an educated, mainstream audience.
For books that are excellent, yet more specialized and slightly more challenging, I can recommend Victor J. Katz for the history of mathematics and The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans for the history of pre-telescopic astronomy up to and including Kepler. Evans' book is extremely well researched and detailed, almost too much so on European and Middle Eastern astronomy, but contains virtually nothing on Chinese or Mayan astronomy. For a more global perspective, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology by John North is good and not too difficult to read.