From time to time, as a form of apologetics, Muslims state that Islam possess a rich heritage far in advance of Christian civilisation. They point to the peaceful era and the intellectual activity found in such dynasties as that of the Abbassids and the rule of Islam in Cordova. This article investigates the truth of such claims.
The development of Arab civilisation is often remarked as being the result of vibrant intellectual activity in a culture which called for originality and imagination. The Arab civilisation however, is not due to any special genius of her people but rather her civilisation developed largely by copying and imitating the civilisations they subdued in their Empire.
The Arabs in their initial conquests found themselves in the midst of cultivated nations who exerted an incontestable influence upon them. The earliest works in the Arab language were composed under the rule of the Abbassid Caliphs, not by the Arabs but by Syrians, Greeks and Persians converted to Islam. The growing influence of these conquered nations only made itself felt upon those Arabs who had left their country to settle in Syria, Persia or in Egypt. The bulk of the nation who stayed in Arabia were shut off from this influence and remained unchanged.
To believe that the artistic, literary and scientific movement that coincided with the accession of the Abbassid Caliphs, is to fall into error. The Arab contribution was hardly perceptible for it was the result of the activity of foreign nations, converted to Islam by force.
When Caliph Al Mansur (745-755), fascinated by the brilliancy of Byzantine culture and advised by Syrian, Greek and Persian officials, who filled the various offices of the Empire, wished to spread the knowledge of science, he caused translations to be made into Arabic of the principal Greek authors; Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Euclid, Archimedes and Ptolemy. There were Syriac versions of these authors already in existence, and the task of translating them into Arabic was therefore entrusted to Syrian scribes. It was through these translations that the Arabs made acquaintance with Greek works in the first instance. The Syrian scribes were too recently converted to Islam to be fully imbued with Muslim dogma and were therefore content to translate the Greek authors faithfully. The Arabs finding that certain passages wounded their religious feelings hastened to bring out new translations in harmony with Muslim conceptions. They suppressed everything in the Greek works that seemed contrary to the teachings of Islam; added the religious formulae with which they were familiar, and even caused the names of the original authors to disappear.
These shapeless or distorted works passed into the Middle Ages as the original productions of Arab genius. There true character was not discovered until much later, when at the time of the Renaissance, the Greek scripts were exhumed from ancient libraries and there were scholars capable of translating them.
Astronomy/Astrology During the reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd (786 to 809), scientific, cultural and religious prosperity abounded along with art and music; the astronomer Masha’allah ibn Atharī (c.740–815 AD) wrote treatises on the astrolabe and the armillary sphere but these were reproductions of the Syriac works translations of the works of Ptolemy. Ptolemy’s Almagest may be regarded as a complete statement of the astronomical attainments of antiquity. It is from this work, known to them by Syriac versions that the Arabs authors quarried, and upon which they commented, under a hundred different forms, without adding anything to the original.
Philosophy Al-Kindi (801-873) had a great reputation in the Middle Ages and was known as the ‘Philosopher par excellence.’ He was not an Arab but an Islamised Syrian Jew. His works on geometry, arithmetic, astrology, meteorology, medicine and philosophy were translations or compilations from Aristotle and his commentators. The Arab Muslims did not devise their own system but adopted those of Greece, Persia and India. It was through chiefly works of the Alexandrian School that they were initiated into this branch of science. The Ptolemy’s had drawn to this great city numbers of learned men from all parts of the then civilised world, notably from Greece, Syria and Persia. And it was during the period of the third to the fifth centuries that Oriental philosophy developed, relying on the one hand on mysticism through the works of Plato and on the other hand on reason and logic through Aristotle.
The most celebrated Arab philosopher, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), wrote commentaries upon Aristotle, with extracts, that made his reputation at a time when the works of the Greeks philosophers were unknown. The Averroes system has nothing original about it, it is merely a resume’ of doctrines common to earlier Arab philosophers and borrowed by them from writers of the Alexandrian School. He was the last in the line and as such was considered as the inventor of ideas which he only set out in a more complete form. Averroes knew no Greek, and knew the writings of Aristotle only through Arabic versions made from Syriac and Coptic translations.
Mathematics Likewise in the study of mathematics the Arabs added nothing new. For a long time they were credited with the invention of algebra, whereas they did no more than copy the works of the Greek mathematician Diophantus of Alexandria who lived in the third century. He sets out hundreds of arithmetic problems with their solutions and six survive in Greek with another four in medieval Arabic translations. The numerals commonly called Arabic, and the system of notation which bears the same name, come from Hindustan and were developed by Indian mathematicians. The Indian numerals were adopted by the Persian mathematicians in India, and passed on to the Arabs further west. They were transmitted to Europe in the Middle Ages. The use of Arabic numerals spread around the world through European trade, books and colonisation. The reason they are more commonly known as ‘Arabic numerals’ in Europe and the Americas is that they were introduced to Europe in the 10th century by Arabs of North Africa, who were then using the digits from Libya to Morocco. Europeans did not know about the numerals’ origins in ancient India, so they named them “Arabic numerals”.
Medicine The same absence of invention is found in respect of medicine. From the third century AD, Greek physicians had found their way into Persia, where they founded the celebrated school of Gundeshapur, which soon became the rival of Alexandria. They taught especially the doctrines of Aristotle, Hipparchus and Hippocrates, which the Persians readily assimilated. Masawayh , one of their pupils of Persian origin became physician to Harun-al-Rashid and three other Caliphs. He composed in imitation of Hippocrates a considerable number of Arabic medical monographs, on topics including fevers, leprosy, melancholy, dietetics, eye diseases, and medical aphorisms. The works of Galen of Pergamon under the name of ‘Pandects of Medicine’ were compiled and translated into Syriac by Aaron, a Christian priest who lived in Alexandria. This Syriac version was translated into Arabic in 685, becoming a major source used by Arab physicians, most notably Serapion, Avicenna, Albucasis, and Averroes.
The only Muslim who introduced anything new into medicine was Razi who was a Persian. He introduced the use of mild purgatives and chemical preparations into pharmacy. The philosopher, Maimondes, is sometimes wrongly considered an Arab doctor. He was a Jew who was born in Cordova in 1135. When the Almohads (Berber-Muslim dynasty) conquered Cordova in 1148 the life for the Jews changed considerably. Many were forced to convert or to wear humiliating, identifying clothing. Maimondes’s family, along with most other Jews, chose exile, though Muslim sources maintain the family did undergo forced conversion. For the next ten years they moved about in southern Spain, avoiding the conquering Almohades, but eventually settled in Morocco. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah. His Aphorisms of Medicine were translated into Latin in 1409.
History/Geography In this area the Arab Muslims excelled. The Syrian and Persian writers supplied them with abundant materials from which they drew. Massoudi, travelled extensively throughout the Islamic world, from Malaysia and China to Madagascar and documented a wealth of information and observations in his works of historico-geographical encyclopaedias; the principal work was Akhbar al-Zeman, Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406) whose Annals contain the history of the Arabs up to the end of the fourteenth century, and that of the Berbers was one of the few Muslim writers who was not content with merely compiling from previous documents. He was born at Tunis, and was of Spanish origin. In the area of geography the Arabs have left some works of indisputable originality. Their conquests, the obligation upon them to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and their commercial travels enabled them to make the acquaintance of regions unknown to the Greeks. Their highly developed faculty of observation led them to record valuable information. The greater part of their accounts are strictly accurate such as Ibn Battuta (1304-1368); Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217); Ibn Hauqal (943-969); Ibn Khurdadabeh (820-912); Abu al-Fida (1273-1331); Istakhri (d.957); Al-Bakri (1014-1094) and Al-Idrisi (12th century).
Grammarians Many of the ablest grammarians were Islamised foreigners for example Sibawiya and Al-Zamakhshari; the latter is renown for his great scholarship of the Quran and his mastery of the Arabic language ; both were Persians.
Architecture In towns like Mecca and Medina, the architecture was of a primitive character, with mud walls and roofs of palm leaves. The famous temple of the Ka’aba was merely a modest enclosure of stone and sun-dried mud bricks. The first mosque that Muhammad built at Medina, was a very humble construction in sun-dried brick.
The Arabs only became acquainted with architecture when they left their native country; in Syria and Persia they saw Byzantine and Persian monuments, in both cases inspired by Greek art. The Greeks were the great initiators of the East in architectural matters; it was they who constructed the greater number of the palaces of the kings of Persia, and it was from them, finally that the Arabs drew their inspiration. The dome, so widespread in Muslim countries, is of Persian origin; it was adopted by the Greeks, and then by the Byzantines. Syrian architects, combining Greek art with that of Persia, have contributed to the creation of what has been called Byzantine art. It was the Syrian architect Anthemius of Tralles, who drew up the plans of the Santa Sophia (532-537), in which we find all the characteristics of the art wrongly attributed to Muslims: the dome, lacework in stone, mosaics, coloured tiles and “arabesques.” The dome had long been in use in Persia, as is proved by the dome of the Hall of Audience of Chosroes 1 and of the palace of Machida, built by Chosroes 2. It was Persia that invented the arch; all the domed and arched work in the world sprang from Persia. The dome and the arch were known in Rome from the first century; the most ancient examples of them are to be found at Tivoli, in Hadrian’s villa, and also in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
Those mural decorations, which were later called arabesques, had their origin in Greece and Egypt. The immense halls with ceiling supported by a forest of columns are equally of Greek origin. The Great Mosque at Cordova, and the Alhambra at Granada are the products of Greco-Latin art, like the embossing and the cut-plaster-work of their walls and ceilings.
Throughout Islamic history the constant operation of two conflicting influences may be noted. On the one hand there was the influence of foreign nations, hastily converted to Islam, the Syrians, Persian, Hindus, Egyptians and Andalusians of southern Spain who tended to introduce their foreign civilisation into Islam. At the periods when this influence was at its greatest, there is a great expansion of culture, with the Arabs, as it were, standing outside. On the other hand, there was the influence exercised by Arab elements, which was hostile to all progress and innovation, for it was other nations that urged Islam on to a higher civilisation. When Islam was in the ascendancy, it arrested all forward movement; gradually, by means of religion, it introduced Muslim conceptions into the manners and customs of the subject people; and in the course of a few generations the nation become afflicted by paralysis and stagnation.
Islam and the Psychology of the Muslim by Andre’ Servier