Guest Blog: Islamic Science & the Renaissance

A dear friend and colleague on another blog site at which I am a founding member (Common Ground Group) has started a series on Islamic contributions to civilization. Given the fact that this is Banned Books week and the recent hubbub over the “Burn a Qur’an” campaign (which we here at Book View Café have re-purposed to “BUY a Qur’an”) this seems a most appropriate blog. Especially given the delightful inclusion of a link to a fascinating video entitled “1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets”. This is, indeed, a mosh-up of 1001 Nights and Harry Potter, but to those of you in the know, it may also feel like an episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures. The important thing, however, is not the setting, but the content.

So, without further ado, here is Bahram’s blog, lifted, with his permission, from Common Ground Group.

oOo

by Bahram Nadimi

The age we live in is unique; a sea change in human consciousness is occurring, resulting in increased awareness of the fundamental unity of the world’s religions, especially for those who are bold enough to investigate truth for themselves.

My interest in the subject of Islam and the Renaissance started when I was in college in London, England, hanging out with my good friend, who was a history major studying the Renaissance.  I recall listening to stories and anecdotes from him, in quaint cafés in London—tales of progressive civilization in Spain just before the florescence of Renaissance in Europe.

My interest peaked many years later, here in the US, after 9/11. Being Iranian, I was asked questions about Islam (even though I am not a Muslim).  During my investigation into the enquiries made, I revisited the insights I had gained from my friend, and hence embarked on a wonderful journey, finding for myself, the choicest fruits of the Islamic civilization and how it has shaped us in the West.

My journey took me to Spain; where I visited such places as Cordoba and Seville, helping imagine the people and the motivating spirit behind these once flourishing cultural centers.

Even in this age of enlightenment, few people seem to be aware of the very significant contributions of the Islamic world to modern civilization; the purpose of these few articles is to hopefully provide a snapshot of history of this under-appreciated period.  Whatever one thinks of the state of Islam at present, it is hoped that a glimpse of this period in human history will provide a more balanced view of the contributions of Islam and religion in general to civilization.

The Dark Ages: a Black Hole in History or an Age of Enlightenment?

It will probably be safe to say that Western historians have over time downplayed (consciously or subconsciously) the contributions of Islamic civilization. Carl Sagan, for example, in his historical timeline of scientific achievements has a gap from about the fifth century to the fifteenth century, in which, because of the onset of the Dark Ages, he lists no individual achievements or inventions in this period. This is slowly changing, however; an exhibit on this subject had its opening in the science museum of London, called 1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets, and has been a huge success.  A short film on the subject, starring Ben Kingsly, has even been made that is very entertaining.  Here is the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZDe9DCx7Wk

Right now, I’d like to explore what led to the intellectual awakening of Europe.  We will start with the city of Cordoba, Spain.

Cordoba, Spain

Until recently, this city was called a “city of transit,” a far cry from its glory days.  For example, it is written that at the peak of its prosperity, Cordoba contained more than two hundred thousand houses, and at least half a million inhabitants, and it had paved and illumined streets. At the same time in the major cities of Europe, which were in reality large  of 30,000 to 50,000 residents, there was not a paved street, and no illumination at night.

When I visited Cordoba, little trace of this civilization remained. Everything, for the most part, was destroyed after the fall of Islamic rule. One exception was the Great Cordoba Mosque, regarded as the heart and central focus of the capital. In 1236, Córdoba was captured by King Ferdinand III of Castile in the Reconquista, and the mosque was turned into a Christian church.

Traveling throughout the city, I saw very little evidence that the Muslim civilization even existed. There was one museum—very modest in appearance—at the one end of the main bridge, that had a wonderful audio-visual presentation of this period in history. I learnt, for example, to my surprise that utensils and silverware were introduced to the Europeans  by the Muslims.

However, there were echoes of this period that could be heard in the narrow streets of Cordoba; Spanish music, dancing, and singing, with noticeable elements and traces of the East.

West met East in Cordoba.

Some notable contributions of Cordoba

In Muslim Cordoba the first true European university was erected, and within its halls, multitudes of Europeans received the most advanced education anywhere in the modern world.  Many good families of Western Europe, whether Christian or Jews, sent their children for education here. Muslims, Christians, and Jews studied on the same levels with complete tolerance. Among them was Gerbert, who afterward became Sylvester II, an outstanding Pope of the Roman Church.  He was one of the few literate clergy in this period, and because of his interest in modern science, was suspected of sorcery.  He escaped the witch-burners and lynchers only because of his high position.

This city had dozens of public and systematized libraries, with hundreds of thousands of books, at a time when the kings of Europe were illiterate, signing their names with an ‘X’.

History records the remarkable civilization in Spain under Islamic rule that brought real progress, order, equality, and peace.

Next time: We will explore some tangible examples of knowledge and technology that flourished from this period of history, and helped pave the way for the Renaissance.

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Anyone who would enjoy further discussions of science and religion and dialogues on faith and reason is welcome to visit Common Ground, The Blog.

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Guest Blog: Islamic Science & the Renaissance — 3 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this!

    The work of scholars and physicians like Ibn Sina (Latinized as Avicenna), Ibn Imran, Ibn Suleiman and Ibn Al-Jazzar were translated into Latin by a Tunisian monk, Constantinus Africanus. At pretty much the same time, mostly forgotten works of Classical physiscians like Galen and Hippocrates were translated as well. These texts formed the basis of medical education in Europe for centuries, and gave rise to the medical school in Salerno, where a physicians and students of many nations, Christian, Jew, and Muslim, worked and studied together.

    In certain ways the “Dark Ages” were not so dark, or so exclusive, as we tend to think now.

  2. I’m hoping Bahram will do a blog dedicated to Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who was a true Renaissance Man. He did work in so many disciplines that it makes my head spin. I’m especially interested in his work in Aristotelian logic and its application to Islamic teachings.

  3. I’ve been fascinated by this subject ever since I saw the movie The 13th Warrior. It’s a retelling of Beowulf set in the 900s, and includes an Arab emissary (and poet, I believe) in a band of Vikings called home to defeat an evil monster. It’s not a great movie, but it made it clear what part of the world was civilized and what part was not.

    I hope to see more posts from your friend Bahram and get more education.