Lecture 3: Not Quite the Dark Ages


Dionisio Verdaguer. Abd al-Rahman III receiving the Ambassador. 1885 / Wikimedia Commons

In this lecture series, medieval historian Irina Varyash discusses how Muslims ruled Spain for approximately 800 years, transforming it into one of medieval Europe's most developed and prosperous regions. The third lecture explores Muslim scholarship and its role in shaping the intellectual culture of the West.

Ali Ahmed, a student at an American university, once attended a party where one of his American friends said to him, "Look, Ali, it's great that you were able to come to our country, study here, and we can freely communicate, be friends, and hang out in our homes. No barriers or restrictions. We accept you as an equal. This is American freedom!" Ali readily nodded and said in response, "That's true, and I'm grateful to America and to all of you, my friends, for that. But you know, if you came to our country, spoke Arabic, wore our traditional clothing instead of jeans, and followed our customs, we would also welcome you with open arms and treat you as equals in our homes."

Europeans, and subsequently Americans, have become accustomed to perceiving themselves in their relations with Islamic countries as the giving side. And it is not difficult to see that those who give simultaneously also seem to inherit the right to demand and, for example, impose their own standards and thus seek control. This is a very ancient aspiration rooted in the Middle Ages: the dream of the Latin world to push Islam out of the Mediterranean, to strip it of its dominance at sea and in trade, and to learn to control this mighty, fabulously wealthy, and dangerously enigmatic Muslim world.

However, the truth is that modern civilization is fundamentally trying to address a different task. It is time to leave the Crusades and colonial wars, with their ideas of reshaping the world and establishing a monopoly on truth, behind. Humanity is now looking toward new horizons, the contours of which are outlined by the development of artificial intelligence, the global market, and digital consumption. In order to live in this "one world", we are currently learning to accept each other without distinguishing races, ethnicities, religions, or gender identities. We are learning to see each other as simply human beings and recognizing the inherent value of each individual. Nevertheless, this represents the scope of the most relevant scientific works in philosophy and ethics, anthropology, and biology today.

In order to accept each other, it is necessary, at the very least, to recognize what we have learned from one another, what we have embraced, and why our alliance has made us stronger and better. While the European and American contributions to modern civilization are more or less clear to everyone, neither of them has a particularly accurate understanding of what they owe to the Muslim world. Further, even the inhabitants of Islamic countries are also poorly informed about this contribution. This lack of awareness is influenced by imposed standards in education, scientific activities, and lifestyle, which undoubtedly have emerged for compelling and justified reasons, but which no longer serve as the driving force of global culture. Western countries themselves are keenly aware of this, as evidenced by the message of 'unity in diversity' being promoted through new social programs. We can also see it in the diversity initiatives that protest the dominance of a single system of values or a singular model that explains the world, defines human relationships, and sets the direction of our development.

That is why today, perhaps more than ever before, understanding the experience of the Middle Ages is important. It was an era when diversity was embedded in the Germanic mentality and the dominance of civil relations.

 Gaspare Landi. Harun al-Rashid in his Tent with the Wise Men from the East. 1813 /Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

Gaspare Landi. Harun al-Rashid in his Tent with the Wise Men from the East. 1813 /Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

The flowering of Islamic culture

Examine the map of the Arab caliphate in the ninth century, and you will understand that compared to that caliphate, Western Europe, whose civilizational achievements are now accepted as a benchmark, was essentially a small territory ruled by scattered political entities. Europe at that time did not yet have a developed system of governance or stable knowledge and education infrastructure.

Among all the early medieval monarchs, the figure of Charlemagne stands out most prominently. As we know, he could read, which already distinguished him from the majority of the populace, but he never fully learned to write. Charlemagne implemented the so-called "school reform", aiming to compensate for the deficiency in Latin culture. This inadequacy was largely due to the caesura, which is a disruption of continuity caused by the transition from late antiquity to the early medieval period. Charlemagne's 'reform' pursued religious and administrative goals and was modest in its objectives: it was necessary to teach the clergy to read and write and to prepare individuals who could serve as imperial officials.

At the same time, the Abbasids came to power in Baghdad, giving a new impetus to scholarly pursuits, theology, and philosophy. The Islamic world, starting from the eighth century, when it actively began to explore its cultural heritage, experienced no delays or interruptions in its intellectual development. Here, a system of knowledge reproduction and development quickly emerged. There were "elementary schools", where students learned to read and interpret the Koran and Hadiths. By the beginning of the ninth century, something resembling higher education had emerged, and by the end of the eleventh century, educational institutions of a university type had been established in most major cities. Teaching at the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo has been ongoing without interruption for over a thousand years.

Ulugbek and Ali Kushchi at the observatory / Alamy

Ulugbek and Ali Kushchi at the observatory / Alamy

In the eighth century, Arabic libraries had already begun to emerge at court and for private and public use. The court collection of books started to form during the reign of Caliph al-Mansur (754–75) and was significantly expanded by Harun al-Rashid (786–809). Based on orders from the caliphs, scholars translated and interpreted texts and embarked on scientific and archeological expeditions. During this time, more translations were made than in probably any other country or era. Institutions known as "Houses of Wisdom" or "Houses of Science" became centers of intellectual life and were located in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tripoli, Cairo, and other important cities. These institutions were funded by the treasury, private individuals, or the Muslim community. Scholars in the Houses of Wisdom were provided with accommodation, financial support, writing materials, and extensive book collections for their use.

Medieval Islamic civilization held intellectual pursuits in high regard, and it was an open culture both in terms of content and its attitude toward its own creators. However, translators and scholars were not only Muslims. For example, Christians such as Hunayn (died in 877), Isaac (died in 910), and Yahya ibn Adi (died in 974) received commissions from various caliphs and translated and interpreted scientific works by ancient authors.

The caliphate processed the texts from six known traditions at the time: Jewish, Syrian, Persian, Indian, Latin, and Greek. Expeditions were sent to Iran, India, and Constantinople to find books, and there were no strict limitations on the literature selected to be translated into Arabic, then mastered, comprehended, and incorporated into their own cultural milieu. Almost anything was translated: the great works of Greek scholars and philosophers, especially Aristotle and Plato, works on medicine, alchemy, astrology, and magic. In a relatively short period, the works of Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, Archimedes, Claudius Ptolemy, and many others were translated into Arabic—and this is just a brief list of Greek authors. After translating texts and writing commentaries on them, Arabic scholars created their own texts based on them, revitalizing and extending the life of this "heritage of humanity", advancing the progress of thought, and inventing new ideas.

The accumulative capacity of Islamic culture in the initial stages of its formation and development represents one of the most impressive mysteries of human genius in history. It was precisely due to this capacity for knowledge that Europeans were able to become acquainted with many ancient texts that they themselves had lost or forgotten, seemingly due to early medieval Christian purism and disregard. It took Western Europe several centuries to reach the level of knowledge where it became evident that the experience gathered by Muslim scholars was very valuable.

Even in the twelfth century, a remarkable and famous intellectual confrontation between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard took place in Western intellectual life. Historians of philosophy and medieval culture tend to consider it a significant achievement, a leap to a new level of reflection. And indeed it was, considering that in this dispute Bernard represented the traditional "monastic" views, while Abelard, in his interpretation of religious matters and Scripture, relied on Aristotle’s dialectic and logic. Today, we would call this a dispute between theological and scientific knowledge, but if we define the scale of this intellectual confrontation not in the framework of only Latin West but in the context of the global, that is, Mediterranean during that era knowledge: we will find that Abelard's foundation was rather modest. He could only read a small excerpt from Aristotle, a short treatise by Porphyry on universals, and the works of Boethius. Peter Abelard died in 1142, condemned by the Church as a heretic.

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Islamic science in the West

At that time, Ibn Rushd, known in the Latin tradition as Averroes, who would become an influential thinker, was only sixteen years old. He was about to create works that would serve as the main ferment of Western philosophical reflection for several centuries. However, Ibn Rushd did not work in emptiness and did not seek to restore forgotten wisdom like his northern colleagues. He had the opportunity to move forward and make a powerful leap precisely because he had a solid foundation to rely on. Let's talk about three names among his great predecessors. In the tenth century, al-Farabi, known as the "second teacher (after Aristotle)", wrote numerous works, including commentaries on Aristotle and Plato as well as works on logic and philosophy. In the late tenth to eleventh centuries, Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna in the Latin world, created a philosophical encyclopedia and two medical works: The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine, which integrated medicine and philosophy based on the logic of Aristotle and neoplatonism. Ibn Sina understood medicine as an intellectual discipline. Another hundred years later, the theologian al-Ghazali, among other things, composed two volumes that can be considered encyclopedic analyses of philosophy. The works of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and al-Ghazali are recognized as part of the heritage of humanity. And these are only the brightest stars in the sky of medieval Muslim thought, names that are more or less known to the modern reader.

However, it was more challenging for medieval Europeans to compete in this sphere. In addition to religious obstacles that cast doubt on the usefulness of studying the achievements of non-believers, Latin Europeans could not obtain the latest information even from books because these were written in Arabic and were not reaching the West. And, of course, they didn't have Google or Wikipedia. The only thing that could alleviate the paucity of information was translations. But where would one find translators? In the twelfth century, Spain became the pan-European hub for translations from Arabic, and by the thirteenth century, Toledo was the most renowned center.

It was in Toledo that the works of Avicenna were translated, and his work became the first Arabic philosophical text to reach Latin readers, exerting a defining influence on European thought. Translations were carried out gradually during that time because of the reverence for language as a sacred instrument; it was not possible to translate directly from Arabic to Latin. So first, the Jew Ibn Daud (who may have converted to Christianity at some point) translated Avicenna's Persian text into Old Castilian. Then, the Christian Dominic Gundisalvo and his assistants translated Avicenna from Old Castilian into Latin, the language of science. The significance of this effort, which required the collaborative efforts of scholars from different religious backgrounds, cannot be overestimated.

Avicenna had a deep knowledge of both Aristotle and Plato’s work, and he became the first source of current and advanced philosophical thought for the West, which had not yet fully discovered the translations of Aristotle. Subsequently, the influence of Muslim thought in Europe became undeniable and acquired crucial cultural traits. Avicenna introduced the West to reason in its secular understanding, that is, to science, and endowed it with rationality that was applied for the first time to monotheistic religion. The fascination with Muslim scholarship in the thirteenth century was particularly prominent in Spain and southern Italy, where Christians and Muslims coexisted. The representatives of Muslim culture and knowledge who were exposed to information from primary sources and were often educated by renowned teachers from the East lived there. The unified Islamic world, in this sense, was universal, bringing together scholars from Bukhara, Damascus, Cairo, and Cordoba. Enlightened Christian monarchs such as Frederick II and Manfred, and Alfonso X, were convinced of the superiority of Muslim knowledge and delved into scientific pursuits themselves. They invited translators from all corners of Europe, many of whom had a chance to also study in the East or in al-Andalus. Many monarchs ordered translations on astronomy, meteorology, mathematics, history, and more. Over the course of one and a half centuries, hundreds of Arabic works in various fields of knowledge were translated.

It was during this time that the first impressive royal libraries began to form in southern Europe, with books being sought and purchased from across the enlightened world. Compared to Muslim book collections, they were modest, of course, but by Latin standards, they were an extraordinary achievement and worthy of admiration. From southern Europe, the "trend" of Muslim intellectualism quickly reached the University of Paris, which, from the mid-thirteenth century, became the leading university in the West for theology and philosophy. The scholarly studies of the University of Paris in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries present a picture of the unchallenged triumph of the "Arab" model.

Modern scholars believe that there was not a single theological treatise or philosophical commentary that did not unfold within the intellectual framework set out by the "Arabic" interpretation of Aristotle. Moreover, due to the interconnectedness of all scientific knowledge at that time in these two areas of human thought, European scholars turned to al-Farabi or Avicenna whenever they sought to draw a comprehensive picture of the sciences, determine the object and its relationships, or engage in purely scientific research in the fields of physics, alchemy, astrology, optics, and so on. Their methods of understanding were also borrowed from the Muslims. The subject of optics serves as a good example in this regard. Medieval authors such as Witelo (circa 1250–75), Roger Bacon (circa 1214–92), Dietrich of Freiberg (circa 1250–1310), or John Pecham (circa 1230–92) relied on Alhazen's "perspective". Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039; Latinized as Alhazen) lived 200 years before these authors; he was a renowned mathematician, mechanic, and astronomer who critically reworked the ancient legacy of Galeno, Plato, and Euclid and relied on his own empirical knowledge and mathematical calculations. Latin optical knowledge would have been impossible without the Arab contribution.

Raymond Lull (1235–1315), born in Majorca, was a great scholar of Scripture and a unique philosopher, poet, courtier, traveler, and tireless missionary. He was fluent in Arabic, wrote in Latin and Old Catalan, and studied not only the usual subjects but medicine and Sufism as well. Raymond visited Paris and delivered lectures there. According to his beliefs, the university at that time was dominated by Averroists who had a superficial knowledge of Aristotle and freely interpreted Averroes himself, but their way of thinking was shaped by these two authorities.

 An imagined debate between Averroes (left) and the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry. Spanish miniature. fourteenth century /Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

An imagined debate between Averroes (left) and the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry. Spanish miniature. fourteenth century /Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Ibn Rushd

Ibn Rushd, born in Cordoba (1126–1198) into a family of lawyers, received a remarkable education. According to his biographers, he delved not only into the legal and theological sciences, which was customary, but he also studied medicine and ancient Greek philosophy. In 1153, he was in Marrakesh, where he was presented to the caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf. Legend has it that at first, Ibn Rushd was hesitant to reveal his profound knowledge of Greek philosophy, but once the caliph freely spoke about Plato and Aristotle, Ibn Rushd decided to express himself and made a very favorable impression on the ruler.

It is important to note that Ibn Rushd, whose reputation as a philosopher overshadowed everything else for future generations, was also an outstanding legal scholar of his time. In 1169, he became a judge in Seville, and two years later, he returned to Cordoba as a qadi (judge). With his fundamental legal training, he studied various religious and legal schools, their foundations, and their internal logic. Thus, his approach to philosophical studies and subjects was from the perspective of a lawyer. Ibn Rushd had the characteristic of independently and deeply interpreting both philosophical and doctrinal legal themes, relying on his scholarly erudition and vast experience in judicial and political practice.

Ibn Rushd is best known in Europe for his commentary on Aristotle. Interestingly, not many of his own works have survived, and most of them are known through translations into Hebrew and Latin. Prior to Ibn Rushd, the Muslim philosophical perception of Aristotle was mostly based on neoplatonic traditions. One of Ibn Rushd's greatest contributions was the discovery of the authentic Aristotle and the transmission of his ideas to Europe.

In one of his treatises on philosophy and theology called The Harmony between Faith and Philosophy, Ibn Rushd expressed a belief in the truthfulness of both philosophical knowledge and divine scripture. He insisted on the importance of an engaged and active role for a philosopher, capable of explaining the tenets of faith and thus assisting people. The Cordoban was confident in the elevated role assigned by God to religion in society and systems of governance, considering it preferable (with philosophical contemplation) compared to a religion solely based on reason. The concept of harmonious coexistence between philosophy and faith found consistent reflection in the polemical treatise The Incoherence of the Incoherence, which he wrote in response to al-Ghazali's work The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Further, Ibn Rushd left behind works on medicine, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, and politics. In the thirteenth century, thanks to translations into Hebrew and Latin undertaken in Spain, his ideas were embraced by European scholars and had a significant influence on the entire Latin scholastic tradition. Both Albertus Magnus and Thomas AquinasiBoth were European philosophers and theologians of the 13th century. They were the founders of scholasticism - a philosophical doctrine concerning the methods of understanding the world and God. The scholastics attempted to reconcile the reason and strict logic on one hand, and faith in God on the other. extensively borrowed from the writings of Averroes, although they became acquainted with his ideas and methods through the work of the equally famous Spanish-Jewish sage Moses Maimonides.

Medieval Muslim scholars, owing to their meticulous approach to manuscripts, translation efforts, and commentary work, and their desire to comprehend the diverse world created by God for practical purposes such as medicine, cartography, or chemistry, not only preserved the knowledge accumulated in antiquity but also made numerous discoveries. They created new directions in science and elevated scientific methods of understanding to a fundamentally new level.

To demonstrate just how vividly European science owes its foundation to the Muslims, it is sufficient to mention that until the thirteenth century, Europeans preferred to use Roman numerals, although they were aware of the existence of Arabic ones. It was only after the publication of Book of Abacus (1202) by Fibonacci (who studied mathematics in North Africa) that the West gradually adopted the Arabic numeral system, which is sometimes referred to as Indo-Arabic since Persians and Arabs themselves borrowed it from India. Along with the digits, new Arabic-origin words entered European languages: 'chiffre' in French, 'ziffer' in German, and 'cipher' in English. In addition, the French and English words for zero were derived from the Arabic word 'sifr', which means 'empty'. 'Sifr' denoted a symbol used to indicate that a particular position in a place value (units, tens, hundreds, et cetera) was unfilled. Initially, many did not use the digit for zero; it seemed redundant, and they simply left the zero position empty. The word that denoted the absence of a digit but the determination of a place value, zero (sifr), began to be used in a collective sense. Needless to say that with the Roman numeral system Alan Turing would have had no chance whatsoever. 11Alan Turing (1912–1954) was an English mathematician, logician, and cryptographer. He made significant contributions to the development of the first computers through his research. During World War II, Turing created a system for breaking the German Enigma cipher. The story of his achievements is depicted in the biographical film "The Imitation Game," with Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Turing.

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What medieval maps tell us

By the fifteenth century, the West had overcome the consequences of the cultural and intellectual gap of the early Middle Ages. This was primarily manifested in the developed infrastructure for knowledge reproduction, including urban schools, universities, libraries (both public and private), and an increase in the number of literate and reading audiences. Europe stood on the threshold of the Great Discoveries, ready to change the world, and was in acute need of a precisely calibrated worldview. It is not surprising that it was during this time that famous masterpieces of cartography, which were true works of art, were created in the West. However, their main purpose, describing the world, still belonged to science. And once again, the invaluable experience accumulated by Muslims proved crucial.

Geographers and astronomers, translators, cartographers, seafarers, and pilots from the Muslim world created an enormous body of scientific texts, local and world maps, and practical guides by the end of the Middle Ages. They began in the ninth century, as always, with the study of the ancient intellectual legacies, primarily through translations of the works of the Alexandrian astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the second century CE. Ptolemy's Geographical Guide was preserved in Europe in the Greek listings but was only discovered in the thirteenth century by the Byzantine scholar Maximus Planudes. The Geographical Guide reached the Latin scholarly world even later, and the coordinate principles he proposed were not applied by Latin cartographers for a long time. It was through the Arabs that Latin cartographers became interested in Ptolemy's works. The first Latin translations of Ptolemy's works were made at the end of the twelfth century, specifically from Arabic texts, but they focused on his famous work on astronomy, which in the Latin tradition was titled ‘Almagest’. Astronomy and the associated mathematical calculations used in navigation were certainly fundamentally important, but they did not provide a comprehensive understanding of geography. The first maps of the world based on Ptolemy's proposed coordinate principles were created by Europeans only in the fifteenth century.

It should be noted that we are talking about the ability of a culture to describe the space in which it exists, and to define its boundaries, parts, the relationship between them, and the distances between important points in that space. Of course, world maps were quite different from local maps or the portolan charts used in navigation. Portolan charts depicted coastlines with detailed descriptions of ports suitable for anchoring ships, bays, river mouths, capes, and gulfs. However, there was minimal information about the interior territories on portolan charts. World maps were not needed for navigation, maritime trade, or naval warfare. They reflected the state of knowledge about the universe, one's place in this universe, laid out on a plane surface and expressed in a spatial and visual format. This is important to emphasize because many ancient 'maps' existed in the textual form. Along with the accumulated knowledge about the world, world maps embodied the ambitions of the Europeans and shaped their perceptions of what was possible.

It is not a coincidence that one of the most famous medieval world maps, which took into account the practical experience of sailors and travelers and, finally, utilized Ptolemaic longitudes and latitudes, was the map of the world created in the mid-fifteenth century by Fra Mauro, who was Venetian. Fra Mauro worked on the orders of King Afonso V of Portugal and relied on reports from his contemporaries, the accounts of European travelers such as Marco Polo and Niccolò de' Conti. Additionally, the cartographer was well acquainted with translations of geographical treatises from Arabic and the map created by the Muslim cartographer al-Idrisi in the twelfth century by the order of Roger II, the ruler of Sicily. It is fundamentally important to note that Venice in the fifteenth century was a powerful maritime state in the Mediterranean, while Portugal was exploring new lands beyond the Mediterranean and aspired to become a superpower with vast African colonies and access to the lucrative markets of India.

King Alfonso X the Wise. Spanish miniature of the 13th century / Wikimedia Commons

King Alfonso X the Wise. Spanish miniature of the 13th century / Wikimedia Commons

The knowledge preserved and expanded by Muslims was assimilated by Europeans from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Initially, primarily in Toledo, Naples, and Paris, they translated and interpreted the Arabic heritage created by Persians, Syrians, Arabs, and Spanish Muslims. Later, Europeans began to creatively reinterpret and create something new based on that foundation. Muslim wisdom throughout the entire Middle Ages, which was the formative and self-aware age of Western European civilization, was a treasure trove of knowledge, a source of inspiration, and a mirror for Latin scholars.