It's an almost universal wisdom in modern literature that Islam, out of its love for knowledge and creatvity, created a great, advanced civilization---the so-called Islamic 'Golden Age'. But in reality, it was founded on pre-Islamic Greek and Eastern acquisitions in knowledge and innovations. Moreover, Islam played a significant role in the destruction of classical learning...
It is a widely-held belief, and so it is stated in one authoritative publication after another, that Islam experienced a Golden Age in the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. During this period, it is held, Muslim scholars contemplated the mysteries of the universe: they mapped the earth and the stars; they evolved new mathematical systems; they wrote advanced treatises on subjects as diverse as medicine and philosophy; and they raised architectural masterpieces, palaces and places of worship that had no peer in the savage world of contemporary Europe.
Presiding over this flowering of science and arts were semi-legendary Caliphs such as Harun al-Rashid (for whom was composed Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights) in a vast and fabulously wealthy Baghdad, then the home to an estimated one million souls. Contemporary Cordoba, the capital of Al-Andalus, was said to compare with Baghdad in terms of wealth, and was home, apparently, to half a million. No city of Christian Europe, it is said, had at that time more than 50,000 people.
Indeed, it was to Islam and the Islamic world, we are told, that the benighted peoples of Europe owed the revival of their own civilization: For it was Islamic scholars who, displaying a respect for learning entirely absent amongst Europeans, preserved the masterpieces of the Classical world, and had subsequently transmitted them again to Europe as soon as the natives of that continent were willing or able to appreciate and value them. And, so the story goes, Islam remained culturally and materially superior to Europe until the whole edifice was destroyed by the barbarians of Europe (Crusaders) and the barbarians of Central Asia, the Mongols.
That, at least, is the story now told in almost all learned publications. The importance of the topic, from an ideological point of view, can be gauged by the enormous Wikipedia web-page titled “Islamic Science,” replete with hundreds of references, which has recently appeared on the Internet. The story told above is essentially that appearing in the Wikipedia page. It is a version of history which is not, one might be surprised to learn, the product of our modern politically-correct age. Indeed, the notion of an advanced and cultured Islam, contrasted with a benighted and primitive Europe during the seventh to eleventh centuries, is one that has a long pedigree. The germs of it are found in Gibbon, but it owes its origin to the notion of a European Dark Age produced by the Germanic Barbarians bringing the Western Empire, as well as western civilization, to an end in the fifth century. Before Henri Pirenne, this notion went unchallenged, and led, eventually, to a whole genre of literature which virtually accredited Islam with the saving of western civilization. In the early years of the twentieth century, one of the most outspoken exponents of this view was Robert Briffault, who likewise viewed the Germanic peoples as incorrigible savages. Typical of Briffault’s utterances is the following: "It was under the influence of the Arabian and Moorish revival of culture, and not in the fifteenth century, that the real Renaissance took place. Spain, not Italy, was the cradle of the rebirth of Europe. After steadily sinking lower and lower into barbarism, it [Europe] had reached the darkest depths of ignorance and degradation when the cities of the Saracenic world, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, Toledo, were growing centres of civilization and intellectual activity" (Briffault, The Making of Humanity, 1920, p. 188-89). He added, "It is highly probable that but for the Arabs modern European civilization would not have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed the character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution" (p. 190).
To support these assertions, Briffault provided a list of “Arab” inventions and innovations, as well as new technologies and methods introduced to Europe from, or at least through, the Arab world.
That Europe, from the eleventh century onwards, did learn much from the Arab or Muslim world, is beyond doubt. There is no question also that the early Islamic world was fabulously wealthy. How could it be otherwise, when it conquered and, within a very short time, controlled virtually all of the ancient centres of culture and population of the Near East? By circa 650, Islamic armies had subdued everything from Egypt and Libya in the west, to Persia and Afghanistan in the east. The wealth, and learning, of those regions, including the enormous population centres, with their libraries and universities, were all now at the disposal of Muslim rulers. As well as the actual plunder accrued in a successful war of conquest, the Muslims imposed heavy taxes upon the natives who refused to convert to Islam, whilst the treasures of ancient and venerable churches were more often than not simply looted. This was usually disguised as an act of religious piety, since church treasures were frequently in the form of statues or gold-covered images—i.e, idols, which it was the sacred duty of Muslims to destroy. In Egypt, even the tombs of pharaohnic times were plundered (Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe, p. 90). In addition, the Muslims discovered new sources of gold and silver. In Khorasan, to the east of Persia, and in Transoxiana beyond it, between Kashmir and the Aral Sea, “vast mines of silver” were discovered, whilst the Arab conquest of Nubia, to the south of Egypt, opened the gold mines of that region to their use (Trevor-Roper, p. 90). And these new sources of wealth were of such richness that they could scarcely have done else than produce an epoch of prosperity.
For a while, some Muslim rulers did patronize what have been called "universities" and other seats of learning. Scientific and philosophic treatises were indeed composed, and there is no doubt that Arab, or at least Arabic-speaking scholars were in possession of many Classical texts not generally available in Europe. There is no doubt also that these men made important contributions, in various areas of scientific and scholarly endeavor. In addition, the Arabs, or rather the Arab rulers of the Near East (for the great majority of the population remained non-Arab in language and non-Muslim in religion for several centuries after the conquest), learnt the secrets of paper-making, printing, the compass, and various other crucial technologies from the Chinese between the eighth and eleventh centuries, which technologies they utilized and eventually (inadvertently) spread to Europe.
But what of the argument that Islam encouraged the arts and sciences? Here, the Islamophiles are on much shakier ground. The Arabs who emerged from Arabia with Caliph Umar were mostly illiterate nomads, whose knowledge of what we call science was non-existent. Like all barbarians, they were of course impressed, to begin with at least, by the advanced and civilized cultures which they overran. Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia were ancient civilizations with unique attributes. Each had long-established universities, libraries and traditions of learning. When the Arabs conquered these regions there is evidence that they permitted these institutions, for a short time at least, to continue. Furthermore, these nations, and Persia in particular, were conduits through which flowed new ideas and techniques from the great civilizations of the Far East, from India and China. Much, indeed most, of the new technologies and methods that medieval Europeans learned from the Arabs, were not Arab or even Near Eastern at all, but Chinese and Indian. Europeans used the Arabic names for these things (such as “zero” from the Arabic zirr), because it was from Arab sources that they learned them. But they were not Arab.
This is, in fact, the case with the great majority of the “Arab” learning outlined by such enthusiasts as Briffault. The claim, for example, that the Arabs discovered the distillation of alcohol, which Briffault makes, is quite simply false. Alcohol had been distilled in Babylonia prior to the Arab conquest. Under the Arabs, distillation techniques were improved; but they did not invent distillation. Again, the claim that the Persian Al-Khwarizmi invented algebra is untrue; and it is now widely admitted that the Greek mathematician Diophantes, building on the knowledge of the Babylonians, was the first to outline the principles (in his Arithmetica) of what we now call algebra. Al-Khwarizmi did make a number of important innovations, such as the quadratic equation and the introduction of the decenary numerical system from India, but in many other respects his work was not as advanced as that of Diophantes. Furthermore, he clearly owed much to the fifth century Indian mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata, whose 121-verse Aryabhatiya expostulated on astronomy, arithmetic, gemoetry, algebra, trigonometry, methods of determining the movements of the planets and descriptions of their movements, as well as methods of calculating the movements of the sun and moon and predicting their exclipses. And we note too that Aryabhata was manifestly the source of the astonomical ideas attributed to Al-Zarkyal and Al-Farani, which Briffault places such store in.
There is another important consideration to remember: Whilst “Arab” scientists and philosophers of this time used Arab names and wrote in Arabic, the great majority of them were not Arabs or Muslims at all, but Christians and Jews who worked under Arab regimes. The Saracen armies, which conquered the Near East in the seventh century, imposed their faith and their language in the corridors of power; and the subdued peoples were forced to learn it. At no time, not even at the beginning, did genuine Arabs and Muslims show much interest in science and scholarship. Aristotle’s work was preserved in Arabic not initially by Muslims at all, but by Christians such as the fifth century priest Probus of Antioch, who introduced Aristotle to the Arabic-speaking world. In fact, during the eighth and ninth centuries, "the whole corpus of Greek scientific and philosophical learning was translated into Arabic, mainly by Nestorian Christians" (James Thompson and Edgar Johnson, Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500, p. 175). We know that “Schools, often headed by Christians, were … established in connection with mosques” (Thompson and Johnson, p. 176). The leading figure in the Baghdad school was the Christian Huneyn ibn Ishaq (809-873), who translated many works of Aristotle, Galen, Plato and Hippocrates into Syriac. His son then translated them into Arabic. The Syrian Christian Yahya ibn ‘Adi (893-974) also translated works of philosophy into Arabic, and wrote one of his own, The Reformation of Morals. Throughout the Muslim world, it was Christians and Jews (especially the latter), who did almost all the scientific research and enquiry at this time. And there is much evidence to suggest that the efforts of these scholars were often viewed by their Muslim masters with the deepest suspicion. Certainly there was not the encouragement to learning, much less to new research, that is so frequently boasted.
Even the limited number of “Arab” scholars, who were not Jews and Christians, were rarely Arabs. We are told that Al-Kindi was “one of the few pure Arabs to achieve intellectual distinction” (Thompson and Johnson, p. 178). More often than not, they were actually Persians. This was the case, as we saw, with the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, and also with the great philosopher Avicenna, among many others. The Persian origin of so much “Arab” learning reminds us again that a great deal of what has been attributed to the Arabs was, in reality, Persian, and that, prior to the Islamization of Persia in the seventh century, the country had, under the Sassanids, been a cultural and intellectual crossroads, bringing together the latest mathematics from India, the latest technology from China, and the latest philosophy from Byzantium; and making important contributions to all of these herself.
Having said that, there is no question that for a short time (extremely short indeed: just how short I will reveal in a future article), the Arabs did permit research. That most of this research was not carried out by real Arabs is almost beside the point. At this stage, Islam did at least permit learning and research. But then again what kind of learning was it, and what was its purpose? Even Briffault admits that the early Arabs, those supposedly imbued with an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge, had little or no interest in the histories and cultures of the great civilizations they conquered. The truth of this is demonstrated in the fact that by the eighth century Arab writers had no idea who constructed the Great Pyramid or indeed any of the monuments of Egypt. Yet this knowledge had been widely available in the writings of such Classical authors as Herodotus and Diodorus, whose works were preserved in the great libraries of Egypt and Babylonia. Take for example the comments of Ibn Jubayr, who worked as a secretary to the Moorish governor of Granada and visited Cairo in 1182. He commented on "the ancient pyramids, of miraculous construction and wonderful to look upon, [which looked] like huge pavilions rearing to the skies; two in particular shock the firmament …" He wondered whether they might be the tombs of early prophets mention in the Koran, or whether they were granaries of the biblical patriarch Joseph, but in the end came to the conclusion, "To be short, none but the Great and Glorious God can know their story." (Andrew Beattie, Cairo: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 50).
The complete ignorance of the Arabs in this regard strongly suggests that they did (as Christian polemicists for centuries argued), indeed, destroy much Classical literature—at least those of no practical or utilitarian import. In Persia too, the newly-converted Muslims quickly lost track of their own inheritance. By the time of poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam (11–12th century), the natives of the country had forgotten almost everything about their illustrious history. Thus the ancient city of Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid kings Darius I and Xerxes, was believed by the poet to have been built by the genie king, Jamshid; and the same daemon was credited by him with raising the pyramids of Egypt. Islamic chroniclers in Egypt itself had their own mythical figures and genie-kings to whom they attributed the erection of the pyramids. Such was their regard from the literature of the classical age and for the critical method!Within a short time, worse was to follow. Muslim rulers began to systematically plunder the ancient monuments of Egypt; and from the very beginning of Islamic rule in that country, an official department existed whose purpose was the location and despoliation of pharaohnic tombs. The larger monuments were plundered for their cut-stone. Saladin, the Muslim hero, lionized in so much politically-correct literature and art, began the process by the exploitation of the Giza monuments. From these, he constructed the citadel at Cairo (between 1193 and 1198). His son and successor, Al-Aziz Uthman, went further to make a determined effort to demolish the Great Pyramid itself (Andrew Beattie, Cairo: A Cultural History, p. 50). He succeeded in stripping the outer casing of smooth limestone blocks from the structure (covered with historically invaluable inscriptions), but eventually cancelled the project owing to its cost.
And that attitude to learning was displayed in the treatment meted out to two of the biggest luminaries of Muslim Spain, Averroes and Maimonides. Despite being an Islamic judge, Averroes’ books were burnt and he was banished, forcing him to emigrate to Morocco (in 1195) where he died in 1198. Maimonides in his turn had to flee in order to escape Almohad persecution. He was to state that "the Arabs have persecuted us [Jews] severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us ... Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they." Jews could teach rabbinic law to Christians, but Muslims, he said, will interpret what they are taught "according to their erroneous principles and they will oppress us. [F]or this reason ... they hate all [non-Muslims] who live among them." But the Christians "admit that the text of the Torah, such as we have it, is intact."All of this makes us wonder whether, as Fjordman says, “Arab science” was little other than the final afterglow of Hellenistic and Persian/Babylonian learning, a learning which the Arabs systematically destroyed very shortly after the conquest of the Near East. The present writer agrees with Fjordman’s analysis. As I have argued in detail in my book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, the period of time, during which the Arabs actually permitted some of the old learning to survive was short, very much shorter than imagined even by Fjordman. For he, along with all historians up till now, accepts that the Islamic Golden Age—the three centuries of glory that supposedly marked the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, were real. However, as I show in the above volume, the three centuries in question – namely the mid-seventh to mid-tenth, have virtually no archaeological confirmation. Thus of the supposedly splendid Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid, with its reputed million inhabitants, not a trace, not a brick or inscription, has been found. And contemporary Cordoba in Spain, reputedly home to half a million souls, is equally lacking in archaeology.
The non-appearance of the Islamic Golden Age in the archaeological record finds a strange confirmation in written history, which shows, consistently, that the real Arab cultural impact upon Europe only commences in the latter half of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh centuries. What then does all this mean? Answers shall be forthcoming in future articles.
John J. O’Neill is the author of Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization (Felibri Publications, August 2009).