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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 16   16-29 February 2012

Western Civilization’s Islamic Legacy

Professor A. R. Momin

The wide-ranging and enduring contribution of Islamic civilization to the West, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy, architecture, language and arts, has been amply documented and widely acknowledged by Western historians. The eminent British historian J. M. Roberts describes Western civilization’s debt to Islam in the following words: “…..to no other civilization did Europe owe so much in the Middle Ages as to Islam” (The Penguin History of Europe, 1996, p. 181).

A significant feature of the contribution of Islamic civilization to the West in particular and to the onward march of humanity in general is its role as an intermediary and interlocutor between different cultures and traditions and as a synthesiser, catalyst and disseminator. When Muslims came in contact with the legacy of the ancients, including Greek science and philosophy, Indian mathematics and medicine, Egyptian and Roman technology and Persian literary sensibility and political wisdom, they critically sifted it, imbibed its spirit and added to it their own reflections, researches and innovations and raised the level of knowledge in wide-ranging fields to unprecedented heights. Furthermore, they did not keep the fruits of their labour to themselves but made them available to large parts of the world.

It has widely been recognised that one of the most important contributions of Muslims to Western civilization was the transmission of the scientific and philosophical legacy of the ancient world to medieval Europe. A movement for the globalisation of science, medicine and philosophy was set in motion in the Islamic world in the eighth century. This movement was marked by extensive translations of scientific, medical and philosophical works from ancient Rome, India, Persia and Egypt, a creative synthesis of the researches of Muslim scholars and scientists and those of the ancients, the establishment of scientific institutions, the employment of Arabic as the lingua franca of scientific communication, and the creation of a multiethnic, multi-religious community of scientists and scholars. Roger Bacon (d. 1293) acknowledged that almost all of Aristotle’s works were available only in Arabic translations and that without Arabic, Greek knowledge would have never reached Europe. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has remarked that “as leaders of innovative thought in that period in history, Muslim intellectuals were among the most committed globalisers of science and mathematics.”

Muslim mathematicians borrowed the decimal system from India around 750 AD. Al-Khwarizmi (d. 846) synthesised the Indian mathematical knowledge with his own original researches. In the middle of the 12th century, Robert Ketton, who was well versed in the Arabic language and Islamic sciences and had worked in the libraries of Toledo, translated the mathematical work of al-Khwarizmi into Latin, whereby Latin Europe was introduced to algebra and algorithm. The term algorithm was derived from al-Khwarizmi’s name while the term algebra was appropriated from the title of one of his books on the mathematical sciences. Leonardo Fibonacci (d. 1250), a Pisan mathematician who is considered one of the founders of modern mathematics, was deeply influenced by al-Khwarizmi and had translated his work on algebra and popularised Arabic numerals in Europe.

The main centres for the Latin translations of Arabic works on science and philosophy in the Middle Ages were Toledo and Norman Sicily. A number of European scientists and intellectuals, who played a key role in the scientific and cultural transformation of Europe and thereby paved the way for the Renaissance, were conversant with the Arabic language and Islamic sciences and some of them had received their education in the institutions of higher learning in Islamic lands. These included Gerbert (d. 1003), who later became Pope Sylvester, Constantine the African (d.1087), Alfred the Englishman (d. 13th century), Robert Ketton (d.1157), Gerard of Cremona (d.1187), Michael Scot (d.1235), Daniel de Morley (d.1210), Robertus Grosseteste (d.1253), Raymond Lull (d.1316) and Roger Bacon (d.1293). Gerard of Cremona translated more than 70 Arabic books into Latin. His translation of Avicenna’s Canon was used as a textbook in several European universities from the 12th to the 18th centuries and was printed more than 35 times in Europe.

From the 12th to the 17th century, the teaching and practice of medicine in Europe was heavily influenced by the works of al-Razi or Rhazes (d. 925), al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis (d. 1013) and Avicenna (d. 1037). One of the numerous printed editions of al-Zahrawi’s magnum opus al-Tasrif was published in Oxford in 1778. Almost all European writers on medicine and surgery from the 12th to the 18th century extensively quoted from al-Tasrif, which remained a standard textbook in surgery in all leading European universities until the 18th century. Many of the founding fathers of modern science and medicine, including Gabriel Fallopius (d. 1562), William Harvey (d. 1657) and Andreas Vesalius (d. 1564), drew upon the works of Rhazes, al-Zahrawi and Avicenna. Vesalius’s Latin text of anatomical tables contained a large number of Arabic terms.

More than a thousand years ago, Al-Zahrawi diagnosed and treated many diseases, which came to be confirmed in later centuries. He described what later came to be known as “Kocher’s method” for treating a dislocated shoulder, and the “Walcher position” in obstetrics. He described the method of ligaturing blood vessels almost six centuries before the French surgeon Ambroise Pare (1510-1590). He described turberculosis of the spine, which is now known as Pott’s disease (named after the English physician Percivall Pott, 1714-1788). He prescribed mastectomy for breast cancer. Al-Zahrawi described, for the first time in medical history, a genetic disease transmitted by an unaffected woman to her male children, which is today known as haemophilia. Al-Zahrawi described families whose male members died of bleeding only after minor traumas. The first modern description of haemophilia was made by an American physician, Dr John Conrad Otto, in 1803. Al-Zahrawi advised the use of catgut, a natural substance that is capable of dissolving and is acceptable by the body, which is still used in modern surgical procedures. He was the first to use silk sutures to close wounds.

For nearly five centuries, from the 11th to the 16th, Al-Zahrawi’s work on surgery had a profound impact on European physicians and surgeons. The celebrated French surgeon Guy de Chauliac (d. 1368) made repeated references to Al-Zahrawi in his writings and even appended the Latin translation of his surgical treatise to his book Chirurgia magna. Al-Zahrawi was hailed by the eminent Italian surgeon Pietro Argellata (d. 1423) as “the chief of all surgeons”. The renowned French surgeon Jaques Delchamps (d. 1588) made frequent references to Al-Zahrawi’s work in his writings. Almost all European writers of surgery in the Middle Ages made extensive references to Al-Zahrawi’s work and drew upon his clinical insights and surgical innovations. Al-Zahrawi’s surgical treatise remained a standard textbook on the subject in all leading European universities from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The renowned historian of science George Sarton has remarked, in his monumental An Introduction to the History of Science, that no single book, other than Al-Tasrif, influenced and revolutionised the art of surgery from the 11th to the 14th century (Vol. 1, pp. 338; see also A. J. Hayes: The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1983, p. 200).

A significant aspect of Al-Zahrawi’s multifaceted contributions to medicine and surgery relates to the diagnosis and treatment of women’s problems and diseases. He instructed and trained midwives and wrote a section on midwifery in Al-Tasrif. Some of the clinical and surgical devices and instruments designed by him were meant to be used for women.

Gynaecological matters are often mentioned in medieval surgical tracts written by Muslim physicians, even though it is unlikely, considering the religious and moral norms and social mores of earlier times, that those physicians and surgeons dealt, directly or personally, with such cases. Al-Zahrawi, for example, noted in connection with lithotomy in a woman:

    The treatment is indeed difficult and is hindered by a number of things. One is that the woman may be a virgin. Another is that you will not find a woman who will expose herself to a (male) doctor if she be chaste or married. A third is that you will not find a woman competent in this art, particularly not in surgery……..If necessity compels you to this kind of a case, you should take with you a competent woman doctor. As these are very uncommon, if you are without one, then seek a eunuch doctor as a colleague, or bring a midwife experienced in women’s ailments, or a woman to whom you may give some instruction in this art. Have her with you and bid her to do all that you may enjoin. (Albucasis (Abul Qasim) on Surgery and Instruments, Arabic text with English translation and commentary by M. S. Spink and G. L. Lewis, Berkeley, 1973, pp. 420-421).

Al-Tasrif contains more than 200 illustrations and drawings of clinical and surgical devices and instruments. These include scalpels, probe syringes, curettes, hooks, rods, specula, the surgical needle and forceps. These devices and instruments were meant to serve a wide variety of clinical and surgical purposes. A few years ago, a Spanish medical historian made replicas of the surgical devices and instruments designed by Al-Zahrawi and had them exhibited in a museum. They are now on display at the Museo Vivo de Al’Andalus, in Cordoba, Spain. I had visited the museum and seen these replicas in May 1998. Replicas of these instruments are also on display at Madinat al Hikmat, Hamdard University, Karachi.

Miller’s Anaesthesia, a standard textbook on the subject, notes that in the Middle Ages the concept of inhalation to induce sedation before surgery with the use of the sleeping sponge, or spongia somnifera, was originated by Arab physicians and surgeons. With the Arab conquest of Sicily in the 9th century and the Latin translations of Arabic medical books that followed, Arabic medicine, including the sophorific sponge, took hold in southern Italy. From there it spread to other parts of Europe and was fairly widely used in the Middle Ages (Miller’s Anaesthesia, edited by Ronald D. Miller. 7th edition, Philadelphia, 2010, pp. 50-51).

Original and highly significant contributions to anaesthesiology were made by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (865-925) and Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037), who was Al-Zahrawi’s contemporary. Al-Razi described the pupillary reaction to light and the laryngeal branch of the recurrent laryngeal nerve. He was the first physician to have used anaesthetic sponges in surgical procedures. Ibn Sina enumerated several agents that alleviate pain in general and in the course of clinical and surgical procedures in particular, such as opium, henbane and mandrake. In his Canon of Medicine, Ibn Sina advocated oral intubation. He advised the use of the soporific sponge, which was a sponge soaked in aromatics, soporifics and narcotics and held to the patient’s nose. In all probability, Al-Zahrawi was aware of the use and efficacy of anaesthetic substances during surgical procedures (F. S. Haddad, ‘The spongia somnifera’ Middle East Journal of Anaesthesiology, 17: 321-27 (2003); F. S. Haddad, ‘Ibn Sina (Avicenna) advocated orotracheal intubation 1000 years ago: Documentation of Arabic and Latin originals’ Middle East Journal of Anaesthesiology, 17: 155-62 (2000); A. Baraka, ‘The contribution of Arabs to medicine’ Middle East Journal of Anaesthesiology, 15: 353-59 (2000).

The philosophical works of Averroes (d. 1198) and Avicenna, which were replete with references to the ideas of Greek philosophers, were translated into Latin by Jewish writers and scholars in the 12th and 13th centuries, whereby Christian theologians in medieval Europe became acquainted with Greek thought. St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who is regarded as one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages, came to know of Aristotle’s ideas through the Latin translations of the commentaries of Averroes, Avicenna and Alfarabius on the Greek master’s works. Thomas integrated and synthesises the ideas of Averroes and Avicenna in his system of theology. Raphael, the celebrated Renaissance painter, acknowledged the debt of Western philosophy to Averroes by placing him, in his famous painting ‘School of Athens’, among the masters of Hellenic thought.

Muslim scientists and engineers made a significant contribution to technology and engineering in medieval Europe. They introduced new hydraulic and water management techniques, including the technique of irrigation in the form of acequias in medieval Spain, which made possible the cultivation of crops, fruits and vegetables and the pasturing of animals on parched and dry lands. Muslims from North Africa who settled in Sicily introduced the cultivation of lemons and oranges, mulberries and silk worms, cotton and sugarcane and thereby enriched the region’s agriculture.

The water harvesting and irrigation systems introduced by the Muslim rulers in Valencia and other regions of Islamic Spain filled them with orchards and rice fields. These systems are still followed in Valencia, and several words of Arabic origin relating to irrigation and water harvesting are used even today. A celebration in commemoration of the ‘Millennium of the Waters’ was held in Valencia in 1960. The celebrations marked the public recognition of the establishment of the irrigation system, and especially the Tribunal of Waters (Tribunal de las AquasI), introduced during the reign of Abd al-Rahman III in the 10th century, for the purpose of regulating the irrigation infrastructure in the fields. The Tribunal of Waters continues to be in use for settling local disputes relating to irrigation. It meets every Thursday at noon outside the Valencia cathedral for the purpose. The Tribunal is perhaps Europe’s oldest democratic institution which has been continually functioning for the past one thousand years. It has been recognised by UNESCO as a cultural heritage.

The astrolabe, a well-known astronomical instrument of the Middle Ages used for making precise astronomical and navigational measurements, was originally invented by the Greeks but perfected by Muslim scientists and astronomers. It reached Europe via Andalusia and continued to be used for nautical observations in the West until the 17th century. Chaucer (d. 1400), the first great English poet of the Middle Ages, drew on the works of Muslim astronomers in his famous work Treatise on the Astrolabe.

Muslims played a highly significant role in the development and dissemination of the technology of papermaking. They learned the technology of papermaking from the Chinese, who had invented paper around the second century AD, in the eighth century, added significant innovations to it and disseminated it across large parts of Europe and Asia. The first paper factory in Europe was established in the Andalusian city of Jativa in 1150, whence the technology of papermaking passed into Italy and subsequently into other parts of Europe. Before the 13th century paper was brought to European cities from Andalusia, Sicily and Morocco. Interestingly, the earliest European document written on paper is a deed of Sicily’s King Roger II, inscribed in Arabic and Greek.

As early as the 11th century, ceramic bowls and decorative objects made from rock crystal in Islamic lands began to arrive in Italy and other European countries. They were often set into the facades of newly built churches. In Pisa, for example, hundreds of these ceramic artefacts—locally known as bacini—were used as decorative pieces in churches built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Ceramic objects brought from Islamic lands were also used as liturgical vessels and reliquaries.

Fine glassware, inlaid metalwork, fabrics, carpets and decorative objects manufactured in Islamic lands became highly popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. Brass incense burners made in Damascus were considered the epitome of luxury in Italy and other European countries. The golden lusterware produced in Islamic Malaga were highly prized in Italy, Holland and England. Muslim craftsmen developed a distinctive style of glass decoration, which was used on bottles, beakers, vases and other objects. Syrian glassware were highly popular in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries and were widely used in cathedrals, churches and abbeys.

Muslim craftsmen developed the technique of inlaying intricate designs in bronze, brass, wood, ivory, gold and silver. The technique of inlaying designs in metal objects, which came to be known as damascening (derived from Damascus) in Europe, was imitated by European artists and craftsmen. In the 15th century, many European artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, were influenced by arabesque designs and pattern-work developed in the Islamic world.

During the Middle Ages, luxurious fabrics and carpets were imported from Islamic lands to Europe on an extensive scale. The names of fine fabrics in English and other European languages betray their Islamic origins. Thus, a fine fabric known as damask in many European languages derived its nomenclature from Damascus, where it was manufactured on a large scale. A fabric known as fustian was imported from the city of Fustat in Egypt. Muslin, a fine silk fabric, was imported by Italian merchants from Mosul in Iraq. This fabric was used in the canopy suspended over the altar in many churches in medieval Europe. Fabrics manufactured in the Moorish city of Granada came to be known as grenadine in European shops. A delicate fabric known as taftah in Persia, where it was manufactured, was much in demand in Europe where it came to be known as taffeta. The fabrics of Baghdad were known as baudekin while those of Ghaza in Egypt came to be known as gauzes in Europe. In the 12th century, the Attabiya quarter of Baghdad was famous for the manufacture of a special silk fabric known as attabi silk. It was highly popular in France and Italy where it was known as tabis or tabby.

A variety of fabrics made by Muslim weavers and craftsmen, including moirés, crepes, chiffons, chamlets, karsies and radzimiris, were imported to Europe and were highly appreciated for their fine quality, vibrant colours, exquisite designs and intricate patterns. From the 12th to the 16th century, silk fabrics from Egypt, Andalusia, Persia and Turkey were used as vestments for the Christian Mass in Europe. They were also used as wrappings for holy relics in cathedral and church treasuries in France, Italy, Belgium and Holland. In medieval Europe, textiles with Arabic inscriptions—which are frequently encountered in early Renaissance paintings—were regarded as honorific objects. The robe of the Virgin Mary, for example, or the haloes of saints are shown to bear Arabic inscriptions. Some of the finest Mamluk textiles, which have been preserved in cathedral treasuries in many European countries, were used for the shrouds of European monarchs and for ecclesiastical vestments.

Carpets made in Egypt, Ottoman Turkey and Persia were in great demand in Europe. Some of the exquisite wool carpets from the Islamic world have survived in European churches and palaces. In the latter part of the 19th century, William Morris, the most influential figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe, drew considerable inspiration from the designs and motifs of oriental carpets and textiles.

Another area which bears the imprint of the creative genius of Muslim artists was music. Moorish Spain’s contribution to music was profound and far-reaching. Stringed musical instruments, which are characteristic of Arabic music, reached Europe during the Middle Ages, The names of several musical instruments in English and other European languages, including guitar, lute, rebec, tambourine and naker, have been derived from Arabic.

Arabic language and literature left a profound influence on European languages and literary sensibilities. Petrus Alfonsi, a Jewish convert to Christianity who was a product of Andalusia’s composite culture in the 12th century, introduced a form of writing that was influenced by Arabic and which had a deep and enduring impact on European fiction. Prominent European writers such as Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio were inspired by Alfonsi’s style. The transformation of many European languages from folk dialects into written languages owes much to the influence of Alfonsi.

King Alfonso X of Castile was a great connoisseur and patron of Arabic language and literature and Islamic sciences. At his instance, a number of Arabic works were translated into Castilian. He ordered the Latin and French translations of a previously existing Castilian text dealing with the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, which subsequently came to be known as ‘The Book of the Ladder.’ This version became highly popular and found its way into several European languages, including Latin, Italian and French. Asin Palacios has shown that Dante’s Divina Comedia was influenced by this Islamic legend. Antoine Galland’s French translation of the Arabian Nights in the early part of the 18th century had a profound influence on Western literary imagination. It influenced Germany’s greatest writer Goethe as well as English poets such as Byron and Wordsworth.

Dialectic of Conflict and Cooperation in Medieval Europe

The history of medieval Europe suggests that processes of conflict and cooperation, of peaceful coexistence and confrontation often overlapped and oscillated and frequently transcended religious and sectarian distinctions. Hostilities between Christian and Muslim rulers during the Middle Ages were often motivated by economic and political rather than religious factors. The process of cooperation between Christian and Muslim rulers was mediated and reinforced through military and political alliances, diplomatic missions, trade and commerce and exchange of gifts. The grandfather of John of Damascus played a key role in the capitulation of Damascus to Muslim forces in 635, which signalled the end of Byzantine rule in Syria. The arrival of Muslim forces in Damascus was welcomed by a significant portion of the Christian population.

The Spanish national hero, Rodrigo Diaz (popularly know by his Arabized name of Cid) fought on the side of Muslim armies against the Castilian monarch. From 1081 to 1086 he served as the military commandant of the Muslim kingdom of Saragossa and often launched attacks against Christian kingdoms. In 777, Charles, the King of Franks, was visited by Suleiman bin al-Arabi, the governor of Barcelona, Gerona and Saragossa, who sought his help in opposing the tyranny of the Emir of Cordoba. In 778 Suleiman defeated the emir’s troops with the assistance of the Frankish force.

There were frequent political and military alliances between Muslim and Christian rulers in medieval Europe. In 1174, William II of Sicily sent military reinforcements to the Fatimids to halt the advance of Saladin. The Norman king Frederick II concluded a pact of mutual assistance with Fakhr al-Din, envoy of the Ayyubid sultan of Cairo, al-Malik al-Kamil (1218-1238) in 1226. This pact had a positive effect on diplomatic relations between Egypt and the Holy Roman Empire. Persia’s Safavid dynasty forged an alliance with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century. In the same period, Venice sought diplomatic support from the czar of Moscow and the king of Persia.

The Ottoman rulers forged wide-ranging political and diplomatic alliances with the Christian rulers of Europe. Emperor Suleyman sent emissaries to Europe’s Protestant princes and offered them protection. In the early 16th century, Francis I of France’s Valois dynasty forged an alliance with the Ottomans to humble the Habsburg monarchy. During the Italian wars, French and Turkish fleet launched joint raids against the coasts of Italy. The Venetians, who were often accused of being an accomplice of the Ottomans, resisted pressure to join a Christian coalition against them. After the battle of Agnadello in 1509, when the Venetians were confronted with an alliance of all the major European powers, including the Holy Roman Empire, they sent overtures to the Ottomans to form an alliance.

The Ottoman campaigns to capture the Venetian island of Cyprus led to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. There was a naval engagement between the allied Christian forces, joined by Venice, the pope and Spain, and the Ottomans, which culminated in the victory of the Christian forces. After the battle, England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who regularly sent lavish gifts to Muslim rulers and dignitaries, is said to have remarked, “Better the turban than the tiara”, the latter referring to the triple papal crown.

In 1701 the Ottoman sultan Mustafa II conveyed his congratulations to King Ferdinand I of Prussia on his coronation, which facilitated the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two powers. In 1790 Prussia supported the Ottomans in resisting the Austro-Russian advance. Prussia’s Frederick II sought to forge an alliance with the Ottomans to countercheck the growing influence of the Habsburg monarchy. The Ottomans and the Habsburg monarch, sworn enemies for nearly three centuries, forged an alliance in the 18th century to counter growing Russian expansion into the Balkans and towards the Black Sea. In the 1850s, France and Britain supported the Ottomans against Russia.

Trade and commerce played a highly important role in reinforcing cordial relations between Christian and Muslim rulers and in mitigating conflicts. Despite frequent outbursts of hostility and occasional pressures from the papacy, Mediterranean Europe for centuries carried on commercial transactions with the Islamic world. In the 16th century there were confrontations between the Polish-Lithuanian state and the Ottomans. In 1533 a treaty of peace was signed between the two powers, which was motivated by considerations of trade and commerce. The Safavid Persian emperor Sultan Hosein sent one of his high-ranking officials, Mohammed Reza Beg, to the court of the French monarch Louis XIV in 1715. In the course of several months that he spent at Versailles, Beg conducted negotiations for signing trade treaties between Persia and France. He also conferred with the French on possible joint military operations against the Ottoman Empire.

Even at the height of the Ottoman-Habsburg conflict, Christians and Muslims living in the two empires continued to engage in trade and business without any rancour, especially in the Hungarian markets. In the 18th century Turkish merchants introduced coffee in the Habsburg Empire, whence it spread to other parts of Europe.

Christian kings and princes in medieval Europe sometimes invited Muslim forces to garrison their cities for protection. Such arrangements were occasionally reinforced through marital alliances. Duke Eudes of Aquitance, for example, gave his daughter in marriage to the Muslim ruler of Cerdana (in the eastern Pyrenees), thereby forging an alliance to secure his southern borders.

The climate of peaceful coexistence in medieval Europe was often reinforced through the exchange of gifts between Muslim and Christian rulers. Saladin, the legendary Muslim hero of the Crusades, sent many precious gifts to the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa and to Henry of Champagne. Frederick II, Barbarossa’s grandson, presented several noble horses to the Ayyubid sultans of Cairo. Louis IX, King of France and Regent in Acre from 1250 to 1254, received numerous precious gifts from Muslim kings in the Levant. There were frequent exchanges of gifts between the Ottoman sultans and European kings and queens. In the 16th century, Safavid envoys gifted to Venice’s doge several luxury carpets made in Isfahan. Safiye Sultan, Emperor Murad III’s wife, requested Queen Elizabeth I of England for gifts. Sultan Murad III pressed the French ambassador to write to King Henry III to send him luxury garments from Paris. The Ottoman sultans often requested the Habsburg monarchs to send them clocks and mechanical automata.

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