How Europe Came to Forget its Arabic Heritage – Part I


A map of Europe in 1570 

Abdul Haq Compier


Traditional education about Western civilisation tells the story of how around 1500 CE, Greek texts recovered the lost memory of Europe’s Greek and Roman past and unleashed an era of progress in science and civilisation called the Renaissance. 

In fact, the progress in civilisation had begun in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and was the result of the transfer of Arabic civilisation to Europe. The sixteenth century Renaissance was rather the construction of an exclusive Christian European identity within the world of literature and science. 

Latin humanists created a movement imitating the Arab tradition in its key values, but distinguishing itself by classical Latin as its lingua franca and the classical authors as its founding fathers. 

After a period in which classical culture was vigorously celebrated and Arab influences were attempted to be removed from the scientific canon, the image of a Greek source of European culture had settled itself firmly in the European mind. Scholars hardly dared cite an Arab in support of their revolutionary developments. 

Popular belief reaffirmed the theme of the revived classics by repetition after repetition until the Arabic heritage in Europe came to be forgotten. Biased educative material should be corrected to offer a true image of history to our youth.


A cultural myth

Traditional education about Western civilisation tells the story of how Europe, floundering in the ignorance and illiteracy of the Middle Ages, suddenly came across a number of texts in classical Greek which at once recovered the lost memory of Europe’s glorious Greek and Roman past. 

Science and literature started flourishing, and with the help of the brilliant Greek philosophers the dormant Europeans were able to shed the ignorance of Medieval times and open the doors of science and civilisation. This process has been called the “rebirth” of classical civilisation in Europe, the Renaissance. 

The story however is a myth, quite lacking historical substance.


Frontispiece of Fasciculo di medicina, Venice, 1493

The twelfth century Renaissance

In fact, the progress in civilisation had begun in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and did not have a Greek or Roman origin. In 1060, the Normans conquered Sicily while some time later in 1085, the Reconquista took the city of Toledo. Both Sicily and Toledo became centers through which the Arab culture of science and learning started spreading through Europe, creating a spark of learning among European Christians. In the words of EJ Holymard:

“During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was a scientific renaissance in Europe, and scholars from Christian countries journeyed to Muslim universities in Spain, Egypt, Syria and even Morocco in order to acquire knowledge from their foes in religion but friends in learning. Arabic science soon began to filter through, and by the middle of the thirteenth century the trickle had become a river.” (Richard Russel, The Works of Geber: a new edition with introduction by E.J. Holmyard, p. XV. 1928)

England’s “first scientist”, Adelard of Bath, explains what he learned from his Arab masters in these words:

“From the Arab masters I have learned one thing, led by reason, while you are caught by the image of authority, and led by another halter. For what is an authority to be called, but a halter? As the brute beasts, indeed, are led anywhere by the halter, and have no idea by what they are led or why, but only follow the rope that holds them, so the authority of writers leads not a few of you into danger, tied and bound by brutish credulity.” (Norman Daniel, The Arabs and Mediaeval Europe, pp. 265-266. 1974)

Other scientists of the twelfth century Renaissance indebted to the Arabs were Roger Bacon, Witelo, Albertus Magnus, Adam Marsh, Arnold de Villeneuve, Peter of Abano and Daniel of Morley.

In the transfer of Muslim-Arabic civilisation to Europe, three important primary developments can be distinguished. The first are the giant translation projects in Italy and Spain in the twelfth century, in which hundreds of Arabic books were translated into Latin. 

The second development is the adoption, primarily at the court of Sicily and in Al-Andalus, of the values of Arabic “adab”, which in Europe came to be known as humanism. This humanism was not an atheist philosophy, as it is often understood today, but comprised a set of disciplines such as ability in speech and writing, knowledge of grammar, poetry, erudition, scholarship and research into religious texts. 

These humanist disciplines became the fundamental driving force of the emerging European civilization. (George Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West, 1991) 

Well known early humanists are Petrarch (1304-1374), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406). That Islam was an influence even in the humanist perspective of man is illustrated by the humanist Pico della Mirandola’s famous Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance” and commences by quoting the famous Arabic humanist Abdallah ibn Qutaibah (d. 889):

“Most esteemed Fathers, I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvelous than man.” (Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man. See also Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism, p. 307)

The third development is the foundation of European universities after the example of the Islamic Jamias (George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, 1981). The first European universities were the University of Bologna (1088), Paris (c. 1150), Oxford (1167), Cambridge (1209), Padua (1222) and Naples (1224).

A university lecturer at Padua (Italy) is surrounded by titles of twelve important scholars, six of which are Arabs and one is an Arab Jew. On the top shelf, the classical authors Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen are followed by the Arab authors Avicenna, Haly Abbas, Rhazes and Averroës. Next to the teacher is Pliny’s Historia Naturalis. 

On the shelf below the cabinet are the Conciliator of the Medieval English scholar Peter Abano, the works of Isaac the Jew and a work by the Arab surgeon Avenzoar. (Singer & Rabin, A Prelude to Modern Science, Cambridge University Press p. XXIV. 1946)


The emancipation from Arabic predominance

To illustrate the presence of Arabic authors in the European scientific world of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, only in the field of medicine there were nineteen authors who were known in Europe by the Latin transcription of their Arabic name: Mesue Sr., Mesue Jr., Humainus, Jesu Haly, Alkindus, Serapion, Janus Damascensus, Isaac Judaeus, Haly Abbas, Algazirah, Annafis, Albucasis, Avenzoar, Averroës, Maimonides, Aben-Guefit, Ebn Albethar and the most influential, Avicenna en Rhazes. (Donald Campbell, Arabian Medicine and its Influence on the Middle Ages, pp. 60-102. 1974) 

An important textbook by Ferrari from 1471 quotes Avicenna 3,000 times, Rhazes 1,000 times and the Greek authors Galen and Hippocrates 1,000 and 140 times respectively (Ibid., p.201). Many a Greek work was known only through the Latin rendering of their Arabic translation.

The dominance of Arab authors had caused feelings of unease among Christians very early on. A significant fragment has been preserved in a letter of a Christian named Alvaro who lived in Al-Andalus in the ninth century. He complained that the talented Christian Mozarab youths of Spain lost their identity by participating in Arab learning:

“My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, and the Apostles? Alas! The young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic; they read and study with avidity Arabic books; they amass whole libraries of them at a vast cost and they sing everywhere the praises of Arabian lore. On the other hand, at the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice. The pity of it! Christians have forgotten their own tongue, and scarce one in a thousand can be found able to compose in fair Latin a letter to a friend. But when it comes to writing Arabic, how many there are who can express themselves in that language with the greatest elegance, and even compose verses which surpass in formal correctness those of the Arabs themselves!” (Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism, p. 330)

George Makdisi considers this fragment illustrative of the backgrounds of the further development of humanism in Christian Europe. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the Arab-Islamic identity of literature and science, Christians sought to create their own culture of learning, similar to, but competing with, the Arab tradition. 

Two important choices were made by the Christian humanists in their search for their own identity. As George Makdisi puts it, Christian humanists wanted to “answer the challenge of classical Arabic with an equally classical language” (George Makdisi, Humanism and Scholasticism in Classical Islam and the Christian West, Journal of the American Oriental Society, pp. 175-182. 1989).

This language came to be Latin. Latin was the language of the Catholic Bible and was in this sense comparable to the Arabic of the Quran. Classical Latin, however, had been long ago replaced by vernacular Latin and was not anymore in use in everyday life. In order to make classical Latin meet the demands of a holy lingua franca like Arabic, it had to be literally revived from the dead.

Christian humanists went out of their way to learn to write in the pure Latin of the Roman author Cicero, which ironically hardly anyone could read.

The second formative decision was a choice to regard only the classical Greek and Roman authors as foundations of their literature and science. As stated by William Montgomery Watt:

“… Europeans were attracted to Aristotle, not simply by the inherent qualities of his philosophy, but also by the fact that he belonged in a sense to their own European tradition. That is to say, the assignment to Aristotle of a central position in philosophy and science is partly understood as one aspect of the European assertion of distinction from Islam. The purely negative activity of turning from Islam, especially when so much was being learnt from Arab science and philosophy, would have been difficult, if not impossible, without a positive complement. This positive complement was the appeal to Europe’s classical (Greek and Roman) past.” (William Montgomery Watt, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, p.79. 1972)

With classical Latin as a new European lingua franca and the classical authors appointed the founding fathers of a new European tradition, the foundations of the Renaissance were laid – literally the “rebirth” of classical culture in Europe.

This Renaissance was all but a spontaneous one; it was an artificial image imposed by Christians upon themselves, to be able to establish a competing culture of learning distinct from the Arab example.


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