How Europe Came to Forget its Arabic Heritage – Part II


Abdul Haq Compier


After the Turks took Constantinople in 1453 CE, Greek refugees brought with them texts from classical authors in the original Greek. This was like coal on the fire of European growing self-awareness. Around the start of the sixteenth century, the Renaissance ideals were carried to their climax by demanding their absolute rule over science and literature. The aforementioned Pico della Mirandola would at some stage proclaim: “Let us in Heaven’s name our Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, and keep your Omar, your Alchabitius, your Abenzoar and your Abenragel”. (Watt, The Influence of Islam, p.80)

Latin humanism adopted from the religious aspect of Arabic humanism a stress on purity of sources and of language. In an ironic twist, this religious demand for purity turned against the Arabic heritage in the sciences. When a Dutch scholar [probably Nicolaus Clenardus of Diest (Alastair Hamilton, Arab Culture and Ottoman Magnificence in Antwerp’s Golden Age, p. 37. 2002)] arrived in Salamanca, Spain, in 1531-32, and asked whether he could kindly be taught the Arabic language, a Spanish dignitary told him:

“What concern do you have with this barbaric language, Arabic? It is sufficient to know Latin and Greek. In my youth I was foolish as you and took up Hebrew and Arabic; but I have long since given up these two last and devote myself entirely to Greek. Let me advise you to do the same.” (Watt, The Influence of Islam, p. 80)

In a wave of anti-Arabism, Renaissance humanists sought to literally cleanse the scientific field of Arabic influences. To illustrate the proceedings of this cleansing campaign, we will examine it in the field of medicine, as described by historian Nancy Siriasi (Nancy G. Siraisi, Avicenna in Renaissance Italy: The Canon and Medical Teaching in Italian Universities after 1500, pp. 66-77. 1987). Petrarch in the fourteenth century condemned medicine itself as “Arab lies”; after him, several themes would develop in the rejection of Arabic medical literature. The obvious charges were concerned with the supposedly heretical nature of the religion or philosophy of the authors. Arab writings were deemed “obscure”, erroneous, and a corruption of the “pure” Greek sources. Arabic borrowings in botany and pharmacology came to be seen as confusing, and perceived traces of the Arabic language itself were condemned as “coarse” and “barbaric”, when compared to the Renaissance ideal of classical Latin.

By 1530, “the role of the Arabs was a central issue in debates over the reform of medicine” (Siraisi, Avicenna, p.71), creating “an intellectual climate in which hostility to the Arabs had become a shibboleth of modernism in medicine” (Ibid., p. 74). Venomous pamphlets were published with titles like “… Against Neoteric Physicians Who, Neglecting the Discipline of Galen, Cultivate the Barbarians” (1533). Some started to talk of the “tyranny” of Avicenna and of Arab “occupation of the schools”. The influential humanist Leonhart Fuchs makes things very clear in his Institutions of Medicine (1555):

“It is best to reject the Arabs completely and just to abandon them, the barbarians of a bygone age, and – as if one drinks water from the purest spring – to start studying the writings of the Greek physicians, who have passed on the art of medicine in its most pure and uncontaminated form and by the most reliable of methods, all that is required for the medical practice. As everything in the teachings of the Arabs is dirty, barbaric, contaminated, complicated and littered with the worst of errors, likewise all that is Greek is clean, clear, brilliant, lucid, transparent and uncontaminated … The Arabs have nothing which they did not borrow from the Greeks, except for the mistakes which only they make. (Leonhard Fuchs, Institutionum medicinae sive methodi ad Hippocratis, Galeni aliorumque veterum scripta recte intelligenda mire utiles libri quinque. 1555. See also Pormann E & E Savage Smith, Medieval Islamic Medicine, p. 169. 2007)

The University of Alcalá de Henares stopped teaching Avicenna in 1565. By 1563, the London College of Physicians had decided to examine new candidates only on Galenic texts. The University of Tübingen, perhaps so advised by Leonhart Fuchs, went so far as to discourage in its statutes the reading of Arab authors. 

At the same time, the Arabs were erased from European learning, the classics were sanctified as symbols of the humanist revolution. The Latin humanists went so far as to believe the classics had been infallible and were superior to empirical observation. When, for example, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius in his legendary De humani corporis fabrica (1543) attacked the infallibility of the Greek-Roman physician Galen, his former teacher Jacobus Sylvius answered that Galen had not erred, but that instead the human body had changed over the centuries (Jacobus Sylvius / Jacques Dubois, Vaesani cuiusdam calumniarum in Hippocratis Galenique rem anatoicam depulsio. 1551). And when nobody could find the small holes which Galen assumed to perforate the heart septum, two Dutch professors Otto Heurnius and Adriaen van Valkenburg sought to do the truth a favour by creating the holes themselves before showing a heart to their students (F.C. van Leersum. Vesalius. Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde. pp. 4-16. 1915). It may be observed that the fanaticism of the Latin humanists is very close to religious fundamentalism. We should not forget that the sixteenth century was the age in which heretics were burned almost on a daily basis. It was also the time in which the Spanish Inquisition enforced conversion of all Muslims and Jews in Spain, only to expel them, and all Arab Christians, in 1609.

In this socio-political atmosphere, accusations of heresy were easily made against individuals who disagreed with the hardliners, be they of the Church or of the new humanist avant garde. French humanist Guy Patin tried to defend the practice of bloodletting against the criticism of the Flemish alchemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont (1577-1624) by a post mortem slander campaign:

“He was a wicked Flemish rascal who died insane a few months ago. He did nothing of value. I have seen all that he has done. This man had in mind only a medicine full of chemical and empirical secrets and to overthrow it more quickly he came out strongly against bloodletting, for the lack of which he died mad.” (McGovern JP, Humanism in Medicine, p. 14. 1973)

This fanatical and unreasoning attitude ultimately suffocated scientific advancement, as has been rightly pointed out by Lester King: “The humanists who condemned scholastic authority and domination of the church, themselves bowed before an equal tyranny – the authority of the ancients”. (LS King, Humanism and the Medical Past, In JP McGovern and CR Burns (eds), Humanism in Medicine, pp. 3-10. 1973)

Despite their aggression, the flood of extreme anti-Arabism and extreme classicism were short-lived and did not pervade all levels of the scholarly world. Translations from the Arabic were continuously made in Italy (George Saliba, Rethinking the Roots of Modern Science: Arabic Scientific Manuscripts in European Libraries, pp. 14-24. 1999). Elsewhere in Europe, there were writers who defended the Arab authors even at the peak of the antagonism. Lorenz Fries, for example, in 1530 published a Defense of the Important Scholar Avicenna Against the German Physicians (Siraisi, Avicenna, p.71). By the second half of the sixteenth century, Johann Lange (1485-1565), physician to the Elector Palatine, proposed that universities instruct the Arab language and he did not to hide the fact that he himself associated with those Arab lands and participated in Arab learning (Ibid., p. 80). In the 1570s, the universities of Ingolstadt and Freiburg, where the curriculum had emphasised the Greeks at the expense of the Arabs, again introduced Avicenna and Rhazes (Ibid., p. 77). And by the 1580s, printing offices such as that of Plantin in Antwerp showed a renewed interest in the Arab world and even printed texts in Arabic. (Alastair Hamilton, Arab Culture and Ottoman Magnificence in Antwerp’s Golden Age. 2002)

However, this short period, roughly between 1490 and 1560 with a climax in the 1530s, had made its impression on the self-image of European civilisation. Whereas the Scientific Revolution, as in the critique of Vesalius on Galen mentioned above, actually involved a break with authoritarian humanism, the fanatical celebration of classical culture quite erroneously came to be understood as having been the cause of Europe’s awakening to modernity. Whenever in the future any progress would be made, popular belief would praise classical Greek authors as having been the inspiration, even if the progress was made on the basis of research done by Arabs.

From the early sixteenth century onwards, scholars hardly dared to cite an Arab in support of revolutionary developments. For example, Copernicus in his 1543 work about the earth’s rotation around the sun failed to mention the Arabic source of the important astronomical models now known as the Tusi couple and the Urdi lemma. (George Saliba, Rethinking the Roots of Modern Science: Arabic Scientific Manuscripts in European Libraries. 1999)

The physician Michael Servet in 1553 offered a first description of the pulmonary blood circulation in Europe, but makes no mention of the text by the Arab physician Ibn an-Nafis which probably was his source. Similarly, we see the Arab influences on Descartes, on Stevin, on Huygens, Newton and Kepler, but either they were silent about them, or if they mentioned anything, popular belief ignored it. (Joseph Schacht, Ibn al Nafis, Servetus and Colombo, pp.317-336. 1957)

Whenever in the present day an ordinary person comes across the theme of Arab contributions to modern civilisation, they reduce it to the Arabs handing over the Greek texts – which he thinks did not belong to them anyway – to their true inheritors, the European Christians. The Arabs themselves never contributed anything. 

The Divina Comedia by Dante Alighieri (Sicily, 1265-1321) probably is the best illustration of the paradoxes involved. Dante tells the story of a journey through heaven and hell which was inspired by Sufi accounts of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammadsa. The work influenced Christianity even to the extent that the concept of purgatory was adopted by the Catholic Church. 

(Prophet Muhammadsa offered the unique teaching that hell is a means to purify the souls of sinners, after which they are all allowed to enter paradise. This teaching was continued by the Muslim mystics; Dante was probably influenced by the writings of Muhyuddin ibn Arabi [1165-1240] [See Miguel Asin Palacios, La escatologia musulmana en la Divina comedia. 1819]. The Catholic concept of Purgatory is a partial adoption of the Islamic teaching, in which forgiveness is allowed only for moderate sinners]. 

Despite the strong influences – or indeed because of them – Dante not only remains silent about his sources of inspiration, but even pictured the Prophet Muhammadsa – God forbid – in the deepest corner of hell.


The Danish humanist Melchior Lorck could by the second half of the sixteenth century again place Arabic among the prime languages in the sciences, as shown by this impression of Aristotle dated 1561 | Sievernich, Europa und der Orient, Bertelsmann 1989.


The Renaissance is an extremely important icon in our civilisation. It could be compared to the redemption by Jesus Christas, in the sense that the European myth either subconsciously or consciously believes that it is a unique event responsible for the progress of modern science and the apparent success of modern democracies. Like the blessing of the Holy Ghost, the moment in the sixteenth century when Europe awoke to its Greek past makes European man, in his mind, superior to all other civilisations which were not blessed in the same way.

The celebration of classical heritage at the start of the sixteenth century was, however, not the cause of progress and awakening as it is generally believed to be. The progress had been made much earlier, in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, when Arab learning inspired a wave of learning, offered humanist scholars their ideals and disciplines and set the example for the European universities. The early sixteenth century 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 distinguished itself by classical Latin as its lingua franca and the classical authors as its founding fathers.

We cannot fail to observe elements of jealousy and fanaticism in the vigorous cleansing campaign against Arab elements by the proponents of the sixteenth century Renaissance. The sanctification of the classical Greek authors at the expense of centuries of scientific work was dogmatic and slowed down scientific progress. It cannot be surprising that this idea would not survive for long as a model of practice. 

After the second half of the sixteenth century, scholars would simply continue to consult the translations of Arab works and would even again learn Arabic themselves. By then however, the image of a Greek source of European culture had settled itself firmly in popular belief, which reaffirmed the theme by repetition after repetition until it received a strong second stimulus from nineteenth century educational programmes. (Jona Lendering, Vergeten Erfenis: Oosterse Wortels van de Westerse cultuur. 2009. An English summary can be found on

Today, it is painful to watch how popular culture excludes Muslim immigrants by regarding them as a desert people who have come to consume the civilisation, which allegedly they had no part in building. Science and civilisation however, are projects of mankind as a whole. The torch of science and civilisation had moved from India, China and Persia to remain with the Muslims for a thousand years before being truly taken over and appropriated by Europe.

As the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ never redeemed Europe from its sins, the death and resurrection of Greek civilisation never offered it any progress. It rather caused science to become limited and ethnocentric in vision. The ethnic cleansing of history by a mythical Renaissance should be replaced by an international vision in which credit is given where credit is due. 

If a true image of history is shown to our youth in their educative years, perhaps the European sense of superiority would see some moderation and immigrants would receive a sense of self-esteem, which would contribute both to historical and social justice.


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