Some Contributions Of Islamic Culture
By John Scales Avery
28 January, 2015
At a time when the corporate-controlled media of Europe and the United States are doing everything that they can to fill us with poisonous Islamophobia, it is perhaps a useful antidote to remember the great role that Islamic civilization played in preserving, enlarging and transmitting to us the knowledge and culture of the ancient world.
After the burning of the great library at Alexandria and the destruction of Hellenistic civilization, most of the books of the classical Greek and Hellenistic philosophers were lost. However, a few of these books survived and were translated from Greek, first into Syriac, then into Arabic and finally from Arabic into Latin. By this roundabout route, fragments from the wreck of the classical Greek and Hellenistic civilizations drifted back into the consciousness of the West.
The Roman empire was ended in the 5th century A.D. by attacks of barbaric Germanic tribes from northern Europe. However, by that time, the Roman empire had split into two halves. The eastern half, with its capital at Byzantium (Constantinople), survived until 1453, when the last emperor was killed vainly defending the walls of his city against the Turks.
The Byzantine empire included many Syriac-speaking subjects; and in fact, beginning in the 3rd century A.D., Syriac replaced Greek as the major language of western Asia. In the 5th century A.D., there was a split in the Christian church of Byzantium; and the Nestorian church, separated from
the official Byzantine church. The Nestorians were bitterly persecuted by the Byzantines, and therefore they migrated, first to Mesopotamia, and later to south-west Persia. (Some Nestorians migrated as far as China.)
During the early part of the middle ages, the Nestorian capital at Gondisapur was a great center of intellectual activity. The works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Hero and Galen were translated into Syriac by Nestorian scholars, who had brought these books with them from Byzantium.
Among the most distinguished of the Nestorian translators were the members of a family called Bukht-Yishu (meaning “Jesus hath delivered”), which produced seven generations of outstanding scholars. Members of this family were fluent not only in Greek and Syriac, but also in Arabic and Persian.
In the 7th century A.D., the Islamic religion suddenly emerged as a conquering and proselytizing force. Inspired by the teachings of Mohammad (570 A.D. - 632 A.D.), the Arabs and their converts rapidly conquered western Asia, northern Africa, and Spain. During the initial stages of the conquest, the Islamic religion inspired a fanaticism in its followers which was often hostile to learning. However, this initial fanaticism quickly changed to an appreciation of the ancient cultures of the conquered territories; and during the middle ages, the Islamic world reached a very high level of culture and civilization.
Thus, while the century from 750 to 850 was primarily a period of translation from Greek to Syriac, the century from 850 to 950 was a period of translation from Syriac to Arabic. It was during this latter century that Yuhanna Ibn Masawiah (a member of the Bukht-Yishu family, and medical advisor to Caliph Harun al-Rashid) produced many important translations into Arabic.
The skill of the physicians of the Bukht-Yishu family convinced the Caliphs of the value of Greek learning; and in this way the family played an extremely important role in the preservation of the western cultural heritage. Caliph al-Mamun, the son of Harun al-Rashid, established at Baghdad a library and a school for translation, and soon Baghdad replaced Gondisapur as a center of learning.
The English word “chemistry” is derived from the Arabic words “al-chimia”, which mean “the changing”. The earliest alchemical writer in Arabic was Jabir (760-815), a friend of Harun al-Rashid. Much of his writing deals with the occult, but mixed with this is a certain amount of real chemical knowledge. For example, in his Book of Properties, Jabir gives a recipe for making what we now call lead hydroxycarbonate (white lead), which is used in painting and pottery glazes:
Another important alchemical writer was Rahzes (c. 860 - c. 950). He was born in the ancient city of Ray, near Teheran, and his name means “the man from Ray”. Rhazes studied medicine in Baghdad, and he became chief physician at the hospital there. He wrote the first accurate descriptions of smallpox and measles, and his medical writings include methods for setting broken bones with casts made from plaster of Paris. Rahzes was the first person to classify substances into vegetable, animal and mineral. The word “al-kali”, which appears in his writings, means “the calcined” in Arabic. It is the source of our word “alkali”, as well as of the symbol K for potassium.
The greatest physician of the middle ages, Avicinna, (Abu-Ali al Hussain Ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina, 980-1037), was also a Persian, like Rahzes. More than a hundred books are attributed to him. They were translated into Latin in the 12th century, and they were among the most important medical books used in Europe until the time of Harvey. Avicinina also wrote on alchemy, and he is important for having denied the possibility of transmutation of elements.
In mathematics, one of the most outstanding Arabic writers was al-Khwarizmi (c. 780 - c. 850). The title of his book, Ilm al-jabr wa’d muqabalah, is the source of the English word “algebra”. In Arabic al-jabr means “the equating”. Al-Khwarizmi’s name has also become an English word, “algorism”, the old word for arithmetic. Al-Khwarizmi drew from both Greek and Hindu sources, and through his writings the decimal system and the use of zero were transmitted to the west.
One of the outstanding Arabic physicists was al-Hazen (965-1038). He did excellent work in optics, and in this field he went far beyond anything done by the Greeks. Al-Hazen studied the reflection of light by the atmosphere, an effect which makes the stars appear displaced from their true positions when they are near the horizon; and he calculated the height of the atmospheric layer above the earth to be about ten miles. He also studied the rainbow, the halo, and the reflection of light from spherical and parabolic mirrors. In his book, On the Burning Sphere, he shows a deep understanding of the properties of convex lenses. Al-Hazen also used a dark room with a pin-hole opening to study the image of the sun during an eclipes. This is the first mention of the camera obscura, and it is perhaps correct to attribute the invention of the camera obscura to al-Hazen.
Another Islamic philosopher who had great influence on western thought was Averroes, who lived in Spain from 1126 to 1198. His writings took the form of thoughtful commentaries on the works of Aristotle. He shocked both his Moslem and his Christian readers by maintaining that the world was not created at a definite instant, but that it instead evolved over a long period of time, and is still evolving.
In the 12th century, parts of Spain, including the city of Toledo, were reconquered by the Christians. Toledo had been an Islamic cultural center, and many Moslem scholars, together with their manuscripts, remained in the city when it passed into the hands of the Christians. Thus Toledo became a center for the exchange of ideas between east and west; and it was in this city that
many of the books of the classical Greek and Hellenistic philosophers were translated from Arabic into Latin.
It is interesting ans inspiring to visit Toledo. A tourist there can see ample evidence of a period of tolerance and enlightenment, when members of the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam , lived side by side in harmony and mutual respect, exchanging important ideas which were to destined to become the foundations of our modern civilization. One can also see cathedrals, mosques and synagogues, in each of which craftsmen from all three faiths worked cooperatively to produce beautiful monuments to human solidarity.
John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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