The early Middle Ages – also known as the Dark ages – are generally seen as an obscure and sinister period. But is that really the case? After all, in school we were always taught that this veil of darkness would only be lifted by the arrival of the Renaissance when people like Copernicus, Kepler, Vesalius and so on improved classical literature and when Galilei came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church because of his claim that the earth revolves around the sun.
Islamic tradition of Europe
However, many historians – including Charles Homer in his book: ‘The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century’ – have shown that Europe’s recovery had already started in the twelfth century AD, and not only during the Renaissance (late 15th century – early 17th century). He has proven this by showing that the ‘dark Europe’ was already acquainted with Latinised scientific works from Islamic scientists. So the term ‘dark’ merely corresponds with the situation in West-Europe up until the 12th century.
It is also true that this term is often used in a general sense, while amidst that European darkness – almost immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire –the Muslim civilisation arose. Unlike Europe – that was submerged in barbaric darkness – the Islamic world was the scene for a scientific revolution. Here, between 700 and 1500, the Islamic scientists even experienced a ‘golden age’, during which unprecedented scientific progress was made.
Modern scientists about ‘The Golden Ages’
Between the 8th and the 13th century the most crucial scientific discoveries were made. This was also a time in which the foundations of modern civilisation were laid. In that period there were thousands of scientists who accounted for scientific discoveries, artistic creativity, magnificent architecture, enormous libraries, hospitals, universities, technological innovations, industry, the charting of the world, the discovery of the sky and its secrets and much more.
George Sarton (a Belgian-American scientific historian) speaks of ‘the miracle of Arabic science. The use of the word “miracle” illustrates our inability to explain these accomplishments’.
Martin Levey (an American chemist) refers to the crucial timing of these scientific developments by the Muslims (during times of darkness elsewhere) and how it was brought to Europe: ‘in a time in which the progress of ideas had relatively come to a complete standstill, Muslims came with a whole new vision, a sense of inquiry into the old, which finally brought them to a point where Western Europe could copy this thoroughly scrutinised knowledge and could enrich its ripeness with a new approach. It is impossible for historians to explain the role of the Middle Ages, concerning the advancement of civilisation, without referring to the role that Muslims have played in this.’
Latinization of the islamic legacy
Many of the names of great Muslim scientists and other important Muslims have been changed to Latin (European) sounding names. As a result, it is often assumed that these scientists were originally Europeans, which of course is not the case.
For example, the renowned scientist ‘Avicenna’ was originally named ‘Ibn Sina’, or the name of the famous philosopher ‘Averroes’ was originally ‘Ibn Rushd’. This can cause some confusion and this unfortunately manipulates a large part of Islamic heritage (consciously or unconsciously).
It is also regrettable that large amounts of works from the Islamic golden age were lost due to collective book burnings held by the rulers at the time. As an illustration, ‘The house of Wisdom’ in Bagdad, the epicentre of Islamic science, was burned to the ground by the Mongol invasion in 1258.
This, combined with ignorance – even from the Muslims themselves! – on the Islamic scientific heritage, has lead to the fact that many are totally unaware of the contributions that Muslims have made to modern society. Accordingly, an inferiority complex in the Muslim community is not a stretch by far.
But enough with the whining. Let us restore the Islamic heritage to its former glory by shining our light on some of the impressive scientific contributions from Muslim scientists to modern society. Starting with mathematics…