Europe's debt to Islam given a skeptical look

When Sylvain Gouguenheim looks at today's historical vision of the history of the West and Islam, he sees a notion, accepted as fact, that the Muslim world was at the source of the Christian Europe's reawakening from the Middle Ages.

He sees a portrayal of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the path in Europe to mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy - a gift the West regards with insufficient esteem.

"This thesis has basically nothing scandalous about it, if it were true," Gouguenheim writes. "In spite of the appearances, it has more to do with taking ideological sides than scientific analysis."

For a controversy, here's a real one. Gouguenheim, a professor of medieval history at a prestigious university, l'École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, is saying "Whoa!" to the idea there was an Islamic bridge of civilization to the West. Supposedly, it "would be at the origin of the Middle Ages' cultural and scientific reawakening, and (eventually) the Renaissance."

In a new book, he is basically canceling, or largely writing off, a debt to "the Arabo-Muslim world" dating from the year 750 - a concept built up by other historians over the past 50 years - that has Europe owing Islam for an essential part of its identity.

"Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel" (Editions du Seuil), while not contending there is an ongoing clash of civilizations, makes the case that Islam was impermeable to much of Greek thought, that the Arab world's initial translations of it to Latin were not so much the work of "Islam" but of Aramaeans and Christian Arabs, and that a wave of translations of Aristotle began at the Mont Saint-Michel monastery in France 50 years before Arab versions of the same texts appeared in Moorish Spain.

When I talked to Gouguenheim about his book a couple of weeks ago, he said he had no interest in polemics, just some concern that his research could be misused by extremists.

At the same time, he acknowledged that his subject was intensely political. Gouguenheim said it was in light of a 2002 recommendation from the European Union that schoolbooks give a more positive rendering of Islam's part in European heritage "that an attempt at a clarification becomes necessary." Reading Gouguenheim without a background in the history of the Byzantine Empire or the Abassid caliphate is a bit of a challenge. It justifies distance and reserving judgment.

But Le Figaro and Le Monde, in considering the book in prominent reviews, drank its content in a single gulp. No suspended endorsements or anything that read like a caution.

"Congratulations," Le Figaro wrote. "Mr. Gouguenheim wasn't afraid to remind us that there was a medieval Christian crucible, a fruit of the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem," while "Islam hardly proposed its knowledge to Westerners."

Le Monde was even more receptive: "All in all, and contrary to what's been repeated in a crescendo since the 1960s, European culture in its history and development shouldn't be owing a whole lot to Islam. In any case, nothing essential.

"Precise and well-argued, this book, which sets history straight, is also a strongly courageous one."

But is it right?

Gouguenheim attacks the "thesis of the West's debt" as advanced by the historians Edward Said, Alain de Libera and Mohammed Arkoun. He says it replaces formerly dominant notions of cultural superiority advanced by Western orientalists, with "a new ethnocentrism, oriental this time" that sets off an "enlightened, refined and spiritual Islam" against a brutal West.

Nuggets: Gouguenheim argues that Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, said to be created by the Abassids in the ninth century, was limited to the study of Koranic science, rather than philosophy, physics or mathematics, as understood in the speculative context of Greek thought.

He says that Aristotle's works on ethics, metaphysics and politics were disregarded or unknown to the Muslim world, being basically incompatible with the Koran. Europe, he said, "became aware of the Greek texts because it went hunting for them, not because they were brought to them."

Gouguenheim calls the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, where the texts were translated into Latin, "the missing link in the passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy." Outside of a few thinkers - he lists Al-Farabi, Avicenne, Abu Ma'shar and Averroes - Gougenheim considers that the "masters of the Middle East" retained from Greek teaching only what didn't contradict Koranic doctrine.

Published less than a month ago, the book is just beginning to encounter learned criticism. Sarcastically, Gabriel Martinez-Gros, a professor of medieval history, and Julien Loiseau, a lecturer, described Gouguenheim as "re-establishing the real hierarchy of civilizations."

They said that he disregarded the mathematics and astronomy produced by the Islamic world between the 9th and 13th centuries and painted the period's Islamic civilization exactly what it was not: obscurantist, legalistic, fatalistic and fanatic.

Indeed, Gouguenheim's thesis, they suggest, has "intellectual associations that are questionable at their very heart" - which I take to mean nastily right-wing.

If you read Gougenheim's appendix, he's preemptively headed off that kind of accusation. He offers his book as an antidote to an approach to Islam's medieval relations to the West exemplified by the late Sigrid Hunke, a German writer, described as a former Nazi and friend of Heinrich Himmler.

Hunke describes a pioneering, civilizing Islam to which "the West owes everything." Gouguenheim replies that, in deforming reality, her work from the 1960s continues as a reference point that unfortunately still "shapes the spirit of the moment."

He says he means to rectify that.

His book is interesting and bold. At the very least, it is kindling for arguments on a touchy subject where most people don't have more than inklings and instincts to sort out even shards of truth from angry and conflictual expertise.

Source: IHT (English)

See also: If the Muslims would have won, Book Review: The Muslim Discovery of Europe


scarface said...

Thank you dear Sirs, for this wonderful piece.
I have long known in my gut, that this poppycock of the Arabs bringing knowledge to the West was total bunkum and balderdash.
Tripe in fact.
We are talking of a time when the Druidic tradition, what was left of it after the Roman "conquest" was still echoing into the Christian era.
Even Ceasar himself, could not deny the pre-existing science amongst the Celts, the Bronze and Iron Age contemporaries of the Greeks. A world wide tradition and knowledge-base, unfortunately without much written record, but the history of which is carved into the rocks of our landscape, lest we forget. Let alone the art and artistry.
It is yet more of the desecration of the Northern European heritage from within, that we are witnessing.
A great blog, and well read, from the stats.

Rudi said...

I published this more than a year ago as a reaction to an article in a Flemish newspaper about the "great works" done by Islamic scientists.
The article "of algebra and arabic numerals" (DS 21/03/07) requires a large number of factual additions in order to place these issues in afuller historical and scientific perspective.

While it's undeniable that scholars in the Muslim world "preserved" many Greek works andpassed them on to the West, the following comments must be considered:
- Europe was not a scientific desert since most Greek writings were also preserved in Byzantium and the West was influenced from there. Most historians now agree that this influence also played a not unimportant role in the transfer of knowledge.
- The first scientists in the Muslim world were mostly Persian, Christians, Jews and even Berbers who first translated the Greek works into Persian (or Aramean) and from there into the compulsory language of the elite: Arabic. One can really not speak of Arab or Muslim scientists but rather of science in the countries of Islam. The original title of the book by A. Youschkevitch, one of the greatest specialists in the field is therefore “Mathematics in the countries of Islam” and wrongly translated into a French title by “Arab mathematics”. Also the term "Muslim scholars" is an incorrect generalization for that group of scientists. Moreover they were mostly recent converts who were not so closely connected withtheir new religion.
- The "development" of sciences in the Muslim world has been often very regionally limited as well as in extent because they was a permanent lack ofpolitical unity. There were a few periods of prosperity which did not last more than a century per region. What is truly striking is thatnotwithstanding the synthesis of different developments from other world regions (Greece, Persia, China, India) there were relatively few original discoveries. And each “golden age” ended mainly by the flaring up of religious integrism.
- The most important contribution was indeed from Bagdad, but must clearly be seen in light of the rule of Al-Mamun, the seventh Kalif. This enlightened ruler accepted the doctrine of the Mutazilites anderected thereby the house of wisdom (Bayt Al Hikma) where apparently scientists of all origins translated the Greek, Persian, Indian and also Chinese works in an industrial manner. The Mutazilites, now considered by the new Muslim philosophers as enlighteners of Islam, had decided that reason was above faith, that the Koran wasn't uncreated but rather created, and that Allah permitted the free will of man. These three elements were later seen by the integrists as heretic and it has stayed so until today.
- Jewish scholars in particular played also an important role in the transfer to the West, among them Abraham Bar Hiyya Al-Nasi (also knownas Savasorda, end of the 11 century) and Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (or Abenezra, 12 century), both from Spain.
- The fall of this scientific activity in the Muslim world is mostly attributed incorrectly to the attacks of the crusaders and the Mongolians, but scientific study stagnated in particular thanks to the fact that a great deal of the population had already been obliged to convert to Islam. The converts didn't risk devoting themselves to positions which could be contrary to their new religion. The Koran says e.g. that the sun descends every evening into a pool and sono scholar ever dared to claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun.In 1975 an imam in Saudi Arabia declared in a fatwa that the Earth was flat and denial must be punished by death.

The study of astronomy was indeed particularly aimed at making it easy to find the direction of the holy city of Mecca in order to correctly conduct the daily prayers. The refining of the Ptolemy model did not really allow them to rediscover heliocentrism (the earth revolves around the sun), which was already known by the Hindus in the 8th century and by the Greek Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BC. There is no scientific evidence that Copernicus knew or was influenced by the techniques of Al-Tusi as several claim, on the contrary (Toby E. Hoff, 2003). Heliocentrism wasn't discovered in the Muslim world also 'thanks' to the fact that the Koran implied a greater limitation of free thinking than in the West. Even Galilei Galileo said, after he had to deny heliocentrism due to the pressure of the Church, "and yet it moves". Nobody will neither attribute the development of Einstein's theory of relativity to the Dutch physicist Lorentz as he did not discover the impact of his own formulas.

The discovery of Algebra and Hindu numerals, which we incorrectly call Arabic numerals, can with difficulty be attributed to the Uzbek al-Khawarizmi. Compare the case with naming America after Amerigo Vespucci. It wasn't Vespucci who discovered the continent, but Columbus. So is the development of algebraic thinking basedespecially on the works of the Greek Diophantes and investigation is still ongoing to map out all his contributions. It's very striking that al-Khawarizmi did not account for the existence of negative rootsfor square equations which were already described two centuries earlier by the Hindu Brahmagupta. As the difference between classic algebra and arithmetic is based in particular on the existence and the use of negative numbers al-Khawarizmi can’t be either named the father of the Algebra; like most would like to, but has to be considered as one of the major contributors like many others. One had to wait for the Hebrew works of Savasorda, end of the 11th century in Spain, to describe all solutions of the quadratic equations and to transfer it eventually to the West.

Hindu numerals, including zero, which were also already used by Sassanids (Persians from 3th-7th C), were already introduced to the West by Pope Sylvester II (better known as Gerbert d'Aurillac). But just as al-Khawarizmi experienced much resistance from Islam, it was boycotted in the West by the abacists, who had a job by counting on theirabacus. The propagation of the new numerals wasn't simple anywhere. But it was in the West that they were seriously used and applied in our full numeral system in which Belgian Simon Stevin, byintroducing decimal fractions, also played an important role.

The discovery of trigonometry in the Muslim world also can't be described as black and white. Already in antiquity cotangents and cosecans were used in Babylon and Egypt. Ptolemey was familiar with thedouble sine or the chord. The Hindus, Aryabata and Brahmagupta, had already developed formulas using the sine and cosine. Even if new formulas were indeed discovered by a few scholars in the Muslim world one shouldn't forget that trigonometry got its final form globally thanks to the German Regiomontanus who did not make much use ofprevious discoveries coming from Islamic countries..

In the field of philosophy two Muslims, the Persian Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and the Spanish Averroes (Ibn Rushd), together with the Jewish scholar from Muslim Spain Maimonides, did indeed have great influence on our own thinking. But then it must be clearly mentioned that these three scholars were persecuted as heretics in their own community by the rulers of Islam who still had the upperhand, and had to flee to safer places.

If we know few scholars from this era that is also attributed to the fact that there is neither theorem nor formula carrying the name of an islamic scientist between the 8th and the 13th century. In a much shorter timespan Greek and Hindu scholars had developed much more.

Scientific evolution is for that matter a made of continuity and important breaking points. The latter are the work of scholars such as Euclides, Archimedes, Aristoteles, Ptolemaeus, Brahmagupta, Copernicus, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, Gauss, Lavoisier, Cantor andEinstein.Not one scholar from the Muslim world belongs to this gallery. Additionally, scientific discoveries are only important in the development if they are indeed used; so wasn’t the atom doctrine of Democritus (4-5 century BCE) of any benefit, but the discoveries of Lavoisier (end of the 18th century) which are the source of modern chemistry.

Also British specialists of the famous Open University who send their course "History of Science" to the wide world, clearly write, in politically correct language that “. However, it may be fair to suggest that Islamic mathematics developed less, relatively, compared with Greek mathematics or with subsequent developments in Europe. The surrounding Islamic culture was often not generally favourable to mathematical and scientific advances – as witness the religious opposition to a reform of the calendar. The work of mathematicians was very largely dependant on the individual patronage of rulers and nobles. There was perhaps less opportunity for experimental thinking than in Greek times or in the West following the Reformation. While, therefore, it is clearly wrong to say ‘the Arabs made no significant advance in mathematics’, it is not entirely unreasonable to suggest that, had they lived in a different political and religious milieu, their contribution might well have been even greater than they were.”With such a statement we can bring the Church back again in the center of the scientific village. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but not a Euro more.

Dr. Rudi Roth,
Master of mathematics, doctor in theoretical physics.