Thursday, May 01, 2008

Western Science and Muslim Sources: Debt or Investment?

Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel
Sylvain Gouguenheim
(Image from

In the April 28th issue of the International Herald Tribune, John Vinocur had an interesting article that overlaps with my academic training and intellectual interests: "Europe's debt to Islam given a skeptical look."

Back in my history of science studies -- roughly, 1980-1985 -- we learned of an intellectual debt to the Islamic world on the part of Western science. Starting about the 12th century, or so we read, Western Christians in Spain began translating texts on natural philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics from Arabic sources into Latin.

At one point, this all sounded so interesting that I considered studying it . . . but the complexity of Arabic put me off, so I never followed the interest up.

Now, it seems, that was all rot anyway:
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.
So . . . everything that I learned was wrong, and Sylvain Gouguenheim -- in his Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel -- has proof.

Actually, I had already begun to question some of the thesis of the Western debt to Islamic science, for in my cursory readings in that field, I had begun to suspect that the Islamic "Golden Age" was golden because the 'Muslim' empire was still a largely non-Muslim, multicultural realm that allowed greater intellectual freedom than later was possible under more profound Islamization.

Even the achievements of Muslim scientists were erected on the scientific foundation laid by Greco-Roman science in the lands conquered by Islam.

Moreover, I wondered if Western Europe had really been so benighted in the Early Middle Ages as was often claimed -- were the 'Dark Ages' really so utterly dark?

As Vinocur remarks, this is "a controversy, . . . a real one," and Gouguenheim's book sounds interesting enough for me to attempt reading it in French . . . almost. Or I could read what Le Monde and Le Figaro have to say in their reviews . . . also in French.

But perhaps I'll wait for the book's English translation, which is certain to come soon.

Meanwhile, I have a few doubts about this book completely overturning what we 'know'. Some of Gouguenheim's critics argue "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." The point is perhaps well taken. One cannot deny the achievements of Muslim scientists, nor can one ignore the fact that the translation of scientific texts from Arabic to Latin did take place in such places as Spain from about the 12th century until the Renaissance, when Westerners turned largely to the original Greek sources coming from Byzantium.

The issue, then, is not whether Western science owes an intellectual debt to the Muslim world but, rather, the amount of that debt . . . if "debt" is the right word.

My own view? I'd use an analogy other than debt. Let me suggest this scenario. Some of the Greco-Roman world's intellectual wealth was invested in Muslim intellectual enterprises during the Early Middle Ages, and the interest that accumulated from that investment was collected by the West in the High Middle Ages.

That's a type of usury, I suppose, and usury was condemned in both Islam and Medieval Christianity, but whoever said that civilizations are entirely consistent?

At any rate, that's my "Usury Thesis" on what the West obtained from the Muslim world.

Labels: , , ,


At 7:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I call foul. Mont Saint-Michel's monks may have indeed translated much of Aristotle. I assume good faith on Gougenhaim's part here, and will take his word for it. But the translation that was actually used in Europe was the one that came with Averroes' commentaries on Aristotle.

These were, of course, badly received in the Muslim world and he was lucky to get away with being exiled, not killed. There was (sufi pockets aside) no reception of Aristotle, or Averroes, and no heir. This train of thought was stillborn there, and Averroes was thought of as a blasphemer and renegade: Ghazali carried the day.

Europe thus owes big time to Averroes (and the translators), but not to Islam as such. This used to be the consensus view in Europe until very recently, and I still think it makes perfect sense.

Recent overblown claims about the positive impact of Islam on Europe's development are just as silly and politically motivated as Gouguenheim's claims about those monks doing it instead. They didn't. Islam didn't either. It was Averroes, a great scholar, an individual, unloved in his home country, but gratefully lapped up by Europe's scholastics.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Averroes is certainly a good example, and your point about his being rejected by Islam but received by Christianity is also my view.

But let's not write off Muslim achievements in astronomy and mathematics, which were an advance upon Greek works and which the Latin West eagerly received.

But I'll still be interested in reading Gouguenheim's book . . . in English translation.

Thanks for visiting again.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No doubt about astronomy and math (and medicine!). But the point Gougenhaim makes here:

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 [...]
(from the IHT article)

is false and pathetic. The is no "missing link" in this case and never has been. There is Averroes, and his towering influence on the "passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy" has been acknowledged by everybody from the very beginning. To claim otherwise is plain bizarre.

At 8:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, that is an odd way to put it. Aquinas's use of Averroes is well-known, so what is Gouguenheim claiming?

But I'll withhold judgement until I see his full argument . . . in English translation. I've visited and read the reviews in French at the Le Monde and Le Figuro sites, but they don't give enough information for me to judge.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:21 AM, Blogger John B said...

I really don't know how to start, but it sounds like this guy's blowing a lot of smoke. First of all, if you're going to talk about the West, you should put it opposite the East and not Islam. Islam dominated the East, it's true, but it's not quite the same thing. Or should we, for example, start discounting the achievements of European Jews from the scoreboeard?

My background is some (only three years) of college physics, so it's pretty hard for me to imagine science existing at all before symbolic algebra. That is an achievement of Persian mathematics, I thought, and I've never heard of it being independently developed in Europe.

European Englightenment science was dominated by lines of research that grew out of math and astronomy, wasn't it?

So, this guy is saying, Eastern scientists didn't do nothing. Except math. And astronomy. And some medicine. (And wasn't there some exchange over chemistry as well?) Nothing except, you know, the most important bits.

It sounds like he's playing into the culture wars more than making any serious academic contribution. Of course, that's me giving him a lot of crap even though I've never actually looked at his work, so I admit I don't have much to stand on.

Final confession: I never understood what was so freaking awesome about Greek science anyways.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger John B said...

If I may double-post:

"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"

I've seen this sort of rhetoric before, describing the Islamic empires as a sort of academic bank, holding Greek and Roman knowledge until Europe was able to receive it again. That implies that Eastern scientists didn't actually contribute anything new. The whole thing sounds like the bad kind of Orientalism.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, for the most part, I agree with you, but some clarification is in order.

The expression "The West" is used to refer to Western Civilization, so one can't easily refer to "The East" without conflating and probably reifying several different civilizations.

Islamic Civilization was long The West's rival and threat, for it was militarily powerful and culturally more advanced during its high imperial stage, and The West gained much from intellectual links to the Islamic world.

Well, that's what's at issue, anyway.

As for Greek science, it's rather impressive despite not having developed algebra. But it doesn't hold a candle to the light that science has become.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

On your second point . . . that describes what Gouguenheim is rejecting, for he rejects the view that much came to the West from the Islamic world.

But since I don't know exactly what he does argue, I'll wait until the English translation comes out before critiquing the thesis.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his book, WANDERINGS,Chaim Potoks's History of The Jews,
Fawcett, Ballantine Books:New York, 1978, in Book Three, Through Islam and christianity, the author states that the Jews in Spain had more freedoms to practice their religion, and in arts and sciences, than the subsequent victory of Christianity there, and in fact, began to suffer the inquisition. Quite a switch in our generation, isn't it?

At 9:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, perhaps, but there's been some revisionist history about Muslim Spain, and some historians argue that Islam wasn't so tolerant as is claimed.

I don't know, of course, but Isabella and Ferdinand certainly weren't very tolerant when they unified Catholic Spain.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 12:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While laboring to be brief I risk becoming obscure here (paraphrasing Cicero) but just my take: "But let's not write off Muslim achievements in astronomy and mathematics..."

As to the medicine part, I think that field was simply a reacquisition of the work of Galen, I read that somewhere but cannot recall the source.

But my main suggestion here is that it is not precise to suggest Islam made any real contribution except insofar as being oh well, I guess I'll call it, being "repositores" of previous works.

Kinda like being librarians, which is not to say librarians don't make contributions. (Yes Judy L. I remember).


At 4:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I am a bit unclear on your meaning, namely, whether you think Islam contributed to science or merely stored it for the West later to retrieve.

There's apparently some confusion about Vinocur's words concerning Gouguenheim (though you may have understood correctly):

"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 view -- which Gouguenheim, in fact, rejects -- generally holds that the Muslim Arabs contributed to science before transmitting it to the West.

Gouguenheim argues that this transmission did not have the importance claimed, for the West had other sources, and the Muslim Arabs didn't contribute much.

At least, that's what I've gleaned from reading Vinocur and the two reviews.

At any rate, I'm not sure that I've understood your point.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:40 AM, Blogger JR said...

Instead of reading S. G's essay, have look at the following study: BERSCHIN, W. (1988). Greek letters and the Latin Middle Ages: from Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa. Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press.
Regards, Dr Joseph Reisdoerfer

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dr Reisdoerfer. I'll take a look at that.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous 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.

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dr. Rudi Roth, thanks for the pasted article. Normally, I'd delete such a thing . . . but this was to the point, interesting, and informative (as well as beyond my expertise).

Now, I'm wondering from where people are accessing my blog, for experts who've never hung aroung have posted here these past two days.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Txs. I am sure a lot of people will appreciate the info. Hopefully some would like to challenge it.

I came across trough
and I am from Belgium

At 4:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book by Chaim Potok does speak of some Muslim persecution of the Jews in Spain, but it was fairly mild compared to the Spanish Inquisition by Torquemada and others.

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dr. Rudi Roth. I think that Dr. Joseph Reisdoerfer is also a European, and perhaps he found my post the same way. Erdal hails from Europe, too, but I've known him for a couple of years now . . . online, I mean.

I'm glad to have had experts posting comments.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, that was the sort of thing that I had heard was now being challenged . . . but, of course, I know too little to judge.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very interesting post on the same subject can be found here:
One may not agree with all his statements but it has certainly a lot of good information and is of support to Gouguenheim.

Btw. Gouguenheim has already two "fatwa's" against him from collegues. Free-thinking and free speech looks limited to certain opinions only!

At 11:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Rudi, thanks. I'll take a look. I may already have seen it but not read it carefully, for Gates of Vienna downloads slowly.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home