The Islamic Legacy

The story of how this came about is far from simple, and much research needs to be done before its details are completely understood, but the broad outlines are clear. 

The Islamic Legacy

World Bulletin / News Desk

The Arabs were the inheritors of the scientific tradition of late antiquity. They preserved it, elaborated it, and, finally, passed it on to Europe.

When Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Asia Minor and Persia fell to Islamic forces in the seventh century they included a heterogeneous population. Although the cultivated classes of the former provinces of the Byzantine Empire spoke Greek, the people spoke a number of other languages -Coptic in Egypt and various Aramaic dialects in Syria and Iraq. These populations were for the most part Christian. In Persia, the majority language was Pahlavi an earlier form of the language spoken there today – and the state religion was Zoroastrianism, with substantial Christian minorities and a few centers of Buddhism.

Throughout this immense area, there were two main scientific traditions. The first, and by far the most important, was that of Greece. The second was that of India, strongest in Persia because of the geographical proximity of the two countries.

At a surprisingly early date, the Arab ruling dynasty of the Umayyads, with its capital at Damascus, evinced an interest in Greek science. The little Umayyad audience hall and bath of Qasr ‘Amra, built in the Syrian desert around A.D. 711 – only 79 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – contains, on the inside of the dome, a painted representation of the zodiac made on a stereographic projection, perhaps showing a familiarity with the methods of Ptolemy. The same room contains paintings of personifications of History, Poetry and Philosophy; each figure is labeled in Greek.

The interest of the Umayyads in Greek science attested by the paintings at Qasr ‘Amra is confirmed by early Muslim historians, who record the experiments in alchemy made by Khalid ibn al-Yazid, a grandson of the first Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya.

Astronomy and alchemy were thus the first sciences to preoccupy the Muslims. It is noteworthy that they were also typical of the interests of the Greek scholars of late antiquity, particularly of those in Alexandria. In fact, it was to be this tradition, with its emphasis on mathematics, physics, astronomy and medicine, that was to be most fruitfully elaborated by Muslim scientists.

Although the great library of Alexandria, repository of the learning of the classical world, no longer existed at the time of the Arab conquests, the works of many of the Greek scholars who studied there now exist only in Arabic translation. How did this come about? How did the Arabs, who had little or no direct contact with Greek science, and in any case were unfamiliar with the Greek language, gain their very detailed knowledge of it?

The answer to this question lies in the continued presence of a Greek-speaking (or reading) educated class among the subject populations of the Muslim empire. When the Umayyad dynasty-the language of whose administration, until A.D. 699, was Greek – was supplanted by that of the Abbasids in A.D. 750, the center of the empire shifted eastward. A new capital, Baghdad, was built in Iraq on the banks of the Tigris. Here, not far from the old Persian capital of Ctesiphon, the character of the empire changed.

Although the Umayyads had made use of non-Arab, Greek-speaking civil servants, they had remained firmly Arab in their tastes and philosophy of rule, and had made little effort to attract the subject population to the religion of Islam. Now, all this was changed; the Abbasids from the beginning conceived of an Islamic polity based on religious affiliation rather than national origin. Baghdad became an international city, where Persians, Indians, Greeks, Sogdians – from beyond the Oxus- Armenians, Turks, Jews and Arabs lived side by side. This inevitably led to a mingling of varied intellectual traditions; at the same time, the language of the court – and increasingly of the people -was Arabic.

The Arabic-speaking intelligentsia of Baghdad were of course aware, through their contacts with Greek-speaking Muslims and Christians, of the great achievements of classical scientists. The university of Gondeshapur, the great intellectual center of Sassanid Persia, was not far from Baghdad. When the Council of Ephesus in 431 excommunicated Nestorius, his followers sought refuge in Persia, where the Sassanid Shahs welcomed them. The Nes-torians brought with them a knowledge of two sciences which were, with their help, later to be cultivated by the Muslims -medicine and astronomy.

Another Christian sect, the Monophysites, fleeing Byzantine persecution 20 years later, also settled in Persia, as well as in Syria, where they founded schools at Edessa, Nisibis, Antioch and Beirut, where law and rhetoric were particularly studied. These two disciplines were also later to become fruitful areas of Muslim scholarship.

The Indian scientific tradition mingled with that of Greece at Gondeshapur and other centers of Christian learning in Persia. The Indians were particularly concerned with mathematics, astrology and the scientific study of grammar. About the year 600 – during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad -Indian mathematicians developed the symbol zero and the system of place notation. This invention, first mentioned in the Islamic cultural area in a Syriac text written in A.D. 662, when the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya was ruling in Damascus, revolutionized the study of mathematics and made possible the great achievements of Muslim mathematicians.

It was during the early Abbasid period, however, that the tentative beginnings made under the Umayyads blossomed into a true scientific renaissance. Several of the early Abbasid caliphs made a systematic effort to translate Greek and Indian scientific texts into Arabic.

This effort began during the reign of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, who founded Baghdad and ruled from A.D. 754 to 775. Al-Mansur sent embassies to the Byzantine emperor to ask for Greek mathematical texts – in particular for the Elements of Euclid; the famous al-Ma’mun, later did the same. Ibn Khaldun, writing in North Africa in the 14th century, but making use of a wide variety of earlier sources, describes the remarkable efforts made by these caliphs to enrich the intellectual life of the Muslim community:

When the Byzantine emperors conquered Syria, the scientific works of the Greeks were still in existence. Then God brought Islam, and the Muslims won their remarkable victories, conquering the Byzantines as well as all other nations. At first, the Muslims were simple, and did not cultivate learning, but as time went on, and the Muslim dynasty flourished, the Muslims developed an urban culture which surpassed that of any other nation. They began to wish to study the various branches of philosophy, of whose existence they knew from their contact with bishops and priests among their Christian subjects. In any case, man has always had a penchant for intellectual speculation. The Caliph al-Mansur therefore sent an embassy to the Byzantine emperor, asking him to send him translations of books on mathematics. The emperor sent him Euclid’s Elements and some works on physics.

Muslim scholars studied these books, and their desire to obtain others was whetted. When al-Ma’mun, who had some scientific knowledge, assumed the caliphate, he wished to do something to further the progress of science. For that purpose, he sent ambassadors and translators to the Byzantine empire, in order to search out works on the Greek sciences and have them translated into Arabic. As a result of these efforts, a great deal of material was gathered and preserved.

Other Muslim historians record the arrival of an Indian scientist named Manka at the Abbasid court in A.D. 770, and he seems to have had a considerable influence on the mathematicians and astrologers of Baghdad, although we know little of the precise nature of this influence.

Under al-Ma’mun, a more systematic effort was made to translate Greek scientific texts into Arabic. He founded an institute for the purpose, called the Bait al-Hikma, The House of Wisdom, and staffed it with salaried Christian and Muslim scholars. The work of translation was complex. Christian translators first rendered the Greek texts into Syriac, the language with which they were most familiar. These preliminary versions were then put into Arabic, with Muslim Arabic-speakers correcting them for style.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 30 Eylül 2016, 10:17