Muslim Scholars Been Undervalued Throughout Western History?
Ahmad Bakir Tarabishy
history's greatest crimes is the almost complete omission of the debt the West
owes to Islam and the Muslims.
The history books that fill our bookshelves are indispensable recollections of
past civilizations’ glories and failures, achievements and abominations.
Unfortunately, history can never be completely objective, since it is written by
men, and men have a tendency to restrict their thoughts to a single point of
view. While history has created in our minds many heroes from murderers, and
criminals from saints, one of its greatest crimes is the almost complete
omission of the debt the West owes to Islam and the Muslims. W. Montgomery Watt
describes the problem:
Europe was reacting against Islam it belittled the influence of Saracens and
exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman heritage. So today an
important task for us is to correct this false emphasis and to acknowledge fully
our debt to the Arab and Islamic world.
(Ghazanfar, Islamic World and the Western Renaissance)
Students in Western Universities might have heard that Muslims were once leaders
in science, but their accomplishments are often belittled, and their scientists
are reduced to but borrowers who translated Greek and Persian works then
assumedly hid them on a bookshelf so the West can later expand and build on them
once it awakes from its sleep during the dark age. Donald Cardwell, in the
Fontana History of Technology, claims that technologies imported into Europe
during the Dark Ages "originated in China and India and were merely passed on by
the Arabs." While cultural bigotry plays a major role in this distortion of the
facts, the achievements of the Muslims have been left out of Western historical
records as a result of the hatred of Islam embedded in the Judeo-Christian
world, which shall be traced to many factors.
Before thoughtlessly calling out "conspiracy" as many Muslims today so often do,
one must show that the Muslims actually did have an integral role in scientific
development. Due to the wealth of achievements, however, this is not very hard
of Allah and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him)
set the basis for an intellectual tradition in the Islamic world which relied on
reason and honesty. The purpose of knowing the natural world in Islam is to
reveal the signs that Allah set in his creation. "We shall show them Our
portents on the horizon and within themselves until it will be manifest unto
them that it is the Truth" (The Holy Quran, 41:53). While Greek philosophy was
based on the relativity of truth and change, in Islam, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr
and sciences came to possess instead a stability and a ‘crystallization’ based
on the immutability of the principles from which they had issued forth; it is
this stability that is too often mistaken in the West today for stagnation and
The Muslims made numerous advances in many fields, one the most important being
physics. They received the physics texts of the Greeks, then translated,
corrected, and expanded on them greatly. The basis of the study of optics can be
attributed directly to the Muslims. Al-Hassen bin Al-Haythem is considered the
founder of this field. He and Al-Beirouni also logically came to the conclusion,
in disagreement with Aristotle, that the speed of light is constant and that
light is composed of extremely small particles moving at extremely high speeds,
which is the basis of the quantum nature of light, an endlessly celebrated
tribute to 20th century science (Mahmoud 112-113; Davies 29).
Muslim scholars also laid the foundations of mathematics. Muslims were the first
to recognize the importance of and use the zero effectively, borrowed from the
Indians, bringing to Europe what is now called "Arabic numerals". Otherwise, the
scientists and mathematicians of Europe would probably still be counting on
their fingers or fumbling with clumsy roman numerals when analyzing data.
Muhammad bin Mousa Al-Khawarizmi is considered the founder of modern algebra,
and the mathematicians that followed made ever more impressive contributions.
Ghiath Edden Al-Kashi, approximated pi to 16 places past the decimal point. The
system know as Pascal’s triangle, which assists in factoring equations in the
form of (a + b)n, was developed by Al-Karkhi, and not Louis Pascal. Later Muslim
mathematicians were able to factor equations as complex as fourth degree
equations; fifth degree equations are impossible to factor. (Mahmoud 137-147)
The contribution of Muslim mathematicians to algebra is integral to the
development of all sciences as mathematics is frequently referred to as the
language of science. Newton would have had quite a difficult time quantitatively
describing his laws of motion without using the algebra first implemented by the
The Muslims made monumental strides in the practice and study of medicine. Ibn
Sina’s text the Canon of Medicine, was used as a text in Europe for centuries
later, and its popularity dwarfed the books of Galen and Hippocrates. Physicians
like Abul Qasim al-Zahrawi, Ibn Sina, and Ali Abbas, wrote texts on surgery that
would form the foundations of Western Surgery (Shustery 152-153). A story by the
Muslim physician Usamah bin al-Manqaz serves as a good example of the
superiority of Muslims doctors over their European contemporaries:
Among the marvels of the medical affairs on incident is this that Sahib Munitrah
wrote to his uncle that there was need of a doctor to treat his companions. My
uncle sent a Christian doctor, Thabit, to them, but he came back within ten
days. We asked him, "Have you been able to treat the patients in such a short
period?" He said, "They had brought to me a soldier who had a boil on one of his
feet. When a bandage dipped in the juice of Linjah (a plant) was applied, the
abscess got burst. There was another patient, a woman whose dry and chapped skin
had developed itch and was giving her trouble. I kept her on a restricted diet
as a preventive and tried to make her dry skin moist. But suddenly an English
doctor appeared on the scene and told the people there about me, "What does he
know of medical science and treatment of patients?" Then he asked the soldier
with the abscess on his foot whether he would like to live with one leg or die
with both. The soldier said he would prefer to live with one leg only. So the
soldier and a sharp axe were brought and I was witness to this scene. The
English doctor straightened his leg on a wooden board and asked the soldier
(executioner, Tr.) to chop off his leg with a single stroke of his axe. He made
a stroke with the axe, and I was a witness to that, and found that it failed to
sever the leg. So he made a second attempt. The bone marrow was thrown out and
the patient died immediately.
The author then reveals how the English doctor poured water on the woman with
dry skin, and she too died a sudden, painful death.
While historians have written many books on the high level of sophistication and
learning of the Muslims compared to the Europeans during the dark ages, few have
thought to make the connection between Muslim science and the scientific
explosion that was to occur later in Europe. The dependence of the latter on the
former, however, is immense. It would not be controversial to say that the
scientific revolution that took place in 17th Europe could not have occurred
without the help of the Muslims.
The maelstrom brought upon Europe by the intellectual tradition taken from the
Muslim world had far-reaching consequences on European life. Slowly as education
spread throughout Europe, with Universities arising in the major cities, the
authority of science grew exponentially. Even the powerful Church of Rome would
soon go down as it foolishly tried to challenge rationality and scientific
proofs with superstitions and the fading doctrine of papal authority. The West
would take this tradition and run amok with it, venturing in directions never
before taken by humanity. Soon Europe, which was during Islam’s golden age
dismissed by Ibn Khaldun as "those parts", had superseded the Muslim World in
every way imaginable: scientifically, militarily, economically, and
administratively. (Eaton 32-33)
However, a perplexing relationship existed between the Muslim world and Europe.
It was not one of mutual reverence and respect, nor was it one of a
father-culture, daughter-culture nature. There was an overpowering sentiment of
hate embedded in European culture that outweighed any benefit or advancement the
Muslims would give to them.
For hundreds of years the Muslims would take a permanent place in the forefront
of the European mind. Wave after wave of Muslim armies crashed into Europe,
coming with superior military training, unseen technology, and a culture alien
to all what the European knew. Gai Eaton explains:
"menace of Islam" had remained the one constant factor amidst change and
transformation and it had been branded on the European consciousness. The mark
of that branding is still visible… "The fact remains", says the Tunisian writer
Hichem Djaït, "that medieval prejudices insinuated themselves into the
collective unconsciousness of the West at so profound a level that one may ask,
in terror, whether they can ever be extirpated from it." (30-31)
This fear would turn into hate and aggression as Europe regained its strength.
The Muslims also would serve as a means for Europe to do so. These "pagans" as
Europeans saw them, would be the perfect enemy for Europeans to rally together.
They did so, quite pathetically, in the crusades. The crusades, in terms of
human losses, were one of the most lopsided military campaigns in history, with
the exception of the savage massacres of Muslim civilians by the Christian
armies. However, the crusades, initially being a crushing defeat for the
Christians, would introduce them to the enormity of the gap between them and the
At the same time, Europeans scholars were learning at the hands of the Muslims
in Spain. The translated Greek works would introduce the Europeans to an
indigenous intellectual tradition they never knew existed. This helped spark a
new self-confidence among the scholars of Europe. Unfortunately, the scholars of
Europe were torn between their intellectual loyalty and the strong hatred of
their teachers present in their culture. Karen Armstrong explains:
in particular were a light to the Christian West and yet this debt has rarely
been fully acknowledged. As soon as the great translation work had been
completed, scholars in Europe began to shrug off this complicating and
schizophrenic relationship with Islam and became very vague indeed about who the
Arabs really were… There is an unhealthy repression and doublethink about people
who are at one and the same time guides, heroes, and deadly enemies. This is
very clear in the scholarship about Islam. (64-65, 225-226)
This hatred, however, was, for the most part of Islamic history, one-sided. The
Muslims had little reason to hate, or even to be concerned about Europe. To them
it was a land of barbarism and backwardness, of a foreign landscape and weather.
The battle of Poiters, for example, is considered by the Europeans as one of the
major turning points in history, where the French armies repelled a Muslim raid
into southern France. However, rarely is the battle mentioned by Muslim
historians, and when mentioned it has been described as but a trivial raid.
Another factor that plays alongside the long-standing hatred of Islam in Europe
is the phenomenon known as orientalism. This concept was first articulated by
Edward Said in his landmark book Orientalism, which is now considered required
reading for anyone studying Middle Eastern culture or history. Orientalism is
the result of the elaboration of the imaginary distinction between East and
West: geographically, culturally, morally, and intellectually. The result of
Orientalism are claims that go along the lines of " ‘We’ are like this, but
‘they’, for unexplainable reasons, are fundamentally different, and in due
course, inferior." This in turn serves as justification for "Us" to rule "Them",
to exploit "Them", to guide "Them" to our enlightened ways. Academic Orientalism
gave rise to arrogant, seemingly humanistic ideals which drove imperialism,
whose effects are felt very painfully in the Muslim, as well as most of the
third, world. As Said explains it:
It [Orientalism] is… a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic,
scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an
elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up
of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of
"interests" which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological
reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description,
it not only creates but also maintains; it is rather than expresses, a certain
will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to
incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it
is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding
relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists
in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the
exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment),
power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or
anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural ( as with
orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas
about what "we" do and what "they" cannot do or understand as "we" do). Indeed,
my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a
considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has
less to do with the Orient than it does with "our" [Western] world.(12)[Italics
in original text]
One may ask after looking at the reasons why Muslim scholars are vastly
undervalued in Western books is "Why should we care now?" The scholars are dead.
The ink in the history books has dried. What good will it bring Muslims, besides
a headache, to raise this issue now? It is done to restore confidence to the
Muslim Ummah, to remind believers what is needed to be great again. The Muslims
ruled from France to India, not only because of being blessed with the true
message, but also of being superior to the conquered people in all other
"worldly" ways. The Muslims would have never conquered the Persians without
superior military planning and tactics. The people of the Roman Empire in
greater Syria and North Africa would have never converted to Islam if the
Muslims were not materially superior to the Romans. The Khatib who gives the
Friday sermon, who believes that Muslims will become great again once they start
using their Miswak more often, is missing the whole story. Islam does not spread
through prayer and piety—people go to the Jannah through prayer and piety. Islam
provides a system that allows individuals to reach their fullest potentials in
this life, and to encourage worship that allows individuals to reach their
fullest potentials in the next.
Studying the lives of the Muslim scholars also provides modern-day Muslims with
a portrayal of the prototypical modern scientist. He is one who devotes his
efforts to discovering Allah’s signs in this world and who tries to direct his
or her discoveries those that produce social benefit.
For the Westerner, it is important to change these historical inaccuracies to
help improve the relations between the West and the Muslim world by finally
acknowledging the enormous debt owed to the Muslims. However, as the celeritous
progress of Western science pushes on, it is more likely that the increasing
arrogance and faith in Western science with its purely Western (Greek) origins
will keep this overdue apology from occurring. While a historian may mention
"Avicenna" or "Averroes" fleetingly in one of his or her books, the problem is
that what is left out is far greater than what is told. The eminent historian
George Sarton criticized those who "will glibly say ‘The Arabs simply translated
Greek writings, they were industrious imitators…’ This is not absolutely untrue,
but is such a small part of the truth, that when it is allowed to stand alone,
it is worse than a lie."
The Holy Qu'ran.
Armstrong, Karen. "Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World".
Doubleday: New York, 1991.
Davies, Paul. "Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature".
Penguin: London, 1995.
Eaton, Gai. "Islam and the Destiny of Man". The Islamic Texts Society:
Mahmoud, Yusuf. "Al-Injazat Al-Ilmiyya fil Hadara Al-Islamiyya". Dar Al-Bashir:
Reichmann, Felix. "The Sources of Western Literacy: The Middle Eastern
Civilizations". Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut, 1980.
Said, Edward. "Orientalism". Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1978.
Shustery, A. M. A. "Outlines of Islamic Culture". Sh. Muhammad Ashraf: Lahore,