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How Islam influenced the European Renaissance


All the Islamic discoveries were used by the Europeans as the raw material for the Scientific Revolution.


By Karima Saifullah

Many non-Muslims would find it hard to believe that there was a time in the Middle Ages when Islamic cities in the Middle East, such as Cairo, Baghdad, Cordoba and Damascus, were the center of civilization while Europe was living in the “Dark Ages”.

As a matter of fact Muslim countries then considered Europe to be chaotic, unorganized and backward. That’s why the period before the 1100s was called the “Dark Ages” in Christian Europe as the Europeans failed to benefit from Muslims’ scientific discoveries.

Europe even failed to learn from Muslim Spain, which played a vital role in the revolution of science. Cordoba, capital of Muslim Spain, was known for its scientific advances. Scholars and students from all over the world travelled to Cordoba to study.

The vast contrast in intellectual activity could be demonstrated by just one example. In the ninth century, the library of the monastery of St. Gall was the largest in Europe. It boasted 36 volumes. At the same time, Cordoba’s library contained over 500,000!

Moreover, studying at colleges was first applied by Muslims. Universities first appeared in Muslims countries in the late 600s and the early 700s, while leading colleges, like Oxford and the University of Paris (French: Université de Paris), were founded in the thirteenth century.

Amazingly, early European universities were also funded by trusts similar to Islamic ones. Some historians even trace old European colleges back to the Islamic system as their internal organization was very similar to the Islamic one. For example, the idea of Graduate (Sahib) and undergraduate (mutafaqqih) is derived directly from Islamic terms.

In the field of mathematics, the Arabic numerals, the number zero (0), and the decimal system were introduced to Europe by Muslims, helping them to solve problems in minutes instead of hours and laying the foundation for the Scientific revolution.

One of the most popular Muslim mathematicians is Al Kawarizmi, whose work has been translated into Latin. Al Kawarizmi laid the ground work for algebra and found methods to deal with complex mathematical problems, such as square roots and complex fractions. That’s probably why he was called the father of Algebra.

But Al Kawarizmi’s scientific contributions go beyond algebra. He worked in several other fields, particularly astronomy, astrology, geography and cartography. His work included many experiments, such as measuring the height of the earth’s atmosphere and discovering the principle of the magnifying lens.

Trigonometric work by Alkirmani of Toledo, northern Spain, was translated into Latin (from which we get the sine and cosine functions) along with the Greek knowledge of Geometry by Euclid.

Another famous Islamic icon is Ibnul Hairhum, whose works on Optics, (in which he deals with 50 Optical questions put to Muslim Scholars by the Franks), were translated into several languages.

It was the Muslims who discovered the Principle of Pendulum, which was used to measure time. In fact, many of the principles of Isaac Newton were derived from former Islamic scientific contributions.

Chemistry was also affected by Muslim scholars, especially alchemy. Jabir ibn-Hayyan (Geber) is one of the most popular Muslim chemists and many scholars link the introduction of the ‘scientific method’ back to him. Moreover, several terms used in Chemistry such as alchohol, alembic, alkali and elixir are of Islamic origin.

Muslims’ contributions to medicine could never be ignored. Every major Islamic city in the Middle Ages had a hospital; one of the largest at the time was in Cairo, which had more than 8000 beds, with separate wards for fevers, ophthalmic, dysentery and surgical cases.

One of the leading Muslim doctors is Al Rhazes who discovered the origin of smallpox and found that one could only acquire it once in his/hers life, thus showing the existence of the immune system and how it worked. He was an early proponent of experimental medicine and is considered the father of pediatrics, in addition to being a pioneer in neurosurgery and ophthalmology.

George Sarton, the father of the history of science, wrote: "Rhazes was the greatest physician of Islam and the Medieval Ages."

All the Islamic discoveries were used by the Europeans as the raw material for the Scientific Revolution. It’s tragic how Muslims’ contributions go by unacknowledged by Europe, whose renaissance couldn’t have occurred without the Islamic discoveries.

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