Intellectual Diffusion of Muslims and the West during the ‘Middle Ages’

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

23 October 2015

History provides evidence of strong connections between Islam and the West with regard to the world of thought, philosophic and rational speculation during the “Middle Age”—or what some refer as the “Golden Era” of Islamic history.

The Islamic Empire opened a new era in the domain of science and literature with the Abbasids (in 750 CE). The multi-faceted cultural influence produced the early phase of the real scientific age of Islamic culture. The contribution of Muslim scholars to various fields and branches of knowledge—–like medicine, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, history, geography, law, theology, philology, etc.—was great and impressive. A galaxy of brilliant scientists, philosophers, and scholars emerged during this age, making valuable contributions to the culture not only of Islam but of the whole world. They directed their minds to every branch of human study and revolutionised thinking, feeling and action of man by the supremacy, power, and might of their pen.

For example, the contribution of prominent personalities, like, al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and al Ghazzali; such Arabic (Art) writings like Alf Laila wa Laila, Kalilah wa Dimnah, Sindbad, Ali Baba, Ruba’iyyat of ‘Umar al Khayyam, etc., of the same period have not only contributed to European thought and culture but have influenced many great personalities of Europe (West) as well. They provide an example and evidence both of cultural diffusion from Islam to Europe as well as of tolerance—thus showing that the relationship between civilisations is not one of clash or domination, but rather of mutual relationships, co-existence, interdependence and brotherhood.

Prominent Muslim philosophers of the “Medieval Era” were people of enormous scholarship and versatility carrying on original thinking and research in various branches of knowledge (besides translating works of Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, etc.). They were able to develop their own system of thought in various spheres of knowledge. Al Kindi, al Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Abu Ma’shar al Falaki (Albumazar), Ibn al Haytham (Alhazen), al Ghazali, Ibn Bajja (Avenpace) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and the like had built a strong and unbreakable link between nations and between civilisations. They paved the way for the release of reason from its strict confinement by pointing out that God does not create anything in vain. Holy Qur’an in Sura Al Anbiya (21: 16) declares: “We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them for a (mere) play.”

For example, the writings of al-Kindi (801-873 CE)—unanimously hailed as the first Arab Muslim philosopher—on philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, politics, and medicine, contributed widely to European thought and culture. His works on Aristotle’s Novum Organon were utilised by Roger Bacon and his contemporaries included Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas. Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE)—referred to as ‘Avicenna’ in Western literature—was an encyclopaedic philosopher of universal learning, who surpassed all his predecessors in the fluency and meticulousness of his style. Many western scholars including A Maurer Augustine, Federick Charles Copleston and Morewedge appreciated the greatness of Ibn Sina. For Augustine, Ibn Sina’s philosophy is a “highly personal achievement, ranking among the greatest in the history of philosophy”.

Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE) was another celebrated philosopher of the “medieval era”, whose works are voluminous and on various fields of knowledge: jurisprudence, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, physics and grammar, etc. St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) was greatly influenced by him. Many great personalities of Europe translated the works of Ibn Rushd thereby showing his impact, influence and impression. By the end of the 12th century, most of his works were translated into Latin, some by Gerard of Cremona (1114 -1187 CE), Robert Grossestete (d.1253 CE) and thus entered the mainstream of European thought and culture.

Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 CE) was, perhaps, the most famous Muslim philosopher, jurist and theologian of this era. With his clarity of thought and force of argument, he was able to create a balance between religion and reason. He contributed in diverse fields of knowledge, and his most famous books include Tuhafat al Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ihya al ‘Ulum al Din (The Revival of the Sciences of Religion), ‘al Munqidh (the Saviour), etc. Al Ghazzali’s various works were translated into European languages and thus, entered “medieval” European culture and thought. His theological doctrines penetrated Europe, influenced European scholasticism and several of his arguments seem to have been adopted by Archbishop Raymund I (1126-1151 CE) and by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1294 CE) in the discussion of authority and reason.

 Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray has a PhD in Islamic Studies from AMU and presently teaches at Government Degree College Kokernag, Anantnag. Feedback:




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