- Muslims and even western sources will present the Islamic Golden Age as the basis for our current discoveries.
- How accurate is this presentation of history?
Muslims and westerns sources have tended to repeat, without performing the research, that scientific and philosophical discoveries in Europe were highly dependent upon both Islamic discoveries and the maintenance and translation of Greek intellectual property. In this, I cover the accuracy of this claim.
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One of the major misunderstandings related to the Islamic Golden Age of Discovery is to paper over or misappropriate there term science and Islamic societies. This is explained in the following quotation.
Whatever modern science owes to Arabic science, the intellectual activity of the medieval Islamic world was not of the same kind as the European scientific revolution, which came after a radical break from ancient natural philosophy.
Indeed, even though we use the term “science” for convenience, it is important to remember that this word was not coined until the nineteenth century; the closest word in Arabic — ilm — means “knowledge,” and not necessarily that of the natural world. – The New Atlantis
The following quote from the same source explains why the Golden Age is referred to as Arabic.
preliminary caution must be noted about both parts of the term “Arabic science.” This is, first, because the scientists discussed here were not all Arab Muslims. Indeed, most of the greatest thinkers of the era were not ethnically Arab. This is not surprising considering that, for several centuries throughout the Middle East, Muslims were a minority (a trend that only began to change at the end of the tenth century).
Still, there are two reasons why it makes sense to refer to scientific activity of the Golden Age as Arabic. The first is that most of the philosophical and scientific work at the time was eventually translated into Arabic, which became the language of most scholars in the region, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. And second, the alternatives — “Middle Eastern science” or “Islamic science” — are even less accurate. This is in part because very little is known about the personal backgrounds of these thinkers. – The New Atlantis
The Lack of Division Between Church and State Under Islam
Of all of the world’s major religions, Islam has proven the least willing to accept a partition between religion and politics, economics and learning. One reason for this is Islam is incredibly prescriptive, telling its adherents even how to go to the bathroom. Islam considers itself the total solution to everything. Since its inception, this built up a superiority complex among Muslims that inhibited them from learning from other societies, as Islam teaches Muslims to detest non-Muslims.
Islam creates a crackerjack system for converting non-Muslims and recruiting warriors, with things like the promise of 72 virgins. For centuries, Islam was fueled by the spoils of war.
The Role in Exaggerating the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery
The following video series challenges the claims made about the reliance on Europe on Arabic translations of Greek texts.
Video #1: On the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery
For example, the developments in science slowed by roughly 950 AD. This is during the Umayyad caliphates. This was the end of the greatest spread of Islam. Why did the improvements in science stop at least 350 years before the Islamic empire began its decline?
The previous reason Europeans took back cities like Seville, where great Islamic libraries were located, did not happen until around 1250. This was 300 years after the scientific developments began to slow.
Major Islamic Historical Dates
|Year||Discovery or Caliphate Event|
|610||Mohammed is proclaimed as prophet|
|623||For first 13 years, Mohammed only accumulates roughly 100 followers.|
|628||Defeats Jewish fortress of Kaybar|
|629||Mohammed and his army conquers Mecca|
|632||Beginning of Rashidun Caliphate|
|638||Muslims Conquer Roman/Byzantine Syria|
|661||End of Rashidun Caliphate|
|651||Sassanid Persian empire is conquered in its entirety after 18 years of war.|
|661||Beginning of Umayyad Caliphate|
|698||Muslims conquer North Africa|
|750||End of Umayyad Caliphate, which followed extreme Arab supremacy overall all other Muslims.|
|750||Beginning of Abbasid Caliphate led to more power being shared with non-Arabs, and less expansionary foreign policy.|
|820||Persian Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi makes major contribution to what is now algebra, astronomy, trigonometry, geography.|
|825||Al-Mamun pushes Greek rationalism, called Mu'tazilism, undermining Islamic scholars.|
|861||Abassid empire splinters into many factions after 861 (Right around the rational schism)|
|880||Excluding expansion into SE Asia 100s of years later, Islam does not expand much geographically from this point.|
|885||Mu'tazilism is soundly defeated by irrational non cause and effect Ash'arism|
|950||Islamic Discoveries Slow After This Point|
|1099||Islamic law stops making progress.|
|1199||Islamic Discoveries Completely Stop|
|1238||Christian Europeans Take Back Cordoba|
|1250||Christian Europeans Take Back Seville|
|1258||End of Abbasid Caliphate|
|1258||Beginning of Ottoman Caliphate|
|1492||Christian Europeans take back Granada and push Muslims and Jews out of Iberia.|
|1512||End of Ottoman Caliphate|
This timeline shows the strong correlation between the invasion of countries and Islamic discoveries. The zenith of Islamic discovery is roughly 70 years after it stops expanding and coming into contact with newly conquered regions’ intellectual property.
Video #2: On the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery
This describes how the Vikings raided many monasteries, which greatly reduced the availability, and the reduced numbers of Greek speakers restricted access to existing books. However, the standard narrative makes it sound as if the entirety of Greek intellectual property was lost and only maintained by the Muslims. If it weren’t for the Muslims, European society would have never had access to this intellectual property.
Video #3: On the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery
This video describes the dates of the decline of Islamic discoveries and the “PR campaign” by Muslims to propose that Europe had lost the lead in science and transferred to Muslim countries. This was based upon Muslim’s natural superiority complex as taught by the Koran and their military victories. Muslims declared themselves, and not Europeans, as the proper inheritors of Greek culture.
One of Muslims’ highly problematic arguments was that Christians had ruined their claim to Greek intellectual property because they had chosen Christianity over Islam. And that only Muslims possess philosophy, and that Christianity is incompatible with philosophy. And that these arguments were made for hundreds of years by Muslims.
Video #4: On the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery
In this video, the claim that access to Greek texts was lost to Europeans is challenged. Europeans already had better and original Greek texts. This is an enormous issue because the claim is routinely made that all of the Greek work would have been lost without Muslim society.
Video #5: On the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery
This video explains that the claims by Muslims of being foundational to European science are not true. The works of Aristotle, for example, were not translated from Arabic until the 12th century, by which time Europeans for over 200 years of the work of Aristotle from their own sources.
This quote is also of interest.
Over the centuries, the number of identifiable Islamic philosophers is relatively small. Among these, the most eminent were al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, Avempace, and Averroes. Some see Averroes, who died in 1198 as the last significant commentator on Aristotle. – Edward Grant
Secondly, Muslim scholars, blinded by their adherence to Islam, repeatedly pushed their conclusions to be consistent with Islam. This brings up the question of how much Muslim scholars were able to “think out of the Islam box.” One cannot interpret new knowledge if everything has to be made consistent with Islam.
The video provides the following analysis of the work of Al Ghazali. Al Ghazali stated no causality, and there is no event between an event and a subsequent event.
al-Ghazali charges the Islamic Hellenistic philosophers with heresy for heir belief in the eternity of the world, God’s lack of knowledge of particular events, and the denial of physical resurrection, all of which are in opposition to the literal sense of the Qur’an.
Like earlier Ash’arites, al-Ghazali uses this argument in a radical sense. The fact that we experience cotton as burning every time it touches fire informs us neither 1) about any causal connection between the fire and the burning or cotton nor 2) whether the fire is the only cause. – Frank Griffel
While philosophers like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd made some progress, al-Ghazali would have led to a dead-end if the European philosophers adopted it. And in the eleventh century, Hellenistic, so Greek studies in Islamic civilization were on their way out.
How can these three scholars be considered such a significant basis for the development of European discoveries?
After the mid-thirteenth century, there was a shift back to translating directly from Greek. This interest in Greek is marked in the studies of Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste. With respect to Aristotle’s libri naturales, it led to the replacement of earlier Arabic-Latin translations by new translations from Greek, the correction of earlier Greek translations, and the completion of the corpus, first by Grosseteste and then by William of Moerbeke. – Charles Burnett
Muslims and Their Contributions to Alchemy and Chemistry
The video points out that the belief in alchemy greatly held chemistry back.
The Muslims brought alchemy to Europe, brought in the 12th century, who had been studying it for 400 years. This was a translation from Greek that, unlike the earlier described Greek texts, that the Europeans did not possess. However, the problem with viewing this as a basis for the later developments in chemistry, alchemy was a dead-end that consumed an enormous number of years and even became an obsession of Issac Newton.
Alchemy is a form of false knowledge, but some foundational ideas used in alchemy testing proved beneficial not for alchemy (which is not possible) but for other purposes. Western alchemists had to depart from the ideas of the Arabic alchemists. However, the standard narrative seems to interpret everything as being “based on something else.” That would be true if Arabic alchemy were true, but it was not. Alchemy was a pipe dream, and the only beneficial thing that persisted from it was the testing approach and the tools used to try to get this pipe dream to work. However, this video points out that this testing approach existed in Europe. The testing approach or “experimentalism” developed by Arabic alchemists was not necessary for Europeans to develop chemistry. That is, it was not a “unique contribution.”
Furthermore, the concept of 7 elements of matter, aether, water, fire, earth, wind, mercury, and sulfur, which greatly influenced medical alchemy, is false. The acceptance of the 7 element hypothesis held back the development of chemistry, which did not occur until the 17th century, but Europeans. Alchemy almost appears to be something that appealed to scholars with marginal mental stability, as the following quote suggests.
Esoteric systems developed that blended alchemy into a broader occult Hermeticism, fusing it with magic, astrology, and Christian cabala. A key figure in this development was German Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535), who received his Hermetic education in Italy in the schools of the humanists. In his De Occulta Philosophia, he attempted to merge Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and alchemy. – Wikipedia
This type of quote makes one wonder how much productive work was being done in all of these alchemy studies. When you search for transmuting materials into precious metals ends up entangling you in Kabbalah, this is a problem. And it certainly was a problem.
Although most of these appointments were legitimate, the trend of pseudo-alchemical fraud continued through the Renaissance. Betrüger would use sleight of hand, or claims of secret knowledge to make money or secure patronage. Legitimate mystical and medical alchemists such as Michael Maier and Heinrich Khunrath wrote about fraudulent transmutations, distinguishing themselves from the con artists. False alchemists were sometimes prosecuted for fraud. – Wikipedia
One might wonder why, after 400 years, the Muslim scholars did not begin to think that the entire practice was not valid.
How Much Time Did Europe Waste on Alchemy?
If one considers the time wasted alone by Issac Newton on alchemy and considering what Newton could have discovered if he realized that Alchemy was an impossibility, one gets one to some idea of the negative impact of Muslim scholarship on Europe. However, uncountable European scholars invested time in alchemy, which could have been allocated to fruitful endeavors. Did this compensate for the small number of tools or instruments provided by Muslim alchemists to Europe? It is difficult to say for sure. However, what is curious is that the question is never asked. Alchemy can likely be considered a “discovery” by Muslim scholars that set European science back.
Furthermore, let us remember that the time lag between Muslim scholars communicating alchemy to Europe and chemistry development was 500 years. That is 500 years of largely wasted effort, although the effort invested in alchemy varied along those centuries. Before Muslims communicated alchemy to Europe, they had worked on it for 400 years. That is 900 years of effort that resulted in a dead-end. To this day, no one has converted other materials into gold. This must rank as one of the, if not the worst investments of intellectual effort in human history. In fact, the investment of time into alchemy is a testament to a complete lack of understanding of material science. That is, the goal of alchemy is based upon scientific ignorance. The video also points out that the scientific revolution occurred in Europe 400 years after Muslims communicated alchemy to Europe. If the testing method was so powerful (which we now know that Europe already possessed by the time Muslims communicated it), why did it take another 400 years for the scientific revolution to occur? Imagine for a second that someone communicates intellectual property to you. And then, 400 years later, your uncountable descendants make a tangential discovery related to that intellectual property. How powerful was that intellectual property?
Based on this feeble evidence, modern Muslims take credit for both the development of chemistry in Europe and the scientific method’s development.
Al Jazeera produces this video. Al Jazeera is 100% funded by Qatar’s government, a country with no freedom of speech protections, and which “apes” the slick production values of western media.
The claim by this Al Jazeera is that all chemistry is based upon the discoveries by Islamic scholars. However, what the Islamic scholars brought to Europe was a series of tools. The video claims that Islamic scholars invented empirical testing that later drove the development of chemistry. However, these contributions were communicated to Europe in the 12th century, but the chemistry did not emerge as a field until the 18th century. A few questions arise.
- Why didn’t Islamic scholars have anything to do with the development of chemistry?
- Why didn’t Islamic scholars develop chemistry themselves?
How Much Progress Did Muslim Scientists Make in 400 Years of Alchemy?
Something else pointed out in the video undercuts the argument of Muslim intellectual property in alchemy. At the 42 minute mark in the video, it is pointed out that but the middle of the 13th century, European scholars were no longer reading Islamic books on alchemy. Instead, they were writing their own books on alchemy.
And that around this time, the recovery of the rest of the classical canon was completed, and European scholars were turning their attention from Arabic sources, and turning to the newly available Greek sources, which in many cases they considered to be superior. – Veritas et Caritas
So, the question arises. If the Muslim scholars had 400 years to make improvements to alchemy, and yet once available European scholars turned back to the original Greek texts on alchemy, what does that tell us about the progress made by Muslim scholars in this 400 years period?
When Did Alchemy Peter Out in Europe?
Observe this quote for when European scholars moved away from alchemy.
The decline of European alchemy was brought about by the rise of modern science with its emphasis on rigorous quantitative experimentation and its disdain for “ancient wisdom”. Although the seeds of these events were planted as early as the 17th century, alchemy still flourished for some two hundred years, and in fact may have reached its peak in the 18th century. As late as 1781 James Price claimed to have produced a powder that could transmute mercury into silver or gold. – Wikipedia
Yes, European scientists moved away from alchemy when experimentation became stronger and more quantitative and when they turned away or broke from more traditional ideas.
This is consistent because the more you understand about materials and materials science, the less potential there appears to be alchemy.
The Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, and Greeks thought alchemy was an opportunity because they knew so little about material science.
Let us take in one quote from Indian alchemy.
The goals of alchemy in India included the creation of a divine body (Sanskrit divya-deham) and immortality while still embodied (Sanskrit jīvan-mukti). Sanskrit alchemical texts include much material on the manipulation of mercury and sulphur, that are homologized with the semen of the god Śiva and the menstrual blood of the goddess Devī. – Wikipedia
That is religious or mystical and nothing at all to do with science.
Advancements Towards Modern Algebra
The strongest claim for the beneficial output of the Golden Age of Discovery of Islam was Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi’s work.
His major discoveries are found in Wikipedia.
Al-Khwarizmi’s popularizing treatise on algebra (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, c. 813–833 CE:171) presented the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations. One of his principal achievements in algebra was his demonstration of how to solve quadratic equations by completing the square, for which he provided geometric justifications.
In the 12th century, Latin translations of his textbook on arithmetic (Algorithmo de Numero Indorum) which codified the various Indian numerals, introduced the decimal positional number system to the Western world. The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in 1145, was used until the sixteenth century as the principal mathematical text-book of European universities.
Al-Khwārizmī’s Zīj al-Sindhind also contained tables for the trigonometric functions of sines and cosine. A related treatise on spherical trigonometry is also attributed to him.
Al-Khwārizmī produced accurate sine and cosine tables, and the first table of tangents.
Al-Khwārizmī’s third major work is his Kitāb Ṣūrat al-Arḍ (Arabic: كتاب صورة الأرض, “Book of the Description of the Earth”), also known as his Geography, which was finished in 833. It is a major reworking of Ptolemy’s 2nd-century Geography, consisting of a list of 2402 coordinates of cities and other geographical features following a general introduction.
Certainly, al-Khwarizmi is one of the great scholars in history. However, the video points out that al-Khwarizmi’s contribution was rhetorical algebra, which means that it did not use numbers and symbols. It was European scholars who created what we knew as modern algebra in the 16th century. Again, there is a considerable time lag between when the Muslim discovery is communicated and when it leads to the supposed thing it leads to.
The video contradicts Muslim apologists’ claims that the work of Copernicus and Newton was based upon the work of Muslim geometry, stating that Newton used Euclidean geometry and Copernicus did not use algebra but used geometric algebra from the Greeks and trigonometry, and nothing from the Muslim world.
The video uses the following quote to explain the work of Newton and Galileo concerning algebra.
Nowhere in Newton’s and Galileo’s theoretical work on motion can one find an algebraic equation. Now neither Kepler nor Galileo had a useful notation for representing motion. they do not use algebra, but relied on Greek models, including the detailed use of geometric proportion theory. – Ed Dellian
This raises the question of whether Muslim apologists say these things have the technical knowledge to know what European scholars used or whether they are “making things up” as they go. It is also suspicious that some of the most prominent European scholars, not more obscure scholars, have their contributions based upon Muslim discoveries. It is almost as if the Muslim apologist looked up the most prominent discoveries in Europe and tried to backward engineer the Muslim invention into their work. This claim is nefarious, as very few people will have the background to falsify the claim.
Furthermore, the claim may also be based upon Muslim apologists guessing. The Muslim world has a low understanding of math and science. This is widely acknowledged as a problem even by Muslim governments, making Muslims susceptible to the Dunning Kruger Effect if they try to find pathways to Muslim contributions in European mathematical or scientific accomplishments. As Muslims want to believe that this is true, they are likely to believe it as soon as they hear the claim.
Details on Islamic Astronomical Discoveries in Assisting Copernicus
The video goes into great detail on while Copernicus sites several Arabic astronomers, they are observational citations, rather than direct.
This is explained in the included quotation.
The difficulty becomes critical when we realize that so far we can establish similarities between the works of Copernicus and the works of Urqi Tusi and Ibn al Shatir, but in such a way that none of those Arabic sources could account for all those similarities. That is, if we were to assume that Copernicus knew of Urqi’s work, we cannot explain from that work alone his knowledge of the Tusi Couple. And if we assume he knew of Tusi’s work, then we cannot explain his acquaintance with Urqi’s work through Tusi’s work. And if we assume that he knew of Ibn al-Shatir’s work, who lived a century after Urqi and Tusi, then we cannot explain Copernicus’ insistence on proving the Tusi Couple which is nowhere proved in the work of Ibn al-Shatir. – George Saliban
And this question naturally arises.
If Arabic astronomers made such fantastic contributions to the field, why does Copernicus not use their work? Why does he use the Greeks’ work, which was developed many hundreds of years before the Muslim scholars? What again must be emphasized is the passage of time. Muslim scholars had roughly 500 years to make progress on the Greeks’ works, and we see European scholars repeatedly turning to Greek works over Muslim works. And this is not a matter of translations. Many scholars spoke neither Greek nor Arabic but had access to these texts translated into their own languages.
Avicenna or Ibn Sina on Medicine
The new Atlantis has the following to say about the great scholar Avicenna.
Breakthroughs in medicine continued with the physician and philosopher Avicenna (also known as Ibn-Sina; died 1037), whom some consider the most important physician since Hippocrates. He authored the Canon of Medicine, a multi-volume medical survey that became the authoritative reference book for doctors in the region, and — once translated into Latin — a staple in the West for six centuries. The Canon is a compilation of medical knowledge and a manual for drug testing, but it also includes Avicenna’s own discoveries, including the infectiousness of tuberculosis.
What About the Intellectual Property Regions Conquered by Islam?
Another problem with the Golden Age narrative is that it presumes that none of the regions conquered by Muslims would have made progress over 500 years. That is, these civilizations would standstill unless the Muslims had conquered them. However, it should go without saying that this is not true. This is a critical point that is ignored by the narrative of the Golden Age.
Muslim societies had hundreds of years to make progress based on what they captured. However, considering the timescale, they did not make very much progress. They were obtaining diminishing returns from their investment in science, as their discoveries declined within seventy years after the expansion of the Caliphates and associated Muslim kingdoms stopped in 880.
How Much Intellectual Property Was Destroyed or Discarded by Muslims During Their Conquests?
Most of the focus on the Golden Age of Islamic Discovery focuses on the intellectual property that was retained and translated. However, this is not the entire story. A great deal of intellectual property was destroyed by Muslims. Why is the subject not discussed when the topic of the Golden Are is put forward?
Why Don’t We Attribute to the Nazis a Golden Age of Invention and Art?
The Nazis produced a great deal of good scientific work, however, how much intellectual property in Europe was destroyed by the Nazis? How many historical builders alone were destroyed on both sides of the war? There are sunken ships all over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that are leaking toxic materials into the water. The Nazis, combined with the following conquests of the Soviet Union, which lasted far longer, of central and eastern Europe put those countries into a stagnant condition to which they have still only partially extricated themselves. Is that fact cleansed by the fact that Nazi science was instrumental in the US eventually getting to the Moon? How much intellectual property was destroyed by the allied bombing of Nazi Germany? The Nazis also stole an enormous amount of art from the countries they conquered, and some of this art was destroyed. Again, why don’t we refer to this period as the Nazi Golden Age of art?
The Golden Age of Islamic Discovery appears to be one of the only instances where we only focus on the intellectual contributions of a conquering society, and to add on to this distortion, completely ignore the progress that would have been made if those societies has not been conquered by Muslims.
Non-Islamic Studies as “Foreign Sciences”?
Legally autonomous institutions were utterly absent in the Islamic world until the late nineteenth century. And madrassas nearly always excluded study of anything besides the subjects that aid in understanding Islam: Arabic grammar, the Koran, the hadith, and the principles of sharia. These were often referred to as the “Islamic sciences,” in contrast to Greek sciences, which were widely referred to as the “foreign” or “alien” sciences (indeed, the term “philosopher” in Arabic — faylasuf — was often used pejoratively). – The New Atlantis
Who Has Ruled Islamic Societies?
With a couple of exceptions, every country in the Middle Eastern parts of the Muslim world has been ruled by an autocrat, a radical Islamic sect, or a tribal chieftain. Islam has no tradition of separating politics and religion. – The New Atlantis
This video does a brilliant job of explaining how The Islamic Golden Age is what led to the decline of Europe.
An investigation of the details concludes that the Golden Age’s contribution to European discoveries that followed has been greatly overestimated. One thing to remember is that Islamic sources were perpetuating the idea that science had died in Christian Europe for hundreds of years. And the arguments used to support this are not legitimate, and Islamic centric such as Christianity being incompatible with philosophy. What comes through in the research is how little European scholars relied on the work of Muslim scholars and how little progress Muslim scholars made over the 500 year period of the Golden Age of Discovery. Islamic sources have essentially been saying they held all of the keys to developing the scientific revolution and the Renaissance. They could have proven this by, in fact, creating the scientific revolution and the Renaissance in Muslim lands — however, as we know, this did not happen.
It is not uncommon for civilizations to have leads and lose them, as the following quotation explains.
Like the Muslims, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of which were at one time far more advanced than the West, did not produce the scientific revolution. – The New Atlantis