Medieval Muslim Scholars — Their Contributions and Shortcomings
Those who have read my essays know that I can hardly be called an apologist for Islam. I don’t like Islam at all and make no attempt to hide this fact, but I also don’t like dishonesty. I believe the so-called “Golden Age of medieval Islamic science” is absurdly overblown these days. Nevertheless, if you read history closely there is still room for granting some respect to a small number of scholars from a Muslim background who did decent work for their time.
I believe in giving credit where credit is due and have therefore, after spending years reading extensively about scientific history, prepared a list of the top dozen Muslim scholars before the Industrial Revolution who in my view deserve some respect for their work. I have only considered individuals who were at least nominally Muslims, not Christians, Jews or others who happened to live under Islamic rule. This means, for instance, that I have evaluated al-Razi, who came from a Muslim background although he wasn’t personally a believing Muslim at all, but not Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), a Jewish rabbi and physician.
The indisputable number 1 on my list is Ibn al-Haytham (ca. 965-1039), known under the Latinized name Alhazen in Western literature. He was born in Basra in present-day Iraq but spent many years in Cairo, Egypt. He was a prolific writer on many aspects of science and natural philosophy. His multivolume Book of Optics (Arabic: Kitab al-Manazir“Ž) was the single most important work on optics to appear anywhere between Greco-Roman Antiquity and the Scientific Revolution in Europe. His treatise contained a substantially correct model of vision: the passive reception of light reflected from other objects, not an active emanation of light rays from the eyes, and he combined mathematical reasoning with some forms of experimental verification. He provided the best model of human vision before Kepler in the early 1600s developed the first recognizably modern understanding of the retinal image.
David C. Lindberg indicates in the book Theories of vision – From al-Kindi to Kepler that although he relied heavily on scholarly contributions made by the ancient Greeks, his synthesis was nevertheless fresh and original: “Alhazen was neither Euclidean nor Galenist nor Aristotelian – or else he was all of them. Employing physical and physiological argument, he convincingly demolished the extramission theory; but the intromission theory he erected in its place, while satisfying physical and physiological criteria, also incorporated the entire mathematical framework of Euclid, Ptolemy, and al-Kindi. Alhazen thus drew together the mathematical, medical, and physical traditions and created a single comprehensive theory.”
Deciding who should be ranked as number 2 was slightly trickier, but in the end my vote goes to the Persian physician and alchemist Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi (ca. AD 860-925). He certainly belongs among the top five. Al-Razi, or Rhazes in Latin, came from present-day Iran. He was a freethinker in all things who never uncritically accepted the conclusions of any alleged scholarly or religious authority, past or present. He was a capable physician for his time, recognized the need for sanitation in hospitals and has been credited with being the first to clearly distinguish between the highly contagious viral diseases smallpox and measles.
Number 3 is Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (ca. AD 780-850), who authored the most significant works on algebra to appear between Greco-Roman Antiquity and Renaissance Europe. Al-Khwarizmi helped introduce Indian or Hindu-Arabic numerals from India to the Middle East and later to Europe. Latinized translations of his name and one of his book titles live on as the terms algorithm and algebra. According to David C. Lindberg, his Algebra “contains no equations or algebraic symbols, but only geometrical figures and Arabic prose, and it would not be recognized as algebra by a mathematics student of the twenty-first century. Its achievement was to deploy Euclidean geometry for the purpose of solving problems that we would now state in algebraic terms (including quadratic equations).” The work circulated in Europe and contributed in the long run to the development of a truly modern algebra there.
Number 4 is Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (ca. AD 721-815), or Geber in Latin, probably the most gifted Middle Eastern alchemist/practical chemist of the Middle Ages. He has been credited with a number of advances and was perhaps the first person to prepare nitric acid.
Number 5 is Ulugh Beg (ca. 1394-1449), a grandson of the brutal and influential Islamic conqueror Timur, often known as Tamerlane (1336-1405). His father had captured the city of Samarkand in Central Asia where Ulugh Beg proceeded to build an astronomical observatory. With improved instruments and careful observations, he made a new star catalogue with unprecedented accuracy for its time and even corrected some errors in Ptolemy’s calculations.
Number 6 is the Persian scholar Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), also renowned for the Rubaiyat poems attributed to him. He compiled astronomical tables and contributed to reform of the Persian calendar by introducing ideas from the Hindu one. The result was superior to the Julian calendar and at least comparable in accuracy to the Gregorian one. Khayyam was the first to solve some cubic equations and to see the equivalence between algebra and geometry. Further progress in this field did not take place in the Islamic world, only in Western Europe.
Number 7 is the Persian polymath Abu Rayhan Biruni, or al-Biruni (973-ca. 1050), “perhaps the most far-ranging scientific writer of the Islamic world.” Highly unusual for a Muslim scholar he knew several non-Muslim languages well and wrote about another society, India, with rare objectivity by Islamic standards. Al-Biruni “hadvarying degrees of proficiency in a number of languages, including Khwarezmian (an eastern Middle Iranian language), Persian, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Syriac, in addition to the Arabic in which he wrote.”
Number 8 is the Persian physician and philosopher Ibn Sina (ca. 980-1037), or Avicenna as he was called in Latin translations. He wrote widely on many topics, from physics to Aristotelian philosophy, and composed the Book of the Cure, an encyclopedia of general and natural philosophy. While not very original he was a competent physician for his time, and his Canon of Medicine was used as a medical textbook for centuries in the Middle East and Europe.
Number 9 is the North African historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), generally considered to be a forerunner of a number of disciplines in the social sciences. He developed one of the earliest nonreligious philosophies of history, contained in his work the Muqaddimah (“Introduction”) where he sought to explain the basic factors in the historical development of the Islamic countries. Yet he was limited by his traditional Islamic contempt for non-Muslim cultures.
Number 10 is al–Kindi (ca. AD 801-870), the first notable Muslim philosopher, although his reputation in the Middle East was eventually eclipsed by that of al-Farabi (ca. AD 878-950). Al-Kindi flourished in Baghdad in the ninth century where he wrote on many subjects ranging from medicine, optics, mathematics, Indian arithmetic and basic cryptography to the manufacture of swords. The attempt to reconcile Islam with Greek philosophy was to last for several centuries, but ultimately proved unsuccessful due to persistent religious resistance.
Number 11 is Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), or Averroes, an Andalusian Muslim who was born in CÃ³rdoba in modern-day Spain and died in Marrakesh in Morocco. His attempts to integrate Islamic traditions with ancient Greek thought and Aristotelian philosophy were largely ignored in the Islamic world but were ironically studied in Latin Christian Europe. He faced trouble for his freethinking ways and is today hailed as a beacon of “tolerance,” yet he was also an orthodox jurist of sharia law and served as an Islamic judge in Seville. He approved, without reservation, the killing of heretics in a work that was entirely philosophical in nature.
Number 12 on my list is the Egyptian astronomer Ibn Yunus (ca. 950-1009). “In many respects his astronomical works have a modern appearance; many of the parameters which he used in his Zij are much superior to those of his predecessors and he is also known for his meticulous calculations and attention to detail. . . . His observations are considered so reliable that some of the thirty eclipses reported by him were used by Simon Newcomb in the nineteenth century, in determining the secular acceleration of the moon.”
A lunar crater has been named in Ibn Yunus’ honor and another one in honor of Ibn al-Zarqali, Latinized as Arzachel, an eleventh-century Andalusian astronomer who was partly responsible for the so-called Toledan Tables. These were accurate for their time and were later translated into Latin and used in Europe. The mathematician al-Battani (ca. AD 850-929) made measurements of the stars and planets, and the Persian astronomer and mathematician Abul Wafa (AD 940-998) did some notable work in trigonometry, to name just a few others.
Those mentioned above would constitute my personal choice for the top dozen. Their relative ranking can be debated and a few other possible contenders might be considered, for instance the Syrian-born physician Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288) who worked in hospitals in Damascus and Cairo. He was the first person we know of to describe the pulmonary, or lesser, circulation of the blood between the heart and lungs, but the significance of his insight was overlooked and he avoided the practice of human dissection because of the sharia, the Islamic religious law.
Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas al-Zahrawi (ca. 936-1013), known in the West as Abulcasis or Albucasis, was an Andalusian physician born near the city of CÃ³rdoba in what was then Islamic-ruled Spain. He combined Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman Classical teachings with his own innovations and became “Islam’s greatest medieval surgeon.” As a matter of fact he was “virtually the only significant physician in the Islamic world who had practical experience with surgery. Surgery was neglected also by Rhazes and Avicenna.”
What kind of conclusions can we draw from this list? The first one is the disproportionate number of Persians as well as the strong presence of freethinkers and highly unorthodox Muslims, sometimes combined in the same person. This was the case with Omar Khayyam, whom author Ibn Warraq in the book Leaving Islam calls the “Poet of Doubt.” Ibn Khaldun himself admitted that “It is strange that most of the learned among the Muslims who have excelled in the religious or intellectual sciences are non-Arabs with rare exceptions.”
It is interesting to notice that virtually all rationalists within the Islamic world were at odds with Islamic orthodoxy and frequently harassed for this. Whatever contributions they made were more in spite of Islam than because of it. While some, like Ibn Khaldun, were orthodox Muslims who supported violent Jihad against others to establish Islamic global supremacy, al-Razi apparently didn’t believe a single word of the Islamic faith. Indeed, he was so hostile to all revealed religions that it is remarkable that he wasn’t killed as an apostate from Islam.
In a few cases the ethnic identity of the individual is somewhat unclear from the historical sources. Geber’s personal life is shrouded in mystery, but according to the EncyclopÃ¦dia Britannica he was born in Iran and died in Iraq, well within the reach of Persian cultural impulses. It is a fair guess that he was a Persian, but his ethnic background is not beyond dispute. Al-Khwarizmi’s ancestors presumably came from the Khwarizm region south of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Although he spent years in Baghdad he probably wasn’t an Arab.
It is striking to notice that not a single notable scholar throughout all of Islamic history ever lived and worked in the Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam. Even those who, like Alhazen, were fluent in Arabic or had Arabic as their first language lived in far older centers of urban civilization such as Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Levant and Egypt. It is possible that al-Kindi’s ancestors came from the Peninsula, but he himself was born in Iraq. He is called “the philosopher of the Arabs” precisely because the Arabs didn’t produce many philosophers. The Arabian Peninsula has consistently been one of the least creative regions on the entire planet for as long as Islam has existed, despite the fact that it enjoys a favorable location in the middle of Eurasia and annually receives numerous pilgrims from different parts of the world.
Another notable feature is the total absence of any Turks among the top scholars. There is a persistent myth that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions happened only because Europeans “plundered” other continents. This is easily disproved since there is little correlation between which countries had extensive colonial empires and which developed sophisticated scientific-industrial economies. Portugal held quite large colonies and participated extensively in the transatlantic slave trade, yet it is one of the poorest countries in Western Europe, in sharp contrast to Switzerland or Finland which have no colonial histories.
The Spanish brought much silver back to Eurasia from their colonies in Latin America, which had admittedly often been extracted by the natives under harsh conditions, but Spain never developed a leading role in science. Italian scientists were much more prominent than Spanish ones from the 1200s to the 1800s although “Italy” as a state did not exist until the 1860s. Arguably the greatest astronomical revolution in recorded history took place in Western Europe from the 1500s to the 1700s, and this wasn’t caused by “European colonialism.”
Copernicus was born in Poland, which did not then nor later have any significant military presence outside of Europe. Tycho Brahe came from tiny Denmark and ended his life in the city of Prague in what is today the Czech Republic. Kepler was from Germany, which did not exist as a state until centuries later and even then held rather marginal colonies. When Galileo was born, the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Mediterranean, and Turkish and North African pirates regularly raided the Italian Peninsula. England did eventually gain a vast empire, but it did not yet have this when Newton was a student. All of these men were greater scholars than any of those who have existed in the Islamic world at any point in its history.
If plundering other peoples had been the key to making scientific advances then Turkish Muslims should have been among the leading lights of science for many centuries, yet throughout its entire existence the Ottoman Empire contributed next to nothing to mathematics, science or practical engineering. If conquering distant lands was what triggered the Scientific Revolution then the world would now watch in awe as advanced Mongolian space probes explored the outer reaches of our Solar System. This clearly isn’t the case.
The most extreme proof that wealth isn’t a sufficient cause to generate scientific advances is oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which since the mid-twentieth century has received enormous sums from Westerners and Asians due to a simple geological accident. Yet despite what may amount to the greatest transfer of unearned wealth in human history the country hasn’t given mankind a single useful invention, nor any great art or music that uplifts the spirit. The Saudis have used their massive wealth to buy gold-plated toilets and sponsor Jihad terrorism abroad.
Another point to emphasize is that the peaks of the European scientific tradition are not only much more numerous, but also much higher than those of the Muslim one. If scientists could be compared to mountains then the European and Western tradition would constitute the Himalayas, by far the highest and most massive mountain range on Earth. Newton, the highest peak in this tradition, would represent Mount Everest; the medieval Middle Eastern tradition might correspond to a regional mountain range and Alhazen a peak of maybe 3,000-4,000 meters. That’s respectable, but it still falls far short of the towering size of Mount Everest.
When I checked it, the English-language entry on Alhazen at the popular, Internet-based amateur encyclopedia Wikipedia stated that “The Book of Optics has been ranked alongside Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica as one of the most influential books in the history of physics.” This is clearly hyperbole. Isaac Newton’s Principia from 1687 is the single most important work ever published in the world history of science; only Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity from 1915 is comparable to it. Yes, Alhazen was good and deserves our respect, but he was not on the level of a Newton, Einstein or Galileo.
In Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment, Alhazen enjoys a good medium-level ranking in physics with a score in the 20s. This is by far the highest of any scholar from the Islamic world, which is accurate in my view, but that still doesn’t bring him to the global top 30 list, which is heavily dominated by European scientists plus some Ashkenazi Jews and is topped by Newton and Einstein, tied for the maximum score of 100. The same is even more true regarding Geber vs. the top-ranking Antoine Lavoisier in chemistry; Rhazes vs. Louis Pasteur in medicine or Charles Darwin and Aristotle in biology; Ulugh Beg vs. Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, William Herschel, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Nicolaus Copernicus, Ptolemy or Tycho Brahe in astronomy; and Muhammad al-Khwarizmi or Omar Khayyam vs. Euler, Newton, Euclid, Gauss, Fermat, Leibniz or Descartes in mathematics. At least one, if not several, orders of magnitude separate these men’s respective individual achievements.
It is true that the legacy of ancient Greek scholars in mathematical proof, geometry, logic and the creation of natural philosophy – what we today would call scientific theory – as far as we know exceeded that of any other ancient culture. Nevertheless, the Greeks did not create modern science. Western Europeans did, from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries onward. While Greek logic was one factor contributing to this transformation, Europeans could only make this breakthrough after they exceeded the contributions of the Greeks and left their flawed physical theories behind. A similar transition never took place in the Middle East, nor anywhere else for that matter. As for practical engineering, rather few contributions were made by medieval Muslims that would have surprised the ancient Romans.
The top-ranking individual on my Muslim list, Alhazen, for all practical purposes constituted the culmination of ancient Greek theory. Given that Chinese optical studies stagnated and that East Asians suffered in the sciences by not having easy access to superior Greek geometry, the Middle East had in all likelihood produced the world’s leading optical theorist by the eleventh century AD. Yet curiously, very few further advances were made there in that field after his death; almost all of them were made in Europe, from photography to spectroscopy.
Western Europeans by the late 1200s AD employed glass lenses to create the first indisputable eyeglasses for the correction of eyesight. The knowledge of how to combine fine glass lenses was extended around the year 1600 to create the earliest known microscopes and telescopes. Observations in telescopic astronomy were then used to make the first reasonably accurate measurements of the speed of light, which was shown to be very great, but finite.
As Toby E. Huff shows in his 2010 book Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective, although the telescope was transmitted to China, Mughal India and the Ottoman Empire, those civilizations did not respond quite as Europeans had done to the new instrument. In Europe, curiosity fueled a great burst of innovations in microscopy, mechanics, optics, pneumatics and electrical studies. Newton’s revolutionary new synthesis, which unified terrestrial and celestial physics (the two were believed by the ancients to be entirely separate) with the law of universal gravitation, had immense implications for modern society.
As late as the year 1800, “light” was thought to consist only of those types of rays visible to the unaided human eye. Then from 1800 to 1900, European scientists successively discovered other kinds of radiation such as infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays, all moving at the speed of light. James Clerk Maxwell’s equations demonstrated that visible light is just one of many forms of electromagnetic radiation, a conceptual breakthrough far greater than anything ever made by the ancients. With the quantum revolution in the early decades of the 1900s and the emerging dual wave-particle model of light, European scientists had done more in the space of merely five generations to advance our understanding of the basic physical properties of light than all other known civilizations on Earth had done combined during the preceding five thousand years of recorded human history. Essentially all of the astronomical observations and physical insights underlying Einstein’s work, from Newton’s concept of gravity to increasingly accurate measurements of the speed of light, evolved exclusively within the European scientific tradition, as did the mathematical language needed to describe these new theories with probability theory, calculus and non-Euclidean geometry.
Ibn Warraq in his books is critical of Islam, but at the same time gives proper credit to scholars within the Islamic world who deserve it, a sentiment which I happen to share. One of them is the Persian physician al-Razi. In his modern classic Why I Am Not a Muslim, Ibn Warraq suggests that al-Razi “was perhaps the first true chemist as opposed to an alchemist.” He considered the Koran to be an assorted mixture of “absurd and inconsistent fables” and was certainly a freethinker, yet despite his fine qualities he appears to have been a committed alchemist who believed in transmutation and in the possibility of turning base metal into gold.
When speaking of “alchemy” we should not think that all of it was nonsense, only that what we would view as occultism was not clearly separated from real chemical knowledge. Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder, which was an eminently useful practical invention even if nobody at the time could properly explain exactly how it worked. Likewise, practical alchemists from Korea and India to Mesoamerica had been involved in medicine, clothing and cosmetics as well as serious metallurgy for thousands of years. Is it possible, then, to stipulate a specific date for when scientific chemistry was born, clearly distinct from ancient alchemy?
While such a dating is admittedly difficult, a major turning point was undoubtedly when chemists/alchemists had evolved something approaching a modern definition of what constitutes a chemical element. In that case it makes little sense to speak of chemistry prior to the mid-eighteenth century. Before that, scholars from China and Japan via the Middle East to Europe had traditionally talked about water, air, earth and fire as “elements.” If you believed that gold and iron were not elements in their own right but consisted of more fundamental ones such as earth in different ratios, then thinking that you could turn base metal into gold by changing the ratios of those primary elements was erroneous, but not necessarily stupid.
Chemistry was born when scholars stopped talking about “water” and “air” as elements and instead started talking about “oxygen” and “hydrogen,” by showing that water is not by itself an element but a compound of two chemical elements – oxygen and hydrogen – and that the air that we breathe consists of a mixture of different gases, not a single substance. This transition took place in Western Europe in the late 1700s, and only there. We might say that chemistry was born in Europe in the late eighteenth century, enjoyed its childhood and adolescence there during the nineteenth and reached maturity in the West in the twentieth century; claiming that this event happened a thousand years earlier with the relatively modest advances made by medieval Muslims or others at that time cannot be considered correct.
In addition to scientific disciplines, Murray in Human Accomplishment created rankings in Western music and Western art, Indian literature, Japanese literature, Chinese literature, Chinese painting and Japanese art, as well as listings of Indian, Chinese and Western philosophy, respectively, but no ranking for Islamic philosophy. A separate philosophy inventory was not prepared for Korea or Japan because so much of Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese philosophy derives from Chinese sources, or from India in the case of Buddhism.
While Chinese philosophy is in content often quite different from its European counterpart the Chinese certainly have a very extensive and well-developed philosophical tradition. By contrast, much of the philosophical writings in the Islamic world were simply commentaries on ancient Greek works, and even that was frequently considered suspect. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “Islamic philosophy” in the narrow sense of the word because Muslim scholars concentrated primarily on interpreting the Koran and religious texts. Western scholars read the Bible, yes, but they did many things besides that and created a vast literature of political and economic philosophy that is virtually non-existent in the Islamic world.
In Chinese philosophy, Confucius (551-479 BC) ranks far ahead of anybody else as the single most influential thinker in East Asian history, followed by many later interpreters of Confucian thought such as Zhu Xi, Menciusand Xunzi. The only other individual close to Confucius’ level is Laozi or Lao-Tsu (“Old Master”), the shadowy figure who may have been a rough contemporary of Confucius and is traditionally viewed as the first thinker of Daoism. Aristotle comes out on top in Western philosophy, but not as dominant as Confucius in China.
In Indian philosophy, Adi Shankara in the eighth century AD added system to the haphazard insights of the ancient Upanishads, which had been transmitted orally for many centuries. He became the leading exponent of the Advaita Vedanta School of philosophy, whose thoughts still form the mainstream of modern Hinduism. Only in fourth place do we encounter Siddhartha Gautama or Gautama Buddha, who was either a contemporary with Socrates in the fifth century BC or a younger contemporary of Confucius. The Buddha was the founder of a major religion or philosophy whose total influence throughout much of Asia exceeded that of Hinduism (and for that matter Confucianism), but his ideas were secondary within India itself:
“The men at the top – Confucius, Sankara, and Aristotle – are where they are because each, in some important sense, defined what it meant to be Chinese, Indian, or Western. Confucian ethics, aesthetics, and principles of statecraft became China’s de facto state religion in -3C and remained so for another two thousand years. As the man who shaped the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, Sankara has pervasively shaped Indian thought down to the present day. In the West, there is more ambiguity. Plato preceded Aristotle, Aristotelian thought owes extensively to Plato, and it was, after all, Plato rather than Aristotle of whom Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of Western philosophy is his footnote. And yet in the end Aristotle had had the more profound effect on Western culture. Some of Plato’s final conclusions, especially regarding the role of the state, are totalitarian. In contrast, Aristotle’s understandings of virtue, the nature of a civilized polity, happiness, and human nature have not only survived but have become so integral a part of Western culture that to be a European or American and hold mainstream values on these issues is to be an Aristotelian.”
Only painting had a consistent tradition of named artists in China, which means that valuable contributions in sculpture and ceramics are not included. For the same reason, the only inventory for music is the Western one topped by Beethoven and Mozart, not because good music hasn’t been made in other cultures but because only the European one had an extensive tradition of named individual composers. In Chinese painting, the scholar, painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) is tied for first place with the artist and poet Gu Kaizhi (ca. AD 344-406).In Japanese art, the top score of 100 is achieved by Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506), a Zen Buddhist monk inspired by Chinese landscape paintings and a master of the style of monochrome ink painting, although he did use color skillfully later in his career.
In Chinese literature, the leading figure is without question the poet Du Fu(AD 712-770). Murray notes that “Du Fu is barely known in the West. He is not only ranked first here but, according to those who are in a position to evaluate such things, was one of the greatest poets ever, anywhere. The problem for Western readers is that the aesthetic nuances and layers of meaning in great Chinese poetry cannot be retained in even the best translations.” After him comes his contemporary Li Bai (AD 701-762) followed by yet another poet, Bai Juyi(AD 772-846). The Tang Dynasty was apparently a particularly strong period for Chinese poetry.
The Japanese literature inventory is characterized by a large number of writers who receive substantial attention rather than by a few dominant figures, as was the case with India. Number one is Basho (1644-1694), “by consensus Japan’s greatest poet and the master of haiku; Chikamatsu (1653-1725), by consensus Japan’s greatest dramatist, writing mostly for the bunraku (puppet theatre); Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1014), author of The Tale of Genji, by consensus Japan’s greatest work of literature (and the highest ranking woman in any of the inventories); and Saikaku (1642-1693), writer of brilliant erotic tales and famous for his speed-writing of haikai, humorous linked-verse poems that were the source of haiku.”
Charles Murray also prepared a separate inventory for Arabic literature, which includes some individuals who wrote in Persian. Al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn Husayn al-Mutanabbi (AD 915-965), born in present-day Iraq and widely hailed as the greatest poet in the Arabic language, tops ahead of Abu Nuwas (ca. AD 750-814). In addition to Arabic, Abu Nuwasknew Persian from his mother and was admired by Persian poets such as Omar Khayyam and Hafez for his style and for writing about wine, sex and subjects that were frowned upon by orthodox Muslims.
The blind Arab poet al-Ma’arri(973-1057) in third place led a more secluded life, although he, too, was a freethinker who questioned many Islamic dogmas. Number four is Imru’ al-Qays, a shadowy figure that may have lived in the fifth or early sixth century AD and was the most famous Arabian poet of pre-Islamic times, remembered for his Mu’allaqat collection. Number five is Abu Tammam(ca. AD 800-845), born in Syria to Christian parents. Just making it to the top twenty list is the Moroccan Berber explorer Ibn Battuta(1304-1369). HisRihlah (Travels) describes his extensive travels from West Africa to Southeast Asia.
As the case of Imru’ al-Qays demonstrates, even ethnic Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula admit that poetry has pre-Islamic roots in their culture. Arabic has been praised as a language well-suited for poetry, but the predominance of poetry is also because “Islamic literature operated under two theological constraints. Drama was considered to be a representational art and forbidden. Realistic fiction was considered to be a form of lying, and also forbidden.”
By universal acclaim, the greatest poet in Indian history was the Classical Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa. Little is known about him, but he probably lived in the Gupta period, perhaps in the fifth century AD, and may have been a Brahman (priest). Among the works ascribed to him, many of which are informed by Hindu mythology, is the drama Abhijnanasakuntala (“The Recognition of Sakuntala”), which was admired by Goethe and others when it was translated into European languages in the late 1700s, and the lyric Meghaduta (“Cloud Messenger”).
There never was anything resembling “theater” in the Islamic world. Neither is this region renowned known for its artistic traditions. Yes, fine Persian rugs can constitute works of art, but such handicraft traditions often have historical roots that predate the Islamic conquests. Regarding calligraphy, Muslims could make some fine works in this category, but we should remember that East Asians – not just the Chinese, but the Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, too – often excelled in this art form simultaneously with creating extremely refined works of painting and sculpture as well as exquisite poetry. On the whole, Islam served to severely restrict most possible forms of artistic expression. It would be accurate to state that Islam inhibited artistic creativity more than any other major religious tradition in the world.
In Western art, Michelangelo tops with no close competitor. As art historian Ernst Gombrich, normally a man of measured words, indicates, Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome is a masterpiece so astonishing and unique that it is hard to understand how a single person could have made it, especially considering that he was a better sculptor than painter:
“It is very difficult for any ordinary mortal to imagine how it could be possible for one human being to achieve what Michelangelo achieved in four years of lonely work on the scaffolding of the papal chapel. The mere physical exertion of painting this huge fresco . . . is fantastic enough. . . . But the physical performance of one man covering this vast space is as nothing compared to the intellectual and artistic achievement. The wealth of ever-new inventions, the unfailing mastery of execution in every detail, and, above all, the grandeur of the visions which Michelangelo revealed to those who came after him, have given mankind a quite new idea of the power of genius.”
Those who have been fortunate enough to visit the Vatican and see the great Church of Saint Peter’s in Rome cannot fail to be awed by the beautiful paintings and sculptures it contains. The Roman Catholic Church has received a lot of criticism over the years and has sometimes deserved this, but it should also be given credit for its positive contributions. It is unthinkable in Islam that religious leaders in the centers of Mecca or Medina would hire artists like Michelangelo or Raphael to decorate mosques with sculptures and paintings, as Catholic popes did. Muslim militants no doubt want the Sistine Chapel to suffer the same fate as countless un-Islamic works of art such as the destroyed Buddha status of Central Asia. If the ongoing Islamization of Europe continues, a dark day may come when they have their way.
Likewise, music wasn’t widely used for religious services; there is no Islamic equivalent to Johann Sebastian Bach, who filled Lutheran churches in Germany with magnificent compositions designed to uplift the faithful. He gave God credit for his achievements, which included The Art of Fugue and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, one of the most played works in the organ repertoire, The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Brandenburg Concertos.
To sum up, we can make the following points:
Advances made during the Middle Ages in the Islamic-ruled world were relatively modest even at the best of times and declined to almost nothing thereafter. Those contributions that did exist were made primarily by non-Arabs, and often by unorthodox Muslims who were harassed for their freethinking ways. Their scholarly contributions were primarily based on ancient Greek or other non-Islamic works and rarely moved much beyond these conceptually. They were made predominantly during the early centuries of Islamic rule, while large non-Muslim communities still existed in these countries, and normally in centers of urban culture that predated Islam by thousands of years. The Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam, has contributed next to nothing of value to human civilization throughout Islamic history. Persians, who retained a few links with their pre-Islamic heritage after the conquests, produced some decent scholars, whereas Turks, who identified almost entirely with Islam after their conversion, produced practically none of any significance. If we combine these various factors, a very clear picture emerges: The rather modest – now often exaggerated – contributions made by certain Middle Eastern scholars during the Middle Ages were generally made in spite of Islam, not because of it. Orthodox Muslims rejected the Greek heritage.
On the other hand, while some minor advances were made in spite of Islam, tremendous damage was done to pre-existing non-Muslim cultures from India, Central and Southeast Asia to Europe that was directly caused or inspired by core Islamic religious teachings and texts.
A researcher from Denmark, Tina Magaard, spent years analyzing the original texts of different religions, from Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism to Sikhism. On the basis of a straight-forward reading of them she concluded that the Islamic texts are by far the most warlike among the major world religions. They encourage terror to a greater degree than the original texts of other faiths. “The texts in Islam distinguish themselves from the texts of other religions by encouraging violence and aggression against people with other religious beliefs to a larger degree. There are also straightforward calls for terror. This has long been a taboo in the research into Islam, but it is a fact that we need to deal with,” says Magaard. There are many dozens of verses in the Koran explicitly calling for fighting and armed struggle against people of other faiths. “If it is correct that many Muslims view the Koran as the literal words of God, which cannot be interpreted or rephrased, then we have a problem. It is indisputable that the texts encourage terror and violence. Consequently, it must be reasonable to ask Muslims themselves how they relate to the text, if they read it as it is.”
At the end of the day it is hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of positive cultural, scholarly or artistic contributions, if any, Islam by itself has brought to mankind. The ancient Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, medical and artistic ideas from the Egyptians and finally mathematics and planetary astronomy from the Mesopotamians; this was one of the most significant external impulses to the Western scientific tradition throughout its history, more fundamental than anything that came out of the Islamic-ruled Middle East.
Generally speaking, in ancient times it was an advantage for Greeks to be close to the Middle East, which partly explains why they were among the first Europeans to create an urban, literate culture. During the Middle Ages, the Middle East gradually went from being a global center of civilization, which it had been for thousands of years, into the global center of anti-civilization it is today. Suddenly, being close to the Middle East was a serious disadvantage. This massive transformation took place after the Islamic conquest, which is hardly coincidental.