“As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam – at places like Al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality”
Or maybe not;
“The Dome of the Rock truly represents a work of what we would understand today as Muslim art, that is, art not necessarily made by Muslims…but rather in societies where most the people- or the most important people were Muslims.” Authority on Islamic architecture, Jonathan Bloom (Stark 2009)
Dhimmi. The conquering Arab tribes of Muslim warriors inherited an empire peopled by a literate and sophisticated culture¸ the Byzantines. The libraries of Alexandria and Constantinople held thousands of scrolls including the Greek Classics and were centers of Christian thought and philosophy. The heretical Christian cultures of the Nestorians and others were also centers of study and learning and they particularly focused on the arts of healing and medicine.
These peoples became the dhimmi, the non-Muslim secondary citizens of the new Islamic empire. This is not to shame the Arab tribes in any manner, but they were a nomadic people of the deserts and not students of architecture or science. But credit where credit is due and it was the conquered Christian and Jewish population that had maintained the Greek writings of a scientific and philosophical nature as well as developing architecture and other forms of an advanced culture.
Contrary to popular belief, the western end of the Christian empire, Western Europe, also had maintained many of the Greek writings of the ancients but not to the extent of the Greek Byzantines. It is to the Muslims credit that they eventually encouraged the dhimmi scholars to translate the Greek scrolls into Arabic and that they then began to study them for themselves. However it was the acceptance of the Greek writings of Aristotle and others, or at least the way the Muslim scholars viewed them, that probably played a role in the stagnation of scientific innovation in the Muslim empire.
While the Muslim scholars did devote themselves to studying the Greek classics, they came to regard them as if they were the last word in science. They applied them to Islam, but they never challenged them. This, according to Stark, was one of the reasons that kept Islam from growing beyond the Greeks and held back science in the Islamic culture indefinitely. The Islamic world thus absorbed without controversy the Greek idea that the Universe was a large animate being and conscious, as well as other Greek fallacies. While the scholars of the western Christian world would attain many of the Greek Classics later than the Muslims, when they did receive them, they not only read them; they challenged them. (Stark, 2003)
But the dhimmi Christian and Jewish populations were the backbone and source of almost all Islamic academic endeavors and it would behoove both the Islamic culture and state funded colleges in the U.S to be more open about this fact. As Gies commented;
“The Arab Age of Translation began during the reign of Harun-al-Rashid when scholar-physicians at a Nestorian Christian academy in Jundi-Shapur in southwest Persia were brought to Bagdad to translate Greek manuscripts…” (Gies)
As the quote at the head of this chapter indicates, the Caliph who ordered the building of the Dome of the Rock hired Byzantine architects and builders, and for the layout and design of Bagdad a leading Jew and a Zoroastrian were hired. Hindu numerals became known as Arabic and the majority of famous astronomers and mathematicians were Persian or from other dhimmi cultures. (Stark, 2009)
As we noted though, in Europe they mastered the Greek texts, attacked them from every angle and moved on. The famed historian Lynn White said;
“…Christianity by destroying classical animism (recall the Muslim/Greek faith in an animated living earth, ed.) brought about a basic change in the attitude toward natural objects and opened the way for their rational and unabashed use for human ends.” (Gimpel)
In Europe, in scholastic colleges from Italy and France and to England and Poland, empiricism and experimentation became the main force behind scientific advances during the medieval era, advances which would eventually bloom into the age of scientific discovery. Men with names like Newton, Boyle, Kepler, and many others would make the scientific breakthroughs which we are so familiar with today. Among these new areas of empirical pursuits came the study of the human body and as Rodney Stark notes;
“It was the (European) Scholastics, not the Greeks, Romans, Muslims or Chinese, who based their studies on human dissection,” (Stark, 2003)
So whatever sophistication the Islamic culture could boast, it owed much of it to the Greek Christian culture it inherited after its conquest of their territories. And it certainly couldn’t be said that Islam was far superior to the culture of the invading crusader armies from Europe. Interestingly enough, Medieval Europe actually abolished slavery centuries before the coming of the African slave trade would renew it. (Stark, 2003) And the move to abolish the African slave trade was led by Christian leaders, not Muslim.
The Islamic nations would not abolish slavery until the end of the twentieth century, Saudi Arabia in 1963, Mauretania in 1983, although the law is not always enforced. One of the reasons for this might be because Mohammad kept slaves himself. But whatever the reason, it does seem to throw a wrench into the oft repeated idea of Muslim cultural tolerance and superiority.
And at the end of the middle ages while Western Christian nations exploded into the future of the scientific age; Islam stagnated into darkness.
[I should add, the incompetency of the Muslim at sea was well known and anything they had was borrowed from the Dhimmi;
“Crusader superiority at sea was indeed so marked that some historians have portrayed Saladin as an early version of Napoleon frustrated by Nelson, dumbfounded and clueless when it came to blue water strategy.” (McLynn, Frank, Richard and John, Kings at War, Da Capo Press, 2007)
While the Muslims put the knowledge of the Dhimmi Christians in Egypt to work building ships, the ship building techniques of conquered Egypt had stagnated since Muslim conquest. The ships they built were copies of previous models and so the European navies had the edge both in size and technological advance. (Stark, 2009) Another problem was that because Arab knowledge of the sea was so limited, they relied upon Christian Dhimmi crews to man and operate the fleets and these crews naturally were more likely to scuttle the ships in combat than a Muslim crew would have been.]