It is becoming more widely known that the first university of Europe was established in Spain by Muslims. But how many of us – whether academically inclined or not – know that university professors’ formal black gowns originated with the kaftan, the traditional outer robe worn by Arabic men since ancient times?
Six centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed westward to prove the earth was round (only to be "interrupted" by the New World!), Muslim mathematicians of Kufa in Iraq not only knew that our planet is a globe, but had also calculated its circumference with remarkable accuracy. It’s no wonder that Crusaders who trekked from Europe to the Holy Land to liberate it from "heathen" Muslims, returned home with many new lessons in civilization, as well as practical inventions and scientific insight.
From the eighth to the tenth centuries, Baghdad flourished as the world’s most civilized city. Its university was attended by 6,000 students from all over the world and it boasted an endowment equivalent to millions of dollars. Baghdad streets were also paved, drained by covered sewers, and illuminated – while pigs still roamed the dark and muddy streets of Medieval Paris.
For some four centuries (roughly 700 through 1100 AD) Arabic — not Latin — was the international language of knowledge. During this Islamic "golden age," many Christians studied this language and attended Muslim universities.
Aristotle and Plato were rediscovered by Muslim scholars who translated many Greek manuscripts into Arabic. They are the originators of modern chemistry, meteorology, mathematics, sociology, and geography. Muslim surgeons were also the first to dissect the human body, which was forbidden to Christians by the Church.
Muslims during this period had a renowned passion for intellectual and scientific pursuits; the first known telescope was built for a Muslim caliph.
Without the Arabic numbering system, which included decimals and the cipher (zero), modern science and business would be impossible.
Many of today’s finest cotton fabrics — including muslin, damask and cambric — originated with Muslim agriculturalists and artisans. And in tribute to Muslim metallurgy, Damascus swords and Toledo blades are still highly prized. Sugar, coffee, rice, cherries, citrus fruits and numerous other culinary delicacies and seasonings reached European (and ultimately, Western) tables because of Muslims.
One of the greatest contributions of Islam to the Western world was the art of papermaking, adapted and developed from techniques pioneered by the Chinese. Without good quality affordable paper, the spread of printing and the availability of books for universal education would have been impossible.
The duty of every Muslim to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime brought together scholars from the most distant countries; thus, scientific knowledge spread rapidly and new discoveries were easily shared and exchanged throughout the Muslim world and beyond.
While Christian Europe was still enveloped in darkness, poverty and gloom, overshadowed by ecclesiastical intolerance, Muslims had established a highly advanced and sophisticated civilization that historians to this day have not satisfactorily explained. The Belgian-born American writer May Sarton, referring to Islam, said; "The creation of a new civilization of international and encyclopedic magnitude within less than two centuries is something that we can describe, but not completely explain … It was the most creative movement of the Middle Ages down to the thirteenth century."
And while the Christian world dealt with those who dared to question established dogmas by burning them alive at the stake, Islam encouraged free thought and developed the rational experimental method, which is the foundation of modern science and philosophy. Before the Prophet Muhammad, people did not dare to conduct experiments, for fear of reprisal by evil spirits. Muhammad dealt a mortal blow to many false superstitions and elemental fears and helped to prepare human society for the great potential of scientific inquiry.
In one of his most memorable sayings on the subject, Prophet Muhammad affirmed that "the ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr." He taught Muslims that ignorance was humanity’s greatest poverty, that a mind without education is like a brave man without arms, and that knowledge brings people — irrespective of gender, age, race or religion — into the highest rank of human accomplishment.
The greatest Jewish treatise of the Middle Ages was written by Maimonides, not in Hebrew, but in Arabic. And in another example of interfaith engagement at that time, a Christian served as head of a college in Damascus.
Islam also developed its own distinct architecture, whose influence can be traced through India, to China, Africa, and Russia. While the Tartars transmitted Islamic culture and art to Russia, the Turks brought it to the Balkans, Austria, Poland, and Southern Germany. Bavarian native costumes, Hungarian rugs, and Prussian helmets still reveal their Islamic origins in design.
Christian Europe was admittedly slow in recognizing Islamic culture as the originating source of the Renaissance. But through the influence of Islamic scholarship, especially in Sicily and Spain, European civilization was transformed.
"Let us compare the two civilizations," said Seignobos in his Histoire de la Civilisation au Moyen Age (History of Medieval Civilization) "which in the eleventh century divided the Ancient World. In the West –” miserable little cities, peasant’s huts and great fortresses – a country always troubled by war, where one could not travel ten leagues without running the risk of being robbed; and in the Orient – Constantinople, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad – all cities of the ‘Arabian Nights,’ with their marble palaces, their workshops, their schools, their bazaars, their villages and with the incessant movement of merchants who traveled in peace from Spain to Persia.
There is no doubt that the [Muslim] and Byzantine worlds were richer, better policed, better lighted than the Western world. In the eleventh century, these two worlds began to become acquainted; the barbarous Christians came into contact with the civilized [Muslims] in two ways –” by war and by commerce. And by contact with the Orientals the Occidentals became civilized."
Today, it would seem that the civilizations of East and West, or the Muslim and non-Muslim world, have become reversed. But perhaps it is more a case of having forgotten those former glories in the pursuit of present-day material and political agendas. A re-discovery and renewed appreciation of Muslim accomplishments would benefit all of humanity, allowing us to see – and hopefully resolve — present conflicts within the wider spectrum of human history.
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