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Islamic Sources of the Renaissance

October 31, 2011

When I was quite young, still in elementary school, my mother read aloud to us children from an English translation of D’Aubigné’s History of the Great Reformation. This was for the purpose of raising us with an awareness of our Swiss protestant roots.

Since that time I have always been searching in some form or other for the antecedents to the Reformation, whether this was vernacular European literature in the Late Middle Ages, the migration of Greek scholars into Europe after the fall of Constantinople, translations of Kabbalah documents into Latin, or paper and later the printing press.

What I have been trying to break out of is the history of ideas as it has typcially been traced within our own tradition. The study of Isamic sources of the Renaissance, of increasing interest today, offers some insight in that direction. Friday evening I was able to hear George Saliba explain the mathematical formulas and diagrams that lead to the Copernican Revolution.

Here is part of an interview which presents much the same material as the lecture.

In the 12th and 13th centuries there was a massive translation movement in Europe, from Arabic into Latin.  Traditionally, this is seen as the time when Europe was recapturing its own roots so to speak.  It is said that the Greek texts could not be found, that’s why they were translated via Arabic.

But it is not true that those texts could not be found.  They were actually found and translated directly from Greek later on, in the 15th and the 16th centuries.  The question is, why did they translate them from Arabic when the same text existed in Greek?

The essence of my argument is that the European scientists used the bricks that were already formulated in the Islamic civilization to construct their very own and new science.  It does not mean that the Renaissance is not a brilliant renaissance.  That is indeed one of the most creative periods in history.

But note that the method of translation changed after the 14th century.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Europeans were no longer treating those Arabic texts in the same way they were treated in the medieval period.  Instead of hiring translators, the European scientists learned Arabic themselves.

Indeed, why should one assume that the Renaissance scientists were any less intelligent than our modern scientists?  If you ask a contemporary scientist about what was said in physics fifty years ago, the answer would be that all of that is obsolete.  Today’s scientists do not read what was written in their fields fifty years ago.  They only go for the latest.  Why should a Renaissance scientist go for a text written in Ancient Greece a thousand years before, when the same had been discussed, criticized, updated, in the Islamic domain?

The second part of the book deals with such issues.

I use the example of Copernicus, who literally picked up from Arabic texts almost all of the mathematical theorems he needed for the construction of his astronomy; these theorems were not found in the classical Greek texts.

 When you mention Copernicus everybody gets a little jumpy, because we attribute to him the discovery of the earth moving around the sun.  That Copernicus did not get from any Islamic astronomer that I know of.  No Islamic astronomer I know of would believe in heliocentrism, or would allow a cosmology that is heliocentric.  None of them, including Copernicus, had the ability to explain the physical structure of the universe—that explanation depended on an essential law that was yet to be discovered by Newton, a hundred years after Copernicus.

Yet, to explain how a planet moves around the sun, Copernicus needed the mathematical mechanisms that accommodate the movements of the planets.  He needed a predictive model, to tell where the planet would be seen from the earth, at such and such a time.  If you ask the question of where the planet will be seen from the earth, then you are already solving the problem for an earth-centered universe.  And all of those answers were already found in the Islamic domain.

 The question remains.  Why did Copernicus do that?  There are many people who answer that in so many different ways.  But none of them is really cosmologically convincing.  Because you would have to account for the force that holds the planets attached to the sun.  Even Kepler, who comes after Copernicus, who should really be called the father of modern astronomy, even he was thinking that planets are attracting each other like magnets.  Kepler used magnetism as a metaphor of that attraction because he still did not yet have Newton’s universal law of gravitation.

On the other hand, if you only think of it mathematically, it is irrelevant whether the center of the universe is at the sun or at the earth.  This is how all the mathematics that was developed in the Islamic domain could be simply turned around and made heliocentric by Copernicus.

An ironic footnote to this lecture was a comment from the audience afterward querying why Saliba had called Avicenna, a Persian polymath, Arabic. But Saliba responded that Avicenna wrote in Arabic and so his documents are rightly referred to as Arabic.

I note, however, that he is a provocative speaker, and his stance is not without detractors. Nonetheless, his tracing of the diagrams which lead to the Copernican Revolution over several centuries was very powerful.

We are all of us influenced to validate our own heritage to the detriment of other traditions. I wonder if this in part explains why N. T. Wright has called Aramaic a dialect of Hebrew. Is there a habit among Christians of thinking that Hebrew was a major language from which the Aramaic of the gospels is derived? Do we elevate those languages that form part of our literary tradition to the exclusion of other languages?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2011 4:21 pm

    While some parts of Saliba’s thesis are tendentious, certainly the medieval Islamic contribution (both in terms of original work and in translating ancient texts) is not. For example, Aquinas and Maimonides both indicate their debt to Islamic thinkers. This is not controversial at all

    The question, it seems to me, is why modern science emerged in the West, and not in the Far East or Near East. There have been a number of tomes in the last few decades that have purported to address that question, but I am not convinced that any give a satisfactory answer, or that any are truly impartial and free of triumphalism.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 1, 2011 3:20 am

    Saliba argues that the classical narrative is that Islamic scholars [reserved and translated Greek texts and added marginally to the knowledge contained within, and was florescent until the 11 or 12th century.

    Saliba argues that instead, Islamic scholars, sometimes within the genre of the commentary, significantly modified, corrected and added to Greek and Babylonian astronomical science, and laid the antecedents to the Copernican Revolution. He demonstrates that Islamic science was flourishing until the 16th century when it then began to import from European science in a reversal of the earlier pattern.

    He recounts an amazing period of translation from Greek, Sanskrit, Persian and Syriac into Arabic, as Arabic became the one culture in which science flourished (outside of the far east.)

    In the last chapter of his book Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, he presents the kernel of his theory on why modern science emerged in Europe. He points out that it was in the beginning of the 15th century that trade started to shift from overland to the east, to being ocean going out of the ports of Europe. He also mentions the gold of the New World, and slave labour.

    He lists the European academies and associations which arose for the production of knowledge, for providing men with dedicatied time and space for the production of knowledge, and the wealth available to and generated by science.

    In particular, he mentioned the prize awarded for a method to fix longtitude, (as described by Dava Sobel) which was the largest prize for scientific discovery ever awarded at that time. It enabled the British navy to fix longtitude in advance of France and the US, for at least a few years and contributed significantly to the building of empire.

    Its interesting to compare this book with Steven Johnson’s, Where Good Ideas Come From.

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