Date: Fri, 12 Feb 1999 13:01:17 -0600
Sender: H-NET List on Islamic Lands of the Medieval Period <H-MIDEAST-MEDIEVAL@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: editor, h-mideast medieval <>
Subject: arab contributions to 13th century science

Arab contributions to 13th-century science

Dialog on the H-Mideast-Medieval list, February 1999

Last fall I posted a request to the list for assistance with a Faculty Colloquium that I was preparing. At Susquehanna, a Faculty Colloquium is an event at which a faculty member presents a talk on some aspect of his/her current research to fellow faculty members and other interested parties. Thus, I needed to make a presentation that was sufficiently intellectual yet sufficiently general enough to satisfy a roomful of people who were academics, but not specialists in this area.

I received a number of helpful responses and was able to give a successful talk. Many thanks to all who responded! The next post I send to the list will be the notes from the talk I gave.

Anne Collins Smith

Notes for Faculty Colloquium—Anne Collins Smith—October 26, 1998

As Shakespeare is said to have had little Latin and less Greek, so we may say that the medievals had little Plato and less Aristotle.

Until the twelfth century, the medievals relied on a few influential Platonic dialogues such as the Timaeus, known through the translations and commentaries of ancient authorities, and ancient handbooks of Greek philosophical thought, such as the Didaskalikos of Alcinous and the Timaeus commentary of Calcidius. Notoriously arcane, cryptic, and dualistic, these influences gave rise to a philosophy heavily dependent on the notion that this world is neither real or important and that there is another, higher, better dimension of reality, inculturating Christianity with a world-negational attitude that has not been fully overcome.

While Latin Europe struggled along with incomplete texts of Plato and a dearth of Aristotle, scholars dwelling in Islamic countries were more fortunate. Lands conquered by Arabs early in the Islamic period held many Greek texts which were translated into Arabic, including almost all of Aristotle as we known him today.

In the twelfth century, translation centers sprang up in Sicily and Spain and intensive translation activity began. Works of Aristotle and Plato hitherto unknown in the Latin West were translated from Arabic into Latin, along with pseudo-Aristotelian works such as the Liber de Causis. The works of Arabic philosophers and commentators like al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes were also translated.

Even more texts became available in the 13th century, including early Platonic dialogues like the Phaedo and the Meno, more texts of Aristotle and commentaries on Aristotle.

This had an enormous impact on Western philosophy. Arabic thought provided European thought with new materials, and brought within its purview a whole new world of metaphysics. (W. M. Watt, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1972, p. 70)

The infusion of Aristotle was particularly influential. Although Aristotle is difficult to read as a result of the format in which he has been preserved—lecture notes—he is on the whole a philosopher of common sense and practicality, especially when contrasted with the idealism of Plato, and his philosophy is highly world-affirmational. The world we live in is the real world, and it's a good place, too.

To give an idea of the world-affirmational effect of Aristotle's philosophy, it would help to discuss the highest being in the universe. For Plato, this is the Form of the Good, an abstract and incomprehensible entity who is somehow beyond both being and intelligibility. For Aristotle it is the Unmoved Mover or Self-Thinking Thought, who functions as the purpose of the universe (for Aristotle the universe is uncreated) but, since it can think only of itself, is unaware of the rest of the universe. Aquinas blends the two to arrive at a Supreme Being who exists in a manner analogous to the being of creatures, and who, as the self-thinking thought, is fully aware of the Divine Essence, including all the ways in which it may be imitated by finite creatures. This awareness is called the Divine Ideas, and these ideas form the blueprint, the indwelling substantial form, for every created being. Thus, instead of being a poor imitation of reality, every creature in this universe contains within itself the glory of God.

As positive as the effect of Aristotelian philosophy may have been, it was not a painless transition. In the case of Aristotle, Christian scholars were now faced with a powerful metaphysical, psychological, and ethical system that treated of ultimates concerning man and the universe and the 'divine' without any possible concern for the demands of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy. (W&W) Aristotle's philosophy was eventually baptized by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, who blended it with Platonism to form a unified philosophical system consistent with Christianity.

We could stop here, and we'd have pretty much given the mainstream opinion of the Arab influence on medieval philosophy. By preserving the works of Plato and Aristotle, they filled out the incomplete corpus possessed by the Latin West and brought about an enormous shift in philosophical speculation; indeed some scholars trace the seeds of the Renaissance to this deposit of classical wisdom.

This view is obvious, and easy—and wrong.

To look at the Arabs in that light is to treat them as a kind of handy time capsule, storing material from the ancient European world and transmitting it at an appropriate time to the medieval European world. To treat the influence of the Arab world on medieval Europe in this way is to overlook the contributions made by the Arabs themselves.

S. M. Ghazanfar, chair of the department of Economics at the University of Idaho-Moscow, phrases it thus:

the mainstream paradigm, in general, describes the influence of Islamic scholarship chiefly in terms of its preservation and transmission of portions of ancient Greek philosophy that had been lost to medieval Europe. As some have suggested, the paradigm is too rigid—almost unshakable, despite all the new evidence and literature. George Sarton once criticized those who will glibly say ‘the Arabs simply translated Greek writings, they were industrious imitators...’ This is not absolutely untrue, but it is such a small part of the truth that when it is allowed to stand alone, it is worse than a lie.

And then there is another historian of science, Colin Ronan,

Too often science in Arabia has been seen nothing more than a holding operation. The area has been viewed as a giant storehouse for previously discovered scientific results, keeping them until they could be passed on for use in the West. But this is, of course, a travesty of the truth.

(Note the word science is used in its historic meaning—knowledge, comprehensively defined, including philosophy, etc.)

Medieval Europe did not simply absorb its forgotten Aristotelian heritage from Arabs who functioned purely instrumentally. Islamic scholars also brought their own philosophy to the table, and dialogues between the Islamic and Christian worlds were fruitful on both sides.

Islamic philosophers of the medieval period wrestled with many of the same issues as their Christian and Jewish counterparts. The resolution of tension between faith and reason was immensely important to all philosophers of this period. Greek philosophy was developed independently of the monotheistic religions of the Book, and trying to combine Greek philosophy with Judaism, Christianity, or Islam inevitably led to difficulties. The ways in which Islamic philosophers settled these issues, however, were different from the approaches taken by Christian philosophers, and the dialogues between Islamic and Christian philosophers brought these new perspectives to the Latin West. I'm not saying that the European philosophers wound up agreeing with the Arab philosophers, but rather that the European position was often shaped by their need to refute certain Arab positions.

For example, Siger of Brabant, a dedicated Averroist, was known for his claim, following his Islamic predecessor, that truths of faith and truths of reason can be incompatible and yet both true. This dual-truth theory had been controversial within Islam and was of course also controversial within Christianity; in order to combat it, Aquinas made explicit what is now official Catholic doctrine of the two sources of knowledge, the book of scripture and the book of nature: Scripture rightly interpreted will never contradict reason rightly applied.

Another issue that concerned Islamic scholars of this time was the precise nature and definition of the soul. In the 11th century, Avicenna, strongly influenced by Neoplatonism, argued for a division between the active and passive elements of the human mind. The active elements of the mind were actually the effects of an independent being known as the agent intellect, created by the transcendent Intelligence that governs the world we live in, whose job is to supply forms to matter and to illuminate the passive elements of the human mind, enabling our minds to function. The passive elements, also known as the possible intellects, exist in each person and are unique to each person. Averroes, in the 12th century, apparently argued, following a difficult passage in Aristotle's De Anima, that not only the agent intellect but even the possible intellect were separate entities, thus denying a unique personal and spiritual element to the human soul and thereby denying personal immortality. This was not only a controversial point within Islam and Christianity, but it gave rise to Aquinas' famous treatise De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas in which he was forced to develop and elucidate a view of human cognition which allowed for a recognition of an active and passive element, but which was also consistent with personal immortality.

My specific area of research also illustrates this point. I have been working on a text called the Liber de Causis, a 9th century Arabic synopsis of a neoPlatonic work, Proclus' Elements of Theology. It was Thomas Aquinas, in fact, who first recognized this work as a synopsis of the Elements of Theology, which had only recently become available in Latin; until then, it was generally thought to be a work of Aristotle.

Thomas believed that the LdC was more or less an exact synopsis of the ET, and in his commentary he treats the two works as if they are pretty much equivalent. It is clear, however, that there are certain differences, and recent scholarship has begun to trace these differences to the influence of Islamic scholarship on the author of the LdC. A conjectured source document called the *Plotiniana Arabica is believed to be the source of many of the subtle alterations between the Elements of Theology and the Liber de Causis; scholars such as Richard Taylor and Cristina d'Ancona Costa have recently been investigating this phenomenon. Moreover, as d'Ancona-Costa observes (and I agree) not only does the Liber de Causis show evidence of Plotinian as well as Proclean metaphysics—we're still talking about Greeks here—but also that it substantially transforms the doctrines of its neoplatonic sources (p. 42), particularly in its adaptation of the neoplatonic One to pure creative being which is esse tantum. This treatment of pure creative being is neither strictly Platonic nor Aristotelian, nor does it simply and obviously arise from a synthesis of Plato and Aristotle; it is a product of the unknown Moslem author of the Liber de Causis, and a powerful influence on its Latin readers.

Thus, avoiding the pernicious view that the importance of Islamic scholarship in the Middle Ages was simply its transmission of ancient Greek texts, we can see that Islamic scholars engaged and challenged Christian and Jewish thinkers in the Latin West, influencing their views on critical metaphysical and theological issues such as the relation between faith and reason, the operation of the human soul, and the nature of God.

Date: Fri, 12 Feb 1999 15:34:04 -0600
Sender: H-NET List on Islamic Lands of the Medieval Periody <H-MIDEAST-MEDIEVAL@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: editor, h-mideast medieval <>
Subject: arab contributions to 13th century science

I hope, when the subject of Arab (meaning Islamic culture, I assume) contributions to science comes up those to East Asian as well as European science are considered. One of of the most impressive achievements of the era, in my view, was the transmission of Arabic medicine to China thanks to the Mongols as witnessed by the Hui-hui yao-fang, Muslim Medicinal Recipes, a Chinese-language (but with Arabic script entries) adaptation of Ibin Sina's Qanun. The HHYF is, moreover, the tip of the iceberg since there is substantial Near Eastern content in books with a less direct provenance, e.g., in the Yin-shan cheng-yao, Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor's Food and Drink, upon which I have worked these last 20 years and which appears more and more Islamic the farther I delve into it. Both of the Chinese works mentioned are, of course, 14th century, but the transmission which made them possible are mostly 13th, dating primarily to Qubilai-qan's time.

Paul D. Buell