How Islamic Scholars Saved Knowledge (and Science)

My grandfather was concerned with a relatively small number of things in the last years of his life; one of those things was the dark ages. As an intensely curious man, a furiously curious man, he could not fathom how even a single generation of humans lacked the spirit necessary to try to understand their world better than the generations prior. He couldn’t understand a single such generation much less the hundred of them that actually occurred.

And yet history is unequivocal. For more than a thousand years knowledge failed to advance. Rome was sacked. The ignorant book-burning masses moved in. The quest to understand stopped. Among historians it has become popular to latch onto exceptions, to note for example that some forms of art flourished during this time and yet in many fields of science less was known in 1450 than in the year 80. With the current rise of anti-intellectualism, it seems worth remembering that knowledge really can retreat. This was certainly true of the heart and circulatory system. As I write in The Man Who Touched His Own Heart when Da Vinci began to consider the heart in the late 1400s, he knew less than did Galen in 185 AD. Collectively our species had lost ground.

But what my grandfather did not know about this dark time, what I have only begun to really gnaw at myself is that things might have been much worse had it not been for Islamic scholars. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the eastern part of the empire, what would become the Byzantine Empire, continued to flourish. Within the Byzantine Empire, Islamic scholars still did science. More importantly, the ancient texts, those not destroyed by the guys with the shiny belt buckles and fondness for pre-literate ignorance, were copied and preserved. Had this not happened, we would have lost even more of the advances of antiquity.

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Al Razi’s s Recueil des traités de médecine, one of the documents translated in the Toledo School.

These texts preserved and added to by Islamic scholars jump started the renaissance.  When Da Vinci  began to do science anew in the late 1400s he did so by building upon a handful of ancient texts, particularly those by the scholar Galen. It was these ancient texts, preserved by Islamic Scholars (and ultimately translated back into Latin) that prevented Da Vinci and others from having to start from scratch. In this way, Islamic scholars guarded the light of human inquiry throughout the thousand years in which everyone else abandoned it, they cupped the sum total of human curiosity in their hands and passed it, house to house, cave to cave, on to us today. You benefit from this thread of light every day you live.

My grandfather died concerned about the dark ages; I choose to focus instead on its antithesis, on the hope offered by the stories of individuals who kept the light of our inquiry, the light that as a scientist I find to be fundamental to existence, fundamental to what it should be to be a human, burning.  If there is a particular period of years during the dark ages  that gives me the most hope it is a brief window of time in Toledo, Spain.

Many of the Islamic scholars who kept the light lived in the Byzantine Empire and its descendent political entities. But as Islam spread with the Moors through North Africa and into Spain the culture of the light keepers spread too. As a result, at the peak of Islamic influence in Spain, a small group of Islamic scholars could be found in Toledo, at any given moment, copying and recopying ancient texts. Among those texts were key documents through which we understand antiquity today and on top of which key, new knowledge would be built begin in the 1400s. Included in these texts, for example, was the work of Ptolemy that, years later, helped to set the stage for the exploration of the Americas.

But the most amazing thing about the Islamic scholars in Toledo is that from about 1100 until 1300 they were not alone. They worked alongside Christian and Jewish Scholars in what is now known as the Toledo School; they worked to translate the knowledge of antiquity from Arabic (in which it had been preserved) into Hebrew, Latin and ultimately Spanish. Side by side, lit by candles, Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars put aside religious differences and bound to a common belief in the importance of curiosity, inquiry, knowledge and the search for the truth worked together, their hands cramping as they scribbled.

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The Cathedral of Toledo where some of the translations occurred. 

Much remains to be written about the Toledo School and just which pieces of knowledge we have today only because of those translations.  What is clear, even before that work happens, is that while humanity is capable of great periods of darkness, millennia of ignorance, individual humans, even those divided by oft warring religions are capable of hunger for knowledge that transcends culture and religion, that can also transcend ignorance.

My grandfather would have liked, I think, to have been one of those men in the Toledo School. Me too, of course. But as I look around at our moment I suppose the more important point is that we all, today, have a chance to be part of the modern Toledo Schools, part of the multitudes working furiously to understand more tomorrow than was understood yesterday, working to keep the fire of inquiry burning as we squint to see the next challenges clearly in the darkness, challenges that societies, all societies, face on our shrinking Earth, a planet on which most of what can be known is not yet understood and yet much that is useful is known.

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:44+00:00 June 3rd, 2015|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

4 Comments

  1. LLoyd Fischel July 29, 2015 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    Professor Dunn, This writing is a testimony to the values required for keeping civilization, civilization. Thank you.

  2. Judith Bamber December 14, 2015 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    Brilliant! Thank you!

  3. J. Dunn January 28, 2017 at 2:43 pm - Reply

    Well written, son..your grand-dad would proud!

  4. George Byz February 22, 2017 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    “Within the Byzantine Empire, Islamic scholars still did science.”
    Historically, there is no mention of Islamic scholars teaching or doing science within the Byzantine Empire. Moslems were either traders and diplomats or war captives.
    “More importantly, the ancient texts, those not destroyed by the guys with the shiny belt buckles and fondness for pre-literate ignorance, were copied and preserved. These texts preserved and added to by Islamic scholars jump started the renaissance.”
    These texts were preserved and commented by Byzantine scholars, not Islamic ones. It is why these texts, including medical texts by Galen and Hippocrates, have survived in the Greek original and not in Arab or Syriac translations. The large bulk of knowledge of antiquity has been preserved in Greek and Latin, and not in Arabic, as you claim. What Latins and Moslems mostly did was diminish the amount of ancient texts preserved within the Byzantine Empire by repeatedly sacking its cities – a fact conveniently ignored, much like the Byzantine Empire itself.

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