Cultural Amnesia – Islamic contributions to modern science and technology

It gives you some idea of the wealth of the Ottoman sultans that the stables of the old Topkapı Palace have been converted into a moderately large museum; not actually dedicated to equestrian pursuits, but housing Istanbul’s Museum of Science and Technology in Islam.

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Well, you might think it’s a long name for a museum that won’t contain very much – but you’d be wrong. The MSTI (or in Turkish, İBTTM) features displays and models in fifteen scientific fields from a thousand years of high Islamic culture, beginning in the 7th century and ending at the start of the 17th when Western Europe took over as the centre of scientific research and discovery. Somewhat unusually for a museum in this country, the displays are fully and clearly explained by text in four languages, German, French and English as well as Turkish.

The linguistic competence, and in fact the foundation of the museum itself, are attributable to Professor Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Professor Sezgin taught at Istanbul University until 1960 when he, along with many other intellectuals, was removed from office after the military coup in May of that year. Escaping the fate of the unfortunate prime minister at the time, Prof. Sezgin made his way to Germany where he embarked on a successful academic career specialising in the history of Arab-Islamic science, helping to found a museum in Frankfurt with replicas of historical scientific instruments, tools and maps.

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Several government ministers and the mayor of Istanbul visited the German museum, and were so impressed that they decided to support the establishment of a similar institution in Turkey’s largest city. The old Topkapı Palace stables in the beautiful Gülhane Park had just been renovated, and the museum was opened in 2008 with models and displays related to astronomy, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry and other sciences.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan has once again provoked mirth in some circles with his claim just the other day that Muslim sailors had discovered the American continent 300 years before Columbus. Well, some criticism is justified, given that it was actually Native Americans who stumbled upon the place around 12,000 years before Vikings, Portuguese or Muslims even thought about looking – and Americans have been giving thanks as usual this week for their support of the early colonists from England. Nevertheless, Mr Erdoğan has an ally in Professor Sezgin who claims that Islamic scholars had accurately calculated latitude and longitude, and created a partial map of the American continent by the early 15th century at the latest.

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

The Istanbul Museum has a wonderfully informative website, where you can find the text of Prof. Sezgin’s five-volume catalogue of the Frankfurt collection. It’s a challenging read, but the key ideas were summarized in an interview with the learned professor published in Turkish Airlines’ Skylife magazine last year.

Essentially, Sezgin believes that the traditional Western view of a ‘renaissance’ of classical knowledge taking place from the 14th to the 17th centuries is a distortion of the truth. He argues that the accepted idea of ‘The Renaissance’ was a deliberate obfuscation of the fact that Arab and other İslamic scholars had translated the works of classical philosophers from the early days of their conquests in the 7th century, assimilated their knowledge and developed it further. As the Arab Empire spread through the Middle East, North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, Prof. Sezgin claims, these advanced ideas were carried as far as Spain and Portugal, thus becoming available to Western Europeans. He goes on to suggest that Crusaders from Europe in the 12th century also came in contact with this knowledge and began bringing it back when they returned to their scientifically and technologically backward homes.

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

I checked out some of those volumes from the Frankfurt Museum catalogue, and for sure there is some thought-provoking material. Professor Sezgin makes the case that, as Muslim Arabs conquered cities that had been centres of learning in the Roman and Byzantine world, Damascus, Emessa, Aleppo, Antioch and Alexandria, they recognised the importance of the knowledge contained there, and took care to absorb it into the new world they were creating. The 9th century Abbasid caliph al-Mamun receives special mention for his encouragement and fostering of scholarship and research, particularly in the field of geography and map-making. He had astronomical observatories built in Baghdad and later Damascus. The 9th century Persian scholar Musa al-Khwarizmi is credited with bringing algebra (the word is derived from Arabic) and the decimal place-value number system to the West when his works were translated into Latin. The Latinised version of his name is the source of our word ‘algorithm’ and this Muslim gentleman is sometimes referred to as the father of computer science. Another Persian scholar al-Biruni in the 11th century made important contributions in many fields including mathematics and astronomy where he analysed and developed the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Undoubtedly the contribution of these Islamic scholars to the blossoming of scientific knowledge in Western Europe was recognised by some at the time. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the 14th century when the Crusades were relatively fresh in memory, and ‘Christians’ were in the process of ‘reconquering’ the Iberian Peninsula. In his ‘Prologue’ to the Tales, Chaucer describes his physician thus:

‘Well read was he in Esculapius,
And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,
Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,
Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,
Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.’

Of the poor scholar, subject of the Miller’s Tale, we are told, ‘His Almagest and other books great and small, his astrolabe, which he used in his art, and his counting-stones for calculating, all lay neatly by themselves on shelves at the head of his bed.’

Razis, in fact, is Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian Muslim physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and scholar.

Avicen is Ibn Sina, 11th century Persian Muslim scholar, especially known for his writings on philosophy and medicine.

Averrhoes is Ibn Rushd a 12th century Andalusian Muslim polymath, master of philosophy, Islamic theology, law and jurisprudence, psychology, politics, music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.

Almagest refers to Ptolemy’s work on astronomy that came to Europe from Greek via Arabic, and the name used here is Arabic[1].

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

So clearly Chaucer was well aware of the contribution these Muslim scholars had made to European scientific knowledge. One volume of Professor Sezgin’s Frankfurt catalogue deals with the ‘Reception and Assimilation of Islamic Science in the West’. He refers to the research of a 19th century French Arabist scholar, Ernest Renan, who postulated that, because Arabic was the language of educated Muslims, Christians and Jews in ‘Spain’ in the Middle Ages, all had access to the learning of the Islamic Golden Age. Jews in particular, for example the 12th century philosopher Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun) carried this knowledge into Western Europe. Sezgin also refers to the work of a 20th century German scholar, Heinrich Schipperges who identified an Arab physician Constantinus Africanus. This gentleman, in the 10th century, converted to Christianity and became a monk in Salermo, Italy, bringing with him dozens of Arabic medical books which were subsequently translated into Latin. Medical texts written by those Arab scholars mentioned in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ were translated into Latin in Toledo in the 12th century.

Possibly Professor Sezgin’s most interesting suggestion is that one of the major reasons for the sudden emergence of Spain and Portugal as leaders in the European ocean-going race and exploration of the New World was their fortuitous inheritance of the astronomical, geographical and mathematical knowledge of the Muslim scientists as they ‘reconquered’ the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. It has also been suggested that the inquisitorial clearing out of Muslims and Jews that ended in Castille in 1614 had a part to play in the fall from prominence of those two early starters in European imperialism.

16th century European image - 'A Moor of Arabia'

16th century European image – ‘A Moor of Arabia’

Wikipedia’s entry on Islamic architecture lists twenty-four prominent buildings from the ‘Moorish’ period still to be seen in present-day Spain, among them the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and the Alcazar of Seville. The use of that word ‘Moorish’ is one I never had cause to question before, but there does seem to be some confusion in its origins. As far as I can tell, it is a rendering into English of the Latin word ‘Mauri’, referring to the inhabitants of North Africa and deriving from the Greek word meaning ‘black’. Once the word arrived in English (and other European languages) it appears to have been used pretty indiscriminately to refer to black Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and pretty much anyone who was non-Aryan and non-Christian. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to deduce that referring to the Arab-Muslim culture that ruled the Iberian Peninsula for the best part of 700 years as ‘Moorish’ was/is a trifle perverse and demeaning. Why would anyone want to do that? And why would you not want to credit the sources of your new scientific discoveries? And then there is a third question that Professor Sezgin raises: If the Muslims were so advanced in the history of science, why are they so far behind now?

Let’s take the last question first, since it clearly has a bearing on the first two. What happened to this Islamic civilisation that had been supposedly so advanced? The first suggestion that Sezgin offers is the Crusader wars that lasted for nearly two hundred years beginning at the end of the 11th century. Although both sides had losses and victories, in the end it was the Europeans who were the main beneficiaries, in terms of the economic damage they inflicted on Muslim society, the negative impact the wars had on the development of science and technology in the East, and the fact that the flow of knowledge was essentially one-way, from East to West. Allied to this was the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, whose conquests extended through Persia, Anatolia and as far as Eastern Europe with the destruction of many centres of culture and learning, following so soon after the deleterious effects of the Crusades.

While it is true that the Ottomans picked up the baton of Islamic culture, forging a powerful empire from the 14th century, Sezgin suggests that they were always fighting a losing battle. Islam’s loss of the Iberian Peninsula and the takeover of scientific and technological know-how by the Spanish and Portuguese meant that those two countries were in a position to round Africa into the Indian Ocean and cross the Atlantic to the American continent. The result was that the centre of geo-political power shifted and Western Europe gained advantages which the Ottomans could never overcome, despite occasional forays in that direction.


Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

That this shift in the balance of power began with the Portuguese and their gaining control of the Indian Ocean was no accident, according to Professor Sezgin. He notes that Portugal had been under Arab rule for nearly 400 years. Western sources generally claim that Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Indian Ocean. Sezgin points out, however, that Phoenician sailors had very likely achieved the same feat in the 6th century BCE, and that there was a trade route between Morocco and China in Islamic times. For their navigational, shipbuilding and sea-faring skills, the professor suggests, the Portuguese were indebted to the earlier work of their Arab-Islamic rulers. These skills and knowledge subsequently found their way to the rest of Europe which gradually rose to prominence and eventual superiority over the Muslim World.

Why, however, the West is generally so reluctant to give credit for the true sources of their ‘renaissance’ is another question. In fact, it is not so much that the truth is not known. As mentioned above, Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly aware of the importance of Islamic scholars in bringing their knowledge and that of the ‘Ancients’ to the West – and assuredly this awareness was not his alone. The problem seems to be more that general histories dealing with the Renaissance in Europe and the advancement of science and technology tend to gloss over the key importance of Islamic sources, and make a direct connection with Ancient classical scholars, insisting often that the rediscovery took place in Italy.

Sezgin tactfully refrains from seeking explanations, merely noting that it happened. In the interests of natural justice, we may wish to go further. Possibly the reason for our cultural amnesia lies in the centuries of conflict between Western ‘Christendom’ and the ‘East’ – including the Orthodox Byzantines. The self-evident superiority of those eastern cultures in wealth, civilization, arts and sciences created envy and a need to conquer and belittle their achievements. When the West finally began to assert military and technological dominance, it suited their new self-image to erase that inconvenient and embarrassing period from their collective memory. It wouldn’t be the only instance in history where such a deliberate ‘forgetting’ had been perpetrated.


[1] With acknowledgements to: and