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Islam and Christendom >
The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe

It has long been recognized that one of the most significant and lasting contributions of the medieval Muslim world to Christendom was to provide access for western scholars to the great classics of Greece and Rome by their translation into Arabic, from which they were rendered into European languages. Most of the works of Plato and Aristotle were known to Arab Muslims. Among the earliest of the translators was the Nestorian Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi (808–73), who was active in the court of the Abassid caliphs in Baghdad. Hunayn ibn Ishaq and those working with him in this important school of translators rendered more than one hundred of Galen's medical and philosophical treatises into Arabic. The use of Greek did not cease in provinces that came under Muslim rule; rather, it continued at least until the middle of the ninth century, allowing Hunayn ibn Ishaq to further his translation work in the early part of that century with manuscripts from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Although in the Latin-speaking west there had been little if any interaction with the Greek world from the second century, there was an unbroken continuity in the eastern Mediterranean in terms of philosophical and medical teaching to which the Arab Muslims were heir. There was also, of course, no lack of struggle within Islam itself between the basic Islamic formulations of faith and the traditions of Hellenism, and the issues contained in Greek philosophy were hotly debated among the scholars of Islam. One of the primary tasks of those who translated Greek texts into Arabic was to make available the body of materials necessary for the proper understanding of the issues and the resolution of conflicts.

The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe

Crusaders and other travelers to the Holy Land often brought back luxury objects and souvenirs, which became treasured in ecclesiastical and princely collections. This silk textile, made for a Samanid commander in eastern Iran in the mid-tenth century, was used in 1134 to wrap relics in the abbey of St. Josse-sur-Mer in northern France. The cloth was probably brought back by Étienne de Blois, patron of the abbey and a commander of the First Crusade.

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Transmission of knowledge from Arabic to Latin came close on the heels of the Christian reconquest of Sicily and of large areas of Muslim Spain. When Toledo was taken in 1085, a major step in the Christian reconquest of Spain, a large number of Arabic manuscripts were made available to Christian scholars. By the twelfth century Toledo had become a center of study as scholars from all over Europe came to work with native speakers of Arabic. This served as an initial foray into the study of Arabic and Arabic texts that flourished in later centuries. Missionary activities of Dominican and Franciscan friars, based on their hope of the conversion of Muslims, encouraged more serious study of Islam and Arabic. Before the sixteenth century, however, it was very rare for European scholars to have acquired, or have had much interest in, Arabic manuscripts. Some exceptions were found at Cluny in France, in the episcopal library at York, in England, and in the Vatican library.

By the tenth century most Arabic translators had lost the use of Greek and worked exclusively from Syriac translations. It is remarkable that the outstanding Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages—notably al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd—all were ignorant of Greek and relied completely on translations rendered for the most part by Jacobite or Nestorian Christians. Thus the survival of Greek philosophy in the world of Islam came through the medium of the Syriac language. Naturally enough, those doing the translating used their own judgment as to what was worthy of transmission, most often turning to those works that appealed to their own philosophy and theology. Thus the writings of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the works of Hellenistic scientific medicine, were preserved, with the resulting achievements of Arabs in these sciences far surpassing those of the Christian inheritors of Greek civilization.

By the beginning of the twelfth century Aristotle's writings were being translated in the west, both from the Arabic and directly from the original Greek. It is not entirely true, therefore, that western scholars were wholly dependent on Arabic versions of these works. Some scholars have argued that it was chiefly for the sake of their commentaries that the Arabic works were considered so important, especially those of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. It is clear that the medieval Catholic world of the west was willing, even eager, to take what it could through the mediation of the Islamic east in the areas of science and technology, materials reasonably neutral in content. For the most part the subject matters that it absorbed and took into its own culture were those that reinforced its own culture rather than threatened it. Europe was clear about what it wanted and needed and was free to leave the rest. As was the case earlier with Muslim translators, little was taken that was in conflict with what European scholars and theologians believed and held dear.

In the western mind there was never an association between Arab science and the religion of Islam. Those who advocated the use of scientific principles gleaned from the Arabic texts were never suspected of being crypto-Muslims. Robert of Ketton, known for his employment by Peter the Venerable as a translator of the Quran in the twelfth century, worked tirelessly in the effort to translate from Arabic into Latin out of the conviction that the knowledge of the Latin west was greatly inadequate in the scientific fields. By the thirteenth century Arabic thought was really more of an influence than a direct source of western intellectual speculation, as writers were better able to control and make use of the material than in the earlier centuries. Europe was no longer dependent in the same way on the Arabs for knowledge of the Hellenic world, and translation directly from the Greek was more common than translation through the medium of the Arabic, although Arabic remained a very strong influence on Europe at that time. Europe had by then recovered what it wanted in terms of philosophy and science, received initially in a form that had been modified by many centuries of Arab reflection on it.

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