Islamic Achievements in the Shadow of Eurocentrism: How Islam Paved Europe’s Future and Europe Forgot

The essay below was written as a mid-term assignment for a class I’m doing at MIT. I thought it was worth sharing, so here it is below:

More often than not, it may seem to many as if the world, historically, evolved under the leadership of Europe. As Europe went ‘dormant’ in the Dark Ages, many believe that, with it, History stood still. Certainly this can be witnessed in science and technology as well, where the history of knowledge, invention, and innovation almost consistently begins in Europe with Newton and his local contemporaries. Moving further into the past, one would mainly come across the Ancient Greeks, who, widely, are alone recognized as the “intellectual precursors” to the more recent European intellectuals.

In fact, however, such approach to world history neglects invaluable contributions of the rest of the world in shaping itself. Far East, African, and Islamicate Civilizations all advanced knowledge, culture, and politics, paving the way for the Renaissance, Industrialization, and Global Development.

Consequently, an approach where non European contributions and achievements are downplayed is known as a Eurocentric approach. Eurocentrism stems from ethnocentrism, a perhaps-widespread belief in past eras, where one possessed the belief of preeminence of one’s own culture and civilization over that of the ‘insignificant other’. Eurocentrism, as a prominent and unified belief, started as a response to Europe’s achievements during the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment (Goody, 1995, p. 2), which began in the fifteenth century, and lasted well into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Ethnocentrism in Europe in general, however, saw various significant peaks well before the fifteenth century. The prominent form of Eurocentrism referenced above indeed stems from such beliefs, common in Europe centuries ago. The Church’s doctrine constructed a hierarchy of peoples, where those of Europe would “dwell in the tents of” Asians, while Africans were designated as “servant[s] of servants” (Lockman, 2004, p. 18). Such belief was designated by the Church to be the Word of God, a long-lasting attitude used both to espouse and stimulate conquest of other nations (Lockman, 2004, p. 19), but also invigorating a “culture of dominance” in Europe that persisted until modern colonization periods.

The arrival of Islam to Europe was the first major threat to the established doctrine of The Church, and, as such, was eventually portrayed as a blasphemous religion practiced by infidels. Indeed, Pope Urban II said, in his famous speech that fueled the First Crusades in the eleventh century, that Muslims were an “accursed race […] utterly alienated from God”, and designated them “[God’s] enemies” (Munro, 1895). Such descriptions indicate the beginnings of the development of a distorted view of understanding the Middle East and Islam; such misunderstandings are formed as direct implications of a Eurocentric approach. Accordingly, primary European historical accounts often viewed the Middle East as an inferior region with a backwards and stagnating culture and values. It is a common misunderstanding of Middle East history to deem Europe as the savior of the Middle East and Arabia, exporting values, ideals, and systems, such as capitalism and bureaucracy and ‘modernizing’ the region.

Reality, however, is contrary to such views; the Islamic Civilization realized ground-breaking achievements that, not only shaped World History, but also explains the subsequent Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe. Islamic achievements in thought, philosophy, the scientific method, natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering exported to Europe through trade and conquests constitute the direct foundations of the European intellectual movement. Certainly the Islamic Civilization has contributed heavily to the development of the world, and must be taken into account to understand the global propagation of Human Knowledge historically, and the subsequent evolution of civilization and society. Throughout the rest of this paper, the role of Islam in shaping both the history of Europe and the World’s will be discussed.

To achieve an understanding of the role of Islam in shaping history, some distinguishing features of Islam as a religion and Islamicate culture must be illuminated. The majority of these features are associated with a Muslim’s duty to strive for knowledge, as well as the geographical characteristics of the Islamic Ummah.

“Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous. Who has taught (the writing) by the pen. He has taught man that which he knew not.” Quran, 96: 1-5 (Al-Hilali & Muhsin, 1997)

Francis Robinson explains that knowledge was needed in Islam to “gain salvation”, a concept which eventually encompassed any type of knowledge “which might give power in the world” (Robinson, 1996, p. 208). Thus, the endeavor of attaining knowledge was increasingly being viewed in Islamicate culture as a religious duty commanded by God.

Another feature of the Islamic Ummah was its vast geographic expansion, which unified, under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, sizable lands of Arab, Greek, Mediterranean, African, and Persian cultures. Particularly important for our argument are the previously-Greek lands, which gave Muslim scientists the opportunity of having direct access to Greek manuscripts that scrutinized the world and developed various early scientific theories of explaining day-to-day natural phenomena.

Due to the aforementioned religious duty of learning in Islam, Muslims – and others living in Islamdom – actively read, translated, critiqued, commented on, enhanced, and debunked vast amounts of Ancient Greek texts, many of which exist today only in their Arabic translated forms. Indeed, the Islamicate State saw much stake in science, and supported it by funding various scientific efforts from translation and critique to publishing scientific works. The vast cultural variation within the Islamicate State also lead to the definition of natural sciences and intellectual thought as “the sciences shared among all nations”, making the pursuit of science “culturally neutral”, with the widely known Arabic language as the universal language of the scientific community (Dallal, 1999, p. 157). Such reasons will thus make it no surprise that the level in which science was practiced in the Islamic society was “unprecedented” when it unfolded, and remained unparalleled “until the rise of modern science” (Dallal, 1999, p. 155).

So, how did the enormous growth and development in the act of “learning” contribute to World History? Various areas of knowledge were improved, which, in turn, facilitated developments that took numerous faces. We will examine some of the improvements in knowledge and then link them to respective consequent developments in history both in Europe and globally.

First, Mathematics was greatly advanced, with depth on series, number theory, the decimal system, geometry, trigonometry, algebra, quadratic equations, and algorithms (Robinson, 1996, p. 228). Such achievements lead to improvements in engineering and architecture. Islamic mathematics was quickly adopted by the west, were a decimal system with a zero-digit was introduced, facilitating easier calculations, and a new area of mathematics: algebra, upon which the vast majority of complex mathematics developed in Europe, was to be based (or consult with).

In astronomy, Islam’s need for locating the Qibla to indicate the direction of prayer lead them to develop accurate compasses and astrolabes that would later revolutionize travel and navigation, eventually and indirectly allowing Europe to conduct various exploratory movements, chief upon them is the discovery of the Americas. Muslim scientists also critiqued Ptolemy’s theory of interplanetary motion and published comprehensive observations (Robinson, 1996, p. 228). Such manuscripts were the main reason allowing Copernicus to develop his comprehensive theory on planetary motion, leading him to utter the daring truth: the Earth is not the center of the universe.

Medicine also flourished, with Ibn Sina’s “al-Qanun fil-tibb”, a book sometimes considered “the most influential work in the history of medicine”. Work on medicine also included researching circulation (Robinson, 1996, p. 229). Arab physicians lead to the introduction and expansion of various fields in medicine, including anatomy, pharmacy, and surgery. The concept of Hospitals as well was most likely established in the Islamicate Civilization around the times of the crusades. For instance, George Sarton states:

“We have reason to believe that when, during the crusades, Europe at last began to establish hospitals, they were inspired by the Arabs of near East…. The first hospital in Paris, Les Quinze-vingt, was founded by Louis IX after his return from the crusade 1254-1260”
(Sarton, 1927-31)

Consequently, the spread of hospitals is another way in which Islam left its print on world history.

Optics is another important science developed in Islam. The idea of light as rays travelling in straight lines was proven with an early form of the scientific method. Light was acknowledged to have a finite speed, much larger than that of sound. Refraction was understood and described quantitatively and lenses that achieve specific effects can be calculated and created (Dallal, 1999, pp. 191-192). Such discoveries lay the foundations of more recent European technologies including the telescope and the microscope, themselves leading to huge reformation within Astronomy and Biology (and eventually medicine), respectively.

Engineering and Technology also thrived, allowing Islamic societies to maximize the production of “raw materials, as well as finished commodities”. Similarly, mechanical devices, hydrodynamics, water-transport and irrigation systems, shipbuilding, mining, metallurgy, military industries, and paper and textile manufacture (Dallal, 1999, pp. 193-198).

Such technologies were exported to Europe through various means. First, through the continuous cultural exchange that occurs in trade, where European merchants can often bring back observations as well as information that existed in the Islamicate civilization. Second, through Andalusia; being in direct contact with Christian European states, it often saw its own texts, as well as other Islamic scientific texts, being copied and eventually taught by neighboring Europeans. And finally, through the Crusades, occurring in a period of 200 years, where Europeans would capture cities possessing Islamic culture and living bounded by Islamic regimes from all directions.

Thus, arguably, it can be said that, through the achievements, developments, and engineering technology mastered in the Islamicate Civilization, Muslims actually exported to Europe the recipe for its own success, and, ironically, the eventual European domination over the Middle East and Africa. Indeed, developments within Islam help us understand a lot about European history. When it was dared to say that the Earth was not flat, it was not the product of a single European thinker’s individual intellect, but rather the sum of the efforts of those before him as well. Similarly, the Scientific Revolution was only enabled by the abovementioned Islamicate achievements in science and Ibn al-Haytham’s work on the Scientific Method.

In addition, Islam can be thought to have improved various institutions that eventually came to shape world history; Islam’s Madrasa, or, theological college, for instance, is the direct precursor to the modern concept of schools and universities. Islamic interpretations of the Shari`a can be seen as great milestones in legal thought, while efforts in verifying the Sunna lead to a more scientific and systematic method of recording, preserving, and passing on history.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the features of the Islamicate Civilization as well as those of the Islamic Religion (which includes the unified pursuit of knowledge) paved Europe’s brighter future in terms of subsequent cultural, philosophical, intellectual, and scientific uprising that lead to major historical milestones including discovery of the New World, colonization, and industrialization. Exporting its science and knowledge freely, and adopting the idea of “cultural neutrality” of science, allowed never before-seen openness, collaboration, and eventually, developments within the world. Certainly the world could not have been the same without this civilization; and perhaps Europe’s own uprising would not have been witnessed.

Works Cited

Al-Hilali, M. T.-u.-D., & Muhsin, K. (1997). Rough Translation of the Meaning of The Noble Quran in the English Language. Riyadh: Dar-us-Salam.

Dallal, A. (1999). Science, Medicine, and Technology: The Making of a Scientific Culture. (J. L. Esposito, Ed.) The Oxford History of Islam , 155-213.

Goody, J. (1995). The East In the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lockman, Z. (2004). Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Munro, D. C. (1895). Urban and the Crusaders. Original Sources of European History, Vol: 1:2 , 5-8.

Robinson, F. (1996). Knowledge, its Transmission, and the Making of Muslim Societies. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World , 208-249.

Sarton, G. (1927-31). Introduction to the History of Science.

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