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Thread: What the West does not owe to Islam

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    Thumbs down What the West does not owe to Islam



    Everytime I see a documentary from a Western country about Islam, they feel the need to recall the audience that Western civilization owe their numerals, medicine and science to Islam. This is for the least misleading.

    I feel that the people who made those documentaries (even from the BBC) are all but partial. First of all, they confuse Islam with Arabic nations. When they talk about the great, culturally advanced Islamic emirate of Andalucia in Spain, they usually forget that not all people were Muslim (or Arab for that matter), but there were also many Christians and Jews. From the Islamic expansion of the 8th century to this day, there has always been Christians and at least until the creation of modern Israel, also Jews, in most Middle Eastern countries. The percentage of both has been decreasing steadily since the 8th century, but countries like Syria, Lebanon and Egypt still have a notable Christian minority.

    My first point is that the "great" Islamic cultures may not have been so great without their religious diversity and tolerance.

    Secondly, what they call "Arabic numerals" actually come from India. Gun-powder, often also attributed to the Muslims, originated in China. The Muslims, be them Arab or Turk, have just improved a bit what they obtained from further east, and Europeans were the first to really develop functional guns, and develop their own numeral (it is obvious that the number used by the Arabs now have little resemblance to the Western ones).

    As for re-transmitting the knowledge of sciences and philosophy of the Ancient Greeks (esp. Aristotle), it may not have been necessary had the Muslim not invaded the Eastern Roman Empire (=Byzantine Empire). It's a bit too eays to say we owe it to them, that thanks to their ability to preserve this knowledge, Europe was able to get out of the dark ages and start its Renaissance. The way I see it is that if they hadn't taken over most of the Middle East with its great ancient libraries, the knowledge would have stayed with the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, and would have flowed back to Wesern Europe from there.

    We can maybe attribute a few advances in medicine to the (mostly European) Andalucians, but not to the whole of Islam. In any case, these advances were not more significant that those made in India, or during the Renaissance in Europe.

    So what does the West owe to Islam ? I wonder...
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    Saying we owe Islamistic countries our knowledge from the greeks is like saying the native Americans owe the preservation of their history to American historians.

    Luckily I can't really say I've ever heard anyone say that we owe it to islamistic countries...
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    Just a few remarks on the topic.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    Everytime I see a documentary from a Western country about Islam, they feel the need to recall the audience that Western civilization owe their numerals, medicine and science to Islam. This is for the least misleading.
    I have never heard such a claim in any Western documentary, but I admit I haven't seen all of them. While we do not owe the existence of numerals, medical knowledge and science to Islam, we have to acknowledge the historical function of Islamic culture as mediator between East and West.


    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    I feel that the people who made those documentaries (even from the BBC) are all but partial. First of all, they confuse Islam with Arabic nations. When they talk about the great, culturally advanced Islamic emirate of Andalucia in Spain, they usually forget that not all people were Muslim (or Arab for that matter), but there were also many Christians and Jews. From the Islamic expansion of the 8th century to this day, there has always been Christians and at least until the creation of modern Israel, also Jews, in most Middle Eastern countries. The percentage of both has been decreasing steadily since the 8th century, but countries like Syria, Lebanon and Egypt still have a notable Christian minority.
    The ruling class in the countries of the "dar al-harb" was mostly Arabic. The local population in areas administered by Muslims enjoyed freedom of religious practice, something unheard of in any Christian territory of that era. If the documentaries you refer to actually claim that all Muslim were Arabs they might be partially wrong, but that's quite insignificant, as Islamic culture did have its primal spark on the Arabian penninsula and expanded from there.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    My first point is that the "great" Islamic cultures may not have been so great without their religious diversity and tolerance.
    Well, but cultural and religious diversity as well as tolerance were quite extraordinary in that era, in particular if you take a look at contemporary Christian nations whose joint effort could only result in atrocious ventures such as the crusades.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    Secondly, what they call "Arabic numerals" actually come from India. Gun-powder, often also attributed to the Muslims, originated in China. The Muslims, be them Arab or Turk, have just improved a bit what they obtained from further east, and Europeans were the first to really develop functional guns, and develop their own numeral (it is obvious that the number used by the Arabs now have little resemblance to the Western ones).
    It seems that the term "Arabic numerals" was coined by medieval European scholars, so you cannot accuse "Islam" of pretension. I have never heard of gun-powder being attributed to Muslim countries, but to China.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    As for re-transmitting the knowledge of sciences and philosophy of the Ancient Greeks (esp. Aristotle), it may not have been necessary had the Muslim not invaded the Eastern Roman Empire (=Byzantine Empire). It's a bit too eays to say we owe it to them, that thanks to their ability to preserve this knowledge, Europe was able to get out of the dark ages and start its Renaissance. The way I see it is that if they hadn't taken over most of the Middle East with its great ancient libraries, the knowledge would have stayed with the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, and would have flowed back to Wesern Europe from there.
    The transmission of Ancient Greek sciences and philosophy through Andalous started in the 10th and 11th century, at a time when the Byzantine Empire was still intact. Constantinople along with its famous library fell, as far as I remember, in 1453.


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    Quote Originally Posted by thomas
    I have never heard of gun-powder being attributed to Muslim countries, but to China.
    I have heard/read many times that claim. It seems that some historians consider than China invented "black powder" (for fireworks), but that the Arabs or Turks were the first to develop firearms. They may have invented some, but the Chinese also used black powder for canons. One of the earliest firearms, the gonne invented around 1300, may have been invented by the Chinese, the Mongols or the Arabs. Nevertheless, the first true hand-held firearms such as the arquebus were developed by the Europeans.

    If the documentaries you refer to actually claim that all Muslim were Arabs they might be partially wrong, but that's quite insignificant, as Islamic culture did have its primal spark on the Arabian penninsula and expanded from there.
    I doubt that the biggest chunk of the population of invaded territories outside the Arabian peninsula was Arabic. Maybe the term "Arab" as used nowadays has a broader meaning (based on language rather than race), but the Muslim conquerors of North Africa and Spain were just a few thousand people. They mostly left the local practice their religion (Christianity, Judaism...) for a long time, until people converted by themselves to Islam. But ethnically, the Arabs were always a minority. They mixed with the locals, and maybe thanks to having more children due to their wealth and position of power, the proportion of Arab blood has increased with time. But I doubt that Maghreban oe Egyptian people nowadays are genetically identical to the Arabs of the Arabian peninsula. They in fact do look quite different.

    On a side note, let us not forget that only about 15% of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims nowadays are Arabs (including the not-so Arabs of North Africa). So we could say that the Arabs have played a role in mediating between East and West, but is that really due to Islam ? Wouldn't the Byzantine have done the same had their empire survived as it was before the Muslim expansion ?

    The transmission of Ancient Greek sciences and philosophy through Andalous started in the 10th and 11th century, at a time when the Byzantine Empire was still intact. Constantinople along with its famous library fell, as far as I remember, in 1453.
    Intact ? The Muslims had taken 2/3 of it in the 7th century. Byzantium was the last city to fall in 1453, but the rest of the empire was under Arabic or Turkish rule well before that. The first crusade was launched to save the Christian Byzantines from the Muslim invasion.

    Byzantine Empire in 550 AD :



    Byzantine Empire in 1180 :



    Byzantine Empire in 1400 :



    Maps from Wikipedia

    EDIT :
    Quote Originally Posted by thomas
    I have never heard such a claim in any Western documentary, but I admit I haven't seen all of them.
    I was mainly referring here to PBS documentary "Islam, Empire of Faith", and the BBC's "An Islamic history of Europe".

    In the PBS documentary, their "history of Islam" is in fact a history of the Middle East, with no reference at all to Islam in India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, South-East Asia or Africa. They conclude saying that Islamic culture shares the same roots as Western civilizations, from those of Judaism and Christianity to the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks to the architectural exchanges in churches and mosques. I wonder how much of Greek sciences and philosophy or European architecture has influenced 80% of the world's Muslims, in Black Africa, Central, South and South-East Asia. I just can't believe that this is the way the only state-sponsored US channel sees Islam, and educated American citizens about it.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 02-11-05 at 14:45.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    Everytime I see a documentary from a Western country about Islam, they feel the need to recall the audience that Western civilization owe their numerals, medicine and science to Islam. This is for the least misleading.

    I feel that the people who made those documentaries (even from the BBC) are all but partial. First of all, they confuse Islam with Arabic nations. When they talk about the great, culturally advanced Islamic emirate of Andalucia in Spain, they usually forget that not all people were Muslim (or Arab for that matter), but there were also many Christians and Jews. From the Islamic expansion of the 8th century to this day, there has always been Christians and at least until the creation of modern Israel, also Jews, in most Middle Eastern countries. The percentage of both has been decreasing steadily since the 8th century, but countries like Syria, Lebanon and Egypt still have a notable Christian minority.

    My first point is that the "great" Islamic cultures may not have been so great without their religious diversity and tolerance.
    It depends on what exactly you mean by "Islam". A lot of people often think of the religion of Islam, but what scholars are really referring to when they use the word "Islam" is the medieval civilization of Islam, and the medieval nations which were ruled by Islamic governments. I have seen the documentaries you are referring to, and they did make it clear that Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side-by-side in Islamic Spain, and that Christians and Jews contributed to the medieval Islamic civilization.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    Secondly, what they call "Arabic numerals" actually come from India. Gun-powder, often also attributed to the Muslims, originated in China. The Muslims, be them Arab or Turk, have just improved a bit what they obtained from further east, and Europeans were the first to really develop functional guns, and develop their own numeral (it is obvious that the number used by the Arabs now have little resemblance to the Western ones).
    Arabic speakers have always referred to "Arabic numerals" as Indian numerals. It was the Europeans who named it "Arabic numerals". It's only the symbols that differ between the Western Arabic (or European) and Eastern Arabic numerals, but otherwise their actual numeral system is identical.

    The first functional guns and hand-held firearms were invented in China, which were then further improved by the Muslims and the Europeans.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    As for re-transmitting the knowledge of sciences and philosophy of the Ancient Greeks (esp. Aristotle), it may not have been necessary had the Muslim not invaded the Eastern Roman Empire (=Byzantine Empire). It's a bit too eays to say we owe it to them, that thanks to their ability to preserve this knowledge, Europe was able to get out of the dark ages and start its Renaissance. The way I see it is that if they hadn't taken over most of the Middle East with its great ancient libraries, the knowledge would have stayed with the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, and would have flowed back to Wesern Europe from there.
    The Byzantine Empire already had access to most of the same Greek manuscripts that the Arab Empire had access to, but the key difference was that the Byzantine Greeks did almost nothing to improve on the knowledge of their ancestors, while the Muslims were rigorously studying, improving, criticizing and advancing the works of the ancients to a new level.

    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    We can maybe attribute a few advances in medicine to the (mostly European) Andalucians, but not to the whole of Islam. In any case, these advances were not more significant that those made in India, or during the Renaissance in Europe.

    So what does the West owe to Islam ? I wonder...
    Most of the scientific advances during the Middle Ages (including medicine) were being made by Arabic-speaking Muslims from across every major city in the Islamic world at the time (in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and Andalusia), not just in Andalusia.

    The advancements made in the medieval Islamic civilization can easily rival China, India and Renaisasnce Europe. The European Renaissance would not have been possible without the numerous contributions of the medieval Islamic civilization, but there are too many to list here. You can have a look at a few Wikipedia articles to get a better idea:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Golden_Age
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_science
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_t...e_12th_century

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    I didn't read all of the discussion but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Arabic countries used to have a great significance but nowadays many people from those areas have fallen back behind the rest of the world. Another way of seeing it can be that since people adopt innovations quite easily, they forget where something actually came from so there is perhaps a need to remind people that the world has not and is not separated to isolated spaces.

    They still never point out the tolerance, though...
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    Miu, the whole point of the discussion is justly to say that Arabic countries were never really so much more advanced than Europe. They just managed to salvage more of the Greco-Roman heritage after the fall of the Roman Empire, or got Indian or Chinese technologies a bit before Europeans (modern numbers, black powder...), but didn't invent much themselves.

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    Well, after noticing that the discussion seems to have come to a halt, I thought it would be interesting to introduce another point of view to the discussion. Namely, if the West specifically does nto owe all thsoe things to Islam, why do people claim they this is the case?

    But if it isn't at all permitted to do such a thing, I apologize of course.

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    Because of misinformation. There are so many things about which common folk have completely misconceived ideas. Just look at "urban myths".

    Just one example. Calling our numbers "Arabic numerals" is a false idea that stayed on for centuries because most Europeans didn't know that the Arabs themselves got them from the Indians. The expression remained in the language (and in the minds) because of our ancestors' ignorance, and the difficulty to change expressions once they have entered a language. In French or Italian, there are still many common proverbs dating from Roman times, and most people have no idea what it originally referred to. It's a bit the same with "Arabic numerals", which were in fact "Indian numerals". Actually, as Europeans radically changed their appearance, they are really "European/Western numerals".

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    In such light, if we are so keen to soread urban myths everywhere, why aren't we more interested in advertising something that isn't a myth, such as tolerance. After that we are all free to speculate with Europe vs. the Other, starting from the threat of arabic and Islamic nations invading Europe. I once read an article where the author claimed that the ruin of the Turkish empire was that they closed up and gradually stopped paying attention to old traditions such as ethnical tolerance. As the final staple, then, came European nationalism and on they went with the killings and forming a hoogenous Turkish people. But this is how he saw it.

    I don't know such much about Arabic history but I do believe that one part of the debate of owing/not owing something is not what they invented themselves but how they developed it further and perhaps also the spreading of knowledge. Medicine atleats comes to my mind as one possible example. This is probably somewhat off-topic, but also the Japanese are often accused of merely being influenced by China rather than inventing soemthign themselves and, later on, by the West. That still doesn't mean that the Japanese just blindly adopted everything without developing something of their own.

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    If we'd owe anything important to Islam or the Arabs, they would only be happy to throw it at us at every opportunity they'd have. That should answer your question...

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