How Islam has kept us out of
the 'Dark Ages'
By Deborah Rowe
May 2004, Full Article:
Channel 4 website
We in the West know what the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and
Babylonians have done for us in terms of scientific discovery.
Most of us have at least heard of Socrates, Ptolemy,
Galen and Pythagoras and of their contributions to philosophy,
astronomy, physics and mathematics. But how many of us have
heard of Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Shatir, Ibn Al-Haytham
or Al-Tusi? They are all Muslim scientists who made equally
great contributions to science, between the 7th and 15th
centuries – during the era known as the Dark Ages. Until
recently, the era has been glossed over by historians who
happily leapt from the fall of the Roman Empire straight to the
Renaissance. But it's time for the West to recognize its debt to
those Islamic scientists of the past, who forged ahead while
Possibly one of the best-kept secrets in the history of
science is what was going on in the so-called Dark Ages. The
time around the fall of the Roman Empire, when nothing new was
happening and all was darkness, plague and misery. Nobody seemed
particularly interested in learning about the world around them.
Perhaps, they were all too busy surviving pestilence and
invasions to indulge in the luxury of philosophical thinking.
But, more seriously, once the Roman Empire started to
crumble, with an onslaught of invasions from the likes of the
Vandals and Anglo-Saxons, Western Europe became less interested
in scientific pursuits. Superstitious beliefs and paganism
apparently appealed more than the intellectual treasures of the
Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Babylonians, which were largely
But just because Western Europe had temporarily lost
interest in its scientific knowledge, it didn't mean that all
was completely lost. As western civilisation was slipping into a
less than auspicious period for science, Islam was just getting
The rise of Islam
Islam was born around the 7th century, when the
prophet Mohammad went to Mecca and the Qur'an first appeared in
writing. According to its teachings, the pursuit of knowledge
was the duty of every Muslim. As the work of God was everywhere
and in everything, to understand the nature of the physical
world was to know God. It was therefore the duty of every Muslim
to pursue knowledge of the world around them.
Early Islam was dynamic. Its followers had the vitality of
a people freed from a nomadic way of life. Muslim scholars were
intensely curious about the world around them and many peoples
were keen to share in what it had to offer. All of which helped
to provide a strong motivation for Muslims to come together with
others in the pursuit of an Islamic science. This they did with
an enthusiasm and dedication that would remain unrivalled until
the Renaissance period many centuries later.
The people of the pre-Islamic nations traded with
merchants from as far afield as China and India, as well as
southern Europe. The practicalities of trading over such long
distances, meant that they understood how to tell the time and
navigate from the stars. They also had a lay knowledge of
geology, plants and animals; all of which helped to boost
travel, trade, health and farming.
Through trade and conquest, the influence of Islam spread
across southern Europe, the Near East and Africa. There was a
thriving commercial and intellectual interest in the lands that
they conquered. Far from wiping out the old or 'foreign'
knowledge, Islamic conquerors saw to it that the ancient
legacies were treasured and put to good use. Such knowledge,
where they found it, was not only preserved but translated and
At the time, there were great cultural exchanges between
East and West, through trade and pilgrimages. These exchanges,
although not always peaceful, helped to bring Muslims, Jews,
Christians, Hindus and the Chinese together.