How Islam has kept us out of the 'Dark Ages'

  By Deborah Rowe

May 2004,   Full Article: Channel 4 website                                                                            Home Page


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 Europe stagnated.

The not-so-Dark Ages

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 forgotten.

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 started.

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 developed.

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.

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