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Philosophy Around the World

It Was Islam That Did It

Edward Ingram explains the West’s debt to the Islamic philosophers.

Europe in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire was not a happy place to be – at least for scholars. For the most part, the aristocracy, including kings, were illiterate and, to all intents and purposes, innumerate – applied mathematics in the West involved little more than tallying, which is a sophisticated form of counting on one’s fingers. The clergy, with few exceptions, were likewise poorly educated – most could neither read nor speak Latin, and even among those that could, abilities were generally low.

These mediocre standards were demonstrated with shocking clarity by the wide acceptance of the Donation of Constantine. This was a forged document produced by Pope Stephen III in 752 in order to impose papal authority over kings and bishops. It purported to show that the Emperor Constantine had bequeathed the Roman Empire to the successors of St Peter, the alleged first Bishop of Rome. European kings and bishops believed in the Donation even to the extent of the French king, Pepin, assisting Stephen in his fight with the Lombards, and later, in 1154, of almost everyone accepting Adrian IV’s word that Ireland was his, by papal right, to give to England. Such were the standards of scholarship at the time. The document was proved a forgery – an obvious forgery – in 1440, by Lorenzo Valla.

Thus the intellectual action in the latter half of the first millennium was not within Christendom. Instead, it was happening within Islam, a religion and culture founded by Mohammed (570-632); and it was happening everywhere the Muslim armies had conquered – stretching from southern Spain through north Africa, to the Middle East, Afghanistan, and northern India. This, the Islamic Renaissance, was the most staggering thing the West had seen since the days of Classical Greece, and in many ways it outshone them. It blazed from around 800 to about 1100, and it continued through to the 15th century. It happened in this way.

Although Islam was initially indifferent to learning, the situation soon changed. Around 750, under the influence of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, Arab and other Islamic scholars discovered the works of the Greek philosophers. Then they devoured them, built libraries throughout their vast civilization, and sprinkled these with copies of all that was best of Greek thought. And they did the same with Babylonian, Syrian, Persian, even Chinese texts. They also built observatories, designed scientific instruments, erected mosques of unparalleled elegance, built hospitals, and staffed schools and universities with the finest minds they could find. The Caliph of Baghdad, Al-Mamum (813-877), was exemplary in this respect: he founded a school specifically for the purpose of translating ancient texts, and built a library to support it.

Out of this cultural explosion there emerged philosophers – great philosophers, such as Al-Asmai, Al-Razi, Al-Kindi, Al-Fabari, Al-Battani, Al-Zahravi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Al-Kwarizmi, Al-Idrisi, Al-Khayyam, Al-Tusi, Ibn Qurrah, Al-Farghani. Space does not allow for a treatment of them, or of their philosophy. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the important thing, something I will call the Arab attitude. This can be illustrated by looking at the work of just three of these thinkers.

We’ll start with Al-Razi (864-940), who was known in the West as Rhazes. He was born in Rayy, near Teheran. There he studied music, mathematics, and, most importantly, alchemy. Appreciate that to the Arabs alchemy was, to all intents and purposes, chemistry. Arab alchemy did not concern itself much with the quest for turning base metals into gold. It involved itself with practical concerns: techniques in metallurgy, dyeing, and tinting glass, for instance. And ninth century Arabs had come a long way in it. Following the work of Jabir Ibn Haiyan (flourished 780), they knew how to distil acids and alkalis, how to prevent rust, how to produce gold lettering, all manner of useful things one could do with chemicals. This had been achieved through painstaking trial and error, measurement, and classification, and Al-Razi had got the message.

In middle age he travelled to Baghdad in order to study medicine. So successful was he in this that he was invited to be director of a soon-to-be-built hospital. His approach to this is illuminating. He purchased lumps of fresh meat and festooned them in diverse areas of Baghdad. Then he watched them putrefy, and he observed which pieces putrefied slower than others. At last, when it was clear that one piece was putrefying the slowest, he made his decision. Reasoning that bad air facilitates both disease and meat going bad, he pointed to the spot where the least putrefied meat hung. “Build it there!” he said. So they did.

His practice within the hospital was equally enlightened. He advised the use of only tried and tested remedies, but insisted that medicine should not be practiced only by appeal to authority. Cures were tested on animals prior to being used on humans, lest they have side effects. He stressed the importance of psychological factors in disease. And he noted the importance of good diet.

In addition to all this, he studied the medical works of the Greeks, the Syrians, and other Arabs, and he put this knowledge in a medical encyclopaedia – Al-Kitab Al-Hawi, known in English as The Comprehensive Work – and this ran to 20 volumes. In total, he wrote 237 texts, of which about half were on medicine. Finally, we can note that he was the first to make a clear distinction between smallpox and chicken pox, that he produced detailed accounts of anatomy, and that he was one of the first to write reports of case studies. Iin one, of a man wrongly diagnosed as having malaria, Al-Razi showed that he had an infected kidney; then he cured him.

All this Al-Razi was doing when, in Europe, the sick – if they were lucky – were confined to the care of monks. These monks would recommend praying to the saints, for in medieval times the Christians reasoned that each disease had a patron saint associated with it. Even as late as the 14th century, people believed that the touch of the king of France would cure scrofula.

Sadly, Al-Razi died in poverty. This was because, in his later years, his eyesight faded. There is a revealing story about this. When a surgeon came to operate on him, he asked the doctor how many membranes had the eye. This doctor could not answer correctly, so Al-Razi refused the operation. For the last five years of his life, he was blind.

We’ll next consider Ibn Sina (980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna. He was born near Bukhara in Central Asia, and, from the earliest, demonstrated a formidable precocity. By the age of ten he is said to have memorized the whole of the Koran. Subsequently he studied law, mathematics, and philosophy. In addition to his intellectual gifts, he exhibited great tenacity: upon reading a difficult passage in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, he re-read the book forty times in an attempt to understand it. By 18 he was serving as chief physician to the Samanid court. Later he was twice appointed vizier (chief minister) of Hamadan in present day Iran. As for the rest of his life, he travelled, spent some time as a political prisoner, and, upon his release, served in the court at Isfahan in Iran – his life reads like an Arabian Nights fantasy. He enjoyed fine wine and the company of beautiful women; he was something of a bon vivant. He died aged 58 whilst visiting Hamadan. He is buried in this city, and the Persians constructed a lovely tomb for him.

In medicine, some regard Ibn Sina as the most influential figure in history. He wrote a text book – Al Qanun fi al-Tibb, known as the Canon in the West – and this was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century. It became the standard work on the subject in Europe through to the 17th century. The book included a description of 760 medicinal plants, each carefully tested, detailed accounts of human anatomy, and discussions – plus treatments – on various diseases, including rabies and cancers. Like Al-Razi, Ibn Sina stressed the importance of accuracy in medical diagnosis, and he also warned against charlatans. In addition, he provided guidelines concerning how to test drugs. They included testing them one at a time, in pure form, on several patients, and not only on animals because animal bodies might not work in the same way as human bodies.

These guidelines are remarkable, for they aim to ensure that researchers do not jump to hasty conclusions. This is central to scientific thinking.

Though Ibn Sina was talking about testing drugs, his principles can be applied universally. The important thing is not that one confirm one’s ideas – to do so may tell one nothing – it is that one tries one’s best to show them to be wrong. Ibn Sina didn’t articulate this explicitly, but it was there, nonetheless. The idea that attempted disproof is the defining property of science wasn’t made explicit until the 20th century; this was done by Karl Popper.

Nasir Eddin Al-Tusi (1201-1274) was born in Khurasan in present day Iran and died in Baghdad one year after his retirement. In his early years he studied science, mathematics, and philosophy. His life was as colourful as that of Ibn Sina, for he was captured by the assassins, followers of the sect founded, one and a half centuries previously, by Al-Hassan Ibn-al-Sabbah. The assassins were religious fanatics, and terrorists. They didn’t have much time for scholars, and they imprisoned Al-Tusi in their stronghold, the castle of Alamut in Iran. However, his luck was in, for the Islamic world was invaded by the Mongols in 1253, and their leader, Halaku Khan, released him.

Apparently, Al-Tusi was grateful, for he joined the Mongols in their subsequent attack on Baghdad, and, upon their success in defeating her, he became a close advisor to the Khan.

This brings us to my favourite story concerning Al-Tusi. He wished the Khan to build an astronomical observatory, and, as the Khan couldn’t see the use of astronomy, Al-Tusi set about persuading him by means of experiment. He had the Khan array his unsuspecting army at the base of a mountain. Then, upon Al-Tusi’ s orders, a secret troop of soldiers rolled a giant cauldron down from the heights of the mountain, and this made such tremendous noise that the army fled in panic.

“Now,” said Al-Tusi to the Khan, “you and I know what made that hideous racket, but your soldiers didn’t, and that’s why they ran – from ignorance. So imagine how powerful you’d be if you knew how the heavens worked.”

“You’ve got your observatory,” replied the Khan.

And so it was that, at a cost of 2,000 dinars, the observatory was built at Maragha in Azerbaijan. A very fine and beautiful one it was too. It stands to this day. And Al-Tusi staffed it with the best brains he could find. These included Chinese, Jews, Turks, Persians, and Azerbaijanis. Between them they made a discovery of great importance.

Here you need to know of Aristotle’s cosmology, which was accepted as gospel in Europe through to the 16th century. Aristotle (384-322 BC) held the view that heavenly motion is circular, because circular motion is ‘perfect’ and the heavens, being ‘heavenly’, must be perfect. He also believed that the Earth is the centre of the universe. In order to square these beliefs with observed planetary motion, the Greeks developed the notion of epicycles – the planets, whilst tracing an orbit around the Earth, also trace sub-orbits. However, to get something which even modestly squares with the observed motions of the planets, one has to postulate several epicycles, or wheels within wheels. The greatest Greek astronomer, Ptolemy of Alexandria (85-165 AD), was led to postulating 39 such epicycles. The heavens, whilst perfect, seemed annoyingly complicated in their perfection.

Al-Tusi set about checking Ptolemy’s observations, and he found that one couldn’t combine the notion of an Earth-centred universe with that of the circular motion of the planets. In other words, he knew that Aristotle was wrong: either planetary motion was not circular or the Earth was not the centre of the cosmos – possibly both. These views were circulated in the Arab world. It is unknown whether Copernicus (1473-1543), who is generally credited with overthrowing the Ptolemaic system, was aware of this Arab opinion.

Al-Razi, Ibn Sina, and Al-Tusi are not isolated examples of Islamic scholarship. Similarly impressive stories could be told of virtually any of the thinkers I have mentioned. It is because of the work of Al-Kwarizmi, for instance, that we use decimal notation and that algebra became studied in the West. Likewise, the Arabs were great geographers. When he set off on his travels, Columbus used a map derived from a globe (!) devised by Al-Idrisi (1099-1166).

In this, the Arab attitude was more important than the specifics of Islamic philosophy – though note, by identifying Nature with Allah they made the study of her a religious duty – for the Arabs laid the foundations of science as it is now practiced. The Arab attitude encapsulates all of science’s key features – a reluctance to rely on authority yet a willingness to respect scholarship; fierce argument; publication of results; empiricism; experiment; eclecticism; and a faith in, but not a reliance upon, mathematics. All these, the Arab possessed in abundance. This was their major gift – more important than their medicine, their mathematics, their chemistry, their geography, all of which, and more, they gave to the West. It should never be belittled.

The Arab attitude passed to Europe through a variety of avenues. The main ones were pilgrimage, translations and related contact, and the crusades. Of these, the translations were the most significant. They started reaching the West in the 11th century. The first to appear were the translations of Greek writers, but by the 12th century the medical works of Ibn Sina became available, and these were accompanied by a flood of Arab thought.

The translation centres tended to lie at the interface between Islam and Christendom. One was at Salerno in Italy, close to Arab Sicily; another was at Cremona, close to Arab Spain. In addition to this, proximity with the Arab world facilitated Western emulation of Arab practices. Both Salerno and Montpellier – the latter close to Arab Spain – became kernels of medical excellence.

As a result of all these and other influences, Europeans became educated. And, in time, for people to be considered truly civilized, they had to have read, not only Arab translations of the Greeks, but also Arab writers in their own right. Meanwhile, Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a keen student of Arab texts, wrote of their experimental method in science. And a century later, in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer named four Arab scholars – Ibn ‘Isa, Al-Razi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd. These were familiar and esteemed names to his audience. Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes), incidentally, was a major influence on Western theology.

Thus one can state the obvious. Had it not been for the Islamic Renaissance, Western civilization as we now know it would, most likely, never have got started.

© Edward Ingram 1999

Edward Ingram teaches metaphysics and philosophy of mind in the School of Psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor

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