Early this morning, after I finished reading Bart Ehrman’s post-Schweitzerian portrayal of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet over a calming cup of tea, I reflected on the development of my acquaintance with the subject, and realized that I had read through the Koran several years before I read the Christian gospels, much earlier than I became familiar with the Greek NT. That reading of the Koran took place just over fifty years ago, in the summer of 1955, and in the fall I made the acquaintance of the Universalist minister Mounir Sa’adah in his second capacity of teacher at a small Vermont boarding school. From Mounir, an Arab Christian from Damascus and educated in Beirut, and as fluent in French as in Arabic and English, I received my first systematic introduction to European history and philosophy, and later he would bond me in marriage with a wife who had been one of my high-school classmates (Mounir, the glue lasted only thirty-one years, and gradually dried and fragmented).
It was perhaps unusual to learn of European culture from an Arab, but by no means unprecedented. In fact, the West owes its identity to a considerable degree to the role of Islamic (some would say Arabic) civilization in transmitting Greek science and philosophy, as well as its own contributions, to Europe. This is an odd story. The Arabs who spread Islam from Spain to India in the 8th century found in Persia major institutes for the translation of Greek texts. Following this example, Arabic leaders founded major translation institutes in Damascus, in Baghdad, in Cairo, which created an almost comprehensive corpus of Arabic translations of the major works of Greek science and philosophy. Absorbing and building on this, Islamic science and scholarship (Islamic because it included the work of Arabs, Persians, Turks, etc.) became the glory of the medieval world. There is no doubt that the Arabic-speaking world was by far the most scientifically advanced of a thousand years ago (see Toby Huff’s “Early Modern Science”). Whereas at this time the largest libraries of Europe would contain 250 books, the public library of Baghdad contained 40,000 volumes when it was visited by the Persian physician Ibn Sina in the 11th century.
Western Europe had been cut off from Greek learning by the decline of knowledge of Greek in the West; its learning at the best was Roman. (Think of a Europe without Aristotle, without Homer.) Initially, it was from contact with Arab scholarship in Spain, in Sicily, and in northern Africa, that Western Europe gained access to Greek science and philosophy, as well as original Arabic thought, through Latin translations of Arabic texts including Arabic versions of Greek originals. The West never adopted the sensible Arabic procedure of the creation of major translation institutes, so this effort was spotty and sometimes translations were reduplicated. But this was the impulse which brought the European intellect to life after seven centuries of slumber, and lead to the intellectual ferment and foundation of European universities in the Renaissance of the twelfth century, wonderfully portrayed by Charles Haskins in a classic book that I recently reread.
The timing was crucial. The primary acquaintance by Europeans with Arabic sources started after the reconquest of Toledo in Spain, a center of Arabic learning, from the Arabs in 1085. By the time the Europeans gained access to the original Greek texts, together with first-hand knowledge of Greek literature, history, and art, Islamic science and scholarship were in decline, from the 13th and 14th centuries. Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that the West owes its greatest single intellectual stimulus to its acquaintance with Greek and Arabic science and learning in the creation of the twelfth century renaissance. From the world of Islam, early Europe learned much of what it needed to be itself.
This story lends great irony to recent events. The gentle and learned Saudi doctoral student (the son of a local historian) who recently finished a distinguished doctoral dissertation with me was kind enough to participate with me in a discussion of this history at our local UU fellowship. But important questions remain in this story. Why did Islamic culture not become the basis of modern science? We might consider this at a time when short-sighted policies blight the education of American students, and important research must be done in other countries because religious influences stifle scientific thought in the USA, which certainly was one of the causes of the decline of Islamic science. But, even after fifty years, I recall the following lines of the Koran, in which the emphasis is on the value of learning:
“Read, in the name of the Lord who createth,
Createth man from a clot,
Read, and it is thy Lord the most bountiful,
Who teacheth by the pen, teacheth man that which he knew not.”
There is, and always has been, another Islam from what is in the newspapers.