While it is indeed possible (and at least fun to think) that trained otters in the service of Chinese explorers were the first to discover the Americas from the East, an article on Al-Jazeera’s website details the influence of Muslim scientists on the discovery of the New World from the West — and asserts the possibility that Andalusia Muslims may have gotten here well before Columbus. Whether the latter claim is true or not, certainly the importance of Muslim scholarship to Columbus’ voyage cannot be overestimated; Muslim navigation was the state-of-the-art in the 15th century and for centuries before, providing most of the navigation tools, such as the astrolabe, that Columbus and his crew relied on. By the 9th century, Muslims had proven that the Earth was a sphere, and had worked out its circumference to within 200 km (Columbus apparently knew about this work, but substituted lower figures to help make his case that the voyage he had proposed was at all feasible).
The impact of Muslim science and culture, and especially of the Al-Andalusian culture that dominated the Iberian peninsula between the 8th and 12th centuries, on the development of Western culture is little known and even less talked about. The treatment of Muslim Spain in Western Civ books tends to consist solely of the Song of Roland and, centuries later, the defeat of Granada and subsequent expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from Spain. In between, a mighty civilization emerged, flourished, and ultimately declined — one that I am beginning to think contributed more to “Western culture” than the Romans ever did. Besides creating a stewpot of cultural and scholastic achievement in its own right, Muslim Spain served as a conduit for the teachings of the Muslim world at a time when Muslim learning was at its peak. For instance, the Catholic Church was utterly transformed by the study of Aristotle in Arabic translation; likewise, the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping by Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli relied on the introduction of negative numbers by Muslims (who themselves had learned from Hindu mathematicians centuries earlier) and the al-jabr (“algebra”) of Al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we also get the word “algorithm”). The work of Ibn Rashid (Averroës) — who also gave us Aristotle — and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) form the foundation of Western medical knowledge; the poetry and dialogues of and about Muslim philosophers and warriors (and non-Muslims deeply embedded in Andalusian culture, such as El Cid, from the Arabic el Sayyid, “leader” or “chief”) laid the groundwork for the birth of the novel (in Spain, of course!); and the pointed arch essential to Gothic monumental architecture was adopted from Muslim architects.
These and other contributions of the Muslim world are detailed in an exhibition currently touring Britain, 1001 Inventions. The Independent has drawn up a list of their “Top 20” most influential Muslim inventions and discoveries (paid access only; full text available here), including Ibn al-Haitham’s discovery of the workings of the eye (and subsequent invention of the Camera Obscura; the word “camera” derives from the arabic qamara, “a dark or private room”); the perfection of soap (and their not-so-subtle suggestion that non-bathing Europeans look into it, for which we can all be thankful); Jabir ibn Hayyan’s invention of distillation, which helped transform alchemy into chemistry (and wine into liquor); and the development of Chinese ornamental flashpowder into weapons-grade gunpowder (always with the weapons of mass destruction, the Muslims, eh? I’ll leave as an open question why they didn’t put their guns, germs, and steel to better use over the last half of the second millenium).
We tend to think about the history of “the West” as a singular thing, a tree with one root (ancient Greece, or maybe ancient Mesopotamia, before it went all goofy with the Islam) and one trunk (the Catholic Church) and only a couple of branches (the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the French and American Revolutions). Anything outside of this singular narrative is thought of as outside of European history — discoveries and inventions to be assimilated by the West, outside influences “brought in”. So, for instance, after 2,000 years of shared history, Marx could still describe Jews as living in the interstices of European society, rather than as an integral part of it. Likewise for our Muslim heritage; the scholarship on the West’s Muslim past treats it as a marginal history, something that Christendom suddenly encountered with the Crusades. Yet from Charlemagne on, a constant flow of Christians, Jews, and Muslims moved between Andalusian Spain and the rest of Europe, and Christian Spain’s later political dominance in Europe was grounded in its Muslim past.
What would it mean to re-think Western culture as encompassing the Muslim world? To think of Western history as taking place in Hindu India, Umayyad Damascus, Abassid Baghdad, Fatimid North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire in addition to Renaissance Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, and Tudor England? To think of colonialism, at least in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, not so much as the imposition of the West on non-Westerners but as an internal shift of political and economic power — more Reconstruction-era South than Conquest of America? And, finally, to think of the current waves of Muslim immigrants in Western Europe not as the invasion of the West by cultural Others but as the return of “cultural cousins” after a long absence?