The Invention of the World: Islam in the West

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?

15 thoughts on “The Invention of the World: Islam in the West

  1. Excellent post, Dustin. I did not know of the claims of Al-Andalusian contact with the west prior to Columbus. It is certainly possible.

    In general, I really side with your post. Over at, there have been a couple posts and discussions on the divide between (or neglect of) integrating the contributions of the Muslim world with the West. However, this post of yours, much more eloquently advocates breaking the boundaries between the West and non-West.

    The first divide that comes to mind is the ignorance towards Ibn Khaldun‘s foundation to sociology specifically, and social science in general. As social scientists, if we advocate breaking the divides between us, surely we should acknowledge the scientific works of those on the “other” side.

    [This post, originally signed, has been made anonymous at the request of the poster. The name of the poster has also been removed from the following post. -Ed.]

  2. Thanks, Anonymous. I’ll have a look at the posts you link to. I should have thought of Ibn Khaldun — since I mention him in my Intro class as a precursor to modern anthropology, you’d think i would have made the connection.

    I do want to point out, though, that I’m not talking about “contact” but about “always already *in* contact”. Take Frederick II, for example — born in Sicily, which was itself a former Muslim holding, Frederick II spoke and reportedly prayed in Arabic. Catholic scholars worked in Muslim-controlled cities throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. From the 11th century on, Muslim and Christian kingdoms existed side-by-side. El Cid led armies for both Muslim and Christian rulers — often leading armies against kingdoms he had formerly served — and often leading armies for kingdoms he had formerly fought. Even the Roland saga is far more complex than the myth of Christian resistance it hs become — Charlemagne entered Iberia at the behest of Muslim leaders to exploit a revolt in Saragossa (hence “Saracens”), and was quickly “Arabized” (virtually everyone who came to Iberia ended up adopting Muslim fashion, architecture, and food tastes) before returning home to deal with Frankish revolt — at which point his rear guard was attacked by fiercely Christian Basques (not Saracens at all!). And so it goes — the point being that Iberia was deeply involved with the rest of Europe, even when it was ruled predominantly by Muslims. And, foc ourse, just because Ferdinand won a battle in Granada doesn’t mean that the centuries of Muslim presence simply vanished — Muslims and Jews entered Catholic SPain as converts (Moriscos and Marranos), but more than that, the new Spanish leadership inherited the architecture, libraries, and institutions of Muslim Spain. There’s more continuity, I think, than discontinuity, but it’s buried beneath centuries of European nationalism and winner-writes-the-history-ism.

  3. “.. current waves of Muslim immigrants in Western Europe not as the invasion of the West”

    What parts of Western Europe are you talking about?

    [I do not ask for having found a Haar in der Suppe as in many parts of Western Europe muslim migrants live in second, third and I don’t know fourth generation? – thinking of France.]

  4. Orange, I simply cannot make sense of your question as written; I’m sure you’re not unfamiliar with large Muslim populations in Western Europe. I believe the point of contention here is with the word “current”, by which I mean the entirety of post-WWII immigration., or more correctly still the post-colonial movement towards the metropoles. France, of course, had colonies in its own backyard, so has a longer history of largish Muslim residence than, say, Sweden. But in any case I’m not speaking about last year’s migration but about, say, last century’s.

  5. Term ‘second generation migrants’ was supposed to mean the children of migrants born in the country their parents have migrated to. I translated current as gegenwärtig, which in my understanding does not signify a period of fifty years. I meanwhile found it also means fortlaufend.

    “But in any case I’m not speaking about last year’s migration but about, say, last century’s.”

    I see. thx for clarification. That was my question.

  6. Last week we had a distinguished visitor here at the U of A — Professor Jamil Ragep — who does fascinating research on medieval Islamic science and its contributions to what we think of as the “European” scientific revolution during the 17th century. He’s about to take up a Canada Research Chair at McGill University (he’s currently at U Oklahoma) and I highly recommend his work to anyone interested in further reading.

  7. [“I simply cannot make sense of your question as written.. ” With reason.

    I’m off my blog and writing a text in german gegenwärtig, which immediately takes bad impact on my english. (‘code-switching’, anyone? I did not want to say “that was my question”, but “that answered my question. thx 4 ur attention.]

  8. Orange, it wasn’t the language, per se, it was that you seem to be asking in what parts of Western Europe there be Muslims. I guessed that it was the time-frame that worried you, and it seems I was right — and hopefully I’ve cleared that up. Sorry if I was unclear about how you were unclear (at least to me).

  9. “.. you seem to be asking in what parts of Western Europe there be Muslims.”

    Oh really? I thought in the beginning I asked you in which parts of Western Europe “waves of muslim migration” currently (in the sense of ‘at present time’) could be notified, as I am not aware of a phenomenon like that.
    For Germany at present time, as one could argue, rather the opposite is the case.

    “it wasn’t the language, per se”

    yeah I think in here I agree.

  10. I heard Dr. Ragep speak in 1998. He was inspiring! We were all studying Arabic (beginning level for me), and he assured us that we could do nothing better with our lives than merely document–only document–the thousands upon thousands of Arabic manuscripts that exist around the cities of the former Muslim and Arab civilization. Often the libraries don’t really know what they have, so just entering the titles into databases is useful. Mauritania alone is a huge treasure trove–who knows if those lost works of Aristotle are gathering dust somewhere north of Nouakchott?

  11. As my research now deals with French women whose parents came from North Africa in the suburbs of Paris (by the way, there are a lot of second generation-ers, and although they can be found, there are very few third- and fourth- generation. And people from North Africa as well as sub-saharan are definitely still coming to France now) and their interactions with the French state through their experience in the public school system, I am very interested in how we conceptualize the history of “the West” and how it’s often the history of “the West” juxtaposed against the history of “Islam.”

    What adds to this dichotomy/non-interactionist model, however, is the narrative that many north africans share about Western invasion during the colonial period. And in some ways, I have to agree with them–although French colonialism in Algeria can only be understood through the lens of all the historical interactions between the two sides of the Mediterranean–I would still maintain that the French invasion of Algeria in the 19th century was not simply a continuation of those interactions since the 11th century, but more a colonial invasion and domination of a people. Of course, it’s important to highlight the way that France and the concept of what it is to be French changed through this interaction, as well as the way Algeria and ethnic lines within it also changed, especially in the French construction/opposition of Kabyle culture against Arab.

    Finally, I imagine you’re all familiar with Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, a book which tries to show the history and the influences of all these interactions since the 11th century, along with their relevance to the current situation in a village in Egypt, but without all the anthropological jargon (as an aside, I think the publisher tries to hide his academic status, nowhere does it say he’s an anthropologist THOUGH he did get a D.Phil in anthro from Oxford. So in this non-fiction book he’s marketed as a novelist). I helped teach this book when I was a TA for an introductory course and I feel that it worked out quite well.

  12. Be specific. Give muslim contributors and contributions in these fields: Medicine, machinery, music, architecture, math, physics, chemistry, electronics, computers and biology.

  13. I don’t see why oneman should have to do your research for you, when a simple Google search will yield up plenty of sites like this one which provides the information you are looking for.

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