The West’s Islamic legacy challenged

A French scholar has sparked a controversy by challenging the conventional wisdom that we emerged from the Dark Ages guided by Muslim teachers.
Richard Bastien | Oct 10 2008 | comment  



Sylvain Gouguenheim | Aristote au Mont saint-Michel – Les Racines grecques de l’Europe chrétienne | Seuil, Paris | 2008 | 280 pages

In France, historians writing about the cultural formation of Christian Europe throughout the Middle Ages do so at their own peril, as Sylvain Gouguenheim, professor of Medieval History at the École normale supérieure de Lyon (ENS-L), recently discovered. Because his latest book argues that the contribution of Islam to the cultural and intellectual development of Europe has been largely overemphasized, a petition was drawn up last spring by faculty colleagues lamenting its “ideological positions [inconsistent with] the pedagogical serenity and the scientific reputation of the ENS-L”.

The controversy quickly spilled into the French press with various specialists of the Middle Ages debating the book’s merits and demerits for weeks on end. Although Le Figaro (moderate right) and Le Monde (left) both published positive reviews, other publications such as Libération (far left) and Télérama (Catholic progressive) accused Gouguenheim of pursuing a “repugnant objective, that of annihilating the very notion of Arabian identity”. This led some world known authorities on the Middle-Ages, notably Rémi Brague and Jacques Le Goff, to take Gouguenheim’s defense. The book was also hotly debated on French television.

To understand why the controversy arose in the first place, one must bear in mind that there are currently three schools of thought about the relationship between Greece, the Islamic world and Medieval Europe.

The first school is premised on the notion of the “Dark Ages”, a period allegedly running from about 400 AD to 1200 AD (or earlier, depending on various historians) during which almost any form of learning would have ceased to exist except in monasteries. It holds: a) that the works of Greek philosophers, doctors and mathematicians would have first been discovered by the Arab-Muslim world beginning in the 9th century, thus giving rise to an “Islamic Enlightenment” fostered by the Abbasid Dynasty; b) that, thanks to the translation of these works from Arabic into Latin, Greek knowledge would have then penetrated into Christian Europe beginning in the 12th century; and c) that the West grew out of its “darkness” largely as a result of this “Islamic Enlightenment” and is therefore culturally indebted to the Islamic World. (1)

While this school held sway until the early 1950s, it was gradually overtaken in recent decades by a second school, one that might be termed the “self-development” view, which holds that Western civilization essentially grew out of a synthesis of Greek philosophy, Roman law and the Christian faith. Although it admits of some limited cultural influence exerted by the Islamic world on the West, it emphasizes the autonomy of Western cultural development based on a self-directed assimilation of our Greek heritage.

The third school argues that the notion of a vital continuity, whether directly from Greece to Europe, or indirectly from Greece to Arabia to Europe, is highly debatable and that, indeed, the very concept of “cultural roots” on which historians have traditionally relied should be called into question.(2)

Because the relatively new “self-development” view of the Middle Ages has been increasingly challenged in recent years by upholders of the first and third schools mentioned above, Gouguenheim has undertaken to buttress it and to respond to the arguments of its challengers. His book is essentially a synthesis of scholarly works published in the last 40 years (the bibliography includes more than 250 books and articles) by well-known French, British, Italian and American historians who contributed to the “self-development” interpretation of the Middle Ages.

So what does Gougenheim’s synthesis tell us? Four things.

First, Greek thought never really impregnated the Islamic world because the latter carefully subjected all “foreign” knowledge to an “Islamic filter” designed to determine its consistency with Muslim beliefs. Consequently, what Islamic scholars retained from Greece was limited “to that which did not contradict the teaching of the Koran”. This created major problems, notably with respect to Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics. More specifically, the Greek concept of causality was deemed incompatible with the Koranic understanding of God’s omnipotence, which it seemed to limit. And although some scholars like Al-Farabi, Al-Andalusi, Avicenna and Averroes were genuinely receptive to Greek influences, they were unable to reconcile Aristotelian metaphysical concepts with the content of Islamic revelation.

Moreover, Islamic works that did reflect Greek influence were usually not well received. Averroes’ books were burnt (only Latin translations of his commentaries on Aristotle have survived, all of his commentaries in Arabic having been lost or destroyed) and his disciples were found only among Jews and Christians. While the Koran may well offer its adherents a rational view of the world, Muslim rationalism has very little in common with Western rationalism. The notion of kalâm, sometimes translated as “Islamic philosophy”, was understood by the famous Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali as a means of “protecting the faith against the disruptions of innovators” and was, therefore, alien to the Greek concept of philosophy.

Finally, Muslim scholars were quick to realize that Aristotle’s political theories were inapplicable in a Muslim state, where politics, law and religion are closely intertwined. This explains why the Greco-Roman legal system was never envisaged, even by Averroes, as a source of juridical thinking in the Islamic world.

Second, Greek knowledge became accessible to the Islamic world thanks to the work of Eastern Christian scholars who translated Greek works into their own Syriac language, and then from Syriac into Arabic. More importantly, however, Islamic civilization is itself culturally indebted to early Christian scholars. For example, because the translation of Greek documents into Arabic raised major problems occasioned by the total absence of scientific terms in that language, it became incumbent on Christian Melkite translators to develop most of the Arabic scientific vocabulary. They were responsible in particular for translating into Arabic 139 medical books by Galen and Hippocratus and 43 books by Rufus of Ephesis. Also of interest is the fact, attested by several Muslim writers, that the Arabic “coufic” writing was developed by Christian missionaries in the 6th Century.

Third, Islam did not pass on its intellectual heritage to the West. The knowledge acquired by the West is the product of its own discoveries. The West benefited from the translations done at the request of abbots and bishops by clerics familiar with the Greek language, like Jacques de Venise who, after studying several years in Byzantium, spent the rest of his life translating Aristotle and other Greek philosophers at the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, in Brittany. The West also benefited from a constant relationship with Byzantium, where Greek was the everyday language and Byzantine scholars were quite familiar with the Greek heritage. Thus, most of the knowledge discovered or transmitted throughout the period extending from the 8th to the 12th centuries resulted, not from Islam, but from the intellectual appetite of European Church elites. This explains the first Western Renaissance, known as the Carolingian Renaissance, which took place at the turn of the 9th Century.

Fourth, far from having been a “dark” or “barbarian” age, the period from the 8th to the 12th century, from Charlemagne to Peter Abelard, was characterized by the gradual assimilation of Greek philosophy and science and by an exceptional intellectual dynamism. It is throughout this period that Europe acquired the frame of mind of Greek and Roman antiquity and developed an understanding of the world and of science which became a specific character of Western civilization. The period set the stage for the 13th century, which witnessed a new intellectual “take-off” that manifested itself in the philosophical and theological works of Bonaventure, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, as well as in the scientific works of Roger Bacon, Campanus de Novare and Pierre de Marincourt.

Anyone interested in understanding the cultural roots of Western civilization will benefit greatly from reading Gouguenheim’s book. It provides overwhelming evidence in support of the notion that the Islamic world and the West reacted very differently to Greek knowledge, with the former remaining relatively impermeable to its influence and the latter making it very much its own. No one who reads Guggenheim can fail to realize how true remains the contention that Western civilization was built on the combined heritage of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem.

Finally, one is hard put to find any evidence in this book in support of the view that it is ideologically biased. The grievances against the author call to mind Matthew 7:3 – “Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?”

Richard Bastien is director of the Catholic Civil Rights League for the National Capital Area in Canada and a contributor to Égards, a French language journal of ideas.

Notes

(1) This is the view held by historians such as R.-R. Menocal (The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage), A. de Libera (Penser au Moyen Âge), A. Miquel (L’Islam et sa civilisation) and R. Mantran (L’Expansion musulmane).

(2) See, for example: M. Détienne, Les Grecs et nous, Paris, Perrin, 2005.

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