The West's Islamic legacy challenged

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

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

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

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.


(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
), A. Miquel (L’Islam et sa civilisation) and
R. Mantran (L’Expansion musulmane).

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


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