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A Little-Known Story: The Oriental Contribution to Western Development

We often learn about European development at the end of the Middle Ages, marked by the Renaissance, with advances in science, art, literature, and humanism. However, little is known about the Eastern influence on this significant European development, from the formation of modern European states to scientific knowledge. This aspect has been obscured in history for political reasons.


The Golden Age of Islam, also called the Islamic Renaissance, was crucial for the European Renaissance. The aim here is to discuss this direct and indirect influence, not only from Islam but from the East in general.


From the 8th to the 14th century, there was a period of great development in the Islamic world in many areas of knowledge and technology. During this period, it wasn't Athens in Greece or another Western city brimming with knowledge, but Baghdad, which, before the first millennium, reached a population of over 1 million people. In this city, the first prototype of a university emerged: The House of Wisdom. Its goal was to collect, recover, copy, and translate ancient texts from the Greeks, Hindus, Syrians, and Persians. They not only translated but also produced and disseminated scientific knowledge.


For example, mathematics was refined by the Arabs to the point where some concepts, such as zero, are credited to them. However, unlike Westerners, the Arabs themselves made sure to note in their writings that they were merely contributing to concepts created by the Hindus.


Regarding this influence, when we talk about numerals, we refer to the studies of the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, whose name in Latin became 'Algorismus.' The word algorithm also derives from his name, highlighting this rich cultural heritage. Other terms like algebra also originate from this legacy.


In addition to Al-Khwarizmi, there is Al-Farabi, another thinker of that time who left his mark on Western knowledge. In Portugal, for example, his name is used to refer to places where old books are sold, akin to second-hand bookstores in Brazil, known as 'alfarrabists.' It is said that this name originated from the medieval scholars of Al-Farabi who carried their old books.


Al-Farabi, also known as Alpharabius, was a philosopher, musician, and mathematician who wrote over 100 works. Thanks to him, who translated and studied the works of Greek classics such as Aristotle and Plato, many of these philosophers' works were revived in the Middle Ages, especially the lost works of Aristotle. This revival gave rise to scholastic thought, which was foundational for the medieval European period.


Among the notable figures, Avicenna, also known as Ibn Sina, cannot be overlooked. Avicenna is considered the main polymath of the Islamic Golden Age. He contributed to alchemy, chemistry, philosophy, ethics, mathematics, poetry, music, and, notably, medicine, with his masterpieces: "The Book of Healing" and "The Canon of Medicine."


With the expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it also reached the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, creating Al-Andalus. From this region of Europe, much of the knowledge recovered from the ancient world was reintroduced to Europe. Without this Islamic Renaissance, many ancient contents might have been lost. From here, Aristotle resurfaced in the old continent, influencing scholasticism, which was taking over the space previously dominated by Platonic thought. Cordoba became for the region what Baghdad was for the Middle East: an intellectual center.


The expulsion of the Moors (Arabs) and the Reconquista (a historical process that lasted until 1492) of the Iberian Peninsula led to the formation of the first modern European states as we know them today, namely Portugal and Spain.


In music, the guitar is derived from Arabic musical instruments, and musical styles like Flamenco and Fado also originate from this influence. The architecture, as widely known, also bears this influence, as do various words. Another important influence is navigation.


European naval engineering was a product of this period. During this time, Portugal and Spain divided the world through the Treaty of Tordesillas, and England became the "Queen of the Seas." The entire history of the "discovery" that we know today is deeply influenced by Arabic naval engineering. After losing the Iberian Peninsula, the Arabs dominated the Mediterranean market, prompting these countries to seek alternative routes for Indian spices. The rest is history. It's worth mentioning that the compass, a key navigation instrument, was not a European invention but Chinese. Thus, it's evident that even the "discovery" of the Americas was an event influenced by the East.


In Dan Jones' book, "Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages" (2023), the author states that all European development at the end of the Middle Ages was thanks to the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press. If we take this statement as an axiom, we realize that European development was paved with Eastern heritage, as the compass and gunpowder are Chinese inventions, and even Gutenberg's printing press depended on paper, which was also a Chinese invention.


The intention here is not to discredit all European development but to show that this development occurred through contributions from other parts of the globe. To give credit to peoples who are often erroneously seen as barbarians or whose contributions are attempted to be erased from history.


To learn more about this Islamic influence on the Iberian Peninsula, listen to the podcast "Agora, Agora e Mais Agora" by Rui Tavares. The Portuguese historian masterfully presents some of the names mentioned in this article and their historical influences.


Thus, we see that the development of human knowledge is not something solely based in the West but a kind of dialectic where knowledge has been shaped over the ages, passed from one people to another, and improved. The West was not solely responsible for this evolution; it was part of a process that began long before the creation of these border barriers. The development of knowledge is a collective human achievement, not just a Western one.



Genildo Pereira Galvão, Graduated in International Relations from Centro Universitário IESB. He studied a semester of his course at Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, Mexico. He earned this opportunity through a scholarship program from Santander Universidades, where he was among the 9 selected in the 2017 selection process. He began a Bachelor's degree in History in 2021, which he paused to start a degree in Philosophy, which he is currently pursuing. He worked at the Ministry of Education as a Junior Legal Analyst for THS Tecnologia.


References

  • Jones, Dan. Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages, 2023.

  • The Lost Islamic Library Where Modern Mathematics Began - BBC News Brazil

  • The Islamic Golden Age - Aula Zen

  • Islamic Golden Age - History - InfoEscola

  • History - The Moors in the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) - Portugalécia (weebly.com)

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