The Connectivity and Cross Fertilization of Civilizations

by Sadek Jawad Sulaiman

Presentation made at:

George Mason University

Fairfax, VA, USA

March 20, 2007

In recent years, the thesis has been advanced, most notably by Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington since his seminal 1993 article in the Foreign Affairs magazine, that globally the nature of conflict in the post-cold war era would change from conflict between nation-states to conflict between civilizations. In other words, civilizations, whether comprising unitary or multiple nation-states, rather than nation-states per se, would be the belligerents in future global conflicts. Since then, many people have been led to read current political tensions between the West and the Arab/Islamic world as a conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations.

In a contrary context to this notion of the “Clash of Civilizations”, I would submit that historically it has not been observed to be in the nature of civilizations to clash. Historically, civilizations are known to have taken note of, and thereby benefited from, the achievements of one another. In every civilization we find distinct traces of knowledge and innovations received from other civilizations. For example, in Europe’s progress leading up to the Enlightenment, we see foundational knowledge received from the Islamic Civilization which in turn had received knowledge from several other civilizations, notably the Greek, Indian, and Persian ones, before developing then offering its own intellectual product to Europe.

On the other hand, historically again, clashes have occurred between empires, between nation-states, between religions, and, beyond that, even more frequently, within each of these entities, along ideological, political, economic, ethnical, and sectarian fault lines. As a rule, clashes have occurred whenever morality sank and greed surged, or a plunge was rashly taken into unbridled adventurism, false national pride, or fanatic self-righteousness. Antagonists then banished reason, defied wisdom, fed on raw emotion, and took to violence. By that, they not only grievously hurt themselves, but also caused much collateral harm to humankind.

That being my persuasion, this presentation is not premised on the clash of civilizations, but rather the opposite: the positive effect of the connectivity and cross fertilization of civilizations. More particularly, it is about the historical leap in the progress of human knowledge that was catalyzed by Islam coming in contact with the civilizations of or preceding its time, as a result of which the proverbial Golden Age of Islam unfolded, paving the way eventually for the rise of the West from a prolonged stagnation to its present prominence.

In that age, Muslims went all out seeking knowledge worldwide, gathered it, absorbed it, enhanced it, pioneered new studies, and eventually presented the fruits of their enterprise to the rest of the world. That enterprise, carried on for five centuries, enhanced Islam, making it, beyond being a religion, a civilization as well. From China, Indonesia, and India, through Persia, Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, to Africa and Spain, Islam touched the hearts and minds of many peoples, defined their morals, ordered their lives, and gave them a sense of belonging to one great civilization whole across continents and oceans.

Besides literary and scientific knowledge, a good number of remarkable innovations went around as well. After adopting from India the concept of zero, or cipher, derived from the Arabic, Sifr, and working it into their mathematics (Khwarizmi, Baghdad, 825), Muslims transmitted the Hindu numeral based decimal system to the West. And after learning the technique of paper-making from China (Samarkand, 712), they brought it to Spain (950), and from there it passed into Europe. Europe, five centuries later, invented the printing press, and marrying it to paper, revolutionized dissemination of knowledge worldwide. Again, contributing to the development of the Gutenberg press (1450) was probably the technique of stamping and printing patterns upon textiles with wooden block, that was carried from Islamic Egypt to Europe by Crusaders. In our time, the fruits of the Western Civilization, in particular the American experience, in science and technology as well as humanities, have been received well and used gainfully by civilizations around the globe.

The equity and scope of the scholarship that launched the Islamic Civilization come across vividly in reviews by several historians. Among them, let me cite two American authorities, Will Durant and George Sarton.

Will Durant, in the chapter on Islamic Civilization in his thirteen-volume The Story of Civilization notes that Mohammad Ibn Nadim, a noted chronicler of knowledge in his time,  produced in 987 his Index of the sciences, a bibliography of all books in Arabic, original or translated, on any branch of knowledge, with a bibliographical mention of each author. Historian Durant then observes: “We may estimate the wealth of the Muslim literature in Ibn Nadim’s time (10th century) by noting that not one in a thousand of the volumes that he named is known to exist today”. In another notation, Durant predicts: “When scholarship has surveyed more thoroughly this half-forgotten legacy, we shall probably rank the tenth century in Eastern Islam as one of the golden ages in the history of the mind.”

George Sarton, Harvard historian of science, in his monumental Introduction to the History of Science, writes:  “From the second half of the eighth to the end of the eleventh century, Arabic was the scientific, the progressive language of humankind. When the West was sufficiently mature to feel the need for deeper knowledge, it turned its attention, first of all, not to the Greek sources, but to the Arab ones.”

What happened to that rich and vast scholarship, you might ask?  

Tragically, as it so often has happened on the dark side of the human experience, aggressive warfare destroyed the bulk of it, killed thousands of accomplished and promising scholars, and virtually laid to waste a wealth of recorded knowledge unprecedented until then. Jenghiz Khan and his sons, on a wanton campaign for conquest, led their unruly Mongol armies into the Muslim realm, wrecking everything along their march. A hundred teaming and cultured cities in Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Caucasus, each with great literary treasure, but ill-prepared to defend against external attack, fell victims to the Mongol rampage. Finally, on February 13, 1258, Jenghiz Khan’s grandson Hulaku and his troops entered Baghdad and began forty-five days of pillage and massacre. History has it that close to a million inhabitants were slaughtered, among them thousands of scholars, scientists, tradesmen, artisans, and poets. Libraries and treasures assiduously accumulated through centuries, containing hundreds of thousands of volumes, were in a week plundered and destroyed. Never before, it was said, the river Tigris had seen so much blood and ink mix in its waters.  Finally, the Caliph Al-Musta’sim Billah, the 37th and last in his dynasty, himself a learned scholar and a patron of letters, was put to death. With that the 500 year old Abbasid Caliphate which had stewarded the Islamic cultural renaissance all along, was brought to a genocidal end.       

A dynamic civilization that for centuries was the only bright light in an otherwise culturally and intellectually stagnant world was thus brutally maimed. A literary and scientific enterprise that was climbing to its zenith while Europe was still experiencing its dark ages, was recklessly derailed. Fortunately, however, what survived of that enterprise could still shine the path for the West and pull it out of its hiatus to build a new civilization.

Who were those ardent seekers of knowledge in the Golden Age of Islam that ushered in the Islamic Civilization, and what motivated them?  

They were individuals of various ethnic backgrounds, come together under the universalism and rationalism of Islam. They sought all knowledge, not just religious knowledge. They were all members of an intelligentsia which was cosmopolitan in race, native tongue, and even religion. But they were all bound by a common view of the world and a common cultural language, Arabic, in which they held learned discourse and authored their books. Notwithstanding the environment in which they lived and labored, which was despotic and often turbulent, the intellectual and moral thrust of Islam and the richness of the Arabic language moved their souls and energized their pursuit of knowledge far beyond the social and political mores of their time.  

To them, learning in itself was an act of religious significance. The Prophet Mohammad had urged the seeking of knowledge wherever it was to be found, declaring that endeavor a duty of every Muslim, male and female. And the Qur’an challenged pointedly and forthrightly: Say, Are those equal: those who know and those who do not know;  And Say, Are the blind equal with those who see, or  the depth of darkness with light? And it declared:  Those who are blind in this world will be blind in the Hereafter, and most stray from the path. The Greeks had said knowledge was virtue; Muslim scholars now saw knowledge as light.

To shine that light, our scholars were prompted to observe the natural order, study the human condition, and examine the record of nations gone before them: that they might thereby enhance their awareness of their world, grow in wisdom and virtue, and improve their lives. Unverified knowledge was not sufficient as a basis for judgment or action, unfounded speculation could, indeed, in the Qur’anic phrase, be sinful. And in the Qur’an they read a glorification of knowledge the like of which no book, earthly or celestial, had expounded before.

The very first communication of the Qur’an was an enjoinment to read (Iqra’), and reading, indeed, was what they took to with remarkable relish. On the one hand, they developed the Arabic language, collected the Prophet’s Hadith (sayings) and wrote Qur’anic exegesis; on the other, they gathered and studied all they could the knowledge that humanity had achieved before them. They collected works in virtually every field of learning, and translated these into Arabic, making Arabic an efficient and universal means of scientific and literary communication. They improved on the knowledge they received, and then pioneered  important studies in science and humanities. They revered learning and the learned, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. By the third century of Higra, the 9th century A.D., universities and research laboratories flourished across the Muslim world,  in Asia, Africa, and Muslim Europe .

The learned of that Golden Age of Islam were citizens of the entire Muslim world, which, comprised most of the civilized world. Our scholars were mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, physicians, geographers, physicists, philosophers, historians, grammarians, poets, jurists -- the likes of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Khwarizmi, Farghani, Kindi, Mutanabbi, Ibn Younus,  Battani, Razi, Farabi, Ibn Haitham, Ibn Sina, Bayruni, Ibn Rusd, Masoudi, Sibawaih, Farahidi, Khayyam, and thousands others of various disciplines who rightly saw in Islam a liberating influence on the intellect and its God-given propensity ever to explore and seek to understand.

How was this intellectual renaissance achieved?  

Education began at home, with emphasis on character, and, as today, at age six children started elementary school. The mosque became the primary center for all stages of learning, bonding knowledge, ethics, and religious instruction all along. In the mosque, inter-spacing the five daily prayers, teachers sat apart against pillars and walls and taught various subjects at various levels, with students sitting around listening and taking notes. Women could attend, and some women taught classes as well, which men could attend (Ibn Khallikan – 1218-82). Teachers demanded earnest study and proper conduct in class, and rejected any intrusion of the influence of wealth or social status. Over time most mosques acquired libraries, and at the peak of this cultural renaissance, in thousands of mosques across the Muslim realm tens of thousands of scholars taught various branches of knowledge, studiously and virtually without fee.

Then early in the 9th Century, the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) was established in Baghdad as a major center for translation and research. Here, for close to 150 years, a fertilizing process of translation went on. It included the works of Galen, Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Ptolemy and others, from Greek and Syriac. It also included the Old Testament from Greek, and literary and scientific works from Persian and Sanskrit. At the head of the translators at the House of Wisdom was a non-Muslim, a Nestorian physician named Hunain Ibn Ishaq (809-73), assisted by his son named Ishaq Ibn Hunain. By 850, most of the classic Greek texts in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine had been translated, including, notably, Aristotle’s Categories, Physics, and Magna Moralia; Plato’s Republic, Timaeus, and Laws; Hippocrates’ Aphorisms; DiocoridesMateria Medica, and Ptolemy’s Almajest.  A century later, by an admirable scholarly gesture, one Muslim scholar, Bayruni, who accompanied Mahmoud Ghazni on his campaigns in India (1018), after having translated several works of science from Sanskrit into Arabic, rendered Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest into Sanskrit by way of paying a debt. Professor Sarton considers Bayruni one of the greatest scientists of all time.  

In 969 the Al-Azhar (the most illumined)  University was founded in Cairo , preceding the first European universities by two centuries. A third notable academy was Dar al-Ilm, (the House of Knowledge), founded in Cairo thereafter. Then In 1066, secondary level education was formalized in Baghdad, eventually giving rise to more advanced academies across the Muslim realm. The academic range was expanded to include, besides religious studies, grammar, philology, rhetoric, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, physics and medicine.

Muslim astronomers studied the findings of Ptolemy, but unlike him, and long before Copernicus, they understood the sphericity of the earth, and estimated its circumference to approximate 20,000 miles, by an error approximating 5,000 miles. More specifically,  Bayruni took the earth to be round, turning daily on its axis  and annually around the sun, An astronomical text developed at this time by Farghani remained in authority in Europe until the sixteenth century, and may well have been consulted by Copernicus. And long before Darwin, two Muslim scholars, pre-eminent literary prose writer  Al-Jahiz in mid-9th century, and historian/geographer/philosopher Mas’udi in mid-10th century,  conceptualized evolution: life might have climbed from mineral to plant, plant to animal, animal to human. To which 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, favoring the theory, merely added that if this had been achieved in the past, then in the next stage humans will become angels, and finally God. To Rumi’s Sufist mind, evolution and pantheism were not entirely inconsistent.

In geography, two scholars stood out: Idrisi and Yaqut. Idrisi, (born 1000), at the behest of King Roger II of Sicily, wrote his Kitab al-Rojeri (Roger’s Book). Like most Muslim scientists, Idrisi took for granted sphericity of the earth. He divided the earth in seven climatic zones, and each zone into ten parts, each of the seventy parts was illustrated by a detailed map. These maps, according to Will Durant, were the crowning achievement of medieval cartography, unprecedented in fullness, accuracy, and scope. His successor, Yaqut (b.1228), having miraculously escaped the Mongol onslaught, finally settled in Mosul, Iraq, where he produced his Mu’jamu al-Buldan – a vast geographical encyclopedia which summed up nearly all medieval knowledge of the globe. Yaqut included almost everything – astronomy, physics, archeology, ethnography, history, giving the co-ordinates of the cities and the lives and works of their famous men. Seldom has any man, writes Will Durant, so loved the earth.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as Muslim influence spread in Spain and the rest of Europe, Europeans became increasingly aware of the advanced Islamic scholarship in education and science. Books were translated from Arabic into Latin and later to vernacular language. Consequently, for some five hundred years, Islamic learning contributed to the development of education in the West, with science being taught mainly from Muslim scientists’ translated works. In medicine, for example, the encyclopedias of Razi (born 844), Ibn Sina (born 980), and Ibn Rush, (born 1126) were leading textbooks. In Chemistry, works by Razi, Ibn Sina and their predecessor Jabir ibn Hayyan (born 721) stood out as the most advanced. Jabir’s practical and experimental method became standard practice among his successors and eventually was adopted in Europe. In Physics, Ibn Haitham (d. 1030) made major contributions to optics; through the study of light rays, he revealed that light traveled in a straight line, that a luminous object radiates light in every direction, and that light weakens as it travels from its source. And anticipating the universal laws of seventeenth century scientists, he believed all cosmic phenomena obeyed the same natural laws as govern on earth.

By the time of the European Renaissance a great deal of the Islamic Civilization’s knowledge was in European hands. It became the mainstay of European science, and not until Enlightenment in the 17th century was it significantly surpassed.

To delve further in what was achieved in that Golden Age of Islam would not be feasible in the limited time we have for this session; besides, we could perhaps use the remaining time as gainfully in interactive discussion. With that in mind, I have brought with me this small publication that was put together by the Arab Information Center in 1995. It offers a synopsis of the Islamic scientific endeavor from the 7th to the 12th centuries. I shall leave it with Ms. Foudan Salem for anyone of you to review or make copies should you wish to pursue this subject further.

Summing up, let me cite one more passage from Durant’s Story of Civilization, on which, as you might have noted, I have drawn extensively in preparing this presentation, and to do so in furtherance of the viewpoint I offered at the outset: that, unlike empires, religions, nation-states, ethnical groups and sects, civilizations are known to have taken note of and benefited from one another rather than clashed.  Noting this essential connectivity of civilizations, Durant writes: "The continuity of science and philosophy from Egypt, India, and Babylonia through Greece and Byzantium to Eastern and Spanish Islam, and thence to Northern Europe and America, is one of the brightest threads in the skein of history."  

The skein of history, I might add, represents the sum total of humankind’s intellectual and moral experience as shaped and formed in the civilizations lived. As such, from a civilizational perspective, all human experience is a continuum: there is one underlying human condition producing the entire range and diversity of the human thought. Whether expressed in religious or philosophical terms, human thought is ultimately related to human experience, which, in essence, is homogeneous. In the positive mode of our thinking we peaceably coexist and positively cooperate. In the negative mode of our thinking, we recklessly fight and hurt one another. Civilizations act out of an inclusive mode of thinking: coming in contact, each looks for the best in the other to learn and emulate. Particularism, on the other hand, whether expressed through nationalism, religion, ethnicity, or sectarianism, acts out of an exclusive mode of thinking. Excessively expressed, it gives rise to clash.

As a man thinks, so he is, the Bible reminds us. The Quran likewise reminds:  Everyone acts according to how one is (internally) formed. That, I submit, is as true of nations as of individuals. Let us then, individuals and nations, think ever more positively in order to enhance and elevate our life experience. And let us relate as civilizations, enriching one another until ultimately all of us sharing this beautiful and bountiful planet converge as one enlightened global civilization, surpassing anything realized until now. Not only our lives will thus be immeasurably augmented, but also our world will be transformed to a happier common home.

Thank you

* Sadek Jawad Sulaiman is the Chairman on the Advisory Board of Al-Hewar Center.

Webmaster’s note: The above lecture provides an excellent summary of Muslim contributions to the world’s civilizations. As long as Muslims continue to focus their energies on the minutiae regarding sectarian supremacy, gender segregation, medieval versus modern dress codes, and an untold number of other frivolities, they can expect to be stuck in a malaise for the foreseeable future.

Posted March 24, 2007