Whose dark ages?
If there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure which stems, I think, from the strait-jacket of history which we have inherited.
HRH Prince Charles in a speech at Oxford University, 27 October 1993
In 410 CE, Alaric, the Germanic king of the Visigoths, swept into Rome and sacked the great city in a three-day rampage. Sixty-six years later, Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor of the West, was deposed, and the regalia of empire was rudely despatched to Constantinople. With that, the lights went out on civilisation, and the Western world was plunged into an age of darkness – a night in which there was no scholarship, literacy or even civilised life. Only 1,000 years later did the world finally rediscover classical learning and bring the world’s night of darkness to an end with the bright new dawn of the Renaissance. Or so the story goes.
This is the myth of the Dark Ages, the idea that history and progress pretty much stopped for a millennium after the fall of Rome. The trouble is that the myth is just that, a myth. But it has been a myth so potent that it has thoroughly distorted our understanding of how civilisations emerge and how science and learning progress. Advances in our understanding of the natural world happen when scientists absorb the latest knowledge in fields such as physics or biology, and then modify or improve it. They work rather like runners in a relay race, passing the baton of learning from one scientist to the next. Modern science, regarded as a hallmark of modern Western civilisation, achieved its place through the passing of many successive batons, which were handed to the scientists of Europe from those of the world’s non- Western cultures. These included those who lived in the cultures of Islam over a period of some 800 years from the 8th to the 16th centuries.
The fact that we know little of this is what Michael Hamilton Morgan of the New Foundation for Peace speaks of as ‘lost history’. The historian Jack Goody goes further and calls it ‘the theft of history’. It is as if the memory of an entire civilisation and its contribution to the sum of knowledge has been virtually wiped from human consciousness. Not simply in the West but in the Islamic world too, the achievements of Islamic scientists were, until recently, largely forgotten or at least neglected, except by a few diligent specialists such as Harvard University’s Abelhamid Sabra, David King, Jamil Ragep and George Saliba.
In mainstream science education in Britain – until very recently – the history of scientific progress has tended to leapfrog from the classical era of Euclid, Aristotle and Archimedes straight to the birth of the Age of Science in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, with only a cursory mention, if any, of the great swathe of Islamic science in between. In some versions of history, the ‘dark age’ only really ends, and the progress of science only really begins, with the famous conflict in the early 17th century in which Galileo confronts the Catholic Church with the assertion that the earth moves around the sun. As the world eventually acknowledges that Galileo is right, this is presented as the world-changing triumph of the light of reason over superstition. Thereafter, from the 17th century onwards, Western Europe’s scientists are set free to unlock the world’s secrets – William Harvey discovers blood circulation, Isaac Newton launches the study of physics, Robert Boyle pioneers the study of chemistry, Michael Faraday, electricity, and so on. And so we move forward into the Age of Reason and the dramatic progress of modern science.
Filling the gap
In reality, though, scientific inquiry did not simply stop with the fall of Rome, only to get going again in the 17th century. In fact, as this book will show, recent research is beginning to reveal just how thoroughly the 800-year gap was filled by a wealth of scientific exploration in medieval Islam, and how it fed directly into the first stirrings of Western science.
The Cairo-based physician ibn al-Nafis, for example, discovered pulmonary circulation, the circulation of blood through the lungs, in the 13th century. Andalusian engineer Abbas ibn-Firnas worked out theories of flight, and is believed to have carried out a successful practical experiment six centuries before Leonardo drew his famous ornithopters. And in Kufa in Iraq, Jabir ibn- Hayyan (translated by Latin scholars as Geber) was among those laying the foundations of chemistry around 900 years before Boyle.
Moreover, some researchers are now showing that some of the great pioneers of modern science were building directly on the work of scientists from Islamic times. George Saliba of Columbia University, for instance, demonstrates in his book Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance how the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus drew on the work of Islamic astronomers for the groundwork to his breakthrough claim in 1514 that the earth moved round the sun.
Historians of mathematics have also shown how algebra, a branch of maths that allows scientists to work out unknown quantities, was developed in 9th-century Baghdad by Musa al-Khwarizmi, building on work that he had discovered from mathematicians in India. Historians think that al-Khwarizmi would have had access to manuscripts through Islam’s first encounter with India, which happened a century earlier. Modern science depends, too, on the solutions to complex quadratic equations devised by the poet and scientist Omar Khayyam. And much of our understanding of optics and light is built on the pioneering work of Hassan ibn al-Haitham (translated in Latin as Alhazen) in 11thcenturyCairo.