More on Islam’s Greek Inheritance: Mathematics, Science and Philosophy

David Wade

Pythagoras is the presiding genius of mathematical study in Islam. Greek and Indian elements are mingled in it, it is true, but everything is regarded from a neo-Pythagorean point of view.

T.J. De Boer, The History of Philosophy in Islam

In the second Islamic century, by the time the Abbasid Caliphate had built their new capital in Baghdad, Muslim administrators and scholars were able to draw on an extraordinary range of knowledge from the vast territories that were now under their control. Classical, Romano-Greek, Chinese, Indian, Persian and Egyptian learning of many kinds became available and were investigated, but the most important source of general and practical knowledge remained the extensive body of Greek works that the Muslims had first encountered as a result of their conquest of the Byzantine territories of Egypt and Syria in the first flush of their conquests.

The early Muslims, who, under the Umayyad Caliphate, had established Damascus as their administrative centre, were as impressed by the level of Greek erudition as they were by the general level of civilized life in Egypt and Syria. This part of the world had been under Roman rule for seven centuries, was heir to Hellenistic civilization, and had been Christian since the 4th century AD. At the time Islam entered this region, in the late 7th century CE (1st century AH), Greek science and literature from the earlier Classical and Hellenistic eras was still being taught (albeit filtered through a Christian lens), as were the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Neoplatonism, with its roots in these philosophies, was an abiding influence in this milieu.

From their first encounters with this body of knowledge however, Muslims tended to be divided in their responses. Classicism, with its infidel, pagan associations, was regarded with great suspicion by those of a strictly religious disposition, but since the administration of a rapidly increasing Empire had now to be conducted in Arabic, there was a pressing need for the translation of huge amounts of written material, including official documents, from their original Greek. The Muslims had much to learn and Byzantine sources had much to teach – and although the original impetus for the translation of Greek material may have been for purely practical reasons, increasing familiarization with this wealth of information inevitably led to a broader interest in Greek thought. Translations during this early period tended to be unofficial i.e. by private sponsorship, but since these sources clearly had so much to offer in many fields this was to change. Astrology and Alchemy were of particular interest at this stage, as was Medicine, and as the numbers and quality of translations from Greek originals accumulated their value became ever more apparent. And this was just one aspect of a general cultural influence that was being absorbed by Muslim society. The eventual outcome of this cultural osmosis was that Islam accepted late-Classical Greek attitudes to such an extent that, almost by default, it became an important part of its own tradition. In many ways the templates for Islamic civil life were set here and were permanently incorporated into its own, Islamic, ethos.

We have already seen (Background note #3 - The Philosophical / Scientific Contribution) that the ‘Golden Age’ of Baghdad, that is to say the earlier period of the Abbasid Caliphate, was characterized by an extraordinary enthusiasm for the translation of not only Greek but Parthian and Indian knowledge. But even by the time the renowned Bayt al-Hikma (‘House of Wisdom’) was set up in Baghdad (in 830 CE/ 215 AH), such important figures as Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus were as familiar to Islamic intellectuals as they had long been to those in the Byzantine world. This process was facilitated by the earlier Christian and Jewish adjustments to Classical thought, which, in a manner of speaking, had ‘sanitized’ its pagan associations, effectively making it more acceptable to Islamic sensibilities.

The transference of the Court from Damascus to Baghdad had meant that the ‘Byzantinisation’ of the Caliphate had to a great extent been superseded by a ‘Persianisation’ of its religio-political ideas, attitudes and manners, even though the rulers were still distinctly Arab. But the general appetite for Greek texts was undiminished. The Bayt al-Hikma was originally founded as a centre for translation, but naturally developed into a library, then a university, where Greek and other works were made available to scholars. The establishment of this institution also meant that original manuscripts were actively sought from available sources, including Byzantium, Persia and India. As in Damascus, the first texts to be translated were those of subjects that were deemed to be of most immediate use to the Rulers, such as those dealing with Astrology, Medicine and Agricultural and other technological treatises – but as the translation movement gathered pace, particularly during the reign of Caliph Harun ar-Rashid, scholars turned their attention to scientific and philosophical works. By the time of the rule of his son Caliph al-Mamun in the first half of the 9th/ 3rd century the promotion of translation had become extremely fashionable, involving many different teams of translators and scribes, funded both by the Royal Court and by private, wealthy individuals1.

The increasing familiarity with Greek ideas in Baghdad court circles engendered a genuine sense of admiration, particularly for texts those dealing with philosophical/scientific and mathematical subjects. The works of Euclid, Apollonius and Archimedes in particular came to be treated with enormous respect. Euclid whose famous Elements established the basis of plane geometry, was translated into Arabic during Harun ar-Rashid’s reign (786-809) by the mathematician al-Hajjaj ibn Matar (who later provided his son, the future Caliph Ma’mun with an abbreviated, but improved version).

During the ninth century CE (3rd AH) Baghdad was the intellectual, religious and commercial centre of the Islamic world. This was a period of extraordinary scientific and medical innovation, which was often associated with philosophical speculation. Increased understanding of the principles of Classical mathematics and geometry led naturally to a sense of self-confidence among Islamic intellectuals, allowing them to develop, and where necessary correct, the assertions of their illustrious predecessors. During Caliph al-Mamun’s rule there was a great increase in the commissioning of new work in many areas – including mathematics, astronomy, geography and medicine. This often went far beyond mere translation. A new class of Islamic scholarship came into being that was capable of making commentaries on Greek works, and was increasingly involved in original research. In astronomy, for instance, the study of Ptolomy’s Almagest encouraged the Caliph al-Mamun to set up a program to verify the accuracy of his star charts. This in turn led to the appointment of official astronomers and the building of observatories in Baghdad and Damascus – laying the foundations of Islam’s 700 year involvement with this science (the considerable achievements of which led directly to modern astronomy). The translation movement itself more or less came to an end around the end of the 10th/4th century, largely because everything available had been translated, but by this time Islamic science was well and truly established and had long been producing original work on its own account.

One of the more remarkable accomplishments of the era of Baghdad’s ‘Golden Age’, and one that gives an indication of the general spirit of scientific enquiry at this time, were the attempts to make an accurate measurement of the circumference of the Earth, a project in which Al-Mamun himself took a personal interest2. This first attempt involved an accurate measurement of a stretch of flat desert in Sinjar, north-western Iraq, and the comparison of the elevation of the Pole Star at the beginning and end of the process, then a calculation of the curvature of the Earth from the angular difference. The result, eight thousand farsakhs (24,000 miles), which was checked by a second expedition, was remarkably accurate for its time3.

Caliph al-Mamun personally employed the famous mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi who, among other achievements, was responsible for the introduction of Indian numerals into Arabic mathematics. Al-Khwarizmi also developed the procedure we now know as Algebra (al-Jebr), and gave his name to the term ‘algorithm’. There was a heady, pro-science atmosphere in the Baghdad court at this time, but in this early-Islamic setting it was inevitable that the problem of reconciling Reason with Faith should arise. The Caliph’s response to mounting religious criticism of his rationalistic views was to promote the theology known as Mu’tazilism, which argued that Allah’s moral obligations are accessible to rational thought and that, because knowledge derives from reason, the latter should be the ‘final arbiter’. The Mu’tazilites disliked conventional anthropomorphic interpretations of the Qu’ran, and went so far as to declare that the Holy Book could not properly be considered as the word of Allah, since He could have no separable parts. In this view the Qu’ran was therefore created, not eternal, as popular religious belief would have it.

This interpretation did not go down at all well among the religiously orthodox, who bitterly opposed every aspect of these rationalistic ideas. In the event Caliph al-Mamun attempted to force the issue by making the acceptance of Mu’tazilism a condition of official service and, in the face of continuing opposition, instituted an inquisition (mihnah) against those who refused to accept his ruling. But there was such a strong religious and popular reaction against these moves that the attempt at imposing a degree of separation between rational practice and religious observance failed. In some sense this was a fork in the road for Islam, where eventually Faith was to prevail over Reason. As a result the influence of the Classical, Hellenistic attitudes faded. Scientific ideas and sceptical, rational thought were to play an important role in the Islamic world over the following centuries, and many important discoveries were made but, objectively speaking, Islamic science peaked around 1000 CE (400 AH) and went into a long, slow decline. Unfortunately, it would appear that the pursuit of scientific knowledge was not able to flourish in the atmosphere of increasing religious conservatism and dogma that gradually overtook the Islamic world.

In the 11th/6th century Al-Ghazali, in his ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers’ attacked the Greek philosophical tradition, including the emanationist4 principles of Neo-Platonism, as a form of heresy. This influential work marked an important shift in Islamic epistemology5. However, by this time Neoplatonic attitudes had been thoroughly assimilated into mainstream Islamic thought6, and ironically even Al-Ghazali himself uses Classical dialectical methods in his refutation of this and other Classical philosophies. Neo-Platonism continued to influence Islamic culture in many subtle ways, indeed the otherworldly, geometrical, preoccupations of Islamic art can be seen as part of this enduring legacy. The complex ideas of this religious philosophy are unlikely to have been of interest to most artist/craftsmen, but they (along with others in Islamic society) seem to have absorbed some of its broad notions by way of a sort of cultural osmosis.

  1. The majority of the original translators were Syrian Christians, who were fluent in both Arabic and Greek.

  2. It seems likely that al-Mamun had heard of the estimate of the size of the Earth made by Erastothenes, the Greek scholar of the 3rd c. BC, and was prompted to verify or disprove it.

  3. Two centuries later the polymath al-Buruni (973-1048 CE), using rather more sophisticated methods, arrived at an even more accurate estimate, which was within 1% of modern values.

  4. Emanationsm , which is strongly associated with Neoplatonism, is a Religio-Philosophical model according to which all things are derived, or flow from, a First Principle, which in Islamic Neoplatonism was naturally identified with Allah.

  5. Many important Islamic philosophers were influenced by Neoplatonism in various degrees. These include Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Al-Razi, Al-Tusi and even Al-Ghazzali himself.

  6. Importantly, the mystical wing of Islam, Sufism, was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism. Sufi’s subscribed to the idea that humans were able, by developing inner knowledge, to ascend through various stages of material, and then spiritual manifestation, to an ultimate vision of Allah.