How did the secondary sources influence the scientific knowledge amongst Muslims?

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In addition to the two primary sources—the Qu’ran and the Prophetic traditions, Muslims were also greatly influenced by their interaction with the surrounding cultures and worldviews. This form of exposure made Muslims more receptive to interfaith relationships, such as in al-Andalus. Certainly, the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH) provided the Muslims with many new areas of knowledge, philosophy, and worldviews, leaving details of other concepts open to Islamic interpretations and approaches. Therefore, as in the past, the traditional Muslims of today look upon all of science, religious or non-religious, as “sacred,” and approach this sacred science in a well-established background upon the major essentials. A study of the Qur’an reveals that in various verses or Ayat, the believers are invited to study the whole universe, including the earth and everything in between, and to discover the various natural phenomena and their schemes. As humanity was created with an insatiable desire for knowledge, God made adequate arrangements for man to know the hidden secrets of the universe and taught him the nature and names of all things (Qur’an 2:31).

A remarkable feature of Islamic thought is that Muslims are encouraged to integrate their faith with other factors. From inception, the Muslims were well-aware of the neighboring civilizations— both religious and secular, and received a vast store of knowledge from their predecessors within this area. For instance, they received scientific medicine mainly from Greek and Persian sources1; the scientific study of astronomy from India2; and astrology and physics from Greece and Egypt, especially Alexandria3. The rise of Muslim thought commenced with the translation of documents from these neighboring cultures. Hitti stated:

Only after they had been exposed to the influence of Islam and other cultures did the Arabians become aware of the existing body of scientific knowledge. It was the Muslim conquest of the early centuries that established vital contact between them and the rich cultural tradition represented by Greeks, Syrians, Persians and Egyptians.4

Muslims were conquerors, but they were open to learn from those they conquered. Hitti asserted:

In medicine and other sciences, in philosophy, and in art and architecture, the sons of the desert had little to teach and much more to learn. It is to their credit, however, that they appreciated that fact and encouraged their subjects to preserve and promote their local traditions so long as they did not conflict with Islam.5

The new Muslim orientation began through the translation of sources from other cultures. Such translation was initiated by Caliph al-Mansur, when two scientific books belonging to an Indian Scholar were ordered to be translated into Arabic.6

The process of integrating knowledge among Muslims with that of neighboring cultures was sponsored from time to time by governors or religious scholars. If India supplied the first contribution in scientific study in Islam, Alexandria and Greece provided the old philosophy. Indeed, Muslim thought encountered the classical philosophical heritage through these two cities. Hitti observed: “At the time of the Arab conquest the intellectual legacy of Greece formed the most precious treasure at hand. Of all existing foreign influences the Hellenistic was the most potent.”7 It is important to appreciate that there is nothing necessarily arbitrary about such developments. Caliph Al-Ma’mun demonstrated his concern for Greek learning by sending special unit of men to Constantinople and Sicily. Thereafter, Caliph Al-Ma’mun built an academy, known as Bayt al-Hikmah, which means the House of Wisdom, for complete combination of high-level education. Hitti mentioned: “The Caliph institutionalized the learned activity by building (830) in his capital Bayt al-Hikmah, a combination of academy, library, and translation bureau.”8 And it is through this institution that Muslim knowledge met the work of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, Galen the supreme authority in medical science, the Greek mathematician Euclid, and Aristotle’s and Plato’s work.9

As science is not a value free discipline, it was possible for one civilization to learn the science of another civilization, but in order to do so, one must be able to abstract it and make it its own. The early Muslim scholars were aware of a new intellectual conflict which flourished in the old intellectual or religious soil; but, they did not hesitate to be open to their knowledge and welcome foreign sources. Islamic civilization developed in this context. The growth of Muslim knowledge during that period could also be seen in the light of the significance of the diversity of intellectual life. There was a large number of various contributors such as the Persians, Syrians, Egyptians or Arabians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who may have contributed in saving their material from Persian, Greek, Indian, or other religious sources. For instance, Ka’b al-Ahbar (Ka’b of the rabbis) was a Yamanite Jew who accepted Islam (652) and acted as a teacher and counselor to the court of a Muslim governor. Hitti stated: “Thus did Ka’b become the earliest authority for the Jewish-Muslim traditions. Through Ka’b, Ibn Munebbih (another Jewish author) and other Jewish converts a number of talmudic stories ultimately found their way into Muslim tradition and were incorporated with Arabic historical lore.10 John of Damascus, who also lived during this Umayyad period, wrote in Greek and was familiar with Arabic. According to Hitti, John of Damascus was the greatest and last theologian of the Oriental Greek church.11 Hitti highlights:

Among St. John’s works is a dialogue with a ‘Saracen’ on the divinity of Christ and freedom of human will which is intended to be an apology for Christianity, a manual for guidance of Chritians in their arguments with the Muslims. John himself probably held many such debates in the presence of the caliph.”12

In relation to this, some Islamic sects were influenced by these old cultures and traditions. For instance, in the Umayyad period there were several movements that contributed many perspectives on the experience of knowledge in the Islamic tradition. Amongst such movements was the Mu’tazilities, also called as the Qaderites, who were mainly influenced by Greeks, and represented “free will” of Islam. Hitti maintained that John of Damascus expilicitly influenced this religio-philosophical school, and stated that, “The Qaderite was the earliest philosophical school of thought in Islam.”13

The Muslims brought with them not only their ancient heritage and culture, but methods of looking at the sublime questions of life in ways fundamentally different from that of the neighboring cultures. Historical Islam had to face the rationalism of the Greeks, the stratification of the Persian ascetics, Alexandrian or Egyptian philosophers. Hence, it had to build its unique perspective based upon the influences of other cultures.

Akif Coskun

Questions

  1. What are the secondary sources of Islamic knowledge?

  2. What is the most significant feature of Islamic thought?

  3. What contributed to the rise of Islamic thought?

  4. What is the significance of Bait al-Hikma to the Muslims?

  5. How did the secondary sources influence the scientific knowledge amongst Muslims?

1 Philip K. Hitti, History of Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London: MaccMillan’s Express, 1970), 254.

2 Ibid, 373.

3 Ibid, 255.

4 Philip K. Hitti, Islam: A Way of Life (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1970), 108.

5 Ibid, 108.

6 Philip K. Hitti, Makers of Arab History ( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968), 85.

7 Ibid, 91.

8 Ibid, 91.

9 Ibid, 91.

10 Philip K. Hitti, History of Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London: MaccMillan’s Express, 1970), 245.

11 Ibid, 246.

12 Philip K. Hitti, Makers of Arab History (New York.: St. Martin’s Press, 19681), 89.

13 Philip K. Hitti History of Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London: MaccMillan’s Express, 1970), 246.


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