Islamic Contributions to the West
One major idea that has been presented throughout history is the concept of synthesis; countries “borrowing” elements from each other, taking aspects of each culture, religion, and society, blending them together, and creating something new and innovative. Looking back on the development of society, there is a focus on Greek thought and ideals. Likewise, Rome is also thought of as having a major influence on Western civilization and culture. Oftentimes left out of the picture, especially in light of all the activity taking place in the Middle East today, is the profound impact Islam and Muslims had. In fact, the Islamic world heavily influenced Western medicine, philosophy, and literature.
Medicine is one area of science in which the Islamic world really excelled. Muslim doctors were far more advanced than those in the West at the time. Islamic medicine was practical, and relied on observations and experiments. Islam, as a guide for all aspects of human life, was concerned with the general principles of medicine and hygiene. Several verses of the Quran deal with medical questions of a very general order. There are also many sayings of the Prophet dealing with health, sickness, hygiene, and many questions related to the field of medicine. Their guidance has determined many of the Muslims dietary and hygienic habits. Well-being and unity are at the heart of the Islam religion.
Muhammad al-Razi is known today as the “Father of Pediatrics.” He not only compiled a twenty-volume medical encyclopedia, discussing his own findings and comparing them with ancient Greek medical traditions, but he also treated childhood diseases and wrote a treatise on them. Al-Razi’s writings were translated into Latin and studied in Western schools until the 19th century. Physicians, such as Al-Razi, taught in schools, mosques, and hospitals. In addition, they made advances in Ophthalmology, discovered new drugs, and made the first clinical distinction between measles and smallpox.
“Islamic philosophy encompasses all the various aspects of Islamic culture.” (http://www.al-islam.org/al-tawhid/study-philosophy.htm) Avicenna and Averroës were two of the most influential and creative Muslim thinkers. Both men were highly respected and trained as physicians. Avicenna was Persian and strove to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and Neoplatonism to Islam; His goal was to understand the essence of God in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. These writings on the nature of God inspired scholasticism in Western medieval thought. Averroës took Avicenna’s ideas one step further, successfully relating Aristotle’s writings to Islamic thought and eventually helping Christian scholars follow suit. Rachida El Diwani, a professor of Comparative Literature at Alexandria University, believes that the Muslim philosophy initiated the humanistic movement in the West. “Muslims gave a humanist bend to the Western mind. They revealed to the West that outside the prevailing catholic church it was not all darkness and barbarism but immense wealth of knowledge.”
Religion plays an integral part in Islamic culture and literature. The hadith is a record of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds. This work is revered as the second major source of religion and guidance. ‘The Road of Eloquence’ is another collection, consisting of the sayings from Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. This work is considered to be an Arabic masterpiece and has inspired translations, commentaries, and imitations in other languages. The Koran, itself, is considered to be one of the most influential Arabic works and a literary masterpiece.
Maqamah is one major prose achievement. This was an entertaining genre, mixing fact and fiction. Written in rhyme, this genre really focused on rogues, dreamers, and lowlifes. Around the same time, a collection of stories was gathered into a well-known work, The Thousand and One Nights. This is an example of the ‘tale within a tale’ genre. The framing tale is about a woman who comes up with a plan of storytelling to prevent the King from murdering a wife a day, a result of a former wife’s betrayal. This tale was common in many lands and in many genres; as it grew in popularity, more tales were added. This work gave the West many legendary figures, including Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor.
It is truly interesting to learn how different cultures have helped shape Western thought and ideas, and how they continue to do so today. It is remarkable just how much Islamic culture has contributed and unfortunate that it isn’t included in the curriculum of most schools. Islam nurtured and preserved the quest for learning. In the words of the tradition, 'the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr'. (http://www.twf.org/Library/Renaissance.html) I can only hope that in the future, the Muslim doctors, physicians, and authors who influenced Western culture, will be recognized and given the credit they so deserve.
El Diwani, Rachida. "Islamic Contributions to the West." Lecture. Web. 25 June 2011. <www.lssu.edu/.../jswedene/FULBRIGHT_FILES/Islamic% 20Contributions%20to%20the%20West.doc>.
"ISLAMIC LITERATURE." Home | Cornell University Library. Web. 25 June 2011. <http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/islamlit.htm>.
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