An intellectual earthquake
What is the Muslim philosopher Averroes doing in the famous ″School of Athens″ fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael? The painter brought together all thinkers and scientists that influenced the West. So, it′s no surprise that Plato and Aristotle are in the centre of this 16th century painting. Yet it is perhaps more surprising that two ′Eastern′ persons are included in the school: Zoroaster and Averroes.
Readers of the Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri could be forgiven for feeling similarly taken aback. In this 14th century Renaissance masterpiece, Dante gives his description of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, with a special chapter on Limbo where good non-Christians were allowed to have a decent afterlife. In Limbo we not only find ancient Greeks and Romans, but also three Muslims: Averroes, Avicenna and Saladin.
The fact that two Renaissance masterpieces dealing with the foundations of Western civilisation insert Muslims into the mix is odd to say the least. In school we are taught that the Renaissance, humanism and the Enlightenment were a purely European accomplishment.
This scenario has humanists like Petrarch rediscovering lost Greek and Roman manuscripts in old abbey libraries, thereby triggering the end of the Middle Ages and thus causing men to re-evaluate the position of the Church and indulge in critical thinking about dogma.
Indebted to the Caliphs of Baghdad
Yet, this historical narrative is simply wrong. Even though Roman books were indeed rediscovered, this was not true of the Greek texts. The most important Greek philosophers and scientists came to Europe because they were translated from Arabic, a translation movement that was initiated by the Caliphs of Baghdad in the eighth century.
At the epicentre were Ptolemy′s astronomy, Euclid′s geometrics and Galen′s medicine. At the same time, Indian and Persian scientific texts were translated. In turn, Muslim scientists wove these ideas together, both elevating them and creating new fields of science, such as chemistry and algebra. Their calculations were the basis of the discoveries of Copernicus and Newton.