The Golden Age

As the Abbasid Muslims warmed to Greek philosophy, medicine, and science (if not poetry and drama), they eventually embraced ancient wisdom from other areas as well, including Egypt, China, and India. A flourishing and sophisticated society resulted, with educational and scientific advances across their empire that would serve as the intermediary from the Greek philosophers to the revolutionaries of the early Renaissance.

Al-Mamun (caliph from 813–833 C.E.) sent a delegation to Constantinople to acquire Greek manuscripts, and thus began one of the greatest intellectual transfers in world history; a tradition of translators, beginning with the physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and later his son and nephew, translated into Arabic the works of Plato and Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, and the mathematical works of Euclid, Ptolemy, and others. Historian Philip Hitti, comparing the staggering growth of wisdom among the Muslim savants to stagnant Europe, has said, “For while in the East al-Rashid and al-Mamun were delving into Greek and Persian philosophy, their contemporaries in the West, Charlemagne and his lords, were dabbling in the art of writing their names.”

The Golden Age of Arabic learning spanned the 8th to the 13th centuries C.E., and for the first time since Alexander the Great, the vast region was united politically and economically, and the “removal of political barriers that previously divided the region meant that scholars from different regions and ethnic backgrounds could travel and interact with each other.” [Hillel Ofek, The New Atlantis, Winter 2011] The rise of Arabic science coincides with the spread of Islam from the Pyrenees to Pakistan, and the lingua franca of the day was Arabic, whether the writers were African, Spanish, Persian, or Arabic.

The House of Wisdom, founded by the caliph al-Mamun, became the world’s centre of learning. Whereas Alexandria had been the previous intellectual capital, with Greek and Roman manuscripts written on locally sourced papyrus, Baghdad become the new chaperone of philosophical and scientific inquiry, with conversion of all documents into Arabic, scribed on locally manufactured paper. One of the early assimilations that occurred at the House of Wisdom was the adoption of Hindu numerals (1–9) as well as the base-ten system and the concept of “zero.” An Arabic system of expressing abstract formulas (to the consternation of high school students everywhere) was introduced by al-Khwarizmi, which he termed al jabr, or algebra. The Abbasid Muslims incorporated the world’s catalog of knowledge, including alchemy, mathematics, science, and law. As Islamic libraries flourished and dwarfed European libraries, the scientific and cultural stagnation of the Western Middle Ages ground on.

One of the most important medieval physicians was a Persian-born scholar named al-Razi (Latin: Rhazes), who was trained in Baghdad. Not confined to translating, Rhazes described smallpox and measles, and critically, was the first to seriously challenge the authority and infallibility of Galen. For instance, Rhazes postulated that fever was merely a defense mechanism and not an issue of humoral imbalance. His contribution was stunning; he was a “thinker explicitly questioning, and empirically testing, the widely accepted theories of an ancient giant, while making original contributions to a field.” [Ibid]

Three thousand miles to the west of the House of Wisdom lay Andalucía, modern day Spain, which the Muslims termed al-Andalus. While eventually collapsing in 1492, Muslim rule in Spain had enveloped the Golden Age of Islam, and had precipitated vast cultural, scientific, linguistic, and architectural traditions that exist to this day.

Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, also known by his Latin name Albucasis, (936–1013 C.E.) was born and raised near Córdoba (he descended from the Ansar tribe of Arabia), and is regarded as the greatest surgeon of the Middle Ages. “Because surgery was less burdened than other branches of medicine by ill-founded theory, [Albucasis] sought to keep medicine separate from philosophy and theology.” [Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, HarperCollins, New York, 2015, p. 112]] Al-Tasrif (completed about 1000 C.E.) was the result of almost fifty years of medical practice, and contained the earliest pictures of surgical instruments in history. For over five hundred years, his encyclopedia of surgery was the standard reference in the universities of Europe. Albucasis stated, “Whatever I know, I owe solely to my assiduous reading of books of the ancients, to my desire to understand them and to appropriate this science; then I have added the observation and experience of my whole life.” If Albucasis scribed his eminent work in Arabic, how did it find its way into Latin?

Constantinus Africanus (Constantine the African) was born ca. 1020 in Kairouan, Tunisia, a city near the Mediterranean coast that had become one of the great centers of Islamic scholarship. Constantine studied medicine first in Tunisia, but traveled extensively (startling, for his time) to Baghdad, Syria, India, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Persia. While making his way back to Carthage (present day Tunis), Constantine passed through Salerno, Italy (near Naples), which, at the time, was considered the leading center of medical teaching in Europe. Unimpressed, Constantine returned to Tunisia, likely expecting never to return to Salerno. However, within a few years, he was suspected of sorcery and sent into exile. An avid book collector, Constantine the (Muslim) African brought with him his treasure trove of Arabic translations of classical Greek works, Islamic medical tomes, advanced international medical training, and his facility for many languages.

Constantine synthesized (at times, freely plagiarized) Arabic medical knowledge and finished a number of medical books in Latin, including treatises of surgery, prognostics, medical practice, the urinary tract, gastrointestinal disease, and medical instruments. His best known and most voluminous work was the Liber pantegni, the first fully comprehensive medical text in Latin…

The second major figure in the translation movement was Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187 C.E.). While Constantine was an outsider who brought his external works and languages into Latin culture, Gerard was an insider (born in Cremona, Italy, the same city that gave us the Stradivarius) who left Italy for Toledo, still under control of the caliphate of Córdoba. Toledo was a city full of manuscripts and libraries, with ancient classics in Arabic and the newer works of the great Albucasis. For the next forty years, Gerard translated treatises on mathematics, algebra, astronomy, philosophy, and medicine. It may be possible that a “second” Gerard of Cremona was active in medical translation; schools of translation were common, and when it comes to scholarly works of antiquity, many authors usually contributed. “Gerard’s translation of the Great Arabic medical encyclopedias like Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine opened the eyes of medical scholars in the West to the fact that medicine was a rational science that could be studied logically and methodically, which had a sound foundation in philosophy and the natural order.” [David Osborn, “Constantine the African and Gerard of Cremona”, GreekMedicine.net, quoted August 20, 2016]

[David Schneider, The Invention of Surgery – A History of Modern Medicine: From the Renaissance to the Implant Revolution, Coronet, London, 2021, pp. 19-22]

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