Early Muslim societies were characterized by a rich intellectual and literary tradition

The first revelation to the Prophet was about knowledge and learning. The pursuit of knowledge is the central message of the Qur’an. The value placed on knowledge in the Qur’an became the foundation for the development of education among Muslims.

Sayings of Pythagoras, dated 13th-14th century Iraq or Syria representing an interaction between teacher and student as a traditional mode of transmission of knowledge and learning. (Image: Aga Khan Museum)
Sayings of Pythagoras, dated 13th-14th century Iraq or Syria representing an interaction between teacher and student as a traditional mode of transmission of knowledge and learning. (Image: Aga Khan Museum)

As Islam spread outside the Arabian peninsula, the new Muslim rulers came into contact with people who had relatively sophisticated ideas about theology, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, and the rulers incorporated these new ideas into their own way of looking at the world. A vast movement of translation and development took place in Baghdad in the eight and ninth centuries, where scholars of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds worked together and achieved scientific advancements.

The classical Greek literature was translated into Arabic, beginning as early as the year 800. Much of this classical learning had been translated into Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the common language of the Near East before the coming of Islam. Hence, the Greek material was translated into Syriac and then into Arabic.

Folio from the Akhlaq-e Nasiri (Ethics of Nasir) Tusi (d. 1274), Northern India, dated 1590-95. At the centre of the painting is a youth reading under the masterful eye of his teacher while other students study independently in the building’s courtyard. (Image Aga Khan Museum).
Folio from the Akhlaq-e Nasiri (Ethics of Nasir) Tusi (d. 1274), Northern India, dated 1590-95. At the centre of the painting is a youth reading under the masterful eye of his teacher while other students study independently in the building’s courtyard. (Image Aga Khan Museum).

By the tenth century, the Islamic civilizations were characterized by a diversity of intellectual and literary traditions in various fields such as law, philosophy, arts, mysticism, natural sciences, among others.

During the Fatimid period (909-1171),when the Ismaili Caliph-Imams reigned over vast areas of the Muslim world, Ismailis made important contributions to literary, economic, artistic, and scientific achievements. At Alamut, the Ismailis continued their intellectual activities despite having to fend off invasions.

In the the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, another transfer of knowledge took place, this time from Arabic into Latin, resulting in a significant portion of Islamic philosophical and scientific learning made available to medieval European scholars. The first college of translators from Arabic into Latin was established in Toleda by Don Raimundo, the Archbishop of Toledo from 1126 to 1151. A Benedictine monk, Raimundo was convinced of the importance of the Arab philosophers’ understanding of Aristotle’s works, and decided to make their works available in Latin.

An illustration in a 15th-century manuscript by Giovanni Cadamostoda depicting the most influential scholars known to Europe at his time. (Image: the Ismailis, An Illustrated History)
An illustration in a 15th-century manuscript by Giovanni Cadamostoda depicting the most influential scholars known to Europe at his time. (Image: the Ismailis, An Illustrated History)

The co-existence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews facilitated the development of the translation school. Translations were made not only of the original Greek works that had been translated into Arabic, but also of works by Islamic scholars who came to be known by their Latinized names of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham), Rhazes (al-Razi), and others. Many of the works of these scholars had a significant influence on Europe; for example, Avicenna’s Canon was the medical textbook for European medical schools, Alhazen’s Optics was the foundation upon which Kepler built the modern science of optics.

References:
Dr. Alnoor Dhanani, Muslim Philosophy and the Sciences, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Intellectual Traditions in Islam Edited by Farhad Daftary, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2000

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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