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How Islam Let Aristotle Get Away

From the 9th century to the 12th century, Islam had a “Golden Age” that was the envy of the rest of the world. While Islam, as a whole, benefited, Cordoba, Spain, and Baghdad, Iraq could be considered the centers of learning that brought about this change. The achievements of Islam can be seen in medicine, science, the arts, and architecture. These areas had noticeable improvements. For example, in the 10th century, Cordoba had streetlights. Nowhere else in the world were streetlights existent. The quality of life was higher than it had ever been. These achievements happened with Christians, Jews, and Muslims all working together. So, what happened to let the air out of the balloon? This is the story of how Islam let Aristotle getaway.

Who Was Aristotle?

Most people don’t understand how vital Aristotle’s contribution to civilization really is. Aristotle (d. 322 BC) was Plato’s student and Alexander the Great’s teacher. His intellect shaped how knowledge was collected and refined to become a valuable asset to science. Aristotle gained recognition for his exceptional contributions to fields like zoology by creating an animal classification system that factored in physical traits and habits. His written works have profoundly impacted philosophy, science, and mathematics.

Aristotle wrote as many as 200 treatises, most still in circulation today. While none of the originals survive, copies were translated from Greek into Arabic, Arabic to Latin, and Latin to English. Here are some of the more popular titles:

Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics is a significant work where he presents his theory about the nature of human action and ethics, rooted in the concept of happiness. Another prominent example is Aristotle’s Politics. In this groundbreaking work, the author explains that government exists to promote and foster virtue in a way that leads to the good life of its citizens. Aristotle is also widely known for his works in the natural sciences. One of his most famous texts is titled Metaphysics. This work claims that the importance of the individual is the realm of existence. Another one of his famous works is named Physics. It laid out his views on motion, time, space, and other essential concepts later built upon in the scientific revolution. Aristotle was a prolific writer, and his documents have impacted history by providing humanity with valuable insights and knowledge.

Aristotle gave us scientific reasoning. He laid out the foundations for modern science by advocating for empirical observation, testing, and experimentation to draw meaningful conclusions. While other scholars tended towards deriving explanations from religious beliefs or authoritative sources, Aristotle stood out due to the emphasis on his analytical abilities tempered with insights into causation.

Aristotle’s most invaluable and lasting contribution to the world of knowledge was his development of syllogistic logic. Syllogistic logic is synonymous with deductive reasoning, reasoning from general principles to specific instances. It would be hard to have deductive reasoning without recognizing inductive reasoning. Aristotle addressed that also. Inductive reasoning means to draw general conclusions from particular observations and experiences. Induction involves collecting factual data and formulating hypotheses before reconciling them with further empirical research.

Alexander the Great Conquers the Known World

Alexander’s father, Phillip II, died in 336 BC. Subsequently, Alexander consolidated his position as King and moved to invade Persia. His Empire grew from Persia to Pakistan, the Balkans, Turkey, the Levant, and Egypt. Aristotle’s teachings would later aid him in treating his new subjects in the empires he conquered, allowing him to admire and maintain these disparate cultures.

Everywhere Alexander went, he infused the Greek culture into the conquered cultures. For example, while portions of the Bible’s Old Testament are written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the New Testament was written in Greek. In several of the larger cities in Israel, including Jerusalem, gymnasiums were built to imitate Greek culture. Jewish athletes even participated in the Greek Olympics. The succeeding Roman Empire incorporated Greek cultural improvements but with different names. For example, the Greek god Zeus became the Roman god Jupiter. Hellenistic culture was decidedly above what existed in most other civilizations.

During the Hellenistic period (343-323 BC), classical Greek knowledge developed into a cosmopolitan cultural movement in which Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician, and other Near Eastern philosophies coalesced. Alexander created a new capital for Egypt in 331 BC, named after himself. Alexandria played a significant role in collecting and disbursing the diverse currents of knowledge of the unique Greek philosophies of Aristotle.

Islam Embraces Aristotle

A thousand years later, in the 7th century, Islamic armies swept the world. Many of their conquered lands included those that Alexander had also conquered. The Arabs encountered Greek thought, and to their credit, Muslim scholars studied and were fascinated by the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Hippocrates, Euclid, Pythagoras, and a host of other Greek philosophers, physicians, and mathematicians. There were so many documents in Greek that the Muslims had to make a serious and systematic Greco-Arabic translation effort.

Almost 120 years after Muhammad’s death, the Abbasid caliphate won the right to govern Islam. In 750 AD, the center of learning gradually moved to Baghdad, which became, in due course, the heir to Athens and Alexandria as the new cultural metropolis of the medieval world. Throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, a new impetus was given to the translation movement thanks to the enlightened patronage of three Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. The translation of medical, scientific, and philosophical texts was given priority. During the next two centuries, the Abbasid caliphate expanded to Spain, and what better place to try out all of the new ideas in art, architecture, science, and medicine than in Cordoba, the new capital of their new province?

The cream of the European scholars attended this symphony of knowledge. They participated in creating an Islamic “Golden Age” where science, medicine, and mathematics made great strides using Aristotelian methods. However, the chief historical significance of the Muslim-Spanish phase in the rise and development of Muslim philosophy is that it served as a significant link in the transmission of Greek philosophy to Western Europe. The Muslims had been the custodians of that knowledge, almost wholly forgotten in Western Europe. By the end of the 12th century, the translation of Aristotle and his kindred from Arabic to Latin had wrought a genuine intellectual revolution in learned circles.

One Religion Declines; One Religion Rises

The Arabs used observation-based rationality and made superb contributions to medicine, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and literature. But it did not last. Due to the monumental influence of Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and other logic-rejecting theologians and fundamentalism firmly entrenched in Islamic culture from its outset, faith ultimately crushed freedom of thought. By 1200, the Muslim embrace of Aristotle and his Greek brothers and Islam’s “Golden Age” was essentially over. For 900 hundred years, the Islamic world has wallowed in a dark age in which it is wrong to embrace critical thinking. Just think, if Al-Ghazali had not succeeded, in all probability, the Middle East would have embraced science, and the West would be playing catch up.

The Christians almost fell into the same trap. In 1210 and again in 1215, church councils forbade reading Aristotle’s books on metaphysics and natural philosophy. The Catholic Church also supported faith over reason, but this time, the Church failed. Although still Catholic, leading European minds were determined to understand the natural world better. It was just a matter of time before Aristotle’s methods would bump up against the Church. In the 15th century, we see the first conflict between religion and rational thought; Copernicus and the Catholic Church was a conflict brought about by Aristotle’s guide to scientific reasoning. The outcome was to open the floodgates of scientific reasoning.

Credit to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Aristotle. This is a bust of Aristotle in marble, a Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

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