Authored by, Mirza Ashraf
Antecedents Of The European Renaissance:
Our history of knowledge reveals people in three major regions who have greatly contributed to the intellectual evolution of mankind: the Chinese in the Orient, the Indians in the South and Southeast Asia and the ancient Greeks in Europe. Out of these three major regions of knowledge, the first burgeoning of awareness was the “Greek explosion” that began during the sixth century BCE. It made its first impact on the Islamic world and then in Europe during the Renaissance. The Classical Greek knowledge became the foundation of humankind’s philosophical cognition, intellectual reasoning, scientific discovery, literary brilliance and fine art artistry. Second explosion of knowledge which stemmed from the roots of the first one, appeared between the period of fourteenth to seventeenth century marked as the European Renaissance, which advanced faster than the Greek explosion of knowledge. However, in between the first and second explosion there was a period of Classical Islam, starting from ninth to thirteenth century when the Arab thinkers received and reinterpreted the treasury of knowledge of Classical Greek thinkers and then passed it on to the European. This process culminated at the end of the Islamic classical period—also the end of Arab caliphates—with the massive body of commentaries on Aristotle by ibn Rushd. In order to reflect upon the main topic, it would be interesting to argue by taking following seven steps.
- Why it were the Greeks to have been able to reveal philosophical knowledge while the rest of the world did not produce as powerful knowledge as they did?
- Why the Romans during their rule did not promote Greek Philosophy?
- How the Arabs, followers of a revealed religion, got interested and involved in the study and promotion of Greek philosophy.
- Why the Muslims failed to reap the benefit of the Arabic Philosophy which represents one of the great traditions of Western Philosophy?
- What was special in European ethos that they successfully availed the benefit of Greek philosophy passed on to them by the Arabic philosophers which brought the Renaissance?
- Why Renaissance did not spread anywhere else in the World?
- Is there a possibility of an Islamic Renaissance similar to the European Renaissance?
- Why it were the Greeks: Geographically the mainland of Greece being at the gateway of Europe and backdoor of Asia, is a peninsula deeply indented by the sea, that juts down into the Mediterranean sea from the Eurasian landmass. Its rugged coastline provides great navigational opportunity and approach to Egypt and the regions of western and southern Levant or Palestine; the land of children of Abraham and Jewish prophets, the regions ruled by Ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. They had also access by land routes to the centers of old civilizations of Mesopotamia, Zoroastrian Persia, and Gandhara civilization of India. The first thinkers considered to be philosophers lived in the sixth century BCE in Miletus, a Greek colony on the western coast of modern Turkey. Miletus was a great sea port and a large trade center, serving not only Greece but also Egypt, Babylonia, and as far as India. The Milesian were making it regularly, trading with these regions and carrying to the Greeks not only goods but also ideas and knowledge of geometry from Egypt, mathematics from Babylon and India, and sciences from the centers of Gandhara civilization (1500-500 BCE) which was there as of its Buddhist connection with China. There appeared in Miletus three pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, known as thinkers of the Milesian School. They were the first to argue with reason and define a material source from which the cosmos and whatever is in it came into being. Between the period of c.620 BCE to the 3rd century CE many thinkers, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and finally Plotinus, appeared in this regions. Wars between the Greeks and the Persians also played the role of exchange of knowledge. In c.326 BCE Alexander the Great invaded India and the Greek thinkers accompanying him visited the University of Takshashila, what is today’s Taxila in Pakistan, where knowledge of philosophy, sciences, and political ideas came to great levels of exchange. It is understandable that Greek adventurers, instead of entering Western Europe, went southward to Egypt to avail the resources of the Nile valley, and the renowned conqueror Alexander the Great marched eastward towards the vast resources of the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, and Indus.
The Greeks learned and amassed great knowledge from all around the regions within their access, not because they were just curious people; they were a combination of passion and intellect that made them great. There might be many other races like them in the other corners of the world, but the unique geographical placement of the Greeks made them mariners, adventurers, and explorers. The sea was home to them where land was not enough. Like their legendary mythical hero Odysseus, they set out in their frail crafts to explore, to see the world, to establish colonies in the far-flung lands, and to trade with friends and foes alike. In a way it was natural enough for them to set off on intellectual craft to explore unknown seas of thought. The Greek mythology, sung by Homer at every corner of the street, an epic in the form of Gilgamesh of Babylon, instilled curiosity and a vigor to make revolutionary discoveries of how to learn systematically. The uniqueness of Greek mythology, as compared to the myths of Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, and Indian, is that their prototype is not Olympian Zeus or God, but their mythical hero Prometheus, who brought fire—the symbol of knowledge—from heaven and was rewarded with eternal torment. Their mythology played an important role in their quest and struggle for an organized knowledge, added by the example of their cultural-hero, Odysseus:
Many were the cities he saw
Many were the men whose minds he learned,
And many were the woes he suffered on the sea. — Homer
According to Bertrand Russell, “There were, in fact two tendencies in Greece, one passionate, religious, mystical, otherworldly, and the other cheerful, empirical, rationalistic, and interest in acquiring knowledge of a diversity of fact. Herodotus represents this later tendency; so do the earliest Ionian philosophers; so, up to a point, does Aristotle.” With great mythology, their first hand knowledge of gods as villains as well as heroes, the Greeks started presenting theatrical performances. During that time there were thousands of theatrical performances in Greece, though today we know about Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides as playwrights, and find them as the only link to this ancient art form of tragedies. But we do not view these tragedians as socio-political philosophers, who educated their theatre audiences through the art of drama, on issues of morality, politics, and philosophy. They devised their plots around conflicts, of mortal and divine, family and state, male and female, moral and immoral, and above all inside and outside of good and evil—in one way and another—portraying the argumentative nature of human beings. By presenting such conflicts in an art form, the tragedians would teach their audience that life is transitory, and that the knowledge that triggers a search for certainty and eternity, tempts to arrogance, conflict, and downfall. By watching tragedies in the theaters, common people learned how to debate and argue; how to present their problems by speaking loudly and freely, and how to find solutions of their problems through consensus. Therefore, it seems that it was natural enough for the Greeks to set off on intellectual venture, and with their unprecedented and inexplicable genius they undertook this adventure, over and over, for nearly a thousand year, from the first stirring of philosophy in Miletus at the beginning of the sixth century BCE to the triumphs of Alexandrian scholarship in the fourth century CA.
- Why the Romans during their rule did not promote Greek Philosophy: The main challenge to the Romans, after overpowering the region of Greece, was the Jews’ belief of ‘Chosen People’ which was already offensive to the pride of the Romans. Moreover, Jewish thought has remained centered on an important question, “What does it mean to be a Jew,” rather than the Greek idea of “What does it mean to be a human.” The ‘Roman Pride’ could not accept the superiority of Greek thought and their culture, and thus renamed the Greek gods and changed Greek mythology, adopting them as their own. Most of what they knew, they learned from the Greeks, but they watered down the great Greek philosophies making them more palatable to their own multitudes. They converted the Greek concept of immortal fame to mortal honor, and it became customary to worship emperors as living gods. Though Christianity sought its affinity with Platonic philosophy, its blending with the New Testament remained very sketchy and unsystematic. When Clement of Alexandria (c.150-219 CA), a Christian theologian, helped to develop the compatibility of Greek philosophical views to the message of Christ, he prepared the way for religious status of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Thus the Greeks as subject of the Roman Empire converted to Christianity which brought an end to their tradition of free thinking.
History reveals that neighboring countries have always been offending each other on almost every issue, such as the English confronting French, Italians confronting the Greeks, and there is a long list many more societies and nations. So the Roman pride, instead of translating the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus direct from Greek language, preferred to translate in Latin from the Arab scholars. They Latinized Arabic names—al-Kindi as Alkindus, al-Razi as Razes, al-Farabi as Alpharabius, ibn Sina as Avicenna, ibn Bajjah as Avempace, ibn Tufail as Abubacer, ibn Rushd as Averroes and many more. Just as Arabic was read and understood in the world of Islam, Latin was read and understood in the whole Europe. Moreover, Roman distaste of Greek language in a way helped spread Greek thought throughout Europe from the contact with Muslim thinkers in Spain, and from the works of those translators who during the Byzantine rule had already translated into Latin most of the works of the Arab thinkers of Baghdad. Carrying their books they left for Europe when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans.
- How the Arabs got interested in Greek Philosophy: Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation remarks that the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the period between 900 to 200 BCE as the Axial Age which was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity such as: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India; Monotheism in Babylonia, and Philosophical Rationalism in Greece. This Axial Age was one of the most seminal periods of spiritual, religious, intellectual, philosophical, and psychological change in recorded history. The final flowering of the Axial Age, according to Armstrong, occurred in seventh-century Arabia, when prophet Muhammad brought the Qur’an. This final flowering of the Axial Age surprisingly had a blend of divinely revealed discipline of Islam and a spirit of rationalism and intellectualism. That is why many great thinkers and philosophers agree that the advent of Islam opened a new chapter in the history of knowledge. “If the Arabs,” according to Bertrand Russell, “had not preserved the tradition of Greek intellectualism, the men of the Renaissance might not have suspected how much was to be gained by the revival of classical Greek learning.” Here I would like to quote the views of Oliver Leaman, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky: “When the Islamic Empire expanded into the areas of the Middle East which were imbued with Greek culture, the question immediately arose as to whether its any use could be found for the Islamic culture. … [But] Greek philosophy is so powerful in what it can do and explain that it proved a temptation too powerful to resist. Why not to incorporate it in the Islamic view of the nature of reality? After many ‘big ifs,’ Muslims, naturally expressing themselves as believers, used the language and culture of their religion to explore and explain ideas and arguments which were often originally mediated by Greek thought.” Islamic discipline lacked the subject of logic. The Arab scholars of Islamic studies found that without the artistry of logic, it was hard to argue with the Jewish, Christian, Persian, and other non-Muslim scholars to convince them to embrace the new religion. So it all started with the need for logic, rhetoric, ethics, and syllogism of Muslims favorite scholars, Plato and Aristotle. Thus logic as mantaq became an essential subject of Arabic curriculum.
Books written by Greek thinkers, philosophers and physicians, were translated into Arabic and later on into Persian. Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Galen and many more found a very important role amongst Muslim philosophers, such as al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Farabi, ibn Sina, Miskawayh, al-Ghazali, ibn Tufail, ibn Rushd and I have more than fifty great Muslim philosophers, mathematicians, thinkers, and scientists in my almost ready to be published book, Philosophical Tradition of the Muslim Thinkers. These were the thinkers of Golden period of knowledge in the Islamic world, who played a pivotal role in preserving and transmitting the legacy of classical Greek thought to Europe. Though many of these thinkers and scientists were not Arabs, but their patrons were the Arab rulers. One of the interesting features of Muslim thinkers is that they were not merely the translators or followers of the Greek philosophers, as Oliver Leaman says, “They [the Muslim thinkers] created a metatheory, a theory about theories, which is even more radical than the theories themselves. This metatheory is sometimes called the ‘theory of double truth,’ and it argued that the truths of religion and philosophy are so distinct that there is no way that they can contradict each other.” The Arab philosophers understood that religion and philosophy do not come into conflict, they are about the same truth, but expressed in different ways.
- Why the Muslims failed to reap the benefit of Arabic Philosophy: Social disposition as well as geo-political circumstances play a very important part in the formation of a literary, socio-political or even a religious order of a society. For this we first of all need to know the ethos of pre-Islamic Arabian literary, cultural and traditional etymology which was inherited by the people who embraced Islam. In the literary genre we find only poetically based literature in the traditions of the peoples of Arabian peninsula. Poetry presents human emotions and feelings in diverse forms, sometime obstructing the voice of reason and free thinking. In prose form we find only short stories teaching lessons of ethics and morality that lay greater emphasis on obedience to family, social, political, and divine order. Mostly these stories instruct to obey, feel safe and protected as long as the given order is obeyed. There is little, rather no room, to say “no” or to be disobedient to an institution, a family elder, or a ruler. The genre of fine art, theatre, or drama, as we find in Ancient Greek society—the root of free speech—is almost absent from pre as well as pro Islamic ways. The only kind of fine art admissible in Islam, is art for God’s sake, which is represented through calligraphy of the Qur’anic verses, name of God, and His Prophet. But the art that reflects the insight of a person, the one which is freely expressed on canvas, on stage, or in literature, away from the pressures of everyday existence and limitations of reality, is almost missing in Islam.
We now know that the philosophical cognition and rational intellectualism was not naturally part of the Arab tradition. But they were smart and intelligent people who very soon adopted the new religion of Islam—a discipline intertwined with reason and spirituality. Deen of Islam is neither dogma nor an illusion, because it is different from those religions which are viewed as dogma—I would appreciate to avoid this discussion here, and leave it to be taken separately. When the first Umayyad caliph, Mu’awiya was fully able to establish his rule in the seventh century, for the first time, the period of lively intellectual activity started. In order to overturn the tradition of election of a caliph, could have been Socratic way, he took Neoplatonism as a viable answer to establish a dynasty of hereditary caliphate, based on Plato’s famous pronouncement: “Until philosophers are kings, or kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy.” For the power monger Mu’awiya philosophy of Plato was a blessing. He though did not patronize the Jewish, Christian and Syriac philosophers who were scholars of Greek philosophy, but gave them protection. When the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads with the help of the Persians, influence of Farsi started posing a big challenge to Arabic language. In order to meet the Persian infiltration with superior intellectual weapon, caliph al-Ma’mun founded Dar-al-Hikmah to translate Greek philosophy and sciences into Arabic. Thus a golden era of Muslim intellectualism started which also curbed the Persian renaissance of tenth and eleventh centuries and brought revolutionary changes in Muslim thought and scientific achievements. In short, patronage of the Hellenist philosophy was not the intrinsic passion of the Arab rulers, rather it was a kind of political weapon—sometime to intimidate the theologians or Fuqaha, another time to subjugate the political rebels or to curb foreign cultural influences.
First the Crusades and then the Mongol onslaught destroyed everything. With the fall of Arab Umayyads of Spain and the Abbasids of Baghdad, spectrum of power slipped out of the hands of the Arabs which also marked the demise of rational and free thinking. It seems, whereas religious revelation was spread by the Arabs, free thinking was also their attribute. The decline of knowledge in the Muslim world dates roughly from the beginning of the twelfth century—at the end of the Crusades—and an irreversible decadence when Baghdad was burned to ashes; first by Halaku Khan and then by Tamerlane. Millions of books were burned and thrown into the river. It is another subject of great interest that the Arabs of Mecca and specifically Prophet of Islam was the descendent of Prophet Abraham who was a Mesopotamian and not Bedouins like the present Saudi rulers of Arabia. Intellectualism of Mesopotamia was in the genes of the Prophet and his tribe, and its affiliates. The world of Christendom, after having lost the third and final Crusade proclaimed with great merriment the death of Islam for good. But the rise of the Ottomans and the Turkic-Mongol Mughals revived the power of Islam. Though, both the Ottomans, and the Mughals were secular rulers, but as patrons of mystical Islam, they banned ibn Rushd’s presentation of rational and scientific discourses of theoretical openness, intellectual and political freedom. They believed rationalism and separation of politics and religion weakens the monarchic and authoritarian rule. They promoted that history is the crucial rationale of Islam and that the truth of its doctrine lies in spirituality. The question of Islamic renaissance never arose.
- What was special in European ethos that helped to embrace Greek knowledge: Europe, being a small continent does not have enough agricultural land and lacks natural resources. So there has always been a need to search for new lands, new resources. For ages the Europeans have been trying to reach India and China by land routes. Except Alexander the Great, no other European adventurer could reach India until sixteenth century. On the other hand, Muslims had vast lands full of resources under their control and thus, did not need to go out and search for more resources. If it is true that the Arabs had reached America much before Columbus, they might have not been interested in the new continent, because they were not out for more resources. They were traders and the regions of India, Sri Lanka and Far East were more important for them. However, it is true that the Arabs starting from the eighth century had control over the sea routes to India, Sri Lanka and as far as Indonesia. Europeans were always eager to find new ways to reach India. After the fall of Spain, they found literature and information helpful to reach India by sea route. Fight for a land route was impossible after their defeat in the Crusade wars.
Hellenistic thought and philosophy was basically a European asset which the Muslims preserved, updated and then gave it back to the Europeans. In the year 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, many Christian monks, and scholars, carrying translations of books written by the Muslims on philosophy, science, and literature, as well as their translations and commentaries of Plato and Aristotle’s works, re-translated into Greek but mostly in Latin, entered Europe. They scattered all over Europe wherever they could find hiding place or protection from the religious oppression and persecution by the fanatic Christians who viewed Greek philosophy as knowledge of the pagans. Muslim thinker Ibn Rushd, Latinized as Averroes, made such an impact on Latin philosophy that Western thought between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries is inexplicable without his conceptual contribution. His presentation of rational and scientific discourse serves as a modern foundation for theoretical openness, political freedom, and religious tolerance in Western thought. Overall many Muslim philosophers, who unfortunately were not needed in the world of Islam, influenced Western thought in several ways that inspired a movement first of all in Italy as the Italian Renaissance, meaning the revival and reawakening. I would sum up thoughts of Western thinkers regarding the role of Muslim thinkers and scientists as here:
- They initiated in the West the humanistic movement. (Mark Vernon, Humanism)
- Introduced the historical sciences and the scientific method. (Works of ibn Hatham, ibn Sina, al-Baruni and many more, translated in Latin, German, French and English).
- Helped the Western scholastics in harmonizing philosophy with faith.
- Stimulated Western mysticism—a famous slogan by Thomas Carlyle “Close thy Byron and open thy Goethe” marking the rise of mysticism.
- Laid the foundations of Italian Renaissance and, to a degree, molded the modern European thought down to the time of Immanuel Kant, in certain directions even later. (For full detail and reading with references please consult pages 1349-1389, A History of Muslim Philosophy, by M. M. Sharif, 1961).
Between 14th and 17th century with the appearance of the European Renaissance or re-birth of knowledge of Greek philosophy and literature, Greek tragedies also revived in French theatres. Plots were taken from Classical Greek authors as well as from contemporary events. The tragic plays, just as in Classical Greek period, helped provide a justification to the common man to say ‘no’ to dictatorial and monarchial oppression. This instigated the spirit of famous French Revolution (1789-1799) that opened a new chapter in the socio-political history of mankind. Thus after a millennium, not only free thinking, rationalism, but also democracy resurfaced. Again it was the art of drama, particularly the medium of tragedy that succeeded in establishing the modern democracy in France which was later on transmitted to other regions. In England, Shakespearian plays, and Francis Bacon’s revolutionized the world of knowledge. Today, though the world in its pursuit for democracy is indebted to the French Revolution, its seeds were sown in Ancient Greece.
- Why Renaissance did not spread anywhere else in the World? Knowledge first appeared in the form of myths which were the imaginative attempts to solve the mysteries of life and the universe, to address the cosmic issues. In the Axial Age, as mentioned earlier, appeared the most seminal period of spiritual, religious, intellectual, philosophical, and psychological change in recorded history. But the longest period in the history of humankind is the philosophy of religion, which still exists. “Philosophy of religion can be compared by the question: ‘What does it mean to say God exists?’ It asks what God is like; how we can know about God; and how religious language and belief should best be understood. … The attempt to show that it is rational to believe in God has a long history” (Stephen Law). It was Zoroaster the founder of ancient Persian religion known Zoroastrianism is known to be the first monotheistic faith. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam followed with almost the same belief of monotheism. In the Classical Greek period there was no revealed religion. Neither Socrates nor any pre-Socratic thinker claimed to be prophets. Though the Oracle of Adelphi declared Socrates the wisest man of that time, but he refused to accept this by saying, “All I know that I know nothing.” However, religions, throughout the world have played a prominent role, most importantly for the rulers for whom the divine right of kingship was and is still easy to control the masses. We still have many nations in the world which have adopted religious dimension to exist in today’s IT age of science and reason. However, the future does not belong to European type of renaissance, it belongs to new scientific technologies.
- Is there a possibility of an Islamic Renaissance: After the irreversible decline of scientific knowledge in the Muslim world, they still remain focused to base their polity on the original Islamic rules of community. But there also exists a trend for modernity as “during the ‘Nahda’ or the ‘Arab Renaissance’ movement of the nineteenth century, the challenge to Islamic thought was clear. How can the Muslims develop a view of society which incorporates the principles of modernity, yet at the same time remain Islamic?… [According to the modernists], ‘Islamic Renaissance’ should follow the Western Renaissance, and put religion in its place; only in this way can Islamic world participate in the material and political successes of the West” (Oliver Leaman). When the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals lost their glories, the European nations went from strength to strength, acquiring more and more territories and trade centers, and succeeded in defeating the Muslims on land and sea. Today, Muslims are divided in nations, lacking an understanding of the Western challenges and its imperialistic threats. Instead of looking back to their past glory, they need to comprehend that the past cannot be revived. Unfortunately there still exists in all Muslim societies an “Islamist-Utopia,” which stands as an impediment to scientific and political modernity. It is time to move forward. New IT technology and modern scientific exploration can help them catch up fast the time they have lost. Muslims need to understand that during the golden era of their knowledge of philosophy and science, religion of Islam has never been an obstacle in their pursuit of scientific exploration and rational thinking. Today, the pace of technology is so fast, its impact so deep, that our lives will be irreversibly transformed. The coming era will neither be utopian nor dystopian, it will drastically transform the concepts human beings rely on to give meaning to their lives. In short, time is gone for a European type of renaissance of the seventeenth century. Today, a global revolution of “Scientific Renaissance” is knocking at the door of the whole mankind, a renaissance where human intelligence is going to give way to artificial intelligence of super computers. — Mirza Ashraf
Bertrand Russell: History of Western Philosophy; New Edition of Allen & Unwin 1961.
Reginald E. Allen: Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle, 1966.
- E. Von Grunebaum: Classical Islam, 1970.
Charles Van Doren: A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future; 1992.
Oliver Leaman: A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy; 1999.
Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor: The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy; 2005.
Mirza Iqbal Ashraf: Introduction to World Philosophies: A Chronological Progression; 2006.
Karen Armstrong: The Great Transformation, 2006.
Michael Morgan: Lost History, The Enduring Legacy of Muslim, Scientists, Thinkers and Artists, 2007.
Stephen Law: Philosophy: History, Ideas, Theories, Who’s Who, How to Think; 2007.
Mark Vernon and Philip Pullman: Humanism, 2008.
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