Second Edition Introduction

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By Bader Malek, Ph.D.

Latefah Al-Kanderi, Ph.D.

Second Edition


In September 2000 Penn State University held a conference entitled, “Teaching the Middle Ages Across the Curriculum,” organized by the Center for Medieval Studies. We spoke on several of the significant concepts medieval Islamic society has contributed to contemporary Western education. This discussion will explain the influences of Islamic civilization, which extends from Spain to Afghanistan, as is has been inspired by the Holy Qur’an and Prophetic sayings.

As with other modern societies, there is no doubt that Islamic civilization contains many unique features as well as being influenced by other cultural factors from India, Greece, Italy, Persia, Egypt, and China. During the great cultural awakening after the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Muslim scholars carefully formed, gathered, translated, preserved, and refined knowledge from many sources at a time when Europe was largely intolerant of pagan traditions. Islamic scholars incorporated this abundance of inspirations in creative ways. In Islam, all races and nations are one, but the best people, as Allah says, are the most righteous of you. There are no advantages due to race, gender, or nationality, for Allah wants to unite humanity in solidarity and mutual respect. The Qur’an sums up this vital concept in one beautiful verse:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things) (49:13).

Islam accepts all the goodness that civilizations can yield. It does not encourage dissidence among its members because it advocates the unity of humanity and the closeness of the relationships among people of different races and inclinations (Qutub, 1994). This is not to say that Western scholars do not appreciate the countless Islamic contributions to education, both in theory and practice. Durant (1950, p. 341) says “The rise and decline of Islamic civilization is one of the major phenomena of history. For five centuries, from 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power, order, and extent of government; in refinement of manners; in standards of living; in humane legislation and religious tolerance; in literature, scholarship, science, medicine, and philosophy.” The texts of Al-Khawarizmi (780-850) in algebra, Avicenna (979-1037) in medicine, and others were used in European universities into the 17th century.

Islamic society was strong in medieval times because there was a unity of purpose among all Muslims. They spoke the same language, they worshipped the same God in the same manner, and openly stated that their goal was cooperation, rather than factioning..

In the literature of the history of education, however, there are few remarks noting the contributions of Muslim educators. As the great philosopher John Dewey (1993) acknowledges, we often overlook the indebtedness of Christian civilization to Islamic civilization, which was far more developed at that time. Muslim researchers in the field of education have a rich heritage full of spirituality. Their literature needs to be presented academically and publicly to invalidate the accusations of extreme materialism, systematic misrepresentation, and historical prejudice that currently exist in the West regarding Islam.

Many significant Islamic influences on Western education and civilization are still relatively unfamiliar, which makes it difficult to appreciate the positive contributions this culture has made on Western development. This article will present some of these contributions to education, and highlight the role of Islam in the evolution of the Western world.

During the Crusades, Europe began to establish more hospitals and schools, many of which were inspired by Muslims. Muslim educational philosophers declared that teaching required special preparation and training programs. In 10th century Baghdad, hundreds of students took examinations each year before they could work in hospitals. Many Europeans studied in Islamic universities and carried their experiences back to their home countries. This interaction was not continuous. There were times, such as during the Crusades, when groups from one faith would discourage interactions with those from other faiths, particularly Christians against Muslims. But prior to this period, educational institutions in Spain were among the important centers through which European scholars studied the East and its culture. During the Renaissance, Europeans alternately considered the East as friendly neighbor and hostile enemy. One can imagine them looking with fresh interest at those who lived in neighboring areas, whether to control them or to understand them. Burnett, (1996) mentions that, Contacts between Christians and Muslims were not always hostile. “Ambassadors were sent back and forth, trade was brisk” (p.108).

Islamic Contributions to Western Educational Theory and Practice
One example of Islamic origins of Western mathematical education is the system of Arabic numeral notation and decimals. These numbering and counting systems (called ‘Arabic numerals’) were developed by Muslim mathematicians, and are still in use today. The words “zero” and “algebra” are derived from their original Arabic names. Muslim scholars can take “credit for rescuing the useful zero from the heart of India and putting it to work in the elaboration of the decimal system, without which the achievements of modern science would be impossible” (Cobb, 1965). As just one illustration, Zahoor and Haq (1997) explain the importance of the symbol for “zero” as a critical step to the arithmetic of positions. With the implementation of the Arabic numbering system, elementary calculations were perfected and the relationships among the equal and the unequal and prime numbers, and squares and cubes, were elaborated. Definition of algebra led to discussion of geometry. In about 820 A.D., the mathematician Al-Khawarizmi wrote a textbook of Algebra in examples (subsequently translated into Latin), which was used by Western scholars as recently as the 16th century (Zahoor & Haq).
Mathematics is not the only subject influenced by Islam. Many common words in English and some of the European languages have been drawn from Arabic words. Some examples of English words of Arabic origin are admiral (AMEER AL-Ma’), alchemy, alcohol, algebra, almanac, attar, candy, cotton, gazelle, henna, gibraltar, giraffe, jar, jasmine, kohl, lemon, safari, sesame, sharif, sherbet, sofa, spinach, and wadi.

Muessig and Allen (1962) acknowledge Western education’s debt to Islam and assert that it would be difficult to find a course or field without Islamic influence, even though it may not be presented as such. A high school home economics teacher, for example, may use food names with an Islamic origin, such as sugar. An arithmetic teacher presenting a lesson on the importance of zero as a place-holder may not realize that the term is of Arabic origin. High school algebra instructors use words of Arabian origin, and teach concepts developed by Muslims. A professor in the science of pharmacy may not realize that Islamic scholars were pioneers in this field, as well.

An Islamic inspiration is evident in western literature, as well. For instance, Robinson Crusoe by Defoe is sourced in “Message from Hai Ben Yakzan,” which was written by the Muslim philosopher Ibn Tofail. “The Arabian Nights” has been repeatedly published worldwide, and its stories have affected many writers.1

Muslims encouraged the accessibility of library materials to the general public, and the spreading of general enlightenment. Public and private libraries in Islamic civilizations reflect that books were often read. Various sources report that Al-Hakam gathered some 600,000 volumes in Al-Andalus. To compare this to later collections, the Royal Library of France was said to have only 900 volumes approximately 400 years later (see Muessig & Allen, 1962, p. 152). In that era, some hospitals and clinics even had libraries. Durant (1950, vol. 4, pp. 330-331) mentions that great hospitals would often provide professional storytellers for the sleepless. Thus, knowledge was a gateway to serve the community.

Great volumes of Arabic and Greek scientific research were translated into Latin during the 12th and 13th centuries, which had a great impact upon the European Renaissance. Another example of the influence of Islamic learning on the West can be noted in the organized translation into Latin of many Islamic scholarly works in such fields as science and philosophy.

Muslims in the medieval ages refined and applied the experimental methods of science and attitude. They studied mathematics, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, geography, and other academic areas. Working in laboratories was a customary part of their research efforts. Their methods of gathering information in a systematic fashion were quite workable, and have provided a foundation for the systems in use today.

Muslims had established laboratories over one thousand years ago in which they conducted experiments and published their discoveries, without which Lavoisier would not have been able to produce anything in his field. Modern chemistry is sourced in the research and experimentation of Muslim scientists, which is demonstrated in such great scientific discoveries as steam, electricity, telegraphy, telephony, and radio signals (Zahoor & Haq, 1997).

Avicenna in his Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi at-tibb) became the most authoritative medical text of the Middle Ages, and was used in European medical schools, passing through numerous editions. Western scholars recognize that this text has been revered as a medical bible for a longer period than any other work (Cobb, 1965 and Myers 1964). It is a systematic encyclopedia based, for the most part, on the achievements of Greek physicians of the Roman imperial age and other Arabic works and, to a lesser extent, on Avicenna’ own experiences (his own clinical notes were lost during his journeys). Encyclopaedia Britannica (2000) calls the Canon of Medicine the world’s most famous single book in the history of medicine.

Gobb (1963) in his book Islamic Contribution to Civilization, studied Islamic history in depth in an appreciative and cordial manner. About significant contributions made by Muslims he says; "For more than five centuries that civilization not only led the world in science, but was the only portion of mankind actively engaged in the systematic pursuit of knowledge" (p. 5).

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