Islam, Christian Europe, and the Greek Heritage
by Baron Bodissey
There is a great long piece by Fjordman in Gates of Vienna addressing the false premise of Arabs sharing in the Greek-Roman heritage in philosophy and science. In fact the West did not owe the preservations of Greek thought to the Arabs. This multicultural myth has long been in place and is the basis of much of current Eurabian proposals for a Mediterranean basin-based culture that is supposedly based on this myth. Here is a snippet that is a sample of a really interesting essay:
by Baron Bodissey
One of the most persistent myths so eagerly promoted by Eurabians is that of the “shared Greco-Roman heritage” between Europeans and Arabs, which is now going to lay the foundations for a new Euro-Mediterranean entity, Eurabia. It is true that countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Algeria were just as much a part of the Roman Empire as were England or France. However, the Arab conquerors later rejected many elements of this Greco-Roman era once they invaded these nations. Some Greek and other classics were indeed translated to Arabic, but Muslims could be highly particular about which texts to exclude. There was thus a great deal of Greek thought that could never have been “transferred” to Europeans by Arabs, as is frequently claimed by Western Multiculturalists, because many Greek works had never been translated into Arabic in the first place. Muslims especially turned down political texts, since these included descriptions of systems in which men ruled themselves according to their own laws. This was considered blasphemous by Muslims, as laws are made by Allah and rule belongs to his representatives.
As British philosopher Roger Scruton has explained, one of the most important legacies of the Roman Empire was the idea of secular laws, which were unconcerned with a person’s religious affiliations as long as he accepted the political authority of the Roman state. This left a major impact on Christian Europe, but was neglected in the Middle East because it clashed fundamentally with the basic principles of sharia, the laws of Allah. Scruton calls this “the greatest of all Roman achievements, which was the universal system of law as a means for the resolution of conflicts.” The Roman law was secular and “could change in response to changing circumstances. That conception of law is perhaps the most important force in the emergence of European forms of sovereignty.”
Iranian intellectual Amir Taheri states that “To understand a civilisation it is important to understand its vocabulary. If it was not on their tongues it is likely that it was not on their minds either. There was no word in any of the Muslim languages for democracy until the 1890s. Even then the Greek word democracy entered Muslim languages with little change: democrasi in Persian, dimokraytiyah in Arabic, demokratio in Turkish. (…) It is no accident that early Muslims translated numerous ancient Greek texts but never those related to political matters. The great Avicenna himself translated Aristotle’s Poetics. But there was no translation of Aristotle’s Politics in Persian until 1963.”
According to scholar John Dunn, the word demokratia entered modern Western discourse in the 1260s in the Latin translation by the Dominican Friar William of Moerbeke of Aristotle’s Politics, “the most systematic analysis of politics as a practical activity which survived from the ancient world.”
William of Moerbeke was a Flemish scholar and prolific translator who probably did more than any other individual for the transmission of Greek thought to the West. His translation of virtually all of the works of Aristotle and many by Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria and others paved the way for the Renaissance. He was fluent in Greek, and was for a time Catholic bishop of Corinth in Greece. He made highly accurate translations directly from the Greek originals, and even improved earlier, flawed translations of some works. His Latin translation of Aristotle’s Politics, one of the important works that were not available in Arabic, was completed around 1260, and helped expand the political vocabulary in the West. His friend Thomas Aquinas used this translation as the basis for his groundbreaking work The Summa Theologica. Aquinas did refer to Maimonides as well as to Averroes and Avicenna and was familiar with their writing, but he was rather critical of Averroes and refuted some of his use of Aristotle.
Like Aquinas, William of Moerbeke was a friar of the Dominican order and had personal contacts at the top levels of the Vatican. Several texts, among them some of Archimedes, would have been lost without the efforts of Moerbeke and a few others, and he clearly did his work on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, one of the reasons why he did this was because the translations that were available in Arabic were incomplete and sometimes of poor quality. The Arabic translations, although they did serve as an early reintroduction for some Western Europeans to Greek thought, didn’t “save” Greek knowledge as it had never been lost. It had been preserved in an unbroken line since Classical times by Greek, Byzantine Christians, who still considered themselves Romans, and it could be recovered there. There was extensive contact between Eastern and Western Christians at this time; sometimes amiable, sometimes less so and occasionally downright hostile, but contact nonetheless. The permanent recovery of Greek and Classical learning was undertaken as a direct transmission from Greek, Orthodox Christians to Western, Latin Christians. There were no Muslim middlemen involved.
As a result, by the late 1200s, Saint Thomas Aquinas and early Renaissance figures such as the poet Dante and the humanist Petrarch had at their disposal a much more complete and accurate body of Greek thought than any of the renowned Muslim philosophers ever did. What’s more, many of the translations that did exist in Arabic had been undertaken by Christians in the first place, not by Muslims.
At the American Thinker, Dr. Jonathan David Carson dispels some of the hype regarding Islam’s role in the history of science. In his view, “The ‘Islamic scholars’ who translated ‘ancient Greece’s natural philosophy’ were a curious group of Muslims, since all or almost all of the translators from Greek to Arabic were Christians or Jews.” Moreover, most Greek texts “did not make the long journey from Greek to Syriac or Hebrew to Arabic to Latin, and Western Europeans preferred [surprise!] translations of Aristotle directly from the Greek, which were not only superior but also more readily available.”
In A History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston says that “it is a mistake to imagine that the Latin scholastics were entirely dependent upon translations from Arabic or even that translation from the Arabic always preceded translation from the Greek.” Indeed, “translation from the Greek generally preceded translation from the Arabic.” This view is confirmed by Peter Dronke in A History of Twelfth—Century Western Philosophy: “most of the works of Aristotle, however, were translated directly from the Greek, and only exceptionally by way of an Arabic intermediary…translations from the Arabic must be given their full importance, but not more.”
As Carson sees it, “the great rescue of Greek philosophy by translation into Arabic turns out to mean no rescue of Plato and the transmission of Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek texts of Aristotle, either directly or more often via Syriac or Hebrew, to a Christendom that already had the Greek texts and had already translated most of them into Latin.”
Moreover, the intellectual curiosity was entirely one-sided. J.M. Roberts put it this way: “Why, until very recently, did Islamic scholars show no wish to translate Latin or western European texts into Arabic? (…) It is clear that an explanation of European inquisitiveness and adventurousness must lie deeper than economics, important though they may have been.”
Much has been made of Spain’s glorious Islamic past, yet more books are translated in Spain now in a single year than have been translated into Arabic over the past 1,000 years. As I have shown, what existed of advances in sciences in the early centuries of Islamic rule owed its existence almost entirely to the infusion of pre-Islamic thought, and even at the best of times the translations from non-Muslim ideas and books could be quite selective. Later, even the limited debate of Greek philosophy was curtailed. Muslims were assured of their God-given superiority and did not bother to look into ideas from worthless infidel cultures.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. Pass it on, save it to your hard drive for future reference; it’s filled with history that debunks a lot of what you think you know from the drivel of multiculturalism with which we are bombarded.
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