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Nov. 20, 2013

Anzar Abbas: The history of science

Anzar Abbas is a senior in Lyman Briggs College from Karachi, Pakistan, majoring in neuroscience with a minor in theatre. His academic interests in the history of science and medicine have led him to a research project that has occupied his undergraduate career. He spent this past summer at the University of Oxford using resources at the Bodleian Library to complete his studies on Arab medical contributions during medieval times. 

Between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the European Renaissance is a period in history known as the Middle Ages. Spanning from the 5th to the 15th century, this period of almost a thousand years is when scientific development in Europe was rather dismal, to say the least.

I noticed this trend in my studies on the history of science. The Greeks and Romans brought about immense advancements in science, medicine and philosophy. Same goes for Europeans during and after the Renaissance. I wondered, then, what happened in between?

Nothing, really. While some scholars do argue there was high regard for scientific reason during the middle ages, there is no denying that most writings that went against the church were either removed from society or simply ignored.

Disparity in the level of scientific awareness between the two ends of the Middle Ages, however, is significant. One can’t simply deny that scientific advancements occurred during this time as there has to be intellectual progress that bridges the gap between the two time periods. The question then arises, who’s responsible?

To my initial astonishment as a student of scientific history, intelligence also existed outside of Europe. Confused by this unforeseen finding, I started exploring other sources of scientific development. I found that Arabs in the East, who had recently been introduced to Islam, had interpreted the relationship between religion and reason in a whole different manner.

To them, the closer they found themselves to reason, the closer they were considered to God. This ignited a culture of scientific curiosity and development in the Middle East that led to a massive translation of Greek and Roman works into Arabic. Moreover, advancements in science, medicine, philosophy, art and literature added to existing knowledge. I became very interested in Arab contributions to science and their connection to the European Renaissance.

In the year 711, Arab Muslim forces succeeded in crossing into Europe and taking over the Iberian Peninsula—the stretch of land that is now Spain. For the next eight centuries, the Arabs were to rule one of the most advanced empires existing at the time—Al-Andalus.

An Arab empire in Europe? Pardon? I took this finding to John Waller, my research adviser, who confirmed that there was indeed a time in history when European rulers would travel across the Pyrenees mountains in search of medical help and scientific inspiration from Arab physicians and philosophers living in Spain.

Not only that, but Al-Andalus managed to birth a civilization that was respecting of all religions. While Jews and Christians did live under some restrictions, the three monotheistic religions were able to live in harmony and work alongside each other in bringing developments to science, art and literature.

The level of intellect and advancement seen in Al-Andalus was unparalleled. While London was an assortment of huts by the Thames, cities in Andalus were flourishing with libraries, clinics, grand mosques, lit up streets and beautiful palaces. Even though my research only focused on the medical contributions of this civilization, the lessons I learned from it became of immeasurable value.

By building this empire, Muslims had created a path for knowledge to travel from Arab civilizations across the Middle East and Africa into Europe to eventually be incorporated into the Renaissance. Though Muslims were eventually captured and expelled from Spanish lands in 1492, their contribution to the success of subsequent European civilizations is immense and often overlooked.

As part of my research, I had the opportunity to visit Toledo, Cordoba and Granada—three cities in Spain that flourished most during Muslim rule. Remnants of the long-lost Arab Empire are clearly evident in their streets. The Mosque of Cordoba, once one of the most intricate buildings in the world, still lies in the heart of its city. The Al-Hambra Palace, the last Muslim stronghold, still overlooks Granada.

However, the influence of Al-Andalus in Spain exists not only in forms of Muslim architecture, but in the hearts and minds of people that live in it. Every year, there are celebrations highlighting achievements of the empire. Vendors still attract tourists with Arabic calligraphy, trinkets and ornaments that reflect the culture of the Muslim Empire. It’s almost as if one can rediscover Spain’s history upon visiting these cities.

There is no limit to the lessons we can learn from history. I can only hope that more students engage in an understanding of history whether or not their majors pertain to it. Knowledge of past civilizations helps us look at the world today in a different light. This academic endeavor has not just expanded my knowledge on the trend of scientific advancement in history, but has changed the perspective with which I perceive the world.