The Hidden Debt to Islamic Civilisation

The Hidden Debt to Islamic Civilisation
by S.E. Al Djazairi,Paperback, Published by Bayt Al-Hikma Press, UK


Western historians, in general, have removed the Islamic source with regard to every single change that affected science and civilisation at the origin of Western civilisation, and modern civilisation, and then, each and everyone has substituted a number of explanations for such changes within their field of study. This systematic suppression of the Islamic source of modern science and civilisation has been, however, noted by individual historians who have re-considered the history of their subject. Thus, in his `History of Dams,’ Norman Smith, began his chapter devoted to Islamic dams, by noting how historians of civil engineering have ignored the Muslim period, and have claimed that nothing was done by the Muslims, even worse, they have blamed the Muslims for the decline of irrigation and other engineering activities, and their eventual extinction, which is `both unjust and untrue.’[1]

Winder, too, observes, that even in one of the standard works dealing with the legacy of Islamic civilisation, Islamic mechanical engineering is completely set aside.[2] 

A similar point is raised by Pacey, who points to the same generalised opinion that hydraulic engineering made little progress under the Muslims, whilst in truth, Muslims extended the application of mechanical and hydraulic technology enormously.[3]

In the development of agriculture, Cherbonneau makes the same observation, questioning the absence of reference to the Muslim contribution, insisting that `If we took the bother to open up and consult the old manuscripts, so many views will be changed, so many prejudices will be destroyed.’[4]

Studying the history of Cartography, Harley and Woodward have noted how it seems nobody has mapped anything from the fall of Rome in the late 5th century to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th, again, completely setting aside any Islamic contribution.[5]

Addressing the history of astronomy, Krisciunas did not fail to notice how astronomical research has been made to fall `into a dazed slumber following Ptolemy (c 90-168 CE) not to reawaken until the time of Copernicus (1473-1543),’ totally bypassing centuries of Muslim contributions, except to acknowledge them as book burning fanatics.[6]

In mathematics, O’connor and Robertson make the same point, that, the widely held opinion is that after a brilliant period for mathematics when the Greeks laid the foundations for modern mathematics, there was a period of stagnation before the Europeans took over where the Greeks left off; whilst in truth O’cconor and Robertson note, modern mathematics owes so much to Muslim mathematicians centuries before the 16th.[7]

Talbot Rice, equally, hardly fails to note how the historians of art have set aside the Islamic role, turning it into pale imitation of others, whilst he offers both text and photographic evidence to prove the inanity of these widely held theories.[8]


This systematic suppression of the Islamic role in the rise of modern science and civilisation, through its impact on the West, has led to conclusions that hostility to Islam was the principal reason for it. Watt, thus, observes:

`When one keeps hold of all the facets of the medieval confrontation of Christianity and Islam, it is clear that the influence of Islam on Western Christendom is greater than is usually realised…. But, Because Europe was reacting against Islam, it belittled the influence of the Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman heritage.’[9]

The same enmity towards Islam is seen by Glubb as the reason why `the indebtedness of Western Christendom to Arab civilisation was systematically played down, if not completely denied.’[10]

Draper, equally, talks of the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has contrived to put out of sight our scientific obligations to the Muslims; injustice founded on religious rancour and national conceit.[11]

Even Prince Charles observes: `There is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world… which stems from the straightjacket of history, which we have inherited…. Because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien culture, society, and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history.'[12]

Although the systematic suppression of the Islamic role from mainstream Western history has been noted, hardly anything has been said how this is done. This is the object of this work. This author seeks to answer the matter by addressing deficient historical writing where it is at its most vulnerable: its incapacity to rest on anything substantial when the issue is addressed from as wide a spectrum as possible. Indeed, Western `historians’ dispose of enough expertise to build whole theories around the changes that affected their science or subject, and it is easy for them to fabricate whole histories, just as Hartner puts it, by `twisting and suppressing facts at the author's pleasure.’[13]By using their expertise in their specific subject, adding all the nitty gritty of academia, referencing, statements backed by other statements from similarly minded historians, they can convince whomsoever fails to see the wider picture, or is not knowledgeable enough to challenge them.[14]However, by addressing as wide spectrum as possible of changes that took place in the medieval period, this author was able to see a number of patterns. First, all new medieval scientific developments and changes in aspects of civilisation, anywhere, any time, took place as soon as contact was made with an Islamic source. Second, major changes show the same timing (12th century principally), when contact was made with Islamic culture, or when the first crusaders began returning from the East. Third, all changes took place in contact with the same geographical sources ( Spain , Sicily, Southern Italy , the East during the Crusades) (all under Islamic control, or direct influence). Fourth, all regions within Western Christendom, which experienced the first revolutions in science and aspects of civilisation (Lorraine, Salerno, Montpellier, Catalonia, etc,) were the nearest to Islamic sources of influence, or did so soon after the entry of Islamic learning into such places. Fifth, each of these regions showed forms and manners of change in precisely the very aspect of science and civilisation they borrowed from Islam. Sixth, all changes bear the same substance of content (Islamic content). Seventh, all changes have the same agents of transmission (Muslim masons and scholars, Christians residing amongst Muslims..). Eighth, all early Western Christian scholars were either Arabic minded scholars (Adelard of Bath, Gerbert of Aurillac, Daniel of Morley…), or scholars who travelled to the Muslim world (Leonardo Fibonacci..). Ninth, any changes that took place prior to the 12th-13th century also show the same patterns of influence. And so on and so forth.

All these points, which are easy to conceal if one change is dealt with on its-own become impossible to conceal if tens of changes are considered together, as the same patterns repeat themselves. More importantly, if each historian can give diverse causes and explanations for changes which affected his or her science or subject, which seem plausible if any such change or science is looked at individually, when all such subjects are put together, however, one is faced with literally tens of causes, all very different, often conflicting, and yet, suddenly, spontaneously, producing the same impact, and at the same time, and in the same places. Which, of course, is basically unscientific, for, it is impossible for diverging causes to produce the same effects, in the same place, at the same time, in the same pattern, and with the same substance.

This work seeks to dismantle the established Western version of history, which does away with the Islamic influence on the West, and on modern science and civilisation.

In its first part, it shows how historians demean as much as possible the Islamic role in the rise of modern science and civilisation, insisting that modern science and civilisation owe to the Western recovery of Greek learning in its Arabic version. This part also dwells on the generalised technique of distorting historical reality through a selective suppression of facts and of bibliographical sources, and even the suppression of whole centuries from knowledge. The underlying reasons for such hostile approach to the Islamic role in the rise of science and civilisation are also examined. 

The second part shows that changes which took place in Western Christendom, whether university learning, windmills, individual sciences, the beginning of hospitals, the introduction of paper, changes in arts and architecture, etc, rather than owing their source to tens of differing, even conflicting causes, as Western history generally holds, all, in fact, owe to the same Islamic sources. This is made obvious by looking at these sources through three major parameters, each addressed in a distinct chapter:

 -The first chapter looks at the role of scholars, pilgrims, tradesmen, rulers, etc, who disseminated Islamic learning.

 -The second chapter looks at the particular role of some regions and countries in their acquisition and then diffusion of Islamic sciences and civilisation.

 -The third deals with the impact translations from Arabic, especially in the 12th century, had on modern science and civilisation.

In the third part, focus is on areas of influence, here highlighting the Islamic substance of influence. This is addressed in four distinct areas, each, again, in a distinct chapter:

The first chapter deals with the Islamic impact on Western learning in its wider form.

The second deals with Islamic influences on particular sciences.

The third covers influences on trade, industry and farming.

The final chapter looks at the arts, architecture, and culture, highlighting, once more, the strong Islamic influences.


Throughout, this work will remain highly critical of mainstream Western history. However, it must be insisted upon two crucial elements: first, that although criticism can be addressed to mainstream modern historians and modern study of history, older Western historians, in general, and many of today’s historians, even if the latter constitute the minority, have imposed on themselves high standards of impartiality and excellence. Second, and more importantly, it is only thanks to the erudition of this minority of Western historians that this work is possible. They might have their views on Islam, as a faith, with which this author disagrees, but it is they who have preserved and conveyed much of what relates to Islamic civilisation this author has relied upon to complete this work.

[1]N. Smith: A History of Dams, The Chaucer Press, London,1971. p.75.

[2]R.B. Winder: Al-Jazari, in The Genius of Arab Civilisation; Source of Renaissance; ed J.R.Hayes; Phaidon; 1976; p. 188.

[3]A.Pacey: Technology in World Civilization, a Thousand Year History, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990, at p.8.

[4]A. Cherbonneau: Kitab al-Filaha of Abu Khayr al-Ichbili, in Bulletin d’Etudes Arabes, pp 130-44; at p. 130.

[5]J.B. Harley and D. Woodward ed: The History of Cartography; Volume 2; Book 1; Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1992; preface p. 1.

[6]K. Krisciunas: Astronomical Centers of the World; CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge, 1988; at p. 23.

[7]J. J O'Connor and E. F Robertson: Arabic Mathematics:  a forgotten brilliance at:


[8]D.Talbot Rice: Islamic Art; Thames and Hudson ; London; 1979 ed; pp. 172; 174; 183.

[9]W. Montgomery Watt: L'Influence de l'Islam sur l'Europe Medievale (127-156): In Revue d’Etudes Islamiques; Vol 41; pp 127-56; at pp. 155-6.

[10]Sir John Glubb: A Short History of the Arab Peoples, Hodder and Stoughton , London, 1969, p.289.

[11]J.W. Draper: A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe; 2 Vols: London, 1875; revised ed; Vol 2; p. 42.

[12]H.R.H Prince of Wales : Islam and the West, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford, 1993.

[13]W. Hartner  Essay review  of  O. Neugebauer: A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy, Verlag, 1975; in Journal for the History of Astronomy; 9; pp 201-12; at p. 201.

[14]On the manners and forms history is distorted, see, for instance, the following:

J. Fontana: The Distorted Past, Blackwell, 1995.

P. Geyl: Use and Abuse of History, Yale University Press, 1955:p.78.

M. Daumas: The History of Technology: Its limits; its methods; trans into English and notes by A. Rupert Hall; in History of Technology, 1976; pp 85-112;

D.H. Fischer: Historians' Fallacies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.Introduction: xxi.

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen at: http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/intro.html

The Hidden Debt to Islamic Civilisation by S.E. Al Djazairi

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