Mosque of Cordoba Spain

The Muslim Impact in Sciences and Civilisation Through Spain

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

In the words of Briffault:

‘It was under the influence of the Arabs and the Moorish revival of culture, and not in the 15th century that a real renaissance took place. Spain, not Italy, was the cradle of the re-birth of Europe.’ 1

An opinion adhered to by others, including Lane Poole, who in a flowery account sums up the Peninsula’s wider impact:

‘For nearly eight centuries, under the Mohammedan rulers, Spain set to all Europe a shining example of a civilised and enlightened state. Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit a hundredfold. Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadelquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. Art, literature, and science prospered, as they then prospered nowhere else in Europe. Students flocked from France and Germany and England to drink from the fountain of learning which flowed only in the cities of the Moors. The surgeons and doctors of Andalusia were in the van of science: women were encouraged to devote themselves to serious study, and the lady doctor was not unknown among the people of Cordova. Mathematics, astronomy and botany, history and jurisprudence were to be mastered in Spain, and Spain alone…. Whatsoever makes a kingdom great and prosperous, whatsoever tends to refinement and civilisation was found in Muslim Spain.’ 2

For Scott:

‘The Visigoths (prior to Islamic rule) overran and ravaged it in the fifth century, and their occupancy, derived solely from conquest, lasted three hundred years. Then came the Saracens, whose domination, obtained in precisely the same manner, required about the same length of time for the conquest, but endured for more than twice as long. It was evident, therefore, to every mind not obscured by prejudice, that the title of the Moslems, even from the Spanish point of view, was better than that of their conquerors. In more than one respect, indeed, had the followers of Mohammed claims upon the country of their adoption as well as upon the gratitude and admiration of mankind. Their industry and enterprise had developed beyond all precedent the wonderful resources of the Peninsula. Its prosperity had never been so great, its people so happy, its sovereigns so renowned, as at the meridian of the Moslem power. In intellectual attainments, and the skilful adaptation of scientific principles to the practical affairs of life, the subjects of the khalifate far surpassed all their contemporaries.’ 3

The role of Muslim Spain in the rise of modern science and civilisation has also been raised by other authors. 4 These authors mainly belong to the old scholarship of the West. They have studied all subjects of sciences, arts and literature, and have enlightened the role of both Islam as a faith, and the Muslims, in the vast transformation that occurred in the West following contact with Islamic learning. Without the work of such authors and historians, the likes of Castro, Ribera, Menocal, Millas Vallicrosa, Briffault, Draper, Haskins, Glick, Sarton, etc, the picture of the Muslim impact would have remained very dim, indeed. Today, however, there is vast literature to form a picture of how science was transferred from Arabic into Latin, which was then the scholarly and universal, shared, language of the West. 5

The scope of the Muslim impact can only be appreciated when one considers the vast contrast that existed between scientifically enlightened Muslim world and the Christian West which was then plunged in barbarism as in the expression of many Western authors. Thus, according to Scott, who makes a lengthy depiction of such a contrast:

‘The teachings of the philosophers of Cordova were not propitious to the maintenance of either established dogma or ecclesiastical superiority; and the clergy saw, with undisguised dismay, the growing prevalence of lukewarmness and skepticism. The predominance of the Spanish Arabs in every branch of literary culture, their eminent success in arms, their intelligence, their valour, their courtesy, the seductive power of their splendour and their opulence had far more effect upon the minds of the rising generation of Christians than the delusive promises and impotent anathemas proclaimed every week from a thousand pulpits. 6 And, indeed, the contrast presented by the two rival religions was most striking to the unprejudiced seeker after truth. On the one hand was the church, with its resounding vaults and its gloomy and sepulchral crypt; the monastery, with its privations; the reliquaries, with their offensive hoards of withered flesh and mouldering bones; the inconsistencies of a system which inculcated charity and commanded persecution; the inexorable tyranny of the priesthood; the systematic discouragement of learning; the confessional with its enforced revelation of secrets; the mass with its monotonous services and its ritual in an unknown tongue; the penance with its sufferings and humiliation. 7 On the other hand rose the mosque, light, airy, beautiful; its graceful minaret pointing towards the heavens; its court shaded by palm- and orange-trees, redolent with the mingled fragrance of a thousand exotics, musical with the plashing of crystal waters; its walls covered with a maze of intricate and brilliant stuccoes; its ceiling emblazoned with the golden texts of the Koran; its sanctuary sparkling with mosaics, whose exquisite tracery rivalled the fabled creations of the genii; the sermon, intelligible to the most humble and untutored listener; the prayer, remarkable for earnestness, simplicity, reverence. 8 On this side were exhibited the factitious virtues and revolting license inseparable from the unnatural condition of celibacy; the sacrifice of every diversion that renders health attainable or existence attractive; the morose austerity of monastic solitude; the ill-concealed excesses by which human nature attempts to indemnify itself for the restraints imposed by organized hypocrisy; the solicited martyrdom of the half- crazed zealot; the savage pursuit of infidels and schismatics; the sanctified example of ecclesiastical ignorance, moral abasement, and physical impurity. 9 On the other were the delights of the harem; the physical and mental vigour derived from constant exercise of the muscular system and the intellectual faculties; the benefits arising from the practice of frequent ablution; the palatial appointments of the public bath; the innumerable conveniences invented or adopted by a society ever alert to grasp every new idea, to profit by every past experience; the advantages of a method of education unparalleled in excellence and unapproached by even the wisest teachers of antiquity; the vast libraries, filled with the stores of ancient learning; the lectures of the lyceum; the curious experiments of scientific observers; the entertaining scenes of social festivity; the animated disputations of learned assemblies.‘ 10

It was, indeed, the Muslims who transformed the world of scientific enquiry, throughout the Christian West via al-Andalus.
Setting aside the translations of scientific works from Arabic into Latin that were carried out at Toledo (in the 12th century), the Muslim Spanish influence in the rise of learning and civilisation still looks formidable, if not decisive.

First and foremost, as Campbell correctly points out, the Muslims salvaged sciences from total extinction in Europe. 11 Any perusal of history reveals the utter bareness of scientific activity on Western European soil for much, if not most, of the medieval period, except in Spain (and Sicily). The first flickers of scientific knowledge occurred precisely once Muslim science was carried north into such places as Lorraine or by Gerbert to Rheims (from thence learning spread to other parts of France (Chartres), England, Switzerland, etc).

If there was a region in Christendom where scientific activity had any place and from where, in fact, the early elements of learning were carried to the parts of northern Europe just cited, that region was Catalonia. In Burnett’s words:

‘The size and opulence of 10th century Cordoba far outstripped any city in the Latin West; and the contrast between scientific cultures of al-Andalus and Latin Christendom was just as extreme, and so it is hardly surprising that Islamic science should overflow into its nearest Christian neighbour, Catalonia.’ 12

The earliest Latin astrolabe, in the 10th century, was related with Catalonia, probably constructed by a Muslim but inscribed by a Catalan scholar. 13 This astrolabe, which Cochrane notes, can be found at the Institut du Monde Arabe collection in Paris, is a Carolingian astrolabe thought to have been produced in Europe at the end of the 10th Century. And the symbols used on its circumference for the measurement of degrees reflect a possible transitional phase in the introduction of Arabic numerals into Europe. 14The Arabic numerals, Glick points out, first appeared in Europe in the scriptorium of the Spanish monastery of Silos. 15

The monasteries, of Catalonia, that of Ripoll most particularly, played the leading role in the transmission of Muslim learning. It was, the Ripoll Monastery, which in the words of Menocal, ‘partook of the riches of Andalusian writings’ on scientific subjects. 16 The monastery had a relatively good library that included translations of Muslim works on the sciences. 17 Ripoll was accessible to the learned, who were in those days all Churchmen. One of its best known visitors was the future pope Silvester II (d.1003), Gerbert of Aurillac, in France, who spent three years there where he also built and kept very powerful contacts with other ecclesiastics at the monastery. 18

Next to Catalonia, it was the Muslim capital Cordova, which played the leading role in the Western enlightenment. 10th century Cordova was the magnet that attracted and stunned the visitors. It was the most civilised city in Europe, the wonder and admiration of the world, ‘a Vienna among Balkan states.’ 19 The foreign emissaries, and those seeking the new and refined were dazzled by its splendour. 20 A German nun saw it as ‘the Jewel of the world.’ 21 The city was said to have had 200,000 houses, 600 mosques, 22 70 public libraries during the time of Caliph Hakam II, and 900 public baths. 23 The Christian population of Cordova had as early as the 9th century adopted the Muslim way of living, and found delight in Arabic fiction, poetry and the study of Muslim philosophical and theological doctrines. 24

Other Spanish regions, close to the Christian West, also played their part. The most northerly outpost of Muslim rule was the kingdom of the Banu Hud, which did not capitulate to the Christians until 1140. 25 One of the Banu Hud, Abu Amir Yusuf al-Mu’taman-was a well known mathematician, and his works show that he had access to a remarkably large collection of mathematical works. 26

The Muslim loss of Toledo, in 1085, a decisive event in the history of ideas, as Christians now came into the possession of Muslim libraries filled with scientific works whose translations and impact. According to Durant:

‘In the twelfth century Europe discovered the wealth of Spain in books; scholars descended upon Toledo, Cordova, and Seville, and a flood of new learning poured over the Pyrenees to revolutionize the intellectual life of the adolescent North.’ 27

Micheau insists that thanks to the translations from Arabic into Latin, Western Christendom discovered a learning hitherto unknown.

‘This new Translatio Studii is inseparable from Islamic culture as well as from Western culture. It meant for the former unexpected extension of its scope beyond its frontiers. For the latter it meant the intellectual renaissance of the 12th century, and the beginning of the universities in the 13th century.’ 28

Campbell adds that the translations of Islamic science were to exert a dominating influence over the minds of the thinkers of the West from the 12th until the 15th century. 29

The largest wave of Muslim losses took place just before the mid 13th century, with the fall in Christian hands of Cordova (1236), Valencia (1238), Seville (1248), etc.. Following their loos, all that once constituted Muslim grandeur had become Christian property. Muslim skills in trades and crafts were appropriated by Christian rulers; masons and engineers worked for Spanish sovereigns, like those who before the 14th century built the Alcazar of Seville. 30 Skilled Muslims were employed to run the newly acquired industries: paper, textiles, pottery, sugar, etc, and were also needed in farming, irrigation, above all. 31 Muslims were also sought in the burgeoning navies and armies of Spain and Portugal; 32 and at the centre of the great strive made by the two countries, which soon became the leading Western powers, were all these new subjects, who, despite the loudest cries emanating from outside the Peninsula to rid the land of them, Portugal and Spain kept, protected, and even treasured (for some) for centuries until their last expulsion in 1609-1610.

It is, indeed, a major proof that it was Islam that made power, for, when the faith of Islam ruled in Arabia, the Arabs rose to power. When such a faith was appropriated and defended by the Ottomans, they became the world leading power. And when and where the Muslim influence was the strongest, i.e in Spain and Portugal, both countries rose as the leading Christian powers from the 14th until the 17th centuries. When the Muslim influence ceased in both countries, they both slumbered into decay and oblivion.

Select Bibliography

  • Abu al-Fadail: Tarikh al-Mansuri in Bibliotheca Arabo-Sicula; Second Appendix; Leipzig; 1887.
  • Abu Shama: Kitab al-Rawdatayn; ed. M.H. M. Ahmad; 2 vols; Cairo; 1954; II.
  • J L. Abu-Lughod: Before European Hegemony, Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, tr. E.R. A. Sewter; Harmondsworth; 1969.
  • F F Armesto: Before Columbus: MaCMillan Education; London, 1987.
  • K. Armstrong: Holy War, Anchor Books; New York; 2001 ed.
  • Anonymous: Akhbar Majmu’a, ed. Lafuente y Alcantara, Madrid, 1867.
  • T.W. Arnold and A Guillaume ed: The Legacy of Islam; 1st ed, Oxford; 1931.
  • A.S. Atiya: Crusade, Commerce and Culture; Oxford University Press; London; 1962.
  • Ibn al-Athir: Al-Kamil fi’l Tarikh; 12 Vols; ed C.J. Tornberg; Leiden and Uppsala; 1851-76.
  • Al-Bakri: Descriptions de l’Afrique Septentrionale; in Journal Asiatique; 5th series; XII.
  • Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa; tr and selected by H.A.R. Gibb; George Routledge and Sons Ltd; London, 1929.
  • Ibn Battuta: Voyages d’Ibn Battuta, Arabic text accompanied by French translation by C. Defremery and B.R. Sanguinetti, preface and notes by Vincent Monteil, I-IV, Paris, 1968, reprint of the 1854 ed.
  • Beha Eddin: The Life of Saladin; London, Palestine Pilgrim’s text Society, 1897.
  • J.A. Brundage: The Crusades; The Marquette University Press; 1962.
  • T. Burckhardt: Moorish Culture in Spain, George Allen & Unwin, London; 1972.
  • R. Burns: Damascus, A History; Routledge; London; 2005.
  • The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol IV: Edited by J. R. Tanner, C. W. Previte; Z.N. Brooke, 1923.
  • The Cambridge History of Islam, vol 2, ed P.M. Holt, A.K.S. Lambton, and B. Lewis, Cambridge University Press, 1970.
  • A. Castro: The Structure of Spanish History, English tr. with revisions and modifications by Edmund A. King. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.


  1. R. Briffault: The Making of Humanity, op cit; pp 188-9.
  2. S. Lane-Poole: The Moors in Spain; Fisher Unwin; (London; 1888).Preface; pp. vii-viii.
  3. S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 2; p. 220.
  4. For good accounts on the role of Muslim Spain in science and civilisation, see, for instance:

    • J.M. Millas Vallicrosa: Estudios sobre historia de la ciencia espanola, (Barcelona, 1949).
    • J.M. Millas Vallicrosa: Nuevos estudios sobre historia de la ciencia espanola, (Barcelona, 1960).
    • J. Ribera: Disertaciones Y Opusculos, 2 vols. (Madrid 1928).
    • J. Vernet: Ce que la culture doit aux Arabes d’Espagne, tr. by Gabriel Martinez Gros, (Paris; 1985).
    • A. Castro: The Structure of Spanish History, English translation with revisions and modifications by E. A. King. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).
  5. See previous note.See also:

    • T. Arnold and A Guillaume ed: The Legacy of Islam; 1st edition Oxford; 1931.
    • R. Briffault: The Making of Humanity, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1928.
    • T. Burckhardt: Moorish Culture in Spain, George Allen & Unwin, London; 1972.
    • J.W. Draper: A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe; Vol I; Revised edition; George Bell and Sons, London, 1875.
    • T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1979.
    • T. Glick, S.J. Livesey, F. Wallis Editors: Medieval Science, Technology and Medicine; An Encyclopaedia; Routledge; London; 2005.
    • C.H. Haskins: Studies in the History of Mediaeval Science. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. New York. 1967 ed.
    • C.H. Haskins: The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, Harvard University Press, 1927.
    • G. Sarton: Introduction to the History of Science; 3 vols; The Carnegie Institute of Washington; 1927-48.
  6. S.P. Scott: Moorish Empire; Vol 3; p. 214.
  7. Ibid; p. 215.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid; pp. 214-6.
  11. D. Campbell: Arabian Medicine and its Influence on the Middle Ages; Philo Press; Amsterdam; 1926; p. 42.
  12. C. Burnett: The Introduction of Arabic Learning into England; The Panizzi Lectures, 1996; The British Library; 1997, p. 3.
  13. Ibid.
  14. L. Cochrane: Adelard of Bath, British Museum Press, 1994; p. 6.
  15. T. Glick: Communication; in T. Glick et al ed: Medieval Science; op cit; at; p. 138.
  16. M. R. Menocal: The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1987; p. 28.
  17. W.M. Watt: The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, Edinburgh, 1972; p. 59.
  18. J.C. Garcin et al: Etats, Societes et Cultures du Monde Musulman Medieval; vol 2; Presses Universitaires de France; Paris; 2000; p. 401.
  19. J.B. Trend: Spain and Portugal, in The Legacy of Islam, (1st ed) op cit; pp 1-39, at p. 9.
  20. T. Burckhardt: Moorish Culture in Spain, op cit; pp. 9-22.
  21. Hrotsvitha in Scriptores rerum Germanicarum; Hrotsvithae opera, ed. Paulus de Winterfeld (Berlin, 1902), p. 52, l. 12 in P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 6th ed, (London, 1970), p. 527.
  22. F.B. Artz: The Mind, op cit, p. 149.
  23. J.B. Trend: Spain and Portugal, op cit, p. 9.
  24. P.F. Kennedy: The Muslim sources of Dante? in The Arab Influence in Medieval Europe, ed D.A. Agius and R. Hitchcock, (Ithaca Press, 1994), pp. 63-82, at pp. 71-2.
  25. C. Burnett: Hermann of Carinthia; in A History of Twelfth Century Western Philosophy; Edited by P. Dronke; (Cambridge University Press; 1988); pp. 386-404; p. 388.
  26. See P. Hogendijk: Discovery of the 11th century geometrical compilation: The Kitab al-istikmal of Yusuf al-Mu’taman ibn Hud; Historia Mathematica; XIII; (1986); pp. 43-52.
  27. W. Durant: The Age of Faith, op cit; p. 909.
  28. F. Micheau: La Transmission; op cit; p. 399.
  29. D. Campbell: Arabian Medicine; op cit; p.xii.
  30. E. Perroy: Le Moyen Age, (Presses Universitaires de France, 1956); p. 524.
  31. T. Glick: Islamic and Christian Spain; op cit.
    • J. Bensaude: L’Astronomie Nautique au Portugal, Meridian Publishing, Amsterdam, 1967.
    • A. Castro: The Spaniards. An Introduction to their History. tr. W.F. King and S.L. Margaretten. Berkeley, The University of California Press, 1971.