One recalls the not-so distant polemics around the place of Islam in the European Renaissance. What if Europe did not owe its knowledge to Islam? Many historians reject the idea that the science of the Greeks has been transmitted to the West by the Muslim world. Contrary to the crescendo that has been repeated since the 1960s, European culture, in its history and development, has much to do with Islam.
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The division of the world between the West and the East goes back to ancient Greece, and for a thousand years, it has played out an eternal confrontation between two conceptions of the world. During the Middle Ages, two civilizations faced each other. One mixed Greek heritage with the message of the Gospels, the scientific spirit rooted in a religious tradition of which the Church was the guarantor. The other was the daughter of the Book of God, the Uncreated Book. It was primarily moored to its central axis, the Quran.
And it is, of course, in France that the Renaissance appeared. It represented for this nationalist historian a break with the dark age of the Middle Ages, a victory of the ideas of Reason, Truth, Art and Beauty. The Renaissance is truly the definitive portrait of an Italian phenomenon of the fifteenth century. This therefore allowed the creation of the modern individual characterized by the revival of classical culture. This vision shaped our imagination and led us to understand the Renaissance not as a historical period but as a spirit that seems to define more the ideal of these intellectuals for the nineteenth century than the historical reality.
One of the problems with these classical definitions of Renaissance is that they celebrate the achievements of European civilization to the exclusion of all others, especially where laws applied to guard humanity (Code of Hammurabi). Introducing The Persian Empire as a celebrated culture, because of its particularly intelligent way in governing. Each province was governed to the nine, which is perfectly reflected in how Hammurabi sought to keep his law down to each detail, “These judgments of righteousness did Hammurabi the mighty king confirm, and caused the land to take on a sure government and a beneficent rule (Code of Hammurabi 3). Driven by success, organized and logically placed governance set the stage for western society to take after. The Persian government system further created social as well as political examples for empires that would later rise into society.
Beginning with the greatest empire yet, the Persian Empire, King Cyrus began expanding the boundaries of Persia into the neo-Babylonian empire – one of the greatest early western civilizations. Through expanding its boundaries, the Persians focused on increasing trade throughout their kingdom. The Persian Empire became an extraordinary empire that was multi-lingual, multi-faith, and carried much political loyalty. By standardizing weights, officiating coinage, and implementing societal laws, the Persians opened doors to opposing nations and beyond.
It is not a coincidence that the period in which the term, Renaissance, was invented was also the moment in history when Europe proclaimed with the greatest aggressiveness its imperialist domination of the globe. Translated in English, in On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy, Ibn Rushd introduced the idea that philosophy works together with religion to develop the notion of a synthesis of faith and reason. This Islamic philosophy heavily influenced the west and further suggested the idea that God exists independent of bible. Until the eighth century, Greek philosophy was seen with great suspicion. Conservative thinkers in the west explicitly believed that scripture, like the bible, was the only proof of the relationship between God and his creation. Western thinkers were unable to see the study of philosophy, where reason is understood as the standard for themes like morality and religion. Faith and reason are heavily dependent on sacred writings backed by a theoretical rationale. Inspired by this philosophy, the west gained the idea that you did not have to be Christian to have a conception of God. The concept that it is vital that you account your own journey of faith, because “it is necessary for one who wants to know God as He ought to be known to acquaint himself with the essence of things, so that he may get information about the creation of all things” (Ibn Rushd). This was the dawn of the philosophical idea that inspired thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas to believe that faith comes after reason, and further faith enables a person to understand what couldn’t be understood through the previous theories of religion alone.
The exchanges with the Ottoman Empire, however, have profoundly changed the tastes and possibilities in the west of the continent and contributed to the birth of the modern world. Oriental imports covered a wide range of products, from cotton spices, satin carpets, tulips to porcelain and horses, pigments, and so on. The palette of painters has also been enlarged and brought to the paintings of the Renaissance the bright blue and red that characterize them. It is the Arab and Islamic trade practices that have spread, and imposed the Indo-Arab figures, the use of the comma the signs of addition (+), subtraction (-) and multiplication ( x). Not only objects from the east that were shown on the paintings (including inscriptions in Arabic on the Virgin’s clothes), but also the painters themselves. A case in point is the many artists who went to Istanbul and reported motifs inspired by Ottoman and Persian traditions. The flows in the scientific field, especially from East to West, were no less dense.
Even the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was seen with moderation by many Christians. The period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was, therefore, that of a tremendous commercial and financial boom, a breathtaking dynamism of which all the protagonists were aware. It was the breeding ground of humanism that was part of that era in which enrichment, power and greed were glorified. The very practical concerns of humanists are brought to light by the Italian writer Petrarch, who advocated both the personal quest for philosophical truth and the practical ability to operate effectively in society through rhetoric and persuasion.
Montesquieu was a French writer that voiced his strong opinions about the Parisian society through the Persian Letters. This series of 161 letters reveals the true jealousy and wit the French had towards the Persians during the late eighteenth century. True criticism is revealed within the letters, as concise and clear statements are made to express the Europeans’ high grade of self-esteem. From the western point of view, people thought “[The King of France] has often been heard to say that of all the governments of the world, that of the Turks or that of our own august sultan pleased him most, so greatly he affected the oriental style of politics” (Montesquieu 1). The text, thereafter, criticizes Middle Eastern society in their ways of politics, culture, religion, and social structure. The so-called cultural domination over non-Western people forever inspires the future of the West to live up to these unrighteous virtues of superiority. Montesquieu therefore is the initial culprit of Western thought of domination over foreign countries – in this case, the Middle East.
The deeply rooted culture of western world is considerably thought to be original and ever so inspired by their earliest civilizations. Many unfortunately look past the Middle East’s incredible sciences, math, social conduct, great thinkers, scholars, and innovations. Orientalism, an idea introduced by Edward Siad, truly transformed the vision of the relationship between the West and East. Understanding that western culture was to believe that the Middle East was essentially timeless, further helps us understand that this was just a façade. Through the exchange of ideas through conquest and trade, we are now able to grasp that notion the west acquired great inspiration from the Middle East.
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