The Dark Ages is the period Europe spent in ignorance of Greek knowledge.
How did Europe get out of this period? We saw last week — in my oped titled “A brief history of modernity” published in this newspaper on March 18 — how the foundations of modernity came about through a burst of activity in Greece starting around 500 BC.
But two aspects are missing from this sequence, which says that the Renaissance in 16th century Europe renewed Europe’s bond with the Greeks and produced the modern world.
Indian director and writer Saeed Akhtar Mirza brings our attention to them in his book, The Monk, the Moor & Moses Ben Jalloun.
The first aspect is the manner in which this lost knowledge was retrieved. If Greek language had been forgotten in Europe, how did the church scholars read Aristotle? The answer is that for a couple of centuries, Muslims and Christian Arabs were the greatest minds in Europe. They had translated all of Aristotle and all of Plato into Arabic. When Europe was going through its Dark Ages it was the Muslims who kept the flame of knowledge burning.
When Aquinas read Aristotle, he was doing so not directly in Greek but through the works of the great Arab philosopher ibn Rushd, whom Aquinas knew as by his Latin name Averroes. This intellectual flowering of the Muslim world happened after the Arabs conquered Spain in the eighth century and kept bits of it till the 15th.
In Arab Spain and in Baghdad, a group of Athens-like freethinkers emerged from the great mixing of civilisations. They laid the foundations for much of modern science and medicine on the basis of what they picked up from the Greeks. The Muslim/Arabic origins of these discoveries are all around us. Algorithm comes to us from al Khwarizmi, algebra from the word ‘al jabr’ and alcohol from ‘al kohl’. The Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq who translated Aristotle, also worked on Galen, the Greek physician.
In the 11th century ibn Sina worked out a theory of medicine, called Qanun fi al tibb. Its theory is still followed by India’s Hamdard. When we drink Rooh Afza to keep cool in summer, we are drinking a creation of ibn Sina.
The second aspect that Mirza wants us to know is that there was much original knowledge that came from the East and went to the West. Here he includes the work of the Indian mathematicians, and on optics by the Muslim al Haytham much before Newton.
Very quickly into the book Mirza informs us that the great poet Dante was a plagiarist. Through one of his characters in his book Inferno, he also questions: “the entire edifice of Western science, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, architecture and even music”.
This may be overstating the case and it is obvious that while the West kicked on once it received Greek wisdom, the East, whether Muslim or Hindu, has been left behind. But on the broad issue, it is not difficult to agree with Mirza after one reads his book.
History is rarely so clean as was recounted in the first piece I wrote about this. Ancient Greece was great but not perfect. It is true that Socrates had the sort of intellectual space 2,400 years ago that many modern nations don’t have in 2012. It is also true that Athens put Socrates to death for his freethinking (the actual charge was corrupting the young).
The transfer of knowledge has always been both ways. Sufism is actually derived from the mystic theorising of Plotinus, who synthesised Plato with Aristotle. Buddha speculated before Aristotle of a godless universe. Shankara speculated before Aquinas about a formless and, indeed, characterless (nirgun) God.
The idea that there is one great culture that gave us everything and all the rest of us are mere recipients is bogus. Mirza tells us this through his book.
Mirza opens his first page with the line: “I have always had a deep distaste for ideas that create barriers between people.” He does much to break them with this work.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 25th, 2012.
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