Monument to Al-Khawarizmi, Uzbekistan Monument to Al-Khawarizmi, Uzbekistan. Photo: Daniel Mennerich / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Medieval Muslim thinkers ironically provided the intellectual foundations for the rise of the West, writes Sean Ledwith

Such is the extent of Islamophobia in Western societies since the start of this century that the notion that there even could be such a thing as ‘Islamic Science’ would be met with scepticism in some quarters. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistran and Iraq spawned a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry in Europe and North America that now make it the dominant form of racism in those parts of the world. The ill-conceived ‘War on Terror’ devised by Bush and Blair provoked counterattacks from the Muslim world by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Isis which exacerbated the negative stereotype of Islam that has prevailed in the West for decades.

Hard-right politicians such as Farage in the UK, Le Pen in France and the AFD in Germany have perniciously exploited the othering of Islamic communities in their countries for electoral advantage. Across Europe, Islamophobic policies such as burka bans and restrictions on Muslim worship have become increasingly normalised. The EU has adopted a ‘Fortress Europe’ siege mentality which condemns thousands of refugees, most of whom come from majority Muslim states, to watery graves in the seas surrounding the continent. In the UK, the government’s Prevent agenda is nominally aimed at tackling all forms of extremism but, in reality, blatantly penalises the Islamic community more than any other.

Historic irony

Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, published in 1996, became one of the key texts that provided academic cover for this resurgence of Islamophobia in the West. Huntington took his title from a phrase used by another neocon US commentator, Bernard Lewis, in an article titled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage,’ written the same year. In that piece, Lewis claimed:

‘It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and movement in Islam far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations. The perhaps irrational, but surely historic receptions of an ancient rival against our Christian heritage, our secular present and the world-wide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.

The great historic irony of Huntington and Lewis’ attempt to validate the assertion of US military power in the Middle East since 9/11 is that many of the intellectual and technical innovations that allowed the West to rise to global hegemony from the seventeenth century onwards were devised by thinkers from that same region during what is  known to historians as ‘the golden age of Islam’, lasting approximately from the nineth century to the fourteenth CE.

In one of the great outpourings of human creativity that matches Periclean Athens or Renaissance Florence, geniuses such as Al-Farabi, Al-Hazen and Ibn Sina made breakthrough discoveries in subjects such as chemistry, mathematics and medicine that shaped thinking for generations to come. Over time, these innovations would be transmitted north to Europe and be deployed for the purposes of colonial aggression by rising capitalist powers such as England, Holland and Portugal, ironically often against Islamic states such as Egypt and Turkey, which had previously surpassed them in terms of scientific achievement. The BBC Science presenter, Jim Al Khalili summarises this myth-busting historical point which the likes of Huntingdon, Farage and Le Pen would never acknowledge:

What is only now becoming clear (to many in the west) is that during the dark ages of medieval Europe, incredible scientific advances were made in the Muslim world. Geniuses in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Cordoba took on the scholarly works of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, India and China, developing what we would call “modern” science. New disciplines emerged – algebra, trigonometry and chemistry as well as major advances in medicine, astronomy, engineering and agriculture. Arabic texts replaced Greek as the fonts of wisdom, helping to shape the scientific revolution of the Renaissance.

Insurgent power

Islam emerged as a potent political force in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century CE, unifying the Bedouin tribes of the desert with the growing wealth of merchants and traders in urban centres such as Mecca and Medina. The decline of neighbouring empires in Byzantium and Persia created a vacuum which the energised forces of the Prophet Mohammed were able to fill with revolutionary rhetoric premised on the equality of all peoples before the unifying figure of the deity, Allah. This appealed to the urban poor and slaves of the region, and accounts for the explosive growth of the faith in the decades following Mohammed’s revelation of his revolutionary message around 610 CE. Marxist historian of religion, Paul Siegel, notes how the insurgent power of early Islam was able to topple decaying elites in Persia, Syria and Egypt:

‘Beyond these countries Islam expanded like a compressed force that had been released. Within a century of Muhammad’s death (AD 632) it conquered the vast expanse between the Himalayas and the Pyrenees, an empire larger than the Roman Empire at its height. The great cities of Damascus, Jerusalem, Aleppo, and Antioch were taken. Alexandria, the foremost commercial city in all the world, fell after a siege lasting over a year. The border of China was reached; North Africa was added to the Islamic empire; Spain was acquired; Europe itself seemed threatened, as it was for centuries. Nothing had ever been seen like this amazing series of victories.

State-sponsored enlightenment

The rapid conquests by the armies of the Prophet provided access for the new Islamic empire to the vast intellectual legacy of the ancient world. The new rulers of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties which presided over this golden age of the next few centuries had the political awareness to absorb the culture heritage of Greece, Persia and India and to encourage their own scholars and scientists to add to it. They were guided by the exhortations of the Prophet to value research and study in all areas of knowledge The Koran declares: ‘An hour’s study of nature is better than a year’s prayer’ and ‘go in quest of knowledge even to China.’

The modern demonisation of Islam as an anti-intellectual force by the hard right completely ignores this era of state-sponsored enlightenment which stretched across four thousand miles, from the Atlantic to the edge of India. Words such as algebra, algorithm, alcohol and zero which have become hard-wired into our way of life can be traced back to this epochal era when science took a quantum leap towards modernity. Noticeably, this was not a male-only intellectual resurgence either with prominent Islamic theorists such as Fatima al-Fihri and Sutayta al-Mahamili contributing as well.

The geographical spread of Islamic territories was part of the reason in 762 why the Caliph Al-Mansur established a research centre, and prototype university – known as the House of Wisdom in his new capital city of Baghdad. This included a library and teaching facilities for the pursuit of knowledge in subjects such as law, medicine, geography and mathematics. The necessity to produce workable maps for merchants across the empire provided the rationale for the advancement of academic study, as did the requirement for pilgrims to be guided on the annual Haj to Mecca by pioneering research in astrology and astronomy, at that time, regarded as related subjects. One of the greatest figures in the House of Wisdom was the ninth-century Uzbek mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi, who became its director under the Caliph Al-Mamum.

Arabic numerals

Al-Khwarizmi’s pivotal contribution to mathematics was his development of the number system which we now use ubiquitously, known pointedly as ‘Arabic numerals’. More manageable than the clunky system of Roman numerals which had prevailed in the West up to that point, Arabic numerals, which utilised the concept of zero and decimal notation, originally came from India and had been introduced to the House of Wisdom by a group of Hindu mathematicians invited there in 771. The multicultural and non-nationalistic nature of Islamic scholarship in the golden age, as evidenced in this case, is one of its most impressive aspects. The Caliphs pursued an explicit policy of tracking down and deciphering documents and ideas from non-Islamic civilisations known as the Translation Movement.

It would be another half a millennium after Al-Khwarizmi until this more sophisticated form of calculation would penetrate European thinking, partly thanks to a twelfth-century translation of his work, Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning. Al-Khwarizmi was also tasked by the Caliph with calculating the circumference of the Earth, which he did with an incredible degree of accuracy. His lasting influence right up to our time is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the word ‘algorithm’, which of course refers to an inescapable element of the digital age, is based on a Latinised corruption of his name. The Marxist historian of mathematics, Dirk Struik, reflects on Khwarizmi’s significance:

‘Al-Khwarizmi’s work plays an important role in the history of mathematics, for it is one of the main sources through which Indian numerals and Arabic algebra came to Western Europe. Algebra, until the middle of the nineteenth century, revealed its Eastern origin by its lack of an axiomatic foundation, in this respect sharply contrasting with Euclidean geometry. The present day school algebra and geometry still preserve these tokens of their different origin.


A figure from the Islamic golden age who is possibly more familiar to many British schoolchildren due to his importance in the history of medicine as studied at GCSE is Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Like many of the thinkers of this milieu, he was a polymath whose books, Canon of Medicine and Book of Healing not only dominated the subject long after his lifetime in the eleventh century but also contained digressions on topics such as logic, geometry, astronomy and philosophy. Our notion of academic specialisms usually pursuing avenues of thought unrelated to each other is a product of the division of mental labour which accompanied the rise of capitalism and would have been alien to polymaths such as Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn Sina. Their concept of ‘science’ as a focus of study would have been much more wide-ranging than we are brought up to see it and would have including the above areas, plus even recognising poetry and music as valid forms of expressing ideas.

Born in Persia in 980 CE, Ibn Sina was a child prodigy who had memorised the Koran by the age of ten and went on to become the most authoritative physician, not only in the Islamic world, but also in medieval Europe. He proved his expertise by saving the life of the Caliph from a potentially life-threatening diarrhoeal infection and, as a reward, was granted access to the huge library of the Samanid dynasty at Bukhara. This treasure-trove of learning from antiquity, plus his own insatiable curiosity and hands-on experience, led Ibn Sina to develop many remarkable insights in a wide range of fields, such as discovering that light is made up of particles, the ground beneath our feet is made up of layers of geological strata and that disease can spread through water.

The Aristotelian Left

Intriguingly, a modern Marxist thinker who was particularly impressed by the work of Ibn Sina was Ernst Bloch, an intellectual refugee from Stalinist Eastern Europe who in numerous philosophical works, sought to devise a conceptual framework that might enable the left to rebuild its emancipatory and utopian agenda after the degeneration of the October Revolution. In Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left, first published in 1952, Bloch postulated that the materialist aspects of Ibn Sina’s research in medicine and science could be seen as anticipating the much later theories of dialectical and historical materialism, as devised by Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century.

According to Bloch: ‘Avicenna was a doctor and not a monk, a natural philosopher, not a theologian … without Avicenna, Marx would not have been able to upend the Hegelian world idea so naturally.’ Similarly, the great Lebanese Marxist historian, Hussain Muruwwah in his 1979 study of the golden age of Islam, Materialist Trends in Arabo-Islamic Philosophy, hailed Ibn Sina as an antecedent of the modern left who ‘combined metaphysics with political engagement and was persecuted for it … certainly a living embodiment of a sublime progressive idea called the unity of life.

Bloch also regards the twelfth-century Islamic thinker, Ibn Rushd, as another progressive figure from the golden age who unwittingly sowed an intellectual seed that would ultimately blossom into Marxism centuries later. Known as Averroes in the West, he was a product of the diverse and multicultural society that existed in Islamic Spain, before being toppled by the Christian reconquest in 1492. In his lifetime, his birthplace of Cordoba rivalled Baghdad as the cradle of intellectual dynamism in the medieval world. In dazzlingly brilliant works such as The Incoherence of The Incoherence, Ibn Rushd sought to defend the legitimacy of reason and science as expressions of religious faith. Bloch argues that the capitalist West (but also the left that would emerge to challenge it) owe a debt to these figures: ‘it is Ibn Sina, along with Ibn Rushd, who – unlike Western scholars – represent one of the sources of our enlightenment and above all, of a most singular materialist vitality, developed out of Aristotle in a non-Christian manner.’

Hopefully, in a future enlightened society that has seen the back of Farage, Le Pen and the other progenitors of Islamophobia, intellectual heroes such as Al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd will receive the recognition in the non-Islamic world that they already hold among their co-religionists today.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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