Sunday, March 17, 2013

How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs

....the Greek writers who influenced the oriental world were not the poets, historians, or orators, but exclusively the scientists who wrote on medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy, the type of scientific thought which does not always come foremost when we speak about classical literature. In the days when the Arabs inherited the culture of ancient Greece, Greek thought was chiefly interested in science, Athens was replaced by Alexandria, and Hellenism had an entirely "modem "outlook. This was an attitude with which Alexandria and its scholars were directly connected, but it was by no means confined to Alexandria. It was a logical outcome of the influence of Aristotle who before all else was a patient observer of nature, and was in fact the founder of modern science. It had its germs in older thought, no doubt, in the speculations of quite early philosophers about the origin and world and its inhabitants, animals as well as men, but it was Aristotle who introduced what may be called the scientific method.In entering upon this inquiry it may be premised that there are at least three threads very closely interwoven. In the first place there are Greek scientific writers whose books were translated into Arabic, studied by Arab scholars, and made the subject of commentaries and summaries: in such cases the line of transmission is clear. Then there are conclusions and scientific principles assumed and developed by Arabic writers who do not say whence they were derived, but which can only be explained by reference to a Greek (Alexandrian) source. Yet again, there are questions and problems raised which the Arabs dealt with in their own way, but which never would have occurred to them unless they had been suggested by earlier Greek thinkers who had tried to solve similar difficulties, but approached their solution in a different way.Greek scientific thought had been in the world for a long time before it reached the Arabs, and during that period it had already spread abroad in various directions. So it is not surprising that it reached the Arabs by more than one route. It came first and in the plainest line through Christian Syriac writers, scholars, and scientists. Then the Arabs applied themselves directly to the original Greek sources and learned over again all they had already learned, correcting and verifying their earlier knowledge. Then there came a second channel of transmission indirectly through India, mathematical and astronomical work, all a good deal developed by Indian scholars, but certainly developed from material obtained from Alexandria in the first place. This material had passed to India by the sea route which connected Alexandria with north-west India. Then there was also another line of passage through India which seems to have had its beginning in the Greek kingdom of Bactria, one of the Asiatic states founded by Alexander the Great, and a land route long kept open between the Greek world and Central Asia, especially with the city of Marw, and this perhaps connects with a Buddhist medium which at one time promoted intercourse between east and west, though Buddhism as a religion was withdrawing to the Far East when the Arabs reached Central Asia. Further, there were some scattered minor sources, unfortunately little known, such as the city of Harran, an obstinately pagan Greek colony planted in the middle of a Christian area, which probably made its contribution, though on a smaller scale.The term "Arabs"must be taken in a broad sense. It is not here used strictly to denote those of Arab blood, but includes all those who were politically under Arab rule, who used the Arabic language and followed the religion of the Arabs. Some, like the Persians under the early 'Abbasids in the eighth century, were very definitely anti-Arab, but they lived under Arab rule, wrote in Arabic, and at least professed to follow the religion of Muhammad. Such being the case, they and their Arab rulers shared a common life which coloured their literature, education, and interests generally; even though Persian literature and religion diverged in its own direction, it moved from an Arabic starting-point. Neither culture nor language run on lines precisely identical with race. Conquest, superior civilization, economic needs have often caused communities to adopt new languages and new cultures. Yet there was sufficient coherence in the community gathered under the rule of the KhaHf to justify its being treated as a unit, even though not all its members recognized the same khalifi The 'Umayyads in Andalus took their cue from the rinces ruling in Baghdad. The schismatic Shi'ites agreed with the orthodox Sunnis that their leader on earth should be the heir of the Prophet Muhammad, though they differed as to the individual who was the lawful heir. The no less heretical Kharijites had a khaff of their owm, freely elected on a democratic basis, but so elected because it was believed that this best followed Muhanunad's precedent.More important than political, racial or religious unity is the fact that those here classed as Arabs shared the same cultural history and all participated in the scientific heritage derived from the Hellenistic world. At first the city of Baghdad was the distributing centre where Greek material was brought together from different parts, Syria, Bactria, India, Persia, and other, and from Baghdad this material spread out in an Arabic form to all those social groups which were held together by the religion of Islam. Later on, when political and economic disturbances checked the cultural life of Baghdad and the empire of the khalifs began a process of devolution, or disintegration, very siriiilar to that experienced by the empire of the Karlings in the west, the leadership passed from Baghdad to Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, Cordova, and Samarqand. But before that happened Greek scientific literature had made itself at home amongst the Arabs and had begun a new and independent life in an Arabic atmosphere.The Greek material received by the Arabs was not simply passed on by them to others who came after, it had a very real life and development in its Arabic surroundings. In astronomy and mathematics the work of Greek and Indian scientists was coordinated, and thence a very real advance was made. It may be stated that algebra and both plane and spherical trigonometry were Arab developments. The Arabs were diligent in making and recording astronomical observations, and these not only extended what they had received from the Greeks, but checked and corrected older records. The Arabs perceived the weakness in the Ptolemaic cosmology and the new astronomy "of the thirteenth century tried to correct it, but in vain. It was not until Copernicus that the solution was found.

How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs:

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