Backward Europe and advanced Asia -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Backward Europe and advanced Asia

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So far from Islamic thought being limited to mysticism and religious fanaticism, it showed a natural inclination to rationalism and science, in which for centuries the Arabs led the world. Great advances were made especially in mathematics and astronomy, but also in many other spheres of science and technology. This point is made by Alfred Hooper in his history of mathematics:

"We have much for which to thank the Moors. They introduced new ideas about medicine and medical knowledge; they taught improved methods of working in metal and leather; they built waterworks, sluices and canals in Spain; in all, they brought the wisdom of India and the East to a Europe which had sunk back into ignorance and savage ways.

"The Arabs were familiar with the work of the great Greek mathematicians who had built up the 'Golden age of Greek mathematics' before the fragile and wonderful civilisation of Greece was absorbed by the intensely practical and utilitarian Romans; they also introduced into Spain the new and revolutionary method of writing numbers that they had learned from the Hindus, a method that was to pave the way for our modern world of science and engineering and mathematics." Alfred Hooper, Makers of Mathematics, p. 24.)

Throughout the Middle Ages the only real advances in mathematics were made by the Indians and Arabs. It was they who discovered trigonometry. It was the Arabs who discovered algebra. The very word is Arabic -al-jabr- which, like so many other things, found its way into Europe from Spain. The Arab mathematician al-Khowarizmi, as well as writing a book on Hindu-Arab number systems (the Indians also played a vital role in developing mathematics, and the Arabs learned from them), wrote another book on the treatment of equations which he called al jabr w'al muquabalah, "the reunion and the opposition". This was later translated into Latin and hence became accessible to Europeans.

Alfred Hooper comments: "The years from about 800 to about 1450, known as the Middle Ages, were marked by an almost complete stagnation of independent thought, which paralysed mathematical progress and cast its gloom over European mathematicians as over all other thinkers." (A. Hooper, op. cit., p. 84.)

The same author adds: "Centuries after the Arabs had introduced the new number-symbols into Europe many people still clung to the old familiar Roman numerals and would have nothing to do with the new system, which they associated with traders and heathens. By the 13th century, however, the new system of writing numbers had become established in many parts of Europe. It was not until then that any real development in the number-reckoning we now call elementary arithmetic could take place." (Ibid., p. 26, my emphasis.)

The Medieval world gained access to the ideas of Aristotle and Plato mainly from Arab sources. Out of a host of brilliant thinkers who influenced medieval Europe, a special mention must be made of Ibn Roshd Muhammed -known in the West by his Latin name Averroës. This great Arab philosopher lived between 1126 and 1198 in Spain during the Caliphate of Cordoba. In his writings, we see the elements of a materialist philosophy, derived from a careful reading of Aristotle. Although he remained a devout Moslem, Ibn Roshd attempted to prove that matter and motion could neither be created nor destroyed, thus anticipating the conservation theories of modern physics. He likewise denied the immortality of the soul. So radical were these ideas, that his theories were persecuted by orthodox Moslems. But through the work of this great philosopher, particularly his commentaries on Aristotle, Europeans became acquainted with the long-forgotten world of classical Greek philosophy.

The main fountainhead of this knowledge was Islamic Spain, which, until it was destroyed by the Christians, was a flourishing, prosperous and cultured nation. Granada, Seville and Cordoba were important and internationally renowned centres of learning. All religions were treated with enlightened tolerance, until the Spaniards led by those narrow-minded and fanatical bigots Fernando of Castille and Isabelle of Aragon set about reducing the flower of Al-Andalus to a heap of bloody ashes. It is ironic that, to this day, Europeans still see themselves as the exclusive bearers of human culture when for the whole of the Middle Ages they acted as the grave-diggers of culture in the East.

The so-called Crusades about which so much romantic rubbish has been written were just so many destructive and bloodthirsty raids of barbarians against people who were, in every respect, their superiors. One of the Christian chroniclers of the siege of Granada, Father Agapito, writes in contemptuous terms about the Arab habit of washing themselves: "Water is more necessary to these infidels than bread; as they make use of it in repeated daily ablutions, and employ it in baths, and in a thousand other idle and extravagant modes, of which we Spaniards and Christians make but little account." (See W. Irving, The Conquest of Granada, p. 251.)

The reactionary and barbarous nature of the Crusades has been sufficiently demonstrated by modern historians like Stephen Runciman. Here is a typical extract by another writer: "In each captured city the Tafurs [poor crusaders] looted everything they could lay their hands on, raped the Moslem women and carried out indiscriminate massacres. The official leaders of the Crusade had no authority over them at all. When the Emir of Antioch protested about the cannibalism of the Tafurs, the princes could only admit apologetically: 'All of us together cannot tame King Tafur'." (N. Cohen, In Search of the Millennium, pp. 66-7.)

And again: "The fall of Jerusalem was followed by a great massacre; except for the governor and his bodyguard, every Moslem -man, woman and child- was killed. In and around the Temple of Solomon 'the horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgement of God that the same place should receive the blood of those whose blasphemies it had so long carried up to God.' As for the Jews of Jerusalem, they took refuge in their chief synagogue and they were all burnt alive. Weeping with joy and singing songs of praise the crusaders marched in procession to the church of the Holy Sepulchre. 'Oh new day, new day and exultation, new and everlasting gladness... That day, famed through all centuries to come, turned all our sufferings and hardships into joy and exultation; that day, the confirmation of Christianity, the annihilation of paganism, the renewal of our faith!'" (Ibid., p. 68.)

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