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As Europe turned its back on Arabs

January 16, 2017

During the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century, art and culture increasingly turned towards the ancient Greeks and Romans. At the same time, the Renaissance marked a turning point in Euro-Arab relations. Professor Dag Nikolaus Hasse from the Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg n Bavaria, Germany, describes this process in his new book.

Researchers frequently assume that the people of the Renaissance had little interest in Arabic science and philosophy. In his book published in English, however, Hasse demonstrates that this was not the case.

Booming interest in Arabic works

On the one hand, the influence of Arab traditions such as pharmacology, astrology or theory of intellect peaked during the Renaissance. The epoch saw a virtual boom in Latin new translations and new editions of Arabic works such as Avicenna's Cannon of Medicine or Averroes' Commentaries on Aristotle.

Moreover, lots of Renaissance scholars adopted Arab ideas in the fields of medicine, astrology and philosophy. They even defended these ideas against critics.

Arabic roots suppressed deliberately

"On the other hand, people began to forget or even to reject the Arabic roots of European culture deliberately during this period," Hasse says. In line with a radical interpretation of humanism, Arab authors were deliberately replaced by Greek authorities in the curricula of European universities.

This process was accompanied by harsh polemics. For instance, Arab scientists were wrongly accused of being enemies of religion, plagiarists and of corrupting language.

But the polemics was not just ideological: The humanists were language experts and as such they were able for the first time to identify deficits in scientific Arab texts which had been caused by incorrect translation and handing-down errors.

A combination of ideological and scientific motives

In his book, the Würzburg professor demonstrates how a mixture of ideological and scientific motives caused some Arabic traditions to almost disappear in European culture, whereas others continued to thrive.

Averroes' theory on intellect, for example, was attacked as being anti-religious and non-Greek, but still had supporters who argued cleverly. It was not before the mid-16th century that it was replaced by rivalling philosophical theories.

University of Würzburg

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