Skip to main content

Communication of Ideas: Middle East and Abroad

Communication of Ideas: Middle East and Abroad

The great continental Eurasian landmass, with its vast steppes stretching east to west in a more or less uniform climatic belt, has been a useful path for the transit of ideas and techniques throughout history, with what is now the Arab world as the fulcrum of the exchange between China and Europe. Over roughly the first thirteen or fourteen centuries of the Common Era, there was a slow, steady diffusion of ideas and, particularly, technology from East to West.

The Ancient Near East

The administration of large political entities, whether kingdoms or empires, required skills in writing and numeracy for administrative purposes, so that the ruler's writ could be understood by his officials and communicated throughout the land. In ancient empires there was a priestly monopoly on secular, as well as esoteric, knowledge. In societies whose cultural "memory" was limited by their inability to store large quantities of data in archives, the centralization of all knowledge was no doubt functional. Monopoly of knowledge was based on stone (later papyrus) and pictographs in Egypt, clay tablets and cuneiform in Mesopotamia. Difficult scripts were ultimately a constraint on both governance and trade, so expanding empires required conventionalization of the written language.

Conquest, in turn, involved the mixing of languages and writing systems. The Sumerians had a word-value writing system, while that of the Akkadians was based on syllable values. Simplification of writing was paired with the adoption of the sexagesimal counting system in the centralized bureaucracy established by Hammurabi (17921750 b.c.e.; Old Assyrian Empire, 18001375 b.c.e.). The sexagesimal system had been passed on after 2000 b.c.e. from the Sumerians to the Babylonians and Assyrians, "together with their cuneiform script, which they adapted to their Semitic languages" (van der Waerden, p. 667).

The alphabet was invented by Semitic peoples, possibly in Palestine, on the fringes of the Babylonian and Egyptian empires before 1500 b.c.e., and perfected along the Phoenician coast. The alphabet formed part of an integrated writing system that came to include papyrus and the reed pen. Two families of script emerged: one Phoenician (reflecting demands of maritime trade and an alphabet that could be used with papyrus), the other Aramaic (responding to demands of land-based trade and, possibly, the use of parchment). The alphabet was flexible, and it favored the growth of trade and the rise of cities. Extensive oral traditions of the ancient Jews and Egyptians now could be written down. The written letter replaced the graven image. The ban on graven images in Judaism (and, later, in Islam) may well reflect ancient rivalries with peoples whose writing systems were based on pictographs.

The centralization of power (Assyrians, then Persians) involved problems of communication and transportation, both of which were reflected in administrative capacity (the ability to move documents over space) and continuity (the ability to store documents over time). Laws and edicts had to be delivered to provincial governors and also stored over time in a central archive to promote continuity and stability, both in administration and in law.

Conquest has always been a powerful means of cultural diffusion. When the Persians conquered Egypt in 525 b.c.e., they set off a century of intense cultural exchange. Babylonian astrology may have first reached Egypt then (Parker, p. 723). Conquest also had systemic effects on language use. The Roman conquest (and doubtless that of the Arabs later on) had the effect of destroying oral cultures and replacing them by a more standardized written one. This has been a constant of Middle Eastern history.

Ease of communication meant that there were continuous or intermittent cultural exchanges over long periods of time between the same places, in both directions. Thus, Indian mathematical astronomy received a constant infusion of new ideas from the West: in the fifth century b.c.e. from Mesopotamia via Persia; in the second and third century c.e. from Mesopotamia via Greece; in the fourth century c.e. directly from Greece; in the tenth through the eighteenth centuries from Persia; in the nineteenth century from England. In the first three transmissions, the Indians got theory that was either out-of-date in its country of origin or else was deviant, so there was virtually no reflection of Ptolemaic astronomy in India until the seventeenth century (Pingree, p. 533). At the same time that elements of Greek astronomy reached India, the Arabs introduced Indian astronomical tables in the Middle East and adopted their format.

Medieval Communication and Transportation

The East-to-West process of diffusion picked up pace subsequent to the Islamic conquests, when the Islamic world acquired (in the words of Joseph Needham) "a focal character in the process of diffusion." The innovations diffused included a package of Indian crops and the irrigation technologies needed to grow them in arid or semiarid environments that the Arabs recognized as comprising a distinctively Indian style of agriculture, which they called filaha hindiyya (Indian agriculture). The package included the noria (an animal-powered water-lifting wheel), and a whole roster of crops including sugar cane, rice, citrus trees, and the watermelon. From Persia came the qanat or filtration gallery (a way of tapping water for irrigation that became attached to the Indian package), perhaps the windmill, the artichoke, and the eggplant. China was the most fecund source of technological innovation (paper, block printing with a press, the compass, gunpowder, to name only the most salient). The agents of diffusion were varied, mostly merchants and soldiers fulfilling their characteristic historical role as bearers of new ideas, but agricultural innovations were typically borne by folk migrations of tribal segments or clans, such as those who left Arabia in the seventh century and whose children and grandchildren settled in Islamic Spain, where they introduced Indian-style agriculture.

The Silk Road was an overland caravan system (with a number of auxiliary sea routes via India) that brought silk from China to Mesopotamia or the Roman frontier around the first century c.e., and to Baghdad after the Arab conquests. Not much merchandise besides silk was carried because there was little demand in China for Western products, with some exceptions such as Roman glassware. However, once established, the route became a conduit for the spread of ideas and techniques. Medieval Arab and European travelers (for example, ibn Battuta [13041365] and Marco Polo [12541324]) used it, as did merchants, and some specific Chinese techniques, such as textile machinery, are known to have reached Europe via the Silk Road. Chess is thought to have been a diversion perfected by Muslim Silk Road merchants. Persian merchants bore ideas to and from China to Persia from the fifth through the tenth centuries.

Richard Bulliet describes a reciprocal relationship between the decline of Roman roads and the introduction of the camel. Camels do not need paved roads. The Muslim conquest represented, in its early centuries, the dominance of nomads over settled areas, made possible by the adoption of the North Arabian camel saddle. Once the dominance was established, a decisive cost factor (20 percent) over shipping by wagon quickly led to the disappearance of wheeled vehicles in most areas of the Islamic world. Roman roads were already in decline and the caravan routes that replaced them were shortened long-distance overland trade routes because wheeled vehicles required fairly gentle gradients (following the crest lines of ridges rather than heading straight across valleys). With respect to trade, caravan routes were linked to overseas trading networks, forming a great web for the transportation of goods that knit together the "world economy" of the Islamic Empire. Trade over long distances led to the invention in the Islamic world of methods of business organization and credit that later were adopted, first in Italian commercial ventures, then those of other European countries: the partnership among merchants, called commenda in medieval Europe, was known in the Arab world of Muhammad (Arabic, shirka, "partnership") and the European bill of exchange was modeled on the Arabic suftaya, the check on Arabic sakk (both conceptually and etymologically). The Muslim world economy functioned as a kind of free-trade zone (propitious as well for the transfer of ideas and techniques), powered by the gold dinar and the silver dirham.

Medieval Translation Movements

The great translation movement that began in ninth-century Baghdad displays an overall pattern quite similar to that of the westward movement of technology from China, India, and Persia. The movement began through an internal mechanism: the Sassanid kings of Persia (224651 c.e.), whose mantle of authority and legitimation the Arab Abbasid caliphs (7501256 c.e.) sought, had maintained a palace library and manuscript copying office whose task was to carry out an ideological precept of the Sassanid state, which was that Persian and other ancient lore should be preserved in a central place. One of Persian kingship's claims to legitimation was that it was the guardian of knowledge. Under Arab rule, this palace library, with the same task, was known as the Dar al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). The Abbasids clothed this preexisting rationale with a geopolitical cloak: its message to both the Persian elites to the East of Baghdad and the Greek-speaking masses to the West was that the caliphate was the only legitimate heir to their respective cultural traditions. Thus did the entire extant corpus of Greek wisdom come to be translated into Arabic; to it were added, in particular, Persian and Indian components. Among the latter was a family of celestial charts that, when coupled with Ptolemy's theoretical astronomy, laid the basis for medieval Arab, and later Latin, astronomy, which, along with Indian numerals (including the zero) and the place-value system, formed the core of the medieval scientific achievement.

This scientific movement, based at first on translation and the retrieval of ancient lore, was an epiphenomenon of the ease of communication within the Eurasian landmass, facilitated by the political unity provided by the Islamic empire of the early Middle Ages. Travel for the sake of knowledge (Arabic, alrihla fi-talab al-'ilm ) was characteristic of both Muslim and Jewish scholars, who traveled from one end of the Islamic world to the other in order to study the religious and secular sciences with famous teachers.

The assimilation of knowledge originating in cultures different from that of the core society always involves not only a range of linguistic problems associated with translation but also culturally rooted conceptual problems. Among all the peoples involved in medieval "translation movements" (Greek and Persian into Arabic, Arabic into Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, and European vernacular languages), there was a fairly standard debate about the relative merits of literal versus free translation (Latin, ad verbum and ad sensum, respectively). In some cases, defective texts bearing alien conceptions were passed along in the most literal fashion possible in order to preserve what sense there was. Such was the case of Aristotle's Posterior Analytics (350 b.c.e.), which survived in the form of student notes and which, having passed through an Arabic translation, became one of the keystones of scientific method in both medieval Islam and Europe. The Arabs also had conceptual difficulties with Aristotle's Poetics (350 b.c.e.), much of which presumes familiarity with drama, because there was no such literary tradition in their culture. In the case of alchemy, a series of translation errors that confused the color gold with the metal, dating to classical antiquity, led to an increasingly esoteric body of knowledge that, at each successive step, compounded the error.

Once a core of science existed in Arabic, it was then diffused again in both directions from Islamic civilization through the Eurasian plain, eastward to China and westward, through Sicily and Spain, to Latin Europe. Arab astronomy (and its practical side, astrology) reached Latin Europe in the early twelfth century, several decades after the Christian conquest of Toledo (1085), and reached China about a century later. The Chinese founded observatories and staffed them with Muslim personnel. Interest in both East and West was preeminently practical: astronomical calculation of calendars and the practice of "political astrology," the assessment of favorable times for military, political, and economic activities.

When one considers the relative importance of oral versus written culture in the communication of knowledge, perhaps one can profitably begin with the case of mathematics (which has the advantage of reducing ideological issues to a minimum). Even after the reception of Indian calculation (hisab al-hind ) in the Arabic-speaking world, calculation (among merchants, for example) continued to utilize hand signals. If the intermediate steps were written, a dust board (the original sense of abacus ) was used, then erased, and the results were often written down in alphanumeric form. So in mathematics and commerce there was always a range of media available and, in practice, they were mixed according to various utilitarian principles. Similar mixes of oral and written culture were probably equally useful in other areas of human experience.

The game of chess originated in India, and was then cultivated in Persia, the immediate sources of the Arabic game al-Shatranj. It followed the same path of diffusion westward as did Indian astronomy and mathematics and had the same audience, namely educated people attracted to mathematics and logic. The first technical treatises on chess in Arabic appeared in the ninth century. There was also a popular variant of the game that was astronomical in nature, played on a round board divided into the twelve houses of the zodiac. Part of the reason that chess was popular among Muslims and Jews is that gambling was forbidden by both religions, an example of a cultural stimulus to the adoption of an innovation.

Paper and Literacy

The culturewide significance of media of communication can be appreciated from the example of paper. Paper reached the Arabs in 751 c.e. when they conquered Turkistan and found Chinese papermakers there: "It is stated that craftsmen from China made [paper] in Khurasan like the form of Chinese paper" (Ibn al-Nadim, I, 3940). The technique reached Iraq in the precise moment that the Abbasids were consolidating power, with administrative as well as cultural consequences. The caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786809 c.e.) instituted the first of several bureaucratic reforms based on the use of paper. The chemistry associated with the fabrication and use of paper and inks reflects a characteristic mix of Indian, Persian, Greek, and Babylonian elements that appears in the movement of translation, especially early Arab alchemy. With an administrative reform of the early tenth century, all Abbasid edicts had to be copied on paper for provincial governors and for preservation in registers. Thus, paper was crucial to administrative expansion and bureaucratic consolidation, giving the Abbasids an augmented capacity for governing far-flung provinces effectively.

Paper was associated with a vertical mill, whereby a water wheel turns a horizontal axis fitted with hammers. Paper was one element in a unified set of Chinese technologies that diffused simultaneously westward along with the mill type: preparation of different kinds of oil, paper, sugar, indigo, lacquer, and teaall of which require pounding or maceration (Daniels, pp. 3039)bringing the paper and sugar industries to the Middle East simultaneously. The names al-Warraq (papermaker) and al-Sukkari (sugar maker) appear in ninth-century Iraq.

It is thought that, because of the democratizing effect of paper, literacy was more widespread in the Islamic world than in medieval Europe, where both writing (on parchment) and reading were the province of a small, mainly clerical elite. But the definition of literacy has recently broadened somewhat: a person may well have a piece of paper (a deed, a horoscope, a prescription) that cannot be completely read, but the contents are generally understood. There was a great deal of what might be called partial literacy, and many people who could read (at whatever level) could not write. The two skills were not as tightly linked as they have been in recent centuries. Among Muslims and Jews, reading in particular and, to a lesser degree, writing, were skills that were required for an ordinary religious life, dependent on mastery of scriptural and other religious texts (hadith, Talmud). The Cairo Geniza (a repository of tenth-century documents written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic) shows a certain democratization of ideas: almanacs, amulets, horoscopes, prescriptions, and other such quasi-scientific paraphernalia were widely circulated.

Sacred objects were visualized in different ways. Judaism and Islam were iconoclastic, the Persians less so, thus human figures adorn their manuscripts. But the Muslims liked other kinds of representations such as huge, ornately lettered Korans.

The Ottomans and Early Modernization

There was an eastward reflux of technological diffusion when Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain, the Jews in 1492 and the Moriscos, in a steady flow of emigrants from 1492 through the definitive expulsion of 1610. The Moriscos took back to North Africa a version of Indian agriculture (Arabic, filaha hindiyya ) updated especially with New World crops (maize, tomatoes, American beans, chili pepper, opuntia [cactus], and tobacco). The Ottomans (and the Mamlukes before them) received firearms from different sources, but the Moriscos diffused the Spanish approach to artillery. Ibrahim ibn Ahmad ibn Ghanim, a Morisco who had been an artilleryman in Spain, arrived in Tunis in 16091610 and wrote an influential artillery manual in Arabic, in great part paraphrased or translated from Luis Collado's Plática manual de artillería.

Spanish Jews introduced a new, modern textile industry, that of broadcloth, into the Ottoman Empire, the new cloth being the result of the introduction, from Spain, of a fulling mill that made for a stronger, cheaper brand of textile. A French traveler in Istanbul in the mid-sixteenth century remarked that the Marranos "were the men who have taught the Turks how to trade and to deal with those things that we use mechanically." In Cristóbal de Villalón's pseudonymous sixteenth-century Viaje de Turquia, the author explains that the Turkish artillery corps

had no masters to teach them (particularly how to mount pieces on carriages) until the Jews were thrown out of Spain. They showed them how, as well as how to fire muskets, to make forts and trenches, and whatever devices and strategies there are in war, because before they [the Turks] were no better than animals.

The report is exaggerated, but all the crafts of the Renaissance military engineer are represented. Giovanni Soranzo (doge of Venice, r. 131228) is said to have prevented the expulsion of the Jews from Venice in 1571 on the grounds that Jewish refugees from Spain had taught the Turks how to make cannons, cannonballs, and other armaments. That Jews had modernized medicine in the Ottoman Empire had become a cliché in European commentary by the eighteenth century. Villalón, referring to Jewish physicians in the Ottoman court, says they practiced there "almost by inheritance." Those physicians diffused a kind of compendium of late medieval European medicine.

The traditional culture of the Middle East also offered ample resistance to innovations: some opposed the telegraph because they supposed that spirits inhabited the wires. Jews or Christians generally established the first printing presses in the Ottoman Empire or Islamic world because Muslims had long opposed printing on religious grounds. The first government gazette in the Ottoman Empire appeared in Turkish and Arabic in 1867, the first newspaper, the following year (the first newspaper did not appear in Persia until 1935).


The predominant pattern of innovation in the nineteenth century was that the Ottomans filtered the European model of modernization and diffused specific techniques to selected sites in their empire. Centralization was the dominant political ideal associated with modernization. In terms of Arab society, this translated into bringing tribes under central control, which, in turn, involved a stepped-up military capacity and favored spatially unifying technologies such as the telegraph and the railroad. Bedouins realistically viewed the telegraph as an unwelcome government intrusion. The first Ottoman telegraph lines were built in 1855. Beirut was linked to Damascus in 1861 and to Istanbul two years later. Then Iraq was linked by telegraph to Istanbul, but also to India, a move that was thought to enhance the economic stability of the country (England pushed for this to enhance its control over India after the Mutiny of 18571859). Istanbul was linked to Arabia in 1901, complementing the Hijaz railroad, which linked Syria to Arabia. The telegraph and railroads were a unifying force economically (because they increased the volume of commerce in the towns and districts along their routes and in their termini) and politically. Because the Hijaz railroad carried pilgrims, it became a visible, material symbol of Pan-Islamism.

The telegraph and railroad were designed to reduce the time and distance factors across the great Eurasian landmass. Ottoman imperial administration differed in places that had the telegraph, where communication was instantaneous, and those that didn't, where it took days for dispatches to arrive, with palpable results in law enforcement, tax collection, price and wage regulation, and so forth. The telegraph was also a spur to democratization, as citizens used telegrams to petition the central government directly. As a result, the pace of innovation may have quickened, at least in cities, and selected rural economies certainly benefited. However, the deeper cultural manifestations of such technologies have yet to be explored.

Darwinian evolution illustrates how acceptance or resistance to modern scientific ideas was channeled along religious lines. The Syrian Protestant College in Beirut (later American University of Beirut) was famously a node of diffusion of Darwinism. The chief backer of Darwin there, Edwin Lewis, was fired for his efforts, but not before having passed the idea to students, mostly secular writers of Christian origin who continued their advocacy of Darwin in Lebanon and Egypt. Among Muslims, interestingly, Shiite theologians tended to have a more moderate view of evolution than did their Sunni counterparts. Religious opposition was uniformly based on scriptural authority, although moderate (generally Shiite) commentators stressed that there was no specific Koranic warrant to oppose the theory.

What explains the receptivity to innovation in the early Islamic world and the rejection of innovation in the modern Islamic world? Under what circumstances did Islam itself become a barrier to the diffusion of ideas and techniques? In the broadest possible terms, so long as a minority of Muslims ruled a majority of non-Muslims (a garrison state model), it was to the advantage of the rulers to be open to whatever innovations might increase their power and augment their prestige. Once Muslims were in a majority, a kind of cultural self-sufficiency set in, which turned the interests of the elite inward, toward refining the Islamic system, which was (in theory, at least) a kind of theocracy in which no distinction was made between religious and civil (legal) spheres and in which religious law regulated all aspects of daily life. Innovation was viewed as arbitrary, having no basis in recognized tenets of Islam. The traditional education system, mosque-based schools (madrasas ), never evolved into a system that could encompass exogenous elements. In such a cultural system, innovation is irrelevant. Bid'a (Arabic, "innovation") was held to be both good and bad, betraying ambivalence (at the least) toward innovation, and was invoked selectively against, for example, tobacco, coffee, and various aspects of modern science.

See also Diffusion, Cultural ; Education: Islamic Education ; Empire and Imperialism: Middle East ; Islam ; Islamic Science ; Trade .


Allsen, Thomas T. Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Bloom, Jonathan M. Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Bulliet, Richard W. The Camel and the Wheel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Daniels, Christian. "Sugarcane Technology." In Science and Civilisation in China, edited by Joseph Needham, vol. 6, part 3, 5539. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1997.

Glick, Thomas F. "Moriscos and Marranos as Agents of Technological Diffusion." History of Technology 17 (1995): 113125.

Glick, Thomas F., and Helena Kirchner. "Hydraulic Systems and Technologies of Islamic Spain: History and Archeology." In Working with Water in Medieval Europe: Technology and Resource-Use, edited by P. Squatriti, 267329. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

Gutas, Dmitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Ibn al-Nadim. The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture. 2 vols. Edited by Bayard Dodge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Innis, Harold A. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964.

Issawi, Charles. The Fertile Crescent, 18001914: A Documentary Economic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 1: Introductory Orientations. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1954.

Parker, Richard A. "Egyptian Astronomy, Astrology, and Calendrical Reckoning." In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles C. Gillespie, vol. 15, 706727. New York: Scribners, 19701978.

Pingree, David. "History of Mathematical Astronomy in India." In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles C. Gillespie, vol. 15, 531633. New York: Scribners, 19701978.

Rogan, Eugene. "Instant Communication: The Impact of the Telegraph in Ottoman Syria." In The Syrian Land: Processes of Integration and Fragmentation, edited by Thomas Philipp and Birgit Schaebler, 113128. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1998.

van der Waerden, B. L. "Mathematics and Astronomy in Mesopotamia." In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles C. Gillespie, vol. 15, 667680. New York: Scribners, 19701978.

Ziadet, Adel A. Western Science in the Arab World: The Impact of Darwinism, 18601930. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

Thomas F. Glick

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Communication of Ideas: Middle East and Abroad." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Communication of Ideas: Middle East and Abroad." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (August 18, 2018).

"Communication of Ideas: Middle East and Abroad." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.