Greek Civilization

views updated


The rapid expansion of the Islamic empire led to its speedy contact with a cultural world heavily marked by Greek thought. Greek civilization had spread throughout the urban areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula, and it was reflected in the relatively high standards of living and education, for at least a portion of the citizens. When the Arabs came to confront this culture, they might have rejected it totally and sought to destroy it. After all, it was a culture that rested on unbelief, from an Islamic perspective, and whose practitioners were ethnically quite distinct from the Arabs themselves. In the early Middle Ages, however, there was an attempt to understand and learn from the Greek-influenced cultures, and to use that knowledge to improve the delivery of the Islamic message itself. Several theories could explain this. It could be because the new rulers were intent on obeying those parts of the Qur˒an that recommend toleration of divergent points of view, at least when held by other people of the book; it could have been because Islam was not at this stage confident enough to alienate those under its recent control; or it could be that the Muslims were impressed by the level of wealth and culture that they observed and sought to emulate it by coming to grips with its basis in Greek culture.

A very practical issue that soon faced the Muslims was the need to argue with their new subjects, since the issue of conversion was a live one. Yet the non-Muslims were often far better at disputation than the Muslims, given their long practice of rhetoric and logic. The ancient Greeks had developed the art of disputation to a very high degree, and this continued to be studied and practiced by their successors in the Middle East. Perhaps even more significantly, the Greeks had developed a sophisticated scientific system, not only one that was theoretically rich in its understanding of how the universe might operate, but also a system that was capable of making a very substantial practical contribution to everything from how to design cities to how to cure (or at least alleviate symptoms of) a variety of diseases. Clearly any rational ruler was going to avail himself of this intellectual largesse if he could, and the Muslims certainly took advantage of what they found in their new territories.

The first step that needed to be taken was to rapidly translate Greek texts, often via Syriac (a Semitic language like Arabic). It was an expensive and time-consuming process carried out largely by Christian translators. The Abbasid caliph al-Ma˒mun founded in 832 c.e. the House of Wisdom (an institution where translators and collectors of Greek and Syriac manuscripts could cooperate; bayt al-hikma), and its scale is an indication of the importance with which the rulers of the time regarded Greek thought. The availability of Greek texts in Arabic formed the basis of what came to be a very rich tradition of Islamic philosophy, which continued in the Arabic world until the twelfth century as philosophy, and that was to enjoy an even longer life in the Persian world, where philosophy continued to be studied and written for far longer. The problems that philosophy met in the Arabic-speaking world owed much to its Greek, and hence non-Muslim, origins. There was a prolonged campaign by many thinkers to oppose the use of Greek-inspired thought, from Abu Sa˓id al-Sirafi (893–979) to al-Ghazali (1058–1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Interestingly, the arguments against Greek thought often employed Greek mechanisms and so could be representative of Greek civilization's ultimate success in the Islamic world.

In some parts of the Islamic world such as al-Andalus (the Iberian peninsula) there was a particularly happy combination of Greek thought and Islam, resulting in a great outburst of science and culture generally. There is much evidence that the intellectual wealth thus produced had as a side-effect considerable material wealth, and certainly during this period the Islamic world was far more advanced than Christian Europe. It may be significant that Christian Europe during the early Middle Ages had only a limited supply of Greek texts, and indeed only acquired any significant degree of these when they were translated out of Arabic into Latin (often via Hebrew).

It is sometimes argued that the Islamic world was not able to make creative use of Greek thought, merely being transmitters of Greek civilization. This is plainly false, as a great number of original and innovative theories came out of the Islamic world, and the Greeks were not the only group to make a contribution to the culture of the Islamic world, since the role of the Indians within Islamic life deserves careful consideration.

In a whole range of disciplines such as mathematics, astronomy, chemistry—and, of course, philosophy—Greekinspired thought was the catalyst for a creative outburst. In what are today not regarded as respectable sciences, alchemy and astrology, Greek thought played an even more important role. Greek thought affected the paradigmatically Islamic sciences of theology and law that came to acquire many of the techniques and principles used in Greek thought. Finally, the Islamic adab tradition of literature was also influenced by the Greeks. There were many editions of books that contained "wisdom" literature of the Greeks, chiefly consisting of aphorisms often incorrectly attributed to thinkers like Socrates. Despite the questionable sources the wisdom literature was probably widely read and certainly had an effect on the notion of what constituted style in literature. Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani's collections of wisdom literature were particularly widely distributed from the tenth century onward. In short, it is difficult to find an aspect of Islamic civilization that was not affected by the Greeks.

Another area of thought where Greek civilization played a notable part was the development of political thought. The idea of a ruler who combines the roles of legislator, thinker, and religious authority was constructed by adding Islam to Plato, as it were, proving to be a very fruitful way of analyzing the state and the nature of political authority. The description of the state as organic in Plato's Republic fit in nicely with the Islamic notion of the state being necessarily structured in terms of a religious doctrine, where every individual has a role that satisfies higher purposes than merely providing him with particular benefits and duties. It was not difficult to add to the characteristics of the ruler the status of prophecy, or intermediary between the community and the Prophet, and this enables the state to claim a higher purpose than merely assuring the material welfare of its members. Even long after the direct influence of Greek thought disappeared from the Islamic world, this theme in political thought continued and flourished.

See alsoAfrica, Islam in ; Americas, Islam in the ; Falsafa ; Islam and Other Religions ; South Asia, Islam in ; Southeast Asia, Islam in .


Abed, Shukri. Aristotelian Logic and the Arabic Language in Alfarabi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Gutas, Dimitri. Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition: Introduction to the Reading of Avicenna's Works. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988.

Leaman, Oliver. "Philosophical and Scientific Achievements in Islamic History." In Intellectual Traditions in Islam. Edited by Farhad Daftary. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

Leaman, Oliver. Introduction to Classical Islamic Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Leaman, Oliver, eds. History of Islamic Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Peters, Francis E. Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam. New York: New York University Press, 1968.

Walzer, Richard. Greek into Arabic: Essays on Islamic Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Bruno Cassirer, 1962.

Oliver Leaman