The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4


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Arabian Thought

Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician and herself a woman of great ability was murdered by a mob of monks at Alexandria in 414 A. D., and from this date until the sixteenth century science was held in servile subjection wherever the Church empire extended, but here and there, especially in Africa and about the library of Alexandria, the knowledge of the ancient thought still lingered on. In A. D. 638 the Mohammedans swept over Egypt and the next year burnt the Alexandrian library, but after the first onset of the conquest they settled down into the permanent inhabitants of the land and became the patrons of the learning that had been preserved by the Nestorian Christians and the Jews. Soon the Arabian schools of Bagdad, Cairo, Salerno, and Cordova became famous throughout the world. Jewish physicians now and then brought a knowledge of medicine and alchemy into Christian countries, and although there was never close enough touch between the Christian and Mohammedan worlds for the lands under the Church to reap the full benefit of Arabian knowledge or even to begin their enlightenment, when the time came for it, at the point where the Mohammedans left off, yet it is certain that the Arabians and the Jews flourishing under them preserved for the world much that would otherwise have been lost, besides themselves making discoveries of importance.

Much of the effort of the period was expended in attempting to make gold out of baser metals, but it must not be forgotten that this alchemy was the forerunner of modern chemistry.

Geber, as we call him, or with a closer approximation to the Arabian, Djafer, was born about 830 A. D. in Mesopotamia. He noted the method of destillation and called the gas arising from the heated substances the spirit of the substance. He discovered that iron, when heated, weighs more than before. He found the method of sublimation by heat to drive the mercury out of cinnabar in gaseous form and collected it when cooled. He made the first strong acids, nitric by distilling copperas with salpetre and alum, and sulphuric by distilling alum. Before his time vinegar seems to have been the strongest acid known. He may be said to be the founder of chemistry, although it must be understood that the subject was not put on a scientific basis until the time of Lavoisier.

In their study of the stars the Arabians were too deeply concerned with their supposed influence upon the lives of mortals, and got their astronomy badly mixed up with astrology. In this field they seem to have done little more than to preserve the work of the Greeks from distruction, although Albategnuis, born about 879 A. D., was able to calculate the year with greater exactness than Ptolemy.

Ben Muss, born about 900 A. D., gave to mathematics one of its greatest boons by introducing the method of calculating by letters, that is, algebra. He also used the Indian numerals, and they were afterward introduced into Christian Europe by Gerbert, afterward Pope Sylvester the Second, who had learned them while a student at Cordova.

Alhazen was born about 1000 A. D. His great work was done in optics. He was the first to teach that we see things because rays of light come from them to the eye, and made as good a guess as has ever been made to explain on what condition we see but one object with the two eyes, saying the images must fall in the corresponding parts of the two retinas. He also noted the refraction of light in passing through water or denser air and used his discovery to show that we see the sun before it really rises above our horizon in the morning and after it sets below it at night. He discovered, too, that convex lenses make objects appear larger. This was the first step toward spectacles and the telescope, but the Turks soon afterwards became the ruling power in the Mohammedan world, and scientific investigation fell under the ban even in Spain and Africa, so that itremained for others five centuries later to follow his work to its logical conclusion.

Most of the Arabian scientists were physicians, and many of the physicians of the time were Jews. In medicine the doctors kept alive the teachings of Galen, when in northern lands the art was lost amid superstition. We have already mentioned some of their discoveries in allied subjects: in medicine itself, however, they seem to have made little if any advance upon Graeco-Roman practice.

Looking back upon the science of the Mohammedans, it will be seen that they laid the first foundations of chemistry, and made important advances in mathematics and optics. Their discoveries never had the influence they should have had upon the course of European civilization, but this was because Europe itself was not enlightened enough to grasp and make use of them. Geber’s observation that oxidized iron weighs heavier than before oxidation had to be made over again. So had some of their work in optics, and many of their geographical discoveries. They had rounded Africa long before Vasco da Gama. The composition of gunpowder came into Northern Europe from them. We must never forget that the dark ages in Christian Europe were the bright ones of the Mohammedan world.

In the field of philosophy the Arabs started by adopting the neo-Platonism they found in Egypt, and gradually working back to Aristotle.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina), the son of a Persian Mohammedan, lived between 980 A. D. and 1037 A. D. He was very precocious as a child, and when seventeen was the physician of the King of Bokhara. The king’s library was burned, and as he was accused of setting fire to it in order to keep the knowledge it contained secret, he began a wandering life, from which he took service first under Shems ed-Daula, and finally under the Prince of Ispahan, the enemy of the successor of Shems ed-Daula. He wrote many works, notably the Canon, the medical encyclopedia of the age. In philosophy he gave an exposition of Aristotle from the point of view of a mystical neo-Platonist. He believed in the eternity of the universe, the immortality of the soul, and its evolution up to God, and held to the freedom of the will in spite of the fact that he maintained that man’s intelligence is the result of his possessing something of the universal active intellect of the world. He wore out his body by debauches extending far into the night, but just before his death he repented of his excesses, and died in the Mohammedan faith.

Avicebron was one of the many Jews that during the Middle Ages lent a lustre to Arabian civilization. He was born in Cordova, Spain, about 1028 A.D. Little is known of his life, but although he died in 1058 A. D. at about the age of thirty, yet he had found time to make himself known both as poet (Ibn Gabriol) and philosopher. In philosophy he was a neo-Platonist, but in tracing the emanation from God down to things he introduces one new idea: below God he places Will, then Original Matter, Form, Intelligence, Soul, and Nature, and makes the Will of God, by the light of which Matter and Form seek God, and which unites them, the cause of the world. The following is his statement of his idea, as taken from the Fountain of Life:—

"Everything that exists tries to evolve higher in the desire of obtaining some of the virtue of the Prime Mover. The closer it is to the Prime Essence, the more readily it attains this object, and the further away the more slowly and with the greater difficulty. This movement of matter and other things is only the desire and love (of a lover) for the mover toward which it moves [cf. Aristotle], as for instance, matter rises toward Form, because of its love for the Prime Essence: for matter seeks the light that is in the nature of Will, and this compels matter to desire Will and seek it: in this point Will and matter are harmonious. Hence the desire for the First Mover is an harmony between the First Maker and all substances, because it is in the nature of everything to seek the highest…. All these movements come from the Will; thus all things are kept in motion by the Will, the same as the soul causes rest or motion in the body in accordance with its will. These movements differ in proportion to the distance of things below the Will. Take away this movement-causing character of the Will and it becomes the same as the Prime Essence, but with it, it is different. Thus Will is the painter of forms on a tablet, matter is the tablet. Will unites Form and matter, and diffuses itself throughout all matter as the soul throughout the body. As the power of the sun, radiating its light, yet remains in its rays, and is diffused with them into the air, so the power of the Will is united [to some extent] with the form it impresses on things and enters things with it. Hence, the First Cause is in all things, and there is nothing apart from it. The Will unifies everything by means of Form, and thus we say that Form is the uniter of all things, but Form is really intermediate between Will and matter, taking [the Divine Essence]from Will and handing it down to matter. Moreover, Will acts without motion nor in time, through its very nature. If the soul and intellect act without loss of time or if light thus diffuses itself, far more so does Will. Creation is produced from the Prime Mover, but is an emanation, such as the flow of water from its fountain; but while water follows after water in time, even though without intermission, creation is entirely without movement or time. The production off Form in matter, as the Form is diffused from the Will, is like the reflection of Form in a mirror."

Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was born at Cordova, Spain, 1126 A. D. He studied the entire circle of the science and thought of the time and continued to receive high honors from the khalifs until late in life, when the fanatical party came into power, and he was banished to the Jewish town Lacena on the charge of holding views contrary to religion. This was in 1195. In 1197 he was partially restored to honor, but died in 1198 at Marocco. In philosophy he was, like Ibn Sina, a commentator on Aristotle, and, like him, held to the doctrines of the eternity of the universe and the identity of the universal intelligence in man. With Moses Maimonides, who combined Jewish theology with Aristotelian philosophy, Averroes closes the list of the great thinkers of the Arabian civilization. Just as they rose to where they could appreciate the best of Greek philosophy, religious fanaticism put its blight on thought.


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Chicago: "Arabian Thought," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 278–281. Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: . "Arabian Thought." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 278–281. Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Arabian Thought' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.278–281. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from