Arab Achievements & the Convergence of Cultures (Part I)

During the first few centuries after Muhammad’s death, the Muslim Arab culture converged with many ancient people groups in and around the Arabian Peninsula.  This diverse Arab population accomplished many achievements in both the sciences and humanities which in turn influenced vast regions for many centuries to come.  Among the many significant Arab achievements, it can be difficult to separate that which was truly original to the Arabs from that which was derived from their Greek, Roman, and Persian forerunners.   Arab achievements were derived from a combination of original research accomplished by a very diverse group of Muslim Arabs and from a diffusion of knowledge from other sources.

One of the important reasons that foreign influences became building blocks for many Arab achievements is that there were many adjacent regions which quickly accepted Islamic religion.  Those regions had preexisting contact with other cultures which contributed to the wealth of knowledge of the Arabs.  When looking at Arab achievements, one cannot look only at the Arabian Peninsula but must acknowledge the wide range of influences and cultures from people spread over North Africa, Europe and the Middle East who likewise made contributions.  This diversity is what makes Arab history so rich.  As Islam spread in the seventh and eighth centuries, the term Arab was taking on a new meaning less defined by ethnicity and more defined by religion and common culture.   An Arab became known to be anyone who spoke Arabic and professed Islam as their religion (Hitti 240).  The contributions of an Egyptian scholar, a Persian doctor, and a Christian mathematician during the time of the caliphate would all fall into the category of Arab achievements (Hitti 240).  The Greek and Roman influences from the west would converge with the Persian and Indian influences from the east.  The total body of work in numerous fields of study that make up the historical achievements of the Arab world depended both on original thought and knowledge learned from elsewhere.

Medical advances seen during the first two centuries of the Islamic era were significant in several respects.  The historical reference point of scientific Arab medicine comes mainly from Greek sources with some additional influence from Persia (Hitti 254).  Using this knowledge, Arabs made significant and original strides in the area of the development of drugs and community hygiene.   In the eighth and ninth centuries, Arabs established the very first apothecary, the first school of pharmacy, and the first encyclopedia of pharmacy (Hitti 364).  Arab physicians would travel to different places administering drugs to the sick; they would visit jails to treat prisoners; they demonstrated knowledge about and a concern for public hygiene that was simply unknown to the rest of the world at that time (Hitti 364-365).  An Arab also produced the chief source of chemical knowledge known to the world which stood unsurpassed until the fourteenth century (Hitti 366).  While the original medical contributions of the Arab world were truly impressive, what may have been their most influential medical achievement was to preserve this medical knowledge in encyclopedic form.  In the tenth century, the Persian al-Razi produced a ten volume encyclopedia of medical knowledge which greatly influenced the Latin West for many centuries; this series of books contained an exhaustive picture of medieval medical knowledge which was attained from Greek, Persian, and Hindu sources (Hitti 366-367).

In addition to medicine, Arab scholars and researchers produced an impressive amount of original research in various scientific fields.  In mathematics, the Arabs were influenced by the Hindu number system and the concept of zero (Hitti 378).  The Arabs built upon this knowledge to produce concepts and treatises that would influence many parts of the world including Europe and Asia.  Arabic numerals and algorithms found their way westward into Europe; in fact, a translated Arab mathematics text introduced algebra to Europe and became their principal mathematics textbook until the sixteenth century (Hitti 379).  Other significant scientific achievements by the Arab world included the introduction of the objective experiment which significantly improved Greek experimental models (Hitti 380).


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