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  The historical reference point of scientific Arab medicine comes mainly from Greek sources with some additional influence from Persia (Hitti 254).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).



Here’s part two of an essay on the historical emergence of Islam. Part I HERE

The Bedouin lifestyle, the pre-Islamic religious make-up of the peninsula, and the Bedouin penchant for language all helped to pave the way for the message of Muhammad.  The close societal bonds of Islam cemented support around the cause of Allah.  This galvanization led to the spread of Islam.  As the belief in Muhammad’s prophecy grew, he moved into the role of statesman establishing a grip over the region previously not seen.  In A.D. 624, Muhammad led a group of three hundred Muslims to his first decisive military victory over a group of one thousand men from Mecca (Hitti 116).  It was at this moment that Islam passed from being a religion to being a state in itself (Hitti 117). This led to two decisive things:  Islam became Arabianized, and it became nationalized breaking completely away from any connection to either Judaism and Christianity (Hitti 118).  This religion would now be the religion of the Arabs.  It would be their own.  Muhammad was not the first who tried to join the tribes of the region into a unified nation.  A group called the Kindah had previously attempted to unite the tribes of Arabia which helped set a clear precedent for Muhammad (Hitti 86).  But where the Kindah failed, Muhammad succeeded.  Muhammad’s simple, religious and unifying message tapped into the unique characteristics of the region.  As soon as he had military victories behind him, many other outlying regions would quickly fall under the new Islamic influence.

By the time of Muhammad’s birth, the southern part of Arabia was already in decline as Romans controlled shipping in the Red Sea (Hitti 64-65).  It is easy to see how the Roman presence could have persuaded the outer regions of the peninsula to succumb to the pressure to accept Islam.  For in doing so, they would be paying tribute to other Arabs not foreigners.   Many tribes joined the new Islamic state for convenience sake (Hitti 119).  It would have been more convenient to become part of an Islamic Arab brotherhood than to fight for independence and possibly be at the mercy of other non-Islamic peoples such as the Romans, the Jews or the Christians.  The Medina based Islamic state would be satisfied as long as the newly acquired territories would make a profession of faith to Allah and agree to pay a poor tax (Hitti 119).  Peace came to the peninsula through the unifying nature of Islam.

Likewise, the spread of Islam into the more western regions of the peninsula was often due to the fact that the Semite people of the region could identify themselves more with Arabs than with other foreign entities they came in contact with (Hitti 143).  In the century following Muhammad’s death, Islam spread quickly through many different military campaigns into much of western Asia and North Africa.  But as Arab historian Philip Hitti states, it was Arabianism that triumphed first before Muhammadism (145).   This demonstrates a crucial point.  The cultural message that the conquerors brought was perhaps at first more important than the religious message.  The outlying regions were happy to be part of Islam for the economic benefits if not the religious ideals (Hitti 144). Practicality was often the linchpin swaying cities or regions to pay tribute.

Islam certainly became a rallying cry of the region and a unifying voice that previously did not exist in western Asia and North Africa.  The Arabs were ready and receptive to the message of Muhammad because of the cultural, religious, and economic characteristics of the time period.  Certainly Muhammad was a man of great influence and unique insight whose religious zeal fortunately landed him in the right place at the right time.


Works Cited

Hitti, Philip K.  History of the Arabs. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002. Print.














A Short Essay on Arab History

Below is an excerpt of an essay I wrote which highlights some of the historical background of the Arab world which helps to define the modern relationships between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. As always, please ask for full documentation if you need it.

Islam was the dominant religious, cultural, and military force during its first several hundred years of existence, but the progressive features which brought Islam prominence began to stagnate and decline significantly as Europe began experiencing the profound changes of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  The Ottoman Empire, the last of the great Muslim empires, increasingly looked westward for answers to the problems that ailed them.  By the 18th century, the Ottomans had broken away from the traditional Islamic methods of war-making and started using both western weapons and western military training methods (Lewis 20). This was a major shift away from previous centuries when anything derived from the infidel was considered inferior.  Eventually, some religious authorities began to soften their stance by endorsing the imitation of certain infidel methods in order to better fight against them (Lewis 43).  However, this radical shift in policy did nothing to stop the encroachment of the Christian West.  By 1783, Russia had annexed Crimea making it the first time in history that a Muslim land was lost to Christian rule (Lewis 21).  The West’s influence became an overwhelming and dominant force which the Muslim world could do very little to stop.

For centuries, the Arab Muslim world believed that they had nothing to learn from the West. This resulted in European nations setting up permanent embassies and consulates in Arab lands, but the Arabs never reciprocated (Lewis 26).  European powers experienced an injection of new wealth and opportunities by the exploration of the New World while the Arab world, who had their own impressive history of exploration, sat quietly content in isolation.  The rest of the world began passing the Arabs in scientific discoveries, exploration, and military development.  Napoleon’s foray into Egypt painfully drove home the point that “European power [could] come and act at will” and the Arab Muslims could do nothing to stop them (Lewis 31). This must have been a humbling conclusion that was to be realized over and over again during the 19th and 20th centuries as Muslims began succumbing to the adaptation of many features of modern western society.

Modernization pushed Arab Muslims in ways that traditionally would have been unthinkable.  Traditional Muslim society knew nothing of western ways, western languages, and western knowledge.  It was extremely rare to have a Muslim travel into a foreign land.  In fact, the classical religious interpretation was that it was not possible for a Muslim to live a good Muslim life in an infidel land (Lewis 36).  However, modernization required more contact with westerners which meant Arab Muslims began learning European languages, spending extended time in European cities, and even sending Muslim students to study abroad (Lewis 40, 43).

As Islam’s influence declined, many Arab Muslims began looking for new fixes in the form of old remedies and traditional ways.  Throughout the Muslim world, voices arose that wanted to remove the vestiges of secularism that had crept into the laws and customs of the Arab lands; many believed these laws had been imposed by western imperialists and misguided native reformers who had been pulled away from God’s true law (Lewis 105). One of these emerging voices in the 20th century was a brand of Islam steeped in an ultra-orthodox interpretation of the Koran called Wahhabism which focuses on remaining pure in one’s faith and staying away from corrupting influences.  Wahhabism most likely would not have amounted to anything significant except for its fortuitous connection that it had with the House of Saud (Denoeux 60).  After Arabia was unified in 1932, Wahhabism became Saudi Arabia’s “state-sanctioned ideology and code of behavior” which has greatly influenced religious schools and religious teaching throughout the world (Denoeux 60-61).  Wahhabism gave birth to Islamism and other brands of fundamentalism which all criticized the modern influences affecting Islam.  Islamists were typically western educated professionals, who criticized the political and cultural influences of the west and looked to change things through political power (Denoeux 61,63).  Fundamentalists primarily concerned themselves with morality and personal behavior while arguing for the strict implementation of sharia law (Denoeux 64).  More recently, the jihadist label has been used to describe those who want to fight a holy war against the enemies from within and without who have corrupted the message of Islam (Denoeux 69).

All of these modern labels merely point to a similar conclusion – the western world has corrupted Islam by cultural and military imperialism.  Though the goals and remedies of these competing factions vary, they all are calling for some form of purification in which the true law of Islam can be followed and the glory of Islam’s past restored.