Moors Transmit Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe

The Moors brought classical philosophy and medicine to Europe from their stronghold in Spain, sharing Muslim scholarship and classical philosophies with the Latin West and profoundly influencing medieval European intellectual development.

Summary of Event

Contact between the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus (661-750) and Hellenic centers such as Antioch, Alexandria, and Edessa most likely resulted in the first translations Translations;Greek to Arabic of Greek scientific and philosophical documents into Arabic. The succeeding ՙAbbāsid sultans moved the capital to Baghdad and undertook a systematic attempt to obtain and translate the major Greek philosophical works. Their dissemination throughout the Islamic world had a profound impact on Muslim theologians, philosophers, medical doctors, and scientists. In Moorish Spain, classical learning was interpreted and expanded on by Muslim scholars before the blended Greco-Muslim philosophy and science were dispersed throughout Europe. [kw]Moors Transmit Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe (c. 1150)
[kw]Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe, Moors Transmit (c. 1150)
Spain;c. 1150: Moors Transmit Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe[1910]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1150: Moors Transmit Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe[1910]
Philosophy;c. 1150: Moors Transmit Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe[1910]
Education;c. 1150: Moors Transmit Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe[1910]
Health and medicine;c. 1150: Moors Transmit Classical Philosophy and Medicine to Europe[1910]
Ibn Tufayl
Adelard of Bath

Interest in classical philosophy and medicine was initiated in Spain under its fifth Umayyad ruler, ՙAbd al-Raḥmān III al-Nāir ՙAbd al-Raḥmān III al-Nāṣir (r. 912-961). Early Andalusian scholarship benefited from the rivalry existing between its flourishing court and the waning ՙAbbāsid court of Baghdad in terms of the collecting of fine books and patronizing of Muslim intellectuals. Despite lengthy periods during which philosophy was viewed with disfavor by the successive Moorish courts, a number of Andalusian scholars visited the East and returned with books and ideas, thus preserving a level of intellectual unity throughout the Muslim world. Andalusia

The first significant writer in Spain on philosophical issues was Avempace Avempace (also known as Ibn Bajja of Saragossa), who drew acclaim and disciples by his work with Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ideas. His work and that of Ibn Tufayl Ibn Tufayl stimulated on a vast scale the interest of Andalusian scholars in classical learning.

This interest came to fruition in the person of Averroës Averroës , acknowledged as the greatest Muslim commentator on Aristotle’s works. Following his introduction to Caliph Abū Yaՙqūb Yūsuf Abū Yaՙqūb Yūsuf by Ibn Tufayl, Averroës was appointed as qadi (judge) of Seville and instructed to comment on the works of Aristotle, which the caliph found difficult to understand. During his remarkable career, he was promoted to the position of chief qadi at Córdoba and royal physician to the Córdoban court. Among his works, which attempted to harmonize philosophy and theological dogma, is his great philosophical rebuttal of the eastern Muslim philosopher al-Ghazzālī Ghazzālī, al- (1058-1111), Tahāfut at-tahāfut (c. 1174-1180; Incoherence of the Incoherence, 1954) Incoherence of the Incoherence (Averroës) . His work was to become highly regarded throughout the West, as evidenced by his inclusion among the masters of Hellenic thought in Raphael’s masterpiece School of Athens (1513), a Vatican fresco.

Averroës’s championing of genuine Aristotelianism Aristotle dichotomized philosophical pursuits in the western Muslim world from those in the East, which primarily endorsed the quasi-mystical illumination (ishraq) philosophy supported by Avicenna Avicenna . Yet Avicenna advanced Western knowledge in his own right, primarily by the dissemination of his medical treatises into Europe via Andalusia.

During the eighth century, a time when medicine in the Latin West was based largely on superstition, Muslim medicine was based on scientific method as inherited from classical works such as those by Hippocrates and Galen. Muslim medical literature was later translated into Latin and used in some European universities as late as the seventeenth century. A number of scholars agree that Muslim philosophers did little to expand most branches of Greek medical knowledge, serving instead as the preservers of Greek medical heritage. Noted exceptions are the work of Ibn al-Jazzar (d. 984) concerning the management and care of children and that of ՙArib bin Sa՚id of Córdoba on gynecology, embryology, and pediatrics. Al-Rāzī Rāzī, al- (c. 864-c. 925) wrote a discourse describing the causes and treatment of smallpox. Al-Zahrawi Zahrawi, al- (c. 940-1013) compiled a medical encyclopedia devoted, among other things, to midwifery, implying the existence of a thriving profession of trained nurses and midwives in Moorish Spain.

Muslim contributions to the fields of pharmacology Pharmacology, Muslim and medical botany, however, greatly surpassed the work of the classicists. Advancing well beyond Dioscorides’s De materia medica (first century b.c.e.), Muslims described identifications, modes of administration, and therapeutic qualities of more than one hundred plants known throughout the Muslim world. In addition, the increasing incidence of poisonings prompted an attempt by court physicians to expand their knowledge of toxicology. Galen’s recipe for the theriac, the universal antidote, was translated and significantly modified before its introduction to the West in the thirteenth century.

While the Islamic world was translating and expanding classical works with great fervor, medieval Europe was for the most part ignorant of classical philosophy. Other than three dialogues of Plato, Aristotle’s Logic (fourth century b.c.e.; English translation, 1812), and several mistranslated versions of Aristotle, examples of Greek works were unavailable to scholars. Limited contact between the Latin West and the Byzantine Empire, which preserved Greek manuscripts but little understood them and the dominant trend in medieval Europe to emphasize Christian theology over philosophy contributed to a general neglect of Greek knowledge north of Muslim Spain.

At the turn of the eleventh century, however, Greco-Muslim philosophy began its migration throughout the Latin West. Christian conquest of Muslim lands increased the level of interaction between European conquerors, merchants, pilgrims, and scholars and Muslim tributaries, spawning an effort to translate Arabic works into Latin in order to understand the past successes of Islam. Spain served as the major cultural and intellectual bridge between East and West and as the leading center for European scholars who wished to learn Arabic and engage in translation.

The first college of translators was established in Toledo by Don Raimundo, archbishop of that city from 1126 to 1151. Toledo Toledo, Jews in was a natural center of translation and intellectual transmission because of the amicable coexistence there of Christians and Muslims and the existence of a large Jewish population, which was at home in both worlds and fluent in both Arabic and in Latin or Romance. A number of Toledo’s Jews, including Moses Maimonides, Maimonides, Moses were respected philosophers in their own right. Although many of Toledo’s Christian translators used Jewish or Muslim intermediaries to translate into the vernacular before subsequent translation into Latin, others, such as Gerard of Cremona, learned Arabic in order to read the works and later render them directly into Latin. Gerard’s translations eventually included virtually the entire field of science at that time.

Work in various disciplines, undertaken in Toledo under Church patronage by such scholars as Adelard of Bath Adelard of Bath and Peter the Venerable Peter the Venerable (c. 1091-1156), abbot of Cluny, revived classicism and increased acceptance of hitherto “heretical” disciplines in Western thought. As evidenced in the writings of Thomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas (1224 or 1225-1274), Dante Dante (1265-1321), and Roger Bacon Bacon, Roger (c. 1220-c. 1292), the religion of Islam continued to be regarded as anathema in the Christian West, although Muslim learning was held in high esteem. The development of Christian Scholasticism Scholasticism is indebted in large part to the philosophical works of Ibn Tufayl and Averroës.

As Toledo’s eminence as a translation center waned toward the end of the thirteenth century, Christian elites such as Alfonso X Alfonso X (king of Castile and León) , king of Castile from 1252 to 1284, established new centers. In addition to translation, the Christian West made a concerted effort to obtain books, build libraries, and increase the number of Muslim and Jewish court scholars capable of elucidating classical learning. Throughout the Christian Reconquest, scholars of various religions and cultures maintained close collaboration. Ideas were transmitted with great speed, enabling a new work to make the journey from the Muslim East to Córdoba and on into Christian Europe in less than two years.


Classical and Greco-Muslim ideas, new to Christian Europe and in many cases contradictory to the teachings of the Church, were hotly debated. It was not until 1251 that Aristotle was recognized as an acceptable subject for study in the University of Paris. Yet the process of debate and consequent intense study of the works inherited from Muslim philosophers slowly released medieval Europe from narrow modes of thought and encouraged appreciation of classical ideas. Such appreciation ultimately resulted in the European Renaissance, built on the foundation of classical achievements and a desire to emulate the all-embracing approach of classical thought.

Further Reading

  • Bakar, Osman. The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society, 1999. Discusses questions of methodology, doubt, spirituality and scientific knowledge, the philosophy of Islamic medicine, and how Islamic science influenced medieval Christian views of the natural world.
  • Chejne, Anwar G. Muslim Spain: Its History and Culture. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1974. Written as a text for graduate students, this work provides a well-written overview of the history, culture, and intellectual life of al-Andalus (Andalusia).
  • Chejne, Anwar G. “The Role of al-Andalus in the Movement of Ideas Between Islam and the West.” In Islam and the Medieval West, edited by Khalil I. Semann. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980. A defense of Muslim contributions to European culture and discussion of difficult-to-document contributions from Arabic literary genres.
  • Deitrich, Albert. “Islamic Sciences and the Medieval West: Pharmacology.” In Islam and the Medieval West, edited by Khalil I. Semann. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980. A detailed and well-documented discussion of the expansion of Greek knowledge of pharmacology by medieval Muslims.
  • Fletcher, Richard. “Christian-Muslim Understanding in the Later Middle Ages.” History Today 53, no. 4 (April, 2003). A very brief but detailed discussion of the history of shared traditions—including intellectual—between Muslims and Christians in medieval Europe. Also explores how Muslims and Christians tried to move beyond a long history of hostilities between the two faiths.
  • Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. This work incorporates scholarship on al-Andalus and offers a concise treatment of the Moors in Spain. Chapter 4, “The Caliphate of Córdoba,” considers the glories of the caliphate as well as its collapse.
  • García-Ballester, Luis. Medicine in a Multicultural Society: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Practitioners in the Spanish Kingdoms, 1222-1610. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2001. A look at medical practice and medical practitioners in the Spanish realm after the introduction of Moorish medical knowledge into the region. Includes an index.
  • Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Provides a strong cross-cultural background for the rise of science and medicine in Avicenna’s time. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and index.
  • Reilly, Bernard F. The Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain: 1031-1157. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. Enlightening use of recently published primary sources to provide insight into the political and cultural changes in Iberia during this critical period.