Transmission of Islamic Science into the Latin West and its influence on Medieval Christian Conceptions of Nature

The first period of the transmission of Islamic science into the West began in the tenth and eleventh centuries where certain texts of astronomy and mathematics were translated from Arabic into Latin. The next period, termed as the middle period and covering the entire twelfth century, witnessed the extensive publication and dissemination of all kinds of Arabic scientific works, such as alchemy. In this period, the translation of philosophical works began to emerge. The final period that stretches from the thirteenth century onwards witnessed considerable translations of work from Arabic into Latin.

Many great scientists and philosophers of Islam, such as al-Kindī, al Farābī, Ibn Sinā, al-Ghazāli, to mention just a few, had some of their works translated. They belonged in the Islamic intellectual universe known as the school of philosopher-scientists (falāsifah), which was one of the many intellectual schools that existed around the time and had formulated a definitive and distinctive view of nature. From here, and this is important, one can see why the Latin West had only come to know one of the many conceptions of nature, in this case that of the Peripatetic school. [1] Thus, the meeting of the Latin West with Muslim Peripatetic philosophy and science led to the Aristotelianisation of Christian theology which in turn had several consequences on the general Western view of nature.

The Peripatetic perspective aims to integrate the cosmos into a rational system; nature is viewed as something to be analysed and understood, via methods of ratiocination and logic. Observation and experimentation, which for the most part stood on the side of the gnostic and mystical elements of Islam, was not a distinguishing feature of this school. The non- Peripatetic conception of nature was contemplative and symbolic in character, and has been identified with the metaphysical and mystical dimension of Islam.

The adoption of the rationalism of the classical Greek type helped promote the rise of rationalism in the thirteenth century. In Islam, however, rational philosophy was viewed differently, with figures like al-Ghazāli taking on the rationalistic tendencies of the Peripatetic school resulting in the intellectual life of Islam gravitating towards the gnostic and Illuminationist dimension associated with Sufism. Ibn Sinā, towards the end of his life moved away from rationalistic Peripatetic writings. It is claimed that the greatest exponent of rationalism, Ibn Rushd (the Latin Averroes), had been over rationalised by his Latin interpreters. [2] In any case, he was instrumental, more than anyone else in bringing the revival of Aristotelianism in the medieval West.

No doubt, there were a number of streams of thought that flowed into the intellectual universe during the thirteenth century West, [3] but the dominant one was Aristotelian scholarship and philosophy. As a consequence, this rationalistic environment was increasingly replacing the gnostic and metaphysical dimension of Christianity. Influenced by the Muslim philosopher-scientists, rational theology emerged with Thomas Aquinas, who attempted to create a philosophical synthesis [4] that collated ideas that emerged from the Latin world of his time.

During the second half of the thirteenth century, a school arose by the name of Latin Averroism that identified Averroes with Aristotle and brought debates surrounding the conflict between religion and philosophy and between reason and revelation to the fore. There was a theological reaction against the rationalism and philosophism of Averrosim with the name Averroes became synonymous with anti-religious thought. The pure rationalism of Averroism aided the future eclipse of the symbolic interpretations of nature, that intellectual knowledge which assists in resolving the conflicting claims of philosophy and theology. Men of faith and wisdom within the Christian intellectuality were still cultivating the sciences of nature during the thirteenth century. However, by then Averroism sowed the seeds of secularisation of knowledge and the cosmos and the seeds of confrontation between faith and reason in the West.

And only Gods knows best.


[1] This school was closely identified with the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. The Illuminationist school of Suhrāwardi, schools of Sufism such as that of Ibn Arabī and the neo-Pythagorean and Hermetic school of The Brethren of Purity (ikhwān al-safā) were almost unknown to the Latin West.

[2] See Wolfson (1961)

[3] See Knowles (1988)

[4] This is famously known as the Thomas synthesis.

References and further reading:

Bakar, O. (1999). The history and philosophy of Islamic science.

Dunlop, D. M. (1958). Arabic science in the West (Vol. 35): Pakistan Historical Society.

Gilson, E. (1980). History of Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages: Burns & Oates.

Knowles, D. (1988). The evolution of medieval thought (2nd ed. / edited by D.E. Luscombe and C.N.L. Brooke. ed.): London : Longman.

Nasr, S. H. (1968). Man and nature: The spiritual crisis of modern man.

Wolfson, H. A. (1961). The Twice-Revealed Averroes. Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, 36(3), 373-392.


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