Islamic Influences on Western Culture

May 31, 2008 at 1:16 pm Leave a comment

With Muhammad and the emergence of Islam the tide again turned suddenly, although the historian can trace the undercurrents as they built up for this dramatic reversal in the cultural flow. Out of Arabia came a resurgence of the Semitic peoples who carried their religion and language east to the borders of China and west across the Pyrenees. In the Golden Age of Islam under the ‘Abbasids the Muslims laid under tribute their heritage of Greek, Persian, and Hindu civilizations and themselves created a dynamic culture that dominated the Middle Ages positively and influenced more backward Europe, which was engaged in the slow process of civilizing the barbarian hordes that had brought the downfall of classical Rome. Up to the climax of medieval civilization in the thirteenth century the tide of cultural influence was largely set from East to West; indeed the West did not feel itself wholly free from the pressure of Eastern Islam until the Ottomans were turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683.

Yet the intervening centuries had been that period of transition when the Renaissance and Reformation had effected the rebirth of Western civilization and unleashed dynamic forces that have not yet spent themselves as they have since circled the globe. From roughly 1500 onwards the tide of cultural influence has moved steadily and continuously from West to East. Varied may be opinions as to just where we stand in relation to the surge of this cultural tide. Certainly the mid-twentieth century marks a critical juncture in the determination of future East-West relationships. This symposium aims to be a modest contribution to the delineation and understanding of this critical juncture in history.

By the very nature of the case, the discovery of the East by Western scholarship and research calls for more historical treatment and criticism, howbeit the contributors to this half of the symposium have tried to focus their material on the present and its demands for accelerated improvement of the means whereby Western thought can truly penetrate, and thereby understand and appreciate, Near Eastern culture. The volume tries to accomplish this by exploring four major highways over which the material and spiritual goods of acculturation travel: art and archeology, literature, science, and religion.

Only when individual phenomena are related to their total cultural matrix and context can the interpreter be reasonably sure that he has understood them and that they, in turn, are able to articulate freely and accurately the spirit of the age and culture to which they witness. The essay concludes with some indications as to how the interpreters of Islamic art and archeology can better approximate this ideal.

Literature, another form of cultural expression, in the Near East stands in a class by itself. The genius of the Semite, who has dominated the Near East during most of its history, finds its peculiar and significant articulation in the art and in the science of the Word. To attain determinative and lasting influence in the Near East men have always had to have something substantial to say, but equally if not more important has been the demand that they be masters of the wizardry of words and able to clothe their thought in garments of beauty and light.

In any meeting of the Near East by the West it is therefore of paramount importance to explore the literature of Islamic peoples. The fascinating story of the West’s discovery of the two major literary traditions of the Islamic Near East Arabic and Persian is here traced by Professors von Grunebaum of Chicago and Arberry of Cambridge. Starting from meager beginnings, proceeding gradually but with increasing acceleration, this story of literary appreciation and criticism gains breadth and depth and the authors conclude with valuable and stimulating indications of the next steps to be taken by Western scholars for more adequate understanding and appropriation of the rich values inherent in this great cultural tradition.

The illumination of Muslim science, its stewardship of the ancient and classical heritage and its contribution to the beginnings of Western science, owes more probably to Professor Sarton of Harvard than to any other single person. Most of this is enshrined in his monumental Introduction to the History of Science and the issues of the periodical I sis. In his contribution 1 to this volume he reviews the highlights of the passage of ancient Eastern science to the modern West by way of the Muslims of medieval times, with some estimate of the significance of this to human culture.

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Civilization in the East

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