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Muslim Spain And Western Europe
A. Sattar Khan

Before the advent of Islam, Arabia was the land of antagonist tribes, always busy in fighting and bloodshed. Due to their inter-tribal conflicts and disunity, they had become an easy prey to the economic and political exploitation of the contemporary great powers, the Persians and the Romans.

It was the dawn of Islam which emancipated them from the shackles of every type of exploitation. Islam knit them together strongly in the bonds of brotherhood and made them an irresistible force. Within a short span of three decades, they emerged as the masters of one third of the known world. The mighty Persian and the great Roman empires lay tottering before the new Muslim might.

Islam had brought about a complete re-orientation in their outlook towards life and made tent-dwellers of the desert a cultured and civilized people. The intellectual progress of the Muslims was no less remarkable than their success in the battle-field. The teachings of the Prophet (sws) inspired the hearts of his followers with a feel for knowledge and created in them a new sense of civility, culture, justice, piety, tolerance and brotherhood which is an essential pre-requisite for any cultural development and creative activity in the society. In the words of Ibrahim Madkour:

“In any society, culture is the off spring of many factors: human potential, creative consciousness, intellectual and spiritual vitality, real achievement and progress and freedom, among others.”

And by the early eighth century A.D. , a potential for extraordinary cultural achievements was quite conspicuous in the Arab society. The advent of Islam generated creative activity in the Arab consciousness. A new sense of purpose and direction was provided which not only unified a loose assemblage of tribes but also created an individual and collective awareness which ushered in a new era of science and learning in the world. Wherever the Arabs went, they illuminated the darkness of ignorance and bigotry with the light of knowledge. They laid the foundations of a glorious civilization in Spain which still embellishes the pages of medieval history. In the words of Philip K. Hitti:

“Muslim Spain wrote one of the brightest chapters in the history of medieval Europe.”

In the following pages, the meritorious achievements of the Spanish Muslims will be briefly discussed in the fields of astronomy, agriculture, botany, medicine and surgery. It was, in fact, the achievements of the Muslims and their transmission to Europe through Spain which became responsible for the renaissance of western Europe.


Astronomy, in fact, was founded by the Arabs during the early period of the Abbasid Caliphate. During the middle of the 10th century A.D. , astronomical studies were especially favoured and patronized by the rulers of Muslim Spain. Khwarizmi had written a valuable treatise on astronomy and compiled his tables (Zij) which after two centuries were revised by a Spanish astronomer Al-Majriti which was later on translated in Latin by Adelard of Bath. This remarkable work formed the basis of later astronomical pursuits both in the east and the west. Moreover, it replaced all earlier tables of the Greek and Indian astronomers.

Al-Zarqali (Azrachel: 1029-1087 A.D.) was a famous astronomer of Spain. He was the celebrated instrument maker who devised an improved type of astrolabe, called the ‘Safiha’. He also has the distinction of being the first astronomer to prove the motion of the solar apogee with reference to the stars. His treatises along with those of Al-Battani were studied and admired in the west and Copernicus quoted him in his famous work “De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium”.

Jabar Ibni Aflah was another illustrious Spanish astronomer of the 12th century, whose famous book “Kitab ul Hayat” (Book of Astronomy) was later on translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona. He sharply criticised Ptolemy and against the latter’s observation, he rightly observed that the lower planets, Mercury and Venus, had no visible parallaxes. Generalizations of Jabir Ibni Aflah on the subject were confirmed by later research. The famous astronomical tower of Sevile was constructed under his supervision in 1190 A.D., but with the fall of the Muslim rule in Spain, this very significant and valuable tower was turned into a belfry by the Christian victors who did not know what else to do with it. In the words of Philip K.Hitti:

“Finally it was through Spanish channels that the Latin West found its oriental inspiration in astronomy and astrology. The leading Muslim astronomical works were translated in Spain into Latin, and the Alfonsine tables compiled under the aegis of Alfonso X in the 13th century were but a development of Arab astronomy.”


The Arabs in Spain had developed agriculture on an unprecedented scale. They constructed water channels to irrigate the fields, applied scientific manures to increase the yield and introduced new crops. The whole of Spain was converted into veritable gardens. According to K. Jamil Ahmed:

“Hardly any country of medieval times enjoyed greater agricultural prosperity than Muslim Spain.”

Agriculture was developed on scientific lines. The continuation of industry, skill and knowledge, in its development, converted the barren tracts of land into luxuriantly blooming fields. Again to quote K. Jamil Ahmad:

“It was the Spanish Arabs who introduced rice, sugercane, cotton, ginger, saffron, spinach and a great variety of fruits to that desolate peninsula and developed them on a large scale.”

From Spain these crops were, later on, introduced into different parts of Europe. When Ferdinand I captured Sevile in 1255 A.D., the province was rich with several million olive trees and had more than 100,000 mills for turning out olive oil. About the glorious achievements of the Arabs in Spain, Syed Amir Ali says:

“They levelled the earth by means of an instrument called the ‘marhifal,’ and the science of irrigation was carried to high perfection. The whole country was covered with adequate canals for fertilization of the soil. The aqueducts of Carmona carried water over a distance of several leagues.”

Irrigation was carried on by flood gates, wheels and pumps. The Andalusian plain of Spain was considered the garden of Europe and was a busy centre of rural and urban activities. Paying glorious tributes to the agricultural genius of the Spanish Muslims, Philip K. Hitti says:

“This agricultural development was one of the glories of Muslim Spain and one of the Arabs’ lasting gifts to the land, for Spanish gardens has preserved to this day a ‘Moorish’ imprint.”


The Spanish Muslims had made a great advancement in botany and developed horticulture to a high degree of perfection. The science of botany, in fact, reached its climax in Spain. The Spanish Muslims made a colossal contribution in the field of botany. Some of them are still known as the greatest botanists of medieval times. Through their observations, they discovered the sexual difference between such plants as palms and hemps. They travelled mostly on the sea shores, mountains and in distant lands in search of rare botanical herbs. They classified plants into those that grow from seeds, cuttings and those that grow spontaneously ie wild growth. The Cordovan physician, Al Ghafiqi, was a renowned botanist who collected plants in Spain and Africa and described them most accurately. According to G.Sarton:

“He was the greatest expert of his time on samples. His description of the plants was the most precise ever made in Islam; he gave the names of each in Arabic, Latin and Berber.”

Abu Zakariya Yahya who flourished towards the end of 12th century in Sevile (Spain) was the author of “Kitab-ul-Fallah”, the most important Islamic and outstanding medieval work on the subject. In this remarkable book, he treats 585 plants and explains the cultivation of more than 50 fruit trees. The book also presents new observations on properties of soil, different types of manures and also discusses the symptoms of several diseases of trees and vines and suggests their remedies. Abdullah Ibni Ahmad Ibni Baytar of Spain was the greatest pharmacist and botanist of medieval times. He travelled a long way along the Mediterranean, from Spain to Syria, in search of plants.


The Spanish Arabs took to the study of medicine very assiduously. In the words of Hitti:

“Most of the Spanish Arab physicians were physicians by avocation and something else by vocation.”

Arib Ibni Sa’eed was an illustrious physician of Cordova who wrote a remarkable book on gynaecology, embryology and paediatrics which surpassed Ibni Al-Jazzar’s famous text on child care. Sami K. Hamarneh writes:

“Ibni Sa’eed’s book was the most significant work written on this subject in any language up to the tenth century.”

Ibni Julul and Az-Zaharwi, the junior contemporaries of Ibni Sa’eed, also made great contributions to the advancement of Arabic medicine---in pharmacy, medical botany, internal clinical medicine and surgery.

Az-Zaharwi’s famous book “At-Tasreef” is the most celebrated work of medieval ages on the subject. An important part of “At-Tasreef”, deals with obstetrics, paediatrics and midwifery, as well as with general human anatomy. His discussion on mother and child health and on the profession of midwifery is of immense interest in the history of nursing. His texts indicate the existence of a flourishing profession of nurses and midwives in general practice which clearly speaks of the reluctance of many Muslim families to seek assistance of male doctors in normal childbirth.

Ibni Wafid and Ibni Zuhr (known in Latin as Avenzoar) were the two other renowned Andalusian physicians who left an indelible mark in the development of Arabic clinical medicine and therapeutics. In “At-Taysir”, his famous book on diagnosis and treatment of diseases, Ibni Zuhr described possibilities for the first time in medical history, mediastinal abscesses as well as wet and dry precarditis.

He even went to the extent of criticising Ibni Sina’s “Al-Qaanoon” for its almost total emphasis on theoretical concepts and philosophical reasoning at the expense of clinical, practical medicine. Ibni Rushd (1125-1198 AD) who was known in the western world as Averroes was another man of parts which the Muslim Spain produced. He was, in fact, more of a philosopher and theologian than a physician. Nevertheless, his medical works are remarkable, of which “Kulliyat Fit Tib” dealing with the general rules of medicine was translated into Latin in 1255 AD.

Ibni Katina, another Moorish physician, was the author of an excellent book on plague. A severe plague broke out in Alemaria, in Spain, in 1348-49 A.D. which influenced the celebrated physician to write a scholarly treatise on the subject. The book revealed the contagious character of plague and its remedies which were unknown to the Greek physicians. It was translated in Europe in the 15th century.


The greatest achievements in medieval surgery, an almost neglected field with the Muslim physicians who did not pay much attention to it, are attributed to Az-Zaharawi of Moorish Spain. He was a great surgeon. He wrote a remarkable medical encyclopaedia, “At-Tasreef”, containing 30 sections, the last of which deals with surgery including cauter, the treatment of wounds, the extracting of arrows, oral hygiene, and the setting of bones in simple and compound fractures. He used antiseptics in the treatment of wounds and skin injuries; devised statures from animal intestine, silk, wool and other substances. He also developed techniques to widen urinary passages and explore body cavities surgically.

“At-Tasreef” is a fully illustrated book with sketches of about 200 surgical instruments that he himself had designed. These instruments with modifications were later used by many surgeons in Christendom as well as in Islam. “At-Tasreef” was a remarkable and indispensable book, as in the words of K. Jamil Ahmad:

“It was translated into several European languages and the famous French surgeon Guy de Chauliac benefited from one of its Latin translations.”

These are a few glimpses of some of the intellectual achievements of the Spanish Muslims who recovered and supplemented the old Greek sciences, patronized arts and learning, established educational institutions, set up libraries rich in books, laid beautiful gardens, excelled in agriculture, made useful inventions, installed industries, encouraged trade and commerce, and decorated Spain with beautiful specimens of architecture which still speak of the high aesthetic sense and greatness of their builders.

They transmitted knowledge to Europe through Spain and eventually, paved the way for the renaissance of Western Europe.

(Courtesy “The Pakistan Times”)

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