Both atheists and Muslims have been attempting to pass off medieval propaganda about the Islamic world preserving the Graeco-Roman classical canon that subsequently launched the Renaissance as historical fact, but the historical record demonstrates precisely the opposite.
The oft-repeated assertion that Islam “preserved” classical knowledge and then graciously passed it on to Europe is baseless. Ancient Greek texts and Greek culture were never “lost” to be somehow “recovered” and “transmitted” by Islamic scholars, as so many academic historians and journalists continue to write: these texts were always there, preserved and studied by the monks and lay scholars of the Greek Roman Empire and passed on to Europe and to the Islamic empire at various times.This shouldn't be hard for inhabitants of the West to understand. Has the Muslim occupation of Dearborn, Malmo, and, the French banlieus led to any sort of intellectual renaissance in those places? If not, then why would one expect the historical occupation of Spain, North Africa, or the Holy Lands to be any different.
As Michael Harris points out in his History of Libraries in the Western World:
The great writings of the classical era, particularly those of Greece … were always available to the Byzantines and to those Western peoples in cultural and diplomatic contact with the Eastern Empire.… Of the Greek classics known today, at least seventy-five percent are known through Byzantine copies.
The historian John Julius Norwich has also reminded us that “much of what we know about antiquity—especially Hellenic and Roman literature and Roman law—would have been lost forever if it weren’t for the scholars and scribes of Constantinople.”
The Muslim intellectuals who served as propagandists for Caliph Al-Mamun (the same caliph who started the famous Islamic Inquisition to cope with the rationalism that had begun to infiltrate Islam upon its contact with Greek knowledge), such as al-Gahiz (d. 868), repeatedly asserted that Christianity had stopped the Rum (Romans—that is, the inhabitants of the Greek Roman Empire) from taking advantage of classical knowledge.
This propaganda is still repeated today by those Western historians who not only are biased against Christianity but also are often occupationally invested in the field of Islamic studies and Islamic cultural influence. Lamenting the end of the study of ancient philosophy and science upon the presumed closing of the Athenian Neoplatonic Academy by Emperor Justinian I in 529 is part of this narrative. Yet this propaganda does not correspond to the facts, as Speros Vryonis and others have shown, and as evidenced by the preservation and use of ancient Greek knowledge by the Christians of the empire of the Greeks....
Christian Europe, including the Christian kingdoms in Spain, could not benefit more from its commerce with the superior civilization of the Christian Greek Roman Empire because, as Henri Pirenne pointed out long ago, Islamic warriors’ attacks had turned the then-Christian Mediterranean sea into a battlefield, and eventually into an Islamic lake, and had consequently short-circuited the direct cultural exchange between Europe and the empire of the Greeks. Therefore the Islamic empire was arguably the cause of the relative slowing down of European development in the early or “dark” Middle Ages. The scholarly attacks against the Pirenne thesis have failed to invalidate its importance to illuminate what happened: of course cultural and especially commercial exchange between West and East continued to occur, and now largely via the Islamic empire, but this happened not because of the civilizational properties of medieval Islam but because medieval Islam had interrupted the direct communication in the first place.
Therefore the torrent of Islamocentric academic publications; television documentaries from PBS, the History Channel, and the BBC; declarations by UNESCO; and the National Geographic traveling exhibits extolling the “transmission of Greek science and technology” by Islam to the backward West overlooks that, whatever the actual degree of this transmission, the transmission not only of Greek science and technology but also of Greek sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric, which could not and did not take place via Islam because of religious barriers, would equally have taken place without Islam, if Islam had not interrupted with its military conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries the direct communication between the Christian West and the Christian East.
In fact, when Greek scholars began to arrive in Italy escaping from the final destruction of the Christian Greek Roman Empire by Islam in the fifteenth century (a destruction facilitated by the Christian West’s weakening of the empire during the infamous Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204), they brought Greek drama, narrative, lyric poetry, philosophy (significantly Plato), and art to the West. They decisively contributed to (and perhaps even started, as many scholars have argued) what would be the Italian Renaissance. This massive cultural transmission showed the sort of impact the Christian Greeks could have had on western Europe centuries earlier, perhaps as early as the seventh century, without the Islamic interruption.
Thus the Pirenne thesis continues to be valid to demystify the role of Islam in European history: medieval Islam had interposed itself between Christian Europe and the Christian Greek Roman Empire. Cultural communication continued, of course, but diminished and in a different form. Therefore, precisely because of the problem that the Islamic empire had created, this communication between Christian Europe and the Christian Greeks now had to take place often through the mediation of the Islamic empire itself, which had benefited and continued to benefit from its direct contact with the superior culture of the Greek empire. When this Greek material arrived via Islam, it did so diminished, distorted, and mediated by a faith that was fundamentally inimical to the spirit of Greek civilization.
- The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, by Darío Fernández-Morera