By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. — Confucius

Moors in Spain - M. Florian

Literature and Science of the Arabs

Literature and Science of the Arabs.—Their Facilities for Literary and Scientific Pursuits.—Patronage of Literature by the Princes of the House of Abbas.—Almamoun.—Arabian Schools.—Eloquence.—Poetry.—The Arabian Tales. —History.—Geography.—Speculative Sciences.—Astrology.—Mathematical Knowledge of the Arabs.—Astronomy.—Architecture.—The Fine Arts.—Agriculture.—Medicine.—Chemistry.—Our obligations to Arab Literature.

The early followers of the Arabian prophet were only enthusiastic military adventurers, subduing in their wide and rapid progress most of the nations of the then known world. The lust of power, and successful military enterprise, are commonly unfavorable to the cultivation of the liberal arts, so that a conquering people usually exhibit but little taste for science or literature. The Goths and the Huns, for instance, were among the most implacable foes of knowledge. Nor did the early Arabs regard it with more favor. Mohammed found his countrymen sunk in the deepest barbarism: he was incapable of any direct effort to raise them; and, from the ruthless destruction of the Alexandrean library by Omar, one of his earliest successors, they appear not to have been in a much better condition after the close than at the commencement of his eventful career.

Their settlement in the countries they had subdued, the unlimited resources which their widespread conquests placed within their reach, and probably the leisure which their almost universal dominion afforded, speedily led to a change in their character in relation to literary pursuits, of which the more enlightened nations of the West are still reaping the advantage. It was about the middle of the seventh' century that Omar committed the famous library of Alexandria to the flames: before the end of the eighth, literature began to enjoy the munificent patronage of the caliphs of the Abbassidan race, who superinduced upon the stern fanaticism of the followers of the Prophet the softening influences of learning; and, by an anomaly in the history of mankind, the most valuable lessons in science and the arts have been received from a people who pursued with relentless hostility the religion and liberties of every other nation.

The Greeks were the most distinguished patrons of literature and science. Among them philosophy found its earliest home, and the arts are commonly supposed to have sprung up chiefly under their fostering care, though modern researches have shown that much of their knowledge was derived from still more ancient sources. Their philosophy, though greatly improved by them, was borrowed from the mysteries of the Egyptian priests and the Persian magi. Their system of the universe, which made the nearest approach to the more correct discoveries of modern times, was previously known to the learned Hindus; and it may admit of question whether their whole mythology, allowing for the additions which a chastened and vivid imagination would make to it, had not its prototype in some Asiatic religio-philosophical system. A learned writer on the erudition of the Asiatics says, that the whole of the theology of the Greeks, and part of the philosophy of modern scientific research, may be found in the Hindu Vedas. He adds, "That most subtile spirit which Newton suspected to pervade natural bodies, and to lie concealed in them so as to cause attraction and repulsion, the emission, reflection, and refraction of light, electricity, calefaction, sensation, and muscular motion, is described by the Hindus as a fifth element, endued with those very powers; and the Vedas abound with allusions to a force universally attractive, which they chiefly attribute to the sun." The extension, therefore, of the Arabian victories over the Eastern world, and their entire command, after the overthrow of the Greek empire, of the resources possessed by that people, gave them access to all the literary stores then in existence.

It has been said, and probably not without good reason, that Mohammed himself saw and felt the importance of literary distinction. Among the sayings attributed to him, the following has been considered as evincing his sense of the value of learning: "A mind without erudition is like a body without a soul. Glory consists not in wealth, but in knowledge;" and, as the Koran affords abundant proof, he was by no means unmindful of that mental cultivation, of which the means were within his reach. His immediate followers, occupied only with the ideas of conquest and conversion, despised equally the religion and learning of the nations they subdued; but when the age of rapine and violence yielded at length to comparative security and quiet, and the fair and splendid city of the Oriental caliphs arose, the Muses were courted from their ancient temples, and by the milder and more graceful achievements of literature and science, efforts were made to expiate the guilt of former conquest, and to shed a purer lustre over the Mohammedan name.

Almansor, the second of the dynasty of the Abbassides, whose reign commenced A.D. 754, and lasted twenty-one years, was among the first of the Arab princes to foster learning and the arts. Jurisprudence and astronomy were the principal subjects of his study, which, however, through the instruction of a Greek physician in his court, he extended to the art of healing, and probably to those kindred arts with which, in all ages and countries, medical science has been connected. What progress was made by himself or his subjects, we cannot now ascertain. His two immediate successors seem not to have trodden in his steps, though it is probable they did not undo what he had done; for the next caliph, Haroun al Raschid, is renowned as one of the most munificent patrons that literature ever enjoyed. He was fond of poetry and music: he is said to have constantly surrounded himself with a great number of learned men; and to him the Arabs were deeply indebted for the progress in knowledge which they were enabled to make. Every mosque in his dominions had a school attached to it by his order; and, as if his love of learning were superior even to his hereditary faith, he readily tolerated men of science who refused to yield to the bold pretensions of the Prophet. A Nestorian Christian presided over his schools, and directed the academical studies of his subjects. His successor imitated his wise and generous course; and thus knowledge extended from the capital to the most distant extremities of the empire.

But it was during the reign of Almamoun, the seventh of the Abbassidan princes, A.D. 813–833, that literature flourished most among the Arabs. Learned men, professors of the Christian faith, had multiplied at Bagdad under the tolerant reigns of his predecessors, and they were now liberally encouraged to unfold their ample stores of knowledge. The copious language of Arabia was employed to communicate whatever that of the Greeks had hitherto concealed, though, with a barbarism for which it is difficult to account, many of the original works were destroyed as soon as translations of them were made. Almamoun in his youth had associated with the most eminent scholars of Greece, Persia, and Chaldea; and he now invited them to his court. Bagdad was resorted to by poets, philosophers, and mathematicians, from every country and of every creed. Armenia, Syria, and Egypt were explored by his agents for literary treasures, which were amassed with infinite care, and presented at the foot of the throne as the richest and most acceptable tribute that conquered provinces could render. Camels, hitherto employed exclusively in traffic, were seen entering the royal city laden with Hebrew, Persian, and Grecian manuscripts. The court assumed the appearance rather of an academy than of a council guiding the affairs of a luxurious and warlike government, and all classes were encouraged to apply themselves to the acquisition of knowledge with a zeal commensurate to the advantages thus afforded. "I chose," said Almamoun, when remonstrated with for appointing a learned Christian to an office of no small influence over the intellectual pursuits of his people, "I chose this learned man, not to be my guide in religious affairs, but to be my teacher of science; and it is well known that the wisest men are to be found among the Jews and Christians."

Under such favorable auspices, it is not to be wondered at that the Saracens became a literary people. The caliphs of the West and of Africa imitated their brethren of the East. "At one period, six thousand professors and pupils cultivated liberal studies in the college of Bagdad. Twenty schools made Grand Cairo a chief seat of letters; and the talents of the students were exercised in the perusal of the royal library, which consisted of one hundred thousand manuscripts. The African writers dwell with pride and satisfaction on the literary institution which adorned the towns on the northern coast of their sandy plain. The sun of science arose even in Africa, and the manners of the Moorish savage were softened by philosophy. Their brethren in Europe amassed numerous and magnificent collections; two hundred and eighty thousand volumes were in Cordova, and more than seventy libraries were open to public curiosity in the kingdom of Andalusia."

We know but little of the internal government of the Arabian schools, or of the studies actually pursued. Aristotle, no doubt, was the great master to whom, in philosophy, all deference was paid. The Prophet had prescribed their religion. Their schools were of two kinds, or rather classes; the one comprehending the inferior institutions, in which elementary branches of instruction, such as reading, writing, and religious doctrine were chiefly attended to; the other, called Madras, mostly connected with the mosques, as were all the schools of the former class, included those institutions in which the higher departments of knowledge were explored. Here grammar, logic, theology, and jurisprudence were studied. The management of each school was confided to a principal of known ability, and not always a Mohammedan. The professors lectured on the several sciences; and the pupils, if not in every department, of which there is some doubt, certainly in that of medicine, were publicly examined, and diplomas were given under the hand of the chief physician.

Of elegant composition, the Koran was universally, esteemed the model. Hence it was studied with the most diligent care by all who sought to distinguish themselves in the art of eloquence, one of the leading acquirements of Arab scholars. Subordinate to this pre-eminent composition, their schools of oratory boasted of models scarcely inferior to the celebrated orators of antiquity. Malek and Sharaif, the one for pathos, the other for brilliancy, are the chief of these. Horaiai was esteemed as the compeer of Demosthenes and Cicero. Bedreddin, of Grenada, was their "torch of eloquence;" and Sekaki obtained the honorable designation of the Arabian Quinctilian.

The ancient Arabs were much inclined to poetry. The wild, romantic scenery of the land they inhabited, the sacred recollections of their earliest history, the life they led, everything around them, contributed to poetic inspiration. After the revival of letters, this art was cultivated with enthusiasm. The heroic measures of Ferdousi, the didactic verses of Sadi, and the lyric strains of Hafiz, even through the medium of imperfect translations, discover animated descriptions, bold metaphors, and striking expressions, that at once delight and surprise us. In splendor, if not in strength, the poets of the courts of Haroun and Almamoun, or those of the Ommiades of Spain, have, perhaps, in no age been excelled. In this art, as among other people, so among the Arabs, the fair sex have distinguished themselves. Valadata, Aysha, Labana, Safia, and others, have obtained the highest encomiums.

So great is the number of Arabian poets, that Abul Abbas, a son of Motassem, who wrote an abridgment of their lives in the ninth century, numbers one hundred and thirty. Other authors have occupied twenty-four, thirty, and one no less than fifty volumes, in recording their history.

The Arabs, however, are entirely without epic poetry, so important a department of the art; nor have they anything that may be properly ranked as dramatic composition. Sophocles, Euripides, Terence, and Seneca, the classic models of Greece and Rome, they despised as timid, constrained, and cold; and under whatever obligation to these ancient nations the Arabs may have been in other departments of literature, they owe them nothing, or next to nothing, in this. Their poetry was original and local; their figures and comparisons were strictly their own. To understand and properly appreciate them, we must have a knowledge of the productions of their country, and of the 'character, institutions, and manners of its inhabitants. The muse delights in illustrations and figures borrowed from pastoral life; that of Judea revels among the roses of Sharon, the verdant slopes of Carmel, and the glory of Lebanon; while the Arab muse selects for her ornaments the pearls of Omar, the musk of Hadramaut, the groves and nightingales of Aden, and the spicy odors of Yemen. If these appear to us fantastic, it must be remembered they are borrowed from objects and scenes to which we are almost utter strangers.

Who is not familiar with the Alif lita wa lilin, or the thousand and one tales, commonly known as the Arabian Nights' Entertainment?  Some have questioned whether they are an original work, or a translation from the Indian or Persian, made in the Augustan age of Arab literature: a doubt certainly not warranted by any want of exactness in their description of Arabian life and manners. They seem to have been originally the legends of itinerant story-tellers, a class of persons still very numerous in every part of the Mohammedan world. The scenes they unfold, true to nature; the simplicity displayed in their characters, their beauty and their moral instruction, appeal irresistibly to the hearts of all; while the learned concede to them the merit of more perfectly describing the manners of the singular people from whom they sprung, than the works of any traveler, however accomplished and indefatigable.

Of history the ancient Arabs were strangely negligent; but, by the modern, this department of knowledge has been cultivated with greater care and success. Annals, chronicles, and memoirs, almost numberless, are extant among them; kingdoms, provinces, and towns are described, and their history is narrated in volumes, a bare catalogue of which would extend to a wearisome length. They abound, however, more in the fanciful than in the substantial and correct. Of this, the titles of some of the most approved works of this kind may be taken as specimens: A chronology of the Caliphs of Spain and Africa is denominated "A Silken Vest, embroidered with the Needle;" a History of Grenada, "A Specimen of the Full Moon;" Ibn Abbas and Abu Bakri are authors of historical collections, entitled respectively, "Mines of Silver," and "Pearls and Picked-Up Flowers." Yet some of their writers, as Ibn Kutaiba, are chiefly remarkable for the extent and accuracy of their historical knowledge; and some of their works are exceedingly voluminous. A full history of Spain occupied six authors in succession, and cost the labor of one hundred and fifteen years to complete. Their biography was not confined to men. Ibn Zaid and Abut Mondar wrote a genealogical history of distinguished horses; and Alasucco and Abdolmalec performed the same service for camels worthy of being held in remembrance. Encyclopwdias and gazetteers, with dictionaries of the sciences and other similar works, occupied Arabian pens long before they came into vogue among more modern literati. Every species of composition, indeed, and almost every subject, in one age or another, have engaged the attention of learned Mohammedans.

Geography they did not so well understand, their means of acquiring knowledge on this subject being exceedingly limited. Yet their public libraries could boast of globes, voyages, and itineraries, the productions of men who traveled to acquire geographical information. With statistics and political economy they had but an imperfect acquaintance; yet so early as the reign of Omar II., we find a work devoted to these subjects, giving an account of the provinces and cities of Spain, with its rivers, ports, and harbors; of the climate, soil, mountains, plants, and minerals of that country; with its imports, and the manner in which its several productions, natural and artificial, might be manufactured and applied to the best advantage. Money, weights, and measures, with whatever else political economy may be understood to include, were also subjects which employed their ingenious speculations, and, in some cases, their laborious research.

The speculative sciences, scarcely less than polite literature, flourished among the Arabs. Indeed, what superstitious, enthusiastic people has ever neglected these? Their ardor in the more dignified of these pursuits was badly regulated; subtleties were preferred to important practical truths; and, frequently, the more ingenious the sophism, constructed after the rules of Aristotle, the more welcome was it to men who rendered to that philosopher a homage almost idolatrous, The later Arabs, and the Turks of the present day, pay no little attention to astrology, though it is strongly prohibited by their Prophet. This science was universally employed by the idolaters, against whom his denunciations are scarcely less inveterate than are those of the inspired volume; and doubtless he apprehended that its prevalence would hazard the integrity, if not the very existence, of his own system of religion. For many ages, therefore, it was discountenanced; but, at length, the habit of consulting the stars on important public occasions became frequent, and was attended with as much anxiety and as many absurd ceremonies as disgraced the nations of antiquity. Among the modern Mohammedans, no dignity of state is conferred; no public edifice is founded, except at a time recommended by astrologers. These pretenders to knowledge are supported by persons of rank; and in vain do the more enlightened part of the community exclaim that astrology is a false science. "Do not think," said a prime minister, who had been consulting a soothsayer as to the time of putting on a new dress, "that I am such a fool as to put faith in all this non- sense; but I must not make my family unhappy by refusing to comply with forms which some of them deem of consequence."

After these references to the polite literature of the Arabs, it will be expected that they should have paid attention to the natural sciences. They were not, indeed, discoverers and inventors, but they considerably improved upon what they acquired in their extensive intercourse with other nations; and, as forming the link which unites ancient and modern letters, they are entitled to our respect and gratitude. We derive our mathematics from them; and to them, also, we owe much of our astronomical knowledge. Almamoun, by a liberal reward, sought to engage in his service a famous mathematician of Constantinople; and Ibn Korrah enriched the stores of his country in this department with translations of Archimedes and the conics of Apollonius. Some have said that, on the revival of European literature in the fifteenth century, mathematical science was found nearly in the state in which it had been left by Euclid; and the justly celebrated Brucker contends, that the Arabs made no progress whatever in this most important branch of knowledge; later writers, however, and particularly Montucla, the author of the Historie des Mathematiques, have done ample justice to their researches. Numerical characters, without which our study of the exact sciences were almost in vain, beyond all doubt came to us from the Arabs: not that they invented them—it is probable they were originally words, perhaps Hindu words, expressing the quantities they respectively represent, but abbreviated and brought to their present convenient form by the followers of the Prophet. Trigonometry and algebra are both indebted to their genius. The sines of the one of these sciences instead of the more ancient chord, and the representatives of quantities in the other, descend through the Arabs to us, if they did not at first invent them. Original works on spherical trigonometry are among the productions of Ibn Musa and Geber, the former of whom is accounted the inventor of the solution of equations of the second degree. The University of Leyden still retains a manuscript treatise on the algebra of cubic equations, by Omar Ibn Ibrahim; and Casiri, who preserved and classed 1851 manuscripts, even after a fire had destroyed the magnificent collection of the Escurial, informs us, that the principles and praises of algebraic science were sung in an elaborate poem by Alcassem, a native of Grenada. These departments of knowledge were studied by the Arabs as early as the eighth and ninth centuries.

Astronomy, the science of a pastoral people, and eminently so in regions with an almost cloudless sky, like the East, was studied with great eagerness by Arabian philosophers. Almamoun, who has been before mentioned, was ardently devoted to it: at his cost the necessary instruments of observation were provided, and a complete digest of the science was made. The land where, many ages before, this science had been successfully studied by the Chaldeans, was in his power, and upon its ample plains a degree of the earth's circle was repeatedly measured, so as to determine the whole circumference of the globe to be twenty-four thousand miles. The obliquity of the ecliptic they settled at twenty-three degrees and a half: the annual movement of the equinoxes and the duration of the tropical year were brought to within a very little of the exact observations of modern times, the slight error they admitted resulting from the preference they gave to the system of Ptolemy. Albathani, or, as his name has been Latinized, Albatenius, in the ninth century, after continuing his observations for forty years, drew up tables, known as the Sabean tables, which, though not now in very high repute because of more accurate calculations, were for a long time justly esteemed. Other Arabian astronomers have rendered considerable service to this science. Mohammedanism did not, like ancient paganism, adore the stars; but its disciples studied them with a diligence, without which, perhaps, Newton, Flamstead, and Halley had observed and calculated almost in vain.

Architecture was an art in which the Arabs greatly excelled; their wide extension gave them command of whatever was worthy of observation, and their vast revenues afforded the most abundant means of indulging a taste thus called into exercise. The history of Arabian architecture comprises a period of about eight centuries, including its rise, progress, and decay: their building materials were mostly obtained from the ruined structures and cities that fell into their hands; and if no one particular style was followed by them, it was because they successfully studied most of the styles then known. On their buildings but little external art was bestowed; all their pains were exhausted on the interior, where no expense was spared that could promote luxurious ease and personal comfort. Their walls and ceilings were highly embellished, and the light was mostly admitted in such manner as, by excluding all external objects, to confine the admiration of the spectator to the beauties produced within. With the art of preserving their structures from decay they must have had an adequate acquaintance. Their stucco composition may still be found as hard as stone, without a crack or flaw: the floors and ceilings of the Alhambra, the ancient palace of Grenada, have been comparatively uninjured by the neglect and dilapidation of nearly seven centuries; while their paint retains its color so bright and rich as to be occasionally mistaken for mother-of-pearl. Sir Christopher Wren derives the Gothic architecture from the Mohammedans; and the crescent arch, a symbol of one of the deities anciently worshipped throughout the heathen world, was first adopted by the Arabs of Syria, and invariably used on all the edifices erected during the supremacy of the Ommiades. The succeeding dynasty declined following this model; but, during the reign of the house of Moawiyah, in Spain, it was imitated from the Atlantic to the Pyrenees.

The fine arts, paintings, and sculpture, were not so much cultivated among the early Mohammedans: they were thought to involve a breach of the divine law. In this particular they agreed with the Jews. Subsequently, however, these scruples were, by degrees, overcome; that style of embellishment denominated Arabesque, which rejects figures of men and animals, being first adopted, and afterward sculpture, more nearly resembling that of modern times. The Alhambra, or palace of that suburb, had its lions, its ornamented tiles, and its paintings. Abdal-Rahman III. placed a statue of his favorite mistress over the palace he erected for her abode. Music was ardently cultivated. At first, in the desert, its strains were rude and simple; subsequently, the professors of the art were as much cherished, honored, and rewarded, as were the poets in the courts of the Arab sovereigns. Many were celebrated for their skill in this art, especially Isaac Almouseli. AI Farabi has been denominated the Arabian Orpheus: by his astonishing command of the lute, he could produce laughter, or tears, or sleep in his auditors at pleasure. He wrote a considerable work on music, which is preserved in the Escurial. Abu Faragi is also a famous writer among the Mohammedans on this subject. To them we are indebted for the invention of the lute, which they accounted more perfect than any other instrument; the use, also, of many of our modern instruments, as the organ, flute, harp, tabor, and mandoline, was common among them. Some say that the national instrument of the Scottish highlander is taken from them.

In many of the useful arts of modern days the Arabs were proficients; as agriculture, gardening, metallurgy, and the preparing of leather. The names Morocco and Cordovan are still applied, in this latter art, to leather prepared after the Arabian method. They manufactured and dyed silk and cotton, made paper, were acquainted with the use of gunpowder, and have claims to the honor of inventing the mariner's compass. But perhaps there is no art in which their knowledge is so much a subject of curious inquiry as medicine. Their country was salubrious, their habits simple, and their indulgences few; so that large opportunities of practically studying the art, at least among the Arabs of earlier date, would not occur. Anatomy, except that of the brute creation, was shut up from their study by the prejudices of their creed; yet they excelled in medical skill. Hareth ibn Kaldar, an eminent practitioner settled at Mecca, was honored with the conversation and applause of Mohammed. Honain was an eminent Arab physician in the middle of the sixth century; Messue, the celebrated preceptor of Almamoun, belonged to this profession; and a host of others adorn the early annals of the Saracens. Al Rhagi, or Rhages, as commonly called, and Abdallah Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, are names to which, for centuries, deference was paid by professors of the healing art throughout Europe, though it would not be difficult to show that their doctrines and practice must have been beyond measure absurd. They administered gold and silver, and precious stones to purify the blood.

Of chemistry, so far as it relates to medicine, the Arabs may be considered as the inventors; and botany, in the same connection, they cultivated with great success. Geber, in the eighth century, is known as their principal chemical writer; he is said to have composed five hundred volumes, almost every one of which is lost. The early nomenclature of the science indicates how much it owes to this people. Alcohol, alembic, alkali, aludel, and other similar terms, are evidently of Arabic origin; nor should it be forgotten that the characters used for drugs, essences, extracts, and medicines, the import of which is now almost entirely unknown (and which are consequently invested, in vulgar estimation, with occult powers), are all to be traced to the some source.

It may be impossible now to estimate accurately the extent of our obligations to Arabian literature. An empire so widely spread, by the encouragement it gave to letters, must have had a beneficial influence on almost every country. Europeans, whether subject to its sway or only contemplating it from a distance, copied or emulated the example. Gerbert, who subsequently occupied the papal chair as Sylvester II., acquired the Arabic method of computation during his travels in Spain, previously to his elevation. Leonardo, a Pisan merchant, obtained a knowledge of the same art in his intercourse with the Mohammedans on the coast of Africa; and by him it was introduced into his own native republic, from whence it was soon communicated to the Western World. In the city of Salernum, a port of Italy, Mussulmans and Christians so intermixed as to communicate insensibly the literature of the Saracens to the Italians, and in the schools of that city students were collected from every quarter of Europe. Arabic books, by command of Charlemagne, were translated into Latin for the use of learned men throughout his vast empire; and, without exaggerating the merits of the followers of the Prophet, it may be admitted that we are indebted to them for the revival of the exact and physical sciences, and for many of those useful arts and inventions that have totally changed the aspect of European literature, and are still contributing to the civilization, freedom, and best interests of man.