Islam in Europe: A Forgotten History

Published January 12, 2011

By Saulat-Pervez

When we study European history, it generally traces the roots of Western civilization to the Greeks and Romans, followed by a dark period called the Middle Ages in which Europe languished in gloom. We are told that this bleak era eventually gave way to the Renaissance after Europeans rediscovered their classical Greek and Roman scholarship. This movement became the precursor to the modern world as we know it today: progressive, technological, scientific – confirming the assertion that almost all great inventions have had their origins in the Western world.

Yet, this narrative of history doesn’t answer many crucial questions: Was all of Europe covered with a dark cloud during the Middle Ages? How was the rest of the world faring at the same time – did any inventions take place in any other part of the world or Europe?
How did the Europeans rediscover their classical roots? How did this regained scholarship enable Europe to emerge out of darkness and achieve all the greatness that it has?

This is where another – seemingly disconnected – history steps in. It is an account that neatly fills in all the missing gaps and crevices in the history of Europe as it is taught – yet, sadly, this record is usually expunged from history books.

Europe: Re-Visiting History

Europe itself is often thought of as Eastern and Western Europe, which goes back to the time of the Holy Roman (Western) Empire and the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire. The Eastern countries consist of Belarus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, among others, on its north side and the Balkans – such as Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Hungary – as well as Turkey to its south. The Western nations include Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, England, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Russia is considered a Euro-Asiatic state.

The Islamic empire had spread into Eastern Europe first through Turkey and then into the Balkans as well as eastern Russia; the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. established the Ottoman rule in Southeastern Europe. The fact that many of their counterparts today (such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, etc.) boast either an Islamic identity or a Muslim majority vouches for this reality.
As for Western Europe, Muslims occupied Spain in 711 A.D. and made inroads into France soon thereafter; however, they were decisively driven out of France in a series of battles by Charles Martel by 800 A.D. Muslims also ruled southern Italy for about a 200 years between the ninth and eleventh centuries, although it was sometime in the thirteenth century when all Muslims were expelled from Sicily, an island off the coast of Italy.


After a coup overturned the Umayyad rule in Damascus in 750 A.D. and the victors massacred the royal Umayyad family, Abdul Rahman, the lone surviving relative of the caliph, escaped. He traveled south to North Africa, narrowly missing his pursuers, and eventually entered Muslim Spain, a pro-Umayyad constituency which at the time was beset with infighting and rivalries. By 756 A.D., he had united the different factions under his leadership and re-established Umayyad rule in far-away Cordoba in Spain, also known as al-Andalus.

This marked the beginning of a glorious era in which al-Andalus became known, on the one hand, for its architectural grandeur, aesthetic gardens, intellectual achievements, scientific inventions, and cultural advancements, and on the other, for a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect among people of differing faiths, also known as convivencia.

At a time when Western Europe was, quite literally, plunged in darkness, there was street lighting and running water in Cordoba. The Great Mosque of Cordoba dazzled its visitors with its intricate calligraphy and imposing arches. Cordoba’s sprawling gardens, and the later cities of Madina al-Zahra and al-Hamra, showcased the power, splendor, and luxury of Muslim Spain.

The Umayyad rule lasted through the 11th century, followed by North African Muslim rulers reigning Spain until the 13th century. Infighting and rivalries had reduced their unity to individual kingdoms which enabled the northern Christian rulers to regain those territories. At this point, Cordoba was lost and Toledo became the next major Muslim city. However, Muslims soon lost Toledo as well, and the last Muslim stronghold in Spain was Granada where Muslims continued to rule for the next two centuries, until Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand conquered it in 1492 – incidentally, the same year when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.


The Emirate of Sicily, located in the south of Italy, was a part of the larger Islamic Empire from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, under a variety of rulers. Under Muslim administration, Sicily flourished: its population doubled, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds co-existed harmoniously, agriculture prospered, exports increased, and irrigation systems improve. The conquerors redistributed large estates into smaller holdings, spurring an end to the economic and social depression. Many new crops were introduced such as cotton, hemp, date palm, sugar cane, mulberries, and citrus fruits. Related industries grew, such as textiles, sugar, rope-making, matting, and paper (which was later introduced to Europe via Sicily). Sicilian silks were also internationally known for their fine quality and beauty.

Muslims lost Sicily to the Normans in the late eleventh century, but continued to live in the multcultural island peacefully. The Normans preserved the Muslim heritage so much so that Arabic continued to be the lingua franca in Sicily for the next 100 years. King Roger II spoke Arabic and employed Muslim scientists and architects in his court; Muslim soldiers were also a part of his army. He continued to use the agricultural and industrial methodologies adopted by the former Muslim rulers of Sicily. Palermo, the Sicilian hub under Muslim rule, was maintained as the capital under the Normans. Roger II commissioned al-Idrisi to draw a world map; it proved to be the most advanced ancient map. Al-Idrisi also compiled the greatest geographical treatise of the Middle Ages, known as the Book of Roger.

Ibn Jubair visited Sicily in the late 12th century after being shipwrecked on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was very surprised by the warm reception he encountered at the hands of the Normans. Of Palermo, ibn Jubair recounted, “The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone… There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this splendor.”

Unfortunately, this spirit of convivencia did not last. As with Spain, all Muslims were evicted from Sicily and by the end of the thirteenth century, only the traces they left behind showed in Sicilian architecture, Arabized words in the now-Latinized language, and the Arab-style outdoor marketplace, among others.

Muslim presence in Spain and Sicily left indelible marks on the architecture, sciences, philosophy, literature, and astronomy of Western Europe – even though, quite unfortunately, much of it has been forgotten.

The Seeds of the Renaissance

Islam encourages the gathering of knowledge and the use of reasoning. In the Qur’an, God repeatedly urges humans to use their intellect and thinking skills so that they may differentiate between truth and falsehood. Furthermore, Islam is a universal religion – not for a few chosen people or tribes, but for all people and for all times.

With this collective and inclusive outlook, Muslims began to gather any and every scholarly work they could lay their hands on – be it Greek, Persian, or Indian – as the Islamic Empire grew. They, then, commenced the scrupulous task of translation and, afterwards, busied themselves in its study. Moreover, they initiated the procedure of verifying ancient beliefs and often postulated alternate theories regarding core issues, complete with extensive testing of their ideas. In fact, the scientific process of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion was first fully introduced by the Muslims.

For instance, Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965-1039), who studied light and wrote The Book of Optics, believed that human beings are flawed and only God is perfect. To discover the truth about nature, Ibn al-Haytham, a devout Muslim, reasoned that one must eliminate human opinion and allow the universe to speak for itself through physical experiments. “The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them,” he wrote. “But rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration.”

Spain and Sicily provided two major points of contact between Muslims and the rest of Europe. Interaction between Muslims of these two states and the rest of the Western European bloc took place as a result of Crusades and other battles, alliances, and intellectual pursuit. In fact, Spain became the prime channel through which advancements in a variety of fields from all over the Muslim world reached Western Europe. Some westerners visited Spain and were enthralled by its beauty, commitment to scholarship, and convivencia. They decided to stay, learned Arabic, and began translating Muslim scholarly works into Latin. Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114–1187) was a prolific translator who translated some 87 Arabic books into Latin, including the texts of al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, ar-Razi, among others. Michael Scot (c. 1175 – 1232) was another such individual who went on to become the librarian for King Frederick II’s vast collection of Arabic works in Sicily.

European depiction of the ar-Razi, in Gerard of Cremona’s “Recueil des traités de medecine” 1250-1260. Gerard de Cremona translated numerous works by Arab scholars.

Such exchange facilitated the transfer of knowledge from Spain into the rest of Western Europe. Many Muslim scholars were given Latin names such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina, c. 980 – 1037), Rhazes (ar-Razi, c. 841-926), and Averroes (ibn Rushd, c. 1126-1198); their works, as translated in Latin, became widely available. For instance, Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine set the standard for medicine and was in use in Europe for 700 years. Ar-Razi, the greatest physician of all times, accurately differentiated between smallpox and measles and prescribed treatments; in addition, he discovered numerous compounds and chemicals including alcohol and kerosene, among others. Ibn Rushd provided a line-by-line commentary of Aristotle, convincing his readers that belief in both faith and reasoning is possible – leading to a rift between the powerful clergy and the intellectuals in Western Europe, which in many ways became the basis for the Renaissance.

The crankshaft was invented by al-Jazari (c. 1136-1206) of Anatolia, an essential component of machines enabling modern life, and it began showing up in Europe soon thereafter. The great works of Jabir ibn Haiyan (c. 721-815) brought new concepts of chemistry to Europe and ibn Haiyan was known as the father of chemistry and alchemy. Al-Zahrawi (c. 936-1013), the father of modern surgery, designed and invented surgical tools still in use today.

The Muslims also bequeathed a perfected astrolabe to the Europeans which became the chief navigational tool in Europe until the 18th century. Muslims made further astronomical achievements by venturing to show how lunar and solar eclipses take place and calculating the earth’s diameter and circumference to a remarkable degree of accuracy – at a time when Europeans thought the Earth was flat. Al Khwarizmi’s findings introduced the most advanced mathematics to Europeans, who in turn called him the father of algebra and coined the term “algorithm” after him; he lived from about 780 to 850 A.D.

Ibn al-Haytham’s research in light and optics resulted in the invention of the camera obscura – a phrase which incidentally is derived from the Arabic ‘kamra,’ referring to a room. He determined that light travels in straight lines and thus is able to project it onto a wall in a darkened room through a hole. “Five hundred years before Leonardo da Vinci, he delves into things that will later be attributed to the great Italian and to Kepler and Descartes, when in fact they, like some Renaissance and post-Renaissance thinkers, are really replicating or building on what the great Muslim scientists had established long ago,” remarks Michael Hamilton Morgan in Lost History.

Together, this compendium of Muslim scholarship provided the seeds of the coming Renaissance in medieval Europe. However, when it did come, followed by the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific and industrial revolutions, much of the acknowledgement and credit was forgotten and what remained was the belief that Europe had miraculously reawakened to its classical Greek roots after a long sleep.

Contemporary Choices: Confrontation or Convivencia?

Sadly, today, the world is rife with a different kind of environment, one of confrontation than of convivencia and Muslims today are too often seen more in the light of terrorism than illuminated by their glorious past.

Rather than acknowledging and crediting Muslims for their great service to the rebirth of Europe, its countries are at present busy with either lampooning Muslim beliefs and their Prophet (pbuh), or banning minarets and Islamic-style dress. Instead of reestablishing the Andalusian and Sicilian models of convivencia, they are set to marginalizing a significant minority in their midst.

It can only be hoped that today’s Europe will reawaken to the reality of its past and recognize the immense debt it owes to Muslim erudition – and enfranchise its European Muslim population rather than alienating them.

Saulat-PervezAuthor Saulat Pervez is a researcher and writer for and member of 877-Why-Islam content Department.

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