The Islamic Cultural Heritage


Cultural Influences into Islam

The Nestorian Christian sect originated when the teachings of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, were condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431.  Nestorius had taught that Jesus existed as two distinct persons, one human and one divine.  The Assyrian church sided with Nestorius and separated from the Catholic Church. The Persian kings, who were in constant wars with the Byzantine Empire, decided to grant protection to the Assyrian Nestorian sect as a way to undermine the unity of the Byzantine empire.  The Assyrian church had maintained a scientific center, which included a medical school, at Edessa. Under Persian support, this center was transferred first to Nisibis and then to Gondeshapur.    Other Greek physicians also joined this center when Justinian closed the academy at Athens in 529. 


The conquest of India by Alexander the Great had no lasting political effects, but some cultural influences remained. Indian Astronomy scholars acknowledged Greek sources.  Indian interest in Astronomy motivated their development of Trigonometry beyond Greek accomplishments.  Indian scholars also formulated the decimal numeric system, based on some earlier Babylonian work.


The Islamic Empire

The Abbasid family took control of the Islamic Empire from the Umayyad dynasty in 749, with the help of the Persians.  In 762, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur  built his new capital in the city of Baghdad.   Al-Mansur desired to make his new capital the cultural center of Islam, and he invited noted scholars, religious and secular, to the city. When al-Mansur fell ill in 765, he was attended by the chief physician from Gondeshapur.  Harun ar-Rashid, the grandson of al-Mansur, became caliph in 786.  Ar-Rashid had been educated in Persia, and had a strong interest in science and literature.  Ar-Rahsid actively supported the translation of Greek works into Arabic, and he sent agents to Constantinople to acquire writings.  During the next two centuries, much of the Greek philosophic and scientific literature was translated into Arabic. Indian works on Astronomy and Mathematics were also translated into Arabic and influenced Islamic mathematicians. 


When the Umayyads were defeated by the Abbasids, they took refuge in Spain, where the Umayyad prince Abdarrahman established and independent Islamic kingdom.  This kingdom maintained cordial relations with Byzantium, the primary enemy of their rival Abbasids, and this facilitated cultural exchanges, which resulted in independent translations being made from Greek works preserved in Byzantium into Arabic in Spain [1].


The Medical Profession in Islam

Harun ar-Rashid established the first Islamic hospital in Baghdad, staffed by Gondeshapur physicians  [2].    Muslim higher education gradually became formalized, centered on Islamic law, but also including scientific subjects such as Medicine [3].    The works of Galen were favored in Islamic medicine, but Hippocrates was also influential.  Regarding drugs, the Materia Medica of Dioscorides was considered to be the definitive authority [4].


In addition to organizing Greek and Persian knowledge, Islamic scholars made original contributions to Medicine. Al-Razi (865-925) wrote the influential medical compendium Continens, and he is credited with introducing the use of alcohol as an antiseptic and oral anesthetics such as opium and belladonna for surgery.  Avicenna Ibn Sina (980-1037) wrote the Canon of Medicine, based on the writings of Galen along with Persian and Arab traditions, and it became the standard medical text at medieval European universities.   


Mathematics in Islam

Islamic scholar Al-Khwarizmi (780-847) made significant contributions to Mathematics. His Algebra, was the first book to present the systematic solution of equations. His book On Calculation with Hindu Numerals was principally responsible for the transmission of the decimal number system to Europe.   


[1] De Lacy O’Leary, How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), 170-171.

[2] Michael Dols, Medieval Islamic Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 6.

[3] Ibid., 25-26.

[4] Ibid., 15.