The Role of Sicily in the transfer of Islamic Science to the West

The role of Sicily in the transfer of Muslim science to the West has been well studied by Michelle Amari, but unfortunately the work, although extremely old has remained inaccessible because it is only available in Italian.

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Aspects of the Islamic Influence on Science and Learning in the Christian West (12th-13th century) by Salah Zaimeche

The role of Sicily in the transfer of Muslim science to the West has been well studied by Michelle Amari, but unfortunately the work, although extremely old has remained inaccessible because it is only available in Italian. Haskins has touched a little on the role of Sicily, but other modern historians, on the whole, have worked hard to reformulate many of the conclusions arrived at by Haskins and Amari, by reducing mention of Islamic influence to its bare minimum. Hence, unless Amari's work is translated, the true place of the Muslim influence via Sicily will not be grasped, especially as the process of revisionism of history continues unabated.

Frederick II

One must refer, albeit but briefly to some aspects of such Sicilian influence, mainly via the role of Frederick II (1194-1250). Frederick had from his infancy grown up using Arabic, the languages of his court. He was both a cultural convert and a proselytizing patron of the then current Islamic culture. It was Frederick II who encouraged Plato of Tivoli and Fibonacci, `the founders of European mathematics,' to gather Muslim and Jewish scholars to undertake translation of every available Arabic book, and he himself sent Michael Scot to Cordoba to obtain works by Ibn Sina to distribute copies to existing schools.

Frederick himself conducted extensive correspondence with learned Muslims and Jews from both Al-Andalus and the cultural centres of the Middle East. His court was the intellectual capital of a world already in upheaval because of the translations of Islamic science, which were spreading from Spain throughout the north. Due to his preference of surrounding himself with Muslim rather than Christian influence, ‘he was half Muslim in his own ways', states Sarton. It was under his rule, Briffault explains, that Muslim culture on the island reached its height and had `a great and far reaching civilising influence over barbaric Europe.'

During the reign of Frederick the University of Naples in 1224, the first university of Europe, which was founded at a definite time, and by a definite charter, was founded. And following the traditional Muslim model the university was fitted with a considerable collection of Arabic books. Frederick also established universities in Messina and Padua, and renovated the old medical school of Salerno `in accordance with the advances of Arab medicine.' Frederick himself was widely respected, admired, and even envied in certain circles. But Frederick was anathema to the Church. Like al-Andalus itself, he was viewed with astonishment, admiration, and envy combined with fear and suspicion. At the Council of Lyon, Pope Innocent III made it clear that his association with heretics (to Frederick they were simply scholars and learned men) had caused Frederick's own heresy.

Sicily both before and during Frederick's rule never ceased to act as a magnet for literati and intellectuals from the rest of Western Christendom. Northern scholars visited the island in large numbers, and `wished to carry back some specimen of that eastern learning whose fame was fast spreading in the lands beyond the Alps.'

The Fiscal System

From the island was derived the English fiscal system, similar to the name it has today: The Exchequer, introduced by Thomas Brown (Qaid Brun) when he transferred his services from Roger II in Sicily to Henry II in England. The best known translator in Sicily was Michael Scot, whose translation in 1217 of Al-Bitruji (alpetragius) ‘On The Sphere' literally revolutionised the study of astronomy particularly the planets. Finally a few words on the island's contribution to the advances made in geography and cartography, courtesy of Al-Idrisi, who graced the courts of Roger II in Palermo, and on whose geography was built so much subsequent knowledge of the world.

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