The Arab-Islamic tradition in European culture

This article is also available in: Italiano

One of the most beautiful and intense essays of the collection on Bausani “The” sacred fool “of Islam. Here, in particular, we will discover the impressive impact of the Islamic world on European culture and, specifically, in Italy

Two brothers in the mirror

“The most remarkable phenomenon in modern history … is the enormous rapidity with which the world of Islam moves spiritually towards the West. In this movement there is nothing wrong, because European culture, from its intellectual side, it is only a further development of some of the most important phases of Islamic culture “

Muhammad Iqbal

In this essay, Bausani literally opens his eyes wide in front of the huge cultural bridge that has always been present between the “Islamic world” and the “western” one, something often deliberately forgotten (as we will see next Monday), but which is waiting to be shown. The common thread certainly starts from the founding culture, linked in both cases with the Greek and biblical one, but, especially in Italian, also with many words really used by anyone and every day in the Bel Paese.

That said, it is time to find out how all this has influenced Europe in practice and, specifically, Italy.

When Italy loved Islam

“Near the country where I was staying, there is a city called Lujara (present Lucera), whose inhabitants are all Muslims from Sicily. In this city they recite the public Friday prayer and perform all the other rites of Islam. I saw also that many high officials of the court of Manfredi are Muslims and that in his camp adhan was sung and prayers were made in public “

… “When I left the court of the Emperor, the Pope, the Caliph of the Franks and the King of France had formed an alliance to make war on the Emperor and the Pope had even excommunicated him some time before. All this because this Emperor had an inclination towards Muslims. Likewise his brother Corrado and his father Federico had also been excommunicated for their affection for Islam. ”

Jamaluddin Muhammad ibn Salim, ambassador of the Mamluk sultan Baybars, visiting in 1260
Fresco in Santa Maria in Piano in Loreto Aprutino, Abruzzo. The tradition of the “thin bridge” to separate “good” and “bad” is typical of Zoroastrianism

Our country, in fact, was the European one in which the Arab-Islamic culture was most appreciated. Unlike Spain, in fact, in Italy the latter will find fertile ground even after the end of territorial domination, with the Normans of Swabia literally in love with this world.

Sicily and Islamic art

“It was a cause of amazement to me to see up to that point this Christian king takes advantage of the work of the Muslims. Almost all of his valets and his pages have remained secretly Muslim and are attached to the law of Islam. He gives it to Muslims , which he trusts greatly, all the most important assignments of the kingdom ”

And he goes on to say that the king (then William II) spoke and wrote in Arabic and that the king’s Muslim ministers fasted Ramadan and that “the Christian women of Palermo also spoke Arabic like Muslims and covered themselves, like those, d ‘a veil “.

Ibn Jubair, in Sicily in 1185
Frederick II and the Arabs

Precisely by virtue of the glorious Islamic past and the affection shown by the new Norman conquerors, Palermo became one of the places where Islamic art flourished most, going to influence, over the centuries, the taste of the city of Sicily. Specifically in the Sicilian capital, we can mention: San Cataldo, the buildings of Zisa (from “al-aziza”) and Cuba (al qubba), and this only to limit us to 3 names. It is no coincidence that Al Idrisi, one of the greatest geographers and travelers of the Islamic world, said: “Beautiful and immense city, maximum and splendid stay, adorned with so many elegance that travelers set off to admire the beauty of nature and art. . ”

San Cataldo

However, the Arab influence in Islamic culture was not limited to Sicily, but certainly grew in Puglia, a place where about 20,000 Muslims will be deported, and then spread throughout the Italian peninsula. Among the greatest Italian artists to have drawn inspiration from the Islamic world, there is certainly Leonardo da Vinci, who practiced for so long in producing arabesques, to be reproached by Vasari. On Leonardo, in particular, there would be theories related to the origins of the mother who would see her as Arab or Berber but, it will certainly be a topic that we will deal with in the future.

Science is Islamic

If the impact in art is very strongly present, but especially in certain regions, the contribution given by Islam as such to “modern” science is something embarrassing in scope and resistance over time so much so that, once again, I find myself forced to quote:

“If the modern essence is the taste and the concept of” experiment “in front of the abstract a priori classification of the medieval one, if the foundations of physical-mathematical-modern thought are the positional numerical notation and the possibility of an independent algebra from the Hellenistic intellectualistic geometrization, then we can well say that we Europeans owe Islamic culture the very foundations of our “scientific” civilization!


And I want to reiterate that it is precisely certain aspects of Islam as Islam that can be traced back to explain the taste of experiment and analysis that characterize Arab-Islamic science unlike Greek-pagan thought.


Absolute Islamic theism, with its concentration of the sacred in the person of God, its de-mythologization of the world, its refusal for a geometric and abstract philosophy (because God moves and lives and breaks every scheme), ends with the fostering interest in the fragmentary, in the acute and profound study – not impeded by magical-sacral prejudices – of the naked things as they are, a love for reality and a curiosity to know this unpredictable world of God, which fully justify the famous saying of the Prophet: “seek Science, even in China”.

To get more specific and to mention 3 names: Razi (m. 925) great clinician whose works influenced world medicine (and Italian in particular) for 5 centuries, Al Kwarizmi, the father of modern algebra and algorithm, and finally the aforementioned to Idrisi who, precisely for King Roger of Sicily, wrote what for centuries was the most precise geographical map in the world.

Italy, bridge between 2 worlds

To underline, also in this case, the great work of Italy, which, thanks to its innumerable and extraordinary translators, became a fundamental vehicle for scientific thought of Islamic origin, allowing everyone to study the texts. Suffice it to say that the greatest translator in Toledo was the very Italian Gerard of Cremona and a very high concentration of Arab-Islamic elements at the court of Palermo, which will, in fact, become one of the major centers also as regards translation.

Gerard of Cremona

Furthermore, it should be remembered that Italy is the place where, for the first time, the first copies of the “Canon of medicine” of Avicenna were printed. The essay actually continues with a parenthesis on Dante and Italian literature but, given the amount of material already present in this article, we stop here. This series, specifically, will continue in 10 days, but each of the themes presented sooner or later will also have its own article “apart”.

Follow us on our facebook page, Spotify, YouTube,Twitter and Instagram, or on our Telegram channel. Any like, sharing or support is welcome and helps us to dedicate ourselves more and more to our passion: telling the Middle East ..

Leave a Reply