The Truth About Muslims

William Dalrymple writes in the New York Review of Books:

It was a crucial but sometimes forgotten moment in the development of Western civilization: the revival of medieval European learning by a wholesale transfusion of scholarship from the Islamic world. It was probably through Islamic Spain that such basic facets of Western civilization as paper, ideas of courtly love, algebra, and the abacus passed into Europe. Meanwhile the pointed arch and Greco-Arab (or Unani, from the Arabic word for Greek/Ionian) medicine arrived in Christendom by way of Salerno and Sicily, where the Norman king Roger II—known as the “Baptized Sultan” —was commissioning the Tunisian scholar al-Idrisi to produce an encyclopedic work of geography.

Some scholars go further. Professor George Makdisi of Harvard has argued convincingly for a major Islamic contribution to the emergence of the first universities in the medieval West, showing how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures and academic robes, can all be traced back to Islamic concepts and practices. Indeed the idea of a university in the modern sense—a place of learning where students congregate to study a wide variety of subjects under a number of teachers—is generally regarded as an Arab innovation developed at the al-Azhar university in Cairo. As Makdisi has demonstrated, it was in cities bordering the Islamic world—Salerno, Naples, Bologna, Montpellier, and Paris—that first developed universities in Christendom, the idea spreading northward from there.

Dalrymple examines the following books in this essay:

The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher

From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East by Bernard Lewis

In the Lands of the Christians: Arab Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century, edited and translated by Nabil Matar

Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery by Nabil Matar

Islam in Britain, 1558–1685 by Nabil Matar