So what does Gougenheim’s synthesis tell us? Four things.
First, Greek thought never really impregnated the Islamic world because the latter carefully subjected all “foreign” knowledge to an “Islamic filter” designed to determine its consistency with Muslim beliefs. Consequently, what Islamic scholars retained from Greece was limited “to that which did not contradict the teaching of the Koran”.
This created major problems, notably with respect to Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics. More specifically, the Greek concept of causality was deemed incompatible with the Koranic understanding of God’s omnipotence, which it seemed to limit. And although some scholars like Al-Farabi, Al-Andalusi, Avicenna and Averroes were genuinely receptive to Greek influences, they were unable to reconcile Aristotelian metaphysical concepts with the content of Islamic revelation.
Moreover, Islamic works that did reflect Greek influence were usually not well received. Averroes’ books were burnt (only Latin translations of his commentaries on Aristotle have survived, all of his commentaries in Arabic having been lost or destroyed) and his disciples were found only among Jews and Christians. While the Koran may well offer its adherents a rational view of the world, Muslim rationalism has very little in common with Western rationalism. The notion of kalâm, sometimes translated as “Islamic philosophy”, was understood by the famous Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali as a means of “protecting the faith against the disruptions of innovators” and was, therefore, alien to the Greek concept of philosophy.
Finally, Muslim scholars were quick to realize that Aristotle’s political theories were inapplicable in a Muslim state, where politics, law and religion are closely intertwined. This explains why the Greco-Roman legal system was never envisaged, even by Averroes, as a source of juridical thinking in the Islamic world.
Second, Greek knowledge became accessible to the Islamic world thanks to the work of Eastern Christian scholars who translated Greek works into their own Syriac language, and then from Syriac into Arabic.
More importantly, however, Islamic civilization is itself culturally indebted to early Christian scholars. For example, because the translation of Greek documents into Arabic raised major problems occasioned by the total absence of scientific terms in that language, it became incumbent on Christian Melkite translators to develop most of the Arabic scientific vocabulary. They were responsible in particular for translating into Arabic 139 medical books by Galen and Hippocratus and 43 books by Rufus of Ephesus. Also of interest is the fact, attested by several Muslim writers, that the Arabic “coufic” writing was developed by Christian missionaries in the 6th Century.
Third, Islam did not pass on its intellectual heritage to the West. The knowledge acquired by the West is the product of its own discoveries.
The West benefited from the translations done at the request of abbots and bishops by clerics familiar with the Greek language, like Jacques de Venise who, after studying several years in Byzantium, spent the rest of his life translating Aristotle and other Greek philosophers at the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, in Brittany.
The West also benefited from a constant relationship with Byzantium, where Greek was the everyday language and Byzantine scholars were quite familiar with the Greek heritage. Thus, most of the knowledge discovered or transmitted throughout the period extending from the 8th to the 12th centuries resulted, not from Islam, but from the intellectual appetite of European Church elites.